The Grand Drama of the Gospels

On this blog I have often spoken about the importance of treating scripture as literature. Part of that is recognising the macrostructure of scripture at various levels. The gospels all present individual accounts of Jesus but when you compare them to each other, there is an overarching narrative structure they all follow. This macrostructure consists of basically three acts: a beginning, a middle and an end. Specifically, these parts in Jesus’ narrative are his introduction, vocation and the resolution of his mission. There is much to be said in detail about each part but instead I will provide a quick sketch.

  1. Introduction: This stage consists of everything in the gospel narrative prior to Jesus’ baptism. It provides the background for who Jesus is and what he will subsequently do. The setup is always the Hebrew scriptures. Even with the gospels that contain an infancy narrative, Jesus’ story never begins with his birth or conception. His identity is always rooted in the prophetic scriptures, that is the controlling narrative of Israel’s sacred writings. Therefore, to use a later theological term, each gospel in its own way presents Jesus as ‘pre-existent.’ The gospel that most clearly does this is John but even there the logos is not an abstract metaphysical concept but rather references Genesis and Exodus. Through the course of Jewish history, God finally appears in Jesus to redeem his people and save the entire world. All gospels introduce Jesus as God incarnate but within the full context of the Jewish historical narrative of redemption. This makes Jesus every bit Jewish but equally YHWH appearing in the flesh to save his people. This incarnational paradigm is further developed throughout the gospels.
  1. Vocation: This stage begins with Jesus’ baptism by John. While the previous stage of incarnational history has support among mainly orthodox Christians, the second stage has much wider appeal. The scholarly consensus is that Jesus’ ministry began with the baptism of John. All the gospels reference it and in Acts it is specifically cited as the beginning. The baptism of John initiates Jesus into his prophetic vocation. Jesus is both recognised and self-identifies as a prophet. Even though he is depicted as more than that he is fundamentally presented as no less and the pinnacle of the prophetic tradition. He embarks on an itinerant preaching ministry confined to Roman Palestine, declaring the coming of God’s kingdom in and through his unique person and activity. This divine calling is attested by many divine, supernatural signs, including healings and exorcisms, which he performs. He gathers a diverse following of disciples among whom the inner circle of 12 symbolically represent the new reconstituted Israel of those who follow him as God’s chosen ruler, the Messiah. He causes a national stir garnering praise, scepticism and outright resistance with his cryptic messianic movement in a theologically vibrant and politically charged atmosphere. As a typical Jewish prophet he contends with various classes of Jewish leadership as well as other figures that clash with his divine kingdom agenda which leads into the final stage of his story.
  1. Climactic Resolution: This phase begins with Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem. At this stage he enacts the climactic events that fulfil his vocation of bringing God’s rule on earth in and through himself. He launches his final and most poignant prophetic critique of the leadership and nation of Israel, including symbolic temple activity predicting its fall and future distress upon the nation that has rejected its true king. These subversive acts finally result in his arrest and trial, being condemned by both Jewish and Roman authorities. He is crucified, buried and on the third day he is raised from the dead and appears to many of his followers. His crucifixion and resurrection inaugurate God’s rule in the world by his defeat of death. He ascends to the right hand of God being installed as the rightful Lord over all creation. He then empowers his followers by his spirit to participate in his royal rule. By proclaiming the good news of his victory to the world and implementing its results they continue his divine mission in a new phase.

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