f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: You Got Your Fiction Into My Bible. You Got Your Bible Into My Fiction...

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

You Got Your Fiction Into My Bible. You Got Your Bible Into My Fiction...

A “Gospel”—literally “good news”—is pretty much any recording of the life, ministry, and death of Jesus. Usually we add on a modifier to place ownership of the message. Thus we have the four canonical gospels, Matt, Mark, Luke, John, as well as a ton of other ones that are either historical, fictional, or some odd combination of the two.

The historical versions of these are “apocryphal” or untrustworthy and didn’t make the cut for the Bible. The fictional ones, like Lamb, are often written with some sort of reinterprative intentionality. Some are feminist tracts supposedly written from the perspective of Jesus’ female disciples. Others show Jesus as a Socialist. Or a Republican. Or a vegetarian. Or whatever.

The last category are gospels written to enhance or fill-in the historical record according to the Bible. These tend to be written by Christians or Catholics or Bible scholars who, while they may still have their theologic or sociologic axes to grind, subvert them for the sake of general accuracy. The Passion of the Christ, for all its reliance on 18th-century visions and Catholic legend, falls into this category. So does our book of today, Three Gospels by Reynolds Price. Price is an English professor at Duke University with an interest in the Bible. His book offers three sections. The first two are his translations of Mark and John—the oldest Gospel (Mark) and what he calls the most startling Gospel (John). It also includes “An Honest Account of a Remarkable Life.” This is his own apocryphal gospel, one he builds off of Mark but girds with stories from the other three texts, other lesser-known accounts of Jesus’ life (including The Gospel of Thomas, biblical history, Middle Eastern anthropology, and his own impressions of land and climate from his visits to Israel.

What ends up coming out of Price’s gospel (as well as Lamb for that matter) is this unexamined notion that Jesus may not have been born with his ministry fully formed. The implication is that the 30 years prior to his teaching includes his winnowing of what to say and how to say it. It’s a compelling thought and one I don’t claim to have an answer for.

Price’s gospel hews fairly close to the biblical accounts. What’s interesting is his take on things. In his gospel Jesus is determined to build on John the Baptist’s message of God’s coming cleansing. “The Kingdom of God is coming,” Jesus tries to warn people, but his words are often ignored in favor of his miracles. The needy and ailing become a constant looming presence for him, often limiting the impact of what he can preach. Over the course of his preaching however he understands that his purpose is not to ride in a conquering king with God’s wrath but serve as the sacrifice. “He’d reconciled an outraged God to [the disciples], their kind, all human creatures till the end of time.”, writes Price.

Like in the biblical gospels, Jesus’ Passion plays very quickly. Here’s his scourging according to Price: “So Pilate had the soldiers take Jesus and whip him. Then they dressed him in a royal purple robe, plaited a crown of thorns for his head, saluted him as King of the Jews, mocked and spat on him, and returned him to Pilate.”

The brevity, the clinical dissertation of events, certainly doesn’t capture the horror of the day. Nor even the crucifixion. I guess the question is why. Why do the gospels not play up the suffering of Jesus, if it’s by his suffering that we are saved? Gibson’s film certainly does.

One very uneducated thought is simple context. These were essentially oral teachings that were finally written down so that Jesus’ life would be preserved. These were written by eye-witnesses, essentially, or at least men and women who lived in times very similar to Jesus. Such an era was desperately violent. Crucifixions, one of the most horrible of capital punishments, were a state-mandated method of execution. There was nothing clinical and sanitized about their lives, so perhaps they felt like they didn’t need to dwell on the facts. Some may have felt the sting of a whip themselves. Who knows?

What’s pertinent is that Price’s writing of the Passion, except in Gethsemane, is almost all deliberate and narrative action. There is, one must confess (at least in our time and language) a distinct lack of passion or emotion. We’ll look at some other efforts the rest of this week and see how people dare to enter the staggering weight of those hours. And if their portrayal holds up.