2006-12-13

So the “record” of Jesus’ brothers “proves” J’s historicity?

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by Neil Godfrey

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.

Neil

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