Oddly, you might think, I will start this piece off with something commenter Cath Olic said in reply (that was in no reply at all) to a post about an interview dissecting the origins of religion in Israel and the genesis of Judaism:
Today I heard part of an interview with Dr. Holly Ordway who was an atheist and became an atheist academic (PhD in English) with a specialty in fantasy literature. She is now an academic Catholic. Surprisingly, she said that, as an adult literary professional, she was completely unfamiliar with the Gospels, not even knowing how many there were. But what struck me more was that, when she finally read them, she immediately knew from the literary style that they were historical, in the sense that they were meant to describe real historical events, not myths or fantasies. That’s all she knew. She had no opinion or knowledge at the time whether the Gospels were true or false or some mixture of the two. Only that they were written as history. That’s about all I heard. But I see she has written a number of books, including Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms
As off-topic as it was, and as deeply problematic as Ordway’s approach is, it is stimulus for this piece.
The first thing to say is, of course, that this approach (these books are not written as fiction, therefore they are history, therefore they are true) is patently ridiculous because you can use the exact same argument to argue for the Qu’ran being of a historical genre, and thus the Qu’ran being true, and Islam being the correct religion.
I’m glad that Cath Olic now realises that Islam is the one true religion.
Except, of course, neither Christianity nor Islam have good historical pedigree. For an excellent place to start on this, please read my books The Nativity: A Critical Examination [UK] and The Resurrection: A Critical Examination of the Easter Story [UK]. These show that the works are not, indeed, works of history.
This is the problem if you create a false dichotomy of there being (fantasy) fiction and history as the only two possible options.
My theist friend used to tell me that he saw the Gospels as history scripturalised – that this was history given the veneer of Scripture, history enrobed in theology.
I disagreed (see the aforementioned books) to rebut that this was not history scripturalised, but theology historicised. This was pure theology dressed up to look like history.
And this is what is going on with Jesus and the Gospels. This is neither an objective historical genre, nor pure fiction (as a genre), but a shady concoction of theology deemed to be rooted in a historical tradition built up from cognitive dissonance, hope, faith, and communal/tribal identity. But most of all, it is evangelising propaganda designed to persuade. And it is often genius. The thought that went into the Gospels and the way in which they pull of certain themes and tropes from, say, the Hebrew Bible can at times be brilliant.
We can see this most clearly in the Gospel of Matthew. As Ordway should know, writing (communication) is defined by three things: audience, purpose, form. Form (genre, method and manner of communication etc. – i.e., what type of writing or communicating you are doing, and what your content will be) is derived from considering your purpose – what you are trying to achieve by communicating – and audience – who you are targeting in your communication.
Who was “Matthew’s” audience? Ostensibly Jews. What was his purpose? To persuade the Jewish audience that Jesus was the Messiah, and in so doing, that he was better than the number one Jew (prophet, leader, lawgiver), Moses.
Moses, at the time, was being almost reinvented by Philo and Josephus and others as this super-amazing Torah-writing hero (Joel Baden, The Book of Exodus: A Biography, p. 44-45):
Philo elevated the hero of the Exodus account to one of the pinnacles of the classical world. But Philo then went on to lift Moses to further heights: not only philosopher and king, but also legislator, priest, and prophet – roles that were usually separate, and separately valaued, in classical culture, but that were, miraculously, combined in the single person of Moses.
The same goes for Josephus’ reinterpretation of Moses – and, remember, he was an actual historian, so what he has to say about Moses is fascinating in relation to the opening quote concerning Ordway. Josephus was a good historian (relatively, contextually) for claims close to his life – contemporaneous – but when he started writing about long past people like Moses, his claims were wildly erroneous.
What this means is that Matthew wants to be successful in his objective, he needs Jesus to be better than Moses. Jesus simply cannot be less than Moses. Or, in terms of the Jewish rabbinical preference for pesher and midrash, he needs Moses to be reinterpreted, to be reinvented, through Jesus.
Jesus is the new Moses, just better. Now that is going to attract the attention of his Jewish audience.
And if he can convince them of the truth of this – by dressing the Jesus claims of being the new Moses up in pseudo-historicity, he’s got a fighting chance of success.
He, along with his chums, succeeded.
Let’s looks at how Matthew (and the other Gospel writers) succeeded.
(Fun fact: “Moses” means “child of god” in Egyptian.)
Benjamin W. Bacon, a good hundred years ago, noticed how the structure of Matthew’s Gospel mirrors the Pentateuch (first five books of the Hebrew Bible – the Torah, or the Books of Moses). Even Christian New Testament scholar Dale Allison recognises this and has done a great deal of work showing that Matthew presents Jesus as the new Moses. Here, he maps out how Matthew emulates Exodus (cf. Baden, p. 53):
So this one is obvious and one that I spent a lot of time discussing in my Nativity book. Luke and Matthew cannot both be correct. Herod died at least 10 years before the census. What could posess Matthew, then, to claim Herod was alive at the time of Jesus’ birth? Well, Jesus is the new Moses, of course. Herod is the new Pharaoh. Herod, in the Slaughter of the Innocents, is a rerun of the death of the firstborn. Matthew has Jesus escaping away from Herod as Moses escaped from the Pharaoh, and fleeing into Egypt where he stayed for several years. Something that Luke completely omits. This is so, and Matthew is explicit about this (2:14-15):
14 So Joseph got up and took the Child and His mother while it was still night, and left for Egypt. 15 He stayed there until the death of Herod; this happened so that what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet would be fulfilled: “Out of Egypt I called My Son.”
Just like Moses, Jesus is called out of Egypt, to “shepherd my people Israel”. Jesus is linked to Moses, the Roman Empire and Herod are linked to the Kingdom of Egypt.
John the Baptist
Then we get John the Baptist and a lot of symbolism of water and rivers. This is equated to the crossing of the Jordan. See Matthew 3. As scholar Ian W. Scott states:
These parallels between Jesus and Moses in chapter 2 build, of course, on the Exodus imagery which was already present in Mark’s account. The quotation from Isaiah 40 depicts Jesus’ work as a new Exodus (3:3), beginning at the Jordan river where the people originally entered the promised land in a re-enactment of the Red Sea parting (see Josh 3). Here Jesus passes through water in his baptism (3:13-17) and is identified (like Israel) as God’s son (3:17). Just as Israel followed Moses into the Sinai peninsula, Jesus is then led into the desert wilderness (4:1). Just as the people were tested in that wilderness (e.g., Exod 15:22-27; 16:1-36), so Jesus faces testing at the hands of the devil (4:1-11). Finally he begins to lead this new Exodus, just as Moses lead the first one, proclaiming the imminent dawning of God’s reign (4:17).
Mount Sinai Revisited
In Matthew (Mark 9:4; Luke 9:30) Jesus ascends a mountain where he meets Moses (and Elijah) so he can be on at least their level. As Allison states (Dale Allison, The New Moses: A Matthean Typology, p. 278):
By uniting themselves to their Scripturally faithful Mosaic Lord, Christians were uniting themselves to the sacred past of the Jews, the one people of God: to belong to Jesus Christ was to belong to Israel’s history and so to have her memories.
Ian W. Scott, Hebrew Bible scholar, adds:
At this point, again, Matthew supplies more imagery of his own that suggests a connection between Jesus and Moses. When Moses lead the people out into the wilderness, their first destination was Mount Sinai. Here, at the summit of the mountain, Moses received Torah on behalf of the people (Exod 18ff.). It is striking, then, that Jesus’ first act after calling the disciples to follow him is to go up a mountain and offer teaching which interprets that same Torah. We will look, in a moment, at the way in which Jesus approaches the Mosaic law. What is crucial here is simply to recognize how Matthew depicts Jesus as repeating the Sinai event at the outset of his career. The continuity between Sinai and the Sermon on the Mount is clear. Jesus does not bring a new law to replace the old one. Quite the opposite; he begins the sermon body by declaring: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matt 5:17). As the New Moses, then, Jesus is not bringing a completely new law. He is helping Israel to hear again the first one, the same Torah handed to the first Moses.
At the same time, there is a sense in which Jesus’ place in this mountaintop scene surpasses Moses’ role at Sinai. For here Jesus is not the receiver, bowing a trembling knee as the Lord speaks out of the flashing storm. Instead, Jesus is the one who sits down on the mountain’s summit, assuming the posture of a teacher. It is Jesus who is giving the law, occupying the place of Yahweh himself in the original story. Here we meet the same emphasis that we found implicit in Mark’s account. Jesus is, somehow, the presence of the Creator God. He takes up the role of Moses as the mediator between a holy God and the people God has called. Unlike Moses, though, this mediator does not stand entirely on the side of the people, standing between them and their Maker. Though he is a human being and an Israelite, Jesus also represents God’s voice to the nation and the world. He is a new Moses, but he is also something more than Moses.
John, although not so on board with the strictures of Jewish Law as Matthew, continues the themes of Moses in Matthew (John 1:17; 13:34; 5:46-47 etc.), as we shall see.
The Last Supper
Generally, throughout the Gospels, the Last Supper is firmly rooted in Exodus theology (Baden, p. 51])
The concept of the “new covenant,” established through the blood of Jesus at the Last Supper, is Central in the texts of the New Testament. “This is my blood of the Covenant,” says Jesus in Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” though the Hebrew bible contains numerous covenants, going back to Abraham, the reference to the blood in these passages looks more directly at the Covenant ceremony in Exodus 24, after the giving of the Ten Commandments and the laws of Exodus 21-23, when Moses proclaims, “Behold the blood of the new covenant” (Exod 24:8). The Twelve disciples to whom Jesus speaks stand-in for the Twelve tribes addressed by Moses.
The Eucharist is essentially replacing the Passover. As I discussed in my Resurrection book, Jesus (particularly for John) literally becomes the paschal lamb, as the only Gospel to have Jesus crucified on Passover, and to explicitly not have his legs broken, as is the tradition with the paschal lamb and Passover. Incidentally, this is in contradiction of the other Gospels that have Jesus crucified on a different day.
The bread of Jesus’ flesh and the wine of Jesus’ blood are the miraculous manna bread from heaven and the miraculous water, both provided in the Exodus wilderness. If you don’t believe me, then perhaps believe the Gospels (John 6):
29 Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.” 30 So they said to Him, “What then are You doing as a sign, so that we may see, and believe You? What work are You performing? 31 Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread out of heaven to eat.’” 32 Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread out of heaven, but it is My Father who gives you the true bread out of heaven. 33 For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven and gives life to the world.” 34 Then they said to Him, “Lord, always give us this bread.”…
48 “…I am the bread of life. 49 Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down out of heaven, so that anyone may eat from it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats from this bread, he will live forever; and the bread which I will give for the life of the world also is My flesh.”
Modern-day Catholic wafers at communion are supposed to represent unleavened bread. While we are at it, the feeding of the five thousand is also a rerun of the manna bread from heaven.
Let’s return to audience, purpose, task, but this time for John. What’s he doing here? Is he writing objective history from a disinterested point of view? Did he have a Dictaphone to record this speech? Or is this propaganda?
Joel Baden says of this episode (Baden, p. 56):
The most fascinating aspect of John’s use of Exodus themes, particularly is attention to the figure of Moses, is that they appear to be a response not to the pressure of Roman imperial culture, as was the case with Josephus and Matthew, but rather to the traditions of a deeply skeptical contemporaneous Judaism. As Wayne Meeks puts it, “Substantial portions of the Johannine tradition were shaped by a fluid situation of missionary and polemical interaction with a strong Jewish community.” Meeks points out that John’s putative opponents in the gospel, in John 5 and 9, contest Jesus’s divinity on the grounds that he does not respect the Sabbath, and it is in response to this challenge that Jesus sets himself over and against Moses. The message of John is not that the Exodus traditions have been abrogated by Jesus, but that they have been superseded. His audience is called to move beyond the traditional Exodus story, to stop clinging to an outdated (Jewish) mode of revelation, and to come to the new revelation of Jesus – itself, despite the polemic, still fundamentally grounded in the Exodus story.
Allison illustrates John’s use of Moses in building up Jesus:
- Jesus cast out demons using the “finger of God” – Exodus.
- Lawgivers chose 12 phylarchs as Jesus (himself a new lawgiver) chose 12 disciples.
- Speeches of Acts 3 (he is a prophet like Moses) and particularly Acts 7 (Jesus has mosaic titles, his experience is parallel, they both worked miracles and were rejected by Israel).
- Jesus’ transfiguration = Exodus 24 & 34.
- Just as Moses does not eat or drink for forty days and forty nights while on the mountain, recording God’s Law (Exod 34:28), so also Jesus fasts
for forty days and forty nights in the desert, being tempted by Satan (Matt 4:2).
- I’m annoyed as I missed this in my Resurrection book. Dang: “Tradition tells that [at Moses’ death] the angels mourned, the heavens were shaken, lightnings flashed, and a heavenly voice spoke. . . . [So] several strange things happened . . . when Jesus died. The sun went dark ([Matthew] 27:45). Then the temple veil was rent (27:51). Then the earth quaked (27:51). And then the dead rose up (27:52-53).” (Allison, p. 261)
See the “remarkable parallels throughout Luke-Acts between Jesus and Moses” in Allison (p. 98-100):
There is so much more I could say of this all, particularly as Paul himself constructs a view of Jesus that emulates and supersedes Moses, where Jesus is the Passover sacrifice again. This was all so that Christ’s followers could, in the impending end times, “celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:8). Which is particularly amusing because we now know that the Passover and Festival of Unleavened Bread pre-existed the Exodus story and theology and were syncretically co-opted into the story in a form of aetiology (whereby stories are concocted to explain place names, geography or, in this case, seasonal agricultural festivals).
Alas, I have said enough.
This ain’t history. It’s a whole bunch of stuff. It’s various genres, but it ain’t history. Not like Ordway means. This is theology, in the same way the Qu’ran is theology. Yes, Muhammad existed, but did all of that God-stuff happen? No. Was it written ex post facto to explain, justify, exemplify, and identify moral laws and the activities of a cult leader? Yes. Christians would argue this. But they never turn their outward-looking methods, techniques and metrics inward.
Cath Olic and Ordway should read my books. But failing that, take a look at John Loftus’ superb The Outsider Test for Faith, a brilliant book to make sure you don’t have double standards. Do unto your own religion as you do unto others’.
This ain’t history, this is theology splashed with pseudo-history. To make matters worse, it takes the axio of the historicity of Moses and reinvents that through Jesus. But Moses was almost entirely mythical, and there is no historical evidence for anything he did in the Bible.
Just in case you didn’t catch it, this ain’t history.
Or if it is, so is the Qu’ran, and you can throw in the Enuma Elish, too.
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