Chapter 5: Event and the Gospels

Jesus Lord and Christ
by John Knox (current)

Chapter 5: Event and the Gospels

In the preceding chapter we were considering the bearing of our thesis upon the problem of Christian unity. The assertion was made that we can come nearer to agreeing on the significance of the event from which our own religious life, as well as the history of the church, takes its start, than we can on a definition of the nature of the person, who stood at the center of the event and whom we all acknowledge as our living Master and Lord. I suggest that we now consider the bearing of our thesis upon two other problems, the problem of the historicity of the Gospels and the special problem posed by the miracles of the New Testament. In the preceding chapter the emphasis was placed upon the fact of the event; in this and the following chapter the stress will fall upon the necessity of regarding the event as one indissoluble whole and of finding its significance in its character as a whole rather than in some particular part or aspect of it.

The problem which the Gospels involve for the modern Christian is twofold: it is an interesting and difficult historical problem and a poignant and perplexing religious problem. The historical problem can be stated in some such way as this: "We know that the Gospels were written more than a generation after the events they relate occurred and that they bring us the preaching and teaching of the churches -- or of some of them -- after the Christian movement had emerged into a Gentile environment. The experiences and needs of these churches, as well as of their predecessors, have undoubtedly left their mark upon the traditions the Gospel writers have compiled. All of this being true, we are bound to ask how far the ‘real facts’ of Jesus’ life and teaching have been overlaid by legendary, theological, and utilitarian accretion. To what extent has ‘history’ been modified by ‘interpretation’? How accurately and surely can we recover the facts about the historical Jesus?" The religious problem is closely related: "How can we consider such questions as those just asked without acknowledging that we really cannot know these facts about Jesus with any real assurance? And how can we make such an acknowledgment without surrendering the sound historical basis of our faith?"

Any attempt at solving the former of these problems -- what I have called the historical problem -- falls outside the scope of this discussion, but it is of vital importance that we recognize the inescapability of the problem itself. The insight into the character of the Gospels as "church books" -- not pieces of disinterested historical writing but compilations of traditions, based upon memories of Jesus, the knowledge of him as living Master, and reflections upon his significance, and serving evangelistic, didactic, and apologetic purposes within the early church -- this insight is undoubtedly true. And it is obvious that one cannot recognize this fact about the Gospels without acknowledging a priori that they do more (or less) than bring us a "plain, unvarnished" account of the mere facts of Jesus’ career.

That they bring us, indeed, not Jesus "as he was" in some simple objective sense, but Jesus as he was remembered and therefore to some extent interpreted, in the generations immediately following his life is one of the surest results of biblical study over many decades. The discovery of this fact about the Gospels is often popularly attributed to a contemporary school of scholars known as "Form critics," but the fact was well established long before this particular school emerged and rests upon grounds considerably wider and firmer than those which support this school’s particular claims. No intelligent and open-minded reader of the Gospels can fail to see these grounds once they are called to his attention, and their validity can be quickly tested and demonstrated without the necessary help of any esoteric or technical learning.

The historical problem presented by the Gospels is, then, not the problem of determining whether the character of the early Christians, their faith, and the exigencies of their life and work have colored and overlaid the facts of Jesus’ teaching and life, but is, rather, the problem of determining just how we should use our knowledge of this fact in our efforts to get back to the so-called historical Jesus’ own words and life. The question is not whether we should allow for a "contribution" from the early church, but how much allowance should be made and precisely where.

The answers various students find themselves making to these last questions are bound to be diverse. But there can be little doubt that the contribution of early Christian experience and faith is very great. I would reject as uncalled for and unsound the skepticism of those scholars who hold that we have no trustworthy indications whatever as to the character, the teaching and the career of Jesus of Nazareth, but I would be inclined to agree that there are not many particular points where we can feel absolute assurance, We can be sure that Jesus said a certain kind of thing, but not that he said just this thing or that. We can be sure that he acted in a particular characteristic way, but often not that he did just this or that. We can trust the impression of the person which the Gospels convey to us even if we have reason to doubt the accuracy of many of the reports of that person’s words and acts.

But the very use of the word "impression" reminds us that Jesus comes to us through the life of the church and speaks to us only through that medium. We do not find Jesus in the Gospels in some purely objective, and therefore abstract, sense; we find him as he was remembered, known and believed in by those whose life and thought are reflected in these early records.

Now, as we have seen, the assertion of this fact seems to many Christians to involve a disparagement of the value of the Gospels and hence to raise an acute religious question. "If," these persons ask, "the Gospels cannot be trusted to take us back directly to the facts concerning Jesus of Nazareth, what happens to the historical basis of our faith? To be sure," they go on to say, "we are interested in the life and thought of the early church, but this is not the matter of most vital concern to us. What most deeply concerns us is the person who lived and taught in Galilee; our faith rests upon the words and acts of this man, and unless the Gospels give us an accurate and trustworthy account of them, not only have they little, if any, value for us, but the historical ground of our faith is shaken, if not destroyed."

Some, under the pressure of such a conviction as this, go to all lengths in denying that the Gospels do in fact bring us anything else than a completely accurate record of Jesus’ life and words. Others are willing to grant that the Fourth Gospel contains some later interpretative matter, but insist that the Synoptic Gospels are quite purely "historical." Others, forced to retreat still further, take refuge in the virtual infallibility of Mark and Q, widely recognized literary sources of the Synoptic Gospel tradition. Others still, forced to acknowledge what is undoubtedly the fact, that the Gospels, every one of them and in every part of each, bear some trace of the community’s response to and understanding of Jesus, seek rather feverishly to recover an irreducible minimum of objective historical fact by methods of literary and historical criticism applied with varying degrees of expertness.

I may easily be misunderstood at this point and want very much not to be. I believe in the importance of the "quest of the historical Jesus." Not only does it seem to me inevitable that men should want to know all that can be known about the man Jesus, as about any other historical figure, but I should say also that the effort to get back to the ipsissima verba and acta of Jesus of Nazareth is an indispensable theological task. We have seen that Jesus’ life and teaching is an essential element in the event in which the revealing act of God took place. Those who deny the importance of that element and the value of seeking to identify and understand it are on the way to denying the importance of the entire event. They are moving, whether they know it or not, towards Docetism.

But there is no occasion for the feverish concern over this issue which is often felt by Christians. This is true not only because, as we have seen, the memory of Jesus himself is embedded in the life of the church and is carried in its heart -- a memory which no historical criticism can possibly discredit -- but also because the real medium of the revelation is the event as a whole, and not any particular part of the event, however important. Now the Gospels bring us that event as a whole, and thus are not less, but more, valuable than if they were the simple "objective" accounts we sometimes suppose we want and need. If the "object" about which we are concerned is this total event, then the Gospels are objective, even if not simple. Indeed, they could not be simple and still be true and adequate, since their function is to represent and convey an event which, as we have seen, was highly complex. Two facts about it, both of them already noted, are particularly relevant to this problem of the Gospels and need to be considered again, somewhat more fully.

The first of these is the fact that the response of his disciples to Jesus and to all that happened in connection with him is as truly a part of the event as any other element in it. We have already more than once been reminded of the fact that historical events always have two sides -- the external occasion and the human response, the thing "out there" and the way in which this "objective" element is received and appropriated. The two elements are inseparable. It is a mistake to suppose that the thing "out there" is the real event and the response only a consequence of it. The response belongs essentially to the event itself, just as the experience of seeing belongs essentially to the nature of light. There could be light waves (or something comparable) without the presence also of eyes, but there could not be light. So there might be a happening, in some meager sense, without social response, but not what is properly called an historical event,

In the case of the event we are considering, the response began as loyalty to a man and some measure of understanding and acceptance of his message; it ended as the faith that in and through the total event which had been witnessed the supremely revealing and saving act of God who made and sustains the world had occurred. This response was continuous, although the resurrection marked the crisis in its development -- the moment when loyalty to the person reached its climax and when faith in the meaning of the event as an act of God became for the first time clear and sure -- but at every stage this response was a constituent and creative element in the event itself, and the event had not fully happened until this response of faith had been fully made.

It goes without saying that many who were in some sense acquainted with Jesus of Nazareth knew of no act of God in and through him. Some of these regarded him as an enemy, others with indifference or only casually, and others still with varying degrees of appreciation. This appreciation of the man and the teacher, even when it stopped there, is not to be despised, as is the fashion in some quarters; there is evidence that Jesus responded to it gratefully, and there is no reason why we should not gladly acknowledge its truth and worth. Indeed, faith in Christ rested firmly upon such appreciation of Jesus, as it does still. But if this appreciation of the man was not eventually caught up into the recognition that, in the total event of which his historical life was the first phase, God had acted for our salvation -- if this did not happen, the reality we have been calling "the Lord Jesus Christ" was not known.

But if it is this reality to which we return as the source of our religious life, why should we not want and expect the Gospels to reflect it in its full richness?

The second fact about the event which I have referred to as particularly relevant to our discussion of the value of the Gospels is closely related to the first. This is the fact that the resurrection is as truly a part of the event as the career and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

To say this is to take for granted -- what indeed has been taken for granted throughout this discussion -- that the resurrection of Christ is not to be thought of as a mere belief which arose as a result of reflection on the "real" event (namely, the career of Jesus), but that the resurrection belongs essentially to the event itself. The resurrection was a genuine occurrence: no more truly a forward projection of the memory of Jesus than the memory of Jesus was a backward projection of the faith in the risen Christ. To be sure, as we have already had reason to note more than once, Jesus could not have been remembered just as he was remembered except for the continuing knowledge of him as living and present; so also he could not have been known as living and present if he had not been also remembered. Memory and faith were fused indivisibly and reacted constantly on each other in the crucial early period, as indeed they still do. Nevertheless, just as memory had an objective occasion in the career of Jesus, so the faith had an objective occasion in the resurrection. The intrinsic nature of this "objective occasion" we shall not try to define -- can we ever define the intrinsic nature of what is given in any experience? -- but the fact of the resurrection is indisputable.

Now if we really accept this fact, we have no cause, or right, to limit authentic words and acts of Christ to the earthly life. Indeed, the kind of feverish anxiety, to which reference has been made, to establish the location of a word attributed to Christ within the career of Jesus of Nazareth may plausibly be taken to betray a fundamental doubt of the resurrection. The emphasis again is on the word "feverish." That we should seek to determine which of the words attributed to Jesus of Galilee and Judea were actually spoken by him is, as I have already tried to say, not only inevitable but also important. I have no sympathy with those who because they see -- or think they see -- the truth concerning the resurrection despise the scholarly quest for the "Jesus of history." But is there not some warrant for saying that when concern on this point becomes anxious and fearful, some doubt of the resurrection is betrayed?

I confess that this question often occurs to me when I find certain lovers of the Fourth Gospel resorting to every conceivable argument in order to make the point that this Gospel contains the ipsissima verba of the teacher of Galilee. The vast and obvious differences in style, subject matter, and idea between the characteristic teachings of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels and the equally characteristic discourses ascribed to him in the Fourth Gospel make this undertaking difficult in the extreme, but do not preclude the attempt. This defense of the accuracy of the Fourth Gospel in reporting the words of Jesus is undertaken, in spite of what must appear to the disinterested student insuperable obstacles, because to these lovers of the Gospel the alternative seems to be surrendering the authenticity of some of the most precious and manifestly true of Christ’s reported words: "I am the bread of life . . . I am the light of the world . . . I am the good shepherd . . . If you continue in my words . . . you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free . . . He that drinketh of this water shall thirst again, but whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst . . . I am the resurrection and the life; he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live . . . I am the way, the truth and the life; no one cometh to the Father but by me" . . . and many more. "We cannot doubt these words," these Christians say, "because they answer to the realities of our own religious life. Christ has spoken these very words, even to us; how can we doubt their authenticity?"

But if the risen Christ, Christ the Spirit, is as truly a reality as Jesus of Nazareth, why be so anxious to locate these words within the historical career? The author of the Fourth Gospel is not reporting what he remembers as having been said by Jesus in Galilee or Judea but what he has heard the living Christ (identical and continuous with this remembered one) say in Ephesus or Alexandria. The same thing, of course, is often true of Paul and others, although they do not cast their material in the dramatic dialogue form chosen by this author. To recognize this about the character and intention of the Fourth Gospel is not to assume that everything in it represents an authentic report of what the Spirit was saying to the churches; some statements in it, attributed to Jesus, quite clearly represent the writer’s own opinions and even prejudices, as, for example, the vigorous anti-Semitic statements of the Gospel. We cannot expect perfect reporting from men like ourselves, whether of the words of the "historical Jesus" or of those of the living Christ. Still, there can be no question that the greatest utterances of the Fourth Gospel are authentic utterances, that is, utterances of Christ -- but they are the utterances of Christ not simply as remembered but as known still. Indeed, does not that Christ himself say, "I am the resurrection and the life"?

Although it is most obviously true of the Fourth Gospel that it is written throughout from the point of view of the resurrection, the same thing can be said in principle of the Synoptics. They too were composed by men who had witnessed the entire event and whose knowledge of the meaning of that event as a whole inevitably colored their report of the facts remembered about the first stages of it. The earthly life no longer appeared to them, or could appear to them, as it had originally appeared. It had been "transfigured." The suggestion is often made that the transfiguration scene in the Synoptic Gospels represents a resurrection appearance of Jesus brought back into the story of the earthly life. Whether this be actually true or not, it is certainly symbolically true. The transfiguration represents the invasion of memory by faith, the backward movement of the Spirit into the realm of remembered facts, a step -- perhaps the first step -- toward the absorption of the earthly career in the resurrection life, a process which was to culminate, at least so far as canonical literature goes, in the Fourth Gospel, where there is no transfiguration scene only because the whole career of Jesus has now been transfigured.

In so far as this process of transfiguration has obscured or distorted important elements in the historical life of Jesus -- as in some measure has undoubtedly occurred -- it is unfortunate and untrue. But in so far as it has forced, and enabled, successive generations of Christians to realize the fact that the source of the revelation is not two events but one, the process is both fortunate and true. We are mistaken if, with the fundamentalists, we deny or ignore the fact of this transfiguration and imagine that things always were as they later seemed; but we are likewise mistaken if, in the manner of modernists, we deny or ignore the value and truth of this transfiguration and thus fail to recognize the unity and transcendent meaning of the whole event and the exalted significance of the earthly life as a part of it.