For Easter, the Strangest Story Ever Told

In the not-so-distant past where 90 or 95 percent of Americans identified as Christian, it was hard for almost anyone in that vast majority to read the Christian gospels naïvely — to come to them without preconceptions, in the way of their original intended audience, a person hearing the “good news” about Jesus of Nazareth for the first time.

Instead, almost everyone encountered them first through either the structures of organized Christianity — as a text for Sunday school and Bible study, the experience of the scripture inseparable from the experience of church — or with the expectations set up by Christianity’s overwhelming cultural influence.

In that world, even the work of skeptical critique and academic deconstruction was mostly carried out by people who had experienced the pious reading first, and organized their own interpretations against religious doctrines or cultural norms that they had rejected or abandoned.

These dynamics persist for the millions of people still raised within some form of Christian faith. But with the rapid decline of institutional Christianity, the younger generations in America now include large numbers of people who have only vague and secondhand ideas about Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. So a more naïve encounter with the New Testament may become more normal, on a much larger scale than in the past. At both the popular and the academic level, more people will experience the Gospels first as a form of testimony and storytelling that precedes any fully realized set of doctrines or vision of the church.

As someone raised within Christianity, I can’t tell you directly what that experience is like. But Lent and especially Holy Week in my own Catholic Christianity provide a strong encounter with the Gospel narrative, the raw text overshadowing the liturgical and doctrinal elements more than usual. So it’s an appropriate time to speculate about how the return of a more naïve reading might influence the wider culture, its possible effects on the long debate between Christian believers and would-be academic debunkers of the faith.

From its 18th- and 19th-century origins, the project of skeptically deconstructing the New Testament, in search of a “Historical Jesus” distinct from the Christ of faith, has often combined two distinct arguments. First, it has attacked the pious assumption that the Gospels must be factually inerrant, perfectly historical, accurate in every detail and pellucid in the doctrines they imply. Second, it has moved from identifying specific problems in the texts, tensions and apparent contradictions and arguable mistakes, to arguing that all the problems are evidence that the Gospels must have been mostly composed long after the fact, as theological texts rather than historical records, with relatively thin connections to the events that they describe.

My speculation is that a naïve reading of the Gospels tends to break these two arguments apart. The naïve reader, going through the evangelists in order, will notice immediately much of what the skeptics emphasize about the seeming imperfections of the texts. That Jesus is given different genealogies in Luke and Matthew. That timelines and details differ among the authors. That Jesus drives the money-changers out of the temple early in his ministry in the Gospel of John and just before his crucifixion in the others. That Jesus in John’s Gospel talks differently, with his long theological discourses, from Jesus in the other narratives.

Whether or not it’s possible to resolve some of these issues, they present themselves directly to the reader, and they don’t require any special training to pick up. And the naïve reader will also intuitively understand, without needing to be historically aware of the details, the debates about Jesus’ identity that consumed the early church. The Gospels all present him as a messiah, clearly — but the question of what that actually means is not completely or consistently answered in an initial reading of the texts.

But the larger deconstructionist argument — that the immediate issues with the Gospels indicate that they’re long-after-the-fact creations, driven by agendas more than memories — is very different: It’s a reading against the naïve reader experience.

By this I mean that you have to go into the Gospels with a skeptical framework already to come away from them feeling that the core narrative isn’t deeply rooted in eyewitness testimony, in things that either the authors or their immediate sources really experienced and saw. What C.S. Lewis once observed about the Gospel of John is true of all four Gospels: You can say that the narratives represent a form of memoir or you can say that they’re an ingenious impersonation of personal testimony that would tax the skills of a brilliant 20th-century novelist. But the reader who thinks the narratives read like after-the-fact legend-making, Lewis rightly insists, “has simply not learned to read.”

And many of the details that get cited as evidence against inerrancy, the difficulties and discrepancies, are actually part of this memoristic reading experience. Yes, the theological discourses in John or the infancy narratives in Luke and Matthew might be read as the products of later piety. But the more minute distinctions between the Gospels, the differences in which day an event took place, on what timeline a series of miracles transpired, with which witnesses and so on, are exactly what you’d expect from testimonies that weren’t deliberately conformed to one another by later authorities, that came direct from the people who remembered the action, with all the variation that normal memory entails.

Likewise with all the deeds and words from Jesus that led to endless theological wrangling later on because of their ambiguities and uncertain implications. That wrangling happened (and still happens) precisely because there’s so little theological smoothing-out within the Gospels, so few signs that the writers carefully imposed an ideologically driven clarity on the experiences they set out to relate.

Indeed the texts themselves self-advertise as having this imperfect, memoiristic quality. The Gospel of Luke, for instance, is quite explicit that it’s a collation of different testimonies “handed on” from eyewitnesses. The Gospel of Mark, by contrast, reads much more like what the earliest Christians traditions claim it was: the memories of the Apostle Peter dictated or transmitted to a younger scribe.

Read Mark together with the other Gospels, and note how often the same story includes a telling detail, like the literal Aramaic words Jesus uses while performing a healing — “talitha cum” (“little girl, get up”); “ephphatha” (“be opened”) — that you would expect Peter to remember but other recollections to neglect. Or read Mark’s Passion side by side with John’s Passion — Peter’s denials more detailed in Mark, more inside information and details about the scene around the cross in John — and note how naturally the two accounts read like the same events narrated from two distinct eyewitness perspectives.

Or, to take a different kind of example, read John’s account of the water-into-wine miracle at Cana or the raising of Lazarus. The miracles themselves fit with the Johannine author’s theological perspective, his elevated view of Jesus’s divinity. But the way Jesus performs the miracles is so human and un-godlike and complex — at once irritated by and responsive to his mother’s cajolement at Cana, deliberately delaying coming to Lazarus and then weeping at the tomb — that in each case the natural reading is that this is a real remembrance of strange events, the author’s or even Mary’s, the memory more potent than any theological program.

That a particular reading of the New Testament comes naturally doesn’t make that reading correct, of course — especially where miracles and other wild supernatural business is involved. But the natural reading in this case also has plenty of persuasive scholarship on its side. (The best recent place to start is the 2006 book “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses,” by the English biblical scholar Richard Bauckham.) Whereas the more unnatural reading, the one that insists that the Gospels were largely constructed later on, tends to lead to the constant problem of so much historical-Jesus scholarship, where the supposed “real Jesus” is merely reconstructed in the scholar’s own image, the memoirs of first-century Jews replaced by the spiritual autobiographies of 19th- and 20th-century academics.

Thus my speculative prediction: The decline of institutional Christianity and the return of more naïve readings of Christian Scripture will lead to the decline of the deconstructionist project, which has been propped up all these years by the felt need to strike the strongest possible blow against ecclesiastical power and tradition.

Take away that power, throw people into the texts without an anticlerical preoccupation, and you won’t immediately gget a revival of Christian orthodoxy. But you may get much more acknowledgment of what’s obvious each and every Easter: That in their immediacy and mystery, their lapel-shaking urgency, their mixture of the mundane and the impossible, the Gospels are at least — at the very least — the strangest story ever told.

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