Friday, December 3, 2010

how real was their jesus? part 1

some useful resources 

I recently read an atheist blogger commenting that 'so-and-so is much more extreme than me - he doesn't believe Jesus ever existed'. Though I have an open mind on the matter, I don't consider such a position to be particularly extreme, and - as with Mohammed - there are many bits of the Jesus story, as told in the canonical gospels, that are incontrovertibly, though of course not uncontroversially, fictional.
We'll never know for sure, and for sure we'll never stop speculating. I've long had a fantasy about time travel - imagine if we developed a 'space-time' capsule along the line of Doctor Who's Tardis, which could take us back to any time and place to find out what really happened. I have to say that, until a few years ago, the resolution of the Jesus question wouldn't have been a priority for me as Tardis skipper. Uncovering the real life and achievements of Archimedes, say, or the quasi-mythical Socrates, or taking a tour through the great library of Alexandria, these would've been more to my perverse and desperately elitist taste. But the resurgence of popular debate on all matters theistic has got me hooked. So it's back to Palestine we go.
Of course, being a thorough-going amateur and dilettante, I'd have to fill my Tardis with a bunch of smarties - archaeologists, language specialists, New Testament scholars, pet theorists [within reason], cinematographers, journalists, and a really good comedian or two. However my Tardisy adventure would be unlike those of the good doctor in at least one vital respect - strict non-interference. My painstakingly selected team would, via the mechanism of compressional warp 15 hyper-reality fluxion drive, be able to observe the goings-on in and around Galilee for the period spanning the research target's presumed immaculate conception, birth, peregrinations, trial, death and resurrection, without our presence being detected by said target or any of his fellow-travellers. The same mechanism would of course allow us to complete this exploratory journey and fifty-year mapping exercise [from about 10BCE to 40CE] in one solitary day. We should be back in time to report our findings for the seven o'clock news.
So what would we find, and what would we look for? Well, we're going to let the gospels be our guide, and, though of course I would consult the afore-mentioned NT scholars, it's likely that the canonical gospels will be our main focus. There are or were fifty or so others at least, all in general agreement about the time of Jesus's life, but wildly diverging on his character and acts. Most of these gospels were written in the second century or later, and for various reasons have been discounted as accurate descriptions of the Life and Times. We have to limit our enquiry somehow, though we'll be looking out for any lead, no matter how unusual, as befits our professionalism. So let's begin at the beginning...

1. Annunciation and Conception [immaculate or otherwise]
Only two of the canonical gospels, Matthew and Luke, describe the conception and birth of Jesus, and their descriptions are hard to reconcile with each other. First, let's look at the announcement of the birth, traditionally associated with the archangel Gabriel [an archangel is a kind of top-class angel, a feature of all three Abrahamic religions]. Christians call this the Annunciation and celebrate it, unsurprisingly, on March 25. However, Gabriel is only mentioned in Luke [I use the Jesus Seminar's Five Gospels version]:
In the sixth month the heavenly messenger Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man named Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary. He entered and said to her, 'Greetings, favored one. The Lord is with you!' But she was deeply disturbed by the words, and wondered what this greeting could mean. The heavenly messenger said to her, 'Don't be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Listen to me: you will conceive in your womb and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give him the throne of David, his father. He will rule over the house of Jacob forever; and his dominion will have no end.'
And Mary said to the messenger, 'How can this be, since I am not involved with a man?'
The messenger replied, 'The holy spirit will come over you, and the power of the Most High will cast its shadow on you. This is why the child to be born will be holy, and be called son of God. Further, your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age. She who was said to be infertile is already six months along, since nothing is impossible with God.'
And Mary said, 'Here I am, the Lord's slave. May everything you have said come true.' Then the heavenly messenger left her [Luke 1: 26-38]. 
Apologies for the length of this quote, but it's quite important for the initial identification of our subject. And clearly there are problems from the outset. Firstly, it's announced that this special person, Jesus, will be born to a woman engaged to Joseph, of the house of David. Jesus's future greatness is foretold, but essentially as heir to the throne of David, a probably mythical early ruler of the probably mythical Kingdom of Judah. The Old Testament is a text largely devoted to the promotion of this Kingdom, but unfortunately there isn't a scrap of evidence outside the OT to verify David's existence. One piece of archaeological evidence, the Tel Dan stele, discovered only in the 1990s, created great excitement as apparently featuring the words 'House of David', in early Aramaic or Hebrew, in an account of the victories of a king of Damascus, a rival of the more southerly Judean peoples. While this was an important find, it hardly proves the existence of David - rather it tends to say something about the self-identification of the Judeans - just as the Romans identified themselves as the descendants of Romulus and Remus.
In any case there is a problem with Jesus being identified so clearly with a former Judean king. Luke also provides a genealogy [Luke 3 23-38] tracing Jesus back to Adam, through David. Notoriously, Matthew also provides a genealogy, which only goes back to Abraham, and which counts only 27 generations back to David, compared to Luke's 41. Only a few of the names are the same. The most likely explanation for all this is that both genealogies are entirely bogus. Proper lineages were very important for claimants to kingdoms, as you would expect, and supporters of particular claimants were not above inventing them. What the genealogies do indicate, though, is that, first and foremost, Jesus is being claimed as a Jewish messiah. If the emphasis was on Jesus as the son of God, immaculately conceived via a virgin, his male descent would clearly be irrelevant.

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