Table Of Contents
- About the author
- About the book
- Citability of the eBook
- Hermeneutics of the Gospels
- 1 The Virgin Birth
- 2 Children
- 3 Families
- 4 The Son of Man
- 5 Nature
- 6 History
- 7 Death
- 8 The Resurrection
As the gospel writers each begin their account, for their present and for a future posterity they cannot possibly anticipate or imagine, they are burdened with an almost overwhelming responsibility of representing events in the life of Jesus (his acts and his words) and to make him present to their readers despite being separated both from the man himself and the sources available to them. With compelling motivations, and recognizing the fragility of their communities and the hostility of the social world around them, the writers of the gospels attempt to portray Jesus as someone who comes into the world to be an inauguration and to begin to actualize in being what has remained, until him, inconceivable. However, despite sensing Jesus’ dynamic ability to initiate such a possibility for the first time since creation, from out of himself in the fullness of his human presence, they always return him to a prior scriptural history. They need to give him an origin in a three-part tradition announcing him from the past and thereby making him legitimate, with the most authoritative credentials related to Abraham the patriarch, David the king, and the prophets as world-historical individuals. Each writer distinguishes himself from all oral traditions because their gospel is now permanent. They avoid the discrepancy of word-of-mouth versions by creating what they believe to be two related and complementary historical events, each with a source and chronology: the life of Jesus as previously handed down by oral testimonies and, perhaps, by one or more documents – the hypothetical Q, German for Quelle or “source,” and with Mark serving both Matthew and Luke as is commonly thought – and a prophet such as Isaiah, for example, who is interpreted to have announced Jesus’ future coming and will now be a fulfillment of a historical aspiration. Despite their individual reasons for setting down their version of events in the life of Jesus, the gospel writers are at every turn confronted with a difficult situation. The complications are extreme and without resolution.
After repeated readings of their sources, making selections and decisions, each of them begins under significant pressure. The permanence of the writing had to be intimidating, more so if certain alterations were made, changes they believed to be necessary. They individually decide on a starting-point, with a reading that will move, with some uncertainty – or rather, with both deliberation and hesitation – between the available document(s) on the life of Jesus, the testimonies of “eyewitnesses,” (Luke 1:2) and a continuous reference to utterances made in the past, with direct and precise quotations. For example, “when Mark ←9 | 10→is internal to the story and intrudes his own judgment upon what people felt,” Best tells us, “he does so in order to interpret the events he reports.”1 Dodd goes further. “All four gospels alike have the character of fact plus interpretation.”2 The reader of the gospels, alone and independently, can no longer simply accept the interpretations without being attentive during the times other textual references are relied upon for support, most especially when Jesus identifies himself from out of a prophecy, as in Luke 4:16 when reading the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue. “It is especially crucial to state that the story of Jesus itself has led the author to the Old Testament looking for an explanation, rather than the story being generated out of Old Testament quotations.”3 The “explanation” may, in principle, be imposed, the narrative relation little more than tenuous. Removed from their world, the reader returns again and again to its composition in order to hear Jesus uniquely and independently of all associations announcing his coming to be. Freyne adds: “the gospel writers as transmitters of the kerygma include reference to the past as part of their overall intention, and so provide us with data about Jesus that needs to be critically evaluated, to be sure, by good hermeneutical practice.”4 Without imputing a conscious scheme to any specific writer, one may even “suspect that these texts may be hiding the real Jesus from us.”5 Jesus certainly does seem opaque at times, his language vague, evasive, almost intentionally obscure. A recent translator tells us: “to be honest, I have come to believe that all the standard English translations render a great many of the concepts and presuppositions upon which the books of the New Testament are built largely impenetrable, and that most them effectively hide (sometimes forcibly) things of absolutely vital significance.”6 If so, the reader has the additional task of reflecting on the relationship between the possible concealments (though the reasons extend beyond translation) and Jesus’ revelations. We have yet to consider how Jesus’ language may be so unique, so creative, in part invented to serve his incomparable meanings, that it had to be necessarily elusive ←10 | 11→to his first-time hearers and modern readers. He became intelligible over time; multiple hearings were necessary, as were innumerable discussions by all those who persevered after his death and collectively remembered, began to assemble a doctrine, and ultimately wrote about their experiences. How, and for what reasons, the gospels are composed therefore becomes an essential problem, one inseparable from the initial act of reading and understanding any writing available to them; it will not be solved by sensationalist claims and proposals about “unlocking secrets,” making world-altering “discoveries” or exposing conspiratorial “cover ups.”7
With the gospels’ obvious reliance on scripture to manage Jesus’ meanings, each of the writers necessarily becomes “a sort of creative editor,”8 an observation repeated whenever we recognize “the editorial hand of the evangelist.”9 The gospels are “heavily edited versions of Jesus’ life and thought.”10 Dibelius describes them as “principally collectors, vehicles of traditions, editors.”11 One notices “Marks’ editorial tampering,”12 especially important considering he is by virtual consensus the first to write a gospel. His account contains “editorial additions.”13 Finally, Hengel rhetorically asks if Mark is “a collector or creative ←11 | 12→theologian?”14 The modern reader (neither ideal nor implied, but real, and aware of the challenges) is met with an immediate and persistent self-demand; no wonder the scholars of the Jesus Seminar15 went to such lengths to attempt to determine the authentic sayings of Jesus – while knowing, one presumes, they were making equally baffling editorial decisions as the gospel writers themselves. Any forthcoming decisions on how to deal with if not solve the dilemma can only begin with an initial proposal. My reading of the gospels will depend on this one motivation. Everything follows from one commitment: if (as I believe – and as John metaphysically confirms) Jesus is an unprecedented human being who conceives of himself as the pre-creation logos capable of a second act of human creation and who generated himself uniquely and alone in his relationship with his conception of God and the spirit, then he must be so-defined from out of his life and his words and from a singular self-consciousness open and given, as revelations, to the reader.
A hermeneutics of the gospels begins from one premise, one attitude in relation to reading: “to proclaim the Spirit of scripture anew,” as Oeming writes, and “something that transcends any method.”16 Instead of being relational, the narrative accounts will be read so as to first of all make Jesus independent of any prophetic announcements and to interpret his life, words, and his self-consciousness, from out of himself alone and as a revelation who will unveil and disclose what has remained, until him, imperceptible and un-thought. The dynamic of the gospel narratives regenerate themselves in the relationship (direct, without mediation) with a reader who assumes, at the same time, the responsibility of interpretation and the effort to recognize a disjunction between the spirited words of Jesus and the narrative of events. Jesus embodies the apokalypsis – not to precipitate eschatological events and any “last things” or an end, but rather to reveal what has been recognized by many and often repeated as a “new creation.” To anticipate the future from out of the past resulted in once again establishing, without knowing it, a limit to being. Jesus could not be anticipated; he was inconceivable prior to his coming into the world. In self-conception, Jesus preceded creation and gives himself over to another genesis, a moment understood from the ←12 | 13→stunning proclamation “Before Abraham was, I am,” (John 8:58) one of the rare sayings reflecting his unparalleled language and consciousness.
As Paul was the first to understand and commit to writing, Jesus is, then and now, “the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began” (Rom. 16:25). The Pauline community will remain most faithful to this one remarkable insight by the apostle and continue to regard Jesus as “the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed” (Col. 1:26). All prior generations could not perceive the mystery, had no access to witness the concealments of the social world; to then relate Jesus to a carefully constructed genealogy, whether in Matthew or Luke, gives him a descent entirely inappropriate to him, with historical individuals who could not precede him as his progenitors. Jesus cannot be an heir; he inherits nothing from the past (surely not any monarchical pretensions) except a limit soon to be definitively breached. Jesus nullifies all apocalyptic expectations, any last things or end, since he is the revelation of what has remained concealed from prior to the beginning of being and now makes it possible for humanity to recollect it from his words. Achtemeier writes: “Jesus, through his language, gives us a new being.”17 The challenge of a hermeneutics depends on making the revelations of Jesus’ words effectual, capable of disclosing precisely how this “new being” will come about both in an individual and, equally important, in a world in time to come, with the demands of the here and now never more crucial and consequential. Hermeneutics will require the inter-related attitude of suspicion, reflection, and recollection, a three-part reading leading to the meaning of Jesus’ words and the events of his life between history and faith, in relation to both, but determined by neither.
The gospels have been defined by Bultmann as “an original creation of Christianity.”18 Ellis believes “the gospels constitute their own literary genre,”19 as does Collins who calls them “a unique Christian literary form.”20 Auerbach has stated that the writings of the New Testament as a whole “would not fit into ←13 | 14→any of the known genres.”21 Kümmel adds: “viewed as a literary form, the gospels are a new creation.”22 Hermeneutics is here less interested in the “form” of the gospels or, for that matter, the various disputed and uncertain sources, than what their meanings disclose and what the consequences of what an “original creation” and a “new creation” mean, today, for us. The fundamental problem remains ontological. Jesus re-animates being, gives it once more the breath of the spirit to begin to regenerate itself. But as writing, the gospels are under the considerable strain of fully, adequately representing Jesus; as interpretations, they expose their intent for the necessity of their present that, for us, can no longer be binding. A three-part hermeneutics intent on interpreting the meaning of Jesus is indifferent to the intention of the author, the work’s Sitz im Leben, or the immediate reader and listener of early Christian communities.23 Some believe “one’s first question should be about the meaning and intentions of those who recorded the words that now appear in the gospels.”24 The immediacy of the gospel writers and their situation, however urgent for them, has receded into a distant and, perhaps, no longer recoverable past. The author’s motivations, his history, or the first readers of the gospel, cannot determine our present. The one and only certainty remains the text and the reader, in a necessary relationship to see and hear the one individual who, by virtue of his self-consciousness, and with that singular and many times repeated self-designation, “the son of man,” became and continues to be a revelation. His presence, then and now, was not intended to be a merely individual accomplishment, for himself alone. Jesus shows himself to others and thereby introduces a possibility in the world of a fundamental transformation of the human, in one individual, in everyone to come in a second act of creation. Jesus inaugurates, from out of himself, and from the two extreme moments of the figures of the virgin birth and the resurrection, a new possibility of being.
Jesus’ revelation are a disclosure, for thought more than vision looking for signs and epiphanies, and for a future entrusted with making his unveiling possible, actual, and true. In one of his most remarkable sayings and first announced, ←14 | 15→as we saw earlier, at the end of Paul’s letter to the Romans, Jesus tells his listeners, “I will utter things hidden since the foundation of the world” (Matt. 13:35). What he reveals by speaking are hidden meanings that, when fully understood, will contribute to the beginning of perpetual task: to draw, into the world, what has been described – with historical language inappropriate to the future – a kingdom (Gr. basileia) a word in itself bound by history and still reflecting an imaginable alternative to our world. The human imagination has not yet been able to conceive a completely other form of being, one that cannot be reduced to what has already taken place. Kingdoms are antiquarian and irrelevant, royal individuals more so. The revelations of Jesus disclose previously concealed realities that are incomparable to all previous historical forms.
For the first time, and independent from any past or singular tradition, Jesus understood himself in a way difficult for his disciples and followers to fully share; he speaks, at times plainly, at times in parables, at times enigmatically, with meanings that are often obscure. Revelations are not simply given, and certainly not for plain sight, to simply stare at passively and in stunned wonder to any “signs.” They demand reciprocity, acuity of perception, an abiding interiority. As a teacher, he seems unwilling or unable to better explain his meanings; his words often leave his listeners bewildered, utterly at a loss, and, strangely, not infrequently in fear. Luther’s belief in claritas scripturae does not leave us any more confident; on the contrary, and in one of the many instances of a human Jesus (disappointed and frustrated) he can only ask: “why do you not understand what I say” (John 8:43)? The reader, today, also hears the question; it has been perpetually asked as a reminder of the difficulties involved, in reading, in hearing, and in making Jesus present.
Even as a twelve-year-old, people “did not understand what he said to them” (Luke 2:50). He left his listeners astonished by the newness of his ideas even as they struggled with its meanings. “The Gospels record the difficulty his disciples – those simply fishermen, innocent of hermeneutics – have as they try to decipher”25 Jesus’ message. The gospel writers, however, are much less “innocent of hermeneutics.” They are continuously making decisions of inclusion and omission; they have motivations, and if they are neither interested in argument nor persuasion, there is sufficient commentary and drama to attempt to influence the reader and listener of their time. The reader, today, experiences the difficulty of deciphering the innumerable layers – of speech and writing, Jesus’ sayings and ←15 | 16→narrative constantly inter-related and with no certainly about its origin except when attributed to the scriptural. The gospel writers are even in more of a predicament: all they have are oral testimonies and written accounts, one or perhaps more sources, requiring them to make decisions – of inclusion, of redaction, each with life situations no longer relevant for the present. Hermeneutics has another purpose: instead of accepting the gospel writers and their interpretation of the sources and how their intentions attempt to influence the reader, it is necessary above all to offer other alternatives, other meanings. If, as Kermode believes, the “hermeneutic potential” of the gospels is “inexhaustible,”26 then there continues to be a “need to rediscover the meaning of the words and figures employed in the New Testament, a task entrusted to the exegete first of all.”27 The present interpreter will bring hermeneutics to bear on the gospels so as to attempt to recollect both the collective memories of Jesus and how he necessarily exceeds them in his life and words – beginning with the profound meaning, one certainly not reducible to a biological fact, to the gynecological condition of a body, of the virgin birth.
Reading the gospels writers involves being attentive to their interpretations. With the exception of “the son of man,” his singular and repeated self-designation, all titles given to him (whether Messiah or Christ, Lord or son of God) are derived from conceptions that may fail to recognize Jesus the unprecedented human being. The gospel writers cannot understand Jesus without depending on parallels. They need support; foundations are necessary, and this is the reason they continuously relate him back to a traditional history. He is heralded, previously “spoken of by the prophet,” (Matt. 3:3) and confirmed since “it is written in the book” (Luke 3:4) and, more provocatively, “the time is fulfilled,” (Mark 1:15) and “this was to fulfill the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah,” (John 12:38) as if he was the sign of God once again, and after a significant absence, intervening in the world to alter its history once and for all. For the writers of the gospels, Jesus can only be legitimate when he becomes the fulfillment of tradition; he is authoritative not due to himself (to his individuality and what he reveals by speaking, in sayings that astonish everyone for their newness) but through an association to scripture and to the utterances of prophets. Borg and Crossan make us aware that←16 | 17→
it is sometimes difficult to discern whether “prophecy historicized”
is being used to comment about something that actually happened
or whether it is being used to generate a narrative or a detail within
a narrative. But such discernment is not our present concern. The point,
rather, is the use of the passages from the Jewish Bible in the telling
of the story of Jesus and what such use suggests about the interpretive
framework of the narrator.28
Girard goes further and is one of the few to stress how the gospels are attempting to “gain acceptance” for Jesus by relating him to scripture.
The evangelists make many innovations with respect to theology.
We could attribute to them the desire to make their innovations
respectable by sheltering them as much as possible behind the
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- ISBN (Hardcover)
- Publication date
- 2020 (March)
- Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 204 pp.