Beyond Tradition

The Evangelists

Part III of III (click here for Part I):


The artistry of characterization

Contrary to human nature, the authors never inject themselves or the forerunners they adored and modeled after into the account unless it is in a completely negative light. Another glaring element against form and redaction criticism theory is the fact that the founders of this faith, the apostles themselves are portrayed negatively in almost every action illustrated about them. We see a bungling, stumbling, incompetent band of misfits who say and do all the wrong things at all the wrong times. Examples (note that some of these traditions are repeated in more than one gospel):

In Matthew (16:5-11) they misunderstand Jesus' parable concerning unleavened bread, which was an allegorical warning about the religious leaders, but instead begin worrying about not having any actual bread to eat.

In Mark (10:13-14), they're rebuked by Jesus for preventing children from being blessed by him; in Mark (10:35-41), James and his brother John boldly request to be seated on both sides of Jesus in his future heavenly kingdom (the point is to understand how much of an audacious request this was in their own mindset), which brought such indignation among the others Jesus had to further address the issue. Other illustrations include:

 

  • In John (6:59-61), Jesus' own disciples doubt some of his own claims.
  • In Mark (9:17-19), Jesus rebukes them for their lack of faith and inability to cure a boy of an illness.
  • In Matthew (17:17), Jesus explicitly expresses his utter exasperation with their lack of faith and understanding.
  • In Luke (22:24), their narcissistic behavior is displayed during an argument over who will be the greatest among them.
  • In Mark (14:37-42), they are taken over by neglect and sloth as they sleep instead of praying in Jesus' greatest hour of need, just before his crucifixion.

 

In almost every instance from beginning to end, which is a consistently illustrated in each gospel, they are seen as selfish, obstinate, doubtful, confused and unlearned. They continuously misunderstand Jesus' teaching or confuse his message with something else, are constantly self-seeking, quick to make irrational decisions or courses of action, and create mindless and embarrassing blunders that are amusing if not exceptionally odd.

Jesus is almost always rebuking and chastising them for their lack of faith in every situation. Every disciple, with the possible exception of John, desert him and hide in cowardice while being upstaged by the women who were the first to boldly arrive at the tomb the day he had risen. Even after the resurrection, the disciples are obstinate and unfaithful (Luke 24:10-11; John 20:24-25), and as we mentioned earlier, some doubted well after the post-resurrection experience (Matthew 28:16-17).
 
Simon Peter, one of the leading apostles and the one whom early Christians understood to be the dominant leader (the "pillar") of the church to the Jews (Galatians 2:7-9), and who was portrayed as the spiritual custodian in some of the later gnostic and apocryphal works is by far the biggest buffoon in the four gospels, clearly outdoing the others by modeling what not to do or say. Porphyry, one of the most outspoken Greek skeptics of Christianity in the fourth century couldn't understand how Peter, portrayed this way, was heralded as one of the prime leaders in the early church.
[1] Other examples include:

 

  • Jesus praises Peter as "the rock" and declares that he will build his church on that rock (Matthew 6:16-19), only to be rebuked and called Satan by Jesus moments later for another one of Peter's foot-in-the-mouth statements (Matthew 16:21-23).
  • Out of fear and confusion, Peter blurts out a nonsensical remark during the miracle of the Mount of Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-6).
  • The notorious thrice denial by Peter when questioned whether he was a follower of Jesus during Jesus' trial, even after he swore he would rather die than commit such a denial (Luke 22:56-62).
  • Even after Peter sees Jesus alive post-resurrection, he is portrayed as unremitting in his lack of reverence and focus when he decides to go fishing (just going about his normal routine), and Jesus must chide him once again and question his loyalty (John 21:3-17).

 
We moderns might try and rationalize this an attempt to appeal to a broader audience of irreligious peasants and commoners. However, if we assume they were redacting these traditions, then it must be assumed this was coincidentally the agenda of multiple writers. This also falls outside the context of a culture where honor and shame was the measure of conduct, where one's actions determined whether one was honorable or dishonorable, which is undoubtedly why we don't see this shown in the later legendary writings about the apostles.

Moreover, let's not forget that the works in the New Testament, including the gospels, were not written necessarily to evangelize to unbelievers, but written to Christian churches who were already familiar with the "pillars" of the early church (Galatians 2:9), and were written years if not decades after the male apostolic authority was already firmly established as these pillars.

It should come as no surprise that we don't find them portrayed the same in the later apocryphal works. We find situations in these works that embellishment, bias perspectives and church legends are made of and just the type of content we would expect of such a culture. Though we find certain goofs, errors and misunderstandings carried over from the earlier canon works into these later works, the followers of Jesus are portrayed in a much more admiral, exonerated and saintly light; men that are portrayed as spiritually insightful and enlightened, asking pertinent questions about certain subjects that clearly drive the intentions of the author to convey certain spiritual truths, as opposed to questions or actions that outrightly embarrass them and confuse the reader. They use select disciples and favorably highlight them above the others.

Even in our culture today, this type of bias and impartiality rules the consciousness of a writer as it becomes only natural that stories told about ourselves or particularly stories about those we admire will emphasize the strengths while minimizing or eliminating weaknesses, or using the failings only when certain positives can be emphasized with a balance in order to inspire a character model for future admirers to follow.

Where we clearly see this typical trend evident in the Christian legends that came several decades later, we don't see this trend at all in the gospel traditions. There are no acts of nobility we find in the gospels; no heroics, miraculous feats, spiritual insight, enlightenment or virtue on the part of Jesus' followers to make the Christian community proud. One extremely rare exception might include Peter miraculously walking on the water, only for a brief moment until his faith fails; yet even this particular incident is illustrated only in Matthew's gospel (Matthew 14:24-32).

These would become the iconic apostolic leaders of the first century church, the later saints of the Christian movement, and is probably the most extraordinary fact to reckon with in regards to what type of literature we are to identify the gospels as -- either embellished legend freely swirling within an ancient community, or tradition about true accounts that remained consistent and did not develop or evolve the way it is claimed they were.

As bad as they were portrayed, this suggests that not only were the apostles who taught these traditions about themselves painfully honest, but that the band that followed Jesus throughout the course of his ministry were so awful that there was simply no hiding this fact apart from heavy embellishment and redaction, which, in this case, clearly did not happen. 

The Judaic embarrassment

Paul wrote (1 Corinthians 14:34)

"The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says."   And (1 Timothy 2:12-14) "But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression."

 

Matthew segregated the women from the miracle of the loaves and fishes that he recorded (Matthew 14:20-21)...

..."and they all ate and were satisfied. They picked up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve full baskets. There were about five thousand men who ate, besides women and children."

 

Isaiah lamented women being rulers over the people (Isaiah  3:12)...

"O My people! Their oppressors are children, and women rule over them O My people! Those who guide you lead you astray and confuse the direction of your paths." 

 

The author of Proverbs wrote (Proverbs 31:3)...

"Do not give your strength to women, or your ways to that which destroys kings."  


Josephus wrote…

"But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex."[2]


The Talmud states...

"A hundred women are no better than two men."[3]   And… "A curse light on the man whose wife or children have to say grace for him."[4]

 
Greg Cantelmo, who also quotes from the Talmud, wrote…

"Any evidence which a woman [gives] is not valid (to offer), also they are not valid to offer. This is equivalent to saying that one who is Rabbinically accounted a robber is qualified to give the same evidence as a woman." And… "'Let your house be open wide, and let the needy be members of your household; and talk not much with women.' They said this of a man’s own wife; how much more of his neighbor’s wife! Hence the Sages have said: 'he that talks much with women brings evil upon himself, neglects the study of the Torah, and at last will inherit Gehenna (hell).'"[5]

 
Dr. William Lane Craig explains…

"Given the low status of women in Jewish society and their lack of qualification to serve as legal witnesses, the most plausible explanation, in light of the gospels' conviction that the disciples were in Jerusalem over the weekend, why women and not the male disciples were made discoverers of the empty tomb is that the women were in fact the ones who made this discovery."[6]


Political Correctness wasn't even in anyone's wild imagination during the first century, and this thought pattern about women seems to have been ingrained indelibly in the ancient mind. Though we could always find historical exceptions, the rule is made clear in the quotes above. Moreover, this wasn't just exclusive to Jewish thought. Roman women apparently weren't exactly highly regarded in their ancient traditions either.[7]

 

Caesar Augustus said of the Egyptians…

 "... who worship reptiles and beasts as gods, who embalm their own bodies to give them the semblance of immortality, who are most reckless in effrontery but most feeble in courage, and who, worst of all, are slaves to a woman and not to a man." And of his own countrymen... "I cannot describe to you any greater prize than that of upholding the renown which your forefathers won, of preserving the proud tradition of your native land, of punishing those who have rebelled against us, of conquering and ruling over all mankind, and of allowing no woman to make herself equal to a man."[8]

 

Flaccus, in a letter to he wrote to Gaius (Caligula), stated...

... "for the minds of women are, in some degree, weaker than those of men, and are not so well able to comprehend a thing which is appreciable only by the intellect, without any aid of objects addressed to the outward senses."[9]

 

Romulus said…

"This law obliged both the married women, as having no other refuge, to conform themselves entirely to the temper of their husbands, and the husbands to rule their wives as necessary and inseparable possessions."[10]


Marcus Porcius Cato states of women…

"Call to mind all the regulations respecting women by which our ancestors curbed their license and made them obedient to their husbands, and yet in spite of all those restrictions you can scarcely hold them in. If you allow them to pull away these restraints and wrench them out one after another, and finally put themselves on an equality with their husbands, do you imagine that you will be able to tolerate them?"[11]


Scholar Serinity Young writes…

"… they (women) had never been persons in the legal sense which was true in Roman law."[12]


With a woman's low status in the ancient Near East in mind, as we can clearly see from the sentiment above, it should come as no surprise that the disciples at first dismissed the reports of the women as "idle tales" or nonsense (Luke 24:10-11). Fact is, despite some discrepancies (discussed here: Those Darn Contradictions, The Resurrection conundrum), all four gospel authors are firmly unanimous in that the women were the first eyewitnesses to the resurrection. According to all four evangelists, women would be the first evangelical ministers and founders of the faith who had delivered the resurrection proclamation to the disciples, the men who were (at the time these sources were written) the apostolic leaders of the first century church at Jerusalem and Rome. This argument has been exhaustively beaten to death by apologists ad nauseam throughout the centuries to bolster the veracity of the resurrection story, while critics have tried to downplay the significance of it as nothing particularly out of the ordinary. However, this once again seems to be the inability of a 21st century mind, trapped in a postmodern world saturated with relativism and political correctness to firmly grasp this first century patriarchal perspective.

We need not even resort to ancient sources to get a glimpse of patriarchy when we can merely look to the gender practice of orthodox Judaism to this day.[13] We can also look to the same Near East locations, such as Saudi Arabia and how women are treated in these male-dominated cultures in spite of the postmodern western world around them,[14] which is systemically cultural than it is just religious. The ancient quotes above, modern orthodox Judaism, and present NE culture all homogeneously reflect the regional patriarchal culture of the ancient world wherein the gospel stories were derived.

Think of how a Muslim sect would be received if women had been the first witnesses to an event that was a major catalyst of the Islamic movement while Muslim men were hiding in cowardice behind locked doors. The movement would be a laughingstock, if not an outright societal offense. Now imagine 2,000 years ago in this very same region, surrounded by the same type of socioreligious sentiment. It's interesting to note that Paul, who was obviously bred from a conservative Pharisaical background and may have arguably shown a bit of this chauvinistic bent at times (as seen from his quotes above), totally excluded the female eyewitnesses in his brief summation of a resurrection creed (1 Corinthians 15:3-8)…

"For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [Peter], then to the twelve. After that he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared to me also."

Paul here was specifically using this in a rare apologetic argument in support of a future hope of a bodily resurrection of all believers either with stubborn Corinthians in the church themselves or outsiders among them who may have been questioning the physical aspect of it (it is apparent from the context that they were not questioning Jesus’ resurrection, but Paul's theology of future hope of resurrections of all Christian believers in general). From this passage, we could clearly argue that Paul's exclusion of the women bolsters the fact they were not thought of as credible witnesses, and Paul including them would have meant a large problematic detour that would have detracted from his main theological point he was trying to enforce.

Of course, not only are there a whole slew of debates about Paul's previous quote above concerning the right of women to speak (what he meant and why he meant it), but there are other cases where Paul recognized the leadership of women in the Christian church. However, this shouldn't be a factor against what this culture viewed about women. We know that even in extreme Islamic cultures, where women are clearly perceived as the inferior gender, women aren't totally shunned when they are seen performing their appropriate duties for the sake of the cause of Islam, such as taking part in militant actions. 

Any other reason for Paul's exclusion of the women as a witness in his argument is strained here, other than assuming the story about the women was simply an invention after Paul or his knowledge that such witnesses were involved. It's highly unlikely the women were later embellishments added to the tradition after Paul, as this would have been a clear cultural regression against James, Peter and the other male apostolic pillars of the early church. Keep in mind that it's not just the fact women were essentially the first founders of the movement, but in contrast to how the disciples are portrayed -- the unfaithful cowards.

What makes this more extraordinary than even the cultural aspect is that the traditions certainly presented opportunities for editing. There was a disciple, most likely John himself, who stood at the crucifixion site (John 19:25-27), and Peter and possibly John were also reportedly the first among the eleven to inspect the empty tomb before his first appearance (John 20:3-11). All gospels record a man, Joseph of Arimathea, burying the body, thus the last handler of the body. Matthew of course records sentries at the tomb who witnessed the angel, but not the resurrection (Matthew 28:2-3). What better affirmation of the event than a Roman sentry? According to Matthew (28:8-10) and John (20:14-17) (incidentally, two Jewish authors, Matthew beyond a doubt) the women were actually the first to witness Jesus alive. It's also interesting to note that Luke, presumably a companion of Paul, seems to have tried to hide this fact by leaving out the appearances to the women; omission apparently being a far less crime than actually changing the story itself as he could have easily done with an appearance to Peter (Luke 24:12).

To make matters even worse, the women in Jesus' circle may have had some rather infamous reputations, which Luke didn't attempt to hide one bit (see Luke 7:36-50, 8:1-3). Was the information that Magdalene had been possessed prior really necessary, or that the women financiers were of the Herodian dynasty (essentially a political enemy of Christianity)? It's bad enough that the disciples are shown up by the women, but women who were once "demon possessed" and who were not only ritually impure, but undoubtedly, or at least given the impression had descended to crazy, immoral or sinister behavior at some point in their lives?

It should also be noted here, in the scope of textual criticism, that since two of the oldest copied manuscripts we have of the gospel of Mark, the Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, dating around the fourth century don't include anything after chapter 16:8, it is believed by scholars that all other subsequent verses (16:9-20) we find in our standard bible today were added sometime in the second century. Thus, another factor that makes this so damning is that Mark's gospel may have actually ended with the tomb discovery of the women and nothing more, with no resolve to make up for this ancient black mark.

Since this indeed is one of the most, if not the damning factor against an embellished or even evolved first century resurrection legend argument, I couldn't resist. Imagine today, a bunch of male Sunnis in Afghanistan make up a story about a mullah who had been executed by his peers for blasphemy. They incredibly admit that they refused loyalty to their adorned leader by abandoning both his execution and his burial in cowardice during his apprehension by his enemies; yet a band of women instead attend both his execution and his burial, then three days later, the same band of women are the first to declare the mullah's resurrection. How do you think such a story would be received in this culture?

When we pull ourselves out of a 21st century mindset and worldview, and we at least try to understand this relative to an ancient culture, there is simply no explanation why the tradition formed this way, why it was told and retold in this culture this way, and why it was eventually written into texts this way unless the women were truly the first proclamation evangelists of the most pivotal event of the Judeo-Christian movement against males that were disloyal and cowardly, and the early Christians were honest enough to stick to the tradition despite the fact some of the same male leaders were overseeing the most significant church of the time at Jerusalem and around the ancient Mediterranean.

The Roman disgrace

One thing that most scholars and historians agree on, both Christians and skeptics alike, is that there was a Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified. This belief is argued as the most assured fact about anything associated with Christian history. However, to understand the Christian faith in the Roman Empire a little better, we need a bit more historical perspective simply because a 21st century society is not as attuned as ancient society was to the concept of death by honor.

We don’t understand a society that praises Japanese Shogun warriors who are willing to commit suicide for the sake of honor, or why people are willing to fight a seemingly hopeless war against impossible odds to the death, and even choose mass suicide in the end over being taken alive to protect their honor, as in the case of the Jewish rebels against the Roman army during the Jewish-Roman war[15].

Honor at death had an enormous significance to this culture. It was placed above one's personal safety, including one's own life, and was often the key element in deciding historical courses of action. Roman crucifixion had absolutely no honor whatsoever, a fact made eloquently clear by Donald Green in his thesis The Folly of the Cross.[16] Crucifixion was one of the most shameful, obscene, status degradation executions there was. Contrary to artistic renderings of Jesus on the cross that instinctively quell some of the indignity, the victim hung completely naked; the symbolically nailed hands and legs intentionally designed to stifle the ability to control the body in various ways, including befouling one's self with blood, vomit and excrement all of which signified total loss of control, status and honor. Indeed, we don't need to make exaggerated guesses here. All we need to do is but get a taste of what the ancients expressed about such an execution spectacle.

Cicero (106-43 BCE), the Roman philosopher and lawyer, arguing in defense of his client, a Roman citizen, had this to say regarding crucifixion…

"Even if death is set before us, we may die in freedom. But the executioner, the veiling of heads, and the very word 'cross,' let them all be far removed from not only the bodies of Roman citizens but even from their thoughts, their eyes, and their ears. The results and suffering from these doings as well as the situation, even anticipation, of their enablement, and, in the end, the mere mention of them are unworthy of a Roman citizen and a free man."[17]

 

Though the cross became highly symbolic as a cherished and sacred element in Christendom in the subsequent centuries, there was nothing glorified or sacred about the cross in the first century. That a god would descend to the realm of matter and suffer in this ignominious fashion at the hand of Gentiles only to rise back to glory was offensive and foolish to both Jews and Romans, an utter contradiction in terms. Not only do we see this used as an argument against Jesus' claim of messiahship, in even some of the modern debates today by Islamic and Jewish skeptics, but we see this glaring opinion in the earliest literature.

Paul (1 Corinthians 1:23) clearly perceived the unequivocal dilemma this had to Christian evangelism; what Christians faced when attempting to sell their Messiah to both Jews and Gentiles in light of this glaring historical black mark when he pointed out...

 

"But we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness…"

 

The writer of the New Testament epistle Hebrews (12:2) called the fate Jesus faced a "disgrace" (note in the following passage that the word "shame" is the Greek word aischyne -- "disgrace")...

 

..."Fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God."

 

Celsus, a second century Greek skeptic, used it eagerly as ammunition in his sarcastic mockery of Christian beliefs…

 

"When we declare the Logos to be the Son of God, we do not present to view a pure and holy Logos, but a most degraded man, who was punished by scourging and crucifixion."  Also…  "What prevents you from regarding those other individuals who have been condemned, and have died a miserable death, as greater and more divine messengers of heaven [than Jesus]?"[18]

 

Celsus certainly wasn't the only outspoken opponent of Christianity who heaped scorn and ridicule on the idea of a crucified deity. Christians were the butt of ridicule in the Roman military ranks, evident by a graffito scratched on stone near the Circus Maximus in Rome, portraying Christ as a crucified ass with the words: "Alexamenos worships his god."[19]

Minucius Felix, a Christian apologist sometime around the second or third century, records a debate between a pagan named Caecilius Natalis and a Christian apologist Octavius Januarius, where Caecilius argues...

 

"The religion of the Christians is foolish, inasmuch as they worship a crucified man, and even the instrument itself of his punishment. They are said to worship the head of an ass, and even the nature of their father...  and he who explains their ceremonies by reference to a man punished by extreme suffering for his wickedness, and to the deadly wood of the cross, appropriates fitting altars for reprobate and wicked men, that they may worship what they deserve."[20]

 

Octavius counters it by pointing out the fact pagans do the same, and worse by paying reverence to their divine images that are also carved out of wood. Then, instead of attempting to defend the nature of Christ's death by crucifixion, he avoids it all together by listing a litany of absurdities and follies of the Greco-Roman deities and the rituals surrounding them, which, he argues, makes the pagans worse by comparison. To the Jews, one who was crucified was an enemy of God and a potential curse on the entire land...

 
"If a man has committed a sin worthy of death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse shall not hang all night on the tree, but you shall surely bury him on the same day; for he who is hanged is accursed of God; so that you do not defile your land which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance."(Deuteronomy 21:22-23)

 

The Talmud echoes this view…

 

"Why is this one hanged? Because he cursed the Name, and the Name of Heaven was found defiled."[21]

 

In the gospels, we see Jesus' own contemporaries at the crucifixion scene reflecting these familiar sentiments (Mark 15:31-32)

 

"In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes, were mocking him (Jesus) among themselves and saying, 'He saved others; he cannot save himself.' 'Let this Christ, the King of Israel, now come down from the cross, so that we may see and believe!'"

 

To them, the only way Jesus could possibly affirm his legitimacy as Messiah was nothing short of a miraculous intervention by God in order to curtail the finality of such a fate. Justin Martyr also stated...

 

"For they proclaim our madness to consist in this, that we give to a crucified man a place second to the unchangeable and eternal God, the Creator of all."[22]

 
Trypho, a Jewish man among a group of other Jewish colleagues in a debate with Justin Martyr, stated…

 

"But prove to us whether He must be crucified and die so disgracefully and so dishonorably by the death cursed in the law.  For we cannot bring ourselves even to think of this."   And... "These and such like Scriptures, sir, compel us to wait for Him who, as Son of man, receives from the Ancient of days the everlasting kingdom. But this so-called Christ of yours was dishonourable and inglorious, so much so that the last curse contained in the law of God fell on him, for he was crucified."[23]

 

Tertullian also wrote...

 

"There are, to be sure, other things also quite as foolish (as the birth of Christ), which have reference to the humiliations and sufferings of God. Or else, let them call a crucified God "wisdom." But Marcion will apply the knife to this doctrine also, and even with greater reason. For which is more unworthy of God, which is more likely to raise a blush of shame, that God should be born, or that He should die? That He should bear the flesh, or the cross? [24]

 

Tertullian was using this argument to counter Marcionism. Marcion, a second century heretic, denied that Christ came in the flesh and rejected the fact Christ was born of a virgin because he thought absurd the fact God would manifest himself in the flesh in such a manner. Tertullian was using the idea of worshiping a crucified man as God's wisdom to counter Marcion's logic. Which is worse, he was asking, a God that was born in the flesh, or a God that suffered such a humiliating death on the cross? 

 

The scholar Gerard Sloyan wrote...

 

"Christian apologists like Lactantius (d. ca. 320) and Arnobius (d. ca. 330) would puzzle over why God had not proposed an honorable (honestum) kind of death for Jesus, but there it was. He died on what the ancient world invariably called in Greek the "criminal wood," as also later in Latin (mala crux)."[25]


We certainly can't imagine that these encompass the only expressions in ancient literature about crucifixion, as these are but mere fragments of the written works that have survived today. We might even assume many ancient Christian scribes had much desire to preserve such literary subject matter since much of it was undoubtedly used in support of anti-Christian polemics. This was not only a fate never experienced by men whom society declared as heroes, but was unheard of even in mythology. Justin Martyr declared that he knew of no other pagan deity in the Roman pantheon that suffered crucifixion even as pure fiction.[26]

Faced with the contradiction of Christ deity, some Christians may have even resorted to an alternative way to handle this scandal. Alister McGrath argues this point and uses examples in Greek mythology to support his point. Helen of Troy, he points out, was an adored figure in ancient Greek literature that was a prize whom men were simply willing to fight and die,[27] yet she was also an adulterer. Dramatists were conflicted with ways to describe her in their works -- a woman adored and despised simultaneously, portraying her as heartlessly evil in some cases and sympathetically chastened in others. To solve this dilemma, some simply created her as a double, hence Helen could be kept both divine while the object of her shame could be directed onto her "phantom" instead. McGrath states that this was a predominant theme in ancient literature, where mythological heroes and heroines were given "doubles" when their tragic fate was imminent.

This seems a firm explanation for the rise of Christian docetism. The precise infiltration of docetism into Christianity -- or the belief that Jesus was immaterial, a ghost or spirit -- is difficult to determine, but we indeed see a preponderance of it in the second century, both in apocryphal Christian literature and as a distinct belief openly refuted by the earliest orthodox church fathers.

Many scholars believe that the epistles of John are among the latest documents of the New Testament, dating around the 90s CE, and is where we clearly see the first glimpses of this doctrine being an issue that evoked stern warning from John (1 John 4:2; 2 John 7). Though some argue that docetism is a result of divine contentions about Christ, docetism seems to have spawned much too early for such deep theological contentions in the church. McGrath argues that Christian docetism was a way to solve this nagging dilemma about Jesus in regards to his crucifixion and the potential disrupt it caused -- an object of both shame and worship just as it was with the story of Helen. In short, later sects split Jesus into a fleshly double that suffered the crucifixion, while his immaterial spirit, the true divine source and nature of Christ to be worshiped, escaped this vulgar experience. He states...

 

"A case can be made for suggesting that Jewish Christian groups might have been tempted to assimilate the narrative of the crucifixion of Christ to the story of Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 22), in which the demand for the death of Isaac as a sacrifice is averted at the last moment, as a substitute victim is provided… We see studied reluctance to allow that Jesus of Nazareth should have suffered the indignity of death, especially such a humiliating death."

 

McGrath also puts into context the church father Irenaeus who described a heretical fictional story in circulation from the second century. The story describes that Simon of Cyrene, who bore Jesus’ cross on his way to the execution site (Mark 15:21-22), was actually crucified in Jesus' place instead as a result of Jesus miraculously transforming from himself to Simon. A second century apocryphal work Second Treatise of the Great Seth also echoes this explanation with Simon as Christ's replacement. The apocryphal work The Apocalypse of Peter, another second century work, describes Jesus’ fleshly body crucified as his phantom stands looking on at a distance, laughing at the folly of the ignorance of those crucifying his fleshly body.[28] Martin Hengel also concurs that this dilemma is what likely led educated Christians into the belief of docetism.[29]

At best, scant historical records exist that even bother detailing the full method of crucifixion, whether historical or fiction, suggesting that, alongside later Christian philosophers and apologists that struggled with the dilemma of the stigma their Savior faced, ancient secular historians who detailed Roman culture, politics and military function were apparently too revolted by the subject to give any lengthy expositions of it despite the fact tens of thousands of these executions were typical of Rome's history.

It's quite easy for a 21st century mind to imagine justification and love for a crucified Savior, viewing it through our own modern spectacles and seeing the romanticism and compassion of a Messiah willing to lay his life down and suffer such ignominy for the world he so loves simply because we view this event 2,000 years unattached to ancient sensibilities. It's more than evident, however, crucifixion was a ancient anathema to religious adoration. The Jesus-mythicist who assumes Jesus never existed but was a created myth hits a veritable brick wall at this point. It's simply logically inconceivable to think that those of the first century would have invented a crucified hero this way from scratch, and even more absurd to conclude that legend would have naturally evolved this way with further crucifixion aggrandizement expressed from the very theology of the movement. What's worse is that the gospel records give the most detailed description of a crucifixion than any other piece of ancient literature written about the subject.

From what we learn of the ancients and their sentiments about such an event, worshiping and honoring a crucified Messiah and Lord in the first century would have been analogous to aggrandizing a pedophile as Lord in our western culture today. Adjectives like "shameful" and "dishonorable" wouldn't do it justice, because it was outright repugnant. Understanding this, that the early Judeo-Christians actually highlighted the tragedy in their traditions, showing no discretion in any of the detail -- the method, the accusations against him, the beatings, the torture, his distress, the Roman mockery titulus[30] and ridicule of his opponents at the scene, God's abandonment, showcasing the crucifixion wounds on his body post-resurrection, etc. -- is counterintuitive to the idea of tradition editors of the first century, whether oral or otherwise, in a position to at least distort a favorable or more discreet report.

One would certainly not expect the followers of Christ to realistically cover up this black mark entirely, as this was a historical tragedy that was simply inescapable, but, if we are supposing the traditions were embellished and reshaped legends by his religious adherents of that era, we would expect them to deal with this ugly reality in a similar way the early docetists dealt with it, with legendary renditions or solutions that would have inevitably depreciated the shame and vulgarity of it.

Based on what we've examined, docetism, if it had in fact been a vehicle of escape from the reality of it, is the historical cognitive dissonance reaction we would expect. However, docetism is not at all evident in the earliest Christian literature that describes Jesus' crucifixion. At the very least, a simple "and they led him away to be crucified" in the gospels without the excessive details of the experience would have sufficed. In this context, especially in the context of docetism, his adherents memorializing every detail of the tragedy in their tradition and recording the details in print to their contemporaries who considered it a revulsion, dishonorable disgrace and eternal curse is simply bereft of explanation if we are to believe his adherents were consciously or subconsciously reshaping, embellishing and even inventing details of tradition as they saw fit.

 

To summarize

  • None of the gospels address any of the myriad number of pertinent church issues and controversies that we read about in the epistles, thus suggesting the gospel writers stayed true to the traditions and sayings of Jesus who never addressed any of those issues, as the issues came subsequent to his death and resurrection. »
  • The gospels never stopped identifying Jesus as king of the Jews, which was a proclamation of the coming anticipated Messiah the Jews were expecting to defeat Rome and rule as king prior, even though Israel had been miserably defeated in the war of 70 CE. » 
  • They identified him as Jesus of Nazareth, including Matthew and Luke, because that's where he was unfortunately born, instead of more notable titles as Jesus of Jerusalem, Jesus of Bethany, Jesus of Capernaum, or Jesus of Bethlehem. »
  • They never struck out or changed the title "Son of man" that Jesus continually called himself, even though the title was confusing, ambiguous and rather lowly to a Greco-Roman, and that very few first century Christian works used to identify him with. »
  • They have Jesus baptized by his rival John the Baptist, which the gospel of John goes to great pains to try and explain away. »
  • They portray him as a prophet rejected by family and countrymen, an exceptional black mark in a culture where one's standing with family and society was of utmost importance. »
  • The disciples, the founders and pillars of the early church, are portrayed as buffoons throughout the gospel works. »  
  • The gospels record women, a culture that treated them as untrustworthy witnesses, discovering the empty tomb while the men are cowering in fear behind locked doors. »
  • They illustrate the humiliating death by crucifixion of their God in the most detail given in any other ancient work that mentions these executions in a culture that abhorred such executions as offensive and repugnant. »

 

A secular inconsistency

Though apologists are typically accused of bias analysis of scripture when determining how authentic it is or isn't, a bias viewpoint takes center stage when it comes to secular analysis of scripture and how it deals with the miraculous. This
is certainly not surprising from the perspective of a secular worldview. To admit that even 0.001% of the supernatural that saturates the gospel stories might be authentic is territory the secular front dare not tread, thus the only way to deal with the supernatural is to discard it outrightly from their methodology. Thus, they're forced to conclude based on naturalistic presupposition that the early Jesus-tradition just naturally evolved into fantastic legend, much of it reflecting either adoration towards Jesus by the early Judeo-Christian church or their understandings of Jesus from the perspective of their complex theology that had developed throughout the years prior to the written gospels.

The first problem with this is a purely historical one. Even if we assume the gospels are post-70 works, they still fit -- at the latest -- well within 70 years of the actual event, which is still within a generation or two at most. We must assume that within two generations, a movement, in the public eye from day one, spread stories and rumors that were saturated with falsified facts about their contemporaries, or recent past contemporaries, without at least a good deal of challenges from the contemporaries themselves. This is something I discussed in more detail in another article (here: Jesus Christmas, The very quiet controversy).

What one needs to also consider is that probably more than 70% of the gospel traditions are saturated with the supernatural one way or another, whether they be miraculous events or claims made by Jesus about himself. These are the elements that must be discarded during secular methodology (miracles, divine claims and proclamations, supernatural or divine intervention, etc.). This 70% saturates each gospel from beginning to end -- before Jesus' birth, during his birth, throughout his entire life and career to his death and resurrection, including a great deal of the dialogue and the ensuing evangelism thereafter (Acts and the epistles).

So, bias becomes much more of a determining factor for someone with a purely materialistic mindset because they're forced to presuppose that 70% (anything supernatural) must be tossed out a priori without the bat of an eye, and assume that this was all legend that developed well within a generation or two (or within 70 years). Those who are forced to take this view from the outset must conclude that most of the gospel stories contain lavishly embellished legends that happened in a relatively short period, thus must view early Judeo-Christians (some of whom were very orthodox Jewish in their practice), whether they had good intentions or not, as wild redactors, embellishers and inventors on a scale that surpasses much of the other ancient works in history, as a lot of the other ancient works that contain this much supernatural fiction mixed with history were typically written centuries after the purported fact when the legends had time to gradually develop and evolve with history as fact.

However, if it is assumed that Judeo-Christians were abruptly reshaping the traditions in this manner, then it must be assumed they would not have had any reservations correcting and redacting the existing tradition where it presented challenges, problems, or misconceptions about their evangelism and theology. We can't assume they were held back from embellishments that would have enhanced tradition or even clarified it, such as we discussed throughout this article, hence we should not see patterns to the contrary, or clear patterns of tradition conservatism. Yet we do.

The materialistic mind simply faces a stark inconsistency here. We cannot argue that invention and redactive processes radically occurred within a 70 year or earlier time frame, the likes of which produced such supernatural embellishments as the virgin birth, hands-on miracles, divine miracles, supernatural intervention, Jesus' divine claims within his numerous lengthy dialogues, the resurrection and the ascension, all of which encompass at least 70% of the traditions on one hand, then contend with the conservative nature of preserving the traditions on the other. Something has to give. The patterns we find throughout the traditions, that we explored in this article, resoundingly support the latter view.

With no other objective argument that can be used to solve this inconsistency, we can conclude that the faulty methodology that throws out anything supernatural and that uses hypothetical theories of form and redaction criticism for support is based primarily on subjective opposition against the supernatural from a material and naturalistic bias with no objective evidence to support that view, at least when analyzing how the traditions are illustrated.

In this context, there is now no reason to doubt Eusebius' assertion that Mark transcribed the traditions Peter (one of the eyewitnesses to Jesus) taught to the church at Rome exactly the way Peter taught them without editing or redacting the stories,[31] which is the earliest tradition known about how the accounts of Jesus were transmitted, at least in Mark's case. There's now no reason to assume Luke embellished any of the traditions that "were handed down to him from eyewitnesses" or doubt his assertion that he took extra care in recording the facts as they were relayed to him (Luke 1:1-3). There's also no reason to doubt John who stated that the things he recorded were true (John 21:24).

Whether the gospels were written pre-70 or post-70 CE is irrelevant here. The patterns in favor of conservative preservation of the traditions by the church show that the eyewitnesses who taught these traditions; those that preserved, and presumably retold these traditions; and the authors who eventually transcribed these traditions into written script were far more reliable than even the less extreme critics give them credit for.


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Source References

1. Porphyry, I. Attacks on the characters and intelligence of the Evangelists and Apostle as a pretext to attack Christianity: section 23 Macarius, Apocriticus III: 19, 20, 21, 22 (www.ccel.org).

2. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, book 4, chap. 8:15 (http://wesley.nnu.edu).

3. Talmud, Berakhot 45b (www.fordham.edu/halsall/sbook.html).

4. Ronald L. Eisenberg, The 613 Mitzvot: A Contemporary Guide to the Commandments of Judaism, p.41; 2005.

5. Greg Cantelmo, How Jesus Ministered To Women, (biblog. 25, 22) (www.bible.org).

6. Dr. William Lane Craig, The Historicity of the Empty Tomb of Jesus (www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig).

7. See Ancient Rome: Class Structure.

    Also see The Rights of Women According to Roman Law: Roman Family Law (www.womenpriests.org).

8. Dio Cassius, Roman History, book 50, section 24:6, 28:3 (http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/home.html).

9. Philo, On the Embassy to Gaius, section 40:319 (www.earlyjewishwritings.com).

10. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 2, section 25.4 (http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/home.html).

11. Livy, History, 34.3 (http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/txt/).

12. Serinity Young, An Anthology of Sacred Texts by and About Women, pp. 167-168; 1994.

13. Dan Rickman, Does Orthodox Judaism Discriminate Against Women? 2009 (http://www.ynetnews.com).

14. The Week, Eleven Things Women in Saudi Arabia Cannot Do, 2016.

15. See Masada: History.

16. Donald Green, The Folly of the Cross (pdf) (html).

17. M. Tullius Cicero, Speech before Roman Citizens on Behalf of Gaius Rabirius, section 16 (www.perseus.tufts.edu).

18. Origen, Contra Celsus, book 2, chap. 3, chap. 44 (www.newadvent.org).

19. Religionfacts, The Alexamanos Graffito, Rome (www.religionfacts.com).

20. Minucius Felix, Octavius, chap. 9 (www.newadvent.org).  

21. Herbert Danby, Tractate Sanhedrin (http://ftp.fortunaty.net/com/sacred-texts).

22. Justin Martyr, First Apology, chap. 13 (www.newadvent.org). 

23. ibid., Dialogue with Trypho, chap. 90, and chap. 32 (www.newadvent.org).

24. Tertullian, On the Flesh of Christ, chap. 5 (www.newadvent.org).

25. Gerard S. Sloyan, The Crucifixion of Jesus: History, Myth, Faith, p.14; 1995. 

26. Justin Martyr, The First Apology, chap. 55 (www.newadvent.org). 

27. Alister Mcgrath, Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth, pp.114-116; 2010.

28. The Sophia of Jesus Christ (www.gnosis.org).

      The Apocalypse of Peter (www.gnosis.org).

29. Martin Hengel, Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross, p. 4; 1997.

30. Simon J. Joseph, The Nonviolent Messiah, pp.105-106; 2014.

31. Eusebius, Church History, book 2, chap. 15 (www.newadvent.org).