The Gospel Writers: Artists Who Help Us See

In my Palm Sunday sermon I focused on the artistry of Mark’s gospel. In one of Chaim Potok’s novels, a famous artist is commenting to a friend about a young talented artist Asher Lev. “Millions of people can draw. Art is whether or not there is a scream in him wanting to get out in a special way.”[1]  There’s a scream in Mark that wants to get out.

Now some people are bothered by the idea that scripture writers are artists. It used to bother me honestly. I remember decades ago when Westmont College professor Robert Gundry came out with a book on Matthew’s gospel: A commentary on Matthew’s Literary and Theological Art. Some in the right wing of the evangelical movement were all upset. “Scripture is not art; it’s God’s word.” Yes, it is God’s word to us. But it isn’t God’s words. It’s human words trying to paint the picture, share the story of what the Holy Spirit has revealed to them in particular events. And these writers are working hard to get the scream out, and so they choose their words carefully and the structure of the story carefully. It’s art. The poet Archibald McLeish once said, “Anything can make us look,” says poet Archibald Macleish, “only art makes us see.”[2]

But you know the people who are really bothered by Jesus coming to us in the art of the New Testament are some critics of the gospels from the left, not the right. These people, some very good scholars, are upset that the gospels won’t give us an unfiltered Jesus. They want the same thing as Gundry’s critics: only the raw data. And so in the middle of the last century we had Rudolph Butlmann’s project to “demythologize” the New Testament. Or you get one of my former teachers, Bart Ehrman, a good scholar and who moved from fundamentalist, to evangelical, and finally to agnostic. One Atlantic monthly article made the comment that Ehrman quit believing the New Testament when he realized that it was written by actual human beings.

Folks, there is no such thing as raw history. We cannot eradicate interpretation when telling of an event. When someone is narrating an event, the narrator’s voice will always get into the narration. The artist will use the best brush strokes and materials at their side so that we can see what they see. The early church kept four stories of Jesus, not just one, because these four artists had a scream in them from the Holy Spirit that wanted to get out in a special way.

For Further Reading:

  • James D. G. Dunn, The Evidence for Jesus (Westminster Press, 1985) Although this is 30 years old, these four published radio broadcasts by a first class New Testament historian give a brief but careful analysis of the world of the gospels. Particular relevant to our discussion is the first chapter, “The Gospels: Fact, Fiction or What?” This is a solid introduction to New Testament scholarship for the curious skeptic and is a welcome challenge to those believers ready to move into a deeper appreciation of the gospels’ picture of Jesus.
  • Anthony Le Donne, Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It? (Eerdmans, 2011).  Although this book does not talk all that much about Jesus, it is a very fascinating introduction to how we remember events and what makes history. Le Donne takes pains to announce that people do not remember events. What we remember are our perceptions of events. And to remember an event is to interpret it. So not only is it impossible to narrate without interpretation as I mentioned above; we can’t even remember anything without using interpretive filters. And I love Le Donne’s comment that it is hard to imagine that the early disciples would interpret Jesus’ life and death in way that diverged very far from Jesus own self-interpretation.



[1] Potok, Chaim My Name Is Asher Lev  (NY: Knoff, 1972) p. 212.

[2] Peterson, Eugene, Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and The Praying Imagination (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988) p. 14.

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