A simple comparison of Mark’s and Matthew’s gospels is enough to demonstrate that the gospel writers invented their stories of Jesus. I’m going to take only a few examples over the next few posts, but the same analysis could be made of any of the episodes in the two gospels and yield the same results.
Mark starts his story with Jesus’ baptism and subsequent 40 days in the wilderness. The dominant motifs of both episodes are intended to alert the reader to the fact that Mark sees Jesus as the new Moses, preparing to lead his people out of bondage and into the Kingdom that God is preparing for them. The parting seas of Exodus 14 become the parting clouds through which God proclaims Jesus his Son, the 40 year trek through the wilderness (Exodus 16 etc) is replaced with Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness.
Mark gives the wilderness episode a mere two sentences (Mark 1.12-13) which isn’t enough for Matthew. He embellishes it in his gospel, making it a full-blown fantasy, complete with a lengthy conversation between Jesus and Satan. Matthew invented this story. We know he did because:
it cannot possibly have come from an eye-witness (because there wasn’t one);
It is patently fantasy material, with Satan, ministering angels and teleportation;
it cannot have derived from any oral tradition (as it is an embellishment of Mark’s tale, invented only a decade earlier, designed to echo the Moses story);
It is designed specifically to extend the analogy with the Moses. In Matthew, Jesus encounters the same temptations as the ancient Israelites in their wilderness trip, but, unlike his forebears, Jesus triumphantly resists them. He then recruits 12 disciples to go on ahead of him (Mark 3:13-15) just as Moses’ appointed 12 spies for the same purpose (Numbers 13).
Matthew has even more up his sleeve. He is fully aware of the parallels Mark has made between Jesus and Moses and adds a third to the beginning of his Jesus narrative. In his contrived nativity story, he rewrites the story from Exodus 1 and 2, itself a complete fabrication, in which Pharaoh orders the elimination of all Israelite baby boys. He lifts it directly into the so-called Massacre of the Innocents episode in his gospel.
Again, we know Matthew made this up:
Herod did not order any such massacre. It is not an historical event.
Matthew was determined to find incidents in Jewish scripture he could claim were really about Jesus. Here he is at it.
He is determinedly extending Mark’s metaphor; this is not material from any other source or tradition.
He constructs the narrative using additional ‘prophecies’ he finds in the scriptures. For example, the trip to Bethlehem and the flight to Egypt, neither of which happened (no other gospel writers knows of them.) The Egypt episode is an imaginative (and dishonest) expansion of Hosea 11:1: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son’. In context, the verse refers to the Jewish nation not a future Messiah. And who led the Israelites out of Egypt? Moses.
The nativity story and the Moses/Israelite parallels in the Egypt/baptism/wilderness episodes in Matthew are not drawn from tales of Jesus that were doing the rounds. They are clever, contrived literary creations. They tell us too that Matthew did not regard Mark’s more basic stories as history or biography. He evidently did not view them as immutable. He changes and adds to them to make his own points, ‘correct’ Mark, extend his analogies and emphasise that which he thinks Mark hasn’t emphasised enough. Throughout his gospel he’s prepared to create new incidents, even when they conflict with points Mark makes. He knows that Mark’s work, like his own, constitutes carefully devised stories and he feels free – compelled – to improve them. You can’t treat history this way but you can rewrite fiction.