What the Gospels Are

I read the Gospels to get to know Jesus Christ, my Lord and Savior. For a long time I would basically gloss over or outright reject the miracles in the story as legendary accounts, particularly the birth narratives. I was deeply interested in Jesus of Nazareth the man first, because that is how he become known. I wanted insight into he who “made our hearts burn” and sparked a faith that has lasted millenia. It seemed to me that miracles and such obscured who he was: more ignorance from my post-Enlightenment indoctrination. I won’t make that mistake again.

As Bart Ehrman writes:

The Christian Gospels

  1. The Gospels are best seen as ancient biographies of Jesus
  2. Ancient biographies had several distinctive characteristics:
    1. They were usually based on oral and written sources (sometimes biographers showed a preference for the oral).
    2. They were less concerned with relating historical events than with showing the character of the main figure through his or her words, deeds, and interactions.
    3. They did not utilize “character development,” since most ancient people believed that a person’s character was relatively constant throughout his or her life.
    4. They often portrayed the main figure’s character at the very outset of the narrative.

The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings p.65, Box 4.2

This is the result of recent scholarship that overturns a more traditional view that the Gospels were completely unique unto themselves. I find that hard to believe and Ehrman’s case that the authors wanted their audiences to understand clearly and easily what they wrote is strong. Read Luke’s first few verses:

Luke 1:1 Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, 3 I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.

So it seems clear that the Gospels were biographies written with the specific intent for us to understand who Jesus was from each author’s perspective. But how were audiences supposed to read and hear them?

Ehrman continues:

It appears that ancient readers, whether they actually read the words off the page or heard someone else do so, would have recognized them as biographies of a religious leader. How did this understanding affect the way ancient persons read these books? Ancient readers and hearers of books like these would probably expect to find that the main character was an important religious figure and that all of the action of the narrative revolved around him. They might anticipate a miraculous beginning to his life and a miraculous ending. They might look forward to descriptions of divinely inspired teachings and superhuman deeds. They would not expect…”character development.” Instead, they would look for how the character acted and reacted to the various challenges with which he was confronted, demonstrating who he was through his carefully crafted words and impressive deeds. Moreover, they would expect to be able to discern important aspects of the narrative, in the opening scenes of the action. We ourselves can benefit from reading the Gospels with these expectations in mind.

The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings p.65

No doubt. That’s exactly how I read them today. I was very grateful to Ehrman because after reading these words I felt as if the Gospels with which I had had a love-hate relationship had been given back to me. Instead of trying for so long to sift out the historical Jesus, a shadowy figure, I could read the Gospels with ancient eyes and get to know Jesus as was intended. It’s all right there waiting for me. I can tell you reading the Gospels this way has deepened my faith because I can read them with integrity and fully for the purpose I intend. This of course brings us to faith.

John 20:30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of [his] disciples that are not written in this book. 31 But these are written that you may [come to] believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name.

Once again my post-Enlightenment indoctrination does me a disservice. The word “believe” here is not the intellectual assent (with or without evidence!) that we have come to assume it meant. No, the Greek word translated as “believe” is “πιστενω” pisteuo which means “to have faith (in, upon, or with respect to, a person or thing), i.e. credit; by implication, to entrust: — believe(-r), commit (to trust), put in trust with.” It is closer to believing in something rather than believing this or that proposition. And the purpose of the Fourth Gospel is explicitly to inspire faith in Jesus. They all had that purpose.

And I do very much believe in Jesus Christ.

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