Tuesday, October 8, 2019

It Gets Better In The Retelling


When we read an ancient text, how would we know if that ancient text is telling us something true, legitimate and accurate? Conversely, how would we know if an ancient text has been made up, embellished and falsified?

The first and easiest way is to compare what we can gather from archaeology. If we look agnostically at what the historical and archaeological record tells us, with the evidence we can gather and use as few presuppositions as possible, can we piece together a firm record of an event or story to back up that ancient text?

The second is to look at multiple versions of a story (if indeed multiple accounts exist). By looking at multiple re-tellings of a story and seeing that first, if the who, what, where, when, why and how get changed, added or deleted, and second, if the fundamentals of the story stay the same, but some of the extraneous details get more elaborate and increasingly fantastic, then we are steering away from accurate history and heading straight towards mythology.

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So by those two criteria, I'm very much inclined to say that the gospels and the non-epistle components of the New Testament fall in to the category of mythology.
Whether they are fabrications made from whole cloth (a la Greek mythology), or fiction woven with historical details (a la the Spiderman comics) is a vexed question answered better by professionals, but the fact of the matter is that the weight of opinion of scholarship is slowly turning towards considering the New Testament as composed of myth.

For me, the data looks like this:

On the basis of archaeology, it is clear as day that Jesus Christ has not had the same impact as a contemporary of equal stature, for example, the Roman emperor Tiberius.

No statues.
No coins.
No inscriptions.
No documents bearing his name or seal.
No government documents recording his life activity.

This, for a man who turned morality and ethics on its head, who incited both rapturous worship and religious hostility, who not only preached to thousands, but fed them as well, the lack of historical corroboration - even for mundane details of his life - is very, very strange.

[At this point, you may have come across the 10/42 Apologetic, which is a claim that states that there are only 10 pieces of historic evidence for Tiberius, but 42 for Jesus, yet no-one doubts the historicity of Tiberius, so you can't doubt the historicity of Jesus Christ. This apologetic gets smacked down very hard at the Celsus blog]

We simply do not have any independent Jewish or Roman texts confirming the historical existence of a certain Jesus Christ (which in itself is a title rather than a name) until very late 1st century CE, at best - though however we do have mountains of evidence for Christians themselves - but very, very little for the man himself.

This is very strange indeed. 


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But what about the second criteria, the evidence from multiple retelling?

From my viewpoint, it looks like this:

(Part 1)

The gospel of Mark is strongly considered the first gospel to be written (and this shouldn't strike anyone as controversial), and in this gospel, Jesus is the most fallible, most human, gets angry easily, doesn't consider himself God and wonders why God left him at the very last moments of his life.

We then get Matthew and Luke who, as per the Synoptic Problem, are either borrowing from, or directly re-writing, Mark in order to correct Mark's mistakes and add theological slants.

For example, Matthew's Jesus is suddenly very Torah-observant. Matthew's Jesus deliberately goes out of his way to fulfil Old Testament prophecy, to the point that it affects his speech and and his life choices, and would rather human existence be brought to nil than for God's word to be abrogated.

Then we have Luke. Luke introduces his gospel by saying 
he is the one trying to say he's got all his facts straight - which is unfortunate, because if Luke is the only one with his facts straight, that means all the other gospels aren't getting their facts straight.
Luke's Jesus is suddenly nowhere near as 
Torah-observant as Matthew's Jesus - The Jesus of Luke openly contradicts the Pharisees by not washing before meals, and violates the Sabbath in full view of the religious authorities. 
He's also serene, calm and full of profundities, which basically makes him an apocalyptic Jewish hippy.

Then, we get to John's Jesus. My favourite quote regarding the Jesus of John comes from David Fitzgerald:
John's Jesus is the boss on the cross. 

John's Jesus is stridently anti-Semitic. John's Jesus declares himself to the be son of God from day one, to the point where it's a miracle in itself that this Jesus wasn't stoned for blasphemy on the very first page. John's Jesus carries his own damn cross, and even when he's dying, is giving orders to his family, his disciples, and even to the Romans who are executing him. On top of that, John's Jesus is so anti-Semitic that he doesn't wait until the week of his death to clear out the temple - John's Jesus clears out the temple as one of the very first things he does to mark his public ministry!

So the question is: how did we get from a plain, fallible Jesus, to a Torah-observant Jesus, to a non-Torah observant Jesus, to an openly hostile Jesus, if the four gospel authors are indeed writing about the same guy?


This means that the details regarding Jesus' life are so loose as to indicate the four gospel writers are writing about four different Jesus', or they're writing about a Jesus who had no details on his life.

(Part 2)

In the gospels, Jesus goes from plain, fallible, prone to anger, then through various stages of Torah observance, then to anti-Semitic hostility in four gospels - after the gospels, we get to Acts.

In Acts, Jesus (who strangely resembles the Jewish hippy Jesus of Luke) doesn't even bother to stick around for 10 verses, let alone multiple chapters, and the rest of Jesus' family disappear from history almost as fast as they came.

But then, we get to 
Revelation - Jesus all of a sudden turns in to a letter-dictating boss who has plenty to say about affairs down on earth, and far from the meek and mild Jesus we see in Luke, Revelation 19:11-16 describes Jesus as:

Having hair made of fire.
Wearing a robe dipped in blood.
Has a sword coming out of his mouth.
Shamelessly engaged in self-promotion.

So we see that Jesus goes through various phases of representation, but the end result is that we have a clear upward trajectory - from a plain, very human Jesus, arriving at a Jesus that is so fantastical that he wouldn't be out of place in Greek mythology.

(Part 3)

Let's have a look at the details of Jesus birth and early years as per the gospels.

In Mark, Jesus has no birth narrative. There is no back story. The story goes straight into his baptism and ministry.

In Matthew, Jesus not only gets a birth narrative, not only does Jesus get a genealogy written out for him, not only does Jesus' dad get told in a dream to go along with the plan, not only does Jesus get visits from mystical men from far away, but Jesus is also forced to flee for his life.

What does Luke say about Jesus birth? Not to be outdone, Luke creates a narrative about Jesus' cousin John the Baptist (the first this important detail is even mentioned, despite John baptising Jesus from page 1 in Mark). He then puts down a narrative of how Mary was foretold of Jesus' birth (directly by an angel, no less), of how John the Baptist's mother becomes possessed by the Holy Spirit after the foetus of John the Baptist supposedly senses the presence of the foetus of Jesus, after which Jesus' mother supernaturally breaks into song.

This is followed by:
John the Baptist' dad having his personal mute button disabled (after it was supernaturally enabled);
John the Baptist's dad immediately breaking in to song; 
An elaborate piece about how Jesus was bought to Bethlehem because the world's most powerful emperor needed to know where everyone's ancestors came from 1000 years prior.
More angels appearing to nearby shepherds;
More people becoming possessed by the Holy Spirit when Jesus goes to the temple for circumcision.

After this comes one of the very few stories about Jesus' childhood.

This is coupled with another genealogy - but one that conflicts with Matthew's. Minor problem...

And no flight to Egypt.


And lucky last comes John's gospel. John's gospel outdoes all the others!

"My Jesus doesn't need a birth narrative or a childhood story - not only has my Jesus has been around since the beginning of time, my Jesus created this whole thing! My Jesus is so powerful and awesome that he didn't need to be born - he just decided to turn up!"

Four gospels - four wildly different accounts for the birth of Jesus.

(Part 4)

If Lazarus was indeed the disciple that Jesus loved, why does he only get a brief mention as someone who won't be resurrected in Luke, only to become someone who not only is resurrected in John, but becomes the one who leans on Jesus' body at the Passover Meal when he is betrayed by Judas?

And all of this warrants not one mention in either of Mark or Matthew?

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So what we see is that as time goes forward, so do the details and concepts of Jesus - from a plain, fallible Jesus who then becomes a Jewish hippy, who then becomes anti-Semitic, who then doesn't bother sticking around once to see what his disciples are doing, who then becomes this fantastical letter-dictator who freely condemns anyone not up to par.

We also see the details around Jesus' life, who was present, what happened at various stages, who his relatives were or weren't, all change to the point it becomes contradiction.

Think about it. Either this is very strange history with minimal corroboration, or this is very well-written myth (in which case requires no historical corroboration).

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Until next time, stay healthy and positive.

-Damien










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