When I was on holiday this summer, I resolved that, whatever my continuing doubts and reservations, I would at least do this: every day I would read the Gospel of the day (thank you, Universalis).
So far, I’ve kept to my resolution. Sometimes, it feels like a chore, but it provides an anchor in the turbulent seas of my life, and every now and then, something strikes me with the force of revelation.
For example, yesterday’s Gospel reading (from Luke 8, 1-3), though brief, got me thinking about realism and reliability in the Bible:
Jesus made his way through towns and villages preaching, and proclaiming the Good News of the kingdom of God. With him went the Twelve, as well as certain women who had been cured of evil spirits and ailments: Mary surnamed the Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, Joanna the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, Susanna, and several others who provided for them out of their own resources.
It was a minor detail – that mention of ‘Joanna the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza’ – that caught my attention. I remember C.S.Lewis saying that, as a literary critic, it was the ‘everydayness’, the mundane realism, of the New Testament that helped to persuade him of its truth. If the whole thing was made up, he wrote, then the authors had somehow anticipated the methods of modern fiction, some two thousands years before the fact.
The myths and legends of the ancient world tend to be catalogues of miraculous and spectacular events, ungrounded in a particular time and place. But in the Gospels, it is the combination of miracle and quotidian detail that stands out. In the extract above, it is the throwaway reference to a real, verifiable historical person, her husband, his job, alongside the stories of deliverance from ‘evil spirits and ailments’, that leads the reader to think that this is either an extremely sophisticated farrago of lies – or something close to straight reporting of what actually happened.
And then, to quote Czeslaw Milosz: ‘To put it very simply and bluntly, I must ask if I believe that the four Gospels tell the truth.’ And if they do…