Wednesday, April 13, 2011

History and Mythology in Gospels

In his History of Christianity, MacCulloch tells us how hard it is for a historian to dig out the real historical Jesus removing several layers of mythology. He admits that although the past two centuries saw a tremendous effort by the scholarly world to dig out the real Jesus, the result is still not that satisfactory.
MacCulloch shows how a careful study of the four gospels in the New Testament can yield very valuable information about how the historical Jesus slowly got converted to the mythological Jesus. Mark’s Gospel, which was written before the other three, is closer to history than the others, and John’s Gospel, which was written last, is farthest from the history. Mark presents Jesus more as a historical person, Matthew and Luke present Jesus as a historical and mythological person, and John presents Jesus more as a mythological person.

One issue MacCulloch deals with is the place of Jesus’ birth. Mark identifies Nazareth in Galilee as Jesus' hometown (6:1). Although Matthew and Luke present Jesus as a Galilean, they bring Jesus’ parents to Bethlehem, a city which is about 90 miles south of Nazareth for Jesus’ birth. Luke claims that they did such a long journey to take part in a census conducted by the Roman Empire. Historians assert that there never was such a census that covers the entire Roman Empire. But there was one in Judea in 6 C.E., which couldn’t have been at Jesus’ birth. According to Matthew, Joseph and Mary originally lived in Bethlehem, and they moved to Nazareth after Jesus' birth . This makes one wonder why these two writers take such pains to prove that Jesus’ birth was in Bethlehem. Matthew quotes (2:1-6) a prediction of Micah (5:2) that out of Bethlehem would "come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel." John (7:41-43) states that people in a crowd refuse to accept Jesus as the Messiah because the Messiah was expected to come from Bethlehem in Judea, whereas Jesus was known to have come from Galilee.

Another issue is that of the virgin birth. Mathew and Luke included a genealogy in their gospels to prove that Jesus was truly the Son of David, the messiah. They do this by tracing the genealogy to Jesus’ father, Joseph. Both of them then defeat their purpose by stating that Joseph was really not Jesus’ father. It seems that the original genealogy had Joseph as Jesus' father, but it was altered later to accommodate the belief that Jesus was born of a virgin. One might wonder why Matthew and Luke took pains to alter the genealogy. Matthew quotes Isaiah (7:14) Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: the virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. The translators had made a mistake here in the Septuagint Bible. When they were translating the Hebrew writings into the Greek Septuagint and similar translations, they converted the Hebrew word almah into the Greek equivalent of our English word for virgin. Almah appears nine other times in the Hebrew Scriptures; in each case it means "young woman". When the Hebrew Scriptures referred to a virgin (and they do over 50 times) they always used the Hebrew word betulah. So, it appears certain that Isaiah referred to a young woman becoming pregnant -- a relatively ordinary event.

Another issue is that of the role of the Pharisees in Jesus’ lifetime. In the gospels they are presented as having very prominent leadership roles and they are antagonistic to Jesus. Historians tell us that Jesus, being a rabbi, was also a Pharisee, and the Pharisees as a group were not antagonistic to Jesus. The ones who were against Jesus were the Sadducees, and they were the ones responsible of Jesus’ crucifixion. If this is the historical truth, why do the gospel writers present Pharisees as antagonistic to Jesus? By the time the gospels were written, the temple had been destroyed, and the Sadducees were no more in power. But the Pharisees rose to a leadership role, leading the Jewish nation. They were antagonistic to the new Christian movement.

Although the birth narratives of Jesus are hardly historical they reveal a great deal about the historical circumstances in which the narratives were created. This is also true about the role of the Pharisees. Thus much of the history of the Gospels is really the history of the time after the life of Jesus.

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