The Bible as Paintings

Times Square by Ron Bigony. Used with permission of the artist.
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The artist, Ron Bigony, is a distant relative of my wife. His vivid impressionistic painting of Times Square triggered my thinking about New Testament writing as painting scenes for readers.

When Jesus was alive, nobody had a camera or recorder to give us a detailed picture of what he said, did, or the scenes he appeared in. It would have been nice to have had a camera which would give us a high-resolution rendering of his ministry—maybe even a video with sound. Personally, I’d love to go back in time to shoot some photos. However, Jewish law didn’t allow graven images, which means a realistic photographer like me could have been stoned to death.

Unfortunately, none of Jesus’ disciples or his groupies wrote anything down—most were illiterate. Another major fact that many people forget is that Jesus didn’t really become a phenomenon to be revered and remembered until after his death, so they didn’t think to take notes while he was alive.

So how do we “see” those scenes today? We have to visualize them based on writings. Paul, who lived closest to the time of Jesus, wrote almost nothing about Jesus’ teachings and life except mentioning his execution. Paul wrote well (although with a lot of run-on sentences), so did a good job with pen and ink, but he seldom painted a word-picture that would help us visualize what was happening. He was more of a concept explainer.

When the Gospels were first written, the authors wanted to use stories to paint their impression of who Jesus was and what he meant for the people in their community. In the Hebrew style of the time, people greatly elaborated their stories with cherry-picked references to the scriptures. And each generation would describe the scenes as they wanted them to be understood, not as they might have actually happened. This is a Jewish process called Midrash which ties Hebrew scriptures to word-pictures—often using hyperbole—to explain theological concepts in a practical way.

Since this was at least 40 years after Jesus lived, practically no one who had seen or heard Jesus would be living. Matthew painted Midrash for a Jewish audience. Luke’s viewers were probably more Gentile, so he created scenes that would resonate with people unfamiliar with Jewish concepts.

What if you tried to depict those scenes? Assume you’re the artist who is very moved by events and stories and you want to paint a powerful scene of what you imagine it was like. You might use a strong medium like acrylics to make it vivid. You want your audience to be impressed, so you design a whole series of scenes that help explain not the actual situation four to five decades earlier, but how Jesus’ life has now been reinterpreted through various lines of Hebrew scripture.

The Jesus who walked this earth is only partially recognizable in the Gospel stories of Mark. A lot of devastating events had happened to the Jews between the death of Jesus and when Mark fleshed out the first tale of Jesus’ ministry. So, to create the impression that Jesus was prophesying, Mark put words in Jesus’ mouth to foreshadow the events that happened during the next four decades.

Then Matthew and, even later, Luke tried to repaint the scenes from looking at Mark’s canvases and adding many details they wanted to insert. Since it was important to connect Jesus to the early kings of Israel—in order to make him a king also—Matthew and Luke painted totally new stories about Jesus’ linage and birth. You can see an assemblage of those tableaus in Christmas nativity pageants every year.

Imagine the problem of using one impressionistic picture—Mark—to create the next interpretations of it—Matthew and Luke. They’re not going to resemble the original scene. Compare what it would be like to travel to New York and paint an image of Times Square as it looked 40 years ago, without photographs to give you clues.

Then John got out his soft brushes and wanted to tell the Jesus story based on a different impression of what happened. I’m guessing he was a watercolor kind of guy. Big strokes, a fascinating pallet of colorful characters and settings, and lots of watercolor paper to paint a huge impressionistic story. There is a lot of simplification going on—leaving out key events—as well as the development of new scenes. Many modern scholars agree that Jesus probably didn’t say any of the lines written in John’s Gospel. But John really was creative in painting Jesus into new situations.

I don’t say this to degrade John’s Gospel, but to point out that it’s a very different painting style. Matthew and Luke sort of mimicked Mark’s illustrations. But I can see John boldly standing before his easel and saying, You haven’t seen anything yet. Watch me create images that will inspire your imagination. Since he was using watercolors, he worked fairly fast, before his medium and the paper dried. Of course, he didn’t care much what the original scene was 50 years earlier, he just wanted the viewer to be impressed. He clearly took out and put in whatever details and broad strokes of narrative he wanted. An artist said, “Watercolors can’t even be copied by another good watercolor artist,” and that certainly applies to John. He didn’t care that he was so artistically different. He portrayed the Jesus story with very dramatic stokes.

Even later, Luke created an addendum to his gallery of paintings by adding details of people and events of the Jesus-followers in the book of Acts as their community morphed into their own style of living—away from the synagogues. He put in his own details—which often don’t match Paul’s own descriptions. Talk about artistic license!

And how about that vivid painter, John of Patmos. He had fun painting garish scenes in his depiction of how he imagined the end times in Revelations. He was like a set-designer who goes beyond initial sketches and fills in the details with intense colors. There was no subtlety in his style. He wanted drama! People were probably afraid to gaze too long at his painting for fear the dramatic characters would leap off the parchment. Did those scenes match reality? Of course, not. Neither do a lot of paintings today that trigger strong emotions. But you have to admit, he was quite the artist.

Adding to the challenge that these artists painted their pictures in creative ways, we have the reality that their original paintings don’t exist. But other artists tried to copy those paintings as best they could, while adding their own touches along the way. There are a good number of additions, deletions—what a watercolorist might call lifting out the color—and corrections evident in various manuscripts. And that’s before we get to different translations which are like repainting everything with different tools, brushes, and brands of paint on different substrates.

So, what’s my point? It’s that we can’t take much in the Bible as literally the original scene, words, or even intent. Yet, today we’re re-seeing many biblical images anew because the past two hundred years of scholarship have given us fresh insights into what the storytellers of 2000 or more years ago were trying to depict. It’s these re-analyzed images that are now being clarified and shared in the galleries of our mind. I can’t say these new accounts are as detailed as a Photoshop-enhanced photograph, but it’s a new artist-produced impression—based on theological realism. They’re paintings that resonate with the love of all creation and are framed by the cosmology of today.

Have I helped you visualize new possibilities in the Bible? Or have I painted myself into a corner?

_____________________________ Art Fabian — May 22, 2019

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Art Fabian is on a spiritual journey to enjoy more aliveness and to share the goal of wholeness with others. He has no special training or degrees in this field. He’s not a religious scholar or theologian. However, he hopes you might also enjoy walking towards a richer life that benefits us, our neighbors, and all creation.