How much of the Bible was written backwards?

We know for a fact the book of Daniel was. The term for creating a prophecy after the event it purportedly predicts is Vaticinium ex eventu (Latin for ‘devious sleight of hand’). The creators of the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament were rather fond of Vaticinium ex eventu. Daniel’s prophecies, supposedly written in the sixth century BCE during the Babylonian exile about events that would occur later – much later – were actually created during the second century BCE. This was, of course, after most of them had occurred, which is how Daniel manages to predict most of them with reasonable accuracy. The remaining prophecy, however, written before the events it purportedly predicts is hopeless, completely way off; it foresees the resurrection of God’s people and the establishment of his Kingdom on Earth in the early part of the first century. As we know, this didn’t happen, though Daniel’s madcap ideas influenced the creators of the Jesus cult who all thought they were living in the end times. Jesus’ term for himself, ‘Son of Man’, is lifted straight from Daniel.

This is how most prophecy in the Bible works; it’s either written after the event, Vaticinium ex eventu style, or, when it’s genuinely written beforehand, doesn’t – surprise, surprise – ever come to pass.

Which bring us to Jesus own predictions of the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. He explains to his disciples in some detail in Mark 13 what to expect. He suggests too that soon after the destruction, the Son of Man will arrive through the clouds to establish God’s Kingdom on Earth, once and for all (well, maybe not all – just for ‘righteous’ Jews). It is no coincidence that Mark’s gospel was written about 70CE, just after the temple was destroyed, which makes it easy for Jesus to outline in some detail what the event would like, describing, as he is, what it was like.

Did I say Jesus? No, not Jesus, but the anonymous author of ‘Mark’s’ gospel who implants his knowledge from 70CE back to 30CE and on to Jesus. He – the gospel writer – also has Jesus refer to the opposition some believers were experiencing in the 70s and to the ‘reader’ of his warning. As David Madison notes in Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief , ‘reader’ is an anachronism too; Jesus had no ‘readers’ when he was alive. The whole prophecy is later fabrication. Its author is typically less successful – completely unsuccessful in fact – in his prediction that soon after the events he describes, the Son of Man would return to put everything right (Mark 13.26-27). So, as we might expect, there is a reasonable degree of accuracy from the bit of the ‘prophecy’ written after the event, but none at all when it genuinely looks to the future.

But it’s not just prophecy this affects. It looks very much that key episodes in the Jesus story were invented (long) after his death, assuming he existed in the first place, and were added into the gospel stories many more years later. John’s gospel is almost entirely like this. The Jesus of the fourth gospel bears no relation to that in the synoptic gospels; in John he has morphed into the Christ of late first-century Christian belief, spouting fantastical gibberish about himself, like ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life’ and ‘I and the Father are One’. The Christ of faith is superimposed on the itinerant Jewish peasant executed for sedition.

It happens in the synoptic gospels too. In Matthew 28.19, the post-mortem Jesus commands his followers to ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,’ undoubtedly quoting a later liturgical formula; the notion of the Trinity explicitly referenced here was unknown in Jesus’ own time and indeed in Paul’s. Similarly, the disputes with the scribes and Pharisees represent the writing back into the gospels of later Christians’ difficulties with the religious hierarchy.1 Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount meanwhile is demonstrably a later creation, not translated from Aramaic but written in Greek.2 Other absolutely crucial aspects of the Jesus story – it is easy to see how a case can be made for his not having existed at all – are also retrospective additions. We will come to them next time.

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1 ‘Perhaps the best way to explain Matthew’s extensive criticism of the Jewish authorities is to say that his own community continued to experience opposition from non-Christian Jews, especially influential scribes and rabbis of the local synagogue(s), who accused them of abandoning Moses and the Law, of becoming apostate from the Jewish religion through their ill-advised faith in Jesus.’ Bart D. Ehrman, chapter 6, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings.
2 Richard Carrier, On the Historicity Of Jesus, pp 465-466, cited in Madison, p300

 

 

 

 

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