The principle was set down by David Friedrich Strauss in the nineteenth century,
when we find details in the life of Jesus evidently sketched after the pattern of these prophecies and prototypes, we cannot but suspect that they are rather mythical than historical. (Life of Jesus, Critically Examined, p. 89)
Now that maxim is frequently and sensibly deployed by critical scholars. It is the reason that Burton Mack (no doubt there are others, too) denies the historicity of Jesus charging into the Temple and expelling the “traders” there.
It is a fictional theme derived from the scriptural citations. (Mack, Myth of Innocence, p. 292)
Many scholars, however, need the “Temple disturbance” to be historical in order to explain why Jesus was eventually arrested so many jettison the principle to make the narrative work as history. (Paula Fredriksen points out the flaw in their argument.)
David Chumney (whose book, Jesus Eclipsed, I have just completed, and which has many excellent points along with a few unfortunate flaws) makes the point loud and clear:
- Matthew 8:16-17 (& 11:4-5) tell us that Jesus healed sicknesses in fulfilment of the prophecy in Isaiah 53:4 (Unfortunately once again the Strauss’s criterion is put aside by most scholars who require Jesus to have been a healer in order to explain his “historical following”.)
- The triumphal entry into Jerusalem is acknowledged by more scholars (e.g. E.P. Sanders, Robert Funk, John Dominic Crossan, David Catchpole) to be a fiction created out of scriptures such as Psalm 118:25-26 and Zechariah 9:9.
- The magi following the star (Matthew 2:1-12) is based on Numbers 24:17 and Isaiah 60:3, 5-6.
- Herod’s massacre of the infants (Matthew 2:16-18) is crafted from Exodus 1:15-22 and Jeremiah 31:15.
- The angel’s announcement of John the Baptist’s birth (to be) (Luke 1:8-20) is woven from Genesis 18:9-15.
- Mary’s prayer, the “Magnificat” (Luke 1:46-55) comes from 1 Samuel 2:1-10.
Robert Price draws attention to many more: the infant Jesus’ escape into Egypt; Jesus baptism; the 40 days in the wilderness and testing by Satan; the call of the disciples; the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law and her response; Jesus healing of the paralytic; healing the withered hand; the appointing of the twelve disciples; the instructions given to them on how to go out and preach; Jesus calming the storm; the exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac; the raising of Jairus’s daughter; Jesus’ family rejecting him; the execution of John the Baptist; the miraculous feedings of thousands; the walking on the sea; Jesus calling the people to listen to him; Jesus healing the daughter of the woman in the region of Tyre and Sidon; the transfiguration; the rivalry among the disciples for the most prestigious position; the story of the exorcist who did not follow Jesus; . . . . .
And the list could probably be just as long if we itemized each of the “prophesied” details in the Passion narrative. (See Price, “Jesus at the Vanishing Point” in The Historical Jesus: Five Views.)
John Shelby Spong concedes that pretty much everything in the gospels is fiction based a creative reworking of Jewish Scriptures. All except for virtually only one detail: the execution, the martyrdom, of Jesus.
That Jesus was “crucified under Pontius Pilate,” as the Creed affirms, is historically the most stable datum we have concerning Jesus . . . (Joel B. Green, “The Death of Jesus” in Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus, p. 2383)
. . . not that there is the slightest doubt about the fact of Jesus’ crucifixion under Pontius Pilate . . . (John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, p. 375)
There is no doubt both that he was crucified and that after his death he was believed to have been restored to life. (John Shelby Spong, Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes. p. 236)
Yet it is the crucifixion of Jesus that is the MOST chock-full of Old Testament Scriptural allusions and citations.
For Paul, that the death of Jesus was “according to the scriptures” is of primary importance:
Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3)
Even David Chumney who addresses Strauss’s criterion for questioning historicity as one of his major themes (perhaps the major theme), succumbs:
Sources agree that this same Jesus was crucified under the authority of Pontius Pilate . . . so there is good reason to consider these details probable as well. (David Chumney, Jesus Eclipsed, Kindle loc ca 2600)
No, no, no. Chumney argues emphatically that there are only two “secure” pieces of evidence that assure us Jesus was historical and one of these is Galatians 1:19 where Paul says he met “the brother of the Lord”. Paul nowhere, nowhere, ties the crucifixion of Jesus with “the authority of Pontius Pilate”. The only other “secure” piece of evidence is Josephus. I submit that Josephus, if we take some portion of the passage about Jesus as really by Josephus, is relying upon what he has heard either directly or indirectly from Christians at least two generations after the time of Pilate and tells us nothing more than what they believed.
If we take Paul’s words literally we might even wonder if Jesus was crucified in Galatia:
Foolish Galatians, who has cunningly deceived you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was openly set forth as crucified? (Galatians 3:1)
Paul gives us no details of when, where, by whom Jesus was crucified — unless we take 1 Corinthians 2:8 in its immediate sense as referring to demonic powers.
If any event in the story of Jesus can be attributed to a creative reinterpretation of Scriptures it is the crucifixion of Jesus:
Early Christians read Psalm 22, Psalm 69, and other psalms of lamentation, probably Isaiah 53, as accounts of the passion of Jesus before there existed any written passion story. (Nils A. Dahl, “The Crucified Messiah and the Endangered Promises” in Jesus the Christ: The Historical Origins of Christological Doctrine, — cited in Chumney)
As Chumney correctly observes:
Throughout the passion narrative, events unfold “in accordance with the Scriptures.” Consider, for example, the events between Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, events that ostensibly occurred behind closed doors. How does Mark know that “the chief priests and the whole council were looking for testimony against Jesus to put him to death” (14:55)? He infers their intent from Scripture: “The sinner watches for the righteous and seeks to put him to death” (Psa 36:32, NETS). How does Mark know that “some stood up and gave false testimony against [Jesus]” (14:57)? He finds confirmation of such perjury in Scripture: “[F]alse witnesses have risen against me” (Psa 27:12). . . . . In each instance [Jesus’ silence; Jesus being flogged, struck, spat upon] Mark’s account is derived not from the testimony of eyewitnesses but from the testimony of Scripture. Therefore, such information is not historically credible.
Chumney cites Barnabas Lindars as pointing out that
“every detail of the tradition has its counterpart in prophecy.”
If Paul is our earliest witness to the belief in “Christ crucified” we know that for Paul and his churches Christ crucified was a theological fact. It was a saving event. It was not a news report but the climax of a spiritual battle between God and Satan.
Only much later were the gospels written. It is only decades after Paul’s letters that the first narratives of the crucifixion of Jesus were written and all their details were fleshed out from Scriptures.
So we come to the question.
If the crucifixion of Jesus is first and foremost a theological event and secondly if it is a pastiche of reinterpreted Scriptures, then is it not likely, given David Strauss’s maxim, that we should
suspect [it is] rather mythical than historical?
But if we follow such a reasonable conclusion then we cannot help but ask why it was “invented”.
What was there “at the beginning”? In 1 Corinthians 15:3-11 we read a list of appearances of the spirit Christ to various disciples. Whether we take this as a genuinely Pauline passage or a later insertion, these verses do speak of authoritative status for certain individuals being based upon having seen the heavenly Jesus. Paul does speak of having visions of heavenly realms elsewhere, too.
Christianity would not be the first religion to have started with key persons claiming to have experienced visions and hearing voices. If they believed that the figure they were seeing and hearing was actually a “son of man” figure, or “the heavenly man or christ” figure (we know from the Book of Enoch that some Jews believed the “son of man” was a heavenly figure), they no doubt attempted to fill out the meaning through meditations on the Scriptures. Focusing on certain Scriptures was also part of the technique of those of the period who sought visionary experiences.
Paul speaks of revelations “now” being disclosed, mysteries that had long been hidden were “now” being revealed. Why “now”?
Some visionaries saw an all-conquering heavenly Christ figure as the Book of Revelation testifies. Apparently the Christ figure had been slain before the heavenly altar as a sacrifice. Or at least the precious infant was snatched up to heaven at birth to avoid the designs of Satan.
Paul appears to have had disputes with other apostles who preached a “different Christ”, and perhaps the visionaries behind the Book of Revelation were among those — as P.L. Couchoud suggested.
The Ascension of Isaiah informs us that some believed a time had come when the “Beloved” (an epithet elsewhere for the first-born who was sacrificed by his father — see Levenson) was sent to the lower realms of creation to die and return to glory again.
We don’t know what, exactly, were the details of such visions. Paul said he was forbidden to tell all that he saw.
But it does make sense of the data — the nature of the passion narratives, the crucifixion details especially — if we hypothesise that belief in a crucified messiah followed visionary experiences of the heavenly Christ figure. It is also a conclusion that allows us to apply Strauss’s criterion consistently:
when we find details in the life of Jesus evidently sketched after the pattern of these prophecies and prototypes, we cannot but suspect that they are rather mythical than historical.
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