“He is unlike any man you have ever seen . . .”
If you’ve ever watched the original Planet of the Apes, you no doubt remember the scene in which the Tribunal of the National Academy questions Charlton Heston (Taylor, aka “Bright Eyes”). None of Taylor’s explanations make any sense to the tribunal, of course. If fact, the disturbing testimony causes them to assume the position.
Later we discover that the Minister of Science and Chief Defender of the Faith, Dr. Zaius, knows a great deal more than he at first let on. From the 1967 shooting script:
TAYLOR I told the truth at that 'hearing' of yours. ZAIUS You lied. Where is your tribe? TAYLOR My tribe, as you call it, lives on another planet in a distant solar system. ZAIUS Then how is it we speak the same language? (suddenly intense) Even in your lies, some truth slips through! That mythical community you're supposed to come from -- 'Fort Wayne'? TAYLOR What about it? ZAIUS A fort! Unconsciously, you chose a name that was belligerent.
“Even in your lies, some truth slips through!”
I often think of those two scenes — Taylor’s hearing and its aftermath — when I’m reading up on the historical Jesus. Very few modern critical scholars believe that Mark is telling the truth about the splitting of the firmament and the booming voice from heaven at the baptism. Yet, “even in [Mark’s] lies, some truth slips through.”
Consider R Joseph Hoffmann’s assertion in his latest post.
We are given basic information to the effect that Jesus of Nazareth belonged to an established ablutionist sect of preacher-wonder-working dissidents who lived on the edge of Jewish popular opinion and “mainstream” sects, and rapidly deteriorating tolerance of such characters.
John P. Meier in the second volume of A Marginal Jew is more explicit in his conclusions about the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus. He writes:
So strong was the impact of John on Jesus that, for a short period, Jesus stayed with John as his disciple and, when he struck out on his own, he continued the practice of baptizing disciples. . . . That some of Jesus’ early disciples also came from John’s may be less certain, but the criterion of embarrassment also seems to apply here. At the very least, if we grant the historicity of Jesus’ being baptized, his spending time with John, and his continuing the practice of baptism in his own ministry, then the further point of his drawing disciples from among the Baptist’s followers coheres well with these three points. If we admit to the first three, there seems no reason to deny this last point. (p. 129, emphasis mine)
It’s quite common these days for NT scholars to assume that Jesus was a disciple of John, despite what the evangelists actually wrote. I will comment in verse:
In olden days such strong emetic
Would get someone called heretic.
Now heaven knows
“But this much is certain . . .”
How can they reach these fascinating and fabulous conclusions that contradict the plain text of the gospels? Because they “know” what’s plausible and what isn’t. And once they’ve shaved away the unbelievable and the unsupportable, they are left with what “must be” the truth. Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) demonstrates:
CORNELIUS May it please the Tribunal: I for one grant that this being cannot have come from another planet. But this much is certain -- he comes from somewhere in the Forbidden Zone. He has described the region to us, and described it accurately, for I have been there.
See how easy it is to discover the truth? Just find the kernel, and toss away the husk (what cannot be true). But what is kernel and what is husk? That’s where their historical criteria come into play.
Matthew rewrites the baptismal scene with John recognizing Jesus. John (in Matthew) demurs at the idea of dunking Jesus.
14. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
15. But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. (Matt. 3:14-15, ESV)
For NT scholars, this is proof of Matthew’s embarrassment about the baptism. In John’s gospel, the supposed embarrassment is so strong, that the baptism never even takes place. Jesus simply walks by and pulls away John’s disciples. Their embarrassment “proves” it really happened.
Is this process of slicing and dicing gospel stories a valid way to get at the truth?
“You may not like what you find.”
Let me offer a rather different analysis of Mark’s story of the baptism. Think of Mark’s tales as jewelry — specifically, as precious gems set in mundane settings. I am, in a way, restating Karl Ludwig Schmidt’s analogy of “pearls on a string,” albeit with a far more skeptical slant. I’m suggesting that not merely the connecting pieces between the pericopae are mostly “redactional” (i.e., products of the evangelists), but the settings as well.
What is the gem in the story of the baptism? It’s this:
11. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11)
Mark has created the story to let us know that the Holy Spirit entered Jesus and that God has called him his son. The scene fulfills important narrative requirements:
- It occurs in broad daylight with many witnesses.
- It involves a figure in Judean history who people still remembered when Mark was writing.
- It lets the reading audience know immediately and emphatically who Jesus is.
But while the mundane setting is important for obvious narrative reasons, the most important elements — the twin jewels, if you will — are the descent of the Holy Spirit and the pronouncement of Sonship.
What evidence can we use to deduce that the ordinary settings in which the jewels sit are secondary?
Suppose we’re at a bar, chasing Scotch with more Scotch, and I feel inspired at some point in the proceedings to tell you a story that starts with a traveling salesman and ends with a furious farmer and a shotgun. If you analyzed my story very carefully, throwing away the punchline and assuming that the rest of the story represents “authentic traditions” about country life back in mid-twentieth century America, you’d be committing a fallacy of genre.
“This is a joke in very poor taste.”
The punch line is the reason for the story. The rest is merely a conveyance to reach the ultimate purpose of the joke. Depending on the genre, concentrating on the setting is as wrongheaded as ignoring the painting and focusing on the frame.
But how do we know what genre the gospels and the pericopae (i.e., individual stories) within them are? What evidence do we have that they are something other than history?
First and foremost is how subsequent evangelists rewrote Mark’s stories. Even if today’s scholars think Mark was writing history, his plagiarists did not. John (the evangelist, not the baptizer) knew exactly what the important parts of the story were. (Note that I am wholly unconvinced that John is an independent source.) But he has a different (better) way to tell that story. Instead of the crowd being the witness, the “forerunner” testifies to what happens. He tells the delegation from Jerusalem:
32. And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.
33. I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’
34. And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” (John 1:32-34)
John has popped out the jewels and placed them in his reworked setting. Was he not concerned that he was “rewriting history“? Clearly not. For him, the vital truths of the story remain. The rest is like the background story in a parable: it serves the greater truth. It is a means to an end.
“[W]e prefer plausible explanations to more extravagant ones. . .” *
Notice that I’m not suggesting any of Hoffmann’s three absurd possibilities that he imagines mythicists “cling” to, namely:
(a) they (the writers) were wrong about him [Jesus] or,
(b) they are talking about some other Jesus or some other character by some other name who was wearing a Jesus wig; or
(c) are, for amusement or malice, making the whole thing up.
That “Jesus wig” bit is a real thigh-slapper, huh? Let’s all smile and snicker softly. Heh-heh. What a card.
Where were we? Oh, yeah. What I’m suggesting instead is that the gospel writers received oral tradition that was very terse and very malleable. They did not believe they were making anything up. However, they did feel quite free in creating mythical settings in which Jesus said and did things. In such mythical mundane settings Jesus reveals cosmic truths.
Let us be clear here: we know that some Jesus tradition came from believers who channeled the risen Jesus. Don’t forget that for Luke, Paul was an eyewitness of Jesus Christ. After all, what do you think those prophets Paul talked about were doing? — Predicting lottery numbers? Forecasting the weather for next week’s church picnic?
The free channeling of words of wisdom from the risen Lord is why, in large part, the tradition in the Fourth Gospel is so radically different from the synoptics. It isn’t because John was wrong, because there’s nothing to be wrong about. To check a story in John’s gospel, or in any of the canonical gospels, for conformity to historical reality is to commit a genre error.
It isn’t because John is talking about “some other Jesus.” I’m not even sure what the hell that means.
It isn’t because John “forgot” which day Jesus was crucified on, or because he was “wrong” about when he cleansed the temple. If you try to apply historical criteria non-historical material you don’t magically reveal hidden facts. What you usually get is the Jesus you were looking for. That’s exactly why there are so many different, viable reconstructions of Jesus out there. Seek and ye shall find . . . the Jesus you wanted to find.
In the “standard model” a proliferation of entities exist, but for unclear reasons. We have gospels that supposedly contain history, but written by evangelists who rewrote and composed freely. We have a “rich, oral tradition” that apparently exploded into countless fragments with people creating their own image of Jesus. What accounts for this practically limitless diversity?
“If it’s true, they’ll have to accept it.”
The standard model finds proof of historicity wherever it needs it. Hoffmann finds it comforting that his gospel (the one in which he “erased the parts he didn’t like”) is plausible with respect to first-century Palestine. That is, there are multiple points of contact between Hoffmann’s Jesus and the probable sorts of itinerant preachers who roamed Galilee and Judea.
Hoffmann also finds it comforting that there are so many differences within the New Testament. He writes:
One of the incidental reasons to think that the Jesus of the gospels is not a stock or contrived figure is the lack of literary unity with respect to his character. While countless scholars have seen this feature (including Schweitzer) as “mysterious”, it is probably merely a function of inconsistencies among traditions.
Lack of similarity: good!
As I’ve mentioned before, NT scholarship is often like bumper bowling. You never have to worry about throwing a gutter ball. All the evidence works in your favor. Everything is “just what you’d expect.” Conformity is positive proof, and disunity is positive proof.
“He was a model for us all, a gorilla to remember . . .”
For those scholars who analyze Christian writings and create reconstructions of Jesus’s life, the New Testament is an artifact that bears witness to the historical Jesus. But for Christian tradents and writers, there was no difference between the Jesus who died and the Christ who reigns in heaven. He is a continual presence in the community — not enigmatic and aloof like the mute artwork of later Christendom, but alive and imminent.
I’m neither a mythicist nor a historicist (please forgive the use of that clunky and absurd word), mainly because I simply don’t believe that we can ever definitively separate the tradition of the risen Christ from the actual, historical tradition of the human Jesus that people remembered and cherished. If there was ever any such historical tradition to begin with, we lack the means to uncover it.
But please don’t take me for a hopeless skeptic. Hoffmann warns:
The effect of unbridled, unsystematic Pyrrhoinism [sic] has always been antagonistic to final knowledge about anything and mythtic** [sic] utilization of the “It could be this, or that, or anything else, or nothing at all” suggests that sort of indifference to a constructive skeptical approach to the Bible.
I’m not a Pyrrhonist, even though I’m skeptical of retrieving any real, historical truth about Jesus, who I freely admit may have lived. The New Testament cannot help us find the historical Jesus, but it can certainly help us learn about Christian origins. Recall that despite the broad brush with which Hoffmann and McGrath paint Vridar — as if we’re interested only in Jesus Mythicism — what we’re primarily focused on is Christian origins. The books of the NT give us valuable insights into the minds of early Christians, which is why Neil and I keep doing what we do.
I have read and reread the Epic of Gilgamesh more times than I can count. It’s one of my favorite examples of ancient literature. Do I despair that Utnapishtim wasn’t a real, historical person? Not at all. Am I a Pyrrhonist because I do not believe we can discover the historical Gilgamesh by reading between the lines and applying historical criteria? Of course not.
The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Bible provide valuable and endlessly fascinating insights into the beliefs and customs of ancient peoples. But we need to understand the limits of what they can tell us about the past. Being aware of these limits requires a certain amount of humility and a willingness to hold back from rash, unsupportable conclusions. I’m reminded of a well-known quote by Roger Bacon:
There are four chief obstacles to grasping truth, which hinder every man, however learned, and scarcely allow any one to win a clear title to learning, namely, submission to faulty and unworthy authority, influence of custom, popular prejudice, and concealment of our own ignorance accompanied by ostentatious display of our knowledge. (emphasis added)
- This is the only heading that isn’t a quote from an intelligent ape.
** I always think of Scrooge McDuck when Hoffmann writes “mythtic.” I hope from now on, you will, too!
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