Sunday, February 21, 2010

On the Formation of the Gospels and the Canon


First, it has often been said that the four gospels provide four portraits of Jesus, not four snapshots. Given the processes in the composition of the four gospels (as outlined by Reddish), say how that is true (or in need of modification). Try to communicate your answer to a teen-ager.

Second, on the basis of the history of the formation of the New Testament canon, how do you respond to someone who assumes that the 27 books in the New Testament differ from all others because they are inspired, but other books are not. Is that sufficient; is there nothing more to be said?


The image of the portrait of Christ denotes an intimacy between artist and subject - the artist is sitting with the subject for some hours, the artist knows the subject on some personal level, and the subject, let's be honest, is usually giving the artist money – which skews the 'objectivity' of the portrait. But all of this connotes relationship. And, I would add, all of this connotes some degree of spirit (we've all heard of the beliefs about photographs stealing one's soul - there's nothing stealthy about a portrait, no paparazzi with a paintbrush and a canvas. does anyone even do portraits anymore?)

It makes sense of course that this idea of portrait would describe the gospels more than a snapshot. The writers of the gospels had some relationship with Jesus Christ. And their affection for the personality and work of Jesus Christ ‘colored’ what they wrote about him. But because the Jesus Christ of faith is worthy of praise and honor in the first place, it matters less that the Beloved Disciple didn’t catch Jesus making a fool of himself at a party, or drinking milk straight from the carton at 3AM. The whole person of Christ matters more than individual moments about him, right? This would include details about his birth and diet and stray comments – the whole matters more than the sum of its parts, and that comes in a portrait.

On the other hand, the image of the portrait implies only one artist, and we now know this simply could not have been the case for the gospels. I suggest the image of the mural would be more apt – that beautiful art form that is often whole communities of people building on each other’s work, sometimes over days and weeks, each adding their piece to a greater, messy harmony.

This brings up the subject of canonization, of course, because there were and are other 'murals.' And we are hard pressed, frankly, to say with any degree of certainty as to who was and wasn’t truly inspired by God when they wrote accounts of Jesus – in large part because so many people seem to have been involved in all the oral traditions, and in all the communities of people of the early Jesus Movement that kept traditions about Jesus going. What does that sort of inspiration even look like, what would the criteria be? Would the person have to glow to be inspired? Would they have to hear the voice of God audibly, or would a prompting of one’s consciousness suffice? If the latter, how do we know that the fourth person remembering a parable of Jesus to add to the book of Mark is inspired, but a second person remembering one of Jesus’s stray sayings for the Gospel of Thomas is not?

What we can say with greater certainty is that we choose these gospels, these four that we have today. We chose them in antiquity and we choose them again in our own time. We choose them all over the world just as we have chosen them for 2000 years because they describe the Jesus Christ we ourselves have relationship with better than the alternative murals of the Gnostic or other apocryphal gospels – these are the gospels which build faith. Yes, we choose them because they have better historical bona fides than the gospels we have not chosen, but at this point the sheer weight of our collective choice must matter more than any one reason for it. It’s like ‘dating’ manuscripts in the other sense of the word. It matters less that he has blue eyes and quite a bit more that he’s your boyfriend.

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