Albert Einstein once said: “You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.” Good writing is therefore a reflection of good exegesis (i.e., “interpretation”). I’m not referring to stylistic considerations or word choices, but to clear, in-depth, informed writing, which presupposes a basic understanding of the subject. Take my book for example, “The Little Book of Revelation: The First Coming of Jesus at the End of Days.” It’s a biblical study of the sequence of end-time events. The book’s central argument is that the story of Jesus has yet to happen.
But in order to understand the merit of this argument, we must first differentiate between “theological narrative” and “expository writing” in the New Testament. In other words, we must engage ourselves in inquiry and research. In narrative writing, the author’s main purpose is to tell a story using characters and dialogue. In the New Testament, the gospels employ this literary technique in an attempt to portray Jesus as the messianic fulfillment of the Jewish prophecies. That is to say, the gospel “story” now becomes the fulfillment of the earlier messianic promises of Jewish Scripture. The symbolic genealogy of Christ that’s inserted in the gospel texts is to ensure that this connection is established. But in order to do so, the gospel writers actually borrow a great deal of thematic material from Hebrew Scripture and tell a story which is wrapped in theological language. That’s why we do not encounter these “theological” themes in any of the epistles. For instance, the epistolary authors never once mention the Nativity of Jesus, the Virgin birth, the Flight into Egypt, the Star of Bethlehem, the Magi, or even the city of Bethlehem as Jesus’ birth place. Therefore, we must come to realize that the gospels appear to be “theological narratives,” not necessarily historical accounts, especially since the gospel authors were not eyewitnesses of these events, given that they composed their texts sometime around 70-100 A.D. And like any good story, they are filled with drama, conflict, and intrigue.
On the other hand, the epistles (or “letters” of the New Testament) use “expository writing.” Expository writing’s main purpose is to explain. It is a subject-oriented writing style, in which authors focus on a given topic or subject without narrative embellishment or story-telling. The epistolary authors, for example, furnish the reader with relevant spiritual facts and principles (i.e., “teachings”) that do not include dialogue or characters. So then, if we are to understand the correct timeline of Christ’s one and only visitation, we must first differentiate between “theological narrative” and “expository writing” in the New Testament. Why? The answer is that the authors of the epistles seemingly contradict the gospels since they allude to Christ’s revelation as occurring “once at the consummation of the ages” (Heb.9:26), or in the “last days” (Heb. 1:1-2), so that the correct timing of Christ’s first coming suddenly becomes an open question! But if we realize that there is a clear line of demarcation between theological narrative (i.e., gospels) and expository writing (i.e., epistles), the hermeneutical problem ceases to exist and the text resolves itself into a meaningful and “inspired” manuscript.
In the final analysis, the fact that Jesus is not mentioned anywhere outside the New Testament for approximately 65 years after his alleged death should certainly raise some red flags about his existence. It means that Jesus is missing from the historical record until the late first century A.D. And the earliest New Testament texts do not mention anything about a historical Jesus, as we find in later textual transformations (i.e., “literary expansions”).
And yet, despite the lack of historical evidence, the story of Christ may still be relevant. In fact, a close study of the New Testament reveals that Jesus was never meant to come in Antiquity, but rather at the end of the world (cf. Luke 17:30; 2 Thess 2:1-3; Heb 1:1-2; 9:26; 1 Pet 1:5, 20; Rev 12:1-5).
Apparently, the historical Jesus is based more on mistaken assumptions about the evangelists’ literary intentions than careful interpretation of their writings. I’m arguing that the traditional Christian understanding of the theology of the gospel writings is fundamentally incorrect. We have confused apocalyptic literature with history, and turned prophecy into biography. It’s not just the evangelists’ theological problem in finding the literary means to get Jesus to Bethlehem so as to fulfill Micah’s prophecy (e.g., Ch. 5 verse 2), it’s ours as well since our “theological needs here create biographical ‘facts’ ” (W.D. Davies, and E.P. Sanders).
Even so, the gospels are still valid as they give us a theological outline of Christ’s life using stories that are filtered down from the Old Testament. In conclusion, the gospels appear to be apocalyptic stories that are handed down to posterity until the time of their fulfillment. On the other hand, the expository writings of the epistles give us a very different picture of Christ’s one and only visitation:
“But now once in the end of the world hath he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Heb 9:26).
I used this example to demonstrate the value of research in good writing.