Ian Harris Otago Daily Times April 26, 2013
When it comes to truth and reliability, taking something as gospel is the gold standard. It’s unquestionable, it’s trustworthy – just as the four gospels that begin the New Testament are presumed to be beyond all doubt.
Well, not quite. Today the emphasis is on the truth we find in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, rather than whether everything they wrote is actual and factual.
One of the foremost New Testament scholars of our day, John Dominic Crossan, makes that clear when he proposes that each of the gospels is really a parable writ large. Just as Jesus used made-up stories about welcoming home a wayward son, paying a living wage to workers in a vineyard, a good Samaritan to sketch what God’s kingdom on earth would be like, so did the gospel writers in telling the “good news” (that’s what gospel means) about Jesus.
So did Jesus actually use those words? Do those deeds? Not necessarily, and maybe not at all. The writers of those gospels were interpreters, not stenographers. Their truth is of a different order.
Crossan is an Irish-American and former monk who set out 40 years ago to search for the truth about Jesus as a man of his time, before memories of him became steeped in divinity. The gist of his latest book, The Power of Parable, is conveyed in the sub-title: How fiction by Jesus became fiction about Jesus.
Calling it “fiction” is rather misleading. It describes the gospels’ literary technique, but not their purport. They were written to point to the meaning, purpose and truth for living which Jesus’ followers found in him. Some people think of a parable as a nice little story, but Jesus’ parables go well beyond that. Crossan describes them as “traps for thought and lures for participation”. His specialty is the parable that draws his hearers into the story in a way that subtly challenges old attitudes, prejudices and habits of thought and open up a new way of seeing.
In Jesus’ story of a traveller mugged on an open road, for example, it wasn’t men of status – a priest and a temple officer – who paused to help him, but a man from Samaria, and Jews despised Samaritans. Social equivalents today might be a headmaster, a judge, and a Mongrel Mob bikie, where it’s the bikie who shows compassion. Whoops, his hearers might think, how do I stand in relation to that?
For many, the idea that whole gospels should be read as parables will be quite shocking. “Of course Jesus was born, taught, healed, had disciples, was put to death,” they will protest. “That’s not imagined, those are facts.”
Crossan agrees. Those people really lived. But in writing about them, the authors adopted Jesus’ own parable technique. Their stories repeatedly draw on events and symbols from the Jewish religious heritage to deepen and expand their meaning – and “when parables about Jesus get big enough we call them gospels”.
For Crossan, it is important to understand the circumstances in which each gospel was written. Time, place and perspective matter. He locates Mark in the upheaval of Rome’s brutal suppression of a Jewish rebellion in the early 70s, and suggests it could come out of a community of Jewish Christian refugees in northern Galilee. The parable challenges a narrow emphasis on Jewishness shown by the Christian leaders in Jerusalem, and their authoritarian style of leadership. Matthew (early 80s) also comes from within Jewry at a time when Jews and Christians were still worshipping together in synagogues. It reflects a growing tension between Christians and Pharisees, the dominant Jewish group.
The author of Luke-Acts, “a two-volume megaparable” from the late 80s, is a Gentile “God-worshipper” – that is, a non-Jew who worshipped alongside Jews in their synagogues. His gospel comes from outside Judaism, and challenges the Roman authorities to accept Christian communities as offering no threat to the state.
John (late 90s) challenges the portrayal of Jesus’ life and death in those earlier gospels. He sees everything through the prism of the “Logos”, which is usually and inadequately translated as “Word”, but which Crossan fills out as “the eternal and generative dream of God”. He wants no truck with Rome and empire, but instead their transformation by Christ, “the visionary dream of God as embodied humanly in time, place and sandals”.
One great advantage of reading the gospels as parables is that it immediately unhitches them from an obsolete literalism. They challenge still by presenting the Christian way as an adventure into life.