Where Did John the Baptist’s Parents Come From? Reading the Gospels “with Jewish Eyes”

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by Neil Godfrey

Annunciation to Zechariah. Fragment of russian...
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The names of the parents of both Jesus and John the Baptist were arguably created from the imaginations of the Gospel authors working on Old Testament passages for inspiration. The names were fabricated because of the theological messages they conveyed. There is no evidence to indicate that they were handed down from historical memory.

This is not a “mythicist” or “atheist” argument. It is the result of scholarly research by an Anglican vicar and an Episcopal bishop.

Both have published scholarly reasons for believing that the names Mary and Joseph, the parents of Jesus, and Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist, were carefully selected by early Christians on the basis of their ability to convey particular theological meanings. Goulder and Spong describe this process as “midrash”. Spong explains what he means by this:

How to read the Gospels as Jewish books

[T]here are stories in the Gospels that are so deeply reminiscent of stories in the Old Testament that one might inquire as to the reason for their similarity. Was that accidental or coincidental? Or does it point to something we might have missed? . . .

In a deep and significant way, we are now able to see that all of the Gospels are Jewish books, profoundly Jewish books. Recognizing this, we begin to face the realization that we will never understand the Gospels until we learn how to read them as Jewish books. They are written, to a greater or lesser degree, in the midrashic sytle of the Jewish sacred storyteller, a style that most of us do not begin even now to comprehend. This style is not concerned with historical accuracy. It is concerned with meaning and understanding.

  • The Jewish writers of antiquity interpreted God’s presence to be with Joshua after the death of Moses by repeating the parting of the waters story (Josh. 3). At the Red Sea that was the sign that God was with Moses (Exod. 14). When Joshua was said to have parted the waters of the Jordan River, it was not recounted as a literal event of history; rather it was the midrashic attempt to relate Joshua to Moses and thus demonstrate the presence of God with his successor.
  • The same pattern operated later when both Elijah (2 Kings 2:8) and Elisha (2 Kings 2:14) were said to have parted the waters of the Jordan River and to have walked across on dry land.
  • When the story of Jesus’ baptism was told, the gospel writers asserted that Jesus parted not the Jordan River, but the heavens. Thus Moses theme was being stuck yet again (Mark 1:9 ff.), and indeed, for a similar purpose. The heavens, according to the Jewish creation story, were nothing but the firmament that separated the waters above from the waters below (Gen. 1:6-8). To portray Jesus as splitting the heavenly waters was a Jewish way of suggesting that the holy God encountered in Jesus went even beyond the God presence that had been met in Moses, Joshua, Elijah, and Elisha.

That is the way the midrashic principle worked. Stories about heroes of the Jewish past were heightened and retold again and again about heroes of the present moment, not because those same events actually occurred, but because the reality of God revealed in those moments was like the reality of God known in the past . . .

We are not reading history when we read the Gospels. We are listening to the experience of Jewish people, processing in a Jewish way what they believed was a new experience with the God of Israel. Jews filtered every new experience through the corporate remembered history of their people, as that history had  been recorded in the Hebrew scriptures of the past. (pp, 33, 36-7, Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible With Jewish Eyes, my emphasis and reformatted for easier blog reading)

This is the same argument presented by Thomas L. Thompson in The Mythic Past (also published as The Bible in History). The Jewish scriptures, he explains, were a series of reiterated narratives that were never originally meant to be understood as “history” in our sense of the word, and he also uses the illustration of the dividing of waters/heavens from Genesis 1 through to the Baptism of Jesus.

So what happened? If that is how the Gospels were originally understood, when and how did the Church come to view them as literal history?

What happened

By the early years of the second century, the Christian church had become an almost exclusively gentile church. This meant that from that day until this generation, only gentiles have read and only gentiles have interpreted the Christian scriptures. These gentile interpreters did not know — nor were they even aware that they did not know — the Jewish background. Ignorance joined hands with prejudice first to distort truth and understanding and then finally to lose the original meaning of the Gospels altogether.

Lastly, this ignorance imposed a non-Jewish literalness on the gospel texts that the Jewish authors, I am convinced, would never have understood or appreciated. (p. 35, Liberating)

What about the scholarly consensus?

Bishop John Shelby Spong has stressed the necessity to understand the Jewishness of the Gospels and to read them through Jewish eyes. The consequences of this led him to lay aside the need for Q to explain many of the Gospel details, and he refers readers to Mark Goodacre’s arguments against Q. Spong was strongly influenced by Michael D. Goulder. Goulder, at the time a priest in the Church of England, argued that many Gospel details, including characters’ names, could be most economically explained as retellings of Old Testament narratives to convey theological messages rather than as memories of literal historical reality. (Goulder was also explaining the Gospels as lectionary compositions that were intended to be read in conjunction with sequential readings of the Old Testament.) But Goulder became an atheist, and that is the reason, Spong believes, his views have been sidelined in a field dominated by “Christian scholars”.

In 1981, after producing three of his most penetrating books, Michael Goulder resigned from his ordination and ceased to identify himself as a priest. He also ceased even to identify himself as a Christian, proclaiming himself to be “a nonaggressive atheist.” Christian traditionalists who are more acquainted with the techniques of propaganda than they are with the demands of education find it hard to deal with a brilliant New Testament scholar who is an atheist. The easiest way to handle that situation is to ignore it. So Michael Goulder has been ignored in the academic circles that purport to be made up of “Christian scholars.” It is a shame because the insights  of truth, even the truth that lies buried beneath the words of the gospel, are valid no matter who the illuminating source of those insights happens to be. Truth, even Christian truth, can and does  stem from the mind and pen of one who  thinks himself to be an atheist. (pp. xii, Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes, my emphasis)

To digress a moment — Biblical academics like Maurice Casey and James McGrath could learn a little tolerance of atheist scholars and students of the Bible from the pen of John Spong. Spong goes on to describe his positive relationship with Goulder:

To digress a moment — Biblical academics like Maurice Casey and James McGrath could learn a little tolerance of atheist scholars and students of the Bible from the pen of John Spong. Spong goes on to describe his positive relationship with Goulder:

I have come to know, admire, and respect Michael Goulder. He is gentle, loving, kind, and extremely personable. He and my wife seem especially happy in each other’s company. He has never once been critical of or negative about my ultimate commitment to Jesus the Christ as my Lord. We have discussed those parts of the gospel story that stretch credibility to the breaking point when literalized. We have together sought to define the God in whose reality I believe and he rejects. Both of us love to probe the scriptures for clues to truth for Michael and clues to God for me, and both delight when we discover something that has generally been undiscovered before. (pp. xii – xiii, Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes)

There are a few atheist scholars of the Bible whose works do seem to be more well-accepted by their Christian peers. This exception to the rule might be instructive, however. My personal experience with two of these well-accommodated atheist scholars has been to find them the most virulently abusive in their responses to critiques that challenge their peer-supported assumptions.  . . .  like the proverbial homophobe denying his own suppressed inclinations?

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Finally, where did Jesus’ and John’s parents come from?

Spong writes:

Names were vitally important in the midrashic tradition of the Jewish people. Names sent messages. Names embodied proclamations. (p. 195)

John the Baptist’s parents were named Zechariah and Elizabeth in Luke’s Gospel. These names were not really the names of the Baptist’s parents. They were “chosen deliberately to send a midrashic message about who this John was and what his role in salvation history, as the Christians understood it, was to be” (p. 195).

The Old Testament Book of Zechariah was often mined by the Gospel authors for prophetic passages about Jesus. It is the source of the story of the betrayal of Jesus for thirty pieces of silver (11:12), and the returning of that money to the Temple (11:13); of the disciples fleeing from Jesus when he is taken to be executed (13:7); and of Jesus being pierced with a spear while on the cross (12:10).

Zechariah’s third and fourth chapters are about a national religious leader named Jesus (Greek for the Hebrew name Joshua) who is called in 4:14 a Christ (Greek for the Hebrew “Messiah” or “Anointed One”).

Zechariah also said of this “Jesus the Messiah” that God would set before him a single stone with this inscription on it:

I will remove the guilt of this land in a single day (Zech. 3:9)

Echoes of the developing Christian idea of Jesus as God’s atoning sacrifice were seen by Christians in this test. Other references to this portion of Zechariah were seen in the account of the transfiguration . . . . (p. 196)

The Book of Zechariah concludes (ch. 14) “with the anticipated advent of the Lord of Hosts to the Temple in Jerusalem to inaugurate the Kingdom of God.”

This brings us to the next book following Zechariah, the Book of Malachi. Zechariah is a personal name, but Malachi is merely the Hebrew word for “messenger”. The messenger is not named.

Malachi also anticipates the coming of God to establish his kingdom, and declares that this event is to be preceded by an Elijah figure to prepare the way for this event (Mal. 4:5).

When the Lord God comes he will purge or purify the priests of Levi so that acceptable offerings would once again be made in the Temple (Mal. 3:3). This was all an added dimension to the prophecy in Isaiah 56:7 that the Temple was to be called a house of prayer for all people, a prophecy that was placed in Jesus’ mouth by Gospel authors when they described him cleansing the Temple.

Here I’ll get out of the way and let Spong take up the explanation in his own words:

Please keep in mind that Malachi, the nameless messenger, as just noted, had been identified early in Christian history with John the Baptist. The immediate predecessor in the Bible to the Book of Malachi was Zechariah, which pointed toward the message of Malachi. Why not capture this truth by using the name Zechariah for the father or immediate predecessor of John the Baptist? Since the Messiah to whom the Elijah/John the Baptist figure was to point was destined to claim the Temple for all people, why not also place the father of John in the Temple for the moment in which he received the angelic message? It was too tempting a possibility to be ignored, and it fit the midrashic tendency to use names to convey messages. (pp. 196-7)

And John’s mother, Elizabeth?

This is a rare name among the Hebrews, and there is only one other by this name, although it is spelled differently in the Hebrew, in the Jewish Scriptures. She is found in Exodus 6:23 as Elisheba, the wife of Aaron, the brother of Moses. Aaron was the first high priest of Israel.

Aaron thus was revered as the one who established the priestly tradition in Israel. The Levites, who gave order to the liturgical life of the nation and of the Temple, were the spiritual children of Aaron. (p. 197)

Now we know the sister of Moses and Aaron was Miriam, or Mary. This makes Elisheba, Elizabeth the wife of the founder of the Levitical priestly order, the relative of Mariam/Mary.

In the Pentateuchal story, Miriam/Mary and Aaron were noteworthy figures for good and ill. Mary kept watch of the baby Moses as he was floated in the Nile (Exod. 2:1-10). She became the composer of the Song of Triumph when Israel passed through the Red Sea (Exod. 15:20 ff.). She led a rebellion against Moses (Num. 12). In other words, Mary/Miriam “was a far more significant figure than her sister-in-law, Elisheba”/Elizabeth.

In Luke’s story Mary was a far more significant figure than Elizabeth, who Luke called Mary’s “kinswoman” (Luke 1:36). Indeed, the suggestion that John the Baptist and Jesus were kin, perhaps even “cousins,” . . . rests totally on this one word, “kinswoman,” in Luke’s birth story. Was that word a Lucan hint that he was crafting his story on a theme from the Moses family history?

He started with the name Mary . . . Relating that name to other Marys/Miriams in the Hebrew sacred story, he happened upon the account of Miriam, Moses’ sister, who had a kinswoman named Elizabeth/Elisheba.

He then topped this off by portraying the relationship of Mary and Elizabeth after the analogy of the relationship between Miriam and Elisheba. If they were sisters-in-law, then their offspring would be first cousins. There is certainly enough data here to provide a meaningful fit in the midrashic tradition. (p. 198, my formatting and bold)

The Embrace of Elizabeth and the Virgin Mary. ...
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Hope to cover Jesus’ parents in a future post.

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Neil Godfrey

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16 thoughts on “Where Did John the Baptist’s Parents Come From? Reading the Gospels “with Jewish Eyes””

  1. Christian traditionalists who are more acquainted with the techniques of propaganda than they are with the demands of education find it hard to deal with a brilliant New Testament scholar who is an atheist.

    All the more reason, it seems to me, for Bible scholars that lose their belief to be disinclined to call themselves atheists and to even be critical of atheists. A case in point is Erhman, whose Wikipedia quotes a 2008 article in the Kansas City Star:

    “In the church of his youth in Lawrence [Kansas], with nearly every pew at capacity last week, Bart D. Ehrman, chairman of the department of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, announced that he was an agnostic. He joked that atheists think agnostics are wimpy atheists and that agnostics think atheists are arrogant agnostics.”

    Indeed it is wimpy to see evidence where there is none, as Ehrman does in insisting on an historical Jesus. The fact that the use of the name Jesus in the New Testament derives from its use in the Old Testament is all the more reason to doubt the historicity of Jesus.

      1. This is the level of argument that has been put out by the James McGraths and the Joel Watts. If you claimed to be the founder of a religion that replaced the religion of Moses, and your brothers’ names were the names of national founding patriarchs, and your chief disciple was a symbolic name to illustrate a parable, and your places of activity and other people you contacted were also symbolically named after the sorts of miracles you performed in them and for them, — and if on top of all that your name was said to be Joshua, the successor of Moses, then yes, I would have a reason to keep a wee space in the back of my mind that questions your historicity.

  2. Just because every so-called written “word of God” on earth can be shown to be a fraud doesn’t mean there is no God. To be an atheist is just stupid. And I can therefore understand discounting anything an atheist says. They have an irrational agenda just as Christians do. The Christian wants to convince you his book is always right even when it is plainly wrong. The atheists wants to convince you that just because he has shown a book to be wrong he has also disproved God’s existence. Both are equally irrational claims. What we need are Deist New Testament scholars. Atheists and Christians are just incapable.

      1. He meant “The Atheist”, a mysterious prophet of atheism best known for leading his 30,000 followers to Vatican City where he promised that the power of their reason would cause St. Peter’s Basilica to collapse. His followers were rounded up by Mussolini, he how ever escaped and if you want to contact him, go to a lonely place and be as logical as you can until he speaks to you.

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