The Art of the Gospels: Theology as Fictional Narrative

Reading Time: 16 minutes
Randel Helms

An excerpt from Gospel Fictions (Prometheus Books, 1988), Chapter 1, pp. 9-21. Compiled by Usman Sheikh

In the first century of the Common Era, there appeared at the eastern end of the Mediterranean a remarkable religious leader who taught the worship of one true God and declared that religion meant not the sacrifice of beasts but the practice of charity and piety an the shunning of hatred and enmity. He was said to have worked miracles of goodness, casting out demons, healing the sick, raising the dead. His exemplary life led some of his followers to claim he was a son of God, though he called himself the son of man a man. Accused of sedition against Rome, he was arrested. After his death, his disciples claimed he had risen from the dead, appeared to them alive, and then ascended to heaven. Who was this teacher and wonder-worker? His name was Apollonius of Tyana; he died about 98 A.D., and his story may be read in Flavius Philostratus’s Life of Apollonius.See The Life and Times of Apollonius of Tyana, trans. Charles P. Eells (New York: AMS, 1967).

Readers who too hastily assumed that the preceeding described Apollonius’s slightly earlier contemporary, Jesus of Nazareth, may be forgiven their error if they will reflect how readily the human imagination embroiders the careers of notable figures of the past with common mythical and fictional embellishments. The career of any remarkable person is remembered in oral tradition precisely by being mythicised, connected with certain almost universally known patterns. Mircea Eliade gives us the example of Dieudonne de Gozon, a medieval Grand master of the Knights of St. John at Rhodes who, according to legend, slew the dragon of Malpasso. It makes no difference, writes Eliade, that the genuine historical record concerning Dieudonne is innocent of dragons; the mere fact that the man was, in popular imagination, a hero, necessarily indentified him with “a category, an archetype, which, entirely disregarding his real exploits, equipped him with a mythical biography from which it was impossible to omit combat with a reptilian monster.”Micrcea Eliade, Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return (New York: Harper and Row, 1959), p. 39.

We may say much the same of Jesus of Nazareth, though without needing to insist that all the mythical biographies of this figure entirely disregard his genuine acts. Moreover, I shall use the word “fiction” rather than the word “myth” to refer to the study, contained in this book, of the fictional aspects of the four canonical Gospels. By fiction I mean – to put the matter in simplest terms at the outset – a narrative whose purpose is less to describe the past than to effect the present. Of course, all works of fiction have an element of history, all works of history an element of fiction.See Hayden White, Metahistory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1973) and Tropics of Discourse (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1978). The Gospels, however – and this is my thesis – are largely fictional accounts concerning an historical figure, Jesus of Nazareth, intended to create a life-enhancing understanding of his nature. The best biblical statement of the purpose of a gospel is found in the Gospel of John:

“There were indeed many other signs that Jesus performed in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. Those here written have been recorded in order that you may hold the faith that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through this faith you may possess life by his name.” (John 20:30-31 NEB)

This is a noble intention, and it is not my purpose here to articulate a quarrel with Christian faith, or to call the evangelists liars, or to assert that the Gospels have no historical content; I write as literary critic, not as debunker. The Gospels are, it must be said with gratitude, works of art, the supreme fictions in our culture, narratives produced by enormously influential literary artists who put their art in the service of a theological vision. It is, of course, not uncommon to recognize literary artistry in the Gospels; there is perhaps no more beautiful short story than “The Prodigal Son,” no more moving sentences in all world literature than “I am with you always, until the end of time” (Matt. 28:20). But what does it mean to say that the evangelists were literary artists? Literary artists use their imaginations to produce poetry and fiction, works open to the methods of literary criticism. The Gospels are, indeed – and to a much greater degree than those who read them with pious inattention even begin to realize – imaginative literature, fiction, and critics have been using such terms about them for a long time. B. H. Streeter, for example, wrote more than half a century ago about the role of the “creative imagination” in the composition of the Fourth Gospel.B. H. Streeter, The Four Gospels: A Study of Origins (London: Macmillan, 1951), p. 383. Reginald Fuller has, more recently, examined the extent to which the Resurrection narratives are the “free creation” of the evangelists.Reginald H. Fuller, The Formation of the Resurrection Narratives (New York: Macmillan, 1971), p. 63. Norman Perrin has declared that his approach to the Gospels, Redaction Criticism, looks for the “composition of new material” by the evangelists.Norman Perrin, What is Redaction Criticism? (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1969), p. 17.I write in a similar spirit.

Each of the four canonical Gospels is religious proclamation in the form of a largely fictional narrative. Christians have never been reluctant to write fiction about Jesus, and we must remember that our four canonical Gospels are only the cream of a large and varied literature. We still possess, in whole or in part, such works as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Philip, the Secret Gospel of Mark, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, and such anonymous gospels as those according to the Hebrews, the Egyptians, the Ebionites, and so on. Jesus is a subject of a large – in fact, still growing – body of literature, often unorthodox or pure fantasy, cast in the form of fictional narrative and discourse.

This literature was oral before it was written and began with the memories of those who knew Jesus personally. Their memories and teachings were passed on as oral tradition for some forty years or so before achieving written form for the first time in a self-conscious literary work, so far as we know, in the Gospel of Mark, within a few years of 70 A.D.I shall hold to the by-now standard notion that Mark was written about 70 A.D., Matthew and Luke in the 80’s or 90’s, and John about 100 A.D. John A.T. Robinson’s effort, Redating the New Testament, to place all the writing before 70 A.D., does not convince me.

But oral tradition is by definition unstable, notoriously open to mythical, legendary, and fictional embellishment. We know that by the forties of the first century traditions already existed which we would now label orthodox and traditions coming to be recognized as heretical – teachings about what Jesus said and meant that even then were being called (though in a different vocabulary) “fictional.” Paul, for example, writing to the Galatians about 50 A.D., declares, “I am astonished to find you turning so quickly away from him who called you by grace, and following a different gospel” (Galatians 1:6). Thirty or forty years later, Luke too was aware of both valid and invalid traditions about Jesus, aware that some kinds of information about Jesus were more accurate than others:

“Many writers have undertaken to draw up an account of the events that have happened among us, following the traditions handed down to us by the original eye witnesses and servants of the Gospel. And so I in my turn, your Excellency, as one who has gone over the whole course of these events in detail, have decided to write a connected narrative for you, so as to give you authentic knowledge about the matters of which you have been informed.” (Luke 1:1-4).

Luke apparently knew about information not “authentic” and narratives not “connected”; if the works of those “many writers” had indeed been satisfactory, Luke’s account would be superfluous. Luke was obviously writing during a time when literature about Jesus was flowering, and some of it was unacceptable to him.

Luke is the only evangelist who tells us explicitly his methods of composition: He went to his sources, including at least some of those “many writers,” closely examining them for accuracy, for the purpose of writing a “connected” narrative, one that is well organized either logically or chronologically (kathexes could mean either). Luke might seem to be claiming eyewitness testimony as the basis for his Gospel, but in fact he is not; he only claims to possess traditions which he identifies as being handed down from the time of eyewitnesses – and for Luke, one of the eyewitnesses was Paul, who never saw the man whom moderns call the “historical Jesus.”

Paul was an ecstatic visionary who experienced, for what seems to be a period of nearly thirty years after the death of Jesus, visions of a heavenly being he called “Christ” and “the Lord,” and the fact is that neither Paul nor any other first-century Christian felt a need to distinguish between the heavenly being and the “historical Jesus.” Paul gives the following account of one of his ecstatic experiences:

“I shall go on to tell of visions and revelations granted by the Lord. I know a Christian man who fourteen years ago (whether in the body or out of it, I do not know – God knows) was…caught up into paradise, and heard words so secret, that human lips may not repeat them.”

Hen then admits it was he who had this experience and reveals the words of Jesus in one such vision: “My grace is all you need” (2 Cor. 12:1-4, 9). This “eyewitness” testimony of a saying of Jesus, one obviously not recorded in the Gospels. What follows is another first-century “eyewitness” account of Jesus:

“Then I saw standing in the very middle of the throne, inside the circle of living creatures and the circle of elders, a Lamb with the marks of slaughter upon him. He had seven horns and seven eyes.” (Rev. 5:6)

We can do no better than to bring our literary judgement to bear on such accounts, using the concept of two different kinds of figures – the historical Jesus and the visionary Christ – in a way the first century did not. When we return to Luke’s first chapter, we should perhaps recognize anew that there are both the “historical Jesus” and the Jesus of Luke’s traditions, who has the same status as the figures known to Paul and John the apocalypse. I will obviously need to justify such a statement, and again the best way to begin is with Paul’s notion of the three ways of knowing about Jesus: personal, revelation, tradition, and the scriptures:

“I must make it clear to you, my friends [he writes to Galatians], that the gospel you heard me preach is no human invention. I did not take it over from any man; no man taught it to me; I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” (Gal. 1:11-12)

The major contents of that gospel he lists in another letter:

“I must remind you of the gospel that I preached to you; the gospel which you received . . . First and foremost, I handed on to you the facts which had been imparted to me: That Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the scriptures; and that he was buried; that he was raised to life on the third day, according to the scriptures; and that he appeared to Cephas, and afterwards to the Twelve.” (1 Cor. 15:1-5)

And what was the source of the “facts which had been imparted” to Paul? Four chapters earlier in 1 Corinthians, he had written that “the tradition which I handed on to you came to me from the Lord himself” (1 Cor. 11:23).

So we must understand that what Luke means by “eyewitnesses,” and what he means by doing historical research, comparing sources, and judging the accuracy of those sources, is not the same as what a modern historian would mean by the same terms. What one leans from the “traditions handed down to us from the original eyewitnesses” must be seen as having the same status, for a first-century thinker like Luke or Paul, as information gained from visions and from reading the scriptures for predictions of Jesus. The Gospels are about the figure composed from these three strands of information; they are not about the “historical Jesus.” And that figure is a complex series of fictional creations; in the case of the canonical Gospels, there are at least four figures called “Jesus.” An example will help explain.

The canonical Gospels exist as sequences of narrative and dramatic scenes. This is not surprising: how else would one tell the “story” of Jesus? What is surprising is the great differences among the stories, even though they share, for the most part, similar sources. For example, according to Matthew and Mark, the dying words of Jesus were, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” According to Luke, Jesus’ dying words were “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” But according to John, they were, “It is accomplished.” To put it another way, we cannot know what the dying words of Jesus were, or even whether he uttered any; it is not that we have too little information, but that we have too much. Each narrative implicitly argues that the others are fictional. In this case at least, it is inappropriate to ask of the Gospels what “actually” happened; they may pretend to be telling us, but the effort remains a pretense, a fiction.

The matter becomes even more complex when we add to it the virtual certainty that Luke knew perfectly well what Mark had written as the dying words, and the likelihood that John also knew what Mark and perhaps Luke wrote, but that both Luke and John chose to tell the story differently. As it happens, all the death scenes were constructed to show Jesus dying the model death and doing so “in fulfillment” of Scripture. What this means I shall discuss later, but for now, suffice it that the scenes have a religious and moral purpose disguised as a historical one; we are, with these scenes, in the literary realm known as fiction, in which narratives exist less to describe the past than to affect the present. In DE Quincy’s phrase, the Gospels are not so much literature of knowledge as literature of power.

As in the case mentioned above, the content of the Gospels is frequently not “Jesus” but “what certain persons in the first century wanted us to think about Jesus.” In the language of the Fourth Gospel, “Those [narratives] here written have been recorded in order that you may hold the faith that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (John 20:31). In the language of literary criticism, the Gospels are self-reflexive; they are not about Jesus so much as they are about their own attitudes concerning Jesus.

That reflexive aspect of the Gospels is one of the main themes of this book. I deal with the effort of the evangelists to present their works to us as self-conscious literary documents, deliberately composed as the culmination of a literary and oral tradition, echoing and recasting that tradition, both appealing to it and transcending it, while using it in multiple ways. The Gospels are Hellenistic religious narratives in the tradition of the Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament, which constituted the “Scriptures” to those Greek-speaking Christians who wrote the four canonical Gospels and who appealed to it, explicitly or implicitly, in nearly every paragraph they wrote.

A simple example is the case of the last words of Christ. Mark presents these words in self-consciously realistic fashion, shifting from his usual Greek into the Aramaic of Jesus, transliterated into Greek letters: Eloi eloi lama sabachthanei (My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? – Mark 15:34). Mark gives us no hint that Jesus is “quoting” Psalm 22:1; we are clearly to believe that we are hearing the grieving outcry of a dying man. But the author of Matthew, who used Mark as one of his major written sources, is self-consciously “literary” in both this and yet another way: though using Mark as his major source for the passion story, Matthew is fully aware that Mark’s crucifixion narrative is based largely on the Twenty-second Psalm, fully aware, that is, that Mark’s Gospel is part of a literary tradition (this description would not be Matthew’s vocabulary, but his method is nonetheless literary). Aware of the tradition, Matthew concerned himself with another kind of “realism” or verisimilitude. When the bystanders heard Jesus crying, according to Mark, to “Eloi,” they assumed that “he is calling Elijah [Eleian]” (Mark 15:35). But Matthew knew that no Aramiac speaker present at the Cross would mistake a cry to God (Eloi) for one to Elijah – the words are so dissimilar. So Matthew self-consciously evoked yet another literary tradition in the service both of verisimilitude and of greater faithfulness to the Scriptures: not the Aramaic of Psalm 22:1 but the Hebrew, which he too transliterated into Greek – Eli Eli (Matt. 27:46) – a cry which could more realistically be confused for “Eleian.” Matthew self-consciously appeals both to literary tradition – a “purer” text of the Psalms – and to verisimilitude as he reshapes Mark, his literary source. The author of Mark was apparently unaware that his account of the last words was edifying fiction (a “fulfillment” of Scripture – see my chapter 6), but Matthew certainly knew that he was creating a linguistic fiction in his case (Jesus spoke Aramaic, not Hebrew), though just as clearly he felt justified in doing so, given his conviction that since Psalm 22 had “predicted” events in the crucifixion, it could be appealed to even in the literary sense of one vocabulary rather than another, as a more “valid” description of the Passion.

Luke is even more self-consciously literary and fictive than Matthew in his crucifixion scene. Though, as I have said, he knew perfectly well what Mark had written as the dying words of Jesus, he created new ones more suitable to his understanding of what the death of Jesus meant – an act with atleast two critical implications: First, that he has thus implicitly declared Mark’s account a fiction; second, that he self-consciously presents his own as a fiction . For like Matthew, Luke in 23:46 deliberately placed his own work in the literary traditon by quoting Psalm 30 (31):5 in the Septuagint as the dying speech of Jesus: “Into your hands I will commit my spirit” (Eis cheras sou parathesomai to pneuma mou) , changing the verb from future to present (paratithemai) to suit the circumstances and leaving the rest of the quotation exact. This is self-conscious creation of literary fiction , creation of part of a narrative scene for religious and moral rather than historical purposes. Luke knew perfectly well, I would venture to assert, that he was not describing what happened in the past; he was instead creating an ideal model of Christian death, authorized both by doctrine and by literary precedent.

The creation narrative and dramatic scenes to express the “real” or inner (theological) meaning of a situation – this is a pretty fair definition of one kind of fiction writing. There was of course a particular intellectual framework, a justifying worldview, behind such fictive creation in the Gospels, one that allowed the evangelists and the oral and literary traditions behind them to create stories with full confidence they were telling the “truth”; first-century Christians believed that the career of Jesus , even down to minor details, was predicted in their sacred writings. By a remarkably creative fiat of interpretation, the Jewish scriptures (especially in Greek translation) became a book that had never existed before, the Old Testament, a book no longer about Israel but about Israel’s hope, the Messiah, Jesus. Of course, many had found in the Jewish scriptures the hope and prediction of a Messiah, but never before was it specifically Jesus of Nazareth. So the story of Jesus came into being as a mirror of the Old Testament; the Gospels closed the self-reflexive circle: Old Testament-New Testament. Outside the Gospels, the best New Testament examples of this kind of thinking appear in the letters of Paul, all of which predate the writing of the canonical Gospels. Speaking, for example, of the miraculous provision of manna and water in the wilderness during the Exodus, Paul wrote that all the Israelites

“…ate the same supernatural food, and all drank the same supernatural drink; I mean, they all drank from the supernatural rock that accompanied their travels – and that rock was Christ. . . . All these things that happened to them were symbolic [typikos – “types”], and were recorded for our benefit as a warning. For upon us the fulfillment of the ages has come.” (I Cor. 30:3-4,11)

The Old Testament event or character is the “type”; the New Testament fulfillment, usually an event or symbol in the life of Jesus, or of the first-century Christian, the “antitype,” a word which appears at 1 Peter 3:21, where the water of our baptism is the “antitypon” of the waters of the flood. “For,” Paul wrote, “all the ancient scriptures were written for our own instruction” (Rom. 15:4). The Old Testament was not, that is, aimed at general future audiences in all the ages, but specifically at first-century Christians, with messages intended directly for them. For Paul, the story of Adam was not merely the history of past things; Adam was a “type [typos] of him who was to come” – Christ (Rom. 5:14). Northrop Frye nicely sums up this self-reflexive aspect of the two Testaments as early Christians saw them:

How do we know that the Gospel story is true? Because it confirms the prophecies of the Old Testament. But how do we know that the Old Testament prophecies are true? Because they are confirmed by the Gospel story. Evidence, so called, is bounced back and forth between the testaments like a tennis ball; and no other evidence is given us. The two testaments form a double mirror, each reflecting the other but neither the world outside.Northrop Frye, The Great Code: The Bible and Literature (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1982), p. 78

Such a view of the Old Testament allow it to supply the basis for entire scenes in the fictively historical books of the New. A voice, for example, in the (now) “Old” Testament became by interpretive fiat the voice of Jesus: when the psalmist wrote “My flesh shall rest in hope: because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine holy one to see corruption” (Psalms 15 [16]:9-10 LXX), it was in fact not “really” the psalmist speaking, but Jesus, a thousand years before his birth. As Luke has Peter say, in interpreting these verses to the crowd at Pentecost:

“Let me tell you plainly, my friends, that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this very day. It is clear therefore that he spoke as a prophet…and when he said he was not abandoned to death, and his flesh never suffered corruption, he spoke with foreknowledge of the resurrection of the Messiah.” (Acts 2:29-31)

By fiat of interpretation, a psalm becomes a prophecy, David becomes Jesus. We see a two-stage creative process here: first, the psalm is turned into a prophetic mini drama; then the interpretation of the psalm becomes another dramatic scene: Peter explaining it to the multitude. That the fictive creative act is Luke’s, and not Peter’s, is clear from the Greek of the scene: Luke has Peter quote, fairly loosely, as if from memory, the Septuagint Greek text of Psalms (though the historical Peter spoke Aramaic and needed, Christian tradition tells us, a Greek interpreter); the point of Luke’s interpretation depends on the Greek text of the verse, not on the Hebrew. The Hebrew text of Psalms 16:10b has something like “nor suffer thy faithful servant to see the pit”, which stands in simple parallelism to the first line of the distich, “Thou wilt not abandon me to Sheol” – that is, you will not allow me to die. The Greek text could, however, be taken to mean “You will not let me remain in the grave, nor will you let me rot.” Peter’s speech is an effective work of dramatic fiction, the culmination of a complex two-stage creative process. Luke, as we shall see, creates the same kinds of dramatic fictions in his Gospel, the first half of the Christian history that includes his Acts of the Apostles.

Not only speeches, but entire dramatic scenes grew out of the early Christian imaginative understanding of the Old Testament. This is true of the famous story of Peter’s vision in Acts, chapter ten. There, Peter is commissioned in a vision to bear God’s message of salvation to Cornelius, the first Gentile convert in Acts. On the basis of his conviction that the Greek Septuagint Old Testament was really a book predictive of his own time, Luke, or his source, created a narrative by simply rewriting portions of the Septuagint and setting them in the first century. Aware, for example, of Cornelius as an important early Gentile convert and convinced that his conversion was part of the providence of God, early Christians could quite easily suppose that the events leading up to Cornelius’s conversion were already described in the Old Testament – in this case, the book of Ezekiel. As the prelude to his prophetic role, Ezekiel has a series of visions; in the first of them, he sees the heavens open (enoichthesan hoi ouranoi – Ezek. 1:1 LXX). Peter, about to receive his prophetic commission to go to the Gentile Cornelius , also sees in a vision the “heaven opened” (ten ouranon aneogmenon – Acts 10:11). In his next vision Ezekiel is shown something and told to “eat” (phage – Ezek. 2:9 LXX); similarly, in Peter’s vision he is shown something and told to “eat” (phage – Acts 10:13). Ezekiel is told to eat “unclean” food, bread baked with human dung, but the prophet strongly demurs, saying “By no means, Lord ” (Medamos, Kyrie – Ezek. 4:14 LXX), just as Peter is told in his vision to eat unclean food, but likewise refuses: “By no means, Lord” (Medamos, Kyrie – Acts 10:14). Ezekiel explains that he has never touched any “uncleanness” (akatharsia – Ezek. 4:14 LXX), just as Peter declares he has never eaten anything “unclean” (akatharton – Acts 10:14). Ezekiel’s vision and commission became, by fiat of interpretation and narrative invention, Peter’s. The creative act began as a critical act: Ezekiel’s vision had to be identified as “really” about Peter’s; the narrative invention then followed readily. Invention of that kind is the subject of this book.Endmark







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