If the gospel narratives have no basis in historical reality then from where might the basic story idea have originated?
Do certain modern studies in the origins of the Old Testament narratives point towards possible explanations for the origins of the gospel narratives?
An explanation for the OT stories
The certain studies of OT origins I have in mind are those of scholars like Thomas L. Thompson and other “minimalists”. They have looked for historical circumstances and events that might explain some of the themes running through the various narratives found in Genesis, Exodus, Joshua, Judges and the books of Samuel and Kings. This search was triggered by archaeological finds that indicate there was no patriarchal migration from Mesopotamia to Canaan of the type suggested in the Genesis stories of Abraham, no great exodus of Israelites from Egypt, and no united Kingdom of Israel under David and Solomon. And rather than there having been a “divided kingdom” with Israel in the north competing with Judah in the south as we read through much of the books of Kings and Chronicles, the kingdom of Judah did not emerge until after the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel to the Assyrians.
So if the archaeological evidence led to the conclusions that there was no Abraham, no Moses, no David or Solomon as per the biblical story, what can explain the origins of such stories?
First, look at the stories to see what they are about.
The stories of Abraham and Exodus are both about divinely commanded and divinely led migrations from gentile lands to a land of “Canaan” in which dwell peoples of a different religion and race. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as well as the Joshua led tribes, must negotiate with these neighbours to work out settlement arrangements with them, although the Israelites under Joshua do so only after the failure of Plan A which was to kill them all. The stories of Judges, Saul, David and Solomon also carry the themes of relationships with these neighbours: finishing off subjugating them, enlisting them as cheap labour, the importance of keeping God’s elect people “pure” and separate from them.
What sort of society can explain stories like these?
Archaeological evidence has indicated that it was not until the fifth century (Persian era) that Judea/Yehud/Judah reached the social and economic conditions that are necessary for a society to attain a level of literary sophistication capable of producing the above narratives. But how does one explain themes of migration from far off lands and settlement in a land inhabited by another race if archaeology discounts the historical reality of the literal narratives?
Let’s continue with the interpretation of the archaeological remains that has Yehud (the name of Judea/Judah as a Persian province) was populated when the Persian imperial government deported peoples from Mesopotamia to Palestine in order to have that area strategically garrisoned and economically self-supporting. Descendants of Jews who had fled to Egypt and established garrison settlements there after the Babylonian conquest also appear to have returned to Palestine around this time. These newly settled peoples found themselves among locals who did not easily welcome their intrusions into their farmlands.
Mass deportations of populations was a custom as old as the Assyrian empire. One of its purposes was to break the will of newly conquered and potentially rebellious peoples by forcing them into circumstances where they were dependent upon their imperial overlords for protection against unwelcoming neighbours. By moving into new homelands with new gods and among new neighbours they would be obliged to take on a new collective identity.
Sometimes the imperial overlord would use a carrot as well as a stick and tell those to be deported that they were really being restored to their rightful ancestral lands and its gods. It would be their responsibility to restore the true worship of those gods. We see a similar propaganda ploy in 2 Kings 18:31-32 where the Assyrian king attempts to persuade the inhabitants of Jerusalem to volunteer for deportation by offering them a new “promised land” of milk and honey.
What sort of literature would assist in the new identity formation of such a newly settled people? This is where some scholars see the inspiration for stories like the wanderings of Abraham from Mesopotamia to Canaan, and laying claim to this land while he himself, and is immediate heirs, Isaac and Jacob, were still strangers in it. Likewise stories of an exodus from Egypt may have reflected another population movement from peoples among whom there was a mix of strong attachments and extreme loathing of Egyptian culture and influences. Other tales of conflicts with the local Canaanites, and the need to keep racially separate, spoke to the mindset of newly settled peoples among unwelcoming locals.
Such tales can potentially be explained as images of the experience of divinely ordained migrations to a new land where ungodly inhabitants dwelt. Such tales would serve well the function of helping forge a new identity for the new settlers, along with a justification for their presence in an unwelcoming environment.
Other authors (quite apart from the “minimalists” like Thompson) have suggested similar socio-political settings to explain Jewish books like Daniel. This book, for example, tells how a Jew remained loyal to his God despite extreme pressure from imperial powers distant from Palestine. Is it coincidental that many scholars view the book as being composed at a time of tension between the Jews of Palestine and their Seleucid rulers.
Now if this explanation for the Old Testament literature makes some sense, what about the Gospel narratives?
Okay, here’s my mind game.
Finding a matrix for the birth of the Gospel Jesus?
The time setting is 70 to 80 c.e. in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple, with too many to think about dead, and multiple thousands enslaved. Many still remained, though. The geographic setting I have in mind is probably not here, though. It is more likely somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean, or anywhere (even Rome) where Jews have since been transported as slaves, or where many have fled as refugees, probably among centres where there are other Jews and “god-fearers”.
Christianity has not been heard of, or at least not by that name. There have been a multitude of Jewish sectarians prior to 70 witnessing a kaleidoscope of beliefs and interpretations. Some believed that Isaac had been sacrificed by Abraham and his blood has an atoning power to protect the Jewish people. (He was also resurrected almost the same moment his blood had been shed by Abraham. That’s why the angel had to cry out twice, “Abraham! Abraham!” – Abraham was too slow to react the first time and plunged the knife in to Isaac. So the second call was made and God undid the damage. See my posts of Levenson for the details of this Second Temple belief among a few Jews.)
Many Jews had believed the deaths of their martyrs in the days of the Maccabees also had atoning value for their race.
There was also a strong interest among some (it was not welcomed by many of the Temple establishment) in the Enochian literature with its emphasis on visions, angels, heavenly ascents and descents, secret wisdom, and opposition to the priests who were the caretakers of the Temple and its cult.
That’s all background.
Unlike the above explanations for the Old Testament literature that are grounded in peoples newly planted in “a strange land” of Canaan that they must learn to make their home, we have a reversal of this. We have a people many of whom have lost not only homes and lands, but have even lost the very structures and icons that were central to their earlier collective religious, cultural and ethnic identity. The centre of their Mosaic cultural traditions, the Temple, was no more. Even those Jews who had once disputed with the Temple establishment must have felt bereft once their self-justifying nemesis was razed to the ground.
They were a despised people. Following years saw Jews throughout north Africa and the East Mediterranean region experience serious conflicts with their non-Jewish neighbours and authorities.
How do such a people survive? What binds us together are our various identities. We see ourselves as family members, then more broadly as members of a town or regional area, and the identity circle widens as we move to the level of state or province, a nation, a religion, a race. These group identities are survival structures. We support and find solace among those with whom we identify.
Not only the Jews of Palestine had had a major part of their identity ripped out from their psyches, but no doubt many scattered Jews and gentiles who felt a religious sympathy with the Jews were affected as well. With the end of the Temple the Mosaic traditions were no more.
Some Jews responded to this crisis by rethinking all that had gone before and seeing how they could adapt those customs to a new situation that did not focus on a central geographic location like Jerusalem. This was the beginning of Rabbinic Judaism. To make it a workable substitute, however, it had to have rigid boundaries that gave adherents a clear alternative and something viable to hang on to. It was no doubt far more rigid and monolithic in its base ideas (allowing, of course, for debates within the limits of that monolithic base) than anything that had been widely practiced among Jews before the war and loss of the Temple.
But the diversity of pre-war “Judaism” (probably more accurately “Judaisms“) did not prepare the way for a uniform response to the rabbinic solution.
Does this situation cast an explanatory spotlight on the shape of the gospel narrative?
Their hero is not Moses but the successor of Moses, Joshua (Greek = Jesus). And this Jesus is not really a “hero” in any classical sense of the word. He is a cult-figure, a focus of worship, a mouthpiece for divine law and commands, a vicarious sacrifice with atoning power and a figure who unites all devotees into one body, a new Israel.
He has no home. He is a wanderer. He has forsaken all and gives hope to all others who would, for his sake, forsake all. His time on this earth is only momentary. His real home is in heaven. Or perhaps back on earth in the future after returning in judgement to reverse the fortunes of all who have suffered and punish those powers who have wreaked destruction on the earth.
He is even likened to the Temple itself. Destroy this temple — meaning he will submit his own body for destruction — and in three days he will restore it, he says. His tomb carved out of a rock is an image borrowed from Isaiah 22:16 that describes the Temple itself as a sepulchre carved out of a rock.
His death is identified with the destruction of the Temple, yet it is raised again in a spiritual form.
He is despised and persecuted. Earthly powers seek to kill him. His true worth, his very identity, is not recognized. Those who despise him fail to see he is really a son of God himself! He has the power to give life — if only others would see it. Even his natural family is dead to him.
He is the embodiment of the new Israel. He emerges from the waters of baptism at the word of the Prophets. He is really born of the Prophets themselves. They are where he is found and from where he emerges. He spends a lot of time in the wilderness confronting Satan. He calls those who have ears to hear to be with him.
Is not this the very personification of the predicament of many Jews after the shock of the war of 66-70/73? And the embodiment of a cult reborn with which to preserve and extend their identity?
Many had been made homeless, and all had lost their spiritual home of Jerusalem and the Temple cult. They were despised and persecuted. Such people, I imagine, would need to find survival strength in imagining themselves as the true lights in a world that is blind. They are the true Israel. If they have lost their earthly place, it can only mean they are now belonging with the Father in heaven, and are the “true spiritual” Israel. They identify with the suffering servant of the Prophets.
The Jesus of the gospel narrative embodies the Jewish experience and need for replacement identity post 70 ce. If their Mosaic cult was reduced to dust it was only so that they would be raised to identify instead with its heavenly successor.
Many have seen the gospel narratives being addressed to a persecuted church, given Jesus’ warnings about persecutions. But I wonder if the gospel narrative, and especially the narrative construct of Jesus himself, can be explained at a deeper social-psychological level than that.
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