Thursday, February 26, 2015

NT: A Gospels Reflection

Now that I’ve finished reading the four canonical Gospels again - allow me a reflection and a look forward.

The average Christian will likely have read the Gospels in order - Matthew, Mark, Luke, John - as I did many decades ago. So Matthew ends up making that important first impression. Once you look into these books more deeply, as I have in this most recent endeavor, you start to see that Mark was probably written first, and that several Epistles (Galations, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, others) predate Mark by a few years or substantially more. I’ll acknowledge that a few scholars and many laypeople have differing opinions on the dating of the Bible, for instance at CARM and by Norman Geisler, but I’ll presume the following view of chronology obtains until a compelling alternative arises: that some Epistles were written first, then Mark, then other Gospels and Epistles, and finally The Gospel of John, the Epistles of John, and Revelation.

When we look, we can see that the canonical Gospels had some obvious gaps and mismatches between them, and further reading indicates that the authors probably had theological motives - and possibly literary ones - for writing how they did. Knowing now that there is no tradition of a flesh-and-blood Jesus walking the Earth in many of the Epistles that precede the Gospels seems to imply that walking, talking, ministering, miracle-ing Jesus began with Mark, which is written maybe 40 years after the alleged Crucifixion. So, to quote Richard Carrier in On The Historicity Of Jesus - Why We Might Have Reason For Doubt, “that’s weird”. For instance, Carrier notes at the start of his chapter on Acts:

The book of Acts has been all but discredited as a work of apologetic historical fiction.

He goes on to point out other kinds of “weirdness” throughout his examinations of the NT - a sample of the incongruities:

It is clear ‘the author of Acts wanted to stress the continuity of Judaism and Christianity, Paul’s close relation to the other apostles, and the unity of the first believers’ and thus had to ‘subvert’ the Epistles of Paul, especially Galatians. For example, we know Paul ‘was unknown by face to the churches of Judea’ until many years after his conversion (as he explains in Gal. 1.22- 23), and after his conversion he went away to Arabia before returning to Damascus, and he didn’t go to Jerusalem for at least three years (as he explains in Gal. 1.15- 18); whereas Acts 7–9 has him known to and interacting with the Jerusalem church continuously from the beginning, even before his conversion, and instead of going to Arabia immediately after his conversion, in Acts he goes immediately to Damascus and then back to Jerusalem just a few weeks later, and never spends a moment in Arabia. And yet we have the truth from Paul himself.

I found OHJ's Chapters 9, 10 & 11 on Acts, the Gospels and the Epistles to be a terrific reading aid. If you’re not a Bible scholar, but enjoy the writings of Dr. Bart Ehrman and Robert Price, then you’ll probably appreciate Carrier’s very well organized, detailed examination in these chapters.

Carrier also makes effective points on why we should have expected certain things to be written, where they apparently weren’t. For example, we might have expected Paul to defend his view that Jesus was a cosmic being as opposed to a terrestrial one, because if Jesus was actually flesh-and-blood and people knew about him, his legend would have already been spreading for twenty years prior to the earliest Epistle. Paul’s view would be in conflict. Instead, Paul makes no attempt to explain why we should accept the idea that Jesus is solely a cosmic entity. The absence of a defense indicates that Paul was unaware that there was a differing Jesus story against which an explanation or defense would have been required. That implies that a tradition of a terrestrial Jesus that preached and performed earthly miracles did not exist when Paul was writing. And THAT implies that the tradition of terrestrial Jesus did not become widespread until later. Carrier points out (OHJ Elements 40-42) that “cosmic Jesus” was already a Jewish tradition in some sects, even before Paul began evangelizing, which lends credence to the idea that Paul might have just elaborated upon existing Jewish thought. Hmmmmm.

For reference, here are a couple of the passages that might be interpreted to indicate Jesus already existed as a celestial being:

Zech 3:1 And he shewed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right hand to resist him.
Zech 6:11 Then take silver and gold, and make crowns, and set [them] upon the head of Joshua the son of Josedech, the high priest;

Here, "Joshua" is being translated as “Jesus”. Although I marvel at the theological ability to translate words and names to suit one’s preferred narrative, you can make a case that this is not too much of a leap from the OT to “cosmic Jesus” as understood by Paul and other Epistle authors.

The canonical Gospels sketch a picture of Jesus, but reading one Gospel just gives you part of the sketch. If you only read Mark, you’d never conclude that Jesus was anything more that a notable wise man, occasional magician and eventual martyr. By the time you’ve read the other three Gospels, the additional birth, ministry and passion narratives complete the outline and add some detail, but even that is incomplete. The Epistles provide the color, the Old Testament provides the background, and Revelation provides the climax. It’s a tortured analogy, but there’s an awful lot required to paint the complete portrait of this Jesus character.

The literary evidence indicates strongly that the idea of Jesus appears to have grown from a vaguely defined Jewish “cosmic Jesus” to become a terrestrial Jesus within several generations of early evangelists such as Paul. For the first few hundred years of developing Jesus worship, there were theological tugs-of-war over how Jewish or not he should be, and how mystical or not he should be. The concept was field-tested and modified freely and frequently until a consensus view emerged, then that consensus view gets adopted by the most powerful empire on Earth, and suddenly you have a significant portion of Earth’s civilizations marching to the tune of a unique new monotheistic religion which left its local forebears in the dust.

Clearly, skepticism is warranted. Without the Bible, there’s no artifact that points to a Jewish preacher traveling the area around what is now Israel, performing miracles, preaching, making prophecies, and giving the impression to the locals that he is the agent of the deity and will be the agent whereby all people achieve salvation. None. No writings. No personal or civil record. No monument. No home, no bedroom (”Jesus slept here”), no manger or farm or the inn where Joseph and Mary were turned away (”Jesus didn’t sleep here”). Nuthin. Jesus might have been a guy, but it’s not apparent. Absent the Bible, there is nothing concrete to even give us a hint. Subsequent historians (Josephus, Tacitus, etc) could only report what Christians said Christ was, not about what Christ actually was. Nothing.

Nowadays, I treat Christianity as a social anthropology topic. I can somewhat see how it came to be. I reasonably understand why people might believe, based on my own experience. I can see benefits that might accrue through membership, and how - provisionally - it might be somewhat advantageous for local societies, even in the present day. And it continues to fascinate me.

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