Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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The Historical Jesus
Elaborating a Story

It's difficult for us today to understand how and why the authors of the gospels expanded and elaborated their material.

What would we think if a newspaper reporter, writing about what the President of the United States said about the troubles in Palestine, invented words and put them into the President's mouth? Worse, how would we react if the reporter had seen the story broadcast on television and then invented new details to get his political beliefs across to viewers?

The chances are that we would be upset and the reporter would be unemployed.

This was most definitely not the case in Jesus' times. To give some examples other than from the Bible:

  • Josephus  (38-101) wrote accounts of Jewish history - The Jewish War and Jewish Antiquities. We know from his work and by comparing it with other sources that Josephus often recounted rumours and hearsay as though they were factual. Though he tried to be accurate, he did not have the same analytical outlook and need for verification that we now accept as essential for good history. The form and style of his work was based largely on rhetorical patterns used by Roman writers. Josephus depended at the time of writing upon a pension authorised by the Roman Emperor. To guard his personal interests, he had to be particularly careful to say nothing too offensive. His books tread a careful path between politic expression and the facts. There is good evidence that he found better sources for his later writing, but did not use them to improve what he had already written.

  • Livy (59bce-17ce) wrote a "history" of the city of Rome from the time it was founded. But it's clear that his Books 1-10
    are actually renderings of various legends about early Rome which people believed in his day. He occasionally suggests that such stories may not be entirely accurate. However, the context of his writing was the strong perception of his day that Rome had declined to its present state from a golden age. To suggest that Rome's untarnished past was either unknown or historically suspect would hardly have occurred to him.

Similarly, it's crucial that we don't criticise the authors of the gospels
for filling in details which we would not call "historical" today. Their
view of history was very different from ours. They were much more concerned about the theological meaning of Jesus than about "what really happened".

So when we analyse the language and style of a gospel passage, we should be prepared to try to sort out "history" in the modern sense from "history" in the ancient sense.

One of the things we should look out for are comments in the form of
facts. In one case, some details in Matthew 9.1-7 of the controversy with the Teachers of the Law (Scribes) about performing miracles probably derive from the concerns of early Christians for whom the Gospel's author wrote. 

Most commentators agree that the verses we can retain as good history  are a shell into which the other details were fitted - not dishonestly, but to demonstrate how the author thought Jesus must and would have behaved in that context and in the light of the author's understanding of the meaning of Jesus. Different gospel authors had differing understanding - hence the differing ways in which they treat the core material they had to work with.

The account in Matthew 9.1-7 thus clearly contains artificial elements. It also corresponds in some respects with other non-Christian miracle stories of the times. The Jewish reactions in this account were thought to be "representative of Jewish reactions", to quote one scholar. That is, they are a Christian stereotype of how "the Jews" usually behave, rather than an account of how some people actually behaved on a specific occasion.

A good example of similar editorial alteration and elaboration is reflected in a non-Canonical version of Mark 10.17-31, Matthew 19.16-23 and Luke 18.18-30. Compare the gospel versions with the following. It is taken from the Gospel of the Nazoreans [Nazarenes] 6.1-5.

The second rich man said to him [Jesus], "Teacher, what good do I have to do to live?" He said to him, "Mister, follow the Law and the Prophets." He answered, "I've done that." He said to him, "Go and sell everything you own, give it away to the poor and then come and follow me."

But the rich man didn't want to hear this and began to scratch his head. And the Lord said to him, "How can you say that you follow the Law and the Prophets? In the Law it says: 'Love your neighbour as yourself.' Look around you: many of your brothers and sisters, sons and daughters of Abraham, are living in filth and dying of hunger. Your house is full of good things and not a thing of yours manages to get out to them."

Turning to his disciple Simon, who was sitting with him,  he said, "Simon, son of Jonah, it's easier for a camel to squeeze through a needle's eye than for a wealthy person to get into heaven's domain." [1]

It's plain from this example how the author of the Nazorean Gospel has either reproduced exactly a version which differs from that of the gospels, or has edited one of those versions for his own reasons. Considering the entire text of the Nazorean Gospel, it turns out that it is closer to Matthew's Gospel than the other two. 

Later Christian writers Epiphanius and Jerome say that the Gospel was used by the Nazoreans of Beroea and was written in Aramaic -  though analysis of the text reveals that it was probably actually  a translation into that language from a Greek original. Because it depends on Matthew's Gospel and elaborates it, it is usually dated before 180 (when Hegesippus referred to it) but after about 80, when Matthew's Gospel seems to have been written.

Other instances of how the Nazorean Gospel elaborates Matthew's Gospel are:

  • Chapter 3 explains a difficult word in the Lord's Prayer, the exact meaning of which is still argued. Jerome writes:

    "In the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew [the Nazorean Gospel] it reads thus: 'Provide us today with the bread we need for tomorrow' ..."

  • Chapter 4 fills out Matthew 12.9-14 by explaining that the man's withered hand prevented him from making a living.

  • Chapter 7 corrects an error made by Matthew in referring to a person in the Hebrew Scriptures. Jerome writes:

    "In the gospel that the Nazoreans use, we found 'son of Joiada' written instead of 'son of Baruch'" [referring to Matthew 23.35, often now translated as "son of Berachiah" rather than "Baruch"].

In noting these elaborations, we have to acknowledge that the gospel authors could, and most certainly did, elaborate the material they used in just the same way. Matthew and Luke frequently elaborate the material they took from Mark. What they took from the "Q source" (that is, the source they used in common but which Mark did not use) was also elaborated to serve their theological purposes.

Elaboration smacks to us of dishonesty. But to them it was merely a device which added to the power of their writing to convey truth.
[1] The Complete Gospels, Ed R J Miller, Polebridge Press, 1992

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