Saturday, June 4, 2011

Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite

By L. Michael White, 516 pages,

It is clumsy and simplistic to argue that we cannot reconcile the differences in the 4 canonical gospels. They were written for different audiences, so it is perfectly natural that variations in the accounts of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are present. So argues Michael White consistently throughout this detailed academic book.

The gospel composers were not historians writing biographies. They were arguing very specific theological points. Factual accounts differ because the theological arguments of each evangelist emphasize different aspects of Christ.

Mark, for instance, directed his entire narrative towards the passion. In contrast, John aimed to unite the synoptic view with a better spiritual understanding of Jesus that didn't deny the Lord's physical humanity.

Without admitting it explicitly, White shows how the Church preceded the writing of the gospels and the establishment of the biblical canon. Between the death and resurrection of Jesus and the writing of St. Paul and then the gospels (with the first, Mark, about 66 AD), oral stories and traditions about Jesus were passed among the various Christian communities.

Some ecclesiastical authority already existed, since these stories were consistent enough to be developed into the written gospels. Some guiding hand must have been involved - obviously the Church through which the Holy Spirit worked.

White is at his most fascinating and scholarly here, as he traces the way in which Jesus' sayings and parables, miracle works, and more general stories were wedded to the passion and resurrection. Each of the 4 gospel writers shaped this oral tradition to suit their own theological vision of Jesus. Each of these gospels focuses on certain attributes of Jesus. When taken collectively, we get a balanced view of the Savior.

Scripting Jesus emphasizes the gospels as stories with theological depth to them. The 4 evangelists were storytellers above all. Mark, then, "was meant to be performed, to be heard as interaction between author / narrator and audience in a communal setting." The audience already knew the stories, so the evangelists had to present them in a way to jar people's attention.

Mark portrays the main characters as not understanding Jesus' true nature. This confusion and ignorance contrasts with the audience, who is given the correct theological information.

White is faithful to orthodox theology, and rejects the false claims of the non-canonical gospels such as the Gospel of Thomas. He argues that such writings, including the Gospel of Judas, contain no new information about Jesus.

White discusses how many of these alternative gospel stories became well-known medieval legends - such as stories about Jesus' infancy, and how he made real birds from clay.

Even though White fails to acknowledge the importance of the Church in guiding the development of the written gospels, he does answer concerns about disparities among the gospels, as well as the development of the canon. The gospels developed out of the Church's desire to proclaim the truth about Jesus of Nazareth, rather than out of a lust for power and control.

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