12 April 2012

The historical Easter

Gore Vidal tells a story of how he once met the late Sir Moses Finley, one of the twentieth century’s leading ancient historians, and asked him whether a colleague of Finley’s was reliable.

“The best in his field,” replied Finley, his great dentures shifting slightly in his mouth, “Of course he makes most of it up, like the rest of us.”

Finley wasn’t being entirely facetious: much modern analysis of ancient history is necessarily speculative, deductive, and tentative. It’s a jigsaw puzzle, and a puzzle with most of the pieces missing. Sometimes we have a corner piece and can confidently build outwards, but more often than not our picture is patchy and fragmented.

It always astonishes me when modern historians follow the consensus established in the late eighteenth century and assume that the Gospels were written between 65 and 95 AD. That this is unproven should go without saying, but what’s striking is that this consensus has profoundly ahistorical foundations.

The theory has three important elements: the ancients knew that John was written after the three synoptic gospels; textual analysis suggests that both Matthew and Luke are heavily dependent on Mark; and Mark 13 records Jesus as saying of the Temple that “there will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down,” in an apparent reference to the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 AD.

Modern writers tend to hold that Mark wrote in the aftermath of the Temple’s destruction and anachronistically attributed these words to Jesus, because it would have been impossible for Jesus to have so predicted the fall of the Temple.

Impossible? Yes, as it’s become customary for New Testament historians to approach their texts from an implicitly materialistic or atheistic stance, such that miracles, prophecies, and all intimations of divinity must be discounted as pious or superstitious elaborations.

Even Christian scholars tend all too often to begin their studies from the prejudiced position that their principle sources are fundamentally unreliable in their most important respects.

This doesn’t happen with other branches of ancient history. Thucydides, widely regarded as the greatest of ancient historians, predicted that had they but a few disparate ruins to go by, future historians might be inclined to doubt that Sparta had ever been one of the mightiest Greek powers. Scholars of fifth-century Greece don’t approach Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War by observing that the modern ruins of ancient Sparta are indeed sparse and unspectacular, casting aspersions on Thucydides’ prediction, and dismissing out of hand all accounts of Spartan force projection as Thucydidean fantasies.

If we approach the New Testament from an honestly agnostic position, we have to concede the possibility that perhaps – just perhaps – Jesus could have predicted the destruction of the Temple. Remove this keystone from the modern consensus and the entire hypothesis collapses, forcing us to look at the facts afresh. In particular, it’s worth considering how Acts ends.

Luke and Acts are, to all intents and purposes, two halves of the same document, and the inconclusive ending of Acts, with Paul teaching freely while under house arrest in Rome, strongly suggests that Acts was written before 64 AD. How better can we explain Luke’s failure to mention the outcome of Paul’s trial, the Great Fire of Rome, the Neronian Persecution, or the Jewish Revolt and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem? And if Luke wrote in the mid-sixties, drawing by his own account upon earlier narratives, then does it not seem likely that Mark and perhaps an early version of Matthew must have existed before 60 AD?

Scholars differ on the date of the Crucifixion, but generally date it between 30 and 36 AD. If Mark was written in the mid-50s, as seems likely, then we can’t dismiss this as an unreliable account, written long after the events it describes. It would be no different from somebody today writing about life-changing events in 1990.

Even Luke is no further removed from the events he describes than we are from the Hunger Strikes, the Falklands War, and the wedding of Charles and Diana, but we put the cart before the horse if we assume that Christianity began with the Gospels or is based upon the Bible. It’s not. It’s based upon the reality of Christ, as experienced and witnessed to by the Church, and as reflected in the Gospels and other New Testament writings.

Popular critics of Christianity tend to forget that the Pauline letters are widely recognised as predating the Gospels, with 1 Thessalonians dating to around 50 AD. Widely regarded as the earliest extant Christian document, it’s a remarkable testimony for Christian belief within two decades of the Resurrection.

Paul describes Jesus as the Son of God who has risen from the dead and will return from Heaven, but he doesn’t describe Jesus’ teaching, or explain how the Crucifixion and Resurrection were the fulfilment of the Old Testament. He doesn’t need to. Paul’s letters were, in the main, designed to fill gaps and clarify points: the main lines of Christian teaching were already present and accepted in the churches he and others had founded.

In 1 Corinthians, written a few years later, Paul declares the importance of accepting the historical reality of the Resurrection:
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve... Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”
Paul was taught this and more when being catechised in the nascent Church, the Church we see in Acts as having been born in the jaws of persecution.

Beyond Acts, the Jewish historian Josephus mentions the stoning to death in Jerusalem of James the “brother of the Lord”, and the Romans Tacitus and Suetonius testify to how – scarcely three decades after the Resurrection – huge numbers of Christians went to their deaths in Rome as a witness to the truths they held, being crucified, torn apart by animals, or set alight to serve as human streetlamps.

These were the first generation of Christians, including such eyewitnesses as Stephen and Peter who gave up everything to serve Jesus. It makes no sense to claim they willingly died for something they knew to be false.

People miss the point when they question the likelihood of the Resurrection.

They should instead ask how, if we deny the Resurrection, we can explain the Church.

-- Originally published in The Irish Catholic, 5 April 2012.

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