Book Review: ‘Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite’ by L. Michael White

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Author: L. Michael White

Book: Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite

Publisher: HarperOne

Year: 2010

Page count: 528 pages

Price: $28.99 (hardcover)

INTRODUCTION

Nine years ago, I walked into a bookstore known as Hastings to peruse the shelves for used books that I might want to take home. Back then I was a Christian committed to both Reformed theology and the doctrine of inerrancy. I would often look for books by John Piper, R.C. Sproul, and others who were beloved by those in the “young, restless, and Reformed” camp. But this day as I looked at the shelves, a different book caught my eye. It was L. Michael White’s Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite. I had never heard of White before and I only skimmed the back cover. Regardless, I went to the front of the store, paid the $5.99 + tax for the book, and took it home with me. But I didn’t read it, at least not until a couple of years later not long after I became an atheist. Since then, I’ve read it two more times and I will, no doubt, read it again in the future.

Of the many reasons I’ve returned to this volume repeatedly the one that stands at the forefront is White’s highly readable style. In essence, he is condensing a century and a half’s worth of scholarship on the Gospels into a single tome with the aim of showing the literary artistry of the Gospel writers. Far from being impassioned historians, White makes the case that the Evangelists were true authors, working creatively with their source materials. And once you see how they do so, you simply can’t unsee it.

SUMMARY

Scripting Jesus opens with a preface (pp. vii-xii) wherein White offers an overview of the volume as well as an explanation in brief of what he means when he says that the Evangelists (i.e., the authors of the canonical Gospels) were “storytellers. “In the present study I focus…on the stories about Jesus in the Gospels as literary and dramatic productions,” he writes (p. x). In the prologue (pp. 1-16), the author emphasizes that though many consider the canonical stories about Jesus to be scripture, “first they were stories – stories scripted about Jesus, stories forged out of belief, but stories nonetheless” (p. 3). He contests the view (popular among many Christian apologists) that the Gospel accounts are based on eyewitness testimony, akin to four witnesses of a car wreck.

The remainder of the book is divided into three acts which are further subdivided into chapters. Act One, comprised of chs. 1-4, is entitled “Casting Characters,” and its first chapter (pp. 19-38) is an overview stock characters in Jewish as well as Greco-Roman literature, the meaning and import of the term “messiah,” the rise of the apocalyptic worldview and its corresponding literature, and more. In ch. 2 (pp. 39-50), White contends that the Lukan Gospel depicts Jesus as a wise philosopher, akin to Socrates or Diogenes, and in many ways bridges the Jewish wisdom tradition with Greek philosophical thought. He surveys a variety of sources including the apocryphal works of Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon as well as that of Philo of Alexandria and his discussion of the logos. With ch. 3 (pp. 51-65) comes a discussion of “divine” men, i.e., an individual who is often depicted as doing extraordinary things not only as an adult but often as a child. White includes a helpful chart laying out the characteristics of a divine man on pp. 57-58. In ch. 4 (pp. 66-83), White discusses a range of subjects including apotheosis, and mystery religions.

Acts Two of the book, “Crafting Scenes,” opens with ch. 5 (pp. 87-105) and a look at oral tradition and other sources that lie behind the Gospel narrative as a lead in for ch. 6 (pp. 106-123) which attempts to look into the sources behind the Passion narratives. The earliest stratum, per White, is that of Paul’s explanation of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7. In addition to this, Paul also provides an early look into what would become known as “the Last Supper” (1 Corinthians 11:23-25), noting Jesus’ words that suggest a sacrifice. White concludes the chapter by writing that “by the time of Paul, in the 50s CE, there does not yet seem to be a cohesive narrative or a unified dramatic telling of the story of Jesus’s death. A full ‘life’ of Jesus does not yet exist” (p. 123). Chapter 7 (pp. 124-160) continues the discussion of Jesus’ Passion as it is portrayed in the canonical Gospels. White contends that the “nodes” found in the earliest strata found in Paul are elaborated in the Gospel accounts. In particular, he shows that some of this expansion happens under the influence of the Jewish scriptures. In ch. 8 (pp. 161-187), the author moves onto a discussion of miracle workers in Jewish and Greco-Roman literature. He notes that miracle stories often had a basic form that included, in broad terms, a description of the situation that the miracle worker was getting into, the actions performed by the miracle worker, and, finally, the response of those who witnessed what the miracle worker did. This pattern holds even for the miracle stories of Jesus. White turns our attention to parables in ch. 9 (pp. 188-225), noting that each Gospel has its own “spin” on the parables Jesus tells: “The way in which parables convey meaning is heavily dependent on literary context and internal shaping, by which any one parable may take on vastly different meanings. Consequently, the parables vary significantly from Gospel to Gospel both in their literary presentation and their meaning” (p. 208). To close out Act Two, ch. 10 (pp. 226-256) features an examination of the Matthean and Lukan birth narratives.

Act Three focuses on the Gospels themselves beginning with Mark’s (ch. 11), then Matthew’s (ch. 12), then Luke’s (ch. 13), and then the Gospels of John and Thomas (ch. 14). In ch. 15 (pp. 374-404), White talks about non-canonical Gospels of the narrative and dialogic varieties. Readers will appreciate the helpful table on pp. 376-381 that breaks down these texts into the type and title of the work, its main features, and its relative date. In the epilogue (pp. 405-422), the author wraps up his work, concluding that the Gospel texts should be viewed “primarily as scripts of, or for, an oral performance” (p. 422). For White, this helps explain why later Gospel writers had no difficulty with changing and reinterpreting earlier works.

To round out the volume, there are five appendices on the geography of Palestine (pp. 423-427), the solution to the Synoptic Problem (pp. 428-431), the Gospel of Peter (pp. 432-436), the contents of Q (pp. 437-448), and the narrative world of the Lukan author (pp. 449-453).

ANALYSIS

That the Gospel authors had their own viewpoints and emphases is not foreign to even the most ardent defender of inerrancy. But White, unburdened by evangelical commitments to inspiration and infallibility, casts his gaze deeper into the text. “The Gospels are pieces of religious literature that seek to promote a set of beliefs in Jesus,” he writes. “In that sense they are closer to what we call advertisement or propaganda, even though these terms have a far more negative connotation in our culture” (p. 7). Far from being even handed reporting of history, the Gospels consciously present a singular viewpoint, that of a devotee of Jesus of Nazareth. And in the manner of ancient bioi, they tell the story the way they want it to be told, focusing on those salient moments that portray their subject in the best light possible.

I emphasize the word “possible” because there is one event in Jesus’ life that is hardly flattering: the crucifixion. Of all the events in Jesus’ life, his death on a cross registers as one of the surest. Our earliest sources found in the epistolary work of the apostle Paul declare unashamedly that Jesus was crucified. “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures,” Paul tells Corinthian Christ-followers (1 Corinthians 15:3). By his use of the language of “handing on” (paradidōmi), White writes that Paul was employing a formula that “was regularly used for passing on oral tradition and is also found in rabbinic sources” (p. 108). In other words, Jesus’ death was not an invention of Paul but was part and parcel of the earliest strata of the Christ-following movement.

But death-by-crucifixion was an ignoble end for one that could be considered kyrios and christos. It “was a miserable death,” notes John Granger Cook,[1] a form of public execution that, Helen Bond observes, “symbolized the complete destruction not only of the physical body but also of the person’s identity.”[2] But how could one identified as ho christos, the messiah, end up in such a sorry state? And who was he before this moment in history? These two questions would be taken up in the form of “passion narratives with extended introductions,” to quote Martin Kähler.[3] The first was Mark’s and then, taking their cue from Mark, over the course of the next few decades would come Matthew’s, Luke’s, and John’s.[4] And it is here that the Evangelists’ work as storytellers shines. In White’s view, the Gospels are “literary and dramatic productions” (p. x) with the aim of telling the Jesus story afresh. That is, while the canonical Gospels offer a similar story, their versions of it are distinctive and, at times, contradictory.

Consider, for example, the rejection of Jesus at his hometown of Nazareth. In Mark’s account, the scene unfolds in ch. 6 and follows on the heels of Jesus’ parables (4:1-34) and a series of miracles (4:35-5:43). “In effect, these miracles, by virtue of the misunderstanding and scandal they engender, are the proximate cause of [Jesus’s] rejection, at least in the Markan version.” White writes. “They epitomize key elements of the Markan theme of secrecy and misunderstanding” (p. 300). But in Matthew’s redaction of his predecessor the story changes. Instead of being the culmination of miraculous activity, the rejection at Nazareth (Matthew 13:54-58) is the climax of a flurry of teaching, an expansion of the Markan parable section. The miracles, says White, “have nothing to do with the rejection at Nazareth” (p. 300).

The most radical “repositioning” of the Markan scene comes from Luke’s account. Instead of appearing after a flurry of miracles (as in Mark) or a flurry of teachings (as in Matthew), the Lukan version (Luke 4:16-30) comes immediately after Jesus’ return to the region of Galilee following the temptation in the Judean wilderness (4:1-15). White notes that in the Markan account, the rejection scene came at the end of the Galilee section, serving as a kind of transition between it and the “beyond Galilee section” (p. 322). Had Luke been following Markan chronology here, he would have placed it somewhere near the end of ch. 8 and the beginning of ch. 9. But Luke decides to move it so that it fronts the Galilee section, setting the tone for what follows. Another way he does this is by expanding Mark’s version of the rejection scene such that it becomes “consciously constructed around the text of Isaiah” (p. 327). As White goes on to document, Luke’s rearrangement and expansion of the rejection scene functions as a signal to the reader that, “from the very beginning, Jesus intended to welcome Gentiles” (p. 328).

All of this serves as a reminder that we are not dealing with eyewitness accounts. Either the rejection happened shortly after Jesus returned from Galilee as in Luke or much later after Jesus was well into his public ministry as in Mark and Matthew. And while this shouldn’t cause us to conclude that there is no historic verisimilitude to this narrative, it should cause us to question what the scene purchases for each of the Synoptic Evangelists. After all, none of them were obliged to including it and it is fairly obvious that they must have excluded a treasure trove of stories now forever lost to history. The inclusion of the scene, therefore, and its placement in their respective narratives, is intentional. It had storytelling-power. And that is White’s main point. “Each [Gospel] had its own spin and message and its own image of Jesus” (p. 421).

CONCLUSION

White’s volume, now over a decade old, is in my view a classic demonstration of both Markan priority and the general literary sophistication of the Evangelists. While some in my camp may dismiss the biblical texts as primitive or simplistic, I feel that they are exactly the opposite. They are colorful and vivid, communicating to us visions of Jesus that in many ways have become lost to us thanks to harmonization. But when we allow each Evangelist to tell the Jesus story in his own way, we are left with something beautiful – the unique perspective of an author who lived well before our time. History is about people and as historical documents the canonical Gospels tell us something about people. But only if we are willing to listen.


[1] John Granger Cook, Crucifixion in the Mediterranean World (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2014), 418.

[2] Helen K. Bond, The First Biography of Jesus: Genre and Meaning in Mark’s Gospel (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2020), 224.

[3] Martin Kähler, The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ, translated by Carl E. Braaten (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1964), 80n11.

[4] Bond (The First Biography of Jesus, 258), opines that “it is no great surprise to find Mark’s work inspiring those of Matthew, Luke, and John.” Consequently, when we read these later bioi, we are reading in some sense Mark’s. “Whether we like it or not,” she concludes her volume, “the story of Jesus is Mark’s story of Jesus.”

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