Saturday, July 21, 2012
4.3 Creativity in Telling the Story
I'm winding down my series for the last couple months on the weekends giving a bit of my hermeneutical autobiography. The previous "chapters" have been:
1. Learning to Read in Context
2. The Text of the New Testament
3. The NT Use of the OT
This final group is on Sources behind the Bible and has included thus far:
a. Splicing the Gospels Together
b. Harmonizing not Advisable
Now for the next to last post in this "chapter" before the conclusion.
... And what if a great deal more artistic license was allowed in telling the story in the ancient world than we would use today? What if the gospel writers at times deliberately re-presented events in slightly different ways? It's not an error if it is permissible according to the genre rules of the day.
To me, a comparison of Luke 24 with Acts 1 makes this point. Both are written by the same author to the same audience and presumably without too long a time between them. Yet they give interestingly different impressions of the timing of things after Jesus' resurrection.
By the way, that leads me to another clarifying thought. The impulse to harmonize is so in the weeds on harmonizing that it usually misses the big picture. The gospel accounts sometimes seem to differ from one another in terms of the details of the story. They give the impression of differing with each other. The impulse to harmonize so assumes the importance and divine need to harmonize that it misses the obvious point--there is material that gives the impression of needing harmonized.
Which is more important, that I be able to hear the word of God or that somewhere, hidden beneath the surface, is some ingenious reconstruction that can resolve apparent tensions, even though no one else can see it? It's the same mindset that leads a lone individual reading the Bible to think s/he has found a hidden, prophetic, meaning that no one in history has ever seen before. If the purpose of the Bible is in part for God to communicate with us (even this understanding of Scripture is deficient, since the primary purpose of Scripture is to form us), then the harmonizing impulse surely assumes God has failed on some level. If, on the other hand, God is completely unconcerned with harmonizing, then it isn't an issue (and it certainly is not an error).
Back to Luke 24 and Acts 1. Luke 24 gives the impression that Jesus rises and ascends to heaven on the same day or at least very quickly. Jesus rises the first day of the week (24:1). Jesus meets the men on the road to Emmaus that same day (24:13). When they realize it is Jesus, they get up and return to Jerusalem immediately (24:33). While they are talking that night, Jesus appears to them (24:36). He leads them out to Bethany and is taken up to heaven (24:50-51).
This is an easy one for the harmonizing impulse. Luke 24:50 doesn't give its timing. So you could fit 40 days--or 30 years--through that verse. But the big picture person steps back and says, "But that's not really the impression the text gives. No one would have guessed there were 40 days there on the basis of Luke 24 alone, inductively." And of course there are 40 days when we get to Acts.
I have long since concluded from instances like this that the gospel writers did indeed feel the freedom to be creative in their re-presentation of the story of Jesus in order to bring out certain themes and, especially in Luke's case, to make the story artistically beautiful. This is an instance where the same author writing to the same audience seems to have felt that freedom. And we get that impression all the more when we consider that Luke does not mention the trip of the disciples to Galilee and Jesus' appearance to them there in Matthew 28--a three day journey each way (the Great Commission is given in Galilee). I do not consider this omission an error in the slightest, since I believe Luke omitted the trip to Galilee to simplify the story and make it artistically smooth.
It seems very difficult to me, therefore, not to conclude that precise historicity was never the intention of the gospel presenters--or God's. And since error must be judged by the intended target, then the gospel writers did not err in doing so. We on the other hand do err if we demand that the gospels be harmonizable and if we read them as if they are videotapes of what happened. It shifts our reading of the gospels and other biblical narratives toward the point of view of the stories rather than the precise history of the story. I am not at all saying that they do not give us history or that the history behind them is unimportant. I am saying that the precise details of the history behind them was not the focus.
In the last post in this "chapter" I want to sketch out what it looks like to read the narratives of the Bible more for their theological point of view than for their precise history. I do want to mention, however, where an honest comparison of biblical narratives leads. It leads to the conclusion of pretty much all experts on the gospels--that they have a literary relationship with each other.
For well over a hundred years, it has been the position of the overwhelming majority of experts on the gospels that Mark was the first gospel to be written and that Matthew and Luke then used Mark as a primary source. The wording of the narratives is so similar to each other that this is beyond reasonable doubt. It is not just in the words of Jesus, which in any case are in Greek rather than his original Aramaic (and no two translations are the same). It is also in the narrative framing of his words and even at times in summaries of his doings. There is no reason why God would have dictated it in this way, since they are not exactly the same. Why would God dictate word for word and occasionally vary the word for "and"?
This is another reason why the harmonizing impulse to say "this similar even just happened twice" doesn't work. From the standpoint of sources, it is Matthew or Luke's intentional re-presentation of the same story. I will spare you countless examples, but it makes my point about creativity in re-presentation. And I will spare you further details on other consensuses or majority positions on sources elsewhere in Scripture.
I want to end with the question of the theological point of view of biblical narratives. If we are focused on the theology of the gospel writers, then we get back what fundamentalism took away from us in the twentieth century, and more...