Saturday, January 29, 2011

more on the history of Jesus

how old was this corpse?

But thou, Bethlehem, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel.
Micah 5:2

I try to limit myself to reading six books [slowly] at a time, but I must admit that two books occupying me at present are not on the six-list, which is all a bit of a worry. One is the collection of essays I've been criticising, and the other is a new addition to my library, Robin Lane Fox's The unauthorized version: truth and fiction in the Bible [1991]. I've had a few things to say already about Fox's monumental work of scholarship, Pagans and Christians [1985], which provided a fantastically detailed background to the world that Christian belief was disgorged into, as well as a rich account of the differences between 'pagan' and Christian belief, and how the different beliefs interacted. However, I found the work heavy-going at times because of my unfamiliarity with much of the material. I have no such problem, so far, with The unauthorized version, the first chapter of which throws fascinating light on the two creation stories in Genesis, and the jumbled nativity stories in the gospels [largely as result of ensuring that Jesus of Nazareth should be connected, in birth, with Bethlehem, to fulfil the prophecy from Micah]. The second of these themes covers much the same ground as my two-part, and unfinished, post 'how real was their Jesus?', but of course Fox is a much more thorough scholar than I am. Still, he only focuses on a few problems, such as the census, the different birth datings of 'Matthew' and 'Luke', the star and the maji, Jesus's age at his death, and the date of the crucifixion. He doesn't enter into the problem of the massacre of the innocents, the genealogies, the miracles and so on. Some of these are hardly worth refuting of course, but I'm surprised that, as a historian, he didn't get stuck into the massacre of the innocent legend [maybe later?], and 'Matthew's' penchant for linking Jesus's story to Old Testament prophecy - though he did mention one that I wasn't aware of. Matthew is at pains to mention that the star guided the cognoscenti to Bethlehem, and I wrote about modern astronomical exploration of this star recently, but I didn't realize that Matthew may well have been providing a link to Numbers 24:17 - 'a star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel', again revealing that gospeller's concern to present Jesus as a king rather than a god.
Considering the endless disputation over such matters, Fox does occasionally surprise with definite conclusions. He's convinced he's found the right dating of the crucifixion - at the end of March in the year 36, the last year of Pontius Pilate's governorship. He works it out by the Passovers in the gospel of John, as well as from the described incarceration of John the Baptist, at which point Jesus's 'ministry' began [Mark 1:14]. John the Baptist was jailed for criticising Herod Antipas's marriage to Herodias, and his consequent abandonment of his first wife, events described in Josephus with enough detail that a date can apparently be put on it. There are three distinct Passovers mentioned, and Fox believes they were consecutive, covering, essentially, the three years of Jesus's ministry. However, he inclines to the belief that Jesus was older than popular mythology has it, leaning heavily on a passage in John [8:57], and inclining also, it appears, to the view that the star of Bethlehem was in fact Halley's comet, definitively dated as appearing in Rome in 12BCE.
Anyway, it's all good fun, and just what the doctor ordered as far as I'm concerned.

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