Before proceeding, allow me to apologize to readers regarding the length of this post. I have tried to condense the material as much as possible, but the scope of the subject matter is extensive, and requires substantial time and space to develop.
Late in a previous forum thread (Subject: Were the writers of the gospels sincere?), the discussion turned to another related question dealing with whether or not the gospels were historical. Lee Freeman capably defended his position that, to quote him: "The NT authors recorded real facts that really happened." I, on the other hand, took the position that the Synoptic Gospels (the Gospels According to Mark, Matthew and Luke) were written by theologians for theological purposes, though I deny neither Jesus' historicity nor his crucifixion.
Lee correctly pointed out that our earliest known tradition regarding Jesus' life story is found in Paul's first epistle to the Corinthian church, which contains the first reference to what has become known as the Passion Narrative. However, Paul's epistle itself contains no narration. Instead, Paul, in 1 Cor 15.3 briefly lists three objects of belief, which he says are "of first importance", bound to one another by the word (in English) "that":
that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures
that he was buried
that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures
What is interesting about Paul's succinct and non-narrative phraseology is that, of the three "that" phrases used, two contain the qualifier "according to the Scriptures". In other words, the "things of first importance" are said to be written "in accordance with the Scriptures", meaning the Old Testament. But, how exactly they are "in accord" with the Scriptures is not explained. We will consider that now.
To begin, we turn away from Paul's epistle, and towards the first (chronologically speaking) gospel to have been written...the Gospel According to Mark. The earliest known narrated tradition about the life of Jesus is found at Mark 14.17, ("When it was evening..."). This "when it was evening" marks the first of a series of very special events detailed in Mark's telling about the tradition regarding the last day of Jesus' life on earth:
1. Jesus and the disciples partake of their Last Supper.
2. Jesus and disciples go to Gethsemane.
3. Jesus is arrested.
4. Peter denies Jesus during the Jewish trial.
5. Jesus is brought before Pilate.
6. Jesus is crucified.
7. Darkness comes over the earth.
8. Jesus dies.
9. Jesus is removed from the cross and buried.
Interestingly, if one reads the Markan text carefully, something rather curious is observed. All the events described take place in precise three-hour intervals.
Jesus and the disciples partake of their Last Supper at 6:00 p.m.
Jesus and disciples go to Gethsemane at 9:00 p.m.
Jesus is arrested at 12:00 midnight.
Peter denies Jesus during the Jewish trial by 3:00 a.m.
Jesus is brought before Pilate at 6:00 a.m.
Jesus is crucified at 9:00 a.m.
Darkness comes over the earth at 12:00 noon.
Jesus dies at 3:00 p.m.
Jesus is removed from the cross and buried before evening...6:00 p.m.
For most of us, life's events do not take place in precise 3-hour time intervals. This suggests that, by stressing not only the events themselves, but also their precise timing, perhaps the author of GMk had something other than an historical and biographical treatise in mind when he composed his work. But what?
Scholars generally agree that the Gospel According to Mark was written around 70 CE, a time when the Jews (historically) saw both their Jerusalem Temple, the central place of their animal sacrifices, as well as their leader, Jesus, terminated by the Romans. They also found themselves exiled from Jerusalem, just as their ancestors had been exiled to Babylon some six centuries earlier. Their community disrupted, they were in immediate need of stability and familiarity, which they found, just as previous generations before them had found, in "the Scriptures".
However, the Jewish followers of Jesus had a particularly pressing problem. Their new faith required that they move, scripturally speaking, away from their former hero (Moses) whom the Old Testament testifies to as having delivered his followers from the past domination of the Egyptians, towards a new hero (Jesus) whom they believed would deliver them from their present Roman domination. They needed:
1. A new testament to revere their new hero, just as the old testament revered their former hero.
2. An explanation for how it could have been that their "Messiah" would have been put to death by crucifixion, an event that no Jew had ever predicted based on "the Scriptures".
3. Some way to deflect the embarrassing perception among the Romans that Jesus was no better than a common criminal.
4. Some way to tie traditional events together in a way that was both meaningful and in alignment with the theological speculations of Paul.
Most established religions observe a yearly cycle of ritual and celebration, which mark special events in their sacred past. The Jews were no exception. Ever since the Babylonian exile, the Jews observed an annual liturgical cycle wherein they would, through their Sabbath observances, call to memory and extract meaning from the stories presented in Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. They would observe, according to a secondary fixed schedule, various festival events commemorating key moments described in their received traditions.
Our earliest records indicate that shortly after Jesus' crucifixion and precisely at the same time that traditional Jews were consuming their sacrificed "paschal lambs" for Passover (Pesach), Jewish Christians began conducting an observance wherein they ritualistically consumed the body of Christ. The ritualistic consumption of the Lamb of God (Jesus) thus replaced the consumption of paschal lamb of traditional Judaism for earliest Jewish Christian communities. But, did Jewish Christians partake of the "Lamb of God", then immediately go on their way like we moderns would order fast food? Not likely. More likely, a comprehensive ritual began at 6:00 p.m. on what modern Christians call Maundy Thursday and ended at 6:00 p.m. on what modern Christians call Good Friday. Whereas we moderns uncritically tend to read Mark's version of Jesus' last day on earth as, to use Raymond Brown's caricature, "history remembered", further study suggests that what we may actually be reading is the narrative of an early passion play. In other words we might be reading the script of an annually-observed 24-hour vigil which afforded early Jewish Christians the opportunity to experience and actually participate in a re-creation of that tradition which, to use Paul's phraseology, was "passed on" to them.
But, the skeptic may rightfully ask, what evidence is there to lead us to conclude that the narrative, rather than being recitations of history remembered, are actually a narrative framework of a religious ritual? The answer to this question comes when we locate the narrative sequence within context of the Gospel in its entirety, and what further study reveals about the Gospel itself within the context of "the Scriptures" in general.
One of the earliest copies of GMk in existence is the Codex Alexandrinus. This early 5th Century codex is actually broken down into 49 numbered and titled sections. Upon close examination, we find that the lesson themes taught in each of the 49 numbered and titled sections of the Codex align perfectly with the lesson themes taught in the first 49 Torah readings, ordered according to the traditional Jewish liturgical cycle. Though the characters and circumstances of the Christian and Jewish teachings differ, thematically, they are the same. So, for example, while the Book of Deuteronomy was taught over a period of twelve weeks when traditional Jews learned about their place within the Jewish community, Jewish Christians would be studying their place within the Jewish Christian community as taught by Jesus to his disciples on their journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. And so on and so on we go...49 liturgical weeks...49 identical lesson themes, though articulated in different locations and with a different cast of characters.
For centuries, commentators have noted how the story line in GMk seems to end abruptly. However, we now recognize that GMk also ends abruptly under a newly discovered paradigm wherein the Gospel According to Mark appears to be a series of lections (readings in a church service) patterned "according to the Scriptures"...the Torah...the template. This abruptness was almost certainly realized by the author of the Gospel According to Matthew, the second gospel (chronologically) to have been written. We know this because, looking closely, we find that those themes that are sequentially covered in the Torah according to the Jewish liturgical cycle, but are not covered in GMk, are indeed covered in the Gospel according to Matthew. GMt, rather than 49 sections, can be broken down into 69 sections, with the 20 additional sections precisely representing the remaining Torah lessons that GMk fails to cover, and also the Jewish festivals. In other words, GMt "completes" GMk. The Gospels according to Matthew and Luke contain the same liturgical pattern as GMk, but the former sometimes differ based on how the oral traditions had been independently understood by their authors. Thus we find that, while the synoptic gospels all follow the same liturgical pattern, they differ somewhat in their details. Even so, when we note how the lessons of Torah are reinterpreted week by week, theme by theme and festival by festival according to new Jewish Christian's religious beliefs, we must seriously consider that while the Synoptic Gospels do indeed relate early Christian traditions "according to the Scriptures", they do so in a liturgical rather than an historical sense.
Still, the skeptic might rightfully take the position that, even though there is a definite and specific pattern found in the gospel narratives, leading us to speculate that their "order" may not be historical, it is still possible that the events described in the Synoptic Gospels did actually happen. This is indeed a possibility. But is there an explanation, other than "history remembered" for how the stories describing the events found in the Synoptic Gospels might have originated? Indeed there is.
Within Judaism, there is a genre of literature called "midrash". Midrash is a literary process whereby new stories are invented that reinterpret famous stories of the past into a more contemporary setting. The purpose of this type of literature is to relate important lessons of the past, but within the context of contemporary events, locations and personalities. The purpose of this type of literature is not to record historical events. Midrashic stories characteristically describe events for which there is little or no historical evidence, but for which there are scriptural precedents. Scholars have located more than forty such Old Testament precedents correlating to events described in the Gospel According to Mark. More still are found for the Gospel According to Matthew and even more for the Gospel According to Luke.
We must admit that it is possible that the events described in GMk's passion narrative not only actually happened, but happened in precise three hour intervals. And it is possible that the ordering of the teaching themes in the Synoptic Gospels just happen match the ordering of the teaching themes of the Torah according to the traditional Jewish liturgical cycle. And it is possible that ritual observances in the Jewish Christianity just happened to align with earlier ritual observances of the traditional Jewish Festival calendar. And it is possible that the Synoptic Gospel events are historical, but that they just happen to reinterpret identifiable Old Testament stories into First Century settings.
But there is an alternative explanation. It is that the earliest Christians, all of whom were Jews, rather than recording elements of "history remembered", actually reinterpreted traditional Jewish liturgical cycles, festival cycles and stories to become new and more meaningful liturgical cycles, festival cycles and stories, according to their new community beliefs, their new leader and, as Paul attests, "according to the Scriptures".
Recent discussions in the Religion forum
AnnouncementAmazon Discussions Feedback Forum
|1783||May 13, 2017|
|The essence of Christianity...||201||1 hour ago|
|Is "God" Perfect?||1094||2 hours ago|
|Is Deepok speaking religion, science or merely bovine excreta?||109||7 hours ago|
|keep one change one started 14 January 2017||3210||7 hours ago|
|Envisioning the Beginning||49||8 hours ago|
|~THE CASTLE MIRTHRA~ First Reincarnation~||6616||20 hours ago|
|Who made up Jesus and why?||2314||1 day ago|
|Another 10,000 Quotes...||8001||1 day ago|
|Splunge!||4||3 days ago|
|Today In muslim History, Part II||2047||3 days ago|
|Prob the Woofer: Beyond the Chessboard||6740||4 days ago|