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Our Daily Brood: On Gospels

By Bob R --

On my Blog called "apriori blues" I include a series called "Our Daily Brood". I'm a graduate of Wheaton College's Ancient Languages Department, and I was trained to read and interpret the Bible in Greek and Hebrew. Hence the fact that I am now an Ex-Christian. The following article is one of my Daily Brood posts, regarding the Gospels and common (and intentionally enforced) misconceptions about them.

Image of page from the 7th century Book of Dur...Image via Wikipedia
As a student of the Bible, one of my pet peeves is the literature that has cropped up around the notion that the Gospels are biographies of a man named Jesus.  The conventional wisdom goes that, like biographies or even memoirs (since the belief in the doctrine of Inspiration requires that one essentially believe that God somehow wrote the Bible using human agents), that the gospels offer us a fairly accurate, if not entirely, literally, historically, chronologically accurate portrayal of the Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah.  One of the worst culprits, and therefore one of the most popular books on the subject, is the complete and utter fabrication proffered by Lee Strobel, in his book The Case for Christ: A Journalist's Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus.  This book has sold millions of copies and has been used time and again to prop up the damnable lie that the Gospels are biographical accounts of the life of a man named Jesus, who also happened to be YHWH in the flesh.  So, leaving aside that fact that Pastor Strobel, who was a Pastor at the well known Willow Creek mega church for 20 years or more before he wrote his "Journalistic Investigation", so he can't really claim to be a journalist any more than I can claim to be a "Pastor" which is what I might have been called in a former life,  and ignoring the fact that even when he was a journalist he only wrote about fundamentalist Christianity in his articles in the Tribune (as far as I can tell), and also leaving aside the fact that his journalistic account of the "evidence" only included interviews with well-known, fundamentalist Apologists, without a single interview with anyone who might even hint at an understanding of the Gospels other than his cherished Biography myth, so leaving aside all of this and the fact that even the premise for his investigation is a complete and utter lie, even in its title, let's take a look at whether or not the Gospels can be considered Biographies in any meaningful sense of the word.

For brevity's sake, I'll skip over the myriad technicalities and preparatory remarks that can and should be established about the nature of the Canonical Gospels, which are themselves only four out of hundreds of Gospels produced by the various Christian sects (who continued to write Gospels for a thousand years or more after the death of Christ, which alone should be enough to establish the fact that it's not possible to call them "biographies"), and I'll get right to the text of the Gospels themselves.  In particular I want to focus on a cycle of stories about Jesus as it's presented in the Gospel of Mark, which is, by almost a unanimous consensus among scholars, the oldest of the Canonical Gospels, and is the basis of parts of both Luke and Matthew.  To begin, it should be evident to anyone even moderately acquainted with the Gospels, that much of the material found therein is based on Old Testament themes and passages.  To the modern reader, this fact is often used as "evidence" that Jesus life and ministry was a fulfillment of Old Testament "prophecy".  OK, I'm willing to grant that it's possible to take that line, rather than the more obvious, rational, and typical explanation for ancient literature, which would be that the author of the Gospel was taking what he knew about the Old Testament and re-casting it into a myth set in his contemporary milieu.  After all, books that used just this literary technique were ubiquitous in first century Judaism, so why should the Gospels be any different, right?  But, even if we grant that the various allusions and quotations from the Old Testament that are peppered throughout the gospel stories are just sidebars about how Jesus fulfilled "prophecy", at the very least we should have a consensus about the fact that the Old Testament is the skeleton on which the Gospels are fleshed out (no pun intended).  That being the case, it should come as no surprise when I offer up the next little tid-bit about Gospel construction as it occurs in Mark.

The entire Gospel of Mark is written around a pre-existing framework, taken from the Old Testament.  That much is indisputable.  At his Baptism, Jesus is confirmed as the "Son" as the heavens are "rent" (or torn asunder, σχιζομενους in Greek, v. 1:10) and the Spirit comes down to rest on Him.  At his death, as Jesus "expires", the Spirit leaves him (our word "expires" is just a literal translation of the Greek εξεπνευσεν, literally put that Jesus "out-spirited" or "un-spirited", as the Spirit came out of him, Mk. 15:37), and just as this happens the Veil in the Temple (which is figurative for the Heavens) is "rent" (or torn asunder, εσχισθη), which leads the Centurion to declare that Jesus was the Son of God.   So, the Gospel is all wrapped up in a nice, tidy little package, bookended by the literal heavens being rent, the Spirit coming down, and God pronouncing that Jesus is His Son, then at the end you get the Spirit going up, the figurative heavens being rent, and the Roman pronouncing that Jesus is God's Son (of course because the Romans were the target audience for the Gospel message).  All of this is hung on the framework of Isaiah 64:1 "Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down", which of course uses the same verb in Greek that is used of both the literal and figurative "heavens", as the sky and the veil are "rent" or torn.  This is indisputable, and Mark's construction of his Gospel around a pre-existing framework doesn't end there.  In fact, you'd be hard pressed to find a story or an episode in the entire Gospel that isn't using this same technique, re-casting an Old Testament quote or narrative into the Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah.  Is this the stuff of biography?  Surely not.  Still unconvinced?  Let's look further...

Long about Mark chapter 4, just after Mark has finished copying and pasting some of his favorite Jesus sayings into the pre-existing framework for his Gospel narrative, he begins a cycle of stories about the miracles and deeds of Jesus.  One of the hallmarks of Jesus' ministry is the notion that he was a do-gooder, traveling around Palestine, healing the sick and generally just helping out whenever he encountered people who needed a hand.  This, after all, is a part of his "biography", and a biographer would be remiss if he failed to mention the details of a person's career, right?  Well, as we've already seen, Mark isn't writing a biography.  In fact, what he's writing isn't even something that he is "writing"--it's something he's re-writing--he is taking the Old Testament and re-writing it as though it were happening again, only this time the whole Old Testament is wrapped up into the person of Jesus, in a three-year career of recapitulating the entire history of Israel.  This is popularly known as the "fulfillment of prophecy", though in other circles it's known as the historicizing of "myth".  So, is Mark recounting Jesus' literal, actual career of doing good, as he catalogs his deeds from chapter 4 verse 35 through chapter 8 verse 10?  Well, let's take a look.  In the cycle of stories that occurs in those chapters, Jesus performs the following deeds:

He calms the sea
He casts out an unclean spirit
He heals some diseases, in fact, many diseases
He raises a dead person
He feeds a bunch of people
He walks on water
He heals more people
He casts out more demons
He feeds a bunch more people

Mark, as any good biographer would, reports these wonderful events just as they happened, right?  Or, does he, as a good first century religious person, write a cycle of stories based on the sacred literature of his tradition that he places into his contemporary milieu?  Well, we've already seen that he's drawing from well-known, well-loved, and well-memorized passages from the book of Isaiah.  In fact, he's shown us that his entire Gospel is framed around the Isaiah chapter 64 plea to "rend the heavens and come down", that YHWH would come down and rescue his people.  Should we be surprised that the macabre and, let's be honest, goofy story of the naked Demoniac in the unbelieving province of Garasa, is actually taken from the very next chapter in Isaiah, chapter 65?  There YHWH says he permitted himself to be found "by those who do not seek" Him, a people who "sit among graves (or tombs) and spend the night in secret places, who eat swine's flesh, who say 'Keep to yourself, do not come near me!'"  Sounds familiar-- isn't this just a description of the Demoniac?   He lived "on the other side", in the Gentile (unbelieving) region.  He was "a man from the tombs with an unclean spirit".  He would gash himself with stones, which is similar to the idolatrous practices of the Canaanite prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:28).  As Jesus approaches, he implores him not to come near him.  Then, of course, comes the bit about casting the demon into the pigs, or shall we say the "swine's flesh", which is somewhat puzzling if you take this to be a literal, historical, biographical account, rather than what it apparently is, which is a re-write of Isaiah 65.  But, beyond this episode, the entire sequence of miracle stories from Mark chapter 4 through chapter 8 can already be accounted for by looking at Psalm 107, which recounts the deeds and benefits of YHWH.  Here's a summary of the Lord's works throughout the history of Israel as presented in Psalm 107, which is, as we know, what Jesus is recapitulating in his ministry:

They were hungry, but he fed them (see the miracles of feeding)

They cried to the Lord, but he rescued them (see the calming of the sea)
He satisfied the hungry and thirsty (notice that this is repeated, just as you get two miracles of feeding)
There were prisoners in chains because of rebellion, but he saved them (see the Demoniac, who is chained up)
He brought them out of death (see the miracle of raising the dead)
Those who do business on ships were troubled by storms, but he calmed the sea (see the miracle of calming the sea)

In the "biography" of Jesus, we can scarcely find a single episode, even a single deed that has not already been written about in the Old Testament.  For many who are unacquainted with this fact,  the catalog of Jesus' deeds appears to be a form of reportage, like you might find in a contemporary biography, which recounts with as much accuracy as possible the events of a person's life and career (unless of course you're talking about memoirs of a person who has it in their best interests to falsify their reporting--I'm looking at you, Sarah Palin).  Here, in the case of Jesus, I haven't even scratched the surface with respect to the allusions and re-writes of the Old Testament that the Gospel authors are engaged in.  Which leaves us with only two options--either Jesus literally re-lived the entire history of Israel, actually living out a re-enactment of the favorite Old Testament passages of first century Jews, sometimes with comic literalism (for instance, as Matthew has Jesus actually ride two donkeys because of his failure to account for the Hebrew poetic device of repetition), or, and this is a huge or--or, the Gospels are not, in any meaningful sense, biographical.  They are not reporting historical events.   They are not taken from "eyewitness accounts" of anything other that the eyewitness of the texts and stories of the Old Testament.

The first century, and the centuries between the close of the Old Testament canon and the open of the New Testament, are bursting with examples of religious authors who re-cast some of the favorite passages and stories of their religious tradition into a quasi-historicized re-telling of those stories in their contemporary setting.  The time that has elapsed between them and us makes it impossible to question whether or not they actually believed what they were writing, and frankly the point is moot.  It doesn't matter whether or not the author of the Book of Enoch actually believed that he was Enoch, somehow reincarnated into the first century before Christ.  The fact is, he wrote as though he was, and his writing was very, very popular, and is even quoted in our New Testament.  Given the fact that this genre of writing wasn't obscure or mistrusted, but was pervasive and popular, it should come as no surprise that what we know of as our Gospels are just extensions of this tradition of re-casting Old Testament gems into contemporary, first century settings.  Given this, it is impossible to talk about first century religious "biographies" of anyone, especially a biography of a person believed by many of the devotees of this kind of literature to be not only the long-awaited, end times Messiah, but the incarnation of YHWH nonetheless (as the "rending of the heavens" in Mark makes plain).  The sheer pervasiveness of the literature that re-writes the Old Testament as though it were happening in the writer's own generation practically demands that the Jesus story be anything but historical or literal.

The question for us is--do you take this genre of literature seriously?  Given the fact that there's nothing in the career of Jesus that isn't a re-write of the Old Testament--are you able to say that this accords with literal, historical events?  Or, is it, like hundreds of other, similar pieces of Jewish writing, to be classified as Pseudepigraphical, quaint, perhaps instructive, but ultimately no more than pious fiction?   The decision to make this classification is easy when it comes to the "Book of Enoch" or the "Testament of Levi" and so many other works of fiction from the centuries immediately preceding the advent of Christ.  The question, I suppose, is, do you trust that the same communities that brought you those fictions, which re-cast the Old Testament into their contemporary setting, were not merely exercising the same creativity by re-writing the history of Israel in a character that they called "Jesus".  Perhaps, however, the name of this character ought to be rendered more accurately as a Hebraic name, which of course is based on the Anointed Leader who brought the people of God into the Promised Land, and we should call him "Joshua".

In a later Daily Brood, we can revisit this Joshua character, and survey the literature from the Dead Sea Scrolls, written a generation or so before the advent of the man we know as Jesus, but who we should refer to as "Joshua".  In the Dead Sea Scrolls, you meet a Messiah, born a century before Jesus/Joshua, who also was the Divine son of YHWH, who also was a Teacher of Righteousness, who also had a career of doing good, whose life story was also crafted around the Book of Isaiah and the Psalms, who also was betrayed, who was executed, and who was exalted to sit in the Heavens, and who was expected to come again in Judgment.  For now, given the fact that this literature is not uncommon, or that the Jesus that we know was not even the first end-times Joshua to come to earth as the incarnation of YHWH, rejected by Israel.  For now, I'll leave you to do what this article is intended to have you do.  To absorb these ideas, and to brood.