Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Mary as a Source for the Gospels

I am only preaching at the 8.00am service this week so I just have a short sermon to prepare.  I am, however, interested in the reference to Jesus' mother in the Gospel reading.

As will be known, many scholars are very sceptical about the historical value of the Gospels and so treat them more as novels or novellas, that is, as fictional stories.  It is true that the stories that may contain historical data, after all, novels do contain historical data whether they were written by Agatha Christie or Salman Rushdie.  They also, however, contain events and characters invented by the author so, too, to a greater or lesser degree, it is argued, do the Gospels.  Some scholars think the Gospels contain only a little invention; some think they contain a lot.  As all scholars have to work in a mixed ideological and intellectual environment so even those who are more conservative have to take on board the scepticism of the more cynical.

This means that the Gospels themselves are seldom taken at face value by many scholars and the sort of questions scholars generally deal with are those questions of interest to other scholars and not those of interest to those outside the scholarly community. Scholars will speculate for hours on such things as supposed sources behind the Gospels and the nature of the communities for whom they were written, but will often rule out of order speculation which may arise from accepting the Gospels as essentially historically accurate.  This, I think, often makes the Gospels seem little more than interesting historical novels, in much the same way as I have been arguing that the typical presentation of the Nativity makes it seem no more than a romantic fairy story.

For example, a hypothetical source called Q is believed by many scholars to have been used by Matthew and Luke in the compiling of their Gospels.  It may well have been, we can't know for sure as Q is only a hypothesis.  Not a single copy of it exists anywhere.  And yet scholars will write books and dissertations on the theology of Q, the community which produced Q, the Christology of Q, the history of Q, the different versions of Q and so on.  Not bad when we don't even know what was in Q even if it did exist.

A speculative question I personally would like to ask is to do with the role, if any, people such as Mary and the Lord's family played as sources for the Gospels.  Now I realize that many would see this sort of question as being more than a little naive, belonging to the Sunday School rather than the Academy.  But given that we know from several sources that James, the brother of our Lord was the leader of the Church in Jerusalem after Jesus' death (from Luke in Acts, from Paul, and from the Jewish historian Josephus), it would seem at least possible that they played some role in the preservation of stories about Jesus.  I mean wouldn't people ask James, 'What was your brother like?'

We also know from Paul that the other 'brothers of the Lord' played a missionary role in the early Church: a role that was even familiar to people as far away from Palestine as Gentile Christians in Corinth (1 Corinthians 9:5).  Wouldn't people they spoke to ask them about their 'brother'?  And surely they would have stories ready to repeat?  They would be pretty useless missionaries if they didn't.

And then what about Mary herself?  Luke records her as having been present in the Upper Room on the Day of Pentecost.  (By the way: 'Upper Room' in Greek is the same the word in Luke that is often translated 'inn'!  See the previous post.)  According to John's Gospel, the beloved disciple whose testimony the Gospel claims as the basis for the Gospel, is entrusted with the care of Mary by our Lord as he hung on the Cross: 'Then he said to the disciple, "Here is your mother." And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.' (John 19:27)

Mary then is identified as the mother of both the person the Church worshipped as well as of the leader of the Church in Jerusalem and also as a sort of surrogate mother to the beloved disciple.   Surely if Mary was so closely associated with the beginning of the Church, then wouldn't people in the Church have asked her about her son?

Because the Church became so successful among Gentiles outside of Palestine, we have only a limited knowledge of what went on in Palestine.  However, it is, of course, Palestine where Jesus actually ministered and where the stories about him were first preserved.  It defies belief that the family of Jesus, who went on to have such a prominent role as leaders of the Church, would not have had a role to play as sources for those who wanted to write an account of their brother or son.

Personally, I find the idea that Mary was a source for the Gospel accounts much more convincing than that of the imaginary Q.

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