Sunday, December 25, 2011

David Marshall: "Jesus and the Religions of Man"

Today, I’ll blog about Chapter 13 of David Marshall’s Jesus and the Religions of Man, which is entitled (like the book itself) “Jesus and the Religions of Man”. I have four items:

1. On pages 295-296, Marshall attempts to refute the argument that the Gospels were written long after the time about which they’re writing and thus are unreliable. Marshall states that the Gospels date only decades, not centuries, after Jesus’ death. Based on my reading and experience in academia, I attest that even the vast majority of liberal scholars would agree with that. That means that many eyewitnesses to Jesus were alive when the Gospels were written. Marshall says on page 296 that “the Gospels enjoyed a considerable advantage in this respect over all other ancient literature” (page 296), which may mean that the Gospels are closer in date to the events that they narrate than is other ancient literature to the events that they narrate.

I interacted some with this argument of Marshall in my post here. A question that I have is this: Does the existence of eyewitnesses to Jesus while the Gospels were being written mean that the Gospels are infallible or historically-reliable? Paul in Galatians and II Corinthians refers to people in his day who were proclaiming another Jesus, or another Gospel, and they were getting followers. Apparently, people could get things wrong about Jesus and successfully propagate their claims even when there were eyewitnesses to Jesus who were still alive, and those eyewitnesses were not able to stop those alternative Gospels. So why should we assume that the canonical Gospels are reliable on the basis of eyewitnesses to Jesus being around when they were written?

I remember Marshall asking in The Truth Behind the New Atheism why new atheists are so dogmatic about the Gospel authors never having met Jesus, for they were most likely alive when Jesus was. Who knows? Marshall may be right. This issue has been debated. But if eternal hell is the penalty for not accepting the Gospel authors’ message, then you’d hope that God would give us more than a “maybe” to support the Gospels’ status as eyewitness testimony.

On whether Marshall is correct on how the Gospels compare with ancient literature, my guess would be “yes” and “no”. There are histories that were written long after the events that they narrate, but there are also some histories that are quite close to the events. I think of Josephus’ account of first century Judaism. Josephus is not accepted carte blanche by historians just because he wrote close to the time of the events that he narrates, however, for Josephus had a bias and an agenda in writing his history (i.e., to convince the Romans that not all Jews were rebels and that the Pharisees should rule). Josephus has to be sifted for what we can safely say is historical, as do the Gospels.

I realize that Marshall tackles these issues in more depth in this and other books, which I will read. But I’m just raising some informal questions.

2. On page 306, Marshall addresses the issue of contradictions within the Gospels. He says that there were contradictory accounts about the 1999 shooting at Littleton, Colorado, for, while eyewitnesses agreed that a young lady was shot for saying that she believed in God, there were differences about where, and some did not even hear her say that. Marshall quotes Jefferson County investigator Gary Muse, who said, “Any time you have a traumatic situation, even if only one person is killed, every testimony is different.” Marshall also quotes scholar Paul Maier, who affirms that differences in the resurrection accounts tend to demonstrate their authenticity, for that shows that there is more than one account to the event, and that the early church was “too honest to iron the story out” (Marshall’s words).

How much contradiction can we tolerate before we conclude that the Gospels are not eyewitness testimony? This is a huge question. I agree with Marshall that differences among the Gospels by themselves do not disprove that the Gospels are eyewitness accounts, or perhaps contain eyewitness accounts. But some things should be taken into consideration, such as the ideologies of the authors. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John present different images of Jesus. The Jesus of Matthew and Luke is more Torah observant than the Jesus of Mark. And the Jesus of John is quite different from the Jesus of the synoptics, for John’s Jesus is quite open about who he is, whereas the synoptic Jesus is more secretive. Whether or not the Gospels contain eyewitness testimony, that testimony comes to us through ideologies and subjectivity. And the question that many have asked is: Can all of these different pictures of Jesus be simultaneously true? Historical Jesus scholars seek to get behind the ideologies of the Gospels to determine what might be historical.

Does the existence of ideologies within the early church show that it was dishonest or uncommitted to truth? No. I don’t think that our only options are (A.) to believe that the Gospels are practically transcripts of what really happened (or at least generally true, which is probably what Marshall thinks), and (B.) to see a conspiracy in the early church to suppress the truth and to promote its own agenda. The early church was honest to preserve the Gospels, with all of their contradictions. Perhaps they couldn’t do otherwise, since the Gospels were so popular among Christians! But the early church had an ideology and an agenda, as did the rabbis, who also tolerated (even encouraged) a degree of variety and contradiction. That should be taken into consideration when determining what may be historical, and what we cannot necessarily trust as historical.

3. On page 307, Marshall offers his own view on the star of Bethlehem, which appears to be based on Paul Maier’s work. For Marshall, the phenomenon was a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation of Pisces. Jupiter represented the highest god, Saturn was seen as the defender of Palestine, and Pisces was associated with Syria and Palestine. In The Truth Behind the New Atheism, Marshall dates this to 6 B.C. This interested me because Rick Larson dates the star to 3-2 B.C.E. and says that it was Jupiter gliding past Regulus (which means king) within the constellation of Leo, a lion, the animal that is a symbol for Judah. (UPDATE: That's not entirely accurate, for Larson actually thinks that the star occurred later and was Venus coming into conjunction with Jupiter. But he believes that the events of 3-2 B.C.E. caught the magis' attention and alerted them to the birth of a king of Israel. See my post here.) My impression from this (unless you want to say that the Star of Bethlehem appeared in both 6 B.C.E. and some years later) is that people can make a good story out of all sorts of phenomena, depending on where and when they choose to look.

4. On page 301, Marshall says that people he knows (or knows of) who make the sorts of claims Jesus made usually have serious issues (i.e., womanizing, being troubled, etc.), whereas people like Jesus generally do not make grandiose claims about themselves. Marshall mentions Gandhi. Marshall’s point here may be a variation of C.S. Lewis’ Lord-Liar-Lunatic argument: that Jesus obviously is sane and of good character, and so we can trust his claim to be God.

I could then respond that Jesus did not claim to be God but that Gospel authors (particularly John) are putting their Christological beliefs into Jesus’ mouth. But then I’d have a question: Why did Paul and John believe that Jesus was divine? What influenced a few Jews to adopt this sort of belief, when their culture was staunchly monotheistic? Marshall states in The Truth Behind the New Atheism that C.S. Lewis asked this sort of question in response to the argument that Jesus’ claims are mere legend: Were the Gospel authors crazy to portray Jesus as divine? Do their writings display craziness? If not, then maybe they are true. Or so the argument (as I understand it) goes.

Did the early Christians get their belief in Jesus’ divinity from Jesus himself? Granted, not all sects in early Christianity believed that Jesus was divine. There were Jewish-Christian sects that did not, and, while they date to the second century, they claimed to have originated earlier than that. But Paul appears to portray Jesus as a divine sort of figure. So does John. Where did they get this belief? What led some early Christians with Jewish backgrounds to conclude that Jesus was more than just a good, pious man with a special connection to God, but was in some sense divine himself? People have tackled this question, appealing to possible analogies in Judaism (i.e., wisdom, Philo’s belief in the logos, how lesser beings could carry the name of YHWH) and Gentile culture (i.e., god-men, saviors). Different perspectives on this issue deserve study, in my opinion. The claims that Jesus makes for himself in the Gospels had to come from somewhere (either himself, or those who wrote the Gospels), and for some reason.


  1. Star of Bethlehem and related chronology:


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