Laughable Biblical Criticism

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St. Matthew’s gospel tells of a middle-night incident for Jesus’ disciples. They are frightened, seasick, and confused by the behavior of crowds—first wanting Jesus to be their king, then angry when he refused. The disciples are battling heavy seas on the Lake of Tiberius when Jesus comes to them walking on water. What a scene! But how do we interpret this narrative? Did it actually happen, or did New Testament writers tell the story to encourage us? Is this account in Matthew a sign from Jesus or something fabricated by the early church writers?

I think this text is a sign from Jesus himself. For reasons both textual and theological, I think it really happened. But I have a whimsical reason to think that too.

If this scene and Jesus’ other miracles in the gospels were made up by early church writers, that would mean that the very best parts of the gospel—the parts that children instinctively love with the accounts of the marvelous—are the work of novelists. That would reduce the gospels to a collection of epigrams and sayings that we now allow to be the authentic record of Jesus. Many years after the gospels are written, a few “scholars” would meet in Eugene, Oregon, at a “Jesus Seminar,” to tell us which of the gospel’s epigrams make the “approved” list. These New Testament interpreters periodically would vote among themselves on the “allowability” of various New Testament texts—excluding most of Jesus’ miracles. The “scholars” would allow only appropriately enlightened epigrams to the redefined Jesus in their revised New Testament. Thus the most exciting parts of the gospels would amount to early church “fiction.” The early fathers simply wanted, you see, to show those who read the New Testament what God’s love would be like if it were practical and at human scale.

What an affront to the Bible’s texts from every standard rule of literary criticism! What an affront also to the common sense of any ordinary reader! The better rule is to struggle with the text as it stands in the document rather than to etherize the parts that seem too dangerous or lively.

Pascal put it best, “A king knows how to speak of power, a rich man knows how to speak about wealth, and God knows how to speak about God.” Jesus Christ does not need the early church writers to make him relevant, or to show what his love is really like, or to show what is the joy that radiates from his character. Jesus can speak for himself. Jesus knows how to touch those who have leprosy. He knows how to bless children. It is not an ancient church novelist trying to show us what love would be like if it were personal; it is Jesus himself giving to us signs of his character and of our worth. Jesus knows how to rescue from embarrassment the bridegroom at a wedding when the wine had failed, and Jesus does it with style. Jesus knows how to walk on the water; and he actually did it because his crew of trainees needed that concrete, hilarious, dangerous, unforgettable moment in the middle of the night on a famous lake. Peter needed to try to walk on the water too. The fact is that Jesus is exciting to be around, and here is one more concrete instance that shows it to us.

Best of all, we discover how Jesus heals with good laughter. The disciples are made well by the humorous incident on the lake. Their despair about unanswered questions and a confusing mandate to row their long boat onto a lake at night has made them sick at heart. Now they are well, and with a fun story to tell! An even better moment will come on the first day of the week after a Friday of terror when Jesus will surprise them again. On that day, they will even laugh at death.