Through Sunday School, early-morning youth seminary, institute and personal study, I had always had the impression that the gospels were penned by eye witnesses of Christ’s ministry. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — in my mind — must have been following Christ around and taking notes.
It turns out I was wrong.
While there appears to be some debate as to the actual timing of the four canonical gospels, the consensus seems to be that the Gospel of Mark is the earliest. The earliest credible date for Mark’s gospel is around 60-70 CE, and the earliest complete manuscript we have dates to 360 or so (older fragments exist, but none much older than 200 CE).
So the earliest account of Jesus’ life was not written down until 35-40 years after his death, and we don’t even have the original!
Even access to the original texts probably wouldn’t really settle anything. The gospels were essentially early missionary tracts. These were not intended to be accurate histories. Rather, they were used to win converts to the burgeoning Christian movement. As one who has spent two years of his life distributing religious propaganda, I have learned to be a little wary of the historical accuracy of this kind of literature.
None of this is to suggest that I don’t find value in the Gospels. To the contrary, I find them quite beautiful. As I’ve said before, it is difficult to separate that beauty from ancillary associations that build up over time, but I think there is a reason these texts have persisted in human memory that goes beyond the geopolitical position of Christianity in the ancient and modern world.
When it comes down to it, I’m just not that interested in the historical truth of the bible. From what I understand, there is fairly good evidence that there was a man who lived in ancient Judea that fits the description of the Jesus in the gospels. Whether that man actually was born of a virgin, or turned water into wine, or healed the sick, or cast out devils, or walked on water, or raised the dead, or even was raised himself from the dead seems of fairly little consequence.
What I love about the gospels is the idea of Jesus. Dostoyevsky famously said, “If anyone could prove to me that Christ is outside the truth, and if the truth really did exclude Christ, I should prefer to stay with Christ and not with the truth.” This reminds me of Joseph Smith’s famous line about evicting the devil from hell and building a heaven there with the Saints — the idea of Jesus is so beautiful and right that it transcends the question of his historicity.
William Blake talked about “Christ the Imagination” — I won’t pretend to know exactly what Blake might have meant (I never realized how wonderfully strange Blake’s prose is) — but his construction prompts me to consider the ways in which Christian cultures and communities are in a continual process of re-imagining Christ. We certainly can only “see through a glass, darkly.” Our own humble ruminations are built from copies of copies of memories and reflections from a handful of poor fishermen that lived 2,000 years ago in an obscure corner of the Roman empire.
The fact that these dim memories live on in the human imagination (admittedly, to lesser and greater effect) gives me hope in humanity.