Saturday, December 19, 2015

Jesus, Conversations From The Cross, And The Gospels

Question: The Gospels offer different information about particular conversations Jesus had while he was on the cross. For example, John has Jesus talking with his mother and John. Luke has him talking with those who were crucified alongside him. And yet Mark, which is the most historical of the four canonical Gospels, says nothing of these conversations. What should we make of all this?

AP: That's a very keen observation. The consensus among historians is that the narrative found in John is just a story, not something historically factual. It represents the birth of the church at the foot of the cross with three components: (1) the beloved disciple and (2) Jesus' mother (Mark 3:20), both of whom always believed in Jesus, and (3) Mary Magdalene (John 20:1ff.) who moves from an imperfect faith to a perfect one. The Gospel of Luke touches up the crucifixion account and adds material to the narrative, such as Jesus' conversation with the other men crucified that day. That is probably not historical either. It is probably not historical, implausible, and simply an apologetic that presents Jesus favorably.

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TWH: First, the question is flawed. I would not agree with the statement that the Gospel of Mark is the most historical, more so than Matthew, Luke, or John. Briefly let me share with you two reasons why.

(1) These texts are inspired by God, each of them, and carry with them the very truthfulness of God himself, because they come from him, they must have the same truthfulness that is part of his character and nature.

(2) There is nothing in the text to suggest that these events could not have happened. The idea that every Gospel needed to present every matter, every word, every happening, during every moment of Jesus' life and ministry, and that they needed to be presented exactly the same way–or else they should be considered theological "legends"–is not historical at all. Just take, for example, any number of figures of the 20th century, such as Ronald Reagan or John Kennedy or Abraham Lincoln. There seems to be no lack of material available on the lives of these three American presidents. And the authors of these works were in no way as limited as historians were in the days when papyri was the world's Macbook. No one would say that D'Souza is inventing material about Jesus since he includes material that H.W. Brands did not, when writing about Ronald Reagan. Now that doesn't mean that people do not question the historicity of such biographies. They do. Just consider all the brouhaha surrounding the publication of O'Reilly's Killing Reagan book in the past year. My point, though, is that no one argues against historicity simply because one author did not include it in another work. That's a flawed argument. Remember, there is nothing in the text to suggest that these events could not have happened. Is it impossible to think that the criminals on the cross were saying things to Jesus and that Jesus told one of them, "Today you will be with me in Paradise?" At another moment, is it really unfathomable that Jesus would speak to his mother and his beloved disciple and ask the latter to care for the other? I don't think so. Honestly, I think the differences are important. The differences are in fact what makes these texts special and what made their authors and their audiences justify their composition. If they said the same things, over and over and over again, there would be no need for a new work. But we should also remember that what constitutes a new work is not the total and complete presentation of new information. Non-fiction, a category under which the Gospels all fall, will inevitably share data. The need for new publications of the same figure or period must present additional information in order to constitute a new work. This is why we see John's presentation of the Wedding at Cana (John 2), the woman at the well (John 4), the longer discourse that details what Jesus did and said during the last supper (John 13–17). John felt the need to leave a record of these very important events in the life of Jesus.

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