Real-World Effects of the Gospel Stories of Jesus
Where might Judaism and Christianity have gone without the writing of the four New Testament Gospels? That, of course, we will never know. What we do know something about is the effect that their presence has had and continues to have today. The effect has been momentous! …
Jesus emerged as probably the most influential figure in the Western world and in the Middle East as well. At least indirectly, he influenced even Islam, the largest Middle Eastern religion. Other parts of the Bible have also influenced ethical, moral, social and cultural development in the West. But it is the picture of Jesus from the Gospels which may still be the major factor in common among Catholics, the Orthodox (Eastern/Greek), and Protestants from conservative to liberal. Jesus plays a big, big part in broader Western and Latin American culture as well.
As mentioned in Part 3 of “From where does Jesus Emerge?”, found here, many fascinating books have been written about the “historical” Jesus. (In a sense, this is Part 4 of that series.) They attempt to decipher what he actually said and did, from birth to storied resurrection. Most of the authors agree that the Gospels add much to or create details of the actual events of Jesus’ life, his teachings and actions, etc. What really happened is very tough to sort out with a high degree of confidence. I consider these books (and other scholarly works on the subject) to be important.
But it is vital to move beyond them… to begin to understand how and why the Gospel writers related to their readers (and unknowingly through the centuries to us) the kind of Jesus they did. We need not know the details of exactly which statements Jesus uttered or which healings or miracles he may have performed. But his significance in his time and place, and soon after, is crucial if we are to grow in understanding how and why we believe whatever we do that relates to him. For a majority of North and South Americans, religious faith, even “non-affiliated” spirituality is centered around what we believe he was, and his purpose and accomplishments, either as a model human or a salvation-bringing God-man.
One of the real-world effects of the Gospel stories is precisely that Christians came to view them as literally true… as actual history. From there, traditional Christians have found support for the “spiritualized” Jesus-concepts of Paul (who he more often called “Christ” – Messiah – or “Christ Jesus”). The paths of influence from the pre-Gospel Jesus-followers (not yet “Christians”) to Paul and back again to the Gospels and beyond are complex and probably beyond our ever teasing out… at least not in detail.
The implication of taking the Gospels as historically true and written to convey events as accurately as possible is massive! Many entire books have been written around this concept, in addition to the “historical Jesus” ones mentioned above. The moral/ethical teachings ascribed to Jesus stand regardless of their historicity. The Gospel writers knew and respected this. But the many theological points, advice for believers and various matters of faith woven throughout the Gospels (and Acts, as connected with them and particularly with Luke, “Luke” being the author of both Luke and Acts) might not stand if it were suspected or known that their surrounding events or comments never occurred.
Central among such matters of faith are details of Jesus’ trial, crucifixion, and most importantly, his resurrection. As to his trial, there is an important, perhaps a survival-of-the-church reason that it was elaborated, initially by Mark, as almost certainly the first of our Gospels. Most scholars date Mark to approximately 70 C.E., probably within months – at most a few years – of the destruction of Jerusalem. It should be noted here that Rome had exerted great energy and paid its own price, though far less than the Jews’, to win the protracted war in which it was initially humiliated in losing control to the rebels. The victory procession in Rome by Titus, the winning general and son of Vespasian, the emperor, was a major, showy production. It was followed, years later, by the erection of the great monument still standing in Rome, the Arch of Titus.
Mark, probably writing from Rome itself, knew that the communities of Jesus-followers needed to appear as supporters of Rome, and not be too closely identified with the Jewish thinking, customs and religion from which their faith had sprung. This was particularly the case with the reason for Jesus’ execution. The undeniable fact that he was crucified by Roman soldiers had to be softened so that the implied threat that his followers might also be rebels against Rome could be neutralized.
Thus the creation of Gospel stories in which the Jewish leadership, and even “the Jews” as a whole, come to be blamed for his condemnation. For the Gospel writers, Pilate, the Governor, only begrudgingly carries out the sentence. Jesus may indeed have challenged Temple authorities but the entire scenario (varied and conflicting in many aspects in the different Gospels) is entirely implausible historically and is concocted. It was for readers not closely familiar with Jewish procedures and legal rules, as Mark himself apparently was not, and intended to shift the blame for Jesus’ death away from Rome onto the Jewish establishment and/or people.
Sadly, the way this blame-shifting appears in the Gospels, particularly in Matthew, has led Christians toward, and often fully into hatred and persecution of Jews. This was true from early centuries of the Common Era and has not fully disappeared. You may well know, as I do, of Jews who were called “Christ-killer” by schoolmates, here in the supposedly enlightened and “tolerant” United States.
As to the Resurrection, even more theologically important for most Christians, an oft-quoted statement by Paul is “… If Christ be not raised, then your faith is vain, ye are still in your sins.” (I Cor. 15:17, KJV.)
For many centuries the bodily resurrection of Jesus was not much questioned as an actual event…. It was seen as not merely of a spiritual type, but actually physical, although Jesus’ new body was uniquely malleable. But the Enlightenment, with its “Age of Reason”, began to change that. So for over 250 years, the Resurrection has been re-examined. Many otherwise “faithful”, over that period, have found it impossible to believe in any manner; others that it could only have been spiritual (rather than bodily) or merely a symbolic tale. A great many traditional Christians who do believe in a bodily resurrection now concede that it cannot and should not be in focus for historical validation, as it often is by Christian apologists and pastors. Enough for the former group that they take the Gospels as reliable, not needing additional support by one aspect or another of historical analysis.
And what hinges on the Resurrection?
Many core doctrines of Christianity as well as the main supposed explanation for the sudden transformation of Jesus’ disciples from cowardice and dejection to boldness and faith. Thus, in this view, the existence of Christian faith itself and the very promise of our life with God beyond death depends on it.
But one must look at the Resurrection accounts of the Gospels, along with the rest of their portrayals of Jesus, in the light of what type of literature they are, their purpose and the way they would have been received and understood in their day, by their original audiences. In a nutshell, they would NOT have been seen as the writing of history. “History” as we think of it was just not written yet in that day. Authors wrote with a specific purpose, a perspective to support… with that, a “bias” as we’ve come to call it.
That doesn’t mean there is no history in their writing, including the Gospels. Certainly there is an historical core. But the long-developed practice in play in the Hebrew Scriptures and somewhat similarly in other ancient literature is key: Specifics of events serve to support a main emotional, religious, group-identity or other theme. The theme is central and the supporting (and modifiable) “events” secondary, not the other way around, as we think of history-writing and of biographies.
Further specifics of the many effects of the Gospel stories of Jesus will have to wait mostly for other articles. They also can be found in numerous books. As with most things religious, it is a mixed bag… much that has been of benefit to certain people as the foundation of a positive faith springs from the Gospels. That, even if some elements of theology are no more than unsupported speculations or failed beliefs in the “in-our-lifetime” return of Christ, begun in his own generation, and such.
On the other hand, dogmas such as combining the idea of Jesus’ death as atoning sacrifice with “salvation by faith alone” has been both comfort to some and extreme anguish or nagging doubt to others. Understandably, many are uncertain if they have had or continue to have “saving faith”, given that such faith is impossible to specifically define. This is “aided” by issues such as the Gospels being far from clear and unequivocal about Jesus’ supposed divinity, other than John’s Gospel, if taken by itself. As with other matters, we here see a confusing mixture of Jewish belief in a coming human Messiah with a later-developed Jewish-Christian or Christian belief in a divine one.
So it may be that the Gospel stories of Jesus enabled the survival and ultimate thriving of a yet-fragile and still-forming Christianity. But we bear responsibility, particularly if we consider ourselves any kind of Christian, to read and respond to these stories as stories, not as “Gospel truth”!