In a couple of weeks, I’ll begin Advanced Introduction to the New Testament, a fitting followup to my first class. As a history and theology “major” (that’s sooo undergrad), I’m very interested in the historicity of scripture – what actually happened and to what extent. In the Old Testament, much of that is unanswerable.
As I understand it, the concept of history came into its own by the time of Christ, and I’ve assumed these several months that the New Testament is more historically accurate than the Old, but I don’t really know that, and it’s a little scary to think of what other assumptions I have about the lives of Christ and his followers that aren’t correct.
For example, John Shelby Spong, a former Episcopal bishop, in this CNN.com column seems to take aim at the historicity of some of what we might consider the crucial elements of Jesus’ life on earth:
Jesus of Nazareth, according to our best research, lived between the years 4 B.C. and A.D. 30. Yet all of the gospels were written between the years 70 to 100 A.D., or 40 to 70 years after his crucifixion, and they were written in Greek, a language that neither Jesus nor any of his disciples spoke or were able to write.
Are the gospels then capable of being effective guides to history? If we line up the gospels in the time sequence in which they were written – that is, with Mark first, followed by Matthew, then by Luke and ending with John – we can see exactly how the story expanded between the years 70 and 100.
For example, miracles do not get attached to the memory of Jesus story until the eighth decade. The miraculous birth of Jesus is a ninth-decade addition; the story of Jesus ascending into heaven is a 10th-decade narrative.
In the first gospel, Mark, the risen Christ appears physically to no one, but by the time we come to the last gospel, John, Thomas is invited to feel the nail prints in Christ’s hands and feet and the spear wound in his side.
Perhaps the most telling witness against the claim of accurate history for the Bible comes when we read the earliest narrative of the crucifixion found in Mark’s gospel and discover that it is not based on eyewitness testimony at all.
Instead, it’s an interpretive account designed to conform the story of Jesus’ death to the messianic yearnings of the Hebrew Scriptures, including Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53.
How much of Jesus’ story are we willing to reject historically and still be able to maintain the Christian faith?
Rob Bell tackled this question in his book Velvet Elvis:
What if tomorrow someone digs up definitive proof that Jesus had a real, earthly, biological father named Larry, and archeologists find Larry’s tomb and do DNA samples and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the virgin birth was really just a bit of mythologizing the Gospel writers threw in to appeal to the followers of the Mithra and Dionysian religious cults that were hugely popular at the time of Jesus, whose gods had virgin births? But what if, as you study the origin of the word ‘virgin’ you discover that the word ‘virgin’ in the gospel of Matthew actually comes from the book of Isaiah, and then you find out that in the Hebrew language at that time, the word ‘virgin’ could mean several things. And what if you discover that in the first century being ‘born of a virgin’ also referred to a child whose mother became pregnant the first time she had intercourse? What if that spring were seriously questioned? Could a person keep on jumping? Could a person still love God? Could you still be a Christian? Is the way of Jesus still the best possible way to live? Or does the whole thing fall apart? … If the whole faith falls apart when we reexamine and rethink one spring, then it wasn’t that strong in the first place, was it?
I haven’t read the book myself, but knowing Bell’s style, I’m guessing this block of text was actually 55 or 60 separate paragraphs in the original, hehe. I won’t provide the link where I got this because it’s the kind of site you’d expect to pick up on a thoughtful passage like this and distort it to question Bell’s salvation – which, in light of Love Wins, is highly ironic.
This comes on the heels of a terrific summary of the setting of the Christmas story from Kurt Willem:
It has already been established that Caesar Augustus was called the “son of god” who was the great “savior” of the whole earth through bringing “peace” to Rome. The announcement of this was heralded as “good news.” What is interesting is that these are the same four themes that permeate the birth narrative in Luke’s gospel. When the angel Gabriel comes and visits Mary to tell her that she will give birth to Jesus, the child is proclaimed as the “son of God” (Luke 1.35). Is not that a title that Augustus has claimed of himself? Or consider the announcement of Caesar’s birth that was alluded to above:
“All the cities unanimously adopt the birthday of the divine Caesar as the new beginning of the year…the birthday of the god [Augustus] has been for the whole world the beginning of good news (euangelion) concerning him [therefore let a new era begin from his birth].”
The birth of Augustus is correlated with the beginning of a new era. His birth and continual birthdays are “good news” for the whole world. Caesar is depicted as obviously having a birth, and therefore as human, but he is also considered to be in some mysterious way simultaneously divine. When other sections of this imperial quote are considered, we find out even more in relation to the above four themes.
“…who being sent to us and our descendants as Savior, has put an end to war and has set all things in order; and [whereas,] having become [god] manifest (phaneis), Caesar has fulfilled all the hopes of earlier times…”
In this section of the quotation, Augustus is also referred to as the long awaited “Savior.” He is the great source of peace because he is the one who “put an end to war” and who “set all things in order.” Notice the way in which the birth announcement about Jesus by the angels has similarities to the birth proclamation of Caesar:
“But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord… And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace…'” Luke 2.10-11, 13-14 (NRSV)
What Augustus claimed about himself is turned upside down by a baby that was born into the system of oppression created by the Romans. What was supposed to be true of Caesar, it turns out is actually true of Jesus! Jesus is the true Savior and the qualities that were given to the Roman emperor have turned out to be a cheap imitation. Luke having used this language to describe the birth of Jesus puts him “in religio-political opposition to the emperor.”
When I see the language of Rome usurped to describe Jesus, it makes me think some ex post facto editing of the story has occurred to align the vocabulary. Perhaps there weren’t actually angels singing those words to the shepherds. Perhaps, as Bell theorizes (and ultimately rejects, though not nearly with as much time or thought as he takes in raising the questions), Jesus had a very normal birth, without angelic pronouncement or miraculous conception – which kind of fits better with the rest of his life, if you think about it. I’m not giving an answer, by the way, just throwing stuff out there.
Nevertheless, there are some springs we can’t let go of, right? In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul describes the Gospel this way:
Brothers and sisters, I want to call your attention to the good news that I preached to you, which you also received and in which you stand. You are being saved through it if you hold on to the message I preached to you, unless somehow you believed it for nothing. I passed on to you as most important what I also received: Christ died for our sins in line with the scriptures, he was buried, and he rose on the third day in line with the scriptures. He appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve, and then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at once—most of them are still alive to this day, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me, as if I was born at the wrong time. … So if the message that is preached says that Christ has been raised from the dead, then how can some of you say, “There’s no resurrection of the dead”? If there’s no resurrection of the dead, then Christ hasn’t been raised either. If Christ hasn’t been raised, then our preaching is useless and your faith is useless.
The only thing Paul calls “the good news” is the death and resurrection of Christ. That’s it. The rest of it … isn’t.
So I’m excited to take this class, but I’m also a little nervous. It’s one thing to reject the historicity of passages I don’t much like – the flood, the genocides, the Old Testament view of a bloodthirsty, vengeful God – but it’s quite another to find that New Testament passages suffer from the same problems. Maybe they don’t, but I suspect some of them do (certainly the authorship questions are just as muddled as they are in the older scriptures).
However, if all truth is God’s truth, what have we to fear from learning it? So I extend once again the invitation I made at the beginning of this blog – join me, won’t you, as we learn this truth together.