Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Christian Origins: 8. Pseudepigrapha

8. Pseudepigrapha

In an earlier post, we discussed the fact that the Gospels are anonymous works. The attribution to the authors as we have today is considered to have happened sometime during mid or late second century.

In addition to these, Biblical scholarship believes that some of the books in the New Testament have false attributions. For instance we have thirteen epistles, which are supposed to have been written by Apostle Paul. A great majority of historical-critical scholars judge that the three pastorals – 1st and 2nd Timothy and Titus are second century works and not by the same hand that wrote say, the Romans or the Galatians. A majority (but a smaller majority) considers the 2nd Thessalonians, Ephesians and Colossians to be by authors other than Paul, but claiming to be Paul. [1]

During ancient times, writing in the name of a famous individual was apparently a fairly common practice and people did that to give their writings credibility and more force. The false attribution of authorship or pseudonymous writings are called pseudepigrapha. The ancients condemned this practice but did not have modern tools to clamp down on it.

About half of Paul's works that made it to the New Testament Canon are pseudonymous. The text of the epistle of Hebrews does not claim to be by Paul. However, it seems have been considered so and the book seems to have made it to the Canon on the weight of Paul's supposed authorship.

Then there are the epistles by Peter. This seems to have been originally written in Greek (as were all other New Testament Books or so the scholars now think). The author seems to have been a highly educated and a highly skilled writer. Scholarship rejects any suggestion that it was by the illiterate fisherman Simon Peter of the Gospels. In fact, scholarship considers the two Petrine epistles to be by different hands!

The epistles of James and Jude do not clarify for us if they authors were the legendary disciples of Jesus – James the son of Zebedee and Jude, his brother. So, strictly speaking, they are not pseudepigrapha. However, it seems to have been on the basis of the authorship that they made it to the New Testament Canon, much like the epistle of Hebrews! The book of Revelation is by a person named John. It is often claimed that this was John, the disciple of Jesus. However, the book itself does not make any such claims.

[To be continued... Next Chapter: Apocrypha ]


[1] Arthur J. Dewey, Roy W. Hoover, Lane C. McGaughy, Daryl D. Schmidt, "The Authentic Letters of Paul: A New Reading of Paul’s Rhetoric and Meaning", Polebridge Press (2010).

Christian Origins: 7. Interpolations

7. Interpolations

Missing Ending in Mark

It comes as a surprise to many Christians that the Gospel of Mark did not originally have the ending that our Bibles come with today. The earliest manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark do not have verses 16:9-20. Instead, they end at verse 16:8 with Mary Magdalene and her two companions witnessing an empty tomb and being told by a young man that Jesus has risen. There are no post-resurrection appearances by Jesus in this gospel!

If the ending we have is not original, how did we get the ending that we have today? Some of the later manuscripts have the ending that most Bibles carry today. Many modern Bibles in fact, also make a note of the fact that these are later additions. If this is news to you, go ahead and check your Bible.
In fact, we know of as many as five different endings. We know of what is called the 'original ending' (OE), a 'longer ending' (LE), a 'shorter ending' (SE) a 'very long ending' (VLE), and a variant reading in Codex Bobiensis, the Bobbio Ending (BE). We also have manuscripts which have the SE followed by the LE. [updated]

The view of mainstream scholars is that the original ended at verse 16:8. There is a virtual unanimity about this among the critical scholarship. [1]

Nativity and Post-resurrection

When Matthew and Luke draw on Mark, they pretty much follow the sequence set by Mark. They do change things to suit their tastes, but the plot line is pretty much the same. However, Mark starts his Gospel with an adult Jesus preaching in Galilee and does not provide a birth narrative. As we saw earlier, the earliest versions of this Gospel did not have a post-resurrection narrative either.
So, when Matthew and Luke came to supply these details they go off in different directions. They have different dates and locations. The details are very very different! This is a tell-tale sign that it is the authors' creativity at work rather than an attempt at recording history.


The printing press was invented in the fifteenth century by Gutenberg. This device revolutionized the way books were published. Books could now be mass produced. Every single copy would be an exact replica.

Prior to that books were hand written. When the books in the Bible were originally written, they were also written by hand. They were written on papyrus scrolls and parchments. When someone wanted a copy, the copy was also made by hand. Unlike the printing press which can churn out exact replicas, a hand written copy more often than not, has errors. When a book goes through multiple iterations of copying, we could easily end up with significant differences. This was true not just of the Bible but of virtually every ancient text.

The oldest Biblical manuscript that we have today is probably P52 (Papyrus numbered 52). It is now preserved at the John Rylands Library at Manchester, UK. It is a teeny tiny fragment containing just thirteen words from the Gospel of John. It is dated by paleography to the second century perhaps even as early as AD 125. The earliest complete manuscripts like Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus are from the fourth century. As may be noted, quiet a bit of time has passed between the time the originals were likely written and the earliest copies that we have. This gives a lot of room for errors to creep in. And the manuscripts do not disappoint us. There are a large number of variations between them. For instance, to give you a sense of the magnitude of the problem, there are over three thousand textual variations between Sinaiticus and Vaticanus in the text of the Gospels alone. There are corrections and deletions that may be seen on the manuscript.

All of this is to say that what we have today is at best just an approximation of what was originally written.

In addition to the scribal errors and mistakes, we have a far more serious problem. Since there were no printing presses during ancient times, scribes were in a position to change the text of the book they were copying to make it read the way they wanted it to. And we have a mass of evidence that they frequently took the liberty of doing just that! We call these changes interpolations. The variations in the ending of the Gospel of Mark is a very good example. Scribes who did not like the abrupt ending probably added a few more verses, perhaps to harmonize it with the other Gospels. There seem to have been multiple attempts at this giving us multiple versions of the endings. We know about this only because we have on our hands variant manuscripts.

As noted earlier, our best manuscripts come from the fourth century and later. Over 90% of the Greek manuscripts we have are from after the ninth century AD. The implication is that we are unlikely to be aware of the early redactions and interpolations made in the first second and third centuries because we simply do not have manuscripts from those periods. [2] [3] [4]

We do know from our earlier discussion of the Synoptic problem that the evangelists like Matthew and Luke modified and redacted the Gospel of Mark, to possibly make it read more to their tastes. The scribes who made copies of these texts introduced further changes. The manuscript evidence is available only from the fourth century (the earlier ones are fragments) and the scholars are virtually certain that there are many early interpolations for which we don't have any manuscript evidence for.
[To be continued... Next Chapter: Pseudepigrapha ]


[1] ErrancyWiki.com, "Mark 16:9-20 as Forgery or Fabrication", Richard Carrier, (2009)
[2] Bart D. Ehrman, "Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible and Why We Don't Know About Them", HarperOne (2009).
[3] Bart D. Ehrman, "Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why", HarperOne (2005).

Monday, April 29, 2013

Christian Origins: 6. Prophesy Fulfilled or Midrash

6. Prophesy Fulfilled or Midrash

Jesus of Nazareth is supposed to have fulfilled various Old Testament prophesies during his life on earth. The Gospel of Mark alludes to many of these. The Gospel of Matthew is more explicit, often citing chapter and verse.

Unfortunately, these claims are post-hoc at best and often of dubious nature. Consider the prophecy in Matthew 1:22-23.
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
The reference is to Isaiah 7:14 which supposedly predicts the birth of Immanuel. However, in reality, this passage is about Isaiah giving Ahaz, king of Judah a sign. There is no indication here that it is about Immanuel a.k.a Jesus who would be born seven centuries later!

Mark's passion narrative is full of references to the old testament and prophesies fulfilled. Only, the originals in the old testament often have no indication that they are prophesies.

Did Mark not know that people would not realize that the Passion narrative was extracted from Psalms and Zachariah and the suffering servant of Isaiah? Did Mark not know that people would look up Isaiah and figure out that there is something wrong with his claims?

So, what is going on here? It has been suggested that what Mark is doing is constructing new stories by drawing on various parts of scripture, not necessarily related. This reinterpretation and redaction of old stories goes by the name, Midrash.

A very generous understanding would be that the Gospel writers were perhaps not trying to pull a fast one with their claims of prophesy fulfillment. They were just writing stories with theological significance rather than literal history. Some scholars for instance see the Gospel of Mark as a meta-parable.[1] But it can't be disputed that they were redacting their sources which included the Old Testament.

Matthew is far more literal than Mark, explicitly referring to verses in the Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible which the Gospel writers seem to have relied on) and claiming fulfillment of prophecies when Mark often only alludes to them. Thus, according to Matthew, Jesus was named Immanuel, spends his infancy in Egypt, goes to live in Capernaum, rides into Jerusalem on two donkeys simultaneously and so on; all of these in fulfillment of prophecies. Matthew is clearly expanding on the details of Mark, making the references to the Septuagint explicit. Matthew is clearly taking liberties with Mark's stories.

This style of writing puts the Gospels outside the genre of ancient history. In fact, Luke is the only canonical Gospel writer who seems to be making the claim that he is attempting to record history. However, he cites no sources (though he does mention that there are some sources) and seems to be redacting either Mark and Q or Mark and Matthew without bothering to mention that that is what he is doing, not the signs of a good historian, even for ancient times!

[To be continued... Next Chapter: Interpolations]


[1] John Dominic Crossan, "The Power of Parable: How Fiction By Jesus Became Fiction About Jesus", HarperOne (2012).

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Christian Origins: 5. Internal Inconsistencies

5. Internal Inconsistencies

In addition to the historical inconsistencies that we discussed in part 3, the Bible and the Gospel narratives have internal inconsistencies.

The Gospels of Mark and John do not describe the birth of Jesus to Mary and Joseph. Luke and Matthew do. They both recount Mary's conception of Jesus. Mary is a virgin and conceives by the power of the Holy Ghost. Jesus is born in Bethlehem. The birth narratives end with Jesus in Nazareth. The similarities pretty much end there.

The Gospel of Matthew has Jesus born during the reign of Herod the Great; The Gospel of Luke says it was during the governorship of Quirinius. Herod's reign ended in 4 BC. Roman control of Judaea began in the year 6 AD and so did Quirinius's governorship. This places the birth at very different times   - before 4 BC according to Matthew; after 6 AD according to Luke. That is not to say that people have not tried to reconcile the two accounts. Richard Carrier, a historian (and an atheist) has a long and exhaustive article at the Errancy Wiki showing why none of the reconciliation attempts work.[1] None of them do.

Let's take another example. When was Jesus crucified? Matthew, Mark and Luke have Jesus eat the Passover meal on first day of the Passover or Nisan 14 and is crucified the next day or Nisan 15. (cf. Matthew 26:17, Mark 14:12, Luke 22:7). John on the other hand portrays Jesus as a perfect pascal offering and has Jesus dying on the day of Preparation of the Passover – a day earlier on Nisan 14. (cf. John 19:14).

Matthew and Luke both have Jesus resurrecting after his crucifixion but have the details all different – the angels at the empty tomb, where Jesus and the disciples headed to, who saw the resurrected Jesus and so on.

We have many many more inconsistencies. Who was Jesus' father Joseph's father? (cf. Matthew 1:16, Luke 3:23) What was Jesus' last words? (cf. Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34, Luke 23:46, John 19:30). How did Judas the betrayer die? (cf, Matthew 27:5, Acts 1:18). What was Jesus' and his parents' home town? Bethlehem? (cf. Matthew 1:18-2:2) Nazareth? (cf. Luke 2:4) or Capharnaum? (cf. Mark 2:1, Matthew 9:1). How many times did the cock crow?

This list is but a tiny sample. A good question to ask is, do these details matter. If the claim being made is that the Bible is inerrant, then, yes they do. It clearly is not inerrant. Sure, at least, some of these can be resolved if one is inventive enough. But certainly not all!

As the synoptic problem suggests, if Matthew and Luke had Mark right before them and John too possibly was aware of the synoptics, then one has to ask why we see so many inconsistencies. The answer scholars have come up is that the gospel writers were intentionally redacting or modifying the versions they had before them to make it better suite their theological agenda.

For instance, when Matthew drops Mark's story that Joseph of Arimathea bought a linen cloth to wrap Jesus's body (c.f Mark 15:46, Matthew 27:59) the change can be assumed to be quite intentional. A Jew buying cloth on the day of Sabbath is quite unlikely and Mark seems to have missed this problem in his narrative. When Mark misquotes the ten commandments (Mark 10:19) Matthew corrects it. This is one of many such corrections Matthew made.

So, it is not four independent accounts but three or four textually related accounts and the contradictions and differences show the theological and other differences of the writers.

[To be continued... Next Chapter - Prophesy Fulfilled or Midrash]


[1] Richard Carrier, "Luke vs. Matthew on the Year of Christ's Birth", (2006)

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Christian Origins: 4. The Synoptic Problem

4. The Synoptic Problem

Markan Priority

We have four Gospels that have come down to us as authoritative. They are the canonical Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

A mainstream view, which is today taken almost as a given, is that it is the Gospel of Mark that was written first. It was once thought that the first Gospel was that of Matthew.[1] The Gospel of Mark is the shorter and the most primitive of all the four Gospels. Mathew and Luke seem to be expanding on and at times, even correcting Mark.

The thirteenth chapter of Mark often called the Little Apocalypse seems to allude to a future destruction of the Jerusalem temple. During the Jewish war, the temple did get destroyed exactly as 'predicted'. Also, the gospels are considered to have anachronisms from around this time or later. Consequently, this Gospel is generally considered by biblical scholars to have been written sometime around AD 65-70, the time of the Jewish war. More radical dates, some as late as mid second century have also been proposed. However, this has remained a minority view. Jewish Christian writings have a tradition of faking predictions by writing after the fact, but fraudulently locating the time of writing to the past. The book of Daniel for instance, falls into this category.

The other three Gospels are later works, dated by the mainstream scholars somewhere between AD 70-95. Our earliest extant manuscripts and attestations however, come much later.

We can safely say that the Gospels were written at around the time of the first Jewish war or later.

The Synoptic Problem

The Gospels Matthew Mark and Luke are textually interrelated. There are many common passages between the three, many of the same stories, same miracles and sometimes even the same words. Scholars refer to these Gospels as the Synoptics or the Synoptic Gospels.

Matthew and Luke (for convenience, we shall use these names as if they are the authors, though we do not know who the actual authors are) used the Gospel of Mark, copied and expanded on it. They are not original works. The Gospel of Matthew has about 90% of the Gospel of Mark, some of it literally word for word. In many places, Matthew corrects the grammatical errors of Mark. Mark does not seem to be familiar with the geography of Judea and Matthew corrects these as well. Matthew also seems to correct what seems to be Mark's mistakes related to Judaism.[2]

The Synoptic Gospels in general are more down to earth than the Epistles or the Gospel of John. Yet there are differences in their outlook. The Jesus portrayed in Mark is secretive and teaches through parables and dies with a cry of dereliction. This is a far cry from the Christology that we see in the Pauline epistles. Matthew and Luke (literally) correct Mark's Jesus failure at times to sound divine enough and add more legendary features. When Mark's Jesus doesn't seem to know what is happening around him (cf. Mark 5:30-33, Matthew 9:20-22, Luke 8:44-47), or his powers are limited (cf. Mark 1:34, Matthew 8:16, Luke 4:40 or Mark 3:10, Matthew 12:15, Luke 6:19 or Mark 6:5-6, Matthew 13:58), Matthew and Luke seem to step in and appear to be attempting to make Jesus look more divine. [3] Luke has his Jesus go through his passion with a sure step, except for briefly pausing at Gethsemane to sweat blood. His Jesus dies knowing exactly what he is doing! No cry of dereliction for Luke's Jesus.

The Lost Sayings Gospel of Q

In addition to the material that seems to have been taken from the Gospel of Mark, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke seem to have a great deal of common material. The solution of mainstream scholarship to explain this is with the hypothesis that there was a written collection of sayings of Jesus. This collection is called Quelle (which is German for 'source') or just Q. In addition to the Gospel of Mark, 'Matthew' and 'Luke' are considered to have redacted and used the Q source. This hypothetical collection of sayings is now lost. We know about it only by reconstructing it from Matthew and Luke. It is considered to be a sayings collection because the material which is common to Matthew and Luke but not in Mark is mostly a bunch of sayings, the beatitudes for instance. There is very little narrative material here and no crucifixion or nativity.

A competing minority view or solution for explaining the common material is that Luke copied from both Matthew and Mark. [4] [5]

The Johannine Gospel

The Gospel of John was for long considered to be independent of the synoptics. It has a different set of miracles. While Mark portrays Jesus as secretive and reluctant to produce signs, John portrays a Jesus who gives them signs and long winded lectures about himself. John's Jesus comes close to being a megalomaniac.

There is a trend now in mainstream scholarship in considering this gospel's passion narrative to be dependent on Mark after all.

John's Jesus is the pre-existent word that became flesh and takes on features of the Logos philosophy. We know that the Logos philosophy has Hellenistic roots. We see it in the works of Philo of Alexandria, for instance, but without a gospel setting and a (Pauline) crucifixion. Philo was a contemporary of Paul (assuming traditional Pauline dates) and wrote about Logos, an emanation or son of God. This is a predecessor to the idea of Logos that we come to see in John's Gospel and in the writings of some second century Church fathers. Prior to Philo, Jewish thought had the concept of personification of 'Wisdom', a creation of God at the beginning of time and acting as an intermediary of God, much like the Logos. (Cf. Proverbs 8, Wisdom of Solomon). Notice how similar but theologically more developed Jesus, the second person of the Christian trinity turned out to be?

The idea of an emanation of God comes from trying to paint God as perfect in every way. If you think about it, portraying God as having any sort of interest in this world entails implying God's limits. If God loves the world, then God cannot hate the world which is a limitation. In Platonic thought, the way out was to describe God as transcendent. This  transcendent God does not create or interact with this world but through one or more emanation. Thus the Logos or the word created this world. The Holy Spirit is responsible for revelations. A mash-up of these ideas and identifying Yahweh with the creator, who was not originally seen as  transcendent resulted in the concept of the Holy Trinity which has confused theologians and the lay Christians for centuries.

[To be continued... Next chapter: Internal Inconsistencies ]


[1] Barclay William, “The Gospel of Matthew: Chapters 1-10” Westminster John Knox Press, 2001
[2] Steven Carr, 'Are the Gospels Eyewitness Accounts?'
[3] Barclay William, “The Gospel of Matthew: Chapters 1-10” Westminster John Knox Press, 2001 (page 1-5)
[4] Mark Goodacre "The Case Against Q", Trinity Press International, March 2002
[5] Mark Goodacre, "The Synoptic Problem: A Way Through the Maze", London & New York: T & T Clark, 2001

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Christian Origins: 3. The Gospel Truth

3. The Gospel Truth

Gospel Authorship

The Bible includes four gospels, four biographies of Jesus Christ. Though we generally assign the authorship of the Gospels to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the Gospels are in reality anonymous works. The texts do not mention the authors by name. The Gospels were (very likely) originally composed in Koine Greek by evangelists who were fairly skilled in writing. (A minority view is that they were originally composed in Hebrew or Aramaic.) The consensuses is that Mark was composed after AD 65, Matthew and Luke a decade or more after Mark. References to the Gospels are not seen in the Christian literature until the second century - Papias' disputed references (125 AD); Justin Martyr (around 150 AD). Irenaeus of Lyons in present-day France around 180 AD mentions all the books in the New Testament by name and quotes from them.

Until the middle/late of the second century, we do not have clear attributions to these authors. For these reasons, it is a consensus view of Biblical scholarship that we do not know who wrote these Gospels. It is believed that the names were attributed to disciples (Matthew and John) and companions of disciples (Mark, Luke) to give authority to the Gospels.

Gospel History

The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles are written as if they are historical accounts. The prologue in this gospel says it is based on previous accounts of Jesus. But it does not name these sources which good historians, even in antiquity did. It at least mentions that there are prior sources. The remaining three gospels do not claim to be historical accounts.

The Gospel of Matthew mentions that the Magi from the east traveled to Bethlehem following a star. The star finally comes to rest over the place where baby Jesus was. Such a astronomical phenomenon, a 'star' that stands precisely on top of a house/manger is unknown to us. This 'star' was also not reported by any astronomer in antiquity or even by the other three Gospel writers.

The gospel of Matthew mentions that Herod the Great attempted to kill baby Jesus by massacring all babies in Bethlehem, two years old and under. A massacre of this proportion never finds a mention in any of the historical accounts of that period. Josephus has a list of atrocities committed by Herod. But the killing of the infants is not one of them.

The census mentioned by Luke, the one ordered by Caesar Augustus when Quirinius was the governor of Judea is very different from what we do know about censuses during the Roman times. According to Luke, it was a census of 'all the world'. Perhaps Luke actually meant was all of the 'Roman world'. Yet we do not know of a empire wide census, at least not till 74 A.D. Prior to that, different provinces of Rome were assessed at different times. This particular one was probably of Syria and Judaea and perhaps this is what Luke meant or just got it wrong. The journey by Joseph to the land of his ancestor David with his wife Mary who by this time was well into her pregnancy also sounds far fetched.

Jesus according to Gospels managed to single-handedly throw out the money changers at the Jerusalem Temple. The practice of money changing has an interesting history. Jews had strict rules against graven images. This meant coins bearing the images of pagan Gods or emperors were forbidden inside the temple. So, for the temple tax, they insisted on payments in Tyrian Shekels which was purer than the Roman coins. Interestingly, the Tyrian shekels did contain a graven image, that of Melqarth-Herakles (better known in the western world as Hercules) a pagan deity and the eagle. The temple priests decided to overlook this in favor of the purity of the coin. Thus the money changers were there because of the temple rules.[1]

The Jerusalem temple precincts was huge. To give you an idea, it could accommodate as many as 400,000 worshipers. It could fit twelve soccer fields, including the stands. Now imagine a single person driving out all the money changers from the temple! Also, we know from Josephus that Roman soldiers were always at hand during Passover festivals to quell any riots. This casts a further question mark over the historicity of Jesus' act of cleansing of the temple.

Jesus' trial by the Sanhedrin violates many of the trial rules that we know about. Per the gospels of Mark and Matthew, the trial happened at night. Capital trials at night were illegal. Death by stoning was the punishment prescribed by the Torah for Blasphemy, which per Mark was the charge against Jesus. The Sanhedrin did have the power to execute by stoning. The Jews did not have to refer a case of Blasphemy to Pilate. Nor was a crucifixion necessary. We do know these rules about Sanhedrin from the tractate in the Mishnah which prescribes procedures for the Sanhedrin. Note that the Mishnah was compiled around 200 AD. But we have no reason to think these rules did not exist around 30AD. [2]

During Jesus' trial, Jesus is taken to Pontius Pilate the Roman governor for trial. The gospels portray Pilate as not wanting to kill Jesus but buckling against the Jewish pressure. The portrait that Josephus paints of Pilate however, is that of a brutal ruler and one that lacked concern for Jewish sensibilities.

During the trial, Pilate proposes that Jesus be set free, as it was supposedly the custom to set free, a prisoner during the festival of Passover. Instead the Jews demand that Barabbas, a robber, be set free. This custom is unknown to us from any of the historians of the period. Romans were cruel overlords and setting a prisoner free seems an unlikely custom and historians have expressed skepticism. Now, the Jews have a festival called Yom Kippur or the day of atonement. During this festival, two goats are brought in to the temple. Using lots one picked and ritually slaughtered and its blood is sprinkled on the Holy of Holies in the temple (where God was believed to reside). The other is said to bear the sins of Israel and is set free in the wilderness. The parallels with Barabbas being set free and Jesus being killed to atone for the sins of the world are unmistakable. Early manuscripts of the Gospel of Matthew use the full name 'Jesus Barabbas' instead of Barabbas. Barabbas literally means 'Son of the father” Thus we have two Jesuses here – one Jesus the son of the father, the other Jesus Christ the Son of God, the father. Such parallels belong in the realm of allegory and fiction rather than history.

According to the Gospels, after Jesus was crucified, the earth was covered by darkness for three hours. (Cf. Mark 15:33, Matthew 27:45, Luke 23:44–45). The Gospel of Matthew says that after Jesus' death, the earth shook and rocks were split. The tombs opened and dead people came back to life and walked around. The worldwide darkness is not attested to by any contemporary writer of the Roman empire or the rest of the world. Explaining it away as a Solar eclipse also fails as an eclipse lasts just a few minutes and not three whole hours! The earthquake and the zombies are known only to Matthew. They are not mentioned by the other three Gospel writers or any other writer of that period.

The above are some of the important historical issues with the Gospels. The Gospels also have legendary and mythological events like conversing with demons, the devil and angles, water turning into wine, multiplying bread and fish, the lepers, the blind and the lame getting healed, psychological problems being cured by driving out demons or by forgiving the sins, the dead coming back to life and not to mention Jesus' own resurrection.

[To be continued... Next chapter: 4. Synoptic Problem]


[1] http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2006/11/the-tyrian-shekel-and-the-temple-of-jerusalem.aspx
[2] Sanhedrin trial rules

Christian Origins: 2. Contemporary Evidence

2. Contemporary Evidence

Critical scholarship views Jesus to be a obscure but historical person. They know for sure very little about Jesus. In their view Jesus was a small time preacher who got on the wrong side of the law and got executed. While we may speculate about what he taught and why he was killed, we in fact have very little hard historical evidence for Jesus and his ministry.

Jesus left us no writings. We actually do have some works claiming to be from the hand of Jesus. But scholars unanimously consider them forgeries.

There are simply no contemporary writers/historians who write about Jesus. Philo of Alexandria, Justus of Tiberias, Pliny the Elder and Seneca are all unaware of Jesus of Nazareth. The earth shattering events that lead to the birth of Christianity seem to have remained unknown to these historians, even though they lived in that very neighborhood.

Outside of the Gospels, the earliest reference to Jesus that we have is by a Jewish Roman historian called Josephus Flavius. In his book the Antiquities of the Jews published around AD 93/94, there are a couple of mentions of Jesus. But, these references were either added or edited later by Christian interpolators. What is hotly debated is whether all of the supposed references by Josephus are from later Christian hands or if there really was an original reference or two by Josephus himself, which were embellished later. We do not know for sure.[1] [2]

Tacitus a Roman historian, in his book Annals (around AD 109), makes a brief mention of Jesus (Christus to be precise). The mention is very brief and seems to be derived from Christians themselves. There is no independent attestation there.

Suetonius in his work 'The Lives of the Caesars' briefly mentions that around 49 AD, Jews were expelled from Rome as they were causing disturbances at the instigation of “Chrestus”. This is far too late to be Jesus of the Gospels and the location is also wrong.

Pliny the Younger in his letter to Trajan describes his crackdown on the Christians in what is now Turkey. This is from around 112 AD.

It is also sometimes claimed that a chronologer named Thallus, supposedly writing shortly after 52 AD, mentioned the crucifixion of Jesus and the noontime darkness surrounding it . But this is not credible as the report that we have is third hand. Also, from the patchy evidence that we have, it is simply not possible to accurately date this writing to 52 AD. Thallus could have been writing anytime during the first two centuries of the Christian era (and possibly even earlier). [3] [4]

These are our earliest and best non-Christian references (or the ones that come close) to Christians and Jesus. Of these Josephus is our best non-Christian reference to Jesus of Nazareth. Unfortunately, the reference has been tampered with by later Christian interpolators leaving us speculating if Josephus did have knowledge about Jesus of Nazereth that was independent of the Gospels.

The Jews produced derogatory references to Jesus in the Talmuds. But these are from the 4th century and later. There is a deafening silence about Jesus of Nazareth in the contemporary Jewish literature.

Our quick survey of the non-Christian literature tells us that we have no attestation of Jesus from the first century, none except for an interpolated account in the Antiquities of the Jews.

But what about the Christian literature? We do have the Gospels and the Epistles and the Acts of the Apostles to tell us what Jesus did here on earth, don't we? So, next we turn to the Gospels.


[1] Richard Carrier, "Origen, Eusebius, and the Accidental Interpolation in Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20.200," Journal of Early Christian Studies 20.4 [Winter 2012].

[2] G.J. Goldberg, "The Coincidences of the Testimonium of Josephus and the Emmaus Narrative of Luke," The Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha 13 [1995]: 59-77

[3] Richard Carrier, "Thallus and the Darkness at Christ’s Death," Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism 8 (2011-2012): 185-91.

[4] Infidels.org, "Thallus: An Analysis", Richard Carrier (1999)

Christian Origins: 1. The Familiar Story

1. Christian Origins: The familiar story

All Christians and many non-Christians are familiar with the story of how Christianity was founded. Christianity was founded by Jesus Christ.

Back in the days, when Herod the Great ruled over Judea, there was a young virgin girl by the name of Mary. Mary was betrothed to Joseph. But before their wedding, by the power of the Holy Spirit, Mary became pregnant. Just before delivering her baby, Mary and Joseph were forced to travel all the way to Bethlehem to take part in a census. After struggling and failing to find lodging at Bethlehem, Mary gave birth to baby Jesus in a manger.

Baby Jesus was visited by the the shepherds and the Magi or the three wise men from the east who brought him gifts. The evil King Herod learned that the messiah has come to this world and attempts to kill Jesus by killing all the infants in Bethlehem. Warned by the angels, Jesus's parents escape to Egypt and Jesus survives!

At the age of thirty, Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. And then Jesus started his three year long ministry. Jesus along with his twelve disciples, went on to preach all over Galilee, the word of God. He performed many wonderful miracles and signs. He walked on water, cured the blind and the lame. He fed thousands with a handful of bread and fish. He cast out demons and brought the dead to life.

The Pharisees and Sadducees did not like this and conspired to kill Jesus. During the time of the passover, with the help of the traitor Judas, they brought Jesus to trial. They pressurized Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor into crucifying Jesus. Jesus died on a Roman cross. With the passing of the Son of God, the earth trembled and the sun went dark for three hours!

On the third day, Jesus conquered death and rose again!

This gave the disciples Peter, James, John and the rest of the gang a second wind. With the power of the Holy Spirit in them, they preached the teachings of Jesus. Apostle Paul, though originally a violent persecutor, had a vision of Jesus and got converted to Christianity. Peter and Paul took the new religion to Rome. The disciples took the word of God far and wide with Thomas going all the way to India. Peter became the first Pope of Rome.

Matthew and John, Mark and Luke meanwhile, wrote the four Gospels which give us four different points of views of the life of Jesus. Paul and Peter and James and Jude wrote epistles to the Christian communities which also survive to this day. The religion spread far and wide and by the fourth century, it became the dominant religion in the Roman Empire.

And that is the lay-person's view of the origin of Christianity. But the consensus view of the historical-critical scholarship is quite different. (To be continued...)

Christian Origins: Index

I am doing a series on the origins of Christianity. My intention here is to give an introduction to the conclusions drawn by the historical-critical scholarship. The last chapter is my take on what they leave us with. Enjoy!

  1. The Familiar Story 
  2. Contemporary Evidence
  3. The Gospel Truth
  4. Synoptic Problem
  5. Internal Inconsistencies
  6. Prophesy Fulfilled or Midrash
  7. Interpolations
  8. Pseudepigrapha
  9. Apocrypha
  10. Reliability of the Gospels
  11. Apostolic Traditions
  12. Evolutionary Strands
  13. Schisms
  14. Looking Back

Monday, April 22, 2013

Review: Pope Benedict XVI's Jesus of Nazareth - Part 3: Bungee Jumping for Jesus

[Continuing from Part 1 and Part 2 of my review of Pope Benedict XVI's  book, Jesus of Nazareth

Part 3: Bungee Jumping for Jesus

One of the reasons I started reading Ratzinger's book was to beat the 'echo chamber' effect and to understand what the other side thought. When you bring up the atrocities committed by Yahweh in the Old Testament or the creation myth or the global flood, Catholics I have talked to are, in general, all too ready to dump the Old Testament. Read the New Testament, they say as it has overridden the old one. I wanted to know where the Pope stood on this.

As I understand, the modern Catholic Church has embraced the fact that much of genesis is nothing more than myth. But other than saying that those texts are not to be taken literally, I have not found much precise information on where it stands on the rest of the texts. Who better to clarify than the (ex) Pope?

Ratzinger's interpretation is not a literal one. He insists that "the very essence of biblical faith to be about real historical events. It does not tell stories symbolizing suprahistorical truths, but is based on history, history that took place here on this earth". But unlike some of the evangilical Christians, he does not insist on the literal truth of every word. Instead he insists that the words have "deeper meaning". The pursuit of this deeper meaning is what this book is all about.

Not insisting on literal truth is a very powerful tool. It lets Ratzinger read pretty much anything he chooses into the text. It lets him discard what he chooses to discard and reinterpret any text in any which way he chooses. (In Rabbinic Judaism, this technique is called midrash.)

What this lets Ratzinger do is what I call Bungee Jumping for Jesus, with one rope tethering him to the Old Testament, another to the Synoptics, another to the Johannine Gospel, another to the epistles and yet another to historical scholarship. This lets him interpret the temptation of Jesus as a vision and symbolic of the temptations that we face and insist at the same time that it is all historic. This lets him accept the fact that there are many variant readings in the manuscript traditions yet not be bothered that fact or by the synoptic problem and the implication that Mathew and Luke were redacting Mark and were not independent eye witness accounts. This lets him throw the miracle in Cana under the bus of Dionysian myth but still insist that the Gospel of John is an eyewitness account and a recounting of history, well kind of.

All this bungee jumping means we have a new Gospel according to Joseph Ratzinger in our hands. Ratzinger, at one point even asks, "Has this ecclesiastical interpretation and rereading of the event of Jesus' Baptism taken us too far away from the Bible?" (pp 20).

The Bible is choke full of number symbolism. We encounter twelve disciples, fourteen generations, three repetitions and so on. Ratzinger is not beyond waving away embarrassing numerological references. "The Fathers of the Church, stretching number symbolism in an admittedly slightly playful way, regarded forty as a cosmic number, as the numerical sign for this world. The four "corners" encompass the whole world, and ten is the number of the commandments. The number of the cosmos multiplied by the number of commandments becomes a symbolic statement about the history of this world as a whole." (pp 29) Very "playful", indeed.

Here is an instance where Ratzinger comes close to insisting on literal truth of the Bible. "God's hand was at last plainly acting in history again. John baptizes with water, but one even greater, who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire, is already at the door. Given all this, there is absolutely no reason to suppose that Mark is exaggerating when he reports that "there went out to him all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins" (Mk 1:15)." (pp 15)

Why would Mark exaggerate, indeed?

Biblical scholarship has long come to consider the Johannine Gospel as a the last of Cannonical Gospels to be written and the farthest removed from history. Ratzinger makes short work of this claim.

First he starts with the dating. "The radically late datings of John's Gospel" ... "had to be abandoned because papyri from Egypt dating back to the beginning of the second century have been discovered; this made it clear that the Gospel must have been written in the first century, if only during the closing years." (pp. 219)

Ratzinger must be referring to the fragment called Rylands Library Papyrus or P52. It is a tiny tiny fragment and consists of a total of thirteen words. The dating is based on paleography which is not very accurate. At best, it is from the first half of the second century. This does not tell us what stage of redaction this fragment is from.

At any rate, the last decade of the first century is actually the consensus date for this Gospel of John though this is not without controversy. (Hardly anything is without controversy, for that matter, when it comes to Biblical studies.)

"If the favorite disciple in the Gospel expressly assumes the function of a witness to the truth of the events he recounts, he is presenting himself as a living person. He intends to vouch for historical events as a witness and he thus claims for himself the status of a historical figure. Otherwise the statements we have examined, which are decisive for the intention and the quality of the entire Gospel, would be emptied of meaning." (pp. 223)

We would not want the entire Gospel to be emptied of meaning would we? So we do some scholarly kung fu which soon bears fruits.

"If in the light of current scholarship, then, it is quite possible to see Zebedee's son John as the bystander who solemnly asserts his claim to be an eyewitness (cf. Jn 19:35) and thereby identifies himself as the true author of the Gospel nevertheless..." (pp. 225)

We see Ratzinger indulging in the "possibly, therefore probably" fallacy. A couple of back flips and references to Church fathers like Eusebius and Papias (who are discredited enough that Ratzinger must know better than to take their word for evidence), we soon converge in on the conclusion "that the contents of the Gospel go back to the disciple whom Jesus (especially) loved" and that "the author of the Gospel of John is, as it were, the literary executor of the favorite disciple."

"This Gospel ultimately goes back to an eyewitness, and even the actual redaction of the text was substantially the work of one of his closest followers within the living circle of his disciples." (pp. 226,227)

The conclusions one can arrive at are quite anti-climatic, if one starts by stating that one "trust(s) the Gospels"!

After reading two chapters, I jumped to the chapter on the Johannine Gospel. And with that I have had enough.

If you are mystically minded or interested in finding out what the vicar of Christ smokes, this book is for you. If not, move on!

Review: Pope Benedict XVI's Jesus of Nazareth - Part 2: The Rottweiler's Jesus

[Continuing from Part 1 of my review of Pope Benedict XVI's  book, Jesus of Nazareth

Part 2: The Rottweiler's Jesus

Joseph Ratzinger
Fr. Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) while serving as the Chair of Dogmatic Theology at the University of Tübingen, in 1968, wrote thus about the doctrine of the primacy of conscience. “Above the pope as an expression of the binding claim of church authority, stands one’s own conscience, which has to be obeyed first of all, if need be against the demands of church authority.[1]

That was long before Ratzinger climbed the hierarchy to the very pinnacle, which is of course, the papacy. On the way up the ladder, he earned the nickname "God's Rottweiler" for silencing many in the Church who dared to step outside the official teachings of the church.

The primacy of conscience, it seemed, applied only when it was not in conflict with the Church.

God's Rottweiler makes an appearance in the book, Jesus of Nazareth. Ratzinger's interpretation of the passage where the Devil himself, in person, puts Jesus to the test is that it is a theological debate between the Devil and Jesus. He calls the second temptation a vision. Perhaps all of the temptations are supposed to be a visions. He takes the opportunity to have a go at the scholarly community which has tried hard to excavate Jesus from early Christian writings and has come up with the shocking notion that Jesus was probably a nobody, just another preacher who got killed.

"The alleged findings of scholarly exegesis have been used to put together the most dreadful books that destroy the figure of Jesus and dismantle the faith." (pp. 35)

The dreadful scholarly books! Some of them like Thomas Thomson and Hans Küng are Catholics and got a dose of the Rottweiler's medicine for their heresy. Fortunately, the whole world is not Catholic.

But let's get back to reviewing the book.

"The common practice today is to measure the Bible against the so-called modern worldview, whose fundamental dogma is that God cannot act in history - that, everything to do with God is to be relegated to the domain of subjectivity." (pp. 35)

There is no fundamental dogma that God cannot act in history. Ratzinger is attacking a straw man here.

Catholics and most theists postulate a god that interacts with us and acts in history as well as in the present. When we ask for evidence for this interaction, they are shocked. What is Ratzinger's shocked response?

"The arrogance that would make God an object and impose our laboratory conditions upon him is incapable of finding him. For it already implies that we deny God as God by placing ourselves above him, by discarding the whole dimension of love, of interior listening; by no longer acknowledging as real anything but what we can experimentally test and grasp. To think like that is to make oneself God. And to do that is to abase not only God, but the world and oneself too." (pp. 37)

No, it is not arrogance. If god interacts with us, shouldn't we be able to observe the interaction? If not, it is not arrogance to ask how we can know that god is interacting with us.

It is Ratzinger who talks about the gospels being eye-witness accounts! Ratzinger tries to have it both ways. It is Ratzinger who wants to claim that his god has acted in history and calls it arrogance when we would like some evidence for the same.

Remember, he was the head of the church that is also a saint making factory which involves declaring that miracles have happened. If miracles happen, can secular scientists not observe them? If they can't, how did Ratzinger's church determine that miracles did happen?

"And we make this same demand of God and Christ and his Church throughout the whole of history. "If you exist, God," we say, "then you'll just have to show yourself. You'll have to part the clouds that conceal you and give us the clarity that we deserve. If you, Christ, are really the Son of God, and not just another one of the enlightened individuals who keep appearing in the course of history, then you'll just have to prove it more clearly than you are doing now. And if the Church is really supposed to be yours, you'll have to make that much more obvious than it is at present." (pp. 30,31)

"Did not, and does not, the Redeemer of the world have to prove his credentials by feeding everyone? Isn't the problem of feeding the world-and, more generally,m are not social problems - the primary, true yardstick by which redemption has to be measured?" (pp. 31)

Good questions indeed!

"If you claim to be the Church of God, then start by making sure that the world has bread - the rest comes later. It is hard to answer this challenge, precisely because the cry of the hungry penetrates so deeply into the ears and into the soul - as well it should." (pp. 32)

Sure, bread for everyone would be great. So would not raping alter boys and not defending the priests who did, tooth and claw. But asking for that would be arrogance, wouldn't it Herr Rottweiler?

Ratzinger knows what exactly is wrong with this world.

"The German Jesuit Alfred Delp, who was executed by the Nazis, once wrote: "Bread is important, freedom is more important, but most important of all is unbroken fidelity and faithful adoration.
When this ordering of goods is no longer respected, but turned on its head, the result is not justice or concern for human suffering. The result is rather ruin and destruction even of material goods themselves. When God is regarded as a secondary matter that can be set aside temporarily or permanently on account of more important things, it is precisely these supposedly more important things that come to nothing. It is not just the negative outcome of the Marxist experiment that proves this.
" (pp. 33)

"The aid offered by the West to developing countries has been purely technically and materially based, and not only has left God out of the picture, but has driven men away from God. And this aid, proudly claiming to "know better," is itself what first turned the "third world" into what we mean today by that term. It has thrust aside indigenous religious, ethical, and social structures and filled the resulting vacuum with its technocratic mind-set. The idea was that we could turn stones into bread; instead, our "aid" has only given stones in place of bread. The issues is the primacy of God. The issue is acknowledging that he is reality, that he is the reality without which nothing else can be good." (pp. 33,34)

All the problems we face is because we have been leaving out God. This from the man who does not permit Catholic social workers to distribute condoms. Why cares if that could save lives? The world needs Ratzinger's god, the one who interacts with history, but does not permit us to ask how we can know that he did.

This invisible god is the answer!

Few Christians can refrain from waxing eloquent on how good god is. Ratzinger is no different.

"And the goodness of the human heart can ultimately come only from the One who is goodness, who is the Good itself." (pp. 33)

But the mystery of hungry and dying children shall not be discussed!

"Of course, one can still ask why God did not make a world in which his presence is more evident - why Christ did not leave the world with another sign of his presence so radiant that no one could resist it." (pp. 34)

You may ask, so long as you do not reach any dreadfully wrong answers. Ratzinger helps you with the right answer.

"This is the mystery of God and man, which we find so inscrutable. We live in this world where God is not so manifest as tangible things are but can be sought and found only when the heart sets out on the "exodus" from "Egypt". It is in this world that we are obliged to resist the delusions of false philosophies and to recognize that we do not live by bread alone, but first and foremost by obedience to God's word. Only when this obedience is put into practice does the attitude develop that is also capable of providing bread for all." (pp. 34)

All we need is obedience and resisting delusions of 'false' philosophies, which is of course every thing other than Ratzinger's. See?

"The tempter is not so crude as to suggest to use directly that we should worship the devil. He merely suggests that we opt for the reasonable decision, that we choose to give priority to a planned and thoroughly organized world, where God may have his place as a private concern but must not interfere in our essential purposes. Soloviev attributes to the Antichrist a book entitled The Open Way to World Peace and Welfare. This book becomes something of a new Bible, whose real message is the worship of well-being and rational planning." (pp. 41)

Well being, rational planning, reasonable decision making are all the ways of the devil; the tempter. Sigh.

While we are at it, how about a little rewriting of history?

"The Christian empire attempted at an early stage to use the faith in order to cement political unity. The Kingdom of Christ was now expected to take the form of a political kingdom and its splendour. The powerlessness of faith, the earthly powerlessness of Jesus Christ, was to be given the helping hand of political and military might. This temptation to use, power to secure the faith has arisen again and again in varied forms throughout the centuries, and again and again in varied forms throughout the centuries, and again and again faith has risked being suffocated in the embrace of power. The struggle for the freedom of the Church, the struggle to avoid identifying Jesus' Kingdom with any political structure, is one that has to be fought century after century." (pp. 39,40)

The allusion here is that the Church has been struggling to shake off political power, except perhaps for a little misadventure at an early stage. Sure, we believe you!

If the Bible can be reinterpreted, why not history?

[Read the concluding part of my review.] 

[1] From a commentary on Gaudium et Spes (“The Church in the Modern World”) in Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, Vorgrimler, Herbert (Ed.), Burns and Oats, 1969, p. 134.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Review: Pope Benedict XVI's Jesus of Nazareth - Part 1 Historical-critical scholarship

Pope Benedict XVI, formerly Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and now Pope emeritus, published a three volume work on Jesus of Nazareth. I had made a gift of these books to my Dad. I am now vacationing with my parents and took a little bit of time to read it. I have not gone much further than the forward and the beginning of Chapter 1. But there is already so much I take issue with. :)

In the books, Ratzinger seems to be trying to stitch together the Jesus of the Gospels and the Jesus that has emerged at the hands of historical-critical scholarship. The result is "his personal search 'for the face of the Lord.'"

Historical-critical scholarship takes a secular approach to studying and understanding the biblical text. It looks at the Bible without any prior faith assumptions.

Ratzinger lays out his methodology in the forward. He starts by talking about historical-critical scholarship and its limits. He is quite right when he says that historical-critical scholarship has produced reconstructions that are "more and more incompatible with one another: at one end of the spectrum, Jesus was the anti-Roman revolutionary working-though finally failing-to overthrow the ruling powers; at the other end, he was a meek moral teacher who approves everything and unaccountably comes to grief. If you read a number of their reconstructions one after the other, you see at once that far from uncovering an icon that has become obscured over time, they are much more like photographs of their authors and the ideals they hold."

Ratzinger is reluctant to completely write off historical-critical scholarship. He considers it an "indispensable tool" but with limits.

"I would like to sketch at least the broad outlines of the methodology, drawn from these documents, that has guided me in writing this book. The first point is that the historical method-specifically because of the intrinsic nature of theology and faith-is and remains an indispensable dimension of exegetical work. For it is of the very essence of biblical faith to be about real historical events. It does not tell stories symbolizing suprahistorical truths, but is based on history, history that took place here on this earth. The factum historicum (historical fact) is not an interchangeable symbolic cipher for biblical faith, but the foundation on which it stands: Et incarnatus est-when we say these words, we acknowledge God's actual entry into real history."

It is interesting that Ratzinger insists that it is all based on history. You might think he is speaking only about the Gospels. Though he does not actually clarify, he does say elsewhere that "you can see that the Old and New Testaments belong together." So, does that mean that Ratzinger would make the same claim for the seven day creation myth, the global flood story etc.? That is not really the modern Catholic stand. So, perhaps, it is history only when it has not been indisputably proven otherwise. :)

The historical-critical method "is a fundamental dimension of exegesis, but it does not exhaust the interpretive task for someone who sees the biblical writings as a single corpus of Holy Scripture inspired by God."

Given the claim that it is a single corpus, perhaps, all of it is history. Perhaps, in Ratzinger's mind. But let's move on.

"Its very precision in interpreting the reality of the past is both its strength and its limit."

This is a limit because, as Ratzinger says, 'When a word transcends the moment in which it is spoken, it carries within itself a "deeper value."'

"Historical-critical interpretation of a text seeks to discover the precise sense the words were intended to convey at their time and place of origin. This is good and important. But - aside from the fact that such reconstructions can claim only a relative certainty - it is necessary to keep in mind that any human utterance of a certain weight contains more than the author may have been immediately aware of at that time."

In other words, Ratzinger is claiming the freedom to "draw out new meanings from the words". Which is pretty much what the Gospel writers did - drawing on the stories of the Old Testament - and drafting new ones. This is not new.

What is new is Ratzinger's attempt to claim that his theological exegesis "does not contradict historical-critical interpretation, but carries it forward in an organic way toward becoming theology in the proper sense."

He also admits that "the main implication of this for my portrayal of Jesus is that I trust the Gospels."

Ratzinger is doing theology and claiming that it has historical-critical scholarship as its launch pad. But he starts by making claims that does contradict historical-critical interpretation.
  • starting by trusting the Gospels as history
  • assuming that there is deep harmony in the New Testament despite all the differences
  • seeing the biblical writing as a single corpus of Holy Scripture inspired by God.
After making these assumptions, Ratzinger has the gall to claim that it does not contradict historical-critical interpretation. But it does, doesn't it?

As Ratzinger said earlier, historical-critical scholarship has concluded that there is very little if any, that we can definitively know about Jesus' life. Different scholars draw different portraits because so much of the Gospels is contradictory. A wisdom-sayings spouting sage is at cross-roads with the apocalyptic Son of Man. An exorcising magician is at cross-roads with the heavenly high-priest we see in the book of Hebrews. The Christ in the epistle to the Philippians has little to do with history. The reason why scholars pick one over the other is because mix of all these has no coherence.

Perhaps, when Ratzinger writes, "I wanted to try to portray the Jesus of the Gospels as the real, "historical" Jesus in the strict sense of the word", he is reinterpreting the word "history" to mean "theology".

It is frustrating to see a scholar like Ratzinger doing violence to  historical-critical methodology.

Why can we believe that Jesus' life was extraordinary? "Unless there had been something extraordinary in what happened, unless the person and the words of Jesus radically surpassed the hopes and expectations of the time, there is no way to explain why he was crucified or why he made such an impact."

Is there really no other way to explain why he was crucified?

Perhaps, by the same token, there is no other way to explain Buddha's enlightenment and his impact! Perhaps, there is no other way to explain the raise of Islam and Prophet Mohammed's impact. How about Joseph Smith? Or does Ratzinger prefer special pleading for his faith?

We are treated to some more special pleading."As early as twenty of so years after Jesus' death, the great Christ-hymn of the Letter to the Philippians (cf. Phil 2:6-11) offers us a fully developed Christology stating that Jesus was equal to God, but emptied himself, became man, and humbled himself to die on the Cross, and that to him now belongs the worship of all creation, the adoration that God, through the Prohpet Isaiah, said was due to him alone (cf. Is 45:23)."

He continues. "Where did this Christology come from? To say that it is the fruit of anonymous collective formulations, whose authorship we seek to discover does not actually explain anything. How could these unknown groups be so creative? How could they be so persuasive and how did they manage to prevail? Isn't it more logical, even historically speaking, to assume that the greatness came at the beginning, and that the figure of Jesus did explode all existing categories and could only be understood in the light of the mystery of God?"

Many religions have been creative and have prevailed, all through history. It does not take faith in the mystery of God to explain any of that. Ratzinger's Jesus is a portrait of himself and his faith. In this he does precisely what he says historical-critical scholars are guilty of.

Ratzinger has the honesty to admit that his interpretation "requires faith, but the aim unequivocally is not, nor should be, to give up serious engagement with history."

Historical-critical scholarship is moving increasingly towards a minimalist position. More and more of the New Testament is being relegated to the realm of myth and legend. There is very little historical evidence to base a portrait of Jesus. Hence the confusion between the different portraits.

Ratzinger cannot cite this problem and then make an about turn, take a maximal position and call it history. He cannot do that without laying out the arguments for doing so. But starting with the first chapter, Ratzinger pushes forward finding harmony among all the differences.

Ratzinger should feel free to paint a colourful portrait of Jesus, with the colours of his choice. But he should leave his pretensions of historical-critical scholarship behind in the interest of honesty.

[Read Part 2 and Part 3 of of my review.]

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Green Bay, Wisconsin, diocese settles with abuse victims

The Green Bay, Wisconsin, diocese, in a surprise decision, has agreed to settle with two victims of a paedophile priest. Here is the NCR report.
The case is the first in Wisconsin in which the church was accused of committing fraud by knowingly allowing a pedophile priest to continue in ministry without alerting parishioners.
This is something of a climb down for the diocese. What was its initial stand?
“In mediation before the trial, [the diocese] offered to donate $5,000 to charity if we would write a letter of apology for dragging the church through all of this,” Todd Merryfield, one of the victims, told NCR March 22.

Here is the time line for this saga, I put together from the NCR article.
  • 1978: Todd Merryfield and his brother Troy (aged 12 and 14) abused by Fr. John Feeney, their parish priest.
  • 1978: Bishop Aloysius Wycislo writes that he had to move Feeney out of the state.
  • 1986: Fr. Feeney, now a Nevada jail chaplain, accused of smuggling in drug paraphernalia and pornography in exchange for sexual contact with inmates.
  • 1987: Fr. Feeney sent for treatment in Maryland.
  • 1989: Fr. Feeney sent for treatment in New Mexico.
  • 1991: Fr. Feeney listed as retired.
  • 1995: Wisconsin Supreme Court rules that the church can not be sued for negligently supervising priests.
  • 2002: Fr. Feeney convicted by a jury and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
  • 2004: John Jay College of Criminal Justice report lists 50 priests from the Green Bay diocese who had abused minors (still not publicly named).
  • 2005: Fr. Feeney is laicized (defrocked).
  • 2007: Wisconsin Supreme Court rules that the church can be sued for fraud if they knew of credible allegations of misconduct against a priest and failed to warn parishioners
  • 2008: Todd and Troy sue the Green Bay diocese
  • 2012 May: Jury awards the two victims $700,000.
  • 2013 March 19: Green Bay diocese agrees to pay $700,000.
 Now, how about releasing the names of the 50 priests?
Fr. John Doerfler, the chancellor of the Green Bay diocese, admitted in a 2010 deposition that all documents related to priests accused of sexual abuse who had been laicized or dead for more than a year had been shredded.