Sunday, March 31, 2013

A Plea


All four Gospels agree that there was an inscription posted on the cross on which Jesus of Nazareth died. No two Gospels agree on the precise wording of that inscription.

According to Mark 15:26, the inscription was simply "The King of the Jews." Matthew 27:37 says the words were "This is Jesus, the King of the Jews." In Luke 23:38 the charge reads "This is the King of the Jews." And in John 19:19, the inscription, written "in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek," says, "Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews."

The differences in wording are pretty minor. They can be accounted for by remembering that none of the Gospels was written by an eyewitness to the crucifixion, and by the principle that later writers tend to expand on their sources. No big deal.

A few years ago I interacted with a guy who had a different solution to the problem of the wording of the inscription. He treated it as a kind of puzzle. In fact, he treated the whole of the Bible (at least the 66 books of the Protestant canon) as a kind of puzzle. He insisted that the Bible is factually true, therefore, the Gospels did not disagree with one another. The original wording of the inscription could be reconstructed by harmonizing the four accounts. What it actually said was "This is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews."

Shades of Tatian!* 

Many years ago I knew a guy who, using a similar tactic, concluded that there were 7 people crucified on Golgotha the day Jesus died. Matthew and Mark agree that Jesus was crucified between 2 "bandits." Luke says that there were 2 "criminals." John tells us there were 2 "others." So, 2 bandits + 2 criminals + 2 others + Jesus = 7 crosses.

Easy. Peasy. One-Two-Fivesy.

And then there was the young biblicist who, when I pointed out that the cleansing of the Temple in John occurs two years before the crucifixion, while the other Gospels place that even just a week before Jesus' death, said, "Big deal. He probably did it every year."

I hope I don't have to point out in detail just how unlikely that would be.

My point is that the four Gospels were each written by unique authors, with unique perspectives, and different theological agendas. Mark did not write his Gospel intending for Matthew to come along later and fill in the gaps. None of those writers expected, or wanted, their writing to be completed by another writer. They told their stories the way they wanted them told. Shuffling one of the Gospels together with the others does violence to them all.

Here's the thing. On Good Friday I attended a community-wide tenebrae service. I'm not a fan of Protestant-style tenebrae services to begin with. I don't think that Good Friday  needs to be ginned up with cheap, amateur theatrics. I don't think that the words of Jesus need to be punctuated with rimshots cymbal crashes. So, I wasn't enamored of the service to begin with.**

The tenebrae portion of the service was based on the "7 Last Words" of Jesus, that is, the seven utterances, collated from the four Gospels, that Jesus spoke from the cross. The 7 Words were connected by an extra-biblical narrative, a little sentimental for my taste, but worse than that, it conflated the Passion accounts of the 4 Gospels into one more-or-less cohesive story.

Now, I regret the loss of each Evangelist's unique voice. There is a world of difference between Mark's cry of dereliction and John's shout of triumph. I would prefer to let each Gospel tell its own story. But more than this, I am concerned that a harmonized account like this gives the people in the pews a false impression of what the Bible is, how it works, and what it actually says and means. It's no wonder that some people think the inscription over the cross needs to be assembled like a puzzle. Or that there were 7 crosses on Calvary. Or that Jesus went up to Jerusalem and drove the money changers out of the Temple every year at Passover.

This, then, is my plea. Let's declare a moratorium on Good Friday services based on the "Seven Last Words." Let's let each of the Gospels speak for itself. Let's instruct people on the differences between them. Let's be honest about what the Bible actually is.

*I refer here to the second century Christian writer who compiled the four Gospels into a single narrative known as the Diastessaron. He did this by creating a new sequence for the narrative, harmonizing some discrepancies, and simply omitting others.

**I say this with all due respect to the good and earnest people who planned and executed the service. I appreciate the show of Christian unity in that service and the dedicated hard work put into it. I just don't like tenebrae.

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