How the Death of Jesus was Remembered
Art Dewey is Professor of Theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati and a long-time Fellow of the Jesus Seminar. He has written numerous articles on Paul, the historical Jesus, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, and the passion narrative tradition.
In Christian circles, religious discussions frequently revolve around whether or not what is recorded in the gospels is historical. Did the miracle actually happen? Was the resurrection ‘real’? If yes you are a believer, and if no you must be a doubter or outside the tent all together. The problem is, ‘historical’ doesn’t equate with ‘meaningful’. Herod the Great was responsible for rebuilding the Jerusalem Temple. Historical fact. Nice to know, but so what? But what if the gospel writers, and early Jesus followers in general, were not interested in recording historical details for posterity, but were interested instead in communicating meaning. What would it look like to read the New Testament for meaning rather than historical facts? Art Dewey’s Inventing the Passion can give us an overview of how that process might work.
Where most readers of the gospels and Paul see finished documents, scholars see multiple layers of development as originally oral stories were retold over time. What we actually know about Jesus in a strictly modern historical sense is extremely limited. But what we can know, if we are willing to look, about how various early groups of Jesus followers made meaning of his life and death, is substantial.
The earliest layers of textual evidence show an interest in the sayings of Jesus, while not even mentioning a passion narrative at all. The Sayings Gospel Q, hidden as a subset of Matthew and Luke, and the Gospel of Thomas, are collections of Jesus’ sayings, with little or no narrative connecting links. Jesus is positioned as as a prophet or source of Wisdom. His death is known, but not in any sense central. Paul’s authentic letters, roughly 25 years after Jesus’ death, make meaning from the crucifixion, but reveal no knowledge of any of the details of the later passion narratives of the gospel writers. Of the four canonical gospel writers, Mark is the earliest, perhaps 40 years after Jesus’ death, and makes meaning using a passion narrative story formed in the context of the widespread death and destruction of the Jewish revolt and Roman retaliation. The Matthew, Luke, and John passion stories can be seen as embellishments of Mark for later groups of Jesus followers in subsequent historical contexts. As a bonus, Dewey is an expert in the fragmentary Gospel of Peter. Seen by many scholars as a much later document based loosely on the canonical gospels, Dewey is among a few scholars that argue that a very early subset of Peter can be identified which could have served as the core basis of Mark’s passion.
If all these suggestions of layers underneath the New Testament texts are new to you, the gradual developments and relations between the texts might seem a strange and confusing world more suited to pure academic conversation. But if straight ‘historical’ readings of the gospels leave you searching for more meaning, you might find it worthwhile to grapple with the development of texts as conveyors of meaning rather than historical facts. See Peter if you would like to borrow the book.