It became very clear to me that most of what I thought I knew about the gospels was very different from what most scholars thought they knew about the gospels.
I had encountered scholarly ideas about the Historical Jesus before, but only in passing. My immediate reaction to these ideas was to reject them as corruptions of the faith. When I first heard of the Jesus Seminar and its quest to figure out what Jesus really said, I scoffed at what seemed like a foolish and heretical undertaking. How could one use the gospels as a source to discredit large parts of the gospels? How could a group of people imagine that they could scan through Jesus' words and pick out what they liked, or approved of, and reject the rest?
It didn't make sense to me. It couldn't make sense to me. I didn't know enough of the whys and hows that drove such an enterprise.
The tables have turned for me. I do understand, now, why scholars would even attempt such a thing. I don't necessarily endorse all of the conclusions, but I have learned enough to realize that the issue of pinning down the gospels is much more complex than I had previously thought.
When I, a simple, amateur, 21st century person with no ability to read Greek/Aramaic, can piece together that the gospel writers are tinkering with things in order to encourage the early Christian community, then we have a serious issue that needs to be addressed. At least, it needs to be addressed if you are coming from an evangelical, inerrancy-based faith, because all of a sudden the texts are not foolproof and the basis for your faith has disappeared from right under your feet.
Because we are taught to trust the texts implicitly, discovering that the texts contradict themselves, not in insignificant ways, but in ways that change the spiritual message of the text, is quite disorienting. The fundamental difference between earthly rewards in the present age versus future rewards in a completely new age is vast. The general theme is the same; sacrificial acts for God will bring future rewards. However, the mode of operation and expectation for a particular believer is extremely different.
It isn't hard to see the dilemma. A believer reads the passage in Mark and places their faith in seeing a tangible reward from God in this current life. We have prosperity teachers, or even faith healers, who have no difficulty finding passages to back them up. Conservative Christians are quick to label them heretics and point out how wrong a theology of wealth and prosperity, or procuring healing by simply believing for it is, but all prosperity teachers are doing is taking real passages from the actual texts that we have and trying to work up a path that gets them through life.
That grates against an evangelical sense of certainty and the concept that we can figure out God, Life and the Meaning of the Universe if we just study the texts a little harder. The feeling is that it's all in there if we just look hard enough.
Back to the Gospel of John and my love for it.
I realize, now, why I have always liked it so much. It addresses all the things that the other gospels don't deal with, or leave hanging. It brings together all of the theological developments and thrusts of the early Christians and formulates them into a grand story line with theological explanations of key issues for the early church. It fleshes out the nature of Christ's human and divine natures, the Eucharist, and salvation by faith. It is a polished narrative instead of a collection of miscellaneous teachings and parables.
However, I've been left with a thorn in my side. How to take the Gospel of John? Because most of it is original material unto itself, it presents a problem. Because it is attempting to address theological questions that have arisen after Jesus is no longer around, how much of it is historical?
Coincidentally, NT Scholar Larry Hurtado has just posted an essay that explains the Gospel of John in terms of "remembrance and revelation" . He writes:
I propose that the author consciously used what he regarded as the greater insight into Jesus’ significance that he ascribed to the Holy Spirit (or in GJohn’s terms “Paraclete”) after Jesus’ death/departure. I also propose that the author tells readers that he’s doing this, that he expected his readers to see it and appreciate it.John knows he's not writing "history" in the sense that we think of it. He, instead, is writing what he feels the Holy Spirit has revealed to Christians after the resurrection, mainly through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
For simple historical-Jesus inquiry (a sort of, “just the facts, Jack” assumption), this will be judged anachronism, of course. If we were to explain to the author of GJohn modern historical-Jesus interests, he’d probably be puzzled or maybe amused, and might quickly agree that this isn’t his agenda. Instead, he wants to say that the historical figure was all along the embodiment of divine glory, but it wasn’t really till after Jesus’ death and resurrection that this became fully apparent.
In other words, Jesus didn't say X, Y, Z in a literal sense, but once he was resurrected and believers practiced their faith through the Holy Spirit, things fell into place. Teachings took on new meanings, meanings that John believes were always there but were not cognitively accessible and understandable to the disciples at the immediate moment they were taught.
I'll continue more of what I think this means for me, personally, later on.