The Good News of Christ: Historicity and the New Testament

The Good News of Christ: Historicity and the New Testament February 4, 2015

So the Hebrew Bible isn’t history. But what about the New Testament? The concept of historicity, meaning an authentic representation of the past, functions as a crucial tenet within mainstream Christian posturing. Surely, therefore, the New Testament contains “historicity.”

Wellllll. . . No. It doesn’t. In fact, not at all.

When the New Testament is read from a critical perspective, we begin to find serious inconsistencies. So if you’ve read the previous posts on Genesis and the Bible, you’ve begun to uncover a common scriptural theme. As much as we may want it to, the Bible doesn’t contain historicity. Let’s just look at a couple issues.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul makes it very clear that following his conversion experience he did not go to Jerusalem to visit the apostles (Gal. 1:16-17). Paul, you see, relies on his own authority; not that of the disciples in Jerusalem. And yet, the Book of Acts makes the exact opposite claim! According to Acts, Paul went immediately to Jerusalem and reported to the disciples who were apparently afraid of him (Acts 9:26). So that’s a problem.

And what about the story of Jesus? Well, the four Gospels give accounts of his ministry and passion, but they really don’t work together as “history.” Just to point out the obvious, Mark, for instance, states that Jesus was crucified the day after he and his disciples ate the traditional Passover meal (Mark 14:12; 15:25). But the Gospel of John indicates that Jesus died before the Passover was eaten (John 19:14). This is because John wasn’t writing “history.” The author wanted to provide a theological portrait of Jesus as the “Lamb of God” who needed to die at the exact same moment that the paschal lambs were killed.

But that’s just chronology, i.e. the backbone for a historical account, so let’s move on.

For those who know the Christmas story, Luke indicates that Joseph and Mary lived in Nazareth and only traveled down to Bethlehem because of a Roman census (which doesn’t make any sense historically), and that they returned to their hometown a little after they performed Jesus’ rites of purification (Luke 2:39). But this doesn’t work with Matthew’s account of the nativity. In Matthew, Joseph and Mary live in Bethlehem. That’s why they’re there when the Magi show up to visit Jesus. According to the account, Jesus is apparently up to two years old at the time (remember Herod doesn’t simply kill the newborns), and so, Joseph and Mary flee to Egypt (Matt. 2:19-22).

The entire account parallels the Moses story in Exodus and seems to prepare readers for Jesus acting as a new Moses teaching the law of God. Aaron M. Gale frames the matter nicely in the recently published Jewish Annotated New Testament. Gale explains that the Gospel of Matthew intentionally anchors “Jesus in Jewish tradition” by creating literary “comparisons between Jesus and Moses”:

“This connection may begin in chat 1, with Mary’s miraculous pregnancy, Joseph’s resolve to divorce her, and the divine instructions to marry her, which bear some connection to midrashic accounts of Moses’ conception. . . Connections are clear in ch 2: Jesus, like Moses is rescued in infancy and travels to Egypt; like Moses, after leaving Egypt, Jesus crosses water (the baptism), enters the wilderness (the temptation), and climbs a mountain before beginning his instruction (the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ [5.1]). At the end of the Gospel, Jesus gives instructions to his followers from a mountain, as Moss did (28:16. Deut 32.48);” pg. 2.

So it’s not “history.” In Matthew, Jesus’ story has been intentionally crafted in such a way that the account conveys a meaningful theological perspective concerning Christ. And there’s more.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph and Mary are from Bethlehem, so they naturally plan on returning. But Matthew has to get them to Nazareth where everyone knows that Jesus was from, so the author explains the reason why the young couple did not return home, but instead moved north into Galilee. Apparently, Joseph learned that Herod had died, and so the family could return home to Bethlehem. The only problem was that Herod’s son Archelaus now ruled over Judea, and Archelaus was apparently just as bad, if not worse than his father:

“But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth” (Matt. 2:22-23).

So the two birth narratives in Luke and Matthew are wonderful and inspiring! They both contain powerful theology. But they both can’t be historically accurate. And this is because the tradition that these accounts were written by either eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life and ministry (or people closely related to real eyewitnesses) developed after the Gospels were written. The attributions of Mathew, Mark, and Luke, for example, were first officially given to these literary works towards the end of the second century C.E. Thus, as Catholic biblical scholar Raymond Brown explained, “although the Gospels are written, the tradition behind them was orally proclaimed and the marks of orality are still strong in the written accounts.” Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 28.

The scholarly consensus holds that Mark was written first and then used by Matthew and Luke to create their own literary accounts of Jesus. And this makes sense because although in these two later accounts, Mary clearly knows that Jesus is the Messiah, in Mark, Jesus’ family thinks he’s crazy! It’s in Mark that we read that when Jesus’ “family heard [that he had begun to attract a following] they went out to restrain him, for they said, ‘He has gone out of his mind!’” (Mark 3:21). So why didn’t they know about the angel and the virgin birth? Well, those stories hadn’t been written yet. We can’t read Mark’s story of Jesus in light of Matthew and Luke. Those accounts didn’t yet exist for Mark to draw upon.

This same perspective ties in nicely with the unique literary theme we encounter throughout Mark’s entire narrative that no one except God, the devils, Mark, the reader, and a single Roman centurion recognize who Jesus truly is. It’s in Mark where Jesus himself begins to wonder about his mission and relationship to the Father as he cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). So why is it only in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus says this? And in fact this is the only thing that Jesus says! So why does Luke tell us an entirely different story concerning the crucifixion?

Why is Jesus depicted in Luke as a prophet who knows precisely why he is being crucified and calmly explains the matter to those who witness the event? To the women crying for him, Jesus calmly explains, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children” (Luke 23:28), and to the crucified robber Jesus calmly declares, “Don’t worry, you and I are going to paradise” (Luke 23:43). In Luke, Jesus doesn’t ask God why this is all happening. Here, Jesus completely understands the purpose of his death, and instead of finishing the passion asking God why he was forsaken, Jesus simply says, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46).

In fact, the discrepancies between the four Gospel narrative depictions of Jesus’ life are so significant that historians are forced to use fixed criteria to determine what we can or cannot say about the “historical” Jesus. In the words of believing critical scholar John P. Meier, “The real Jesus is not available and never will be. This is not because Jesus did not exist—he certainly did—but rather because the sources that have survived do not and never intended to record all or even most of the words and deeds of his public ministry—to say nothing of the rest of his life.” A Marginal Jew; vol. 1 (New York: Doubleday, 1991), 22.

Instead, they were meant to inspire and teach theology.

But I suppose this point should be immediately obvious to all students of the New Testament. Just take the Gospel of Mark for example (again the first one of the four that was written). The author begins with these words: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1). We really ought to take note. Mark didn’t set out to write a “history” or even a “biography” of Jesus. He identified his genre and it wasn’t history. Mark created a powerful, inspired literary work known as a “gospel,” a Greek term meaning “good news.” Mark wanted to share with his readers the good news about Jesus the Son of God from his perspective. The same could be said for the writers of Mathew, Luke, and John. Each one is unique and each one is beautiful in its own way.

Since these accounts lack “historicity,” if we’re going to try and recreate the Jesus of history using the tools of critical scholarship, we must read each account against the grain, looking for historical clues revealed in the text. Speaking personally, I have found such a read to be an exciting, spiritually rewarding quest. It certainly does not need to distract from the theological views expressed concerning Jesus in the Gospel narratives. In fact, it really enhances them. The Gospels reveal unique religious perspectives held by ancient Christians convinced that Jesus was the Son of God (even if they understood that title differently).

Religious readers need not fear the prospect of embracing the New Testament’s lack of historicity. If God truly cared about such issues, I suspect He would have inspired its authors to follow our contemporary emphasis upon historicity. But it really doesn’t take too careful a reading of the New Testament to quickly realize that its authors don’t share that contemporary concern.

It may help to think about the matter from this angle: we know that portions of Mark’s Gospel appear in Matthew and Luke. If the authors of those accounts truly believed that Mark got everything right, why would they have bothered to produce a different version of Jesus’ story? If Mark’s version was perfect, wouldn’t they have simply made a copy of it rather than doing a new creative rewrite? Clearly, later Gospel authors wanted to improve upon what came before, which suggests that even from their perspective, these scriptural accounts weren’t perfect narratives.

Rather than adopting an anti-intellectual approach to the question of scriptural historicity, I believe that a critical reading of the New Testament can be a deeply rewarding intellectual and spiritual journey.

I’ll illustrate my point by sharing a personal experience. Many years ago, while taking courses for my Master’s Degree in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, I had an opportunity to take a course on the New Testament from E.P. Sanders, author of the highly respected book The Historical Figure of Jesus. In light of my own religious views, this class, which explored the New Testament from a historical-critical perspective, was both exciting and spiritually challenging.

Despite my love for the New Testament, I left with an interest and appreciation for scholarship that directly challenged my religious convictions regarding the text. So even though my primary academic focus has been the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East, I have always enjoyed reading a variety of critical assessments of the New Testament and have tried to keep up on current scholarly research.

One day, while reading the book Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography by John Dominic Crossan, I came across for the first time Crossan’s argument that Barabbas was a made-up figure by the author of Mark, and that the subsequent Gospel writers simply picked up on this fictitious account from Mark’s narrative. As a Latter-day Saint Christian, my initial reaction to reading Crossan’s arguments was to simply give up on the book, since to be honest, I really didn’t care for the idea that Barabbas was not a historical person. If I questioned this point, what about the validity of the other New Testament stories? But I couldn’t help it. I was intrigued. So I kept reading.

By the time I completed the section, I could see Crossan’s points. They made a lot of sense. Yet even today, I don’t know whether or not Crossan is correct (and he is certainly not the only scholar to have made this argument), but I do understand his logic. And it’s OK. More importantly, as a believer, I actually gained a fascinating insight into the story of Barabbas by not giving up on Crossan simply because I found his arguments uncomfortable. Crossan went on to explain a literary concept that over the years, I have found quite enlightening. Mark identifies Barabbas as a lestes, a Greek term that contextually refers to a social bandit, a revolutionary, a zealot. Here are Crossan’s own words regarding this New Testament figure and his place in the Gospels:

“[Social bandits] increasing presence always indicates that the oppressed classes are being forced into armed resistance, however sporadic, ineffective, or desperate. In Greek the technical term for such a rebel bandit is lestes, and that is exactly what Barabbas is called. He was a bandit, a rebel, an insurgent, a freedom fighter–depending always, of course, on your point of view… [Jerusalem] chose Barabbas over Jesus, an armed rebel over an unarmed savior. [The] narrative about Barabbas was, in other words, a symbolic dramatization of Jerusalem’s fate.” John Dominic Crossan, Jesus a Revolutionary Biography(San Franscico:HarperSanFrancisco, 1994), 143.

In other words, the story of Barabbas serves as a type of foreshadowing, typifying the fact that in the Gospels, Jerusalem chose a violent man over the Prince of Peace. Jerusalem could have followed Jesus’ concept of kingdom, but instead chose the type of kingdom offered by the zealot, the lestes, and Jerusalem eventually suffered violence as a result. We see this very concept expressed by Jesus in his statement to the disciple who attempted to protect his Master the night Jesus was arrested: “Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword” (Matt 26:52).

I’ve always loved this insight, and have referred to it often when teaching the New Testament in a devotional setting. But if I had followed my initial instinct and given up on the book because the overall argument made me feel uncomfortable, I would have missed it.

Religious readers who engage the New Testament critically can take its distinct (and sometimes contradictory) messages and formulate their own relationship to divinity as they ponder the questions, “Who was Jesus? And what is my relationship to him as a believer?” It’s an exciting journey. I believe that this quest provides readers with a mature way of engaging this inspired collection as scripture, for indeed, like the authors of the Hebrew Bible, the writers of the New Testament had something much more meaningful to share than history.

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