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 (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, 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.

Gospel Fictions, 2


 
Below, part of Gospel Fictions’ second chapter, “How to begin a Gospel” by Randel Helms (ellipsis omitted between unquoted passages):


A central working hypothesis of this book and one of the most widely held findings in modern New Testament study is that Mark was the first canonical Gospel to be composed and that the authors of Matthew and Luke (and possibly John) used Mark’s Gospel as a written source. As B.H. Streeter has said of this view of Mark:

Its full force can only be realized by one who will take the trouble to go carefully through the immense mass of details which Sir John Hawkins has collected, analyzed, and tabulated (pp. 114-153 of his classic Horae Synopticae). How anyone who has worked through those pages with a synopsis of the Greek text can retain the slightest doubt of the original and primitive character of Mark, I am unable to comprehend… The facts seem only explicable on the theory that each author had before him the Marcan material already embodied in a single document.

When the author of Mark set about writing his Gospel, circa 70 A.D., he did not have to work in an intellectual or literary vacuum. The concept of mythical biography was basic to the thought-process of his world, both Jewish and Graeco-Roman, with an outline and a vocabulary already universally accepted: a heavenly figure becomes incarnate as a man and the son of a deity, enters the world to perform saving acts, and then returns to heaven. In Greek, the lingua franca of the Mediterranean world, such a figure was called a “savior” (soter), and the statement of his coming was called “gospel” or “good news” (euangelion). For example, a few years before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the Provincial Assembly of Asia Minor passed a resolution in honor of Caesar Augustus:

…in giving to us Augustus Caesar, whom it [Providence] filled with virtue [arete] for the welfare of mankind, and who, being sent to us and to our descendents as a savior [soter]… and whereas, finally that the birthday of the God (viz, Caesar Augustus) has been for the whole world the beginning of the gospel [euangelion] concerning him, therefore, let all reckon a new era beginning from the date of his birth.

A few years earlier, Horace wrote an ode in honor of the same Caesar Augustus which presents him as an incarnation of the god Mercury and outlines the typical pattern of mythical biography: Descent as a son of a god appointed by the chief deity [Jupiter] to become incarnate as a man, atonement, restoration of sovereignty, ascension to heaven—a gospel indeed, and so the pattern of the Christian Gospels!

(The divine emperor. When a Roman emperor died he was traditionally regarded as having become god. Here Claudius, in life a timid man with a stutter and a limp, has been transformed into Jupiter, Vatican Museum, Rome.)

The standard phrase “the beginning of the gospel” (arche tou euangeliu) of Caesar (or whomever) seems to have been widespread in the Greco-Roman world. A stone from the marketplace of Priene in Asia Minor reads: “The birthday of the god (Augustus) was for the world the beginning of euangelion because of him.” Mark uses the same formula to open his book: “The beginning of the gospel (arche tou euangeliu) of Jesus Christ the son of God [theou hyios].” Even the Greek phrase “son of god” was commonly used for Augustus. On a marble pedestal from Pergamum is craved: “The Emperor Caesar, son of God [theou hyios], god Augustus.” Mark begins his mythical biography of Jesus with ready-made language and concepts, intending perhaps a challenge: euangelion is not of Caesar but of Christ!

The early Christians could have found out what we would call historical information about Jesus, but in fact they did not. Neither Mark nor anyone else in the Christian community (perhaps circa 70 A.D. Rome) had been in Palestine at the time; all the participants were now dead, and Mark had a book to write.

Certainly, there lived a Jesus of Nazareth, who was baptized in the Jordan by John, who taught, in imitation of John, that “the kingdom of God is upon you” (Mark, 1:15); and who was killed by the Romans as a potentially dangerous fomentor of revolution. Of the outline of Jesus’ life itself, this is just about all that Mark knew. Mark possessed a good many fictional (and some non-fictional) stories about Jesus and a small stock of sayings attributed to him, and he incorporated them in his Gospel; but he had no idea of their chronological order beyond the reasonable surmise that the baptism came at the beginning of the ministry and the crucifixion at the end. Mark is, in other words, not a biography; its outline of Jesus’ career is fictional and the sequence has thematic and theological significance only. As Norman Perrin bluntly puts it, “The outline of the Gospel of Mark has no historical value.”

Mark certainly knew what to put first: “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). But Mark’s beginning comes when Jesus is already a grown man only a few months away from death. His Gospel says nothing about Jesus’ birth or childhood, has almost no meaningful chronology, presents very little of Jesus’ moral teaching (no Sermon of the Mount, no parables of the Prodigal Son or Good Samaritan), and has a spectacularly disappointed ending: the Resurrection, announced only by a youth, is witnessed by no one, and the women who were told about it “say nothing to anybody, for they were afraid” (Mark 16:8). End of Gospel.

Mark wrote some forty years after the Crucifixion, when Jesus was already rapidly becoming a figure of legend. John the Baptist presented genuine problems. Since the baptism made John look like the mentor of Jesus and the initiator of his career, the Baptist had to be demoted, but not too much; the initiator became the forerunner. Mark’s method of performing that demotion is fascinating because, paradoxically, it does in fact the opposite, and had to be corrected, three different ways, by the other three evangelists.

The baptism itself was the first awkward fact. Ordinarily, John’s baptism stood as a sign that one had repented of sin: “A baptism in token of repentance, for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). It appears not to have troubled Mark that he presented Jesus as a repentant sinner. There is no hint in Mark’s first chapter that Jesus was in any way the Son of God before his baptism; indeed, there is the clear hint that at least Mark’s source, if not Mark himself, held the “adoptionist” theology.

(Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist, from a fifth century mosaic in Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Ravenna. Note Jesus’ nudity and his youthful, beardless face.)

All things considered, Mark does not begin his story of Jesus very satisfactorily. Indeed, within two or three decades of Mark’s completion, there were at least two, and perhaps three, different writers (or Christian groups) who felt the need to produce an expanded and corrected version. Viewed from their perspective, the Gospel of Mark has some major shortcomings: It contains no birth narrative, it implies that Jesus, a repentant sinner, became the Son of God only at his baptism; it recounts no resurrection appearances; and it ends with the very unsatisfactory notion that the women who found the Empty Tomb were too afraid to speak to anyone about it.

Moreover, Mark includes very little of Jesus’ teachings; worse yet (from Matthew’s point of view), he even misunderstood totally the purpose of Jesus’ use of parables [see below]. Indeed, by the last two decades of the first century, Mark’s theology seemed already old-fashioned and even slightly suggestive of heresy. So, working apparently without knowledge of each other, within perhaps twenty or thirty years after Mark, two authors (or Christian groups), now known to us as “Mathew” and “Luke” (and even a third, in the view of some—“John”) set about rewriting and correcting the first unsatisfactory Gospel. In their respective treatments of the baptism one obtains a good sense of their methods.

Mark had used his source uncritically, not bothering to check its scriptural accuracy. But Mathew used his source—the Gospel of Mark—with a close critical eye, almost always checking its references to the Old Testament and changing them when necessary, in this case dropping the verse from Malachi wrongly attributed to Isaiah and keeping only what was truly Isaianic. [Mark writes as if he quotes Isaiah 40:3 but his verse is a misquotation of Malachi 3:1]

Mathew disliked Mark’s perhaps careless implication that Jesus was just another repentant sinner, so he carefully tones it down, inventing a little dramatic scene. When Jesus

came to John to be baptized by him, John tried to dissuade him. “Do you come to me?” he said. “I need rather to be baptized by you.” Jesus replied, “Let it be so for the present; it is suitable to conform in this way all that God requires.” John then allowed him come. (Matt. 3:13-15)

This scene is found in no other Gospel and indeed contains two words (diekoluen, “dissuade”; prepon, “suitable”) found nowhere else in the New Testament. The verses are Matthew’s own composition, created to deal with his unease at Mark’s implication about the reason Jesus was baptized—not as a repentant sinner but to fulfill a divine requirement. Why God should require Jesus to be baptized, Mathew does not say.

Like Mathew, Luke was also unhappy with Mark’s account of the baptism and made, in his own way, similar changes. The Fourth Gospel takes an extreme way of dealing with the embarrassment of Jesus’ baptism by John: you will find there no statement that Jesus ever was baptized.

Developing theology creates fictions. Moreover, each gospel implicitly argues the fictitiousness of the others. As Joseph Hoffman has put it, “Every gospel is tendentious in relation to any other.” This is especially true with regard to Mark and the Gospels—Mathew and Luke in particular—intended to render Mark obsolete. The fictionalizing of Mark is one of the implicit purposes of the First and Third Gospels, whose writers used what were probably, in their communities, rare or even unique copies of Mark and who clearly expected that no more would be heard of Mark after their own Gospels were circulated. We do an injustice, Hoffman notes, “to the integrity of the Gospels when we imagine that these four ever intended to move into the same neighborhood.”

This becomes quite clear, for example, in two synoptic scenes describing Jesus’ telling the parable of the sower and the seed:

When he was alone, the Twelve and others who were round him questioned him about the parables. He replied, “To you the secret of the kingdom of God has been given; but to those who are outside, everything comes by way of parables, so that (as Scripture says) they may look and look, but see nothing. They may hear and hear, but understand nothing; otherwise they might turn to God and be forgiven.” (Mark 4:10-12)

It is not difficult to imagine Mathew reading this passage, scratching his head, and wondering how Mark could so totally misunderstood the purpose of a parable—a small story intended to illuminate an idea, not obscure it. But Mark was a gentile, living perhaps in Rome; and though he clearly knew little of the tradition of Jewish rabbinic parabolic teaching, he was familiar with Greek allegorical writing, which was often used to present esoteric ideas in mystifying form. Mathew, on the other hand, was a Hellenistic Jewish Christian who knew perfectly well that a rabbi’s parables were intended to elucidate, not obfuscate. Yet, here was Mark clearly insisting that Jesus’ parables were meant to prevent people’s understanding his message or being forgiven by God: a passage, moreover, that cites Scripture to prove its point.

We can imagine Mathew’s relief when he checked the reference in the Old Testament and found that Mark had got it wrong. Actually, Mark’s citation of Isa. 6:9-10 agrees with the Aramaic version rather than with the Septuagint, but Mathew went to the latter for his quotation, which allowed him completely to change the point of Jesus’ statement. Jesus speaks in parables to enhance people’s understanding, insists Mathew, not to prevent it. That Mark’s account of the scene is simply wrong is Mathew’s implication [see Matt. 13:10-15].

Mathew and Luke found that one way of dealing with the Sonship question lay in the nativity legends already circulating about Jesus: he was the Son of God because God impregnated his mother. Both Mathew and Luke added birth narratives to their revisions of Mark, basing them on legends quite irreconcilable with each other. The next chapter examines these nativity legends.

Published in: on May 14, 2012 at 3:06 am  Comments Off on Gospel Fictions, 2  

Gospel Fictions, 1


 
Below, excerpts of Randel Helms’ Gospel Fictions’ first chapter, “The Art of the Gospels: Theology as Fictional Narrative” (ellipsis omitted between unquoted passages):


I shall use the word “fiction” rather than “myth” to refer to the study, contained in this book, of the fictional aspects of the four canonical Gospels.

I write as literary critic, not as debunker. The Gospels are, it must be said with gratitude, works of art, the supreme fictions in our culture. Literary artists use their imaginations to produce poetry and fiction, works open to the methods of literary criticism. This literature was oral before it was written and began with the memories of those who knew Jesus personally.

Their memories and teachings were passed on as oral tradition for some forty years or so before achieving written form for the first time in a self-conscious literary work, so far as we know, in the Gospel of Mark, within a few years of 70 A.D.

Luke was obviously writing during a time when literature about Jesus was flowering. Paul was an ecstatic visionary who experienced, for what seems to be a period of nearly thirty years after the death of Jesus, visions of a heavenly being he called “Christ” and “the Lord,” and the fact is that neither Paul nor any other first-century Christian felt a need to distinguish between the heavenly being and the “historical Jesus.”

What is surprising is the great differences among the stories, even though they share, for the most part, similar sources. For example, according to Matthew and Mark, the dying words of Jesus were, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” According to Luke, Jesus’ dying words were “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” But according to John, they were, “It is accomplished.” To put it another way, we cannot know what the dying words of Jesus were, or even whether he uttered any. It is not that we have too little information, but that we have too much. Each narrative implicitly argues that the others are fictional. In this case at least, it is inappropriate to ask of the Gospels what “actually” happened; they may pretend to be telling us, but the effort remains a pretense, a fiction.

We are, with these scenes, in the literary realm known as fiction, in which narratives exist less to describe the past than to affect the present. In De Quincy’s phrase, the Gospels are not so much literature of knowledge as literature of power. As in the case mentioned above, the content of the Gospels is frequently not “Jesus” but “what certain persons in the first century wanted us to think about Jesus.” In the language of the Fourth Gospel, “Those [narratives] here written have been recorded in order that you may hold the faith that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (John 20:31).

The Gospels are Hellenistic religious narratives in the tradition of the Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament, which constituted the “Scriptures” to those Greek-speaking Christians who wrote the four canonical Gospels and who appealed to it, explicitly or implicitly, in nearly every paragraph they wrote. A simple example is the case of the last words of Christ. Mark presents these words in self-consciously realistic fashion, shifting from his usual Greek into the Aramaic of Jesus, transliterated into Greek letters Eloi eloi lama sabachthanei (My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?—Mark 15:34). Mark gives us no hint that Jesus is “quoting” Psalm 22:1; we are clearly to believe that we are hearing the grieving outcry of a dying man.

But the author of Matthew, who used Mark as one of his major written sources, is self-consciously “literary” in both this and yet another way. Though using Mark as his major source for the passion story, Matthew is fully aware that Mark’s crucifixion narrative is based largely on the Twenty-second Psalm, fully aware, that is, that Mark’s Gospel is part of a literary tradition (this description would not be Matthew’s vocabulary, but his method is nonetheless literary).

Aware of the tradition, Matthew concerned himself with another kind of “realism” or verisimilitude. When the bystanders heard Jesus crying, according to Mark, to “Eloi,” they assumed that “he is calling Elijah [Eleian]” (Mark 15:35). But Matthew knew that no Aramaic speaker present at the Cross would mistake a cry to God (Eloi) for one to Elijah—the words are too dissimilar. So Matthew self-consciously evoked yet another literary tradition in the service both of verisimilitude and of greater faithfulness to the Scriptures: not the Aramaic of Psalm 22:1 but the Hebrew, which he too transliterated into Greek—Eli Eli (Matt. 27:46)—a cry which could more realistically be confused with “Eleian.

Luke is even more self-conscious literary and fictive than Matthew in his crucifixion scene. Though, as I have said, he knew perfectly well what Mark had written as the dying words of Jesus, he created new ones more suitable to his understanding of what the death of Jesus meant—an act with at least two critical implications. First, that he has thus implicitly declared Mark’s account a fiction; second, that he self-consciously presents his own as a fiction. For like Matthew, Luke 23:46 deliberately placed his own work in the literary tradition by quoting Psalm 30 (31):5 in the Septuagint as the dying speech of Jesus: “Into your hands I will commit my spirit” (eis cheiras sou parathsomai to pneuma mou), changing the verb from future to present (paratihemai) to suit the circumstances and leaving the rest of the quotation exact.

This is self-conscious creation of literary fiction, creation of part of a narrative scene for religious and moral rather than historical purposes. Luke knew perfectly well, I would venture to assert, that he was not describing what happened in the past; he was instead creating an ideal model of Christian death, authorized both by doctrine and by literary precedent.

First-century Christians believed that the career of Jesus, even down to minor details, was predicted in their sacred writings. By a remarkably creative fiat of interpretation, the Jewish scriptures (especially in Greek translation) became a book that had never existed before, the Old Testament, a book no longer about Israel but about Israel’s hope, the Messiah, Jesus. Northrop Frye nicely sums up this self-reflexive aspect of the two Testaments as early Christians saw them:

How do we know that the Gospel story is true? Because it confirms the prophecies of the Old Testament. But how do we know that the Old Testament prophecies are true? Because they are confirmed by the Gospel story. Evidence, so called, is bounced back and forth between the testaments like a tennis ball; and no other evidence is given us. The two testaments form a double mirror, each reflecting the other but neither the world outside.

A voice, for example, in the (now) “Old” Testament became by interpretative fiat the voice of Jesus. When the psalmist wrote “My flesh shall rest in hope: because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine holy one to see corruption” (Psalms 15 [16]:9-10 LXX), it was in fact not “really” the psalmist speaking, but Jesus, a thousand years before his birth. As Luke has Peter say, in interpreting these verses to the crowd at Pentecost:

Let me tell you plainly, my friends, that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this very day. It is clear therefore that he spoke as a prophet… and when he said he was not abandoned to death, and his flesh never suffered corruption, he spoke with foreknowledge of the resurrection of the Messiah (Acts 2:29-31).

By fiat of interpretation, a psalm becomes a prophecy. David becomes Jesus.

We see a two-stage creative process here: first, the psalm is turned into a prophetic minidrama; then the interpretation of the psalm becomes another dramatic scene: Peter explaining it to the multitude. That the fictive creative act is Luke’s, and not Peter’s, is clear from the Greek of the scene: Luke has Peter quote, fairly loosely, as if from memory, the Septuagint Greek text of Psalms (though the historical Peter spoke Aramaic and needed, Christian tradition tells us, a Greek interpreter). The point of Luke’s interpretation depends on the Greek texts of the verse, not on the Hebrew. The Hebrew text of Psalm 16:10b has something like: “nor suffer thy faithful servant to see the pit,” which stands in simple parallelism to the first line of the distich, “Thou will not abandon me to Sheol” —that is, you will not allow me to die. The Greek text could, however, be taken to mean “You will not let me remain in the grave, nor will you let me rot.”

Peter’s speech is an effective work of dramatic fiction, the culmination of a complex two-stage creative process. Luke, as we shall see, creates the same kinds of dramatic fictions in his Gospel, the first half of the Christian history that includes his Acts of the Apostles.

Invention of that kind is the subject of this book.

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.