In reading a new John Grisham novel (about my 10th, but the first in several years), I notice a technique used skillfully by the author. Grisham likes to leave things to the imagination by leaving gaps in the narrative between chapters. One chapter will end on a dramatic note or with some sense of “what in the world is going to happen with that situation?” The next chapter start will somewhere entirely different, and the reader understands, within the first couple sentences, that other things have transpired in the meantime. The gaps are eventually filled in . . . or they might not be materially filled in at all.
This technique reminds me of the writers or compilers¹ of the gospels—in the unique genre of literature we find in the historic-theological narrative of the four gospels. The gospels, of course, aren’t legal suspense novels, nor are they intended as historical in terms of news incident reports or history texts today. The gospels do relate real events that occurred in history, but there are gaps. I might wish I knew what, if anything, transpired between Matthew 21 and 22. Part of me longs to know what happened between John 9 and John 10. I must be content, though, with not knowing whether it was the same crowd of Pharisees. These “gaps” do not occur only at the ends of “chapters.” There were no chapters or verses for quite some time, and the ones we have today can be problematic in some instances. Are we sure that no time transpired between Matthew 4:23 and Matthew 5? If none did, it affects the interpretation of the so-called “sermon on the mount.” What about between Mark 8:21 and 8:22, as the reader enters the literary core of that gospel? There are literary markers that give clues, but in most cases, I’ll have to be content in the un-knowing.
It is important to realize that the Jesus-narratives retained in our four canonical gospels amount to selective literary portraits, not exhaustive documentaries in a meticulous, 21st-century sense. As such, the gospels tell selected things, putting them in certain orders for their own purposes. There are gaps in, and re-orderings of, the respective storylines. The reader should know that time might pass between two events, or the second might have occurred before the first. Did the “cleansing of the temple” occur late in Jesus’ life, or early in his ministry, as the “contra-optic” John has it? Did the Nicodemus conversation occur soon after that, or was there a gap of weeks, months, or even years between the two?
I wish I could fill in more of the gaps in the life and teaching of Jesus, but I think I have my hands full with what I already have in my head and heart.
¹ Not one of our four gospels retains a definite authorship attribution, and the names we have associated with each one are based on tradition—strong tradition in some cases, but tradition nonetheless. I tend to think that each of them was tied in some way to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Perhaps most of the inscribing and compiling of selections of written fragments (and oral traditions) was ultimately the busywork of groups of believers that surrounded each of those men.