The gospels as murder mysteries

The value of a metaphor is that it opens up a less known idea by comparing it to a better known idea. [1] I have never been to Greece, but I have been charmed for years by stories that Greek moving vans are called metaphora and that in English, metaphors do the same work. They deliver the contents of one site to another.

I have been talking with a group of friends recently about the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke and in those conversations, the metaphor of the murder mystery has seemed useful. Here, I would like to wonder why that is so.  This is someone’s notion of what St. Luke looked like.

Åâàíãåëèñò ËóêàThe first point to make is that watching murder mysteries, particularly good murder mysteries, is something we all do. Reading the gospels to appreciate the inner connections is not something we all do. We are tuned, as experienced watchers of murder mysteries, to notice what the camera shows us. In that, we are helped by cinematic conventions. [2] And the more confident we are about those conventions, the more they help us see clearly what the director wants us to see.

The gospels use a similar sort of system of clues, but no one in my group is experienced in following those clues. There are, in the gospels, lots of veiled quotations or allusions that a good clue follower would pick up, but they are not within the meaning of the text. We read the gospels only for their meaning, not for their art, so we miss a great deal.

Here are a few examples. Matthew places the collection of Jesus’ sayings we call “the sermon on the mount” on a mountain. [3] He is calling to the minds of his hearers the picture of Moses going up onto the mountain to receive the Law from God. So, like Moses, Jesus goes up onto a mountain. Jesus is the new Moses. And the New Moses says, “You have heard that it was said (and gives a passage from the Law), but I say to you (that more than that is required).”

If we were as good as seeing the significance of the mountain in making this comparisonagatha 1 as we are in seeing that the cigarette pack is or is not still on the bar, we would be much more acute readers of the gospels.  Here we have St. Agatha Christie.

A second example—a more difficult one—has to do with where a verbal allusion comes from. That might seem difficult, but it isn’t so hard to do if the words are contemporary. In trying to make this point, I devised a completely phony “quotation” that went like this.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, therefore, workers of the world, unite: you have nothing to lose but your chains.

You could argue that this is a meaningful sentiment. [4] I wish you the best of luck with that. My own experience with using this bogus “quotation” is that people go immediately to the sources of the two elements and proclaim it, on the basis of the incompatibility of the sources, to be ridiculous. “You are joining,” they ask incredulously, “the Declaration of Independence” and the “Communist Manifesto? Really? That’s ridiculous.”

And it is.

But “You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” joins a “suffering servant” passage from Isaiah with a royal psalm and we are not at all distracted by the sources of the quotations. This combination of sources has as its goal the idea that the royalty of Jesus, revealed at his baptism, and the inevitable suffering portrayed by Isaiah, are part of the same picture and are, in fact, part of the life of the same person. The royalty and the sacrificial death are at least as far apart as the Declaration and the Manifesto, but we are more alert to some discrepancies more than to others.

It is worth pointing out that the hearers of the gospels were also more alert to one of these discrepancies than to the other (especially since the second discrepancy had not yet happened) so they are, in that sense, in the same boat we are.  And St. Robert Parker, author of many American mysteries.

agatha 3One more quick example. This one fits the murder mystery metaphor more closely. Luke tells us that Elizabeth’s husband went home, after his vision in the temple, and impregnated her. Fine. This union produced John the Baptist. But then Luke pauses to say that Elizabeth then went into seclusion for five months (Luke 1:24b). If we had our murder mystery sensibilities available to us, we would wonder why he bothered to tell us that. And if we were seriously wondering, we would be more ready to notice the payoff, just a few verses later, when Gabriel uses the news of Elizabeth’s pregnancy as the guarantee of his message to Mary.

We don’t catch that, as a rule, because we didn’t notice that Luke told us about Elizabeth. And had we noticed, we may not have wondered why he did that. And had we wondered, we might not have allowed it to make us more sensitive to Luke’s use of this small item in the next scene. But the fact is, if Elizabeth’s pregnancy were common knowledge; if Mary could have overheard it in the marketplace, then this revelation by Gabriel would have had no meaning at all. It could certainly not have functioned as a reason why Mary should believe all the other preposterous things Gabriel had just told her.

And it is connections like this that make me think that “the murder mystery” is a good metaphor for a discerning reading of the art of the gospel accounts. There are clues. We need to get better at knowing what they are and where they lead us. Practice, practice, practice.

[1] This from a Scott McLernee column in Inside Higher Ed. “I remember him telling me,” writes [Charles E.] Reagan, (author of The Rule of Metaphor: Multi-Disciplinary Studies of the Creation of Meaning in Language) that, after he [Paul Ricoeur] had completed the book, he and his family went to Greece for a brief holiday. He said that everywhere he went, he saw trucks with ‘Metaphora’ painted on them. There was no escape from the philosophical theme which had dominated his life for the preceding three years. Then he realized that ‘metaphora’ literally meant ‘moving truck.’”
[2] One such convention is that if the director wants you to know that a character saw something, the camera shows him or her looking at it. She looks at the bar where he prominently left a pack of cigarets and it is not there. We are to understand that she sees that it is not there; that is now something we may be sure she knows.
[3] As a mental discipline, I have taken to referring to this collection of sayings as “the sermon on the mountain” just so it will remind me that the expression has some significance—it points to something.
[4] The imputed status “equal” is in tension with the status “worker” and the proposed action—unite!—is a step in the direction of dealing with that tension. As a set of ideas, leaving the sources (in this case, “the art”) alone, they are not incomprehensible.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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1 Response to The gospels as murder mysteries

  1. Bonnie says:


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