I have been watching the four-hour Frontline documentary, From Jesus to Christ, which traces the origins of Christianity through its establishment as the Roman religion. The show takes a historian’s perspective on this remarkable series of events, beginning with a fascinating exploration of the social milieu of Nazareth at the time of Jesus’s birth and life.
A recurring issue is how literally to take the Gospels. How useful are they as historical documents? And how useful or problematic is it to give added historical weight to the four canonical Gospels over the many heretical Gospels that have been discovered? In a discussion of these issues, one historian posits that either the original writers meant much of the material to be understood symbolically, and we have been mistakenly trying to take it literally ever since; or else the authors meant it all literally, and we have mistakenly been trying to make it into allegory and symbol. He claims to believe the former.
From my own experience of traditional religious life, coupled with my experience of India — which, with its polymorphous pagan traditions and vast population of illiterate poor, joined together in one national polity, is in many ways strikingly similar to ancient Rome — I would suggest that the historian is running up against a fundamental misunderstanding of how people in the time that the Gospels were written would have understood truth.
We tend to think of truths as singular and by definition non-contradictory. This view is especially useful in terms of science, where truths are accepted only if they can be verified or demonstrated in a clear way, usually repeatedly. We take, therefore, a materialist and humanist view of truth, where truth is that which can be materially proved to the satisfaction of other people.
To understand the Gospel conception of truth, we have to take ourselves back to a world where rationalism is not a dominant force, and where there are no mass media. Even for the literate, the vast majority of information arrives in the form of spoken words, delivered by individuals within earshot. There is no easy way to verify what is happening in a neighboring city, much less hundreds of miles away. Thus stories are easily magnified or shifted as they travel, and tales of miracle-workers and great healers are quite common.
Philosophically, however, it has been discovered that there are certain truths that seem to be true everywhere and always. This unusual quality of geometrical and mathematical truths led some of their discoverers to regard them as profoundly spiritual. Meanwhile, Jews believed strongly in an omniscient God who inspired the divine speech of His prophets. Those Jews who had come to believe in the particular importance of Jesus — his teachings, his death and resurrection, or both — would have certainly supported the tradition of prophecy and divine inspiration. And both Jewish and Greco-Roman traditions would have supported the idea of deep mysteries at the heart of that which is sacred.
Mark wrote the first Gospel, and Matthew and Luke followed his closely. We know they shared source texts because many of Jesus’s sayings are identical in Greek. Jesus, of course, spoke Aramaic, so no two translators would have rendered his words exactly the same in Greek unless they were using the same sources. But what would allow each Gospel writer to embellish the story, to change the emphases, to refer to arguments and debates that had more to do with his own time then that of Jesus? Here we come to that historian’s supposition that the Gospel writers intended their texts to be taken as allegory or symbolism, as what Jesus would have said and done rather than what he actually spoke and did.
I think this is wrong. I think that anyone setting out to write a Gospel at that early period of Christianity would have to have been profoundly devoted to this minority cult, and furthermore would have felt divinely called to write. This task would have required what we call imagination, but what the Greco-Roman world saw as the inspiration of the Muses — in other words, divine inspiration.
The idea that the imaginings of even a highly spiritual person are in fact the words (or inspiration) of God or the gods is foreign to us, but it would have been natural and not strange in the ancient world. I can picture the Gospel writer meditating and praying for the needed clarity and understanding to move the story forward, then feeling a sense of divine grace as the narrative emerges almost automatically from his flowing pen.
Indeed, this kind of literary inspiration remains one of the most mysterious aspects of writing. It cannot be taught, writers torment themselves in search of it, and no one knows why it settles upon some but not others, or why it comes and goes and comes again. Writers to this day treat inspiration with a great deal of superstition. What seems inconceivable to me is that the Gospel writers would have seen themselves alone as the originators and controllers of the texts they produced; divine inspiration is almost a given.
Once you have grasped that the Gospel writers themselves would have felt divinely inspired, it becomes easier to imagine how early Christians might have reconciled the contradictory pictures that emerge of the life and character of Jesus. Clearly there was much concern over what was true and what was not, because there was much persecution of heresy, and only four of the many Gospels were finally canonized. But in a world with no photographs, no photocopies, no technologies of precise reproduction, people must have made do with a somewhat blurrier sense of truth than we are comfortable with. What does the Coliseum look like in Rome? What does the emperor look like? What did Paul say last night at dinner? These questions could not be definitively answered, but you might try to fill out your picture by asking more than one person or looking at more than one source. Reconciling divergent sources, or at least accepting them as equally true, would have been cognitively necessary in a way that it is not in our world.
And there is also the issue of mystery. The Jesus of Mark is abject in his misery, while the Jesus of John is serene. How can that be? One answer is that Jesus was both, because he appeared differently to different followers.
And how would that have been possible? With someone as mercurial, mysterious and ultimately powerful as Jesus, I think his followers would have been more surprised if everyone had the same impression of him. The assumption would have been that there was an aura of magic around Jesus at all times, a divinity, and both Jewish and Greek traditions believed that divinity was mysterious — Jews, of course, believing that no one but Moses had ever looked upon the divine, and Moses only at God’s back, so that the true face of divinity remained hidden. That Jesus would reflect back different images to different people would have been unsurprising to his early followers.
What we have difficulty with now, then, is less the question of whether to take the Gospels literally or symbolically, than how to take them as something else entirely — something we don’t have a word for, but that coincides with the kind of truth his followers would have believed was possible.