Chapter 3 – The Cross as Futility, not Forgiveness
Meyers wants to do two things here. First, to give some background on the creation of the gospels, focusing on Mark as the earliest of our four. In this regard he wants us to know that Mark was written some 40 years after Jesus lived, and that, therefore, there is not a whole lot of historical “fact” to be found in it.
He is right that as Jesus taught and worked there were no journalists following him around taking notes. The disciples were likely not literate, and Meyers says elsewhere that Jesus probably couldn’t read or write either. Besides, at the time no one would have been thinking about recording what Jesus said and did – he was a popular teacher, but no one could have guessed just how popular he would be 2000 years later.
So the writing of the gospels that we have didn’t happen until (in Mark’s case) the 60s to mid-70s. (Matthew and Luke perhaps in the 80’s, John the late 90s.) Scholars do seem agree, though, that there was another written gospel earlier than Mark – now lost – and that there was a significant “oral tradition” before that.
So the timeline: Jesus dies around 33-37; his followers very quickly experience his ongoing presence in their midst – a resurrection of some sort that convinces them Jesus sill lives, not merely in their memories, as say, we remember a favorite uncle, but within them, among them, empowering them.
One would think that immediately people would be telling stories about Jesus . . . “Remember the day that he . . . “ And they would have been repeating his teachings – told, remember, in parable form, and in catchy, folksy images that would lend themselves to memorization. These stories about a revered great teacher would have been circulating through the early Christian community, for say 15-20 years before people started writing them down.
So yes, there is a gap between the living Jesus and the written stories about him. But not terribly long . . . not centuries. And there surely would have been a strong oral tradition formed early on.
Sidebar: Meyers also talks about the manuscript record of the gospels, citing a book by Bart Erheman: “ . . . the gospels we have, Erhman reminds us, are copies of copies of copies, in which all the mistakes, both accidental and intentional, have been multiplied exponentially over the centuries. In fact, there are now more known differences among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament. “ (p. 62)
This implies that the texts we have probably have little to do with the original texts produced in the first century. But that is not the case. I would quarrel with here in his use of “exponentially” -- typical of his exaggeration and, ironically, certainty about things that are not certain. At times he sounds rather like the fundamentalists he attacks, when he throws in an “obvious” here and a “clearly” there for statements that are hotly debated among scholars.
So the first point of the chapter is to sketch the origin of (and, to his mind, the historical unreliability of) the gospels. That they were written primarily to make a theological point, and had less interest in “history” than we do, is probably right. But just how far from history their stories are removed in not at all certain: a lot? A little? Some?
The second theme of chapter three is the meaning of the crucifixion. And I agree with him that the traditional “blood atonement” interpretation, first, makes little sense to people today, and second, I suspect it was not the intention of Jesus in the first place. What, then, is the meaning of the cross? Meyers says that it reveals the futility of violence.
“Justice was his passion. Healing was his passion. Gathering up the last, the least, and the lost and helping them to stand up straight in a world that kept them permanently bent over was his passion.” (p. 71)
Chapter Four – “Easter as Presence, not Proof” -- addresses the meaning of “resurrection.” And here he begins with the assumption that a “bodily” resurrection – the resuscitation of a dead body – is simply not credible to people today. (A whole bunch of people do in fact believe it, of course.) But if you can’t buy a bodily resurrection, what does Easter mean?
For Meyers the power of the first believers – power to overcome great opposition, love their enemies, model a new kind of living, being willing to die for their faith – that came not because they thought Jesus had literally come back from the dead, but because they experienced “Jesus” in their midst.
That is, they kept the faith by following Jesus, not by affirming a belief about him. They sought to serve Jesus, rather than worship him. Meyers describes this new kind of believer this way: “They accept the laws of nature [as the scientific naturalist/rationalists do] yet refuse to live in a universe devoid of mystery or stripped of all enchantment. By following, not by believing, they remain open to the possibility of resurrection in this life, not just in the next. (pp. 94-95)