Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Historical Contradictions? Not So Fast

           The Huffington Post, it seems, can always be relied upon to provide fodder for sceptics looking for a stick with which to beat the Christians.  They are of course not alone, and poking sharp sticks in our cage seems to be on the verge of becoming a national sport.  But of course one can’t always be posting news items about how the Christian Neanderthals are refusing to accept gay marriage.  One requires some variety in the news.  This variety is now being provided by blog pieces impugning the historicity of the Gospels, and by suggesting that well, even if Jesus did exist (grumble grumble), there are far too many contradictions in the Gospels for us to know anything about substantial Him.  More much sensible then to just forget about Him and leave Him out of contemporary discussion.  It is a none-too-subtle attempt at marginalizing the Christians and shutting them out of the cultural debate.

            That debate, I am tempted to think, is more trouble than it is worth, and I for one would not be unhappy to be uninvited to the party and unfriended by those attending.  But one needs to make some sort of reply to the accusations of historical contradictions in the Gospels, if only to defend our faith in the eyes of those who may consider one day joining us.   I would therefore like to respond to some of the points presented by Mr. Chris Sosa in his HuffPost piece “Historical Jesus? Not So Fast”.  Mr. Sosa mentions four points of contradiction which he says should greatly disturb us.

            The first concerns the date of Jesus’ birth.  Mr. Sosa says that “according to Luke, that would be during the first census of Israel by Quirinius, governor of Syria (Luke 2:2)” which “got underway in 6 C.E…[when] Herod had been dead for good decade” despite the fact that Matthew says that Christ was born during Herod’s reign.  In other words, Luke was wrong about the date of Quirinius’ census by about a decade, since he described it as taking place during the governorship of Quirinius which began in 6 A.D., after Herod was dead.  This is hardly breaking news for exegetes of St. Luke’s Gospel.  Scholars have long suggested that Quirinius exercised an authority over Syria prior to his official governorship of Syria in 6 A.D., and that Luke in his Gospel refers to this quasi-official rule in his Gospel when Quirinius exercised authority in Palestine during the reign of Herod.  In other words, Luke was speaking the language of ordinary men when he spoke of the census being taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria (Luke 2:2), while his critics are reading his words with a nit-picking pedanticism.  
            Mr. Sosa’s second alleged contradiction concerns the account of Christ’s resurrection in Mark’s Gospel.  He says that “The oldest Gospel, Mark, does not say that Jesus resurrected [sic] at all in its original form. The resurrection was added at a later date.”  It is hard to believe that Mr. Sosa has actually read Mark’s Gospel at all, since prior to the account of the empty tomb in chapter 16 it contains no less than three predictions by Christ of His death and resurrection (see Mark 8:31, 9:31, 10:34).  It is unlikely that the resurrection would come as a surprise to St. Mark, since he includes three predictions of it and concludes his Gospel with a story of women find Christ’s tomb empty and angels there telling these women who found the empty tomb that He had risen.  What were added at a later date were stories of Christ’s resurrection appearances, not the fact that He had risen.  And given that Mark confines himself to relating what could be learned by public knowledge, is this surprising?  Mark’s Gospel begins with the baptism of Christ and ends with the discovery of the empty tomb—that is, with events publically verifiable.  This scarcely means, as Sosa says, that “Mark does not say that Jesus [was] resurrected at all”.   Clearly Mark does say that He was.  In his haste to discover contradictions in the Gospel, Mr. Sosa simply misreads Mark’s Gospel.
            Thirdly Mr. Sosa has concerns with the details regarding which person first saw Christ after He was raised from the dead.  He says, “All four Gospels do reference an empty tomb. But not a single one agrees with the others on who actually saw it…Mary is either alone, with another Mary, also with Salome or maybe with Joanna too? It seems we're dealing with an unreliable narrator.”  Actually, not so much.  Rather, it seems we’re dealing with a careless reader.  In combining all four Gospel accounts, we see that Mary Magdalene arrives first to the tomb and finds Christ.  She departs before the other women arrive, running to find Peter and John, and the other women arrive soon after.  The four Gospel accounts can be easily combined, as I have done in my commentary on St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.  (Note:  this is not a plug.) The point here is all four Gospels write independently of each other, with no concern to combine and harmonize the accounts.  This is to be expected if each Gospel writer wrote simply to tell his own story.  If the Gospel writers were out to “cook the books” they would’ve taken care to get their stories straight and harmonize their accounts.  The fact that they didn’t suggests that it was not a put up job, but rather a true account based on independent eye-witnesses.  The differences in detail rather point to their individual veracity.
            Mr. Sosa’s last unhistorical contradiction concerns the date of Christ’s ascension.  He says of this “rather fantastical public display” that “in Luke, his ascension occurs in Bethany the day he resurrected (Luke 24). In Acts, a canonical book of the New Testament, he ascends from Mount Olives forty days after resurrecting (Acts 1). Oh, well.”  Indeed.  Oh well:  some people can be expected to research the New Testament and others can be expected to simply write blogs.  First of all, the ascension of Christ was hardly a “rather fantastical display”, but was only seen by a few disciples.  Secondly, the description about Christ’s words in Bethany (from which Mr. Sosa concludes that the author of Luke meant his readers to assume that Christ’s ascended the day He spoke those words) and the description of Christ’s ascension from the Mount of Olives “forty days after resurrecting (Acts 1)” were in fact written by the same author, namely St. Luke.  It is unlikely that Luke would give us two contradictory dates for the same event.  It is more likely that Mr. Sosa cannot properly read the text, perhaps given that he does not know that “Acts, a canonical book of the New Testament” was written by the same man who wrote the Gospel of Luke.  No one but Mr. Sosa supposes that there is a contradiction between Luke’s Gospel and Acts, since most people know these books were penned by the same author.  Oh well.
            These supposed contradictions in the Gospel accounts are less significant than Mr. Sosa’s assertion that “no coherent vision of [Jesus’] life exists”.  This is an extraordinary statement.   As C. S. Lewis once observed many years ago (in his essay Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism,) “If anything is common to all believers, and even to many unbelievers, it is the sense that in the Gospel they have met a personality”—in other words, they find there a “coherent vision” of Jesus.  One may disbelieve that vision, but it is useless to deny that the vision exists, and that a coherent and unified vision of who Jesus of Nazareth actually is may be found in the Gospels.  That vision is of a man who claims divine authority.  The Gospel accounts were all written within a generation of the events they purport to describe, and all present a consistent picture of Someone who claims divine authority to forgive sins such as belongs to God alone.  This claimed authority may be fitly summed up by the accusation of Christ’s enemies as reported in John 10:33:  “You, being a man, make yourself God”.  Indeed He did “make Himself God”.  It is this personality which all readers of Gospels have found.
            All of Mr. Sosa’s criticisms concern tiny little details of the Gospel accounts:  in which year did Quinirius have his census?  Which woman first saw Christ raised from the dead?  On which day did Christ ascend to heaven?  Really?  These picky little details really form the substance of his case against Christianity?  That’s all you got?  I would offer a more substantive question for Mr. Sosa to consider.  It is this:  given that Christ claimed divine authority, what are we to make of Him?  There are really only three sensible options regarding a human being who claims to be God, and it presents Mr. Sosa not with a dilemma of two possible options, but with a trilemma, of three possible ones.  One:  either Christ was a lunatic, someone who thought he was God when he was not; or two:  he was a liar, someone who was not God, and who knew he was not but claimed divinity anyway for who knows what reason; or three: He really was the Lord, Someone who was God and said that He was divine because it was the truth.  Lunatic, liar, or Lord?—that is the real question, and the only one really worth answering.  Mucking about with details about the date of Quirinius’ census are hardly to the point.  The real point and the first question to be faced is this:  what are we to make of Jesus when He claims to be God?     

                       



Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Did Jesus Ever Really Exist?

     
I used to be of the opinion that for really far-out whacky stuff, you couldn’t beat Jerry Springer.  You all know Jerry Springer—he was the showman who began a talk show in 1991 which within a few years became something of voyeuristic freak-show, featuring topics like “Teenage Girls who Marry their Grandfathers”, a kind of real-life version of the Muppets’ song “I Am My Own Grandpa”.   It has spawned a host of other talk-shows, all of which feature the same sort of sensationalistic format.   For the longest time I thought that Jerry couldn’t be beat for the unbelievably way-out.

         
  Turns out that we have a new winner:  Salon.com has published an article entitled, “5 reasons to suspect that Jesus never existed”, by Valerie Tarico.   None of the stuff is the least bit new; there have always been the theological equivalent of Flat-earthers or of people who claim to have been probed by big-eyed aliens aboard the mother-ship.   But since the internet gives a platform to such people, some kind of response must be offered, lest the credulous among the internet community imagine that the Church has been struck terrified and mute by the 5 reasons offered by Ms. Tarico.  Her 5 reasons to suspect that Jesus never existed may be examined one at a time.

Reason 1:No first century secular evidence whatsoever exists to support the actuality of Yeshua ben Yosef” (i.e. “Jesus son of Joseph”; it sounds more scholarly in the Hebrew).  That is, as the article goes on to say, “there is no mention of Jesus at all by any of his pagan contemporaries”, and “there are no birth records, no trial transcripts, no death certificates”. 
This is an astonishing thing to say, and reveals an immense ignorance of how history actually works.  For example, there are no birth records, trial transcripts, or death certificate for Saul of Tarsus either (i.e. for St. Paul), but no one seriously doubts that he was born, tried by the Romans, and martyred in Rome in the sixth decade of the first century.  And since Jesus was born, lived, and died in a little backwater of the Roman Empire known as Palestine, there is no reason to imagine that any pagan historian would take notice of Him until the movement He founded grew big enough to become a problem.   
But actually, one of Jesus’ contemporaries did mention Him—not a pagan contemporary, but a Jewish one.  As any first year college student of the period knows, Josephus (born about 37 A.D.) mentions Jesus in his work Antiquities of the Jews.   The bit mentioning Jesus has been reworked by the Christians, but most scholars say that the original text read as follows: 

“At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man.  For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure.  And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin.  And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so.  And up until this very day the tribe of Christians (named after him) has not died out.”
           
       Josephus lived and died a Jew, and was a Christian.  There is not the slightest reason to suspect his reporting at this point, which accords well with the New Testament records written independently about the same time.  Josephus' history indeed constitutes "first century secular evidence" supporting "the actuality" of Jesus.

Reason 2:  The earliest New Testament writers seem ignorant of the details of Jesus’ life, which become more crystalized in later texts.”  That is, as the article goes on to state, “Paul seems unaware of any virgin birth, for example…What’s more, he never calls the twelve apostles Jesus’ disciples; in fact, he never says Jesus HAD disciples.”  Once again this reveals a fundamental ignorance of the epistles of the New Testament and their nature.  Paul was not writing a systematic theology, nor penning a commentary on the stories of Jesus.  He was writing on the run to communities which had problems, trying his best to solve those problems from a distance.  He had no reason to mention the Virgin Birth or the miracles of Jesus or His parables, or anything else unless it was directly relevant to the problems he was trying to solve.  It is a tremendous non sequitur to jump from “Paul didn’t mention the Virgin Birth” to the conclusion, “And so obviously he had never heard of it”.   
And in fact Paul did refer to the Twelve apostles/ disciples of Jesus.  Take for example his words in Galatians 1:18-19:  “Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas [i.e. Peter] and remained with him fifteen days.  But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother.”  Or take for another example his words in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7:  For what I received I delivered to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.  After that, He appeared to more than five hundred of the brethren at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles”.   One could multiply examples, but these should be sufficient.  Obviously Paul spoke of the twelve apostles and knew that “Jesus had disciples”.  He wrote that he made met them and spent time with them.  He was not ignorant of the details of Jesus’ life.  It is Ms. Tarico who is ignorant of the details of Paul’s writings.

Reason 3:  Even the New Testament stories don’t claim to be first-hand accounts.”  According to Ms. Tarico, “Even the Gospel stories don’t actually say, ‘I was there’.”  Well, actually, they do.  John in particular is emphatic that he was there and wrote as an eye-witness.  He mentions the day on which certain events occurred, and even the hour of the day.  Consider John 4:6: “Jacob’s well was there, and so Jesus wearied as He was with His journey, sat down beside the well.  It was about the sixth hour”.  Or see John 19:13-14:  “When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judgment seat at a place called the Pavement.  Now it was the day of the Preparation of the Passover; it was about the sixth hour”.   John thus writes with the keen eye of an eyewitness, recording even such small details as day and hour, just like one would in a court-room.  And he expressly claims to have been with Jesus as He hung on the cross and died—see John 19:34-35:  “One of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear and at once there came out blood and water.  He who saw it has borne witness, and his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.”  John claims to be the one who leaned on Jesus’ breast at the Last Supper:  “This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true” (John 21:24).
            One could go on, and give the ancient tradition recorded in Eusebius’ Church History that Mark wrote his gospel based on the reminiscences of Peter in Rome, but why bother?  If one can’t read the New Testament, there is little point in reading Eusebius.

Reason 4: “The gospels, our only accounts of a historical Jesus, contradict each other.”  It is difficult to know how to respond to this one.  Christians have long been aware that minor details of same Gospel story differ somewhat from evangelist to evangelist, and they have been doing the work of harmonization from the time of St. Augustine or earlier.  This is only to be expected.  If four different people saw the same car accident, it is to be expected, if they were honest witnesses who had not got together to concoct the whole thing, that their stories would differ a bit in minor details.  One witness might say that the driver of Car A wore a red shirt and another witness might say it was more brown in colour or that it was the driver of Car B who wore the red shirt.  But these differences in minor details would not prove that the accident never in fact occurred.  The differences would prove the opposite—that the accident had in fact occurred.   If the witnesses were liars who were making the whole thing up, they would at least have taken care to get their stories straight.  I am at a loss to understand how the minor differences in the Gospel reports of Jesus’ life suggest that in fact His life never happened.

Reason 5: “Modern scholars who claim to have uncovered the real historical Jesus depict wildly different persons.”  This is true.  Ms. Tarico correctly states that the various “modern scholars” have portrayed Jesus as a cynic philosopher, a charismatic Hasid, a liberal Pharisee, a conservative Rabbi, a Zealot revolutionary, and a nonviolent pacifist.  She might also add to the list, “a non-existent person”.  She correctly concludes that Jesus “cannot very well have been all of [these things] at the same time”.  Indeed.  No one suggests that He was.  Each of the “modern scholars” (she uses the term generously) have created their own version of Jesus by taking the Gospel stories and suppressing in them the bits they don’t like.  It’s easy enough to do, and can be done with any historical figure.  But once again this does nothing to discredit the existence of Jesus.  It only discredits the modern scholars.   

            Ms. Tarico sums up her piece by suggesting that “Jesus appears to be an effect, not a cause, of Christianity”, and that “We may never know for certain what put Christian history in motion.”  It is worth while pausing to pursue this question.  The apostles who proclaimed not only the existence of Jesus of Nazareth but also His divinity, went all over their world with this proclamation, and most of them paid for it with their lives.  Why would they do this?  What did they have to gain?  Ms. Tarico confesses that she has no clue.  All she can say is “Only time will tell”.  Indeed it will.  Eventually time will give place to eternity and all of us will stand before the dread judgment seat of Christ.  All the more reason to pursue such questions more vigorously now while we still have time.