Saturday, June 4, 2022

It's not like anybody followed Jesus around with a recorder. . .

I cannot tell you how often I have heard people raise questions about the accuracy of the Gospels, indeed of Scripture as a whole, with the seemingly obvious question:  It is not like anybody had a recorder going when Jesus spoke, did they?  Well, there you have it.  We cannot trust the written Word of God because we have no original recording to testify to the accuracy of that Word.  

There were no common cameras or video recorders when I grew up.  Photos were expensive to have and the ones we took were largely staged -- whether recorded by the amateur or professional photographer.  I remember getting my first tape recorder and going around capturing snippets of conversations and then thinking I was some kind of celebrity.  But all of that changed with the smartphone.  Suddenly in audio and video (as well as print) the standard of truth changed.  Think how many things in the news only got into the news because somebody had their smartphone going.  The only problem with this standard of truth is that it records only one perspective and not the whole event.  What we think happened is defined by what we see and hear even though what we see and hear is but one perspective on the whole yet in our minds it is the whole truth.

It would surely have been easier for Christians if a scribe had followed Jesus around during all His years of live and, in particular, of His public ministry.  It would have been better if we had actual audio and video.  It would certainly have been convenient if those whom the Savior called as apostles to proclaim His Gospel to the ends of the earth had simply kept contemporaneous notes and compared them so that any differences could be expunged and one version be left for all humanity. Alas, we have none of these but that does not mean we have no truth or fact.

What we call the Gospels (and the whole of Scripture) were not immediately committed to skin, parchment, or papyrus.  In fact, the oral history of the living eyewitnesses to the works and words of God was written largely when it became apparent that the living apostles, prophets, and evangelists would die.  However, that did not mean there was something hidden or distorted or missing from their record.  The Word itself would compel us to believe that what is attributed to the words and physical deeds of the Lord and His servants on earth still rings true with historical accuracy.  What has changed is not the documentation of that Word but the way we view truth and truthfulness.

With the birth of higher criticism and a certain form of textual criticism, the Word as we know it became suspect.  When Rudolf Bultmann, one of the pioneers of form criticism, the Synoptic Gospels began to be regarded more as “folk literature” than historical record.  The way we deal with things now became the suspected way the Gospel writers dealt with their information.  So Bultmann and others presumed that the apostles collected and edited material more from the perspective of what the Church held as truth than what actually happened. Form criticism and source criticism combined to posit an explanation for why the Gospels had things in common and why they were different.  In the end, the books were rejected as history.  They might contain historical data but along with that fact or truth were embellishments produced by those who pursued a certain point of view.  Now we have these  “inventions” along with some historical facts and the job of the Church is to figure out which were really true and which were only offered as truth.

Josef Fitzmyer, writing from the perspective of Roman Catholicism, suggests there are three “stages of tradition” in which the historical accuracy of the words (and actions) of Jesus must be viewed. First, of course, is what Jesus actually did and said -- based upon what His apostles experienced directly as they accompanied the Lord.  However, this record is sparse and somewhat suspect.  Where was the iPhone video or audio to back up their perception?

What follows were the "wordsmiths" who crafted the experience into a keryma, testimonies of the apostles when and where they preached the good news. While we have only their word to attest to their words, we can presume that they were being faithful, at least to their perspective.  Think of how St. Peter preached in the days of Pentecost and those that followed. But a physical record and an objective source would have helped our skeptical age.

Lastly it the issue of the Spirit.  Jesus insisted that the very function of the Spirit was to bring to remembrance all that I said and did.  The very purpose of the Spirit's descent is to lead us into all truth, especially the apostles.  The central doctrine of our faith is that these are not the words of men but the Word of God, breathed by the Spirit, and delivering to those who follow the faithful Gospel.  But this is not simply truth of the Gospels, it is also truth of the Scriptures Jesus said testified to Me.  Pentecost is not incidental to the fact that we have the Scriptures and how we read them.  But this is certainly the perspective of faith and not of doubt, fear, skepticism, or uncertainty.  Again, no crackly recording here to testify to what St. Peter preached or St. Paul dictated but could there be something more profound to attest to this truthfulness?

This brings us back to the beginning.  We have Scripture as an infallible record but even more as a efficacious voice that speaks and that of which it speaks is made to happen.  Faith comes by hearing.  The problem here is not with the Word of God but with the ear that hears it and how it judges what is heard.  Our standards have changed.  We have come to believe there is no such thing as an objective anything and therefore we must, as our first duty to any text, interpret it -- even to God's words.  With that interpretation comes our experience of it.  Even if something is true, if it is not something that accords with our experience, it is not true to me or for me.  Lastly, we have added another qualifier.  Is it relevant?  Do I need to hear it or believe it?  It is one more way we have placed ourselves above Scripture.  In the end, even if we had audio and video of Jesus and the other Biblical authors, our modern day mindset would figure out a way to wriggle out from under that Word and turn the tables so we were above it.  And that is why the Battle for the Bible cannot simply be fought on the ground of whether it is true, infallibly and objectively so.  It must also be engaged on the basis of whether or not that truth is power to bring forth faith in our cold and darkened hearts of suspicion and doubt.


Rev. Alan Kornacki, Jr. said...

And if you remember the videos of the Planned Parenthood people selling body parts, the people who don’t believe the written Word of God wouldn’t believe videos, either, if it suits them.

John Joseph Flanagan said...

I personally do not like the cartoon picture of the Lord holding a smartphone, with an Apple logo where the sacred heart would be on his chest. Call me old fashioned, uptight, sensitive, and a stuffy old man of 77 years old….but I think the picture is irreverent. I despise iconic images of Jesus which make a joke out of Our Lord.