Will the real Jesus please stand up? (Alpha week 1)

April 25th, 2013
by Chris

Turned up far too early last night. Not only did I allow for rush hour traffic which wasn’t quite there, but the 6.15 for helpers turned out to be 6.15 for 6.30 hoping to get something done by 6.45. Ah well – made myself useful.

I had an initial worry that “helpers” were going to seriously outnumber “guests” looking around approaching 7.30, which was the start time for the delivery of messages – organisation first, then a couple of songs, then the talk. However, plenty of people were there by the time things actually got started, probably slightly better than 1:1 guests to helpers. After the talk, “Who is Jesus”, we split into two groups to talk about it.

It transpired during introductions that none of the guests in my group were non-Christian, nor, indeed, had they any particular misgivings about the talk. I would have liked to take over and work through everything step by step, but didn’t want to monopolise discussion. Ho hum. For anyone wanting to refer to the talk outlines as I blog, by the way, there’s a set of these at http://www.alphausa.org/Groups/1000047416/Talk_Outlines.aspx. This is session 1.

I don’t quibble with Jesus existing as an historical figure, as it happens, though there are quite a few writers who put up a tolerable argument for complete nonexistence. I don’t, however, accept the argument that the New Testament dates from 40-100. OK, none of Paul’s authentic writings can date from much after 60, but I’m only reasonably sure that four of his epistles are actually his, some of the remainder definitely having the feel of mid-to-late second century to me – and Paul is no source at all for anything about the historical Jesus anyhow. For that, you need the gospels.

These are presented as contemporaneous eye-witness accounts. Oh dear! Now, Luke is avowedly not an eyewitness but a collector of stories. Papias, Bishop of Hieraconpolis (as quoted by Eusebius) says that Mark was Peter’s scribe. My own reading of the Fourth Gospel is that the actual writer purported to be taking dictation from the “beloved disciple”, whom the Church fathers decided had to be John.  Neither was therefore themselves an eyewitness. Somewhat more serious, however, is what Papias actually said about the gospels of Mark and Matthew; to paraphrase, Mark wrote down Peter’s sermons in no particular order while Matthew was a collection of sayings in a Hebrew dialect. Now, Papias was writing not earlier than 95, and probably as late as 110 (and as he lived until around then, might have been expected to recall anything he’d written which could mislead as to what the gospels actually looked like). Neither of those descriptions fits what we now see; both are narrative gospels, which does not fit a collection of sermons and absolutely does not fit a collection of sayings, and Matthew shows little signs of being in translation from Aramaic. As a bishop of a reasonably well-connected city, I cannot believe that Papias would not know of a narrative Mark or Matthew if such existed. I cannot therefore date either of these before about 110 at the earliest, i.e. 80 years after the events described. Luke is generally accepted as being derivative of one or both of Mark and Matthew, so is even later.

Most textual critics agree that all the gospels show evidence of multiple layers of redaction, though, so this does not surprise me.  Dating John is more difficult – the earliest fragment dates to about 130, which isn’t proof that the whole thing existed by then, but is indicative. The consensus seems to be that John postdates the three synoptic gospels, but as the synoptics definitely weren’t in their final form in c.110, this may not be correct. It does seem to evidence better knowledge of Palestinian geography, which might argue for earlier.

I do think there must have been earlier writings, now lost (although we might hope for another Nag Hammadi!), but in no way can I say that what we now see is original, eyewitness testimony. It might include some…

I didn’t feel I could advance this whole argument, so relied more on the Jesus Seminar’s conclusions that significant portions of all the gospels were either not Jesus or unlikely to be Jesus. The group leadership attempted to tell me that they were a group of three very liberal scholars, and I corrected the number. Not as much as I should have, for on checking, there were originally 150. I did say that as I recalled, almost none of John was considered even “sounds like Jesus”, let alone “is Jesus”.

I suppose at that point the next bit of the argument, using C.S. Lewis’ celebrated ” would not be a great moral teacher, he would either be insane or he would be the Devil of Hell” trichotomy was going to float by, as I wasn’t confident he said these things (all the important ones being from John). I don’t like the trichotomy anyhow. Leaving out the options of “misreported”, “honestly mistaken” and “speaking as from…”, I don’t actually believe that even in John he is represented as claiming to “be God”. The passages used are 10:30-33, which merely says “from God”, 20:26-29, which is another’s comment and the most famous, 8:58, “Before Abraham was, I am”. That last, to my eyes, almost certainly involves “I AM” being used in the Jewish manner as a reference to God, rather than as a claim of Jesus’ own preexistence; it should therefore read “before Abraham was, God” – and in context, Jesus is shown as claiming that he has knowledge from God, not that he is God. “Son of God” isn’t as much of a claim as might appear, as Hosea 1:10, for instance, applies this term to all of Israel; “messiah” (or “christos”) is probably the strongest, but then, Sabbati Zevi and Menachem Mendel Schneerson are more recent examples that indicate it isn’t unique.

We didn’t get as far as evidence for the resurrection. Ah well, maybe another time.

With this group, I don’t think I need to worry, as I usually do, that quoting facts which can readily be called into question and using arguments which are just plain wrong can give a basis for belief which can too easily be demolished, or can put someone off exploring Christianity where, without the need for a shaky intellectual understanding, they could find spiritual profundity. I do wonder if there’s therefore a point in my continuing. However, the organiser is extremely keen that I keep turning up after hearing some of what I can say, so onward to week 2.

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One Response to “Will the real Jesus please stand up? (Alpha week 1)”

  1. Carol Says:

    Ah Chris. Why wouldn’t I expect to see your ‘debating’ points. I am up early and decided to catch up with these reading them in order.

    Interesting: On to no 2 & 3

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