Narrative and truth

Another experience from teaching New Testament to undergraduates.

I’m trying to help students get the point that in the NT, the narrative serves truth. This sounds innocent enough until we see how it operates in the gospels.

For instance, in Mark’s gospel (chapter 10) Jesus heals a blind man. In Matthew’s gospel (c. 20) Jesus heals two blind men in exactly the same circumstances (outside Jericho, etc.). In Mark’s gospel (c. 5) Jesus casts a demon out of one man who lives among tombs; in Matthew’s version (c. 8) Jesus heals two demoniacs in exactly the same circumstances.

Or, in Matthew and Luke, Jesus heals the son of a centurion. The climax of the story is Jesus’ statement that he has not found this man’s sort of faith even in Israel. In John’s gospel, in a similar story, Jesus performs the same healing but says that people will not believe unless they see signs and wonders.

There are perfectly good explanations for these discrepancies. Matthew’s gospel doubles the number of people healed because, in the Jewish law, two witnesses are required to establish the truth of a matter. Matthew has employed Mark’s stories to say, not only that Jesus can do amazing works of power, but also that there are reliable witnesses to Jesus, thus establishing his validity as the son of God and king of Israel.

Matthew and Luke use the story of the centurion to show that the kingdom of God extends to Gentiles, even to Roman centurions–everyone is invited into the kingdom. Being Jewish does not give one an inside track; even pagans can show exemplary faith. But John’s gospel has a different theological agenda. It wants to show that belief based on miracles is misplaced. The only sound basis of faith is testimony (like the woman by the well’s testimony in chapter 5). So John’s gospel uses the story to make a different theological point.

The gospel writers, in other words, exercise some flexibility when they narrate the Jesus story. They don’t shy away from changing details in the narrative in order to preach their message.

This flexibility is shocking to a culture accustomed to journalistic standards of accuracy. But these standards are not an immutable law; they are simply a cultural prejudice by which we today operate. Ancient cultures knew nothing of this standard and, I suspect, would be surprised by our devotion to it. Although I think that journalistic accuracy is a very good thing, it is a mistake to insist that another culture, such as the Bible’s culture, abide by our 21st century standards.

Part of helping students on this point is to get them to see the importance of treating the NT as they would treat another culture, with its own norms, values, and standards. To appreciate the NT requires that we enter into its cultural world and, at least temporarily, set aside our culture.

The narrative serves truth.

This means that the narration is not an end in itself. The gospel writers show no tendency whatsoever to narrate historical facts just because they are historical. On the contrary, they use and manipulate facts in the service of the message. As Norman Mailer said in an interview, “Something can be true and still be fiction” (http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/5775/the-art-of-fiction-no-193-norman-mailer).

To put it differently, the sort of truth that the gospels are interested in is not a matter of relating historical facts just for the sake of recording facts. Did Jesus heal one or two blind men? One or two demoniacs? Whatever the historical reality (which of course we can never know), the gospels’ truth does not reside in the facts. It lives instead in the liberating message that the gospels teach.

This is the truth that the narrative serves.

So, it is a mistake to think that Christianity’s primary relationship is to historical events. Theological fundamentalisms having always sought to establish a direct link between the Christian faith and history–the Exodus, the resurrection of Jesus, and so on. But the truth is that Christianity’s primary relationship is not to history but to a book, a story. This book has, I’m sure, some complex relation to the history that it narrates, but there is much about this relation that we can never know.

Christianity is accordingly a religion of a book, a text, a story. Its concern with historical facts is a matter of, at most, secondary concern.

That is why historical narration serves truth.

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