The form of Christianity I am most familiar with is Catholicism, since I was a practising Catholic into my fifties.
For the last twenty years, I’ve been what is known in Church circles as a lapsed Catholic, which means I usually don’t go to Mass or participate in the sacramental life of the Church. It doesn’t, by the way, mean I have given up on God. I have simply developed a different relationship with the divine within the Christian tradition.
For the last little while, though, since I started acting as chauffeur for my increasingly frail mother, I’ve been accompanying her to Sunday Mass. It’s an act of service, and an opportunity to spend time with people acknowledging the presence of God in their lives within a supportive community.
When you have unlearnt the lessons imparted to you in your youth and opened yourself to thinking about God differently, it’s interesting when you revisit what was once the familiar. It’s also revealing to listen to the way in which the scripture readings are proclaimed as the word of God and how their meaning is explained. Once, I would have listened attentively to the lesson derived from the words. Now I listen and wonder why the Gospel writer chose those words to tell the particular story chosen for the day’s reading.
Despite what is known within scholarly circles in the Church about how the Gospels were written, at the local level they’re still spoken about as if they are historical records of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. They aren’t. They’re not the inerrant word of God, either.
The four books known as the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are teaching stories. They were written by people who believed Jesus was the promised messiah to persuade others of the truth of their belief. They’re books of faith, not history. Their authors interpreted the events of Jesus’ life in light of their faith.
No matter how you read them, the Gospels are not a complete or reliable record of Jesus’ life and they were all written decades after the time period in which Jesus is thought to have lived. Check out this article from Columbia College if you’d like some more specific details.
From my perspective, the Gospels contain a collection of teachings ascribed to Jesus and a telling of his story in a way that makes it look as though he was the fulfilment of a string of Jewish prophecies. This latter aspect popped out for me in a Gospel reading one Sunday after Easter. The reading was Luke 24: 13-35; On the road to Emmaus. In particular, verse 27 caught my attention.
“And, beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”Luke 24: 27
I sat up when I heard that and thought, wow! That verse spells out precisely the main intention of the Gospel writers: to weave all the prophecies related to the coming of the messiah into the fabric of Jesus’ story.
That’s got to be a disturbing insight for anyone who believes in the historical record aspect of the Gospels. And, yet, I wonder how many people in the congregation that Sunday even noticed. I suspect all they heard was the literal meaning of the words as they were used in the story, like I used to before I started thinking about things differently.
In addition to the Gospels, the Church has a penchant for the writings of Paul. The opening chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans contains a specific declaration about Jesus being the Son of God; Romans 1: 1-6. This might explain why Christians started to worship Jesus as the Son of God, although the Jewish Authorities didn’t acknowledge him as their messiah – despite all those fulfilled prophecies.
This led to Christians treating Jesus as a special divine being and claiming he died for our sins and defeated the forces of death and evil, all of which, to modern ears at least, sound both outlandish and unprovable.
It’s a shame Jesus didn’t write anything down, apart from a few doodles in the sand while he was waiting for those without sin to stone the woman reportedly caught in the act of adultery. John 8: 4-11.
I’ve always wondered about that story. Where was the man she was caught in the act with? Why wasn’t he dragged into the village square to be stoned? But, I get it now. It’s a teaching story, not an account of an actual event. It’s a story about diffusing your moral indignation by applying the law to yourself before you condemn another. And, it’s a story of acceptance told with these few words: neither do I condemn you.
Featured photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash