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The Quest of the Historical Jesus

JesusTraditional Christian doctrine about Jesus Christ is encompassed with difficulties, and many of the statements in the Gospels appear incredible in the light of modern views of history and nature. The first listing of the 27 canonical books that are generally accepted as part of the New Testament today was in 367 AD. The 27 canonical books were chosen over many other candidate letters, Acts, and Gospels that existed (and still exist). Some of the currently accepted gospels have been tampered with over time, with later versions of the gospels inserting whole passages that are absent from the earliest texts of the canonical books that have been recovered.

Between the Gospels there are discrepancies, irresolvable differences, and even contradictions, not only in the small details, but also when it comes to major ideas presented by the authors. The fourth Gospel, as regards its character, historical data, and discourse material, forms a world of its own. It is written from the Greek standpoint, while the first three are written from the Jewish. Mark differs with John on which day Jesus died, not a difference that can be reconciled. There are significant differences between Matthew and Luke concerning various aspects of the birth of Jesus, as well as the irreconcilable genealogies found in their stories. Other discrepancies concern things like why Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus along with how Jesus died [in Mark Jesus dies in agony and despair, while in Luke Jesus seems oddly in control], and the irreconcilable differences in the resurrection accounts of Jesus.

The doctrine of the Resurrection and Ascension are not mentioned at all in the original draft of the earliest Gospel, that of St. Mark. As regards St. Mark, some regard his Gospel as the oldest New Testament writing. Possibly the best known example of editorial work is the so called "long ending" of the Gospel of Mark. The oldest manuscripts of Mark do not contain Mark 16:9ff. These verses were appended by a later editor, to harmonize the conclusion of Mark with the endings of Matthew and Luke. The editor wanted to ensure that the "Great Commission" and the post resurrection appearences were included in Mark as well as the other two Gospels. The first and third Evangelists used the Gospel of Mark in the shorter form only, which ends at ch. xvi. 8; and also of the fact that this its original form was kept in the two oldest codices and was not unknown in the Church for centuries.

The question of the end of this Gospel is one of great difficulty, whatever view is taken of the paragraph which now brings it to a close. It would seem that neither the supporters nor the impugners of the present ending have quite done justice to the strength of the arguments on the other side. The facts to be considered are as follows. There are three ways of ending the Gospel. The first, called the 'Short Ending,' stops at 16:8. The second, cited as the 'Long Ending,' is that of our ordinary Bibles (16:9-20), the last twelve verses. But there is also a third, called the 'Intermediate Ending. This ending is found in four minor uncials, L (Codex Regius, 8th cent.), i1J(Fragmentum Sinaiticum, 7th cent.), p (Fragm. Parisiense, 8th cent.), and Codex Athous Laurae, 8th or 9th cent., in all of them as an alternative to the Long Ending, though it would appear that the archetype of the first three, at any rate, ended at 168. The Intermediate Ending is also found in the Old Latin k, standing alone, in several MSS of the Ethiopic prefixed to the Long Ending, and in the margin of syr Md, of two Bohairic MSS, and of a cursive Greek MS. No one maintains its genuineness; it is clearly written as an end to the Gospel, and is not an independent fragment. It is probably due to an early scribe, who wrote it either because he had before nim the Long Ending and objected to it, or because he had before him the Short Ending and thought it abrupt.

Eusebius says (ad Marin. Quaest. 1, vol. 4) that the Long Ending was not in the 'accurate copies' of his day; later writers copy Eusebius. Tertullian, Cyprian, Athanasius, and Cyril of Jerusalem are silent about the Long Ending; and this would be very significant if it were not that Cyril of Alexandria and Theodoret are also silent, though they must have known verses which were in wide circulation in their time. Here we must note, further, that the fact that the Short Ending could scarcely have been the original close of the Gospel (see below), is no argument for the genuineness of the other two extant endings. No writer before Eusebius is known to have rejected them, and their presence in all later MSS shows that the successors of Eusebius, in spite of his great authority, did not follow his judgment in the matter.

JesusOne of the earliest, and if long continued popularity may warrant the saying so, one of the happiest attempts to give to the evangelical narrative a biographical form, was that of J.J. Hess of Zurich. First published in 1768, it since re-appeared in various editions down to the 19th century. Hess cherished the belief that, with a slight measure of concession on the part of orthodoxy, the Gospel narrative might be made to harmonise admirably with the requisitions of biography. Hess naturally tries to be as conservative as possible; he throws into forced union the inconsistent accounts of the infancy given by Matthew and Luke, distinguishes the nobleman of Capernaum in John from the centurion in Matthew, the supper of the washing of the feet from that of the institution of the Eucharist: but then he is unable to admit two cleansings of the temple, although the one narrated by John occurs at the first visit to Jerusalem, that of the other Evangelists at the last and only visit.

At a time when the teachers of the insular and stipendiary Church of England were declaring that "infidelity " was no longer associated with scholarly names, while English theology and philosophy, under ecclesiastical auspices were at an absolute standstill, German thought was applying rational tests, strenuously if imperfectly, to nearly every department of traditional knowledge. The progress, of course, was halting and uncertain at best. Most of the innovators were vacillating and inconsistent werein their advance; they were always trying to limit their concession, attempting first to explain miracles as natural events, then admitting myth to a certain extent, seeking for each myth a historical basis, striving to limit the field of myth to early times, trying later to draw a line between the Old Testament and the New, and next to admit myth as regards only the infancy of Jesus always compromising in the interests of faith, or of simple peace and quietness.

It is not asked what Jesus really said or did, but only what the reporters make him say or do; not what a given evangelical narrative portends in itself, but only what the narrator meant or desired under certain circumstances and with certain tendencies peculiar to himself. In this way we have to do with the Evangelists alone, and the Lord is left out of sight: just as constitutional governments throw responsibility on ministries and exempt the crown.

In 1750, J.D. Michaelis published his Introduction to the Divine Scriptures of the New Covenant, and in the fourth edition of that work he examined with caution and candour the origin of all the New Testament books. Michaelis was followed by Semler in his Treatise on the Free Investigation of the Canon, the very title of which seemed to mark the new principle of inquiry which was abroad. Semler has been recently called 'the father of criticism'; and if that title is not always appropriate to him, but the break which he caused between the traditional views of inspiration led to the free examination of the authority and origin of each sacred book.

Mythological science was defective in overlooking many of the Pagan myth-elements in the Christian cult, above all those bound up with the very central doctrine of the anthropic sacrifice and eucharist; and this by reason of a too exclusive attention to Judaic sources. It dealt with the salient item of the Virgin-birth in the light of general mythology; but it ignored the connecting clue of the numerous ancient ritual cults of a Divine Child. It showed the incredibility and the irreconcilable confusions of the resurrection story; but it did not bring forward the mythic parallels. As regards the process of mythic accretion, it did not properly apply the decisive documentary test that lay to hand in the Pauline epistles.

In an Arab legend of Abraham, his mother hides him at birth because the astrologers and wise men have declared that according to their books a child is to be born who will destroy the worship of idols and overthrow King Nemrod; and the king accordingly gives orders to destroy all the male children who may be born. Hiding him in a cave, she puts a stone at the mouth and there suckles him, without the knowledge even of her husband Azer. The same story is told by the Arabs concerning Daniel, as by the Jews concerning Moses; and it was told at once of John and of Jesus by the early Christists, who were in all likelihood merely freshening up two immemorial forms of popular religion in Syria. As the Moses myth is duplicated in the myths of Cyrus and Horus, and unquestionably preceded by the myth of Sargon, it would seem sufficiently idle to suppose later variants to be derived from the New Testament.

The gospel story of Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem to be taxed under the edict of Augustus is obviously myth: there was no such practice in the Roman world; and in any case Galilee was still independently governed by Herod-Antipas when Quirinius went to tax Judea. Only the late third Gospel tells the story: the narrative in Matthew, added late as it was to the original composition, which obviously began at what is now the tiird chapter, has no hint of the taxing, bat implies that Joseph and Mary lived at Bethlehem; the Gospel of Mary gives the visit without the taxing; and so loosely was the myth credited that in the Protevangelion the statement is that it was decreed "that all should be enrolled, who were in Bethlehem of Judea."

From the middle of the 18th Century Semler had applied the word 'myths' to some of the Old Testament narratives, as, e.g., to the exploits of Samson ; and later on at the beginning of the 19th century, de Wette had not hesitated to point out the important part which, in his judgment, was played both by myth and by legend in the writings of the Old Testament.

In the year 1835 David Strauss published his Leben Jesu (to be followed exactly ten years later by F.C. Baur's Paulus). David Friedrich Strauss [The life of Jesus], the 19th century's boldest and most original thinker on the subject, produced an enormously laborious treatise of fifteen hundred pages to disprove every supernatural occurrence connected with the life of Jesus, but at the beginning and end assured everybody that it all made no difference to religion. The mythical theory was remorselessly applied by Strauss to the whole of the Gospel history. Strauss decided the historic reality of John the Baptist to be certain, and the story of the Sermon on the Mount to be in the main genuine, though manipulated by Matthew in one way and by Luke in another. Dealing with the obviously mythical story of the betrayal by Judas, he never realizes the central preposterousness of the narrative, and treats it as history. But overall, Strauss's analysis of the Gospels' miraculous stories was that they were mythical.

Some of the scholars of the mid-19th century German Tbingen School, and late-19th/early 20th century Dutch Radical critics argued that the Christian Savior was a pious fabrication, his entire "life", trial and crucifixion a pastiche, as much of the Jesus tale had parallels in much older fables.

Dr. Albert Schweitzer set forth the definitive survey of studies into the historical Jesus up to that point. Previous research was largely an attempt by liberal and rationalist theologians to proof-text a Jesus who would embarrass orthodox Protestantism. Various Germanic attempts had tried to remove miraculous and supernatural elements from the Gospel texts while retaining some coherent historical narrative. "They were eager to picture Him as truly and purely human, to strip from Him the robes of splendour with which He had been apparelled, and clothe Him once more with the coarse garments in which He had walked in Galilee." Works which followed Schweitzer's include E.P. Sanders' "The Historical Figure of Jesus", Paula Fredriksen's "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews", and Dale Allison's "Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet".

Radical skeptics of the fact of the existence of an "historical" Jesus such as Kenneth Humphreys argue that "Christianity was the ultimate product of religious syncretism in the ancient world. Its emergence owed nothing to a holy carpenter ... Though the basic Christ legend was formulated by apostate Jews, with their expectations of a conquering messiah, and pagan converts, with their fables of dying/reborn sun gods, Egypt provided Christianity with ideas NOT found in the Old Testament: immortality of the soul; judgment of the dead; reward and punishment; a triune god. The ancient religion of Egypt infused the nascent faith of Christ with much of its creed."

Earl Doherty writes that "... a handful of reputable scholars in each generation have denied outright any historical existence for the Gospel Jesus: among them J.M. Robertson in Britain, Arthur Drews in Germany, Paul-Louis Couchoud and Prosper Alfaric in France, followed by several others. Most recently, G.A. Wells, Professor of German at the University of London (now retired), has published six books on the subject, a telling dissection of Christian literature, especially the Gospels, which reveals just how wispy and elusive is the historical basis that lies behind the story of Jesus of Nazareth.... everything in Paul points to a belief in an entirely divine Son who "lived" and acted in the spiritual realm, in the same mythical setting in which all the other savior deities of the day were seen to operate. No Greek or Roman believed that the god Mithras had lived in an identifiable period of earthly history, or that the bull he slaughtered was "historical" ... Justin Martyr ... is the only major apologist before the year 180 to include an historical Gospel Jesus in his defence of Christianity to the pagans."

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Page last modified: 04-12-2011 19:38:52 ZULU