The fallibility of the Gospels (7)

A chapter from Ian Wilson’s
Jesus: The Evidence

Surprisingly, despite having been dismissed by the Germans as very late and very Greek, the gospel which would seem, in part at least, to have the most authentically Aramaic flavour of all is that of John. The first shock to the nineteenth-century Germans, with their dismissive attitude towards the John gospel, came with the discovery and publication of the Rylands fragment. If a copy of the John gospel was in use in provincial Egypt around 125 AD, its original, if it was composed at Ephesus (and at least no-one has suggested it was written in Egypt), must have been written significantly earlier, probably at least a decade before 100 AD, as most scholars now recognize.

A second shock was the discovery of the much publicized Dead Sea Scrolls. Although generally thought to have been written by the Essenes, a Jewish sect contemporary with Jesus, they proved disappointingly to throw little new light on Jesus and early Christianity, at least in any direct way. The Scrolls contain no recognizable mention of Jesus, just as the Christian gospels, surprisingly, fail to refer to the Essenes. But the intriguing feature of the Scrolls is that their authors, undeniably full-blooded Jews, were using in Jesus’ time precisely the type of language and imagery previously thought ‘Hellenistic’ in John.

As is well known, the John gospel prologue speaks of a conflict between light and darkness. The whole gospel is replete with phrases such as ‘the spirit of truth’, ‘the light of life’, ‘walking in the darkness’, ‘children of light’, and ‘eternal life’. A welter of such phrases and imagery occur in the Dead Sea Scrolls’ Manual of Discipline. The John gospel’s prologue,

He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things came to be. Not one thing had its being but through him (John I: 2-3).

is strikingly close to the Manual of Discipline‘s

All things come to pass by his knowledge, He establishes all things by his design. And without him nothing is done (Manual II: 11).

This is but one example of a striking similarity of cadence and choice of words obvious to anyone reading gospel and Manual side by side.

Even before such discoveries Oxford scholar Professor F. C. Bumey and ancient historian A. T. Olmstead had begun arguing forcibly that the John gospel’s narrative element, at least, must originally have been composed in Aramaic, probably not much later than 40 AD. One ingenious researcher, Dr Aileen Guilding, has shown in The Fourth Gospel and Jewish Worship that the gospel’s whole construction is based on the Jewish cycle of feasts, and the practice of completing the reading of the Law, or Torah, in a three-year cycle.

That the gospel’s author incorporated accounts provided by close eyewitnesses to the events described is further indicated by detailed and accurate references to geographical features of Jerusalem and its environs before the city and its Temple were destroyed in 70 AD, after Roman suppression of the Jewish revolt which had broken out four years earlier. It is John who mentions a Pool of Siloam (John 9: 7), remains of which are thought to have been discovered in Jerusalem, and a ‘Gabbatha’ or pavement, where Pilate is said to have sat in judgement over Jesus (Chapter 19, verse 13). The Gabbatha is identified as a pavement now in the crypt of the Convent of the Sisters of Our Lady of Sion in Jerusalem, undeniably Roman, though not conclusively dating from the time of Jesus.

(To be continued…)

Published in: on July 10, 2012 at 9:00 am  Comments Off on The fallibility of the Gospels (7)  
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The fallibility of the Gospels (2)

A chapter from Ian Wilson’s
Jesus: The Evidence

This method is useful for showing up which episodes are common to all gospels, which are peculiar to a single gospel, the variations of interest or emphasis between one writer and another, and so on. It is immediately obvious that while Matthew, Mark and Luke have a great deal in common, describing the same ‘miracles’, the same sayings, essentially sharing a common narrative framework, the John gospel is a maverick, describing different incidents and devoting much space to lengthy, apparently verbatim speeches that seem quite unlike Jesus’ pithy utterances reported elsewhere. In about 1774 the pioneering German scholar Johann Griesbach coined the word ‘synoptic’ for the Matthew, Mark and Luke gospels, from the Greek for ‘seen together’, while that of John has become generally known as the Fourth Gospel. It has always been regarded as having been written later than the other three.

As different theologians pursued the underlying clues to the gospel writers’ psychology revealed by the parallel passage technique, so increasing scepticism developed, particularly in Germany during the early nineteenth century. There, a century earlier, a faltering start on a critical approach had been made by Hamburg University oriental languages professor Hermann Samuel Reimarus. In secret Reimarus wrote a book, On the Aims of Jesus and his Disciples, arguing that Jesus was merely a failed Jewish revolutionary, and that after his death his disciples cunningly stole his body from the tomb in order to concoct the whole story of his resurrection. So concerned was Reimarus to avoid recriminations for holding such views that he would only allow the book to be published after his death. His caution was justified.

Following in the critical tradition, in the years 1835-6 Tübingen University tutor David Friedrich Strauss (pic) launched his two-volume The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, making particularly penetrating use of the parallel passage technique. Because of the discrepancies he found, he cogently argued that none of the gospels could have been by eyewitnesses, but instead must have been the work of writers of a much later generation, freely constructing their material from probably garbled traditions about Jesus in circulation in the early Church. Inspired by the [idealistic] rationalism of the philosophers Kant and Hegel — ‘the real is the rational and the rational is the real’ — Strauss uncompromisingly dismissed the gospel miracle stories as mere myths invented to give Jesus greater importance. For such findings Strauss was himself summarily dismissed from his tutorship at Tübingen, and later failed, for the same reason, to gain an important professorship at Zürich.

(To be continued…)

Published in: on July 3, 2012 at 2:40 pm  Comments Off on The fallibility of the Gospels (2)  
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Gospel Fictions, 5

Below, part of Gospel Fictions’ fifth chapter, “Miracles (II): The Fourth Gospel” by Randel Helms (ellipsis omitted):


The Fourth Gospel presents an understanding of miracles quite different from that in the Synoptics, and even uses a word for miracle—sign (semeion)—which the others explicitly reject. The understanding of “signs” in the Fourth Gospel, indeed the word itself, stems from the Septuagint: Moses “wrought the signs [semeia] before the people. And the people believed” (Ex. 4:30-31 LXX).

Mark 6:5 claims (though Matthew and Luke refuse to repeat the verse) that in cases of weak faith, Jesus “could work no miracle.” Nowhere in John is faith the precondition of miracle. In the Synoptics, faith precedes the miracle; in John, the miracle precedes faith. John’s uneasiness about miracle-engendered faith, blending uncomfortably with the conviction that this was the way Jesus chose to reveal himself, may lie behind the strange fact that there are so few miracles in the Fourth Gospel: seven, compared to twenty in Matthew and twenty-one in Luke. John’s way of accounting for the paucity of his miracle stories is to declare that he has written only a selection of a much larger number available to him:

There were indeed many other signs [semeia] that Jesus performed in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. Those here written have been recorded in order that you may hold the faith that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through this faith you may possess life by his name. (John 20:31-31)

 
The water made wine in Cana

An examination of the account of Elisha’s providing flour and oil in III Kings LXX reveals some direct verbal sources for the story of Jesus’ miracle at Cana.

One of the most puzzling aspects of this first miracle in the Fourth Gospel is Jesus’ rudeness to his mother: “Woman, what have I to do with you? [Ti emoi kai soi, gunai].” As has been seen before, the statement is here not a historical report but an antitype of Elijah: for the woman (gune) in need of food says to the prophet, “What have I to do with thee? [ti emoi kai soi]” (III [I] Kings 17:18 LXX).

(Archaeologists at modern-day Cana found pieces of stone jars, including the one shown here, that date to the time of Jesus and appear to be the same type of jar mentioned in the water-to-wine story.)

But as it happens, Elijah’s miracle provides flour, not wine. Why the change?

It appears that this miracle story in the Fourth Gospel was not only mediated through the story of Moses, where it picked up the concept of “sign,” before it reached John; it also went through one other transformation, influenced by the mythology of Dionysius. As Bultmann has pointed out:

On the festival day of Dionysus the temple springs at Andros and Teos were supposed every year to yield wine instead of water. In Elis on the eve of the feast, three empty pitchers were put into the temple and in the morning they were full of wine.

In other words the miracle story had an extensive history before it reached the author of the Fourth Gospel. Neither he nor anyone he knew attended a wedding at Cana-in-Galilee at which Jesus provided a hundred and twenty gallons of wine to those who had already drunk so freely they had exhausted the day’s provisions; the story is fiction and has a clearly traceable literary lineage.

Gospel Fictions, 4

Below, part of Gospel Fictions’ fourth chapter, “Miracles I (The Synoptic Narratives)” by Randel Helms (ellipsis omitted):

Käsemann’s judgment is that the “great majority of the Gospel miracle stories must be regarded as legends.” The kind of incidents which in fact commend themselves as being historically credible are “harmless episodes such as the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law from a fever and the healing of so-called possessed persons.”

The next two chapters will examine the thirty-odd narratives in the Gospels which depict the Synoptic and Johannine attitudes toward miracles, demonstrating their literary lineage, and discuss how these fictional or legendary stories came to be composed.

Narratives about Jesus’ performing miracles were virtual requirements, given first-century Christianity’s understanding of the Old Testament. Matthew 11:2-5 makes this quite clear:

John, who was in prison, heard what Christ was doing, and sent his own disciples to him with this message: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to expect some other?” Jesus answered, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind recover their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are made clean, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, the poor are hearing the good news.”

Matthew has Jesus list what are, in fact, signs of the advent of the New Age, as Isaiah had predicted: “The eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall hear. Then shall the lame man leap as an hart” (Isa. 35:5 LXX). Matthew combined Second Isaiah’s declaration using that prophet’s very words from the Septuagint.

The resurrection of a dead son

Both Elijah and Elisha mediate two striking miracles, the creation of abundance from little and the resurrection of a dead son. If these sound familiar to a reader of the Gospels, we should not be surprised.

Since Luke’s account of the raising of the widow of Nain’s son so clearly betrays its literary origins in the Septuagint, I shall begin with it:

And it came to pass [kai egeneto] afterwards that Jesus went to a town called Nain, accompanied by his disciples and a large crowd. As he approached the gate of the town he met a funeral. The dead man was the only son of his widowed mother; and many of the townspeople were there with her. When the Lord saw her his heart went out to her, and he said, “Weep no more.” With that he stepped forward and laid upon the bier; and the bearers halted. Then he spoke: “Young man, rise up!” The dead man sat up and began to speak; and Jesus gave him back to his mother. Deep awe fell upon them all, and they praised God. “A great prophet has arisen among us,” they said. (Luke 7:11-16)

Either Luke or some Greek-speaking Christian behind Luke composed this story on the basis of the account in the Septuagint version of Kings depicting the raising of the dead son of the widow of Sarapeta (III, [I] Kings 17:8-10, 17, 19-23 LXX). Both stories begin with a favorite Septuagintal formula, “And it came to pass.” Both concern the dead son of a widow (chera). In both the prophet “went” (eporeuthe) to the town, where he met a woman at the “gate of the city” (ton pylona tes poleos—LXX; te pyle te poleos—Luke), even though archaeological study has shown that the village of Nain in Galilee never had a wall. Nain’s fictional gate is there for literary reasons: Sarepta’s gate transferred. In both stories the prophets speak and touch the dead son, who then raises and speaks. In both stories it is declared that the miracle certifies the prophet (“Behold, I know that thou art a man of God”—LXX; “A great prophet has arisen”—Luke). And both stories conclude with precisely the same words: “and he gave him to his mother” (kai edoken auton te metri autou).

The raising of Jairus’ daughter

Early Christians knew, on the basis of Isaiah 26:19, that raising of the dead was to be one of the signs of the advent of God’s kingdom. The only Old Testament narratives of resurrection are in the stories of Elijah and Elisha. In Mark 5, Matthew 9, and Luke 8, the president of an unnamed synagogue, one Jairus (whose name, “He will awaken,” betrays the representative and fictional nature of the account), comes to Jesus. Like the Shunnamite woman to Elisha, “falls at his feet and entreats him many times,” saying, in both Mark and Luke, that his only daughter was dying. In Matthew, to align more closely with the story’s Old Testament source—as is typical of the careful and knowledgeable first evangelist—the child is already dead.

The story stays close to the Old Testament original. In both, the prophet, on the way to the child, receives a message that it is dead, but continues resolutely. In both stories the prophet seeks privacy for the miracle: “After turning all the others out, Jesus took the child’s father and mother and his own companions and went in where the child was lying,” just as Elisha shut the door upon himself and the child. And in both, the prophet touches the child and speaks, and the child awakes. In Mark, the parents were “ecstatic with great ecstasy” (exestesan… ekstasei megale—Mark 5:42); in Kings, the mother of the child is “ecstatic with all this ecstasy” (exestesas… pasan ten ekstasin tauten—IV Kings 4:31 LXX). Just as the widow of Nain’s son began as the widow of Sarepta’s son, so the daughter of Jairus began as the dead child of Shunnam.

* * *

The other process, the heightening of the miraculous and the elimination of hints about the limitation of Jesus’ power to work miracles, is evident in later treatments of Mark’s account of Jesus at Nazareth. There in his own town, says Mark, he was not notably successful:

Jesus said to them, “A prophet will always be held in honour except in his home town, and among his kinsmen and family.” He could work no miracle there, except that he put hands on a few sick people and healed them, and he was taken aback by their want of faith. (Mark 6:4-6)

Matthew, with a more “advanced” theology and a more fully deified Jesus, could not accept Mark’s assertion, so he treated it as fiction, untrue; it was not that Jesus could not perform great miracles in the face of lack of faith in him, rather he chose not to do so. Bearing this in mind, we may more readily grasp why Matthew and Luke chose to leave out altogether two of Mark’s miracle stories. Jesus is asked to heal a deaf mute:

He took the man aside, away from the crowd, put his fingers into his [the man’s] ears, spat, and touched his tongue. Then, looking up to heaven, he sighted, and said to him, “Ephphatha,” which means, “Be opened.” With that his ears were opened and at the same time the impediment was removed and he spoke plainly. (Mark 7:33-35)

In the next chapter, Jesus is asked to cure a blind man:

He spat on his eyes, and laid his hands upon him, and asked whether he could see any thing. The blind man’s sight began to come back, and he said, “I see men; they look like trees, but they are walking about.” Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; he looked hard, and now he was cured so that he saw everything clearly. (Mark 8:23-25)

For Matthew and Luke, who eliminated both these stories from their revisions of Mark, the notion that Jesus needed any kind of ritual (magic word) or medicinal (spittle) help, or even that he needed a little time and repetition of the treatment, was unthinkable. (Matthew characteristically depicts Jesus’ miracle-working powers as instantaneous.)

A Romanized Jesus in this painting found in a Christian catacomb in Rome. The beardless Jesus (Romans regarded the beard as a feature of the Barbarians) also has short hair and is wearing a Roman tunic.

Matthew ensures his story replaces the two he removed from Mark by depicting the man as both mute and blind.

Then they brought him a man who was possessed. He was blind and dumb, and Jesus cured him, restoring both speech and sight… But when the pharisees heard it, they said, “It is only by Beelzebub prince of devils that this man drives the devils out.” (Matt. 12:22-24).

A miracle story grows here before our eyes. Luke’s mute becoming mute and blind.

Food miracles

Like so many of the other miracle stories, these too have their origins in the Old Testament.

The disciples, though they have presumably just witnessed Jesus feed five thousand with five loaves, naively ask, “How can anyone provide all these people with bred in this lonely place?” —Mk. 8:14. Mark obviously found two stories in unrelated layers of oral tradition and, failing to grasp that they were different versions of the same story, put them into narrative sequence, making the disciples appear unbelievable stupid.

In any event, both narratives stem from IV [II] Kings 4:42-44 read as a typological foreshadowing of the career of Jesus. Both Testaments specify the number of hungry persons (one hundred in the Old; four and five thousand—much greater miracles!—in the New); both specify the inadequate amount of food available (twenty loaves in the Old Testament; five and four loaves—again greater miracles—in the New). In both the prophets instruct their disciples to feed the people, and in both the disciples protest the inadequacy: Elisha’s disciple complains, “I cannot set this before a hundred men” (IV [II] Kings 4:43); while Jesus’ disciple asks “How can anyone provide all these people with bread?” (Mark 8:5). Finally, in both stories, the meager loaves are miraculously amplified to feed all present and more: “And they ate, and left some over” (IV [II] Kings 4:44); “They all ate to their heart’s content, and seven baskets were filled with the scraps that were left” (Mark 8:9).

Interestingly, the miracle of the loaves and fishes is one of the very few Synoptic miracle stories which have also been used in the Fourth Gospel.

Stilling the storm; walking on the sea

Jesus also showed his power over nature in fictions about water. The ancients knew from Psalm 107 what power Yahweh has over the sea (Ps. 107:25-30). In Jonah, the sailors “called on the Lord and said, ‘O Lord, do not let us perish’” (1:14); in the Psalm, “They cried to the Lord in their trouble.” As a consequence, Jonah says, the “sea stopped raging” (1:15); the psalmist, “the storm sank to a murmur, and the waves of the sea were stilled.”

Matthew knew, unlike Mark, that the stilling of the storm was based in part one on the Book of Jonah, for again he rewrote his version of Mark’s narrative. Taking key words from Jonah—“Lord,” “save us,” “we perish”—Matthew rewrites Mark: a fictional correction of a fictional account, each of which is based in its own way on the Old Testament.

With this in mind, the nature of the rest of the miracle story as Mark first wrote it is more easily grasped. If it seems strange that Jesus could sleep in the stern of a small open fishing-boat in the middle of a storm so violent that waves were breaking over the vessel and filling it with water, Jesus’ sleep should be seen not as a description of an event but as a literary necessity.

Jesus also showed his power over the sea by walking on it (Matt. 14; Mark 6; John 6); a variant of the stilling of the storm.

Both versions reveal their origin in the same part of the Old Testament, Psalm 106 of the Septuagint (107 Heb.), with perhaps additional influence from the Book of Job. Early Christians knew from Job 9:8 that the Lord “walks on the sea [peripaton epi tes thalasses] as on dry ground”; thus they also presented Jesus “walking upon the sea” (peripaton epi tes thalasses—Mark 6: 48). But for the basis of their narrative about this “predicted” event, they went to the Septuagint Psalms, as may best be seen by comparing Mark’s and John’s versions of the pericope. Matthew enriches his account with a fascinating addition about Peter’s effort to copy his Lord.

Gospel Fictions, 3


 
Below, part of Gospel Fictions’ third chapter, “Nativity legends” by Randel Helms (ellipsis omitted between unquoted passages):



Two of the four canonical Gospels—Matthew and Luke—give accounts of the conception and birth of Jesus. John tells us only of the Incarnation—that the Logos “became flesh”—while Mark says nothing at all about Jesus until his baptism as a man of perhaps thirty. Either Mark and John know nothing about Jesus’ background and birth, or they regard them as unremarkable.

Certainly Mark, the earliest Gospel, knows nothing of the Annunciation or the Virgin Birth. It is clear from 3:20-21 that in Mark’s view the conception of Jesus was accompanied by no angelic announcement to Mary that her son was to be (in Luke’s words) “Son of the Most High” and possessor of the “throne of David” (Luke 1:32 NEB [New English Bible]).

According to Mark, after Jesus had openly declared himself Son of Man (a heavenly being, according to Daniel 7:13), his family on hearing of this “set out to take charge of him. ‘He is out of his mind,’ they said.” Surely Jesus’ mother and brothers (so identified in Mark 3:31) would not have regarded Jesus’ acts as signs of insanity if Mark’s Mary, like Luke’s, had been told by the angel Gabriel that her son would be the Messiah.

But Mark’s ignorance of Jesus’ conception, birth, and background was no hindrance to the first-century imagination. Many first-century Jewish Christians did feel a need for a Davidic messiah, and at least two separate groups responded by producing Davidic genealogies for Jesus, both to a considerable extent imaginary and each largely inconsistent with the other. One of each was latter appropriated by Matthew and Luke and repeated, with minor but necessary changes, in their Gospels. Each genealogy uses Old Testament as its source of names until it stops supplying them or until the supposed messianic line diverges from the biblical. After that point the Christian imaginations supplied two different lists of ancestors of Jesus.

Why, to show that Jesus is “the son of David,” trace the ancestry of a man who is not his father? The obvious answer is that the list of names was constructed not by the author of Matthew but by earlier Jewish Christians who believed in all sincerity that Jesus had a human father. Such Jewish Christians were perhaps the forbears of the group known in the second century as the Ebionites.

The two genealogies in fact diverge after David (c. 1000 B.C.) and do not again converge until Joseph. It is obvious that another Christian group, separate from the one supplying Mathew’s list but feeling an equal need for a messiah descended from David, complied its own genealogy, as imaginary as Mathew’s in its last third. And like Mathew’s genealogy, it traces the Davidic ancestry of the man who, Luke insists, is not Jesus’ father anyway, and thus is rendered pointless.

Moreover, according to Luke’s genealogy (3:23-31) there are forty-one generations between David and Jesus; whereas according to Mathew’s, there are but twenty seven. Part of the difference stems from Mathew’s remarkably careless treatment of his appropriated list of names.

Thus we have a fascinating picture of four separate Christian communities in the first century. Two of them, Jewish-Christian, were determined to have a messiah with Davidic ancestry and constructed genealogies to prove it, never dreaming that Jesus could be thought of as having no human father.

But gentile Christians in the first century, who came into the new religion directly from paganism and were already infected with myths about licentious deities, had a much different understanding of what divine paternity meant. Plutarch speaks for the entire pagan world when he writes, in Convivial Disputations, “The fact of the intercourse of a male with mortal women is conceded by all,” though he admits that such relations might be spiritual, not carnal. Such mythology came with pagans converted to Christianity, and by the middle of the first century, Joseph’s paternity of Jesus was being replaced by God’s all over the gentile world.

“The virgin will conceive and bear a son, and he shall be called Emmanuel,” a name which means “God is with us.” (Matthew 1:20-23)

The Septuagint, from which Matthew quotes, uses, at Isaiah 7:14, parthenos (physical virgin) for the Hebrew almah (young woman) as well as the future tense, “will conceive,” though Hebrew has no future tense as such. Modern English translations are probably more accurate in reading (as does the New English Bible), “A young woman is with child.” We can scarcely blame the author of Matthew for being misguided by his translation (though Jews frequently ridiculed early Christians for their dependence on the often-inaccurate Septuagint rather than the Hebrew). We can, however, fault him for reading Isaiah 7:14 quite without reference to its context—an interpretative method used by many in his time and ours, but a foolish one nonetheless. Any sensible reading of Isaiah, chapter seven, reveals its concern with the Syrio-Israelite crisis of 734 B.C. (the history of which appears in I Kings 16:1-20).

(Jesus’ real father? According to a malicious, early Jewish story, Jesus was the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier called Pantera. The name is so unusual that it was thought to be an invention until this first-century tombstone came to light in 1859; for the Latin inscription see below.)

It is clear, however, that though the mistranslated and misunderstood passage in Isaiah was Matthew’s biblical justification for the Virgin Birth, it was not the source of the belief (indeed Luke presents the Virgin Birth without reference to Isaiah). The doctrine originated in the widespread pagan belief in the divine conception upon various virgins of a number of mythic heroes and famous persons in the ancient world, such as Plato, Alexander, Perseus, Asclepius and the Dioscuri.

Matthew writes that Joseph, having been informed in his dream, “had no intercourse with her until her son was born” (Matt. 1:25). Luke gives us a different myth about the conception of Jesus, in which the Annunciation that the messiah is to be fathered by God, not Joseph, is made to Mary rather than to her betrothed. Embarrassed by the story’s clear implicit denial of the Virgin Birth notion, Luke or a later Christian inserted Mary’s odd question [“How can this be, since I know not a man?”], but the clumsy interpolation makes hash of Jesus’ royal ancestry.

(The inscription reads: “Tiberius Julius Abdes Pantera of Sidon, aged 62, a soldier of 40 years’ service, of the 1st cohort of archers, lies here”; only “Abdes” is a Semitic name.)

In due course, Jesus was born, growing up in Nazareth of Galilee, a nationality different from the Judean inhabitants of Jerusalem and its near neighbor, Bethlehem. After Jesus’ death, those of his followers interested in finding proof of his messiahnship in the Old Testament worked a Christian reinterpretation of Micah 5:2 concerning the importance of Bethlehem as the birthplace of David and his dynasty:

You, Bethlehem in Ephrathah, small as you are to be among Judah’s clans, out of you shall come forth a governor for Israel, one whose roots are far back in the past, in days gone by.

That is, the one who restores the dynasty will have the same roots, be of the same ancestry, as David of Bethlehem. Prophesying, it would appear, during the Babylonian exile, Micah (or actually a sixth-century B.C. interpolator whose words were included in the book of the eight-century B.C. prophet) hoped for the restoration of the Judaean monarchy destroyed in 586 B.C.

But since some first-century Christians did read Micah 5:2 as a prediction of the birthplace of Jesus, it became necessary to explain why he grew up in Nazareth, in another country, rather than Bethlehem. At least two different and mutually exclusive narratives explaining this were produced: one appears in Matthew, the other in Luke.

Matthew has it that Mary and Joseph lived in Bethlehem when Jesus was born, and continued there for about two years, fleeing then to Egypt. They returned to Palestine only after Herod’s death. For fear of Herod’s son, they did not resettle in Bethlehem. But moved rather to another country, Galilee, finding a new home in Nazareth.

Luke, on the other hand, writes that Mary and apparently Joseph lived in Nazareth, traveling to Bethlehem just before Jesus’ birth to register for a tax census. They left Bethlehem forty days later to visit the temple in Jerusalem for the required ritual of the first-born, returning then to their hometown of Nazareth.

Examination of these two irreconcilable accounts will give us a good picture of the creative imaginations of Luke, Matthew, and their Christian sources.

In most of Matthew’s Gospel, the major source of information about Jesus is the Gospel of Mark (all but fifty-five of Mark’s verses appear in Matthew, either word-for-word or with deliberate changes). But Mark says nothing about Jesus’ birth. When one favorite source fails him, Matthew inventively turns to another—this time to the Old Testament, read with a particular interpretative slant, and to oral tradition about Jesus, combining the two in a noticeably uneasy way.

We must remember that for the Christian generation that produced our Gospels, the Bible consisted only of what Christians now called the Old Testament, and a particular version thereof, the Greek Septuagint. But before they wrote the New Testament, Christians created another entirely new book, the Old Testament, turning the Septuagint into a book about Jesus by remarkably audacious and creative interpretation. Meanings it had held for generations of Jews, its historical and poetic content especially, ceased to exist; it became not a book about the past but about its own future.

Of course, other groups such as the Qumran sect also read the Bible oracularly, but Christians specialized this technique, finding oracles about Jesus of Nazareth. If a passage in the Septuagint could be read as a prediction of an event in the life of Jesus, then the event must have happened. Thus, if Micah were understood to mean that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, then Jesus must have been born there, no matter what his real hometown. But as it happens, the Bethlehem birth story, dependent upon the Christian interpretation of Micah, and the magi-and-star legend, dependent upon Hellenistic and Jewish oral tradition, fit together very uneasily. The story of the magi (“astrologers” is a more meaningful translation) says that “the star which they had seen at its rising went ahead of them until it stopped above the place where the child lay” (Matt 2:9).

In all the stories, the astrologers point to a special star, symbol of the arrival of the new force (Israel, Abraham, Jesus). Says Balaam: “A star shall rise [anatelei astron] out of Jacob, a man shall spring out of Israel, and shall crush the princes of Moab” (Num. 24:17 LXX). The astrologers in Matthew likewise point to a star: “We observed the rising of his star” (Matt. 2.2).

Now the source of the story of the king (Nimrod, Herod) who wants to kill the infant leader of Israel (Abraham, Jesus) shifts to the account of Moses in Exodus, the classic biblical legend of the wicked king (Pharaoh) who wants to slay the new leader of Israel (Moses). Indeed, the story of Moses in the Septuagint provided Matthew with a direct verbal source for his story of the flight into Egypt. As Pharaoh wants to kill Moses, who then flees the country, so Herod wants to kill Jesus, who is then carried away by his parents. After a period of hiding for the hero in both stories, the wicked king dies:

And the Lord said unto Moses in Midian, “Go, depart into Egypt, for all that sought thy life are dead” (tethnekasi gar pantes hoi zetountes sou ten psychen—Ex: 4:19 LXX).

When Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel for those who sought the child’s life are dead” (tethnekasin gar hoi zetountes ten psychen tou paidiou—Matt 2:20).

Of course, Moses flies from Egypt to Midian, while the Holy Family flees to Egypt through Midian.

* * *

“This was to fulfill the words spoken through the prophets: ‘He shall be called a Nazarene’” (Matt. 2:23). There is, however, no such passage in all the Old Testament. Matthew had apparently vaguely heard that such a verse was in the “prophets,” and since he really needed to get the Holy Family from the supposed birthplace to the known hometown, he reported the fulfillment but left the biblical reference unspecified.

Like Matthew, Luke faced the same problem of reconciling known Nazarene upbringing with supposed Bethlehem birth. His solution, however, was entirely different, and even less convincing. Whereas Matthew has the Holy Family living in Bethlehem at the time of the birth and traveling to Nazareth, Luke has them living in Nazareth and traveling to Bethlehem in the very last stages of Mary’s pregnancy. Though Luke 1:5 dates the birth of Jesus in the “days of Herod, king of Judaea,” who died in 4 B.C., he wants the journey from Galilee to Bethlehem to have occurred in response to a census called when “Quirinius was governor of Syria.”

As historians know, the one and only census conducted while Quirinius was legate in Syria affected only Judaea, not Galilee, and took place in A.D. 6-7, a good ten years after the death of Herod the Great. In his anxiety to relate the Galilean upbringing with the supposed Bethlehem birth, Luke confused his facts. Indeed, Luke’s anxiety has involved him in some real absurdities, like the needless ninety-mile journey of a woman in her last days of pregnancy—for it was the Davidic Joseph who supposedly had to be registered in the ancestral village, not the Levitical Mary.

Worse yet, Luke has been forced to contrive a universal dislocation for a simple tax registration. Who could imagine the efficient Romans requiring millions in the empire to journey scores of hundreds of miles to the villages of millennium-old ancestors merely to sign a tax form!

Needless to say, no such event ever happened in the history of the Roman Empire.

Porphyry on Christianity

From the dust jacket of Porphyry’s Against the Christians: The Literary Remains, translated by Joseph Hoffmann (Prometheus Books, 1994):

Throughout its first three centuries, the growing Christian religion was subjected not only to official persecution but to the attacks of pagan intellectuals, who looked upon the new sect as a band of fanatics bent on worldwide domination, even as they professed to despise the things of this world. Prominent among these pagan critics was Porphyry of Tyre (ca. 232–ca. 305 C.E.), scholar, philosopher, and student of religions. His book Against the Christians (Kata Christianon), condemned to be burned by the imperial Church in 448, survives only in fragments preserved by the cleric and teacher Macarius Magnes.

Of Hoffmann’s translation of Porphyry I’ll quote only a few excerpts:




Critique of the gospels
and their authors

Apocrit. II.12-II-15

The evangelists were fiction writers—not observers or eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus. Each of the four contradicts the other in writing his account of the events of his sufferings and crucifixion.

Apocrit. III.1-III.6

[John 5.46-7] “If you believed Moses, then you would believe me. For he wrote about me.” The saying is filled with stupidity! Even if Moses said it, nothing of what he wrote has been preserved; his writings are reported to have been destroyed along with the Temple. All the things attributed to Moses were really written eleven hundred years later by Ezra and his contemporaries.

Poverty saves. It seems unlikely to me that these words belong to Christ. They ring untrue to the ear. They seem to be rather the words of poor people who wish to deprive the rich of their property. Why, only yesterday Christian teachers succeeded—through quoting the words, “Sell what you have and give it to the poor and you shall have treasure in heaven”—in depriving noble women of their savings. They were persuaded to squander what they had on the beggars, giving away what was rightly theirs and making themselves beggars in return. They were turned from having to wanting, from rich to poor, from freedom to slavery and from being wealthy to being painful! In the end, these same women were reduced to going from door to door to the houses of the well-off to beg—which is the nethermost point of disgrace and humiliation. [Hoffmann’s notes that the view that women are duped by Christian “beggars” is conventional in anti-Christian polemics of the age]

[Matt. 14.25; Mark 6.48] Another section in the gospel deserves comment, for it is likewise devoid of sense and full of impossibility; I mean that absurd story about Jesus sending his apostles across the sea ahead of him after the banquet, then walking [on the water] “at the fourth watch of the night.” It is related that they had been working all night to keep the boat adrift and were frightened by the size of the storm surging against the boat.

Those who know the region will tell us that, in fact, there is no “sea” in the locality but only a tiny lake which springs from a river that flows through the hills of Galilee near Tiberias. Small boats can get across it within two hours. And the lake is too small to have whitecaps caused by storm. Mark seems to be stretching the point to its extremities when he writes that Jesus—after nine hours had passed—decided in the tenth to walk across to his disciples who had been floating about on the pond for the duration!

As if this isn’t enough, he calls it a “sea”—indeed, a stormy sea—a very angry sea which tosses them about in its waves causing them to fear for their lives. He does this, apparently, so that he can next show Christ miraculously causing the storm to cease and the sea to calm down, hence saving the disciples from the dangers of the swell.

It is from fables like this one that we judge the gospel to be a cleverly woven curtain, each thread of which requires careful scrutiny. [“each thread of which requires careful scrutiny” is nothing less that the science of New Testament analysis that, because of the fierce persecution, would not start until the publication of Reimarus’ Apologie fifteen centuries later]


The attack on Peter the apostle

Apocrit. III.19-III.22

[Acts 5.1-11] Peter is a traitor on other occasions: In the case of a man named Ananias and his wife, Sapphira, Peter put them to death for failing to surrender the profit from the sale of their land and retaining for their own use—even though they had done no other wrong. How can it been wrong for them to retain a little of what belonged to them instead of giving it all away?


The attack on Paul the apostle

Apocrit. III.30-III.36

Anyone saying both “I am a Jew” and “I am a Roman” is neither, even if he would like to be.

The man who hypocritically pretends to be what he is not makes himself a liar in everything that he does. He disguises himself in a mask. He assaults the soul’s comprehension by various tactics, and like any charlatan he wins the gullible over to his side.

[1 Corinthians 9. 20-22: “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people…”]

Whoever accepts such principles as a guide for living cannot but be regarded as an enemy of the worst kind—the kind who brings others to submission by lying to them, who reaches out to make captives of everyone within earshot with his deceitful ways. And if, therefore, this Paul is a Jew one minute and the next a Roman, or a student of the Jewish law now, but an another time an enemy of the law—if in short, Paul can be an enemy to each whenever he likes by burglarizing each, then clearly he nullifies the usefulness of each tradition.

We may conclude that Paul is a liar. He is the adopted brother of everything false, so that it is useless for him to declaim, “I speak the truth of Christ, I do not lie” [Rom. 9.1]; for a man who one day uses the law as his rule and the next day uses the gospel is either a knave or a fool in what he does in the sight of others and even when hidden away by himself.

I am astonished at this man’s pious regard for the law, since it is occasioned by his need to get donations from those who listen to his words.

The same man who writes, “The law is spiritual” to the Romans, and “The law is holy and the commandment holy and just” now puts a curse upon those who obey what is holy! Then, as of to confuse the point further, he turns everything around and throws up a fog so dense that anyone trying to follow him inevitably gets lost, bumping up against the gospel on the one side, against the law on the other, stumbling over the law and tripping over the gospel—all because the guide who leads them by the hand has no idea where he is headed.