What kind of literature is a New Testament gospel?
In the opening verses of the Gospel of Luke you get Hellenistic historiography or biography. By the time you get to the account of the transfiguration in Luke 9, is this still that? This is an interesting, debatable question for students of Hellenistic historiography.
For ordinary readers of the Bible, though, there’s a more interesting and not debatable answer: You are reading the Bible. You are reading scripture. You are reading the chronicles of divinely sporadic human recognitions of God’s involvement, from the very beginning to right now and to the end, in the story of humanity. It is a history of epiphanies. It is epiphanic history.
Here is the part of the story I read this morning:
28 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30 Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31 They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32 Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33 Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. 34 While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35 Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36 When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.Luke 9:28-36, NRSV
For Galileans or Judeans in the first century of the common era it was no more likely than for you and me today that, if you went up a mountain with your teacher, when he started praying you would be dazzled by an unearthly glowing of his face and clothes, or see him chatting with biblical prophets, or be enveloped in a cloud and hear the voice of God speaking out of the cloud. If you are a Bible reader and you saw those things, I don’t know whether you would be more or less likely than Peter, James, and John to recognize that what you were witnessing falls into the same category of experience as Moses hearing the divine name from the burning bush or receiving tablets of the law or Elijah seeing divine fire fall on his sacrifice. But you might be about as likely as they to keep silent afterward and not tell anyone.
Why? Because this is extraordinary stuff. This is the kind of experience that you remember, that changes your life. But it’s also, you would know, the kind of thing that, if you tell others, might make them think you’re either lying or crazy. Was that less true in first-century Galilee than in twenty-first-century West Michigan? I don’t know. Maybe, but maybe not.
Is is the sort of thing that can happen in Hellenistic biography and historiography? Maybe a little. But it can’t happen in modern historiography. Modern (and postmodern, which is a species of modern) history, and discourse in general, can’t accommodate this sort of thing. This sort of thing breaks ordinary discourse, ordinary language, ordinary ways of thinking, believing, speaking, doing.
If human discourse is a tidy shop with everything on its shelf, in its own department, then the God who appears in epiphanic, biblical story is inevitably a bull in a china shop. Just by entering, circulating around in his usual way, and exiting, the bull wreaks havoc. And then you have to decide: are you going to tidy up, pretend you didn’t see anything, and resume business as usual, or are you going to decide that this little china shop was BS anyway and do something else?
Modern Christians can get wistful about how great it would be if only we had been there to see with our own eyes the mighty acts of God that the biblical saints got to see. But most likely, if we had been there with our own eyes (and our own cell-phone videocams), we would have seen nothing more or less than our eyes are willing and able to see now, from our distance in time and space.
Our problem with believing—with seeing the glowing face and garments, with hearing the voice from the cloud—is not: not being there. The problem is: being there, but not seeing, hearing, or believing.
I think we have to make the same decision, on the basis of the same physical evidence, that the ancients had to make.
And closely related to that decision is our decision about what a gospel is, and how to read it. And also the rest of the Bible.
For myself: I am highly interested in reading biblical books as ancient historiography, but that’s just because of the type of level of education that I have been privileged to receive. But I am much more interested, by far, in reading the gospels as scripture, in reading scripture as epiphanic history: as a variegated collection of appreciative perceptions of (i.e., witnesses to) the often hidden but always exclusively real activity of God in the creation and maintenance of the entire matrix of our existence.