2007-04-23

messy gospel births

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by Neil Godfrey

Births can be messy things and it appears to have been no different with the gospels.

One speculation to suggest why the authors of the canonical gospels did not attach their names to them is that the gospel story was so commonly well known at the time that there was no need for such authentication.

To take just one facet of this argument here:

Around 140-150 ce Justin Martyr wrote from Rome after traveling throughout the regions of Syria and Greece. Many scholars have followed (quite reasonably) the dedicated research that has persuaded them that Justin did know our canonical gospels. This conclusion has not gone unchallenged, however, but I won’t go into the lengthy arguments here. Instead, I’d like to list some areas where Justin’s knowledge of the gospel narrative does not fit with the canonical documents.

  1. Jesus had no genealogy.
  2. Jesus was born in a cave outside Bethlehem.
  3. Jesus escaped the notice of all others till he was an adult. (No 12 year old child in the temple.)
  4. When Jesus was baptized the Jordan river was consumed with fire.
  5. Pilate was part of the conspiracy to kill Jesus.
  6. The Jewish synagogue sentenced Jesus to death and handed him over to King Herod to carry out the execution (‘under Pilate’). (So it really was the Jews and not the Romans who killed him after all.)
  7. It was AFTER Jesus was crucified that the disciples all forsook him.
  8. (One scholar has read Justin to mean that at the time of Jesus’ arrest he was totally alone — um, i.e. Jesus, not the scholar nor Justin.)
  9. After his resurrection he appeared to “the 12” (including Judas presumably?)
  10. And on that day Jesus taught his twelve the church ordinances like eucharist (eaten after resurrection as a memorial he had come in flesh, not eaten before his death as sign of the new covenant), prayers, readings and handouts to the poor.

And to go beyond the gospels, into the early history of the church:

  1. The twelve disciples went out immediately from that day throughout the whole world. (Contradicting canonical Acts)
  2. And straightaway the Roman armies invaded to punish the Jews by laying Jerusalem waste and ending the reign of the last king of the Jews, Herod, so that from that time on Judea was ruled by Rome. (The war of 66-70 ce came early that year.)

The citations for these points can be found via an earlier post here.

So if the gospel narrative was so well known inside out that normal rules of author authentication did not apply, the above state of knowledge of a leading churchman in Rome seems quite strange. It does appear that there were many competing gospel narratives from early days (have not touched here the additional evidence for this found in other NT and early noncanonical writings) and it took some time well into the second century before the “gospel truth” became part of established Christian lore.

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Neil Godfrey

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