The Historical Jesus – A rebuttal
Over the course of my career as a fiction writer I’ve been fortunate enough to receive mainly favorable reviews. Like every writer I’ve had a few bad ones, but reviewers, like everyone else, are entitled to their opinions. So generally I just take my lumps and keep my mouth shut. My latest novel, however, received one highly negative review on Amazon to which I feel I must respond. By his own admission, by the way, the reviewer based his case entirely on a preface that was not included in the book and is only available on my website.
My object is not to convince anyone that The Ironsmith is the greatest historical novel of all time and that they should immediately order it, although that would be nice. I simply wish to offer a defense of the scholarship behind the book. The reviewer’s basic objections are that I do not regard the four gospels in the New Testament as presenting the literal truth and that I ignore the prophecies in the Old Testament in Daniel and Isaiah which supposedly prefigure Jesus’ miraculous birth and subsequent career.
With regard to the first objection, let me begin by pointing out that there is nothing new or revolutionary in the idea that there are factual errors and inconsistencies in the New Testament. Even Martin Luther pointed out that the gospels differ from one another in their recounting of Jesus’ life. Some of the differences are slight, such as the exact timing of Jesus’ arrest, trial and execution, but some of them are more serious.
The most obvious difference is in how Jesus himself appears in the different gospels. The Jesus of Mark is always in a hurry and has a temper. The Jesus of Luke is perfectly serene. The Jesus of John is more like a god than a man and is always making long speeches about the divine character of both himself and his mission. The presentation from gospel to gospel is so different that it is sometimes difficult to remember that all the gospels are talking about the same man.
Another glaring difficulty is with the nativity stories. Matthew and Luke both recount that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and that he was immaculately conceived, but if you read the two accounts side-by-side you can’t help but be struck by the differences. In Matthew there is no mention of a worldwide census that forces Mary and Joseph to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Jesus is simply born in Bethlehem, which appears to be his parents’ home town. Then they flee in Egypt to avoid Herod’s wrath and stay there until his death, after which they settle in Nazareth because Herod’s son Archelaus now rules in Judea—this, of course, overlooks the little detail that another of Herod’s sons, Herod Antipas, was Tetrarch of Galilee, so there would have been no reason to think that Nazareth would be any safer. In Luke, on the other hand, there is no mention of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents and after Jesus is born the family returns to Nazareth, apparently without incident and certainly without any mention of the sojourn in Egypt. It is difficult to reconcile these two accounts. It seems far more likely that Matthew and Luke began with the same two premises—Jesus was born in Bethlehem and his mother was a virgin—and invented two different narratives independently of each other.
Additionally there are problems squaring the two narratives with the historical record, or, more accurately, the lack of it. For instance, in Luke Mary and Joseph’s presence in Bethlehem is due to a great census of the Roman world’s population ordered by Caesar Augustus, but anything that mammoth would have left some trace on the historical record and there is none. True, there was a census in Palestine after the removal of Herod the Great’s son Archelaus, to which the Jews objected mightily, but it wasn’t worldwide. In Matthew Herod the Great orders the murder of all the boys two years old and younger in the vicinity of Bethlehem, but again there is no record of this particular atrocity. Herod was widely hated, both in his lifetime and after, so it seems likely that the Jewish historian Josephus, our main source for this period, would have mentioned such a diabolical act somewhere in his Antiquities.
And then there is the telling detail that neither Mark nor John contain any nativity story at all. If they had been aware of Jesus’ immaculate conception it is almost inconceivable that they wouldn’t have mentioned it. And if they were not aware of it, this in turn would suggest that that part of the story was not in wide circulation and therefore it wasn’t part of the core narrative.
But the crowning problem is that the whole business about the immaculate conception of Jesus seems to be based on a mistranslation of Scripture. After describing how an angel appeared in a dream to Joseph, persuading him not to cast Mary off when he discovered she was with child, Matthew goes on: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel—which means ‘God with us.’” (1:22-23). The reference is to Isaiah 7.
The word Matthew uses is parthenos, which actually does mean “virgin,” but the word in Hebrew is alma, which simply means “young woman.” The word is even used in Proverbs 30: 18-20 to describe an adulteress. The author of Matthew seems to have been using the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, which also uses parthenos in its rendering of Isaiah. Isaiah is certainly uttering a prophecy, but it is directed to Ahaz, King of Judah, and concerns an immediate situation—a son will be born to a young woman, “but before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste.” There is nothing to indicate that Isaiah’s words were intended to have any application to events in the distant future.
Thus there was no Old Testament prophecy that Jesus would be born of a virgin, and with it the nativity story, the different versions of which suggest it was probably invented to demonstrate the fulfillment of prophecy, simply collapses into the realm of fiction.
With reference to the nativity stories in general it must also be borne in mind that the issue of Jesus’ divinity was not settled until centuries after his death, when that part of the Church which had the backing of Emperor Constantine was able to enforce its interpretation. Previously, Christianity had been enormously diverse, and the strand which eventually became “orthodox” was only one of many. With respect of the question of Jesus’ relationship to God, there were those, called the “docetists” from the Greek word dokein, which means “to appear,” who believed that Jesus was wholly divine and merely appeared to be human, and those who believed he was wholly human and that God simply adopted him as His son. There is some evidence that the apostle Paul was an adoptionist. This disagreement was the basis for one of the most serious theological debates of the Second Century CD, and The Orthodox Church ultimately straddled the two positions by declaring that Jesus was both wholly divine and wholly human, which is of course a logical absurdity. But that was a Church under Constantine, who could be a little hazy on the specifics. For instance, he could never quite make out the difference between Jesus and the Sun God, which is why Christmas is celebrated on December 25th, the anniversary of the Sun God’s birth.
The gospels reflect this early tension about Jesus’ divinity. For instance, while John is full of long speeches in which Jesus declares that he is not only divine but has existed since the beginning of time, Matthew, Mark and Luke contain no explicit statement of his divinity. In this context it should be remembered that the references to him as the Son of God do not constitute such a claim. Within a Jewish frame of reference the term “son of God” simply denotes God’s love for a particular individual. King David was referred to as both the son of God and the messiah, a word which simply means “anointed one,” which, as a king, he would have been.
Of course, once the title “Son of God” was translated into a pagan frame of reference, it was interpreted differently. Things change.
And the fact that things change has a direct bearing on the problem of the gospels because, while we can be reasonably confident what the books of the New Testament were like in, say, the 3rd Century, we don’t necessary know what they were like when originally written. We do know, however, that they were altered, simply because of the differences from manuscript to manuscript, and we can see the process taking place within the gospels themselves.
The first three gospels are called “synoptic” because they can be read side-by-side and one can see how the recounting of an incident is different in different gospels. That there is a connection among the three has never been doubted and modern scholarship is almost unanimous in identifying Mark as the earliest. This is because he is virtually always the middle term—in other words if a story varies from gospel to gospel one version will almost always agree with Mark. I don’t know of an instance where Matthew and Luke agree and Mark is the variant.
For instance, consider Jesus’ teaching on divorce. In Mark 10,11 the passage reads, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.” Matthew 5,32 reads “But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Luke 16,18 reads, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Notice how Luke echoes Mark, almost word for word, but Matthew puts in the proviso “except for sexual immorality.” This is not an isolated case. There are many other examples.
My reviewer also brings up the Old Testament prophecies that have been interpreted as prefiguring Jesus and pointing to his special status. He doesn’t mention the one in Isaiah 7 but draws my attention to Isaiah 53 and Daniel 9.
Isaiah 53 is part of a long hymn of praise for the liberation of the Jews from their captivity in Babylon and for the rebirth of Jerusalem. The preceding chapter is a description of events which Isaiah expects to happen in the very near future and, for our purposes, it is worth noticing the change in verb tense when we reach Chapter 53 and the description of the “Man of Sorrows.” Suddenly there is a shift to the past tense—“Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? He grew up before him like a tender shoot. . .” Isaiah was describing things which had already happened, in which case it is reasonable to assume that he is picking up again the theme of the sufferings inflicted on the Jews by foreign nations and God’s redemption of His people which occupies so much of Chapters 51 and 52. The “Man of Sorrows” thus is Israel, and only at the end, when describing his reward, does Isaiah return to the future tense—“After the suffering of his soul he will see the light of life and be satisfied; my righteous servant will justify many and he will bear their iniquities. Therefore I will give him a portionamong the great. . .”
Granted, the image of Jesus as the “Man of Sorrows” has become so engrained in the consciousness of Christians that it is virtually impossible to read Isaiah 53 without thinking of him—Handel’s Messiah, which I listen to every Christmas, did it for me—but does “Man of Sorrows” really fit as a description of the Jesus described in the gospels? Certainly the last two or three days of his life were sufficiently horrible, but the four accounts of his life up to that point have never struck me as portraying a man worn down by care. Certainly it was not the case that he was universally “despised and rejected by men.” He had followers. People were prepared to listen to him. He didn’t get into trouble until he fell foul of the Romans.
But the main point is that a prophecy about events in the past is a contradiction in terms. The “Man of Sorrows” in Isaiah 53 is not Jesus.
And Isaiah’s record as a prophet is, in any case, not that wonderful. “O Jerusalem, the holy city. The uncircumcised and defiled will not enter you again.” (52, 1) “See, I have taken out of your hand the cup that made you stagger; from that cup, the goblet of my wrath, you will never drink again.” (51, 22) It didn’t work out that way. In Jesus’ day Roman troops were patrolling the walls of the Jerusalem Temple, and in the lifetime of many still among us the Jews have been made to suffer possibly more than any other people on earth.
With regard to my reviewer’s second citation, probably there is not a more contentious book in the Old Testament than Daniel, but a few things about it seem obvious. First of all, it appears to be a composite work, since its first half narrates Daniel’s career in the 3rd person and the second half is in the 1st person. This implies that there were at least two authors, since there is no good reason why “Daniel” would suddenly switch voices. Secondly it seems to me, although there are interesting arguments on the other side, that both halves date from a period later than that in which the historical Daniel lived. This conclusion is based on what “Daniel” knows and doesn’t know.
For instance, the 3rd person narrator, whether Daniel or someone else, tells us that King Belshazzer “was slain, and Darius the Mede took over the kingdom, at the age of sixty-two.” In fact, Cyrus the Great, took over the Neo-Babylonian Empire. Someone living in the ancient world, i.e., without an Internet connection, could easily confuse two kings from the distant past, but it is a lapse harder to explain in a high official of Belshazzar’s government. How can we account for “Daniel” making such a mistake? Except, of course, unless “Daniel” was not Daniel.
And then there is the fact that the prophecies in Daniel are bang on up a certain point and then tend to be either highly unspecific or simply wrong. “Daniel” accurately predicts events in subsequent Jewish history up to the desecration of the Temple in 167 B.C.E by the “king of the north,” who is clearly to be identified with Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Seleucid ruler of Babylon, but then he goes on to say that this king will be attacked by the “king of the south,” an event of which there is no historical record.
The passages which supposedly offer prophecies about Jesus, although at first glance they seem to work, are beset with similar problems. In Daniel 9 Daniel, after prayer and fasting, is visited by Gabriel, who predicts the following: “From the issuing of the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven ‘sevens’ and sixty-two ‘sevens.’ After the sixty-two sevens the Anointed One will be cut off and will have nothing. The people of the ruler who will come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. The end will come like a flood. War will continue until the end, and desolations have been decreed.” The “Anointed One” my reviewer clearly identifies with Jesus.
Let’s assume that these “sevens” refer to seven-year periods—I can’t think of an alternative interpretation, although I’m open to suggestions. Cyrus the Great died in 530 B.C.E. and “seven ‘sevens’ and sixty-two ‘sevens’” adds up to 483 years. Thus the arrival and almost immediate death of the “Anointed One” should be scheduled for no later than 47 BCE. The best guess, although no one knows for a certainty, is that Jesus was probably born about 4 BCE. Thus the prediction is off by at least 43 years.
Actually, the second half of the prophecy is really a teaser. The Romans did in fact go a long way toward destroying the city and certainly destroyed the Jerusalem Temple. But all of that didn’t happen until 70 CE, or 40 years after Jesus’ execution and 113 years after the outside date of the prophecy. That is a long time, and prophecies are supposed to be exact. We shouldn’t have to ask God to check His calendar.
At this point let me point out that in the major theological schools of America, nothing I have had to say in these pages would elicit much more than a bored yawn. There is nothing controversial about any of it. It is part and parcel of the sort of textual criticism divinity students learn in their first year. But somehow or other the results of the last hundred or so years of New Testament scholarship, like some sort of guilty secret, only occasionally find their way into sermons.
Which brings me to what is probably the fundamental disagreement between the reviewer and myself. The reviewer apparently believes that the gospels were written under divine inspiration. As a friend of mine who is a devout Roman Catholic puts it, the Bible was written by God, but with fifty secretaries. I, on the other hand, believe that the books of the Bible were written by men. But in either case why shouldn’t the Scriptures be subject to the same canons of evidence as any set of documents that has come down to us from the ancient world? If they were written under divine guidance they will be perfectly consistent and the most minute examination will reveal no flaws or contractions.
Nevertheless the evidence indicates clearly that there are flaws and contradictions. God, had He had been in charge, would have done a much tidier job.
What I have tried to do in my novel is to present a Jesus who is consistent with the understanding of him which has emerged in modern New Testament scholarship. That consensus is reasonably clear about the character of his message and the reasons why the Romans thought it necessary to crucify him. That limited aim I think I have achieved.
As far as the miraculous elements in the gospels are concerned, I suppose everyone has to make up his or her own mind about how much credence to give them. I would only point out that miracles and claims of divine birth were fairly common in the ancient world. Augustus Caesar , his early biographers tell us, was believed to have been fathered by Apollo, and the Neopythagorean philosopher Apollonius of Tiana, according to his biographer Philostratus, was proclaimed divine at his birth, raised the dead and returned briefly from heaven to reassure his followers that he had not really died.
And on the question of what Jesus was like as a human being we are all in the dark. Jesus had been dead for forty years before the first gospel was written and, besides, the gospel writers weren’t writing biography in anything like the modern sense and Jesus’ personal characteristics simply didn’t interest them. Thus we have no idea what he looked like or about any of those elements which make up individual personality.
Thus the Jesus of The Ironsmith is a fictional creation. I can’t claim anything else. There are indications in the gospels that his message was not well received in his native village and that he had trouble with his family, and I made use of these. Everything else came out of my own imagination. I suppose all I can say is that my Jesus is the way I would have liked him to be.
Of course no such consideration is going to appease my reviewer, whose concern is entirely with what he perceives as my theological errors, my refusal to recognize the absolute inerrancy of Scripture. So be it. No argument against faith will make an impression on those who claim it, and such people will never alter their opinions on the basis of anything as paltry as evidence.
I include a short bibliography for anyone who is interested:
Bauer, Walter, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, German Edition, 1934.
Ehrman, Bart D., The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, 1993.
Ehrman, Bart D., Jesus, Interrupted, 2009.
Fredriksen, Paula, From Jesus To Christ, 1988.
Fredriksen, Paula, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, 1999.
Pagels, Elaine, The Gnostic Gospels, 1979.
Rubenstein, Richard E., When Jesus Became God, 1999.
Sanders, E.P., Jesus and Judaism, 1985.
Sanders, E.P & Margaret Davies, Studying the Synoptic Gospels, 1989.
Sanders, E.P, Judaism, Practice and Belief, 63 BCE-66CE, 1992.
Sanders, E.P, The Historical Figure of Jesus, 1993.
Schweitzer, Albert, The Quest for the Historical Jesus, 1906.
Vermes, Geza, Jesus the Jew, 1973.
Vermes, Geza, The Religion of Jesus the Jew, 1993.
Wylen, Stephen M., The Jews in the Time of Jesus, 1996.
Oh yes, and a plug—I have a living to make:
Guild, Nicholas, The Ironsmith, 2016