I read with sadness recently a comment made by a Christian incensed at another’s remark on a documentary about Jesus. “I hope you burn in Hell”, he said. Seems a high price to pay for having a divergent opinion. It got me thinking…
One of the greatest misfortunes that has happened to the enlightened religion of Christianity is the misconception that it is based on historical events. Attempts to prove the ‘facts’ of the faith, or negate them, have only resulted in a lot of abuse, and even worse, a lot of bloodshed, between those with differing views. Meanwhile, its doctrines are ignored.
The key events in Christianity seem to have an historical setting. Jesus is said to have been condemned to death by the Roman Procurator of the province of Judea, Pontius Pilate, who held that office 26-36 AD. Jesus was said to have preached in Galilee when Herod Antipas, Herod the Great’s son, was Tetrarch 4 BC-40 AD. This though is the start and end of any history in the story of Jesus.
A look through one of the earliest surviving documents of Christianity, the Gospel of Mark, written about 70 AD, reveals little historical information. Aside from the two Roman administrators mentioned above, there are no other known historical characters mentioned. There is no chronological framework to anchor the sequence of events in a particular time or place, other than that the crucifixion took place the day after Passover (year unspecified). Although towns such as Capermaum, Tyre, Sidon and the Decapolis (ten cities), and areas within Jerusalem such as the Mount of Olives and Gethsemane are mentioned, it is never with any geographical description or indication the author knew the places spoken of.
A close look at Mark reveals also that the Gospel consists of groups of stories apparently from different sources. The Gospel is a kind of anthology of miracle stories, parables, and events of the Passion, given shape by an editor whose name we don’t know. (No name associated with any author of the New Testament except Paul of Tarsus is known: the existing names all date from the third century onwards, when the canon of scriptures was being prepared by the early church).
Yet Mark, and the other canonical Gospels, give the impression of being historical documents. This is because they are, firstly, narratives, and expositions of doctrine set in a narrative framework; and secondly, works of a genre popular at their time of composition, hero biographies. What we would now call romances, about heroes like Alexander the Great or Apollonius of Tyana, were written from the second and third centuries AD, and would have had first century antecedents.
Once we recognise this absence of historical data, it is easier to read the New Testament books for what they are, religious documents proclaiming good news for converts to a new religion. The Gospels give a setting for the primary doctrine of the new faith, the belief that Jesus was the son of god, who had died to save mankind from punishment for their sins. The way this doctrine came to be can be reconstructed.
Evolution of a faith
A. It began with an oral phase, what was said and remembered of Jesus and his sayings. Jesus’ doctrine may have been a focus on the inner Kingdom of God attainable by all who would live a truly spiritual life. It may have included a belief in the coming end of days and final judgment. This was preserved by Jesus’ followers, after his death led by Jakob, Jesus’ brother (James the Just), in the period 30-70 AD. It is unlikely much was originally known of Jesus’ history before his last days in Jerusalem. He was probably said to be a ‘son of god’ in the usual Jewish sense, that is, a holy man, a prophet. In 70 AD, Jerusalem, and the Jewish followers of Jesus, and their ideas, were destroyed by the Romans during a Jewish rebellion.
B. The oral phase was followed by a written phase. This period began with the work of Paul of Tarsus, a ‘gnostic’ (meaning inspired, by god, not Jesus) Jewish Greek, with a Greek interpretation of what the term ‘son of god’ meant. Paul of Tarsus spent at least the years 50-70 AD travelling throughout the Greek world spreading his ideas, and founding ‘churches’. Chief of Paul’s ideas was that Jesus was the son of god, and so god also, who had died to save mankind from punishment for their sins. There was a series of violent disputes between Paul, and Jakob, Barnabas and Peter in Jerusalem. Nevertheless Pauline churches were founded in Antioch, Ephesus, Alexandria, Corinth, Rome and in other cities. The New Testament consists of writings by various churches founded by Paul. Paul’s was the only missionary effort, and his views prevailed when his followers organised a Christian church and orthodoxy from 200 AD onwards.
C. As Paul’s ideas started to spread into Greece they were the object of metaphysical speculation by other teachers who claimed to ‘know’ or be inspired (gnosis). Metaphysical cosmogony, teachings that relied heavily on allegory to ‘explain’ the events they recounted about Jesus, stories of Jesus’ female followers, and of a female god: these are some of the so called ‘gnostic gospels’, discovered at Nag Hammadi and other places in Egypt from 1945. These documents were written in Coptic, and dated about 400 AD, translations from Greek originals dated 100-250 AD. The period of these compositions was probably wider, perhaps from the time of ‘Mark’ 70 AD up to 400 AD when the last was stamped out as ‘heresy’. These are Gospels very different from the narrative structure of the four canonical Gospels. These ‘gnostic’ teachings split into narrower and narrower divisions and were suppressed as heresies.
D. From about 200 AD the Greek churches founded by Paul began to systematise their beliefs, and their scriptures. The idea of ‘orthodoxy’ arose, that beliefs held by the Pauline churches were the only correct ones. Much persecution occurred, and many scriptures were burnt. The churches that survived this period were part of a movement now known as ‘Christianity’. They were one church, though there was dispute as to which church centre was to be given primacy. This unity, such as it was, appealed to Emperor Constantine, who had successfully struggled against his opponents to unify his empire, and wanted one church whose doctrines would support his supremacy. He got that support by becoming himself a Christian about 337 AD, on his deathbed. Christianity achieved its unity by a scrutiny to make sure each scripture supported the Pauline doctrines. This was followed by the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, the Nicene Creed and a canon of the scriptures. The first of these was the one given the name Mark, written about 70 AD.
History in the gospel
When it comes to Jesus we have the odd fact that all we know about him comes from documents written between 50 and 250 years after his death, in a country he never visited, and in a language he never spoke.
Jesus was said to be a Jew who lived in the lands between Lebanon and Jordan, spoke Aramaic, and lived till about 30 AD. The writings about him come from Greece, were written in Greek by people who formerly either practised Judaism or one of the religions of the Roman Empire such as Mithraism, several generations after the time of Jesus. The writings are not a product of Judaism. To Jews they are all blasphemous, because they refer to Jesus as a son of god. The claim of being god is sometimes confused with the claim of being a Messiah in the Gospel, yet the Messiah was a king of the house of David said to be coming to restore the kingdom as had David in the past. These misconceptions arose because the New Testament is fundamentally a Greek document, and reflects beliefs of religious people in Greece.
The Gospel called Mark has several passages in which an historical group of Jewish scholars, “the Pharisees” point out that Jesus doesn’t seem very observant of the Law (chapter 2, verse 15-17. I am quoting from the Scholars Edition of the Gospels made by a panel of the Jesus Seminar, mainly because it uses contemporary language, which I think very important). In his replies Jesus points out the difference between his religion and Judaism. These passages must date to after the founding of the author’s church, and so cannot be historical. There is no evidence that Jesus broke away from Judaism to found a non Jewish church. He would not have been crucified as ‘King of the Jews’ had he done that.
Then come several incidents in which Jesus is charged with driving out demons by being possessed by a stronger demon. This is urged by “the Pharisees” and a group, “the Herodians”, partisans of Herod Antipas, Herod the Great’s son, ruler then of Galilee (3, 2-6). It seems unlikely that a political group in Galilee associated with Herod would be plotting with the Pharisees, not sticklers for the Law like the Sadducees, to kill Jesus. He had so far (according to Mark) come to some hill villages where he had cured the sick. Mark’s point is dramatic, a looking forward to the story he will tell later of the Passion, and not historical.
Mark’s next story is the tale of the death of John the Baptist (6, 12-29) complete with evil tyrant who grants wishes and wife who hates the holy man because he has condemned her marriage. Actually it was probably according to Jewish custom for Herod to marry his brother’s wife (see 12, 18-19), but not in Greece, where Mark was writing. The story of John’s life and death is not likely to be historical.
At 12, 12-17 Mark introduces the “Herodians”, this time in Jerusalem, way out of their territory, to ask about paying the tax to the Emperor. Paying the tax is pro Roman, not paying is the view of the rebels (“Zealots”) and the Messiah. Jesus says to pay the tax. His response is often claimed to be enigmatic and a masterly rebuttal of those who tried to trap him, but it’s nothing of the kind. It’s law abiding.
In 12, 28-34, on the most important of the commandments, Mark quotes a saying of Jesus’ contemporary Hillel, found in the Talmud. Hillel the elder was known for his sayings, such as “who is not for me is against me”; “that which is hateful to you do not do to your fellow”; and “love your god with all your heart: and love your neighbour as yourself”. These sayings have been put into the mouth of Jesus by Mark.
Chapter 15 tells of Jesus before Pilate, who is reluctant to crucify an alleged Zealot, Jesus, to the point where he offers the crowds a choice between Jesus and another Zealot, Barabbas (“son of the father”). Could this be a mistake for Barnabas? This is a custom unknown to history. Pilate was in fact a severe governor, criticised in Rome for his severity. The two thieves are in Mark’s crucifixion narrative actually Zealots. The Jewish crowds are unlikely to have rioted against the Zealots and in favour of the Romans.
All the above are passages where the Gospel of Mark refers to the historical situations of Jesus’ time. All of them can be seen to be non historical, based on only the vaguest knowledge, and utilised for their dramatic point, not to create an historical setting.
Good news in the gospel
The Gospel is addressed to those wanting to join the new church. Mark begins by recounting the true identity of Jesus. A miracle occurs, a dove representing god appears in the sky, and a voice is heard saying: “You are my beloved son” (1, 10-11). Mark later dramatically repeats his opening miracle (9, 2-13), in which the heavens are opened and god speaks and says that Jesus is his son. The apostles also see Moses and Elijah, who are silent. All this was blasphemous in Jerusalem, where god had said, “you will have no other god before me”, but is exactly Paul of Tarsus’ message.
Mark goes on to tell how Jesus started as a teacher, withdrawing to the desert to meditate, then visiting villages in Galilee where he performed miracles and drove out demons (1, 21-28). No details of this kind, conveyed orally in Aramaic, are likely to have survived over 40 years and have been heard in Greece by Mark. But he may have heard stories of Apollonius of Tyana which circulated in Greece and were similar.
Mark then gives the parable of the sower (4, 1-9). Parables were introduced by the Pharisees to make the job of scriptural exposition easier to follow for the man in the street. But the parable of the sower is not a clear one. In fact, Mark says afterwards: “You have been given the secret of god’s imperial rule; but to ordinary people everything is given in parables” (4, 11). The teaching is divided into two: parables, which confuse the meaning; and the secret doctrine, which only the apostles know. This could only have reference to a time when a church hierarchy was beginning to form and tells the acolyte he or she will be instructed by a ‘bishop’. It shows Mark to have been ignorant of what a parable was.
There are two famous stories about Jesus the magician. The loaves and fishes; and the walking on the water (6, 31-53). Like the healing stories, these have no spiritual significance, and portray Jesus as a wandering wonder worker, like Peregrinus in Lucian of Samosata’s satire, or Apollonius of Tyana as he was portrayed in stories of the time Mark wrote. As parables these stories would have conveyed an important message about faith. Mark turns them into stories of the greatness of Jesus.
Chapter seven is mainly concerned with ritual purity. Paul felt that there was no need for the Greek converts to follow the Law of Judaism. The church in Jerusalem led by Jakob felt that they must. There was a dispute over it, and Paul recounts instances where Jakob sent teachers to correct what Paul had taught. This chapter is a short statement in support of Paul’s view put in the mouth of Jesus.
Now comes the belief in Jesus as Messiah (8, 27-30), repeated (10, 32-34). In chapter 8, 31-32 Mark says that Jesus predicted he would die and be resurrected after three days. This is the defining doctrine of the Pauline churches, and Jesus himself could not have said it without being executed as a blasphemer. Such a claim would also have negated the whole crucifixion story. This confusion between the king of Israel and the king of Heaven can’t be of Jewish origin, and must date to the time of Paul’s missions in Greece.
Jesus then enters Jerusalem (11, 1-11). There is an episode in which he sends a disciple for a colt and rides into the city on it, and a crowd salute him as Son of David, that is, the Messiah, the king of the Jews who was to drive out the Romans. Then the whole gathering disperses and the greeting is forgotten about.
Then comes the entry to the temple and the overturning of the money lenders’ tables (11, 15-19). This was an attack on temple sacrifice, the heart of the practice of ancient Judaism. It was sacrilege, and it is unlikely an observant Jew would act so. (The temple had its own currency, as it received offerings in many currencies and found it easier to deal with just one. The money changers changed the sacrificers’ money into temple currency so they could purchase an animal to sacrifice). The episode is a statement in accordance with Paul’s teaching that Jesus had come to create a new covenant. It shows Mark to have been ignorant of temple Judaism.
Mark’s chapter 14 is about the arrest and trial of Jesus by the Sanhedrin. It is actually the foundation story for the central ritual of the early church. The priests and scholars plot to kill Jesus, no motive given. Judas agrees to ‘betray’ him, whatever that means. Preparations are made for the last supper. Judas is identified as the ‘betrayer’. They all go to the Mount of Olives. Jesus says the apostles will betray him. They move to Gethsemane and Jesus has a vision. Judas and the temple soldiers arrive and Judas identifies Jesus. If these people have been plotting to kill Jesus why don’t they know who he is? At his trial Jesus is identified as the Messiah, which he wasn’t, and that is said to be blasphemy, which it wasn’t. The confusion between Messiah and King of Heaven is made again. There were no witnesses. The charge, and the position of Judas, was unclear. Pontius Pilate was unlikely to let Jews hold a trial during the equivalent of martial law. As accounts of a trial this is a shambles. But it’s not a trial really. It’s the story of how god sent his son to die for the salvation of the faithful. I wonder how much it resembles the rites of Mithras.
The Gospel ends with its most important statement. After the sabbath the women go to embalm the body of Jesus but are told by another mourner that Jesus had risen and was gone into Galilee (16, 1-8). In fact the crucified were not buried, part of the horror of that punishment. Mark gives Jesus a tomb so he can relate, “he is risen”, the central doctrine of Christianity.
The good news
This narrative can only be read with difficulty if it is interpreted as historical. We are constantly being distracted by the author’s misconceptions, unlikely statements about Jewish and Roman legal procedures, logical fallacies, lack of organisation of his material, lack of sources: all criteria we usually apply to the writing of history.
Even if we allow for beliefs and practices such as were usual at the time the work was composed we have difficulties. Approaches such as: men could perform wonders; the evil spirit roamed the world and entered men’s bodies; this narrative is true, so it must have happened like this; this was foretold in the scriptures, so this is what happened; this is what the church believes now, so this must be what Jesus said. We don’t think like that anymore.
It was simpler than that. God sent his son to suffer and die that by his agony he redeemed mankind from original sin. God couldn’t die, but rose from the tomb on the third day and entered Heaven. Believe in this and you too will be saved.
Forget the Jewish law. Forget the false beliefs of the followers of Orpheos or Adonais or Mithras. Follow the instruction of our bishop, and we will be one in Jesus, and live for ever.
No belief system ever spread with the swiftness of Christianity by being complicated and hard to understand. The early church had only one or two doctrines, and it spread like wildfire. Only when it became the state religion of Rome did things get complicated.
So how did the idea of history enter Christianity? At its beginning the most practised faiths were of Isis and Osiris, and of Mithras, with followers all over the Empire. What was so different about Christianity, it was asked? It wasn’t, doctrinally, that different at all. But it actually happened. Jesus had been born, and had died in Jerusalem under Pontius Pilate. It wasn’t a myth, that is, a false, fanciful idea like other religions. Around about 400 AD, with Christianity the state religion of the Empire, the idea of history should have been dropped from its teachings as no longer relevant. But it wasn’t, and disputes based on what actually happened or didn’t happen have raged ever since.
Well, it’s easier to do that than love your enemies, isn’t it?
©2015 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.