The four gospels are a lot like pieces of art.
One of the things I love about this picture of the Flight to Egypt is the background. It looks like they’re traveling through the suburbs. A castle sits in the background, along with typical medieval scenes and fjord in the center, complete with sailing ships. The painter is an unknown artist from The Netherlands ca. 1530.
What strikes the modern eye is the fact that the artist makes no attempt whatsoever to place Jesus, Mary and Joseph in their cultural context or time. Modern viewers will muse at how ignorant the painter is of the historical context. They might even call the painting inaccurate. The painter, however, does not care.
This painter is more interested in bringing Jesus, Mary and Joseph into his time and place. What if a Jesus and the events surrounding him happened today? What might that be like? Think Godspell. The point is not historical. We’re not doing a documentary. We’re conveying a message, telling a story, making a point.
The gospels are the same way. The authors are not really interested in writing a documentary. We misunderstand them if we read them in that way. They are painting a picture. They are telling a story for their communities, to help them see how the events surrounding Jesus come to bear upon the things taking place in their lives and Christian communities.
The earliest of the four gospels was written around 70 A.D, about 40 years after the crucifixion and 70 years after Jesus’ birth. Matthew may have been written around 80 A.D. and Luke around 90 A.D. John’s gospel was written sometime after 100 A.D. Some scholars date it at 120 A.D, which is over a century after Jesus’ birth. John is less interested than any of the writers of the canonical gospels in portraying a historically accurate Jesus. It would puzzle him to think of anyone expecting this. Luke imagines there are tiles on houses in Palestine (Luke 5:19). Don’t let this throw you. He’s painting a picture.
When people get into heated debates about the historicity of this or that, it’s an exercise in missing the point. Did Jesus feed 4,000 or 5,000? The gospel writers don’t care. They weren’t there and they didn’t have counters. They want us only to know it was a huge crowd. Is the mustard seed the smallest of all seeds? Did Jesus say “Blessed are the poor,” or “Blessed are the poor in Spirit?” It doesn’t matter. The gospels are four paintings of the inbreaking of the kingdom of God, from the perspective of communities is Rome, Antioch, Damascus and possibly Greece.
When folks in my tribe say the Bible is authoritative, the source and norm for our faith, we mean that we draw our faith primarily from this collection of writings, rather than tradition or ecumenical councils. We don’t mean that the Bible is a history book, a geography book or a science book. It’s not authoritative when it comes to cosmology. In fact, there are several cosmologies in the Bible, a book written in three languages over two millennia.
We mean this book contains wisdom. It sheds light on the meaning of life, the human condition and our relationship with God. We mean this book paints pictures of Jesus who reveals the deepest truths about life. This book reveals something about ourselves and about life: that we are loved with an everlasting love that reaches beyond death, and loving God and neighbor is central to everything that matters.
Those who would try to treat the gospels as a strict history book create a caricature of Jesus, much like someone trying to reconstruct a historical Jesus from the painting above. The gospels don’t tell us what Jesus looked like, sounded like or smelled like. They reveal the heart of one who so powerfully reflected the divine, they dared to call him the Son of God.