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An Amazing Life: Jesus and the Nozerim

Appendix XVII – Gospels and Ancient Writings

To write a “historical” book about ancient times is largely an exercise in trying to discern facts from the morass of ancient writings and writings about those writings. Historians have their methods which are helpful, but nothing works as well as a broad base of related knowledge and some good reasoning. History certainly doesn’t have to make sense, but then, when all else fails, it’s a good place to start.

We may as well start with an admission: I’m not an historian and don’t care to be one. I’ve spent far too much time sifting through historian BS to be generally impressed. Add the notion of “religious historian” and you’ve created a “double-whammy” – BS piled on top of BS. Of course, there are amazing historians with encyclopedic minds and actual integrity, but they’re not as easy to find as you might think. The more one researches any historical fact, the more they discover that the majority of history is written by one author whose work is then copied over and over – often without attribution, consideration, or validation.

The adage is that history is written by the victors and we might add that historians often determine who the victors were. Because of his significance in the history here, I will use one example – Flavius Josephus. Indeed, an interesting history could be written about this historian who wrote the definitive history of the Jews from around the time of Jesus. But you don’t have to read much of Josephus to discover that early Christians attempted to insert text into the history to support the historical record for Jesus, that Josephus has many obvious biases, and that his history contains numerous errors, contradictions, and seemingly deliberate omissions. And yet, subsequent “historians” rely upon Josephus as though every word written is “gospel”.

And then, of course, there are the gospels of the biblical New Testament. Even many who do not view them as the “infallible word of God” think that they represent a reliable historical account instead of a highly adapted myth adapted from a diverse tradition in order to support a specific theological interest (which doesn’t mean they don’t have historical merit). Unknown to many is the reality of their authorship, authenticity, canonization, and origin along with the fact that other gospels were excluded from inclusion in scripture, that the early Catholic Church burned alternative sources and sometimes even burned those who advocated any fact which contradicted their version of history. Those they couldn’t actually burn, they either wrote out of history, condemned as heretics, or undermined.

Finally, it is useful to note that history has almost as much to do with “beliefs” as religion does. Therefore, any attempt at religious history will confront and possibly challenge deeply held beliefs. This is certainly true in regard to Jesus who many believe is deity and who hold their traditional beliefs about him as sacrosanct – even when it is plainly acknowledged that those beliefs are fabrications (such as Jesus being born on December 25th).

 

I. Historicity, Historiography, and History:

There are many approaches to the study of history (“historiography”)[1] and well established principles of historical reasoning and validation. Because this book is “historical fiction”, I take the first part seriously. And, because there is a large and long-term debate regarding historicity and Jesus/”Christ”, I think it might be worthwhile to take a look at my approach and foundational beliefs.

First, I believe in the value of truth and that truth goes well beyond the “facts”. However, truth without facts is something less than truth - either belief or myth. That is not to say that beliefs cannot be true or that all myths are false. The issue is that any agreement we might have regarding the truth should be based upon facts instead of beliefs and myths. Discussions about the “truth” based upon beliefs and myths are almost always a waste of time.

Secondly, I believe that the value of history lies beyond its facts. While the facts are useful, they pale in comparison to the meaning they might reveal. However, facts alone almost never reveal meaning. Thus, to gain what is valuable from history requires that we deduct its meaning based upon facts and logic. The key to deducing meaning from facts and logic is to have a complete understanding of their context. This is the cause of most historical error – the failure to understand the context of the facts.

Lastly, I believe that many of the most significant historical human events have meaning that cannot be derived solely from facts and logic, regardless of how complete and accurate our understanding of the context. It is this belief that led me to the study of Jesus and his history. It is this belief that permits an amateur “historian” to add to the historical record without additional archeology or historical “fact”.

The starting point for most historical study is some “agenda” or belief-based purpose. Far too often, such agendas or purposes are non-historical or anti-historical (“historical” meaning having once existed or taken place in the real world). Far too much of what has been written and presumed about Jesus was produced under an agenda lacking regard for reality – either ignoring the facts or assuming facts erroneously. Quite simply, most of the “historical” record regarding Jesus was written with the intent of distorting history.

Historians know little about the historical Jesus. That is to say that we know few (if any) “facts” about Jesus. General criteria applied to historical sources would include:

  1. If there are several fact based sources relating to an event and all those sources are in factual agreement, historians consider the event proven historically (knowing that new sources might emerge which negate this).
  2. In historiography, the majority view does not rule; even if most sources relate events in one way, that version will not prevail unless it passes tests of critical analysis (as below).
  3. A historical source that has proven reliable by confirmation from other (outside) authorities in some of its parts can be presumed reliable in its entirety.
  4. If two independently created sources agree on a matter, the reliability of each is presumed to be enhanced.
  5. The closer a source is to the event which it purports to describe, the more one can trust it to give an accurate description of what really happened.
  6. Originality of a source increases its reliability.
  7. The credibility of a source is increased through demonstrated lack of direct interest or bias.
  8. When two sources disagree on a particular point, preference is given to the source with more "authority"; that is the source with expert or eyewitness accreditation.
  9. When sources without other means of evaluation disagree, preference is given to the source which seems to accord best with reason and context.

If the historical sources regarding Jesus are assessed using these criteria (as would be applied to other historical personages), then we find ourselves relying mostly upon reason and context.

The reason for this is obvious to historians, but not to most Christians. The non-Christian “historical” sources regarding Jesus are sparse, spurious or dubious. The vast majority of historians and even the majority of “Christian” historians do not regard the New Testament accounts as “historical” or factually reliable and when contradiction occurs within those accounts, none are given greater “authority”. Given the history of their histories, the New Testament accounts are open to reasonable skepticism.

As “histories”, the Gospels of the New Testament are more compilations of answers than facts and are more concerned with convincing than informing. Far too often, Christians exemplify the historical fallacy of viewing events that are astonishing as being more historic, the moralistic fallacy of selecting (or creating) edifying facts that make the past into a vehicle for moral and religious opinions, and the logical fallacy of assuming that past events may be accurately viewed from their later perspective and awareness (aka “presentism”).

I admit to the opposite bias: I am opposed to the mystification and “mythification” of Jesus. Either his life, his teachings, and his choices merit consideration based upon their actuality and reality, or his “Christianity” is no more than a fairytale and his moral significance is little more than that of Santa Claus. We can either view Jesus as adults or as children and I prefer the adult view. I love Santa Claus, but I outgrew the childish view of him long ago.

In Josh McDowell's “Evidence that Demands a Verdict” (a Christian “classic”), we are offered criteria for evaluating historical claims:

 

(1) The burden of proof for a historical claim is always upon the one making the assertion.

(2) Historical evidence must be an answer to the question asked and not to any other question.

(3) An historian must not merely provide good evidence, but the best evidence.

(4) Evidence must always be affirmative[2].

(5) The meaning of any historical evidence is dependent upon the context from which it is obtained from.

(6) An empirical statement must not be more precise than its evidence warrants.

(7) All inferences from historical evidence are probabilistic.

                “Evidence that Demands a Verdict” by Josh McDowell (1999), p. 674.

I fully agree with these criteria and have attempted to apply them in my research and writings. Unfortunately, I would say that Mr. McDowell failed to do so[3].

II. The Gospels:

There is so much written about the gospels of the New Testament that a lifetime of reading couldn’t cover half of it. But then, most of it is just repetition because the actual historical knowledge regarding them is rather limited. They have been analyzed from so many different perspectives using so many different approaches hoping to achieve so many different goals that it borders on silly. Ironically, some of the best sources were the early Catholic Church historians who had sources subsequently destroyed and might have even talked to people with first-hand knowledge.

I have little to add to the vast amount of material already written about the canonical gospels (just “gospels”, hereafter), but I can condense what are regarded as some of the more scholarly (as in independent, objective, and authoritative) views. Let us begin with some lesser known facts about the gospels of the New Testament.

1. None of the gospels were written by an Apostle and were almost certainly written by people who never met or saw Jesus.

2. We have NO copies of ANY of the earliest gospels (or epistles). The earliest copies we have are fragmentary and date to around a century after the death of Jesus. The degree to which the earliest manuscripts agree with the canonized versions is debatable.

3. Despite rigorous attempts to suggest otherwise, the gospels are neither infallible nor inerrant. Aside from internal contradictions, there are unmistakable mistakes.

The Gospel of Matthew: The Gospel titled “the Gospel of Matthew” is the most Jewish of the gospels. Because Jesus was Jewish, its perspective is most useful in placing Jesus in a more realistic light. “Matthew's works were wrote between 90-100CE in Syria, probably written in the same time range as Luke, as they were unaware of each other's existence. The original works of Matthew were completely anonymous and it was not until about 150CE that the author "Matthew" was assigned to the writings. [...] The first two chapters of Matthew, the virgin birth and the genealogy, were not contained in the first versions of Matthew's gospel.” "The Gospel of Matthew, the Fraud!" by Vexen Crabtree (1999).

One early group of Christians, the Ebionites, had an earlier version of Matthew before it was edited and we have some information regarding it. Even cursory examination of the early versions of Mathew reveal that it was contrary to Paul’s (e.g. “Saint Paul”) teachings and simply had to be edited before it could be canonized. “For Matthew, the entire Jewish Law needs to be kept, down to the smallest letter. [...] It is worth noting that in this Gospel, when a rich man comes up to Jesus and asks him how to have eternal life, Jesus tells him that if he wants to live eternally he must keep the commandments of the Law (19:17). One might wonder: If the same person approached Paul with the same question twenty years later, what would he have said? [Ref: Rom 3:10] It is hard to imagine Paul and Matthew ever seeing eye to eye on this issue.” "Lost Christianities" by Bart Ehrman (2003).

The Gospel of Luke: Unlike the author of Matthew (who is unknown), the author of Luke (better known) claims to be conveying historical data and to be a personal acquaintance with Paul. Most scholars view Luke as relying upon the same basic sources as Matthew (also known as the “Q Source”) but my view is that Luke shows obvious revisions of the story supporting Paul’s theological ideas. Nevertheless, the editing leaves a record which reflects a less theological perspective. For example, in this gospel a Jew called Simeon praises the child of Joseph and Mary and then reads: "And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him"(Luke 2:33). This indicates that the author believed or relayed the belief that Jesus was born to biological parents. (Luke 2:48 is another verse where Joseph is called Jesus' father).

Both Matthew and Luke list genealogies (although different) in order to prove that Jesus had the royal credentials expected of the Messiah. Jews would not accept a Messianic lineage which included a non-Davidic/non-biological father for the claimant because of the well-established prophecies stating that the Messiah was to be a Davidic heir[4]. Thus, the earliest gospels supported a Davidic ancestry for Jesus and the gospel stories clearly indicate that Jesus’ early followers believed him to have the expected Davidic  ancestry (although questions are raised regarding his biological father[5]).

It is commonly believed that the author of Luke and the Book of Acts were the same person and that it was intended as a two-volume set. I propose that it is best to read them that way.

The Gospel of Mark: This gospel is attributed to Mark the Evangelist who is poorly known. In this gospel, the focus changes dramatically as its fast-paced narrative concentrates particularly on the last week of Jesus’ life and it goal is less historical and more theological. In this account, Jesus is more a miracle worker and eschatological figure who is privy to Messianic secrets that either he doesn’t share with the Apostles or which they are incapable of grasping. Since Mark derives his story from Paul, it is not surprising that it more strongly advances Paul’s theology.

The Gospel of Mark offers a unique insight into gospel development since it alone has two well-supported early versions and it is widely accepted that its ending was a late addition. For those not familiar with the “Secret Gospel of Mark”, some research is in order.

The Gospel of John: Unlike the “synoptic gospels” (which appear to have common sources), the Gospel of John tells a significantly different story with different timelines. Its focus is the ministry of Jesus and its narrative presents a more developed theology (or Christology) and a realized eschatology in which Jesus presents a current salvation. In this gospel we see the complete process for gospel creation:  you begin with an initial version based upon some historical tradition (often a collection of sayings) which is either generally known or attributable to a reliable authority (the Apostle John in this case), then you sift and sort from that tradition to form a structured literary creation drawing from additional sources which support a given theme, and finally you harmonize and balance the content with what is presently known to exist in other written forms and your purpose.

I would generally agree with scholars who suggest that the Gospel of John originated from a “collection of signs” instead of a “collection of sayings” (source of the synoptics) and that these signs had apostolic origin (perhaps from John). It would also seem apparent that one or more of the authors of this work had ties to John the Baptist.

Purpose of the Canonized Gospels: There could be no better example of the victors writing history than what happened with the gospels and the process by which they became “officials”. The history of the early followers of Jesus and the church of Paul reveals deep and long-term disputes that were not resolved until several generations had passed and other historical forces dramatically changed the context. In the shortest version, the Jews lost and Paul won (the subject of our sequel, “After Jesus”). But even among the Gentile followers of Jesus, there were widely divergent views and we see significant evidence of attempted reconciliation within the gospels – particularly with the followers of John the Baptist.

So, we might say that the gospels served many purposes, but the key effort was unification towards a single theology – that of Paul. Wanting to be all things to all people, Paul’s followers offered both carrot and stick to the opposition and the result was a level of syncretism unusual for religion. Those left out were the Jews, most of the Apostles, and the family of Jesus (the Ebionites).

Among the most striking aspects of the gospels are their portrayal of Jews and Judaism in general, given that the “Son of God” was a Jew and chose Judaism; their portrayal of the Apostles of Jesus as dolts generally undeserving of significant attention (except Peter, the foundation for the church of Paul); and  the portrayal of the family of Jesus as being both unsupportive and uninvolved, even though the brother of Jesus was his successor. Pauline Christians wrote and edited the canonized gospels with the clear intent of establishing Paul’s authority and supremacy so that his theological and religious idea could dominate; it was pretty much a “war” and as usual, the first casualty was the truth. But there were other casualties that have remained buried through the centuries: the Pauline church, cleverly designated as “St. Paul’s church”, was willing to destroy all works which might contradict its version of history and to literally bury those who argued against their dogma. Thus, we have the poor historical record of the early gospels.

Because some readers might be unaware of just how far the early Catholics were willing to go to ensure that their views prevailed (and why scholars are often skeptical of the gospel accounts), I would point to three matters of record: it is now beyond cavil that Christians first edited the history written by Josephus in order to add references to Jesus (and then destroyed all other versions they could find and continue to claim the insertions were original despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary ), it is well established in the early records that the Pauline Christians were willing to murder those who had different theological views (hardly an approach Jesus would have endorsed), and that the Council of Nicene[6] decided that Jesus was divine – opposing the views of almost all his early followers and family.

The Epistles: It is likely that the Pauline epistles (letters) pre-date the canonized gospels (but not the sayings or signs collections). Thus, we should view them in a developmental sequence where the canonized gospels are written to coincide with Paul’s letters. Of course, we also have letters in the New testament that were not written by Paul and we should view them carefully for clues regarding the non-Pauline views. But then, the very fact that they were included in the canon either indicates their compatibility or the fact that they were so well authenticated that they couldn’t be rejectsed (e.g. “James”).

Also of interest are the few historical notes which may be gleaned from the letters, particularly the less than favorable revelations regarding Paul.

Ancillary Works: Aside from the gospels and letters, there are two other books in the New Testament: Acts (The Acts of the Apostles) and Revelation (Book of Revelation). Acts is a somewhat historical work probably written by Luke and Revelation is the most esoteric (and last written) work in the NT (in which we have little interest here). Because Acts views Paul differently than other sources (including how he describes himself), it provides both factual and theological interest. Aside from personal perspectives, Acts also diverges from Paul on other important matters such as the interpretation and application of Jewish law, Paul's apostleship, and the dealings between Paul and the Jerusalem Council. Because Acts tends to be supported by other historical evidence, it is given more historical weight than other books in the NT.

The “Apocrypha”: Early “Christians” had different ideas about which available works should be regarded as "canonical” or divinely inspired. The general term “apocrypha” (or “hidden writing”) is commonly applied to works considered less than divinely inspired but authoritative and useful. According to Eusebius, the Gospel according to the Hebrews (lost in the purge) was the first apocryphal work and others followed. There is no standard list of apocrypha (just as there are different lists of canonized works). Among the many works considered apocrypha by Christian churches are: Shepherd of Hermas, 1 Clement, Acts of Paul, Third Epistle to the Corinthians and two Epistles of Clement.

We should also note that not all Christian churches agree that all the books canonized by the Catholics belong as such. The early Peshitta, used by various Syrian Churches, does not include 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John, Jude and Revelation as canonized works.

Typically excluded from such published collections are the following groups of works: The Apostolic Fathers, the 2nd-century Christian apologists, the Alexandrians, Tertullian, Methodius of Olympus, Novatian, Cyprian, martyrdoms, and the Desert Fathers. Almost all other Christian literature from the period, and sometimes including works composed well into Late Antiquity, are relegated to the so-called "New Testament Apocrypha".

The "apocrypha" and other early works are important for the study of the life of Jesus and early views of his followers in that they were produced in the same ancient context and often using the same language as those works that would eventually form the canon of the NT. It is entirely possible that many of the early gospels which we have access to today were unknown to early Christians[7]. And finally, let us not forget that many of the earliest followers of Jesus would not have considered themselves “Christians” and have been removed from the discussion.


II. Exegesis: The formalized study and critical explanation or interpretation of ancient writings is called exegesis. It involves textual criticism and evaluation, investigation into the history and origins of the text, and should include the study of the historical and cultural backgrounds involved in the text, its author and the intended audience. The more objective forms of exegesis include grammatical and syntactical analysis within the text itself. In preparation for the writing of this book and in researching specific historical aspects, I have relied upon a fairly consistent set of rules and processes in a search for accuracy and verification. These include:

1. What scholars term the “historical-critical method” finds an event credible when it satisfies the criteria of multiple attestation and dissimilarity. The more sources that attest to an event happening and its details, the more it is likely to be a real event (the criterion of multiple attestation). The criterion of embarrassment or dissimilarity validates the sort of detail that the authors (such as the early Christians) are unlikely to make up or acknowledge, but do so because they are otherwise well attested. When the author of the Book of Acts mentions that James was the leader of the Jerusalem Council, we can take it as “the gospel truth”.

If something stands in the gospels that is clearly not in the interests of the late first-century church — disparaging remarks about Gentiles, for example, or explicit pronouncements about the imminent end of the world — then it has a stronger claim to authenticity than otherwise. Stated briefly, anything embarrassing is probably earlier.” (1988: 6).

 

(I'm only about 1/3 finished with this Appendix. I have plenty of notes from the non-canonized works and a summation of the Jesus Seminar work to include.)

[1] Historiography is the study of the history and methodology of the discipline of history.

[2] Negative evidence is no evidence at all or an absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence.

[3] See http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/jeff_lowder/jury/).

[4] Other New Testament references clearly state that the Messiah was to be a physical descendant: that of the fruit of his loins (Acts 2:30); of this man's seed (Acts 13:23), made of the seed of David according to the flesh (Romans 1:3); of the seed of David (2 Timothy 2:8); and he took on him the seed of Abraham (Hebrews 2:16). 

[5] For a more detailed discussion of this (and further reference), see Appendices IX and IV.

[6][6]Generally regarded as the first Ecumenical council of the Christian Church from where we get the Nicene Creed: "We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten of the Father, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; By whom all things were made; Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man; He suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven; From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. And in the Holy Ghost.” A remarkable summary of the Church’s dogma which cares only for the birth and death stories and not about the teachings or life of Jesus.

[7] Indeed, our only information about some of the non-canonized gospels come from references by early church writers who were trying to refute them.

 

Sorry - there's not enough of this appendix completed to make posting it worthwhile. I'm workin' on it!

 



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