Monday, April 16, 2012

Why Were the Gospels Written?

When analysing an ancient religious text, one of the first tasks we must set ourselves is to identify which religious genre it aspires to. This is not merely a banal, intellectual exercise in literary taxonomy, but rather is integral to our framing of the text, and to shaping our understanding of it. To use concrete examples, we would be remiss to read the poetic Book of Job as belonging to the same religious genre as the Book of Kings, which aspires to be a work of history. In the New Testament, we plainly can't approach the apocalyptic work of Revelation in the same way we might approach the epistolary works of Paul (though there is some eschatological overlap in this case). Or, to use a more contemporary case, our attitude to a work will be plainly different depending on whether it claims to be a work of "science" or a work of "science-fiction". In all of these cases, our understanding of the genre of the texts will inexorably shape our disposition towards them before we have begun to read a single passage.

With regards to the gospels, the attempt to fit them into pre-existing genres has been met with failure, or - at best - controversy. Some scholars see the gospels as conforming to the structures of the ancient Greek genre of the bios, which we can roughly categorise as the fore-runner to our modern literary genre of "biography". In the Graeco-Roman world, this genre was largely hortatory: that is, the lives of great figures were invoked as examples of the "good life" and the "facts", such that they were, were generally of secondary importance to the ethics. Still others have attempted to link the gospels to other ancient genres, for instance that of tragedy, myth or - most interestingly - that of the Homeric poems. Perhaps more commonly, though, scholars are prone to see the gospels as works of "theologised history" or "historicised theology" (depending on their skeptical inclinations) emerging from the same religious tradition as the "historical" books of the Old Testament.1

I'm not going to tackle such disputes here, but I am rather more interested in the categorisation of the gospels as "evangelical" works: that is to say, works constructed with the expressed purpose of spreading the "good news" about Jesus so as (presumably) to win over new converts into the faith. Sometimes this case is made implicitly, other times explicitly (e.g. the continuing designation of the authors of the gospels as the "evangelisers"), but such an assumption - and a largely unfounded one at that - can unfortunately serve to prejudice our readings of the texts by seducing us into believing certain things about the intentions of the authors that may have no basis in reality. For the non-Christian especially, the a priori assumption that the gospel authors are trying to deceive us into accepting a particular theological claim may lead us towards a degree of antipathy and skepticism towards the texts that frankly aren't warranted.

That is not to say that the gospel authors didn't have an agenda (or, rather, four largely separate agendas) that we must treat carefully when we read the texts. All authors, of course, present a necessarily subjective view of the world which shapes what they write, consciously or otherwise. In the gospel texts, we must recognise that they are primarily works of theology (pace our earlier discussion concerning the uncertainty of assigning the gospels to particular genres) that we cannot approach with the naive assumption that the authors are attempting to provide us with a dispassionate, factual history of events in first-century Palestine. Nonetheless, the kind of untethered skepticism levelled at the gospel texts by many non-believers (especially the "Jesus-Mythicists") is rather an overcorrection and stems in part I think from the implicit assumption that the gospel authors, in their "evangelism", must have been necessarily duplicitous in what they had written so as to better appeal to potential followers.2

It is this assumption of evangelism laying behind the gospels that I wish to address here. Specifically, I reject the idea of the gospels being composed for primarily evangelical purposes for the following reasons:

  • 1) The evidence seems pretty clear (based on almost total lack of surviving manuscripts) that the gospels were not in wide-circulation until at least the 3rd century. That is, even if the gospels were written as evangelising tools (introducing the good news about Jesus to as wide a population as possible) they were certainly not utilised that way.  
  • 2) As a corollary to the first point, the gospels went almost completely uncited by early Christian authors until the late 2nd century. Even then, they appear to have been used primarily in a sectarian context as evidence for the (proto-)Orthodox position against more "heretical" forms of Christianity rather than as a proselytising tool for convincing those completely outside the faith.  
  • 3) Low literacy rates in the ancient world (perhaps as low as 2%) rendered the book as a tool for the wide dissemination of beliefs rather ineffective. If one wanted to understand the content of the gospels one would either need to be either wealthy and well-placed in society (and it does seem to be true that early Christianity was relatively successful within this demographic) or else be part of a community where it would be possible to hear the texts read aloud (i.e. already a member of a church).
  • 4) The content of the gospels don't seem to have been constructed with a proselytising goal in mind. That is, much of their content must strike one as unusual or counter-productive if their primary intention was to convince outsiders of the veracity of Christian claims.  

To elaborate on the final point, the Gospel of Mark (which serves as the archetype for the three latter gospels) contains a motif of secrecy that is difficult for even modern scholars of Christianity to make sense of. How would someone ignorant of (proto-)Christian theology in the ancient near-East have approached such claims? Why - if his goal was broad evangelism - did Mark leave so much of his theology implicit, including the resurrection of Christ? Who could have been won over by such an opaque text?

The other gospels present similar problems. For instance, given the prominence of Jewish themes and the reliance on the OT in the construction of its narrative, it is widely suspected that the Gospel of Matthew was created with the intent to evalgelise to a more Jewish audience. If that is so, the antipathy towards the Jews in this gospel is difficult to understand (e.g. the infamous "blood libel" verse at Mt. 27:25). The Gospel of Luke, often seen to have been written as a gospel for the "gentiles", is similarly difficult to comprehend as a primarily evangelical work. As N.T. Wright notes, "if one started off simply wanting to address an apologia for early Christianity to Roman authorities, one would not necessarily produce a work like Luke-Acts. There is far too much material which seems extraneous; comparison with the work of Aristides, Justin and the other second-century apologists reveals enormous differences". He adds in the footnotes the observation that "no Roman official would have waded through so much (to him) irrelevant material to reach so small an apologia"3. Additionally, Luke seems in his introduction to the gospel to be addressing his work to a specific individual, or - at best - individuals already initiated into the faith.4

The Gospel of John seems like a better place to start if one wishes to make the case that the gospels were composed with an evangelical intent in mind given its pronouncement that "these [signs] are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name" (Jn. 20:31), but even here there are problems. Firstly there are (as with gMark) secretive elements of the gospel that would appear to be counter-productive in a broader evangelical context. The rather abstruse imagery concerning various dualisms (light / dark etc.) must make for difficult work for the uninitiated, and its persistent use of the otherwise unnamed "beloved disciple" likewise betrays a certain assumption of pre-existing familiarity with the Johannine community. We can also infer from the gospel and the related epistles (i.e. 1-3 John) that this community was rather isolated from the Jewish community at large (based on passages in the gospel concerning expulsion from synagogues), had difficult relationships with other Christian communities (3 John 10) and imposed fairly strict conditions of membership within the community (1 John 2:19; 2 John 10). Put together, such evidence indicates a fairly bleak prospect of this community ever successfully producing a deliberately evangelical work.

So while I cannot for certain say what may have motivated the "evangelisers" to pen the gospels (though - for what it is worth - I lean towards the "historicised-theology" supposition touched on earlier) I certainly don't think that evangelism (at least in the sense of evangelising to a wide, uncommitted audience) can be posited as their primary motivation. If a solution to this problem is to be found, we must look for it elsewhere.

      (1) See especially N.T. Wright below.

      (2) Quite what their purpose might have been in collectively and nakedly lying to fulfil these ends is not clear. I suppose it might be assumed that with these lies about the resurrected Son of God they were reaching for power and influence over a progressively larger proportion of the population (a prime motivating force in modern proselytism, it must be said) but it certainly didn't help the early Christians, who were (with varying degrees of ferocity) marginalised and persecuted for their beliefs. That is, if one wants to suggest some fraudulent or conspiratorial explanation for the content of early Christian beliefs, one must also explain why it failed so miserably in a political context, at least until the 4th century. Or, to put it another way, why would they have been motivated to lie when it is plain that such mendacity didn't advance their position at all? It's easy enough to trace the trajectory of early Christian beliefs in terms of natural theological developments without needing to invoke malevolent intentions on behalf of its earliest practitioners.

      (3) The New Testament and the People of God (Volume 1: Christian Origins and the Question of God), p 376.

      (4) It's true that the "Theophilus" in Lk. 1:3 may be a general honorific (="god lover"), but even in this case it is clear that he is writing to individuals who "have been instructed" into the faith already (Lk. 1:4) and therefore scarcely in need of further convincing.

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