Looking at the Gospels as works of literature, for me, diminishes neither their intellectual and emotional impact, nor their spiritual and cultural value. Myth, legend and folktale; imagination, symbol and metaphor, deepen rather than detract from meaning and significance.
The crucifixion I regard as historical fact. The reason for Jesus’ execution was pinned to his cross: “King of the Jews”. Seeing himself as the earthly ruler of the soon-to-arrive Kingdom of God made him, should an aggrieved mob gather round him, a threat to Roman rule. In Matthew’s Gospel, however, as literature, there are imaginative embellishments adding colour and drama, and pointing to meanings the writer seeks to communicate, graphically, to his readers.
In Matthew 27, we’re told that “from noon until three, darkness came over all the land”. Literalists talk nonsense about eclipses and sandstorms etc. To me, this image of three hours of darkness, suggests there’s gravity and mystery in what’s taking place. For Matthew, a man who’s the Son of God is dying because of the blackness of the world’s wickedness and sin, which he’s ‘taking upon himself’.
When Jesus died, Matthew (alone of the Gospel writers) says there was an “earthquake” – “the earth shook and the rocks were spilt apart”. MailOnline, on 25th May, 2012, reported a claim, from geologists at the German Research Centre for Geophysics, that there’s evidence of an earthquake “that appears to have come right around the time of the reign of Pontius Pilate”. They even pinpoint 3rd April, 31 BCE. Once again, in my view, this is myopic literalism. The writer is dramatically suggesting that an ‘earth-shaking’ event has taken place, in a way that enables him to get related ideas across.
In a further image, Matthew pictures “the Temple curtain [being] torn in two, from top to bottom”. This curtain closed off the innermost, empty room in which God was supposed to dwell. Only the high priest, once a year, was allowed to safely enter it. Matthew’s suggestion is that the death of Jesus has opened up the way for all of us to enter directly, and safely, into the presence of God. Had this actually happened, it would have been a major, newsworthy outrage, requiring difficult repair or costly replacement. There is no other report of any such thing. I’m inclined to think that if it had happened, it would’ve been blamed on, and used to vilify and attack, the followers of Jesus. The Reichstag fire of 1933 comes to mind.
The “earthquake” also opens the way for Matthew to imagine that, later on, “tombs were opened, and the bodies of many saints who had died were raised – they came out of the tombs after [Jesus’] resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.” A whole lot of dead people, emerging from their graves, and wandering around the streets of Jerusalem, would also have been an astoundingly newsworthy occurrence. People would have dined out on that one, and told the story down through the generations, but not so! One of the expected events accompanying the arrival of the earthly Kingdom of God was the resurrection of the dead for judgement. For Matthew, the claimed resurrection of Jesus, and the pictured emergence of these “many saints” suggested that this was the first instalment of this extraordinary, cosmic event that was soon to come to pass.
Finally, “when the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and what took place, they were extremely terrified and said, Truly this one was God’s Son’.” In Matthew’s story, this centurion is the first non-Jew, the first pagan, to recognise the ‘true’ identity of Jesus as “Son of God”. It’s hard for me to think that this would be the reaction of the seasoned, hardened Roman centurion of a crucifixion squad. Even if it were, one would wonder what that title meant. After all, to the Romans, their emperor was the ‘Son of God’. By the time Matthew’s Gospel was written, probably in the 80’s BCE, the initially Jewish ‘Jesus Movement’, not without controversy, was becoming the overwhelmingly ex-pagan ‘Christian Church’. Matthew suggests that this is what always had been intended, as demonstrated by this first pagan ‘convert’ at the very moment of Jesus’ death.
Whether or not we share Matthew’s beliefs should make no difference to our appreciation of his literary skills. He was no ill-educated, Aramaic speaking, rural peasant, but a well-educated, Greek speaking, urbanite of the Roman Empire.