On the risen Jesus

People do not know how the mind works. Virtually all white nationalists who are Christians believe that the stories of the Resurrection have to do with the empirical world: an event in 1st-century Palestine. Now comes to my mind an oil painting of the risen Jesus that Andrew Anglin chose for his Daily Stormer in the days of Easter a few years ago.

In reality, the stories about Jesus that Christians believe, and revere, have nothing to do with the empirical world but with the structure of the inner self. I’m not going to give a class in this post about what introject means, or how our parents can program us malware without us knowing. Suffice it to say that, in my long odyssey in the fight against dad’s introjects, I had to read a lot of literature to convince myself that what the Gospels say must be questioned.
 
The resurrection of Jesus
 
The ordinary Christian does not have the faintest idea of the studies about the narratives of what they call the Resurrection and the Pentecost apparitions—research by those who have taken the trouble to learn ancient Greek to make a meticulous examination of the New Testament. The way secular criticism sees all these Gospel stories is complicated, but I will summarise it here in the most didactic way possible.

The oldest texts of the New Testament, like one of the Pauline epistles to the Corinthians, better reflect the theology of original Christianity than the late texts. Therefore, it is important to note that Paul does not mention the empty tomb or the ascension of Jesus. Modern criticism says that, if Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians was written by the 60s of our era, in that decade these legends had not yet unfolded.

Of the evangelists, Mark is the oldest and John the latest. (The Christian churches confuse the order in their Bibles by placing the Gospel of Matthew before Mark.) As Matthew and Luke copied and pasted a lot of verses from the Gospel of Mark when putting together their own gospels, these three evangelists are known as the Synoptics to distinguish them from the fourth gospel. Take this very seriously to see how the writers of the New Testament were adding narrative layers throughout the 1st century. To the brief visions that Paul had, collected in his first epistles some three decades after the crucifixion, in the 60s, the Synoptic evangelists were adding greater legends in the following decades and, in the case of John already in the dawn of the 2nd century of our era, more sophisticated Christologies.

I said that the oldest texts of the badly ordained New Testament in the traditional Bible are some of the epistles of Paul, who, while mentioning the ‘risen Christ’, does so within his dense and impenetrable theology. The Paul question is very important. Unlike the apostles, he never met Jesus in flesh; he only claimed that he heard his voice in a rare vision he had on the road to Damascus. And it is this little fellow who never knew Jesus the first one to speak of the ‘risen Christ’ in a chronologically ordered New Testament.

Unlike Paul the author of the Gospel of Mark, who wrote after Paul, does mention the empty tomb; but not the apparitions of Jesus.[1]

Matthew and John, who wrote after Mark, do mention the risen Jesus speaking with his disciples; but not the Ascension to the heavens.

It is Luke who already mentions everything, although he does not develop Christology at such theological levels as those of John the evangelist.

Another thing that uncultured Christians ignore is that Luke wrote his Gospel and Acts of the Apostles as a single book. The way both Catholic and Protestant churches separate the book of Luke is contrived. And it was precisely Luke who popularized the idea of the Ascension of Jesus: an obviously late legend insofar as, had it been historical, such a Hollywoodesque achievement would have been narrated not only by Paul; but by the other writers of the New Testament epistles, and by Matthew and John the evangelist (and let’s not talk about the other John: John of Patmos, the author of the Book of Revelation).

In short, serious scholars see in the diverse New Testament texts a process of myth-making: literary fiction that, in layers, was developed throughout the 1st century of our era. He who knows the chronology when the books and epistolary of the New Testament were written, and reads the texts in that order—instead of the order that appears in the Bibles for mass consumption—can begin to glimpse the evolution of the myth. Ultimately, there is no valid reason to suppose that what is told in the New Testament about Jesus’ resurrection and apparitions was historical.

It took me years to get oriented in the best literature about the Bible, including everything miraculous that is alleged about Jesus. The truth seeker could consult these selected texts.
 
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NOTE:

[1] To the bare ‘empty tomb’ narrative of the original Markan text in Greek, the church interpolated the verses that, in the common Bibles, we see at the end of Mark’s gospel; but the exegetes detected that trick a long time ago.

Gospel Fictions, 6


 
Below, part of Gospel Fictions’ sixth chapter, “The Passion narratives” by Randel Helms (ellipsis omitted between unquoted passages):


The story of the garden of Gethsemane is one of the most moving fictional creations in the New Testament. Though Mark’s Gospel is the first to tell the story in written form, its origins in the Old Testament are more clearly revealed in Luke’s version, whose vocabulary betrays its origins in Septuagint III Kings 19, the story of Elijah’s fleeing from Ahab and Jezebel.

The account is obviously fictional, since there could have been no witness to Jesus’ agony in the garden after he left his followers; they were all, according to the story, asleep.
 

Judas’ suicide

Mark had said nothing about the fate of Judas Iscariot after Jesus’ arrest, only that the priests promised to pay him money, not even indicating whether the money was ever paid. But the Christian sense of retribution could not rest with this, and soon legends were circulating that Judas died horribly. Luke knew one of these legends:

This Judas, be it noted, after buying a plot with the price of his villainy, fell forward on the ground, and burst open, so that his entrails poured out. This became known to everyone in Jerusalem, and they named the property in their own language Akeldama, which means “Blood Acre.” (Acts 1:18:19)

[Matthew on the other hand wrote:]

So Judas threw the money down in the temple and left them, and went and hanged himself. (Matt. 27:5)

That there were two such legends also accounts for the two different stories about Judas’ death: he hangs himself in Matthew and burst open in Acts. Both versions of the death are based on oracular readings of the Old Testament.
 

The Crucifixion

That Jesus was crucified by the Romans—the usual method of executing rebels—is the historical basis of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ death (Mark 15, Matt. 27, Luke 23, John 19); the accounts are nevertheless fiction, composed for theological purposes.

If, as many hold, the author of the Fourth Gospel knew Mark’s work, why did he assert so strongly, contradicting Mark, that Jesus carried his own cross? Again the answer is a matter of theology rather than history. The Fourth Gospel was written, in part, as an attack upon Gnostic Christianity, which held that the Son of God was not really crucified; some Gnostics in fact held that Simon of Cyrene not only carried the cross, but was himself killed upon it. John dealt with that argument simply by eliminating Simon altogether.

Moreover, John had an entirely different picture of Jesus’ condition at the crucifixion. In the Synoptics, the implication is that Jesus is too weak, following his scouring and beating, to carry his own cross; but for John, Jesus is entirely triumphant throughout the passion. John presents no cry of dereliction from the cross (“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”) but instead insists that the dying words were a cry of triumph: “It is accomplished!” (19:30). Such a figure was quite capable of carrying a cross.

Mark continues: “The hour of the crucifixion was nine in the morning” (the third hour, Roman time—Mark 15:25); John, however, tells us that “It was the eve of Passover, about noon,” when Pilate “handed Jesus over to be crucified.” Thus, we cannot know the hour of crucifixion. Nor, in fact, did the evangelists know: their times were fictional creations, parts of a theological framework.

Gospel Fictions, 7


 
Below, part of Gospel Fictions’ seventh chapter, “Resurrection fictions” by Randel Helms (ellipsis omitted between unquoted passages):


 
The earliest extended statement about the Easter experiences appears not in the Gospels but in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. It dates from the early 50’s, some twenty years after the crucifixion. Paul’s statement is as interesting for what it does not say as for what it does:

I handed on to you the facts which had been imparted to me: that Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the Scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised to life on the third day, according to the Scriptures; and that he appeared to Cephas, and afterwards to the Twelve. Then he appeared to over five hundred of our brothers at once, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, and afterwards to all the apostles. (15:2-7)

None of these appearances, in anything like the sequence Paul lists, is depicted in the four Gospels. Moreover, not one of the Gospel resurrection appearances is identical to those listed by Paul. Paul did not know the Gospel resurrection stories, for the simple reason that they had not yet been invented, and the four evangelists, who wrote twenty to fifty years after Paul, either did not know his list of appearances or chose to ignore it.

Perhaps most surprising of all the differences is Paul’s failure to mention the legend of the empty tomb, which was, for the writer of the earliest Gospel (Mark), the only public, visible evidence for the resurrection. Though Paul vigorously attempts to convince the Christians at Corinth, some of whom apparently doubted, that Jesus indeed rose from the dead (“if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain”), he never mentions this most striking piece of evidence.

Indeed, he had probably never heard of it; it was a legend that grew up in Christian communities different from his own. It may even have post-dated his death, for Mark wrote almost twenty years after his letter to Corinth. Worse yet, Paul would not have agreed with Mark’s theology even had he known it; for Paul, resurrection meant not the resuscitation of a corpse involving the removal of a stone and the emptying of a tomb, but a transformation from a dead physical body to a living spiritual one. “Flesh and blood can never possess the kingdom of God” (I Cor. 15:50).

Not only is St Paul apparently unaware of the resurrection narratives recorded in the Gospels, but his own list of appearances is irreconcilable with those of the evangelists written later. Paul has it that the first appearance of the risen Lord was to Cephas (he always calls Peter by his Aramaic name, and apparently knows no stories about him in Greek). The Gospels describe no initial resurrection appearance to Peter (some women, the number varying from three to two to one, see him first), though Luke says that Peter did see him. According to equally irreconcilable accounts on the Gospels, the first appearance was to Mary Magdala alone (John), or to Mary Magdala and the other Mary (Mathew), or to Mary Magdala, Joanna, and Mary, the mother of James (Luke). Again, Paul declares that the second resurrection appearance was to the “twelve,” whereas both Mathew and Luke stress that the appearance before the disciples was to the “eleven,” Judas being dead. Either Paul did not know the story about the defection and suicide of Judas Iscariot or else the “twelve” meant something different to him.

In other words, different centers of early Christianity produced their own collections of evidence of Jesus’ resurrection; these grew up independently and had, in the cases considered so far, almost nothing to do with each other. Of course, the most famous of the stories appear in the Gospels. Already in the mid-first century A.D., when Paul first wrote to the Corinthians, the idea was well established that Jesus rose again “on the third day, according to the Scriptures” (15:34). That is to say, Christians had scoured the Old Testament for passages that could, out of context, be interpreted as ancient oracles about the career of Jesus.

This involved interpretative methods that to modern eyes seem bizarre. Matthew’s assertion, in 21:4-5, based on his failure to understand the parallelism in the language of Zech. 9:9, that Jesus rode into Jerusalem astride two animals at once, is such an example. Moreover, the length of Jesus’ stay in the tomb was computed by reading Hosea 6:1-2 out of context, it being the only passage in the Old Testament with an “on the third day” allusion:

Come, let us return to the Lord;
for he has torn us and will heal us,
he has struck us and he will bind up our wounds;
after two days he will revive us,
on the third day he will restore us,
that in his presence we may live.

Hosea is, in these verses, not discussing the career of a holy man seven hundred years in the future. He is addressing his own countrymen in his own time, calling upon a corrupt people for moral and religious reform, berating people of whom one could say:

Their deeds are outrageous.
At Israel’s sanctuary I have seen a horrible thing:
there Ephraim played the wanton
and Israel defiled himself. (Hos. 6:10)

Some early Christians were aware of the paucity of Old Testament predictions about the length of Jesus’ stay in the tomb, and set about to invent more. Matthew’s additional evidence contains a prophecy in conflict with his own resurrection narrative. According to this evangelist, Jesus was buried on Friday just before sundown, and the tomb was found empty at sunrise on Sunday; thus, Jesus was presumably in the tomb two nights and one day. Nonetheless, Matthew imputed to Jesus the following, composed out of the Book of Jonah: “Jonah was in the sea-monster’s belly for three days and three nights in the bowels of the earth” (Matt. 12:40).

The oldest Christian narratives describing the discovery of the empty tomb on the third day appears in the Gospel of Mark:

When the Sabbath was over, Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought aromatic oils intending to go and anoint him; and very early on the Sunday morning, just after sunrise, they came to the tomb. They were wondering among themselves who would roll away the stone for them from the entrance to the tomb, when they looked up and saw that the stone, huge as it was, had been rolled back already. They went into the tomb, where they saw a youth sitting on the right-hand side, wearing a white robe; and they were dumbfounded. But he said to them, “Fear nothing; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here; look, there is the place where they laid him. But go and give this message to his disciples and Peter: ‘He will go on before you into Galilee and you will see him there, as he told you’.” Then they went out and ran away from the tomb, beside themselves with terror. They said nothing to anybody, for they were afraid. (Mark 16:1-8).

The most ancient manuscripts of Mark end at this point, one of the strangest and most unsatisfying moments in all the Bible, depicting fear and silence on Easter morning and lacking a resurrection appearance. But within about fifty years, at least five separate attempts were made by various Christian imaginations to rewrite Mark’s bare and disappointing story; they appear in the Long Ending and the Short Ending of Mark, and in the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John.

The first two are second-century interpolations in some texts of Mark and are identified as such in any responsible modern text. They are Mark 16:9-20 (in the King James version and others based on late manuscripts), an unskillful paraphrase of resurrection appearances in other Gospels; and Mark 16:9 in few other late manuscripts, in which the women followed the youth’s instructions to tell the disciples, a statement that conflicts with verse 8 of the original text.

Probably the first large-scale effort to rewrite Mark’s account and make it more pleasing to the faithful took place when the Gospel of Mathew was written in the last two decades of the first century. Although the major written source information was the Gospel of Mark, Matthew made up striking changes in Mark’s resurrection narrative. Mark’s account ends with the women running away from the tomb in terror and in their fear say nothing to anybody. Matthew did not like this ending, however, so he changed it, consciously constructing a fictional narrative that more closely fit what he and his Christian community wanted to have happen on Easter morning: “They hurried away from the tomb in awe and great joy, and ran to tell the disciples” (Matt. 28:8). How did Matthew feel justified in making such a major change in Mark, a source he obviously regarded, for the most part, as authoritative?

The answer is that Matthew was a conscious literary artist who sincerely believed in the resurrection; moreover, he believed he had the authority, granted him by his church and by its interpretation of the Old Testament, to “correct” Mark’s Gospel and theology. Indeed, he had corrected Mark many times before, often doing so on the basis of what he regarded as his superior understanding of the oracles in the Old Testament. For since Jesus’ life happened “according to the Scriptures,” early Christians were confident that in order to find out about him, they did not need to engage in historical research or consult witness (in our understanding of these two approaches); they found detailed history in the ancient oracles of the Hebrew Bible, read as a book about Jesus.

Matthew was a careful student of both the Old Testament and of Mark, which in his time was not yet accepted as canonical Scripture and thus could be changed at need. His study revealed how frequently Mark’s Gospel was transparent upon Scripture (or based upon it), and in ways that Mark himself apparently did not recognize. Mark had composed his Gospel on the basis of earlier oral and written sources, which in turn had found much of their information about Jesus in the Old Testament. Though Mark seems not to have realized that this was so, Matthew readily recognized the relationships between Mark and the Old Testament, and even took it upon himself to extend and correct them.

In this case he saw Mark’s resurrection narrative as transparent upon de Book of Daniel, especially chapter 6, the story of the lion’s den. On recognizing the relationship, Matthew seems to have consulted the Septuagint version of Daniel and believed that he found there details of a more accurate account of the happenings of the Sunday morning than could be found in the pages of Mark; never mind that Daniel’s narrative is a story in the past tense about presumed events in the distant past. Matthew ignored its narrative and historical content and turned it into a prophetic oracle, as had the originators of Mark’s story.

It seems clear that in a literary sense at least, Matthew was right: the account of the empty tomb used by Mark was indeed structured on Daniel’s story of the lion’s den. In the 30’s and 40’s, the empty tomb story was not part of the tradition about the resurrection: Paul was unaware of it. The legend grew in Mark’s community, or one from which it borrowed, as part of its stock of evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. As Matthew was to do again nearly a generation later, certain Christians, perhaps in the 50’s and 60’s, searched the Old Testament, a major source of what was for them authoritative information about Jesus, in order to construct their account of the passion and resurrection, and found in the Book of Daniel much of what they needed. Consider the parallels. […]

[Helms’ text cannot be copied and pasted in the internet. Above I typed directly pages 129 to 135 from his book, Gospel Fictions, Prometheus Books, 1988. But I’ll omit Helms’ detailed account of these parallels and jump to page 142:]

In sum, we may say that Matthew’s account of the resurrection is a fictional enlargement of Mark’s fictional narrative, produced, at least in part, because of what he saw as the incomplete and inadequate nature of Mark’s last chapter. Certainly, Matthew sincerely believed in the resurrection; he also believed that his version of the story was more authoritative, more “scriptural,” than Mark’s, but his sincerity does not make the story less fictive. The same may be said of Luke’s enlargement of the Markan resurrection account.

The Gospel of Luke is, like that of Matthew, an expanded revision of Mark. Of Mark’s 661 verses, some 360 appear in Luke, either word-for-word or with deliberate changes. Some of the most dramatic of these changes appear in Luke’s version of Mark’s resurrection narrative.

Luke’s most significant change from Mark—the totally different angelic message at the tomb—finds its origin not in the Old Testament, however, but in Luke’s need to prepare his readers for the story of Pentecost in the Book of Acts, which he also wrote. In the version of the story Luke wishes to present, the disciples cannot be ordered, or even allowed, to leave Jerusalem for Galilee; they must remain for the all-important Pentecost experience.

Matthew composed a Galilee resurrection appearance using the Book of Daniel as the source of what Jesus would have said. But Luke eliminates the angels’ statement that the risen Jesus is going to Galilee; in contrast to Matthew, who composes a new statement for Jesus out of the youth’s speech in Mark (“take word to my brothers that they are to leave to Galilee”—Matt. 28:10), Luke imputes to Jesus a new saying that demands quite the opposite: “Stay here in this city until you are armed with the power from above” (Luke 24:49).

Luke thus presents resurrection appearances only in the vicinity of Jerusalem. Mark implies, and Matthew specifically declares, that Jesus, followed later by his disciples, left Jerusalem immediately after his resurrection and went to Galilee some eighty or ninety miles to the north, where they all met. Luke writes (Acts 1:3-4) that the risen Jesus “over a period of forty days… appeared to them and taught them about the kingdom of God. While he was in their company he told them not to leave Jerusalem.” For Luke, the story of Pentecost, described in the second chapter of Acts, overshadowed any assertion that the disciples were in Galilee meeting Jesus; they had to be in Jerusalem, so he placed them there and constructed a saying by Jesus to justify this change.

The fourth evangelist, John (who was not the Apostle, but a Christian who wrote at the very end of the first century), possessed a collection of resurrection narratives different from those used by Matthew and Luke, and irreconcilable with them.

In Luke, when the women returned to the disciples with the joyous news that the tomb was empty and that two angels had declared Jesus risen, “The story appeared to them to be nonsense, and they would not believe” (24:11); but in John, when Peter and the other disciples hear the women’s message, they run to the tomb and find it empty, whereat, says John, they “believed” (20:28). […]

The Gospel of John , as originally written (circa 100 A.D.), ended immediately after Jesus’ appearance before the doubting Thomas. Early in the second century, however, certain Christians to whom the gospels of Mathew and Luke were important, recognized that both these earlier works stress, in opposition to John, that the resurrection appearances occurred in Galilee as well as Jerusalem. They took it upon themselves to reconcile John with the others by adding a twenty-first chapter.

That this section is not by the author of the rest of the Gospel is clear from the prominence it gives to the “sons of Zebedee” (John 21:2), who are mentioned by this name nowhere else in the Fourth Gospel, though they are central figures in the Synoptics. A major propose of this addition, and another sign of its late date, is betrayed by the last saying attributed to Jesus in the chapter. For no reason apparent in the narrative, we are told that Peter “saw” an unnamed disciple, the one “whom Jesus loved,” and asked Jesus, “What will happen to him?” Jesus’ response was, “If it should be my will that he should wait until I come, what is that to you? Follow me.”

The saying of Jesus became current in the brotherhood, and was taken to mean that the disciple would not die. But in fact Jesus did not say that he would not die, he only said “If it should be my will that he should wait until I come, what is that to you?” (21:21-23)

Obviously, this disciple (in fact all the first-generation Christians) had long since died, and Jesus showed no signs of returning. The tradition persisted, however, that those were the words of Jesus, for the first generation indeed confidently expected the early return of their Lord (had he not said, in Mark 9:1, “There are some of those standing here who will not taste death before they have seen the kingdom of God already come”?). A saying had to be constructed that would not only demystify and reinterpret this persistent legend, so troubling to the faithful, but solve the apologetic problem it presented. Chapter 21 exists, in part, for this purpose; and though the attempt is an unconvincing quibble, it had to be made.

The resurrection narratives in the last chapters of the four Gospels are effective stories that have given solace and hope to millions of believers who have not read them carefully.

The fallibility of the Gospels (6)

A chapter from Ian Wilson’s
Jesus: The Evidence

Bultmann died in 1976, at the age of ninety-two. A whole generation of modern New Testament scholars, among them his Marburg successor Werner Kiimmel, Bristol University’s Dennis Nineham, Harvard University’s Helmut Koester, and others, acknowledge an immense debt to him for introducing a whole new school of thought in theological research. Others, however, recognize that Bultmann went too far, and have challenged his rigid, unshakable attitudes: in Britain, while acknowledging that each gospel per se may have been written at second hand, several scholars have devoted great attention to the detection of underlying first-hand sources. Not long after Bultmann had begun his professorship at Marburg, across the Channel at Queen’s College, Oxford, a shy and retiring Englishman, Canon Burnett Streeter, quietly put the finishing touches to The Four Gospels: A Study in Origins.

By this time, thanks to both British and German theological re- search, it was already recognized that the authors of Matthew and Luke, in addition to drawing on the gospel of Mark, must have used a second Greek source, long lost, but familiarly referred to by scholars as ‘Q’ (from the German ‘quelle’, meaning source). It was even possible to reconstruct Q’s original content from passages in which Matthew and Luke bore close resemblance to each other, but not to Mark. While reaffirming this thinking, Streeter postulated at least two additional sources: ‘M’, which seemed to have provided material peculiar to the Matthew gospel, and ‘L’ which furnished passages exclusive to Luke. Streeter evolved a chart of the synoptic gospels’ possible interrelationship and dependence upon such sources. ‘M’ and ‘L’ may well have been written in Aramaic, the spoken language of Jesus and his disciples.

Streeter died in 1937, but his line of thought was developed by other major British theological scholars, among them Professor Charles Dodd, who went on to make his own special contribution to an understanding of the John gospel.

To this day the broad outlines of Streeter’s hypothesis remain the basis for much synoptic literary criticism. And the clues to underlying Aramaic sources are indeed there. In the Luke gospel, for instance, which includes ‘exclusives’ such as the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, there occurs the following saying:

Oh, you Pharisees! You clean the outside of cup and plate, while inside yourselves you are filled with extortion and wickedness… Instead give alms from what you have and then indeed everything will be clean for you. (Luke II: 39-41).

‘Give alms’ appears to make no sense, yet it occurs in the very earliest available Greek texts. All becomes clear, however, when we discover that in Aramaic ‘zakkau’ (to give alms) looks very similar to ‘dakkau’ (to cleanse). That the original saying referred to ‘cleansing’ rather than ‘giving alms’ can be checked because Matthew includes a parallel passage in what we may now judge to have been the correct form: ‘Blind Pharisee! Clean the inside of cup and dish first so that the outside may become clean as well…’ (Matthew 23: 26). As has been remarked by Cambridge theologian Don Cupitt, this tells us more clearly than any amount of scholarship that whoever wrote Luke was not inventing his material, but was struggling with an Aramaic source that he was obviously determined to follow even if he did not fully under- stand it.

A similar misunderstanding is detectable in the Matthew gospel, notable for its remarkable ‘Sermon on the Mount’ passages, some of which, when translated from Greek into Aramaic, take on such a distinctive verse form that Aramaic must have been the language in which they were first framed. It is like translating the words ‘On the bridge at Avignon’ back into their original French.

(To be continued…)

The fallibility of the Gospels (5)

A chapter from Ian Wilson’s
Jesus: The Evidence


If all these new discoveries seemed damaging enough, within two decades on to the scene at Germany’s Marburg University stepped Rudolf Bultmann (pic), acknowledged by many as this century’s greatest New Testament theologian, bringing with him a new and yet more devastating weapon, Formgeschichte or ‘form criticism’. This followed on from the work of Karl Ludwig Schmidt, a German pastor who had noted that a particular weakness of gospels such as Mark’s lay in the link passages, which appeared to have been invented to give an impression of continuity between one episode or saying and the next. Bultmann set his sights to trying to reconstruct what material, if any, might be authentic between the links. His approach was to try to assess each gospel element—birth story, miracle story, ethical saying, etc.—in order to establish whether it was original or had been borrowed from the Old Testament, or from contemporary Jewish thought, or merely invented to suit some particular theological line which early Christian preachers wanted to promulgate.

For Bultmann anything that savoured of the miraculous—the nativity stories, references to angels, accounts of wondrous cures of the sick, and the like—could immediately be dismissed as prompted by the writer’s concern to represent Jesus as divine. Anything that appeared to fulfil an Old Testament prophecy—Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, his entry into Jerusalem on a donkey, his betrayal, and much else—could be rejected as a mere attempt to represent his life as fulfilling such prophecies. If anything that Jesus was reported to have said could be traced to the general Jewish thinking of his time, then it was unacceptable as necessarily originating from him.

For instance, Jesus’ famous saying, ‘always treat others as you would like them to treat you; that is the meaning of the Law and the Prophets’ (Matthew 7: 12) may be found mirrored almost exactly in a saying of the great Jewish Rabbi Hillel, from less than a century before Jesus: ‘Whatever is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow-man. This is the whole Law [Torah]’. We cannot therefore be sure that this was ever said by Jesus. Similarly, in Mark’s gospel, Jesus is reported as telling a paralytic: ‘Your sins are forgiven’ (Mark 2:5). Jewish scribes were then said to have challenged Jesus’ right to offer such forgiveness, on the grounds that only God can forgive sins. According to Mark Jesus went on to cure the paralytic regardless. Bultmann argued that this story was probably invented by early Christians to bolster their own claim to be able to forgive sins.

By a series of deductions of this kind he concluded that much of what appears in the gospels was not what Jesus had actually said and done, but what Christians at least two generations removed had invented about him, or had inferred from what early preachers had told them. Not surprisingly, Bultmann’s approach left intact little that might have derived from the original Jesus—not much more than the parables, Jesus’ baptism, his Galilean and Judaean ministries and his crucifixion. Recognizing this himself, he condemned as useless further attempts to try to reconstruct the Jesus of history:

I do indeed think that we can now know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus, since the early Christian sources show no interest in either, are moreover fragmentary and often legendary.

Bultmann’s recourse was to the Lutheran concept of a Christ of faith, in his view a concept far superior to anything relying on works of history. And he and his colleagues seem to have happily accepted a divine Jesus while rejecting most of the historical evidence for his existence. Dr Geza Vermes, a leading present-day Jewish scholar, has neatly summarized the Bultmann position as having ‘their feet off the ground of history and their heads in the clouds of faith’.

(To be continued…)

Published in: on July 8, 2012 at 10:43 am  Comments (2)  

The fallibility of the Gospels (4)

A chapter from Ian Wilson’s
Jesus: The Evidence

In turn the John gospel came under similar scrutiny. The long speeches in fluent Greek attributed to Jesus were considered by German theologians to be Hellenistic in character, compatible with the gospel’s traditional provenance, the Hellenistic city of Ephesus in Asia Minor. Since even Church tradition acknowledged the John gospel to have been written later than the rest, it was thought to be most likely to date from close to the end of the second century. However, the one apparent crumb of comfort, that the Mark gospel, despite its geographical flaws, seemed to offer a less fanciful version of Jesus’ life than the rest, was in turn swept away with the publication, in 1901, of Breslau professor Wilhelm Wrede’s The Secret of the Messiahship.

Wrede argued powerfully that whoever wrote Mark tried to present Jesus as having deliberately made a secret of his Messiahship during his lifetime, and that most of his disciples failed to recognize him as the Messiah until after his death. While not necessarily giving this idea their full endorsement, most modern scholars acknowledge Wrede’s insight in establishing one fundamental truth—that even the purportedly ‘primitive’ Mark gospel was more concerned with theology, with putting over a predetermined theological viewpoint, than with providing a straight historical narrative.

Five years after Wrede’s publication, in a closely written treatise From Reimarus to Wrede, translated into English as The Quest for the Historical Jesus, Albert Schweitzer (pic), later to become the world-famous Lambarene missionary, summarized the work of his fellow German theological predecessors in these terms:

There is nothing more negative than the result of the critical study of the life of Jesus. The Jesus of Nazareth who came forward publicly as the Messiah, who preached the ethic of the Kingdom of God, who founded the Kingdom of Heaven upon earth, and died to give his work its final consecration, never had any existence… This image has not been destroyed from without, it has fallen to pieces, cleft and disintegrated by the concrete historical problems which came to the surface one after another…

(To be continued…)

Published in: on July 6, 2012 at 10:16 am  Comments Off on The fallibility of the Gospels (4)  

The fallibility of the Gospels (3)

A chapter from Ian Wilson’s
Jesus: The Evidence

But the incursion into theology of the increasingly scientific outlook of the age was not to be checked so easily, particularly among Protestants. Under the professorship of the redoubtable Ferdinand Christian Baur, a prodigiously productive theologian who was at his desk by four o’clock each morning, Tübingen University in particular acquired a reputation for a ruthlessly iconoclastic approach to the New Testament, an approach which spread not only throughout Germany, but also into the universities of other predominantly Protestant countries. Traditionally the Matthew gospel had been regarded as the earliest of the four New Testament gospels, and it went virtually unquestioned that its author was Matthew, the tax-collector disciple of Jesus.

Tübingen University Library

In 1835 Berlin philologist Karl Lachmann argued forcefully that the Mark gospel, simpler and more primitive, was the earliest of the three synoptics. Lachmann became swiftly followed by scholars Weisse and Wilke, later in the century the argument was taken up by Heidelberg theologian Heinrich Holtzmann, and by the end of the century Mark’s priority (even though not without challengers to this day) had become the most universally accepted theological discovery of the age. And this raised immediate problems concerning the authorship of Matthew. The Mark gospel, which from internal and external clues was almost certainly written in Rome, ostensibly offers the least claim of all the synoptics to eyewitness reporting. Traditionally, Mark is claimed to have been at best some sort of secretary or interpreter for Peter. The connection with Peter, if it existed at all, cannot have been that close, however, for the Mark gospel exhibits a lamentable ignorance of Palestinian geography. In the seventh chapter, for instance, Jesus is reported as going through Sidon on his way to Tyre to the Sea of Galilee. Not only is Sidon in the opposite direction, but there was in fact no road from Sidon to the Sea of Galilee in the first century AD, only one from Tyre.

Similarly the fifth chapter refers to the Sea of Galilee’s eastern shore as the country of the Gerasenes, yet Gerasa, today Jerash, is more than thirty miles to the south-east, too far away for a story whose setting requires a nearby city with a steep slope down to the sea. Aside from geography, Mark represents Jesus as saying, ‘If a woman divorces her husband and marries another she is guilty of adultery’ (Mark 10:12), a precept which would have been meaningless in the Jewish world, where women had no rights of divorce. The author of the Mark gospel must have attributed the remark to Jesus for the benefit of Gentile readers.

Since it is demonstrable that the author of Matthew drew a substantial amount of his material from the Mark gospel, is virtually impossible to believe that the original tax-collector Matthew, represented as having known Jesus at first hand, and having travelled with him, would have based his gospel on an inaccurate work whose author clearly had no such advantages. Bluntly, the original disciple Matthew could not have written the gospel that bears his name. Whoever wrote it must have been later than Mark. As a result of such reasoning, the German theologians began increasingly to date the origination of all three synoptic gospels to well into the second century AD.

(To be continued…)

Published in: on July 4, 2012 at 11:18 am  Comments Off on The fallibility of the Gospels (3)  

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)  

The fallibility of the Gospels (1)

A chapter from Ian Wilson’s
Jesus: The Evidence

It is perhaps a reflection of today’s emphasis on a Jesus of faith that most modern Christians, practising and non-practising, are quite unaware of the sort of conflicts that have riven the world of gospel studies during the last century or so.

Few realize, for instance, that despite the fact that the canonical gospels bear the names Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, these names are mere attributions, and not necessarily those of their real authors. The earliest writers who referred to the gospels significantly failed to mention names of authors, it being apparent that each gospel, both those surviving and those that have failed to survive, was originally designed as the gospel for a particular community. A canon of the four ‘recognized’ gospels only gradually came into general usage, at the same time acquiring associations with specific names from Christianity’s earliest years, though the connection was not necessarily legitimate. It should also be borne in mind that the earliest texts had none of the easy identification features that they bear now. Everything, without exception, was written in capital letters. There were no headings, chapter divisions or verse divisions, refinements which were not to appear until the Middle Ages. To make matters difficult even for the modern scholar, there was practically no punctuation or space between words.

Given such considerations it does not need anyone with a Ph.D. in theology to recognize that the Christian gospels can scarcely be the infallible works fundamentalists would have us believe. Examples of one gospel’s inconsistency with another are easy enough to find. While according to the Mark and Luke gospels Jesus stayed in Peter’s house, and afterwards healed the leper (Mark I: 29-45; Luke 4: 38 ff; Luke 5: 12 ff), according to Matthew (8: 1-4 and 14 ff) Jesus healed the leper first. While according to Matthew the Capernaum centurion spoke man-to-man with Jesus (Matthew 8: 5 ff), according to Luke (7: I ff) he sent ‘some Jewish elders’ and friends to speak on his behalf. Although according to Acts Judas Iscariot died from an accidental fall after betraying Jesus (Acts I: 18), according to Matthew he ‘went and hanged himself’ (Matthew 27: 5).

Disconcerting though such inconsistencies are, the fair-minded sceptic might be disposed to regard them as no worse than the sort of reporting errors which occur daily in modern newspapers. But New Testament criticism has gone much deeper than pointing out flaws of this order, there having been, in some quarters at least, a fashion for each new critic to be bent on outdoing his predecessors in casting doubt on the gospels’ authenticity.

The parallel passage technique

The first forays into understanding the men and facts behind the gospels began harmlessly enough. Many incidents concerning Jesus are related in two or more of the gospels, and an early research technique, still extremely valuable, was to study the corresponding passages side by side, the so-called ‘parallel passage’ technique.

Careful comparison of the three gospel passages above reveals a fundamental common ground the time of morning, the day of the week, the rolling away of the stone, the visit to the tomb by women. But it also discloses some equally fundamental differences which serve to tell us something about the gospel writers. The Mark author, for instance, speaks merely of ‘a young man in a white robe’, with no suggestion that this individual was anything other than an ordinary human being. In the Luke version we find ‘two men in brilliant clothes’ who appear ‘suddenly’. Although not absolutely explicit, there is already a strong hint of the supernatural. But for the Matthew writer, all restraints are abandoned. A violent earthquake has been introduced into the story, Mark’s mere ‘young man’ has become a dazzling ‘angel of the Lord… from heaven’, and this explicitly extra-terrestrial visitor is accredited with the rolling away of the stone.

(To be continued…)

Published in: on July 2, 2012 at 11:26 am  Comments Off on The fallibility of the Gospels (1)  

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.