During my recent posts on the story of Jesus and the leper in Mark 1:40-44, I got a number of comments from readers that made me realize that I wasn’t being at all clear about what I was talking about. For a professional communicator, that is, well, an unsettling thought!
These comments came from people who appear to have understood that I was talking about what really happened (historically) in the episode. Did Jesus really get angry or did he really feel compassion? Some of these readers stressed that what really mattered was not his emotion but the fact that he did what he did; some others wanted me to know that it didn’t matter to them which emotion was ascribed to Jesus, because in their opinion the whole thing never actually happened at all. Both of these views (they’re obviously at the opposite ends of the spectrum) thought I was discussing historical realities. But that’s not what I was talking about. I too don’t believe the episode “actually” happened (i.e., that it’s a historical episode from the life of the man Jesus himself). It’s a story found in one of the Gospels. And I was studying it as a story.
I find that my students often have trouble differentiating between literature and history when studying the NT – that is, differentiating between the question of what an author (say, of a Gospel) was trying to communicate and what really took place in the past. But these are not the same thing. And so I stress with my students that some ways of studying the Gospels are concerned with knowing what the author wanted to communicate, and other ways are concerned with knowing what Jesus really said and did.
Some people aren’t interested in that distinction, because for them the ONLY thing that matters is what actually happened. If Jesus didn’t heal this guy at all, what’s the point of even talking about it?!? Other people (fewer, I think) aren’t interested in the distinction because for them the ONLY thing that matters is the text in front of us (for them: we don’t have the past, all we have are texts, and so we should focus on the text, not on some supposed history that lies behind it).
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