We’re halfway through N.T. Wright’s assessment of the four harmonies under-girding the gospel narratives (review parts one and two). We come to now to the third piece, the institution of the church, sort of.
According to Wright, this is, like yesterday’s section on Jesus acting as God, grossly distorted among Christians and skeptics alike. Some will undoubtedly encounter this idea with the furrowed brow of a first hearing. For others, this will sound all quite familiar – perhaps too familiar.
Major sections of the Western church, along with skeptical critical scholars, have assumed that the gospels say very little about Jesus, actually. Instead, they suppose that the gospels were written by the early church in order to justify the church’s existence. They then projected words and deeds onto Jesus in order to fabricate some kind of foundational documents. Jesus really did exist, these skeptics would say, but he didn’t do or say what the gospel writers have him doing and saying. The gospels, essentially, put words in Jesus’ mouth to justify the existence of their church communities in the latter half of the first century (or later still). When we read the gospels, then, we are really reading about the early church. Or so say the critical scholars.
Wright, however, brushes this off. He does not question the notion that there are elements of the early church within the gospels, but this should not compel anyone to write off the gospels as avoiding the actual story of Jesus. Rather, it would make perfect sense for the early church to have conceived of themselves as they were because of the real historical events they believed had taken place through Jesus of Nazareth.
But anyway, the four gospels ought to be read, in part, as foundational documents. They are, in this sense, myths. It’s not that they’re historically untrue, but that they do in fact provide the rationale for the church. In Wright’s own words, “The gospels are consciously telling the story of how God’s one-time action in Jesus the Messiah ushered in a new world order within which a new way of life was not only possible, but mandatory for Jesus’s followers” (118, emphasis original).
The authors of the gospels saw in Jesus a unique event. God was up to something new in Jesus. And they took as their own vision and mission statement the very work of Jesus, and believed it was their duty to continue to live that out. More than that, they believed the whole world was fundamentally different as a result of the resurrection. The new (or renewed) people of God were to embody that in their various communities.