Many scholars in the Jesus Seminar, such as Episcopalian Bishop John Shelby Spong, and the excommunicated Catholic priest John Dominic Crossan, have indicated that they read the Gospels in such a way that literalism is avoided, and this opens to them an exegetical vista with which they can see the stories of the Gospels, as well as the order in which they are presented, as inspired by the Jewish synagogue liturgy out of which developed early Christian worship. For instance, it opens the way to seeing John the Baptist as a Rosh Hashanah figure, or seeing the ascension of Jesus as an Elijah narrative with Pentecost as the climax, when the disciples receive a double portion of Jesus’ spirit the way Elisha received a double portion of Elijah’s spirit; as wind and fire took Elijah away and inaugurated a new era where Elisha was the successor, so also wind and fire signify the inauguration of the new advent where the Church is successor of Christ, and “will do greater things.” Questions like why the crucifixion occurred on passover are answered with a view to the liturgical orientation of the Gospel narratives. The same kind of liturgical logic can be cited for episodes such as the transfiguration, the dead rising from their graves in Matthew’s Gospel, and so on and so forth.
Conservative laity and scholars have sometimes felt that this reading of the Gospels is a challenge to their faith, and yet I want to suggest that this needn’t be the case. It has always appealed to me to think of the Gospels as having been written for liturgy, along with having been inspired, at least in the orchestration of their narratives, by liturgy. This is certainly the case with other books, such as Revelation. It certainly would be a little too naive to think that liturgy was the only, or even the principle inspiration for the Gospel authors to write the accounts they did – history, and even apologetics, were likely their principle concerns, as seems evident in a number of places (for instance, the opening of Luke’s account which makes clear that this Gospel, and it’s second volume Acts, are aimed to appease Theophilus’ reservations about the Gospel message of the early Church). However, to think that Liturgy lurks in the background of the Gospels, and that the events of the narratives are symphonized together according to the rhythm of worship, shouldn’t be a challenging notion at all. It certainly does not entail that the events aren’t grounded in historical reality, nor even that the chronology has been arbitrarily and conveniently reorganized to better serve the agenda of the evangelists and their believing communities. Indeed, we might just as easily conceive of Jesus of Nazareth and self consciously carrying out the seminal events of his ministry such that he chose to speak and to act in concert with liturgy. More broadly, for those who argue that Jesus of Nazareth could not have predicted the day of his trial and death, we can conceive of God providentially ordering the ministry of Jesus in harmony with liturgy, so that even Jesus’ death on passover was orchestrated by God. Thus, all one needs is a sophisticated view of providence.
Reading the Gospels in this way has advantages not only reserved to homiletics, but also to help inculcate a deeper appreciation of liturgy in general among Christians. It also has the advantage of helping Christians recognize that Jesus of Nazareth, along with the Christian Church, is at home in Israel. It is also significant that if the Gospels can indeed be read as constructed around liturgy, and our knowledge of liturgy can illuminate the Gospels, perhaps the insight can go the other way around; perhaps the Gospels can help reveal distinctive features of early Christian liturgy.
Not only is this approach to reading the Gospels compatible with the construal of the Gospels as biographies with historically accurate content (as N.T. Wright has said, the Gospels are certainly biographies; they may be more than biographies, but they aren’t any less), but this liturgical hermeneutic represents a fully integrated way of understanding the Gospels as presenting the climax of salvation history, to which Israelite liturgy bears witness, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. This approach to the Gospels is perhaps the only useful contribution the Jesus seminar has managed to make, and though it seems they intended it to allow exegetes to lift significance from the Gospels without contracting the naivety of literalism or fundamentalism, they have in effect only opened the door for even the fundamentalist to see deeper levels of meaning and significance in both the Gospels and the Torah. I, then, am an advocate of reading the Gospels as though they are written with liturgy in mind, since I believe they were; the audience, as well as the authors, were clearly liturgically in tune with the living worship of Israel.