Tailor Made

So where did the stories of Jesus life on Earth come from? The traditional answers to this question are wholly inadequate. As we’ve seen, they didn’t seem to be around when Paul was writing; the hypothetical Q is an unconvincing way of explaining them while unreliable memory, coupled with the so-called oral tradition, don’t offer any means of conveying accurate verifiable information about Jesus.

The writers of the gospels, particularly Mark the creator of the first, would have known this. The gospels are not collections of the speculative tales that were doing the rounds. They might have made some incidental use of them, but all of the gospels are carefully constructed, designed to make theological points about their hero. Particular kinds of stories were required for this and the gospel writers thought nothing of making them up. It’s possible they made use of existing tales, but if they did, they almost certainly retooled them to suit their purposes. The stories we find in the gospels are tailor made to illustrate these purposes. None of the gospels is history: they are all carefully crafted literary creations.

What were the purposes and the agendas of the gospel writers? Propaganda, designed not so much to convert non-believers, but to explain to those who were already part of the cult, and their own sects in particular, what belief in Jesus entailed. To this end, they created allegories, symbolic stories about his life on Earth.

Mark began the process. He constructed his narrative by adapting Paul’s teaching ;and inventing stories based on ‘prophecies’ from the scriptures to create a symbolic narrative every part of which makes a theological point. He may also have retooled existing stories while borrowing features of existing myth that fellow cultists would expect to find in an account of a demi-god’s adventures.

Matthew and Luke then followed his lead, lifting what they thought was of relevance to their own agendas, dropping or amending the rest and inventing their own symbolic stories.

You think they didn’t? I’ll show you that they did, and how, using Mark, Matthew and Luke’s gospels, in a couple of posts time. But before that: a slight and relevant diversion.

The Oral Tradition

Where did stories about Jesus originate?

Memory and the Oral Tradition, part 2

The passing on of stories from memory is the ‘oral tradition’ that some argue preserved the words of Jesus more or less accurately for forty years. We’re expected to believe that eye-witnesses recalled in precise detail what Jesus said and did; that they all largely agreed on what this was; that none of them embellished or altered their recollections in any way in the telling and that they were passed on to convert after convert after convert in precise and unaltered form. And then, that no-one in forty years amended or refined the stories in any substantial way, because if they did the originators of the tales would be quick to point out any inaccuracies.

We know this isn’t what happened. The stories evolved and were refined and embellished as they were passed along for forty years between numerous converts. The defence that ancient largely illiterate cultures were better at faithfully preserving stories orally than we are today is a myth. (See EhrmanHow Jesus Became God: The Exaltation Of A Jewish Preacher from Galilee)

Even when some of the oral stories about Jesus were eventually written down, as in the gospels, they continued to evolve; Matthew and Luke both altered stories they took from Mark while John’s Jesus, in the latest of the canonical gospels, is a different creation altogether; either the source stories John knew had evolved quite differently from those Mark, Matthew and Luke had access to, or John created his Jesus out of whole cloth himself.

These stories once written down were changed again, both deliberately and accidentally, whenever the gospels were copied. We know this from the myriad of differences in the extant manuscripts. As Bart Ehrman puts it in Misquoting Jesus, there are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament’. The evolution continued. This is why the Jesus seminar concluded, controversially, that only 20% of the words attributed to Jesus in the gospels can be regarded as originating with him. I consider this to be over-generous. 

Even if the writers of Jesus stories took some of their material from the so-called oral tradition (aka, ‘stories that were being passed around’), we have no way of knowing which of it, if any, is an accurate representation of the things Jesus did and said. It’s unlikely much of it is, given how stories are misremembered, reshaped and altered over time. Their evolution makes them less reliable, not more.

By the way, you’ve not read the post I wrote on Cape Cod. Most of it was completed in Boston and I’ve edited and posted it from my home in the UK. In other words, it evolved in various locations. Kind of like the gospels.

 

In Search of the Lost Q

Where did the stories about Jesus that we find in the gospels come from?

2. Q

Q is a hypothetical document said to be a collection of Jesus’ sayings. It was first hypothesised in the late 19th century and developed by minister B. H. Streeter in 1924. it was intended to explain why Matthew and Luke’s gospels shared material that wasn’t plagiarised from Mark. Streeter speculated they must both have had access to an alternative source that he christened Q (after the German for source, Quelle.)

While the idea caught on and is still assumed by many scholars (including Bart Ehrman) there are numerous problems with it:

Q doesn’t exist and has never existed. There is absolutely no evidence for it, aside from the duplication of material in Matthew and Luke, the very context it was designed to explain. There are no surviving copies, nor even fragments of any written collection of Jesus’ sayings (unsurprisingly for a non-existent document.) Nor is a book of Jesus’ sayings referred to in any form by any New Testament writer (again, unsurprisingly.)

Q is unnecessary. As other scholars, including M. A. Farrer, Mark Goodacre and Richard Carrier, have pointed out, there is a far simpler explanation for Matthew and Luke’s sharing of material they didn’t get from Mark. Either Matthew or Luke had access to the other. It is generally accepted that Matthew’s gospel predated Luke’s by a few years. It is likely therefore that Luke took certain stories from Matthew, as he had others from Mark, and made them his own. Doesn’t he say at the start of his gospel that he intends to collate material about Jesus that was already in circulation? Occam’s Razor also leads to the conclusion that this is a far better explanation of the duplication than a hypothetical third document.

Q doesn’t answer the question of where the stories came from in the first place. Arguably, it moves the solution back a stage but that’s all. If for the sake of argument we assume Q did exist, we still don’t necessarily know where it got its material from. Q really gets us no further forward.

Q is conjectured to be a collection of sayings. They are not set in any context; Q lacks a narrative structure so cannot be where Matthew derived his accounts, for example, of the Temptation in the wilderness (4:1-11), the Sermon on the Mount (5:1-12) or the healing of the centurion’s servant (8:5-13) that Luke would later copy and adapt. These are stories, not mere sayings. Even if Matthew got the sayings they include from some now lost written source from where did he get their context? Eyewitnesses? Unlikely, given he was writing 50 years after the purported events when most eyewitnesses would be dead. He was certainly not an eyewitness himself; he would not have needed to copy large swathes of Mark if he was. Nor does Matthew claim to be using eyewitness testimony. Like all the gospel writers he comes nowhere close to citing his sources.

Matthew is, however, notorious at making up stories he thinks make Jesus fit prophecy. He invents still others to make theological points. It’s quite possible he invented these particular accounts too.

Or perhaps, as apologists like to claim, Matthew and the other gospel writers got at least some of their stories from the so-called oral tradition, a grand name for the tales about Jesus that circulated for the 40-70 years before the gospels were written.

We’ll take a look next time.

Where did Luke get his Bethlehem story from?

Previously on RejectingJesus:

Matthew creates his nativity story, specifically Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, from Micah 5.2, which prophesies that a ‘ruler over Israel’ will be born there. This prophecy is imposed on Jesus who was not a ruler of Israel – though he may have aspired to be – and certainly was not the Messiah envisaged by the creators of such prophecies. I suggest that subsequently, Luke embroidered Matthew’s fairly basic story and contrived to get Jesus born in Bethlehem by inventing a Roman census that required his parents to travel there.

A Christian commenter (let’s call him Don) then challenged this scenario by claiming, without offering any evidence, that Luke did not have access to Matthew’s gospel, so must have known that Jesus was born in Bethlehem from an independent source. (Christians are fond of attributing suspect gospel material to oral traditions and the hypothetical Q. Don is no exception.)

In fact, a number of scholars, including Michael Goulder, Mark Goodacre, Richard Carrier and others, think that Luke did know Matthew’s gospel. This is the so-called Farrer hypothesis, named after Austin Farrer who first proposed the idea in 1955. As well as his plagiarising 55% of Mark, these scholars show that Luke also used material from Matthew, including the Bethlehem story. The structure of Luke’s version and some of his phrasing is identical to Matthew’s. It is unlikely this would be the case if Luke wasn’t lifting directly from Matthew’s account.

Luke goes further and replaces some of the details in Matthew’s story that don’t suit his purpose (e.g. the magi) with his own (the shepherds), which is why the two accounts diverge. Nonetheless, both versions of the story stem from the ‘prophecy’ in Micah 2.5. Luke doesn’t cite it explicitly but then he is non-specific elsewhere in his gospel about events that supposedly fulfil prophecy. Unlike Matthew, Luke was writing for a gentile audience who would not be as familiar with Jewish scripture; he didn’t need to be as explicit about the source for his stories that were based on these scriptures. Nonetheless, the two nativity accounts, Matthew’s and Luke’s, likely had the same basis (the Micah prophecy) with Luke adapting the narrative that Matthew had already created from it. Moreover, the differences in detail between Matthew and Luke’s accounts demonstrate clearly that both authors were inventing their respective stories. As Neil Godfrey puts it,

Luke, attempting to adapt Matthew’s Bethlehem as the place of birth of Jesus to his more universalist theme, feels obliged to concoct a silly story of everyone being required by imperial edict to return to their places of birth for a special tax registration. Not to mention the necessary anachronism of his Quirinius timing, too. It is not hard to see that Luke is struggling to incorporate Matthew’s Bethlehem setting into his own tendentious narrative.

It’s possible, of course, that all of the scholars who think Luke knew Mathew’s gospel are wrong, but even so, this doesn’t rescue Luke’s nativity from its fictional moorings.

First, it could be argued that both Matthew and Luke knew about Jesus’ birth from their respective sources. Our Christian commenter would say, and does say, that the details of Jesus’s birth were well known in the early, pre-gospel cult (he disputes that Jesus was in any way famous beyond this select few) and that these details were preserved in a reliable oral tradition or in Q. If the former was the case, however, the two nativity accounts would not differ to the extent they do, unless the oral traditions weren’t as reliable as our commenter likes to say they were. On the other hand, Q, if it existed at all, was comprised primarily of sayings and certainly did not include any Bethlehem narrative.

Second, Don will no doubt say that all of this is mere atheist grumbling and is therefore entirely fallacious. He believes that God inspired his anonymous agents to use prophecy, foreshadowing and typology to point the way to Jesus and his birth in Bethlehem. Don believes that both Matthew and Luke had independent knowledge of Jesus’ birth there, which means it must’ve been his birthplace. Of course it indicates nothing of the sort. If Matthew and Luke settled on Bethlehem independently, it would demonstrate only that they had independent knowledge of Micah 2.5.

Third, if the circumstances of Jesus birth in Bethlehem were so remarkable – miraculous, even – then why does Mark not mention them? According to Don (though no serious scholar shares his view) Mark’s gospel is comprised of the recollections of Peter, Jesus’ closest, dim-witted pal in the synoptic gospels. Did Jesus never mention his birth to Peter? Did Peter then fail to pass the details on to Mark? Did Jesus’ mother Mary, who treasured memories of the miraculous birth, never allude to them when she and Peter reminisced together over a glass of water wine? (Yes, Don, I know this is in John’s gospel, but they are meant to be the same characters.) Why does the Bethlehem birth only emerge in Matthew, who built much of his gospel around ‘prophecies’ from scripture, and in Luke, who, in all likelihood, copied from him?

We can be fairly certain that Jesus was not born in Bethlehem. Someone somewhere, other than these two, would have mentioned it outside of symbolic stories that owe far more to myth and legend than they do to fact.

Jesus writes…

Image: Caleb Havertape (https://www.pinterest.co.uk/calebhavertapei/_saved/)

Ubi Dubium has posed the question, ‘why didn’t Jesus write his own gospel?’ It’s a good question. What better way to ensure his ideas were conveyed precisely without any margin for error or misinterpretation, than to do it himself? If he hadn’t the time or the ability to do so, why didn’t he dictate his message to one of his literate disciples (surely one of them could write) who could then, as an eye-witness, finish off the story accurately once Jesus himself had returned to Heaven. Why, instead, did he leave it to people he’d never met, most of whom wouldn’t be about for another few decades?

It seems to me there are three possible answers.

  1. Jesus believed the world as he knew it was soon to end. He was convinced God was about to intervene and sweep away the old order and inaugurate the Kingdom of God on Earth. If the gospels that have come down to us are to believed, this was the core of his teaching. Jesus mentions its imminence repeatedly across the synoptic gospels and the morality he proposes, wholly impractical in the long term, is designed for the ‘shortness of the hour’. In this scenario, Jesus and his followers had no interest in writing anything down for posterity. There was no posterity; the end was very truly nigh.

  2. God didn’t want his Son to write his own story. He wanted the job left to people whom Jesus never met, who were little more than children during his lifetime and who lived hundreds of miles from where events occurred. God was sure this was the best way to create a record of his Son’s visit to Earth, without inaccuracies, inconsistencies and contradictions. 

  3. The creator of Mark’s gospel bought into Paul’s celestial Saviour, his illusory ‘Lord Jesus Christ’. Mark set about creating a ‘what if’ back story for him, set in Palestine in the recent past and constructed from Paul’s ’revelations’ and Old Testament ‘prophecy’. Mark highlighted Paul’s teaching that the Christ, whom he calls the Son of Man in his gospel, would soon be coming to the Earth (not a second coming or a return) to rescue his Chosen and reset reality.

Are there any other possibilities? I can’t think of any, nor have I read of any. So which of the three is the most plausible?

Scenario 1 leaves us with a Son of God not knowing what he was talking about. This Jesus was wrong about when the Son of Man would appear, wrong about the End of the Age, wrong about the traumatic nature of God’s intervention, wrong about the Final Judgement, wrong about the fate of the unrighteous and wrong about the Kingdom of God being established on the Earth. This scenario gives us a Jesus who is a failure as both a prophet and Messiah. It’s a wonder anything at all was written about such a loser, let alone narratives that preserved his hopeless predictions about the Kingdom’s arrival.

Scenario 2 is of course ridiculous, though it is the one most Christians buy into, more or less. As well as its inherent implausibility, it relies on the hypothetical document Q, for which no evidence exists let alone any extant copy (or even fragment). It, and a supposedly reliable oral tradition, are speculative, needed only to counter the improbability of this scenario.

Scenario 3, while contentious, makes most sense of why neither Jesus nor any of his contemporaries wrote down or otherwise recorded a single thing he said or did. Mark’s gospel, created shortly after 70CE, was the first anyone had heard of a Jesus on Earth. The three subsequent gospels were all based, to varying degrees, on Mark’s fable. In this scenario there was no real Jesus, and no dozy disciples, to have recorded his exploits and teaching.

What you think, Ubi?

Did Jesus exist? A rethink.

Blog418

Who determined the rules for the early Jesus cult? Jesus himself or the members of the cult? What does the evidence suggest? They all appear in documents written between 40 and 90 years after Jesus died. Either they survived from the moment the words left his lips, remembered accurately by generations of believers or they were included in the gospels by the cult communities that created them.

I’ve written before about how much of the Bible was written backwards (so to speak) and the gospel’s cult rules look likely to have been developed in just this way. The cult members had, by the time the gospels came to written, established these rules for their communities. They had shaped a Jesus that suited their purposes; it has long been recognised that the creators of Matthew’s, Luke’s and even John’s gospel took Mark’s account and amended it significantly. Their depiction of Jesus, his teaching and the resurrection are amended to reflect their particular beliefs and community rules. How do we know this?

Richard Carrier, the so-called mythicist (he actually says there’s a 1 in 3 possibility of the historicity of Jesus; figures as mythologised as Jesus rarely existed in fact) demonstrates how Mark’s gospel is an allegorical story based on Paul’s teaching. Mark created a well constructed narrative designed, literally, to flesh out the spiritual being that Paul imagined he’d seen in his visions. Using Jewish and pagan myths to structure it, he incorporates Paul’s visions and ‘revelations’ to create his Jesus story. To take one example, Paul relates in 1 Corinthians 11.23-25 how his celestial Christ told him in person (i.e. in his head) how his sacrifice of himself should be celebrated: with bread and wine. Mark turns this into an actual meal supposedly shared between Jesus and his early followers: the Last Supper.

Subsequent gospel writers took Mark’s allegory and amended it both to suit their needs and to correct what they perceived as Mark’s shortcomings. In the process they ‘fleshed out’ still further the figure at the centre of Paul’s (and others’) visions and Mark’s story based on them. Most significantly, they added increasingly elaborate resurrection appearances; it is significant Mark’s gospel has none, as if he knew Jesus’ resurrection wasn’t a physical event but a visionary one exactly as Paul describes.

It seems indisputable that the gospels were written this way (though there are, naturally, those who do dispute it.) None of the gospels rely on a hypothetical oral tradition, which, if it existed, would be extremely unreliable over 50 or so years (the time between Jesus’ supposed ministry and the writing of Matthew’s gospel), nor do they depend on the equally hypothetical Q. In any case, Q, if it existed, was a book of sayings, not a narrative account. Significantly, no copies of what must surely would have been a precious document have survived.

No, Mark made up the story of Jesus based on Paul’s visions (we know others had similar visions before Paul; he tells us so in 1 Corinthians 15.1-8). We know too that subsequent gospel writers built on Mark, adding what suited them, including their particular sect’s rules. What better endorsement of these rules than to have the object of their worship seeming to issue them himself? It’s highly unlikely he did anything of the sort. In 1991 the Jesus Seminar determined, controversially, that only about 20% of the words in the gospels could be attributed to an historical Jesus. All of the rest is made up and put retrospectively into his mouth. (The Seminar nevertheless concluded that Jesus existed.)

From the small amount of Jesus’ teaching that might be attributed to an historical Jesus, to the way the gospels were created, what can be known about a ‘real’ Jesus – what he said and did – grows increasingly small. All we are left with is a ghost of a figure. And isn’t this precisely what Paul claimed he and others had seen?

I’m rethinking my position and I’m coming to the conclusion, based on how the gospels were written, especially the way Mark allegorised Paul’s visions and teachings, that the likelihood of an historical Jesus is slim. Carrier has an abundance of evidence to support his proposal of a 1 in 3 chance that Jesus existed. Certainly the Jesus(es) of the gospels did not exist; they’re all made up. It now seems to me there’s no real, historical Jesus behind any of them.