The Gospels (2) ‘Works of Literature’

I’m writing about the Gospels as long-established and distinguished pieces of literature that deserve to be read, at least, for that reason. I’m also writing about them as extra-long religious tracts, designed to confirm believers and persuade non-believers, with contents selected and shaped to achieve these ends.

Matthew wants to persuade us that Jesus is a unique Son of God, the Messiah of Israel, and the Saviour of the world. To assist him, he constructs a three-part genealogy, with 14 generations in each. 7 is the number of perfection, and so 14 is doubly perfect, and 3 times 14 is triply perfect, a striking way of suggesting that the coming of Jesus is God’s ‘perfect’ plan for the world. As it happens, in the 2nd part, some of the Kings have been left out in order to arrive at a count of 14. Additionally, although Matthew says that “from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah (there are) fourteen generations”, there are only 13 in his list. Oops!

Uncharacteristically for a Jewish genealogy, Matthew includes 4 women. What is even more uncharacteristic is that they are either gentiles (non-Jewish) or, in one case, married to a gentile. Matthew, however, like many another writer, has ‘struck an early note’ which will be heard more loudly at the culmination of his book. There he presents a picture of Jesus, prior to his ascension into heaven, giving his followers their commission to “make disciples of all nations”, which can equally be translated as “make disciples of all the gentiles”. If Jesus was to be portrayed as the Saviour of gentiles as well as jews, it was a good move to prepare the ground by including some gentiles in his ‘family history’.

25 of the 27 books in the New Testament say nothing about the startling events surrounding his birth. Only Matthew and Luke do and, despite their accounts being ‘stitched together’ in Christmas ‘nativity plays’, they are quite distinct from one another, even to the point of being in conflict. Matthew has the ‘family home’ in Bethlehem, and has to ‘explain’ how Jesus got to Nazareth. Luke has the ’family home’ in Nazareth, and has to ‘explain’ how Jesus got to Bethlehem. Matthew’s story, which includes a stay in Egypt, can’t possibly be fitted into the Luke’s 6 week timeframe, and an empire-wide census, with everyone travelling to the place of their family’s origin, would have brought the entire Roman Empire to a chaotic halt!

Once again, the contents of these stories are selected and shaped, not to record history, but to support the view of Jesus which the writers are concerned to ‘get across’.  Given the visits by, dreams about, and choirs of, angels; the celestial portents, distinguished visitors, and clear message about who Jesus is, it’s worth pondering why, when he gets his preaching mission underway, his family try to stop him, thinking he’s “gone out of his mind”. They surely didn’t have long memories!

I’m risking the accusation of being only negative, or even of indulging in mockery. The fact of the matter is that I positively love, value and enjoy these stories. They’re the kind one can go back to again and again. They’re full of colour, character, incident and drama. They invite us to think about birth, marriage, human relationships, love and trust, jealousy and fear, problems and worries, generosity and wonder. The list is endless, and it doesn’t matter how much is, or isn’t, factual and historical – anymore than whether any story is based on ‘real-life’ events, or the writer’s imagination, or a combination of both.

If you haven’t read the Gospels for a while, give them another go, and enjoy them as literature. Instead of asking whether a story actually happened or not, just ask yourself what meaning it has for you, in relation to life as you experience it. You don’t need to go along with those who, like connoisseurs of fine wine, prefer the 17th century language of the King James Version.  I’m a fan of the Good News Bible, with separate paragraphs, bold headings and lots of little drawings. Happily, there are different ways of getting pleasure from what we read, and how we read it.

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