I often present a standard spectrum of views on reading the gospels as history, one which extends from the conservative, or even fundamentalist side, which claims that all details of any type must be historical, to the opposite radical conclusion which claims that the gospels are entirely fiction. Most discussion goes on somewhere between that, with many conservatives allowing for minor differences in what they regard as eyewitness reports, and few scholars claiming that there is no historical basis in the gospels.
But there is another spectrum I’d like to point out this Easter season: Just how important is history to our faith? These two spectra may not be completely independent, but in my experience they can be. I have encountered people who believe pretty much whatever the gospels say is historical, but don’t regard that as terribly important. On the other hand there are folks who think that the “Jesus of faith” is the key, no matter how one takes the historical evidence.
I personally tend to give the gospels the benefit of the doubt, though I have no need to reconcile issues like the number of demoniacs who met Jesus on the other side of the sea, or the numbers of denials and cock crowings, or who precisely showed up when on Easter morning. It is important to me to regard these as unimportant, but I’m not bothered too much if you want to reconcile them. I’m not disturbed, on the other hand, if the feeding of the 5,000 and the 4,000 is regarded as one event told multiple times with variations, or two distinct events.
In the modern western world, we think first of facts and history, and whether this is all true, in the sense that it happened as described. But that can lead us to try to read the gospel to answer a list of questions that the gospel writers weren’t trying to answer. What I’d recommend, and what I try to do for myself on a regular basis, is to simply read the each gospel on its own and try to see just what the writer was trying to pretend. Then I can turn to history, or whatever other issues are involved. But my faith is profoundly based on their story and their testimony and the way that connects to mine.
Chronology can be fun, in fact I enjoy it, but it is not the root of my faith.