One of many “arguments” brought out to support the case that Jesus really was an historical character is the “recording” of his brothers’ names in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. I like the choice of the words like “recorded” or “reported” or their synonyms that are so often used in this context. They connote the idea of conveying fact like a newsreader or historian.
But how do we “know” Jesus’s brother’s names? The only source for these names is a book (Matthew clearly copied straight from the bulk of Mark so cannot count as an independent source) that appears to be riddled with typology and symbolic names (e.g. Jairus meaning enlightened, Bar-Timaeus meaning son of honour) and fly-by-night characters whose only role is to illustrate theological points (e.g. the naked man fleeing, the name Peter, those healed…) ; and that is written in a style largely redolent of a popular ancient novel.
Of course none of this necessarily means the names are not historical, but it surely cuts the ground from under any over-confidence that we “know Jesus had brethren and here are their names”.
By assuming that because these names are listed in Mark they therefore must originate in historical fact aren’t we continuing the line of argument that we “know” Abraham and Moses and Solomon (why not add Adam and Eve?) existed because the bible authors must have got them from “somewhere”?
Does the nature and purpose of the gospel of Mark really give cause to quickly assume the characters it names are historical? There many have been a Bartimaeus and a Jairus, or even a Joseph of Arimathaea and a Judas Iscariot, maybe even an Abraham and Isaac, an Odysseus and Penelope, but we obviously we can’t say we “know” there were simply on the basis that their names appear in narratives that are most strongly characterized by their mythical or figurative or other non-historical purposes.
Should add, I suppose, that I do not doubt the historicity of some characters in Mark (e.g. Pilate) since that was standard fare for popular literature then just as it is for many novels today. Nor am I saying the Gospel of Mark is strictly a popular novel, though it does appear to share more in common with that ancient genre than any other.
How justifiable is it to compare the arguments of the “Copenhagen School” that suggests the evidence favours, say, David being a theological and literary creation with certain arguments of the “Jesus mythicists”?
I’m thinking of Thompson’s “It is a fundamental error of method to ask first after an historical David or Solomon, as biblical archaeologists and historians have done. We need first to attend to the David and Solomon we know: the protagonists of Bible story and legend. The Bible does not hesitate to tell these stories as tall tales.” (The Mythic Past, p.45)
Compare Davies’ “So far, historical research by biblical scholars has taken a … circular route …. The assumption that the literary construct is an historical one is made to confirm itself. Historical criticism (so-called) of the inferred sources and traditions seeks to locate these in that literary-cum-historical construct.” (In Search of ‘Ancient Israel’, pp.35-37)
If we accept the nature of the old testament biblical literature as suggested by Thompson, Davies, Lemche et al (i.e. that it was composed largely as a literary founding myth which bears little if any relationship to real history — check out my above link to In Search of ‘Ancient Israel’ for links to details), is it not a small step to seeing the first gospel as equally creative in its foundation myths for the ‘new and true people of God’? Are not the studies of the Gospel of Mark that offer the greater explanatory power for its various parts and characters those that analyze its literary context and nature (e.g. Tolbert’s Sowing the Gospel) in ways that leave much of the older discussions about traditions underlying various bits and pieces somewhat irrelevant?
Should not the real question ask for the origins and context of such a literary work, leaving it open as to whether the most satisfactory answer is to be found with a heroic founder or with something more complex, as some argue was the case with the literature about David?
One initial objection might be that the multiplicity of varying gospels argues against such a possibility but again we may well be reading the same phenomonon of rival scribal schools in dialog with one another as we appear to find among the OT prophetic and historical writings.
(I originally asked this question back in 2000 in JesusMysteries — my thoughts have only strengthened in this direction since.)