Christians of all stripes cringe at such a thought. There are passages in the New Testament, however, which are troubling and need to be explained.
On the one hand, there is the beauty of Jesus’s teachings. He summarizes Jewish law in terms of loving God and neighbor. In several parables, one’s neighbor is defined broadly. The religion of Jesus is inclusive.
In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew, chapters five through seven), Jesus counsels his followers to be gentle, merciful, pure in heart, and peacemakers. He further urges them not to kill or judge others and to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them. When Peter asks Jesus if forgiving a person seven times is enough, Jesus tells him to forgive seven times seven (Matthew 18: 21-35). Forgiveness is unlimited. The stories describing Jesus’s miracles frequently point to compassion as his primary motivation for healing the sick.
On the other hand, he tells his disciples that he did not come to bring peace to the earth, but that he brings a sword, that he has come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother (Matthew 10:34-39). In chapter fifteen of Matthew (vv. 21-39), Jesus heals the daughter of a Canaanite woman but not before referring to Canaanites in general as dogs, an unclean animal for Jews and thus an offensive slur. In chapter twenty-three of Matthew, he rages out at his enemies using insulting epithets like children of hell, blind guides, snakes, and brood of vipers.
How is one to explain these discrepancies? For me, the answer is quite simple. New Testament writers put words into Jesus’s mouth.
The story of how the gospels were created is a fascinating one. All the earliest manuscripts were written in Greek not Aramaic or Hebrew, which means that the gospels were written in the Hellenistic world a long way from where the events took place. These gospels were also written a long time after Jesus’s death. It took considerable time for the nascent Christian movement to relocate in places like Antioch, Ephesus, and Rome.
This relocation was precipitated by the Jewish/Roman War of 66 to 73 CE. The Jews rebelled against Roman colonial rule in 66 CE. Over the next seven years Rome reconquered Palestine, destroying Judaism in the process. In 70 CE the Temple was destroyed and Jerusalem burned. Over a million Jews were killed during the war. Those fortunate enough to survive were sent into exile. The Palestine of Jesus became a ghost town.
One unfortunate result of this devastating war was that the Jesus movement was decimated. Gospels written in Palestine closer to the events and nearer to Jesus in time have never been found. Many followers of Jesus were killed. What is remarkable is that the movement somehow managed to survive and to relocate in the Hellenistic world.
The problem with this history for Christians living today is that so much information about Jesus was lost. The existing New Testament gospels were written forty or fifty years after Jesus’s crucifixion in places a long way from where the events took place. Written records were lost or burned which meant that the gospels were written from an oral tradition, stories passed down by word of mouth, that was two generations in the making.
How does one write a gospel based on such limited data? The only solution was to invent stories and to put words in Jesus’s mouth. This process would present a devastating blow to the Christian religion except for the fact that all ancient biographies were written this way. The data problems for Jesus were similar to data problems pertaining to other great ancient figures.
The gospel accounts of Jesus are all we have, and the process of their creation suggests that they are flawed human works. The discrepancies noted at the beginning of this blog are examples of common New Testament problems. When the gospels are read and analyzed carefully, several different pictures of Jesus emerge. The four gospels give us different Jesus’s to believe in. Because it is not possible for history to confirm one belief over another, a spirit of tolerance with respect to these differing views is called for.
Rick Herrick started this discussion 5 months ago. ( | permalink )