2006-12-05

Is Earlier Truer?

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by Neil Godfrey

Last night I began reading Majella Franzmann’s ‘Jesus in the Nag Hammadi Writings‘ (1996) wondering all the while what value such sources could have for the study of “Jesus” as anything but a theo-philosophical construct. But Franzmann challenged the assumption underpinning this question deploring the way the vast bulk of “historical Jesus” scholars have allowed those gospels that eventually won out politically over their many rival texts to be regarded as the only sources of historical value. (The only exception being a few occasional sideways glances at the Gospel of Thomas.)

Getting tired I put the book down at that point and starting thinking, and woke up this morning still thinking:

Do secular historians as a rule treat the earliest available evidence of a person or event as more reliable than later testimonies? Where am I more likely to find a more accurate portrayal of the emperor Augustus? By comparing his propagandist poet Virgil with his own propaganda inscriptions or by comparing and analyzing texts written by both historians and literary artists after his time? Ditto with Chairman Mao: by comparing the stories told through art, literature, political and news reports about him in his lifetime or by looking at the art, literature, political and news reports that have appeared long after his death?

Okay, those may not be fair comparisons with the gospel evidence. We assume there was no-one threatening to kill dissidents in the earliest days of Christianity. But the point has been made that it is not a blanket truism that the earliest surviving evidence is more likely to be the more historically or biographically accurate simply by virtue of its ‘earlier-ness’. This is crazy. Why have I gone along with this false UNhistorical assumption of just about every “biblical scholar” I have read about the “historical Jesus” till now.

So what about situations where there is no threat against those who tell the truth? Australian newspapers and much general public talk contemporary with the Suharto massacres in Indonesia noted the bare bones outlines of “facts” about what was happening at the time. The general public had to wait for the novel and film, The Year of Living Dangerously, fictional works, to get a much more factual, truer and detailed account (even through fiction) of what really happened at that time. No one at the time was threatening Australian media from speaking out more strongly about what was really happening.

What of biographies? Who has presented a more real portrait of the private John Lennon? Yoko Ono in the earliest days and since or his ex-wife Cynthia nearly 40 years later?

How often is it that we find the closest followers of cult leaders are the last to learn, if they ever do, the “real history” of their cult leaders? And how often is it that even the wider public is unaware of their real lives until time has corroded the outer veneer?

Why on earth have I not before now stopped to think through and confront this unhistorical assumption that the earlier evidence by virtue of its “earlier-ness” is somehow going to be “more historical”? “Early” certainly tells us much about the person or events, but “what” it actually tells us may be the very opposite from the “true” person or events.

I look forward to reading and thinking through the remainder of Majella Franzmann’s book.

Neil

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Neil Godfrey

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