Bible Textual Integrity The Bible

The Art of the Gospels : The­ol­o­gy as Fic­tion­al Narrative

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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 : AMS1967). 

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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