New Testament scholar, John Dominic Crossan, has argued that the passion narratives of the gospels do not reflect any real history, but are rather building a largely fictional story with a pastiche of prophecies from the Old Testament. Crossan proposes that the facts about Jesus’ life and death were largely lost and obscured by the dispersion of his disciples. The later Gospel writers, therefore, knew very little of the facts about Jesus and, therefore, chose to build up a story about him using prophecies from the Old Testament.
In his latest NT Pod offering, Mark Goodacre interacts with this idea and argues instead that the passion narratives are ‘scripturalising’ what actually happened to Jesus. That is, Goodacre claims that the passion narratives do have a basis in historical facts, but that these have been presented deliberately in scriptural terms. It’s an interesting little podcast (13 mins), well worth a listen.
I largely agree with Goodacre that there is an historical basis to the passion narratives, but that these are couched in terms that come straight out of the Old Testament. The reasons for this are:
- The Old Testament is part of the thought-world of the Gospel writers. They viewed reality through this scriptural grid and, therefore, it was a natural thing for them to draw upon its imagery, terminology, and conceptuality in discussing their subjects.
- The early followers of Jesus believed that Jesus fulfilled the scriptural hopes conveyed by the Old Testament. In other words, not only was it natural for them to write in these terms (see point one above), but they were also making a specific point about Jesus’ relationship to the Jewish scriptures. They believed that they defined him and his ministry, and therefore used them for their descriptions.
Goodacre makes the point that this means it’s often hard to disentangle historical fact from the scriptural varnish that is applied to it. However, I would propose that in this case the scriptural ‘varnish’ doesn’t distort the basic shape of the historical facts (not that I think this is what Goodacre is arguing). Rather, it simply alerts us to the agenda of the Gospel writers. They are telling us about the ministry of Jesus because they believed that what happened to him was of revelatory significance. Central to this revelation was what actually happened to Jesus. As soon as they depart from that agenda, the Gospel writers would no longer be fulfilling their own purpose. To put it another way, their attitude was this: ‘What happened to Jesus fulfils the Old Testament, so let me show you that by telling you what happened.’