Reflection and the Bible in Dialogue with Questions of the Day: The Gospel Narrative and History

Reflection.  The ideal and the reality. Today’s readings give occasion to reflect on the place of vision, the ideal, and reality, in our individual and social lives. The first reading is very much about God’s vision for Jerusalem, Mother Zion, and her mission in the world. The reality was far removed from this. There was no glorious return, mountains being made low and so on. The reading must be taken in conjunction with the history of Israel. But the vision of Mother Zion holds good for the Church, for what God wishes her to be. Paul had a vision of Christian life, thanked God that it had become a reality in one of his young Christian communities, and prayed that this would continue. It has a deep message for all of us today, reminding us of what our Christian calling is, and the need of thankful prayer that this may become a reality for us individually and the Church today. The Gospel reminds us that the Christian message in grounded in reality, in history. Luke’s grounding of the Gospel message in history presents an occasion of considering related questions in some detail in the “Dialogue” that here follows.

Dialoguewith questions of the day: Formation of the gospel tradition; 2). Infancy Narratives of Matthew and Luke; 3). Historicity of the central gospel tradition; 4). Jesus of History and (5) the Christ of faith

Christmastime is a period of devotion: birth at Bethlehem, on the occasion of a census under Quirinius (Luke’s gospel), the crib, angels heard on high, the Magi, and so forth. It is also a time when in some quarters and media questions are raised, and programmes presented, about the historical reality, or otherwise, of events presented in the Infancy narratives of Matthew chapters 1-2 and Luke 1-2, narratives absent from Mark’s gospel. These Infancy Narratives at the beginning of these two gospels contrast with the theological presentation of Jesus as the Word become flesh in the prologue of John’s gospel, read on Christmas Day Mass. This presents and opportunity of uniting devotion with a critical understanding of the formation of the gospel tradition and the development in the early Church of an understanding of Jesus’ relation to God the Father. This we can do in five sections: 1). Formation of the gospel tradition; 2). Infancy Narratives of Matthew and Luke; 3). Historicity of the central gospel tradition; 4). Jesus of History and (5) the Christ of faith.

1). Formation of the gospel tradition. All four gospels begin the narrative of Jesus’ public ministry with an account of the preaching of John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus. Jesus proclaimed the advent of the kingdom of God, preached, worked miracles. consorted with the marginalized, gathered disciples about him, and chose from among them some (generally called apostles) to whom he transmitted his mission and powers, was crucified in Jerusalem and appeared to followers after his resurrection. We have no evidence that Jesus wrote anything, or gave any direction or command to his followers that they write an account of his work and mission. After Jesus’ ascension, the early church in Jerusalem were conscious that they were to continue to proclaim what Jesus said and did, and this during his public life to his ascension, from the baptism of John the Baptist onwards. This appears clear from Peter’s words to elect someone to replace Judas (Acts 1:21-22): “So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was take up from us – one of these must become witness with us to his resurrection”. The early preaching of the gospel would not have included any account of his birth, infancy or life before the baptism of John. The sayings and deeds of Jesus would have been remembered and transmitted by the early church, but would also have been retold in a manner to make them relevant to new situations. Also during this period the relationship of Jesus to the Father, and his role as redeemer and mediator would have developed and would have been partly written into the ongoing formation of the gospel tradition, the latest stage of which is probably in the Fourth Gospel (John). The plan of the earliest gospel, Mark, probably follows that of the early preaching, beginning with the baptism of John, and without any Infancy Narrative. In part Mark as editor gives a framework, sometimes (for instance lasts days of Jesus) a chronological framework to his gospel and sections of it, which may be simply editorial rather than strictly historical.

2). Infancy Narratives of Matthew and Luke . The Infancy Narratives of Matthew and Luke are traditions and compositions independent of that of the central gospel tradition. What actual tradition stands behind them, and how much they are rather free theological, allegorical compositions, or such like, is not easy to determine. It may be that traditions about Christ’s birth and infancy were handed down within his family circles (the brothers and sisters of Jesus, for example). There is very little in common between the narratives of Matthew and Luke, apart from birth at Bethlehem, and the virginal conception (without a human father) of Jesus, clear in Matthew (Mat 1:18-24) and very probable in Luke (Luke 1:26-38, especially 1:35). Matthew is interested in showing the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy at Christ’s conception, birth and infancy, and already at his birth acknowledge of his status as king of the Jews by the (pagan) magi.

            Luke’s central message (in passages read on Christmas night, dawn Mass Christmas Day) is the significance of Christ’s followers, and for all of the birth of the infant Jesus: heaven open (so to speak) as at Jesus’ baptism, the heavenly voice at the Transfiguration, the message of peace and joy brought by the birth of the child, the words of the shepherds. These were part of the mystery that was Christ already at his birth, and truths to be reflected on in order to arrive at a deeper knowledge of their significance. Even Mary, Jesus’ mother, the model of faith for Luke, did not quite grasp them, but pondered them in her heart. The framework within which Luke set the birth of Christ (at the census of Quirinius) may not have been quite historical. This took place only years later (in AD 6, when Judea became a Roman province).

3). Historicity of the central gospel tradition. The gospel tradition was formed by believers in Christ in the post resurrection and ascension period. For them Jesus, now at the right hand of the Father in heaven, as Lord, was present with them, and through the Holy Spirit was guiding the Church. What was remembered of Jesus, of his words, his teaching, his miracles were transmitted by believers for believers. We have an example of variant formulations of the Gospel tradition in the account of Peter profession of faith at Caesarea Philippi, to Jesus question: “Who do people say that I am”. In Mark 8:29 Peter answers “You are the Messiah”, and Jesus tells his disciples sternly not to tell anyone about him. In Matthew (Mat 16:13) Jesus asks: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”, and Peter answers: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”. Jesus’ reply in Matthew is: “‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh contents of the gospels are presented as developed through Christian belief. Thus for instance to Jesus question and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ 20Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was* the Messiah. It appears that Matthew’s formulation represents later Christian development on Christ’s person, and his revelation of the mystery of salvation. Jesus is presented to us in the gospels as the centre of Christian faith. Historians, believers and non-believers, seek to determine what we can know of what Jesus actually said and did by use of the gospels and other texts as historical, not faith documents. This is known as “The quest of the historical Jesus”, a keenly researched branch of study over the past century and in our own day.

4). Jesus of History. By “the Jesus of history” is meant that knowledge of the person and work of Jesus that can be ascertained by the use of the relevant texts (mainly the gospels, in particular the Synoptics – the first three gospels), on which a variety of scholars, pious Catholics, liberal Protestants, Jews, agnostics, atheists and others, can agree. The agreed nucleus would in part be: the existence of Jesus, his preaching in Galilee, also his visit to Jerusalem,  he gathered around him a band of disciples, within which a special group (probably twelve), his final journey to Jerusalem, in trouble with the religious authorities, probably because of some teaching on the Temple, was condemned by the religious authorities, condemned to death by the Roman governor and crucified. This “Jesus of history”, the subject of much modern enquiry, is, however, a modern abstraction and construct. The “real Jesus” was much more than what can be reconstructed by means of modern historical criticism. He was a charismatic figure, that drew around him a band of devoted disciples, who would continue his work and mission after his crucifixion, in the belief that he had risen from the dead, appeared to chosen witnesses, was at the right hand of the Father and had sent his Spirit on his followers.

(5) The Christ of faith. John 16:12-13 has Jesus tell his disciples: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak of his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come”. At Caesarea Philippi Jesus had asked his followers: “Who do people say that I am”, and “Who do you say that I am”. Early Christian belief was that at the resurrection and ascension the Father had exalted Christ and given him a name that is above every name, that is “Lord”, which means the exalted Jesus, seated at the right hand of the Father, and sending his Spirit on the Church. Reflection on the relationship of Christ to God the Father, and this within strict Jewish monotheism, went on in the early Church. By the later first century Jesus was worshipped as God, a belief clearly expressed in John’s Gospel, for instance John 10:30: “I and the Father are one”. John’s gospel begins and ends with profession of faith in the divinity of Christ: “The Word was God” (John 1:1). Thomas professes the same to Christ: “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28). John goes further, with profession of faith in the eternal existence of Christ as the Word: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”. The Epistle to the Hebrews (a text read on Christmas Day Mass) also stresses the special relation of Christ to God. He is “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being (hypostasis, substantia, substance)” (Heb 1:3). The Epistle even refers to Christ as “God” (Heb 1:8-9). A question still awaiting clarification was the nature of the relationship of Jesus to God; was it ontological, metaphysical, or metaphorical. Questions on the matter lead to a crisis with the heresy of Arianism (named from it author Arius (c. 250-c. 336) which denied the true divinity of Christ, maintaining that the Son of God was not eternal but was created by the Father from nothing as an instrument for the creation of the world, and that therefore he was not God by nature, but that his dignity as Son of God was given to him by the Father on account of his foreseen righteousness. The doctrine continued to spread and agitate the Church (especially in the East). Anxious to bring peace, the first Ecumenical Council defined Church belief on the issue (in the Nicene Creed), in 325; “I believe in God … and in Jesus Christ … God of God, … begotten not made, consubstantial (=of the same substance) with the Father through whom all things were made”. Breaking with tradition, the Council made use of a philosophical term “consubstantial” to make its teaching clear.

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