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]

References

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

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