Thursday, April 12, 2018

Do the early Christian Gospels contain Fake News?

As with everything else pertaining to religion, the short answer is: it depends on who you ask. Fake news is defined this way: “Fake news in a neologism [new expression] often used to refer to fabricated news. This type of news, found in traditional news, social media, or fake news websites, has no basis in fact but is presented as being factually accurate.”1 The word “fact” I define as an actual occurrence or information having objective reality.

            Someone may object that it is unfair to compare the Bible to “fake news,” since it is an ancient document and “fake news” is a contemporary expression. Nevertheless, biblical scholars do make distinctions, for example, between factual information (ideas grounded in historical event) and nonfactual information (ideas not grounded in historical event). Here is why it may be appropriate to ask this question about the Bible: the gospels parade themselves as “good news” (translation of euaggelion), so it does not seem inappropriate to inquire about the factual character of that “news.” Luke, for example, claimed that he was going to set the record straight and present an “orderly” account to ensure that Theophilus would “know the truth” (Luke 1:3-4). Hence Luke seems to claim that his good news is “factual data.” Yet Luke uses mythological language and legends in telling his version of the story of Jesus.

            The birth narrative in Luke clearly uses mythological language (1:26-38; 2:1-20)—specifically the following verses: 1:26, 32-33, 35; 2:9-11, 13-14.  Myths, although they may inform us about human existence, are essentially stories about gods that people have celebrated and still celebrate in recitation and ritual but such stories have nothing to do with objective reality other than that the ideas about the gods are celebrated in ritual. Plato, for example, regarded what he described as “myths” to be fictional stories about the gods.2

            Scholars in general describe the story of Jesus in the temple at age twelve (Luke 2:41-52) as a legend. Legends are stories about holy people and religious heroes told “for the purpose of inspiration, instruction and religious edification.”3 While a legend may be historically based (as in this case it is told about a historical person), the details of the narrative belong to hagiography (idealizing or idolizing biography).4 For other hagiographic tales of Jesus’ childhood at ages five, six, eight, and twelve see The Infancy Gospel of Thomas.

Some scholars, however, describe this Lukan story about Jesus as a pronouncement story rather than a legend5 since the category “legend” is problematic—the term suggests fraudulent and pious fantasy. In short the designation “legend” suggests that such stories are not historical accounts.

            What do you think? Should the early Christian gospels be described as comprised in part of “fake news” rather than “good news”? The Jesus Seminar published a report in 1998 that found that only 16% of the 176 events they studied in the early gospel literature probably occurred, and the story of Jesus in the temple was not among the 16%.6

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

2C. Hedrick, Wry Guy Blog, “The Sibyl’s Wish,” June 26, 2016.
3K. Nickle, Synoptic Gospels (2001), 28.
4C. Hedrick, Wry Guy Blog, “Are there Legends in the Bible,” August 1, 2016.
5See J. Fitzmyer, Gospel According to Luke I-IX (1970), 134-39.
6R. Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Acts of Jesus. The Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus (1998), 1, 524.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

The Bones of Jesus of Nazareth

Is it possible that some archaeologist one day might turn up a bone-box discovery containing the bones of Jesus of Nazareth? As always in matters of religion, the answer depends on who you ask. True Believers, who trust that the Bible always speaks Truth in matters related to faith and doctrine, will dismiss my question as ignorance of the nature and meaning of Jesus' resurrection.

The witness of all four canonical gospels is that the tomb of Jesus was found empty by the first visitors on that first Easter morning (Mark 16:4-6; Matt 28:5-6; Luke 24:2-6; John 20:3-9). The body of Jesus was gone! This is the basis for the argument that the body of Jesus was physically resuscitated and transformed, or as the writer we call Luke has it: the flesh of Jesus did not suffer corruption (Acts 2:24-32; 13:32-35).

The gospel writers double down on the physicality of the resurrection. John adds that Jesus cautions Mary not to cling to him (John 20:17)—a spirit is hardly substantial; there is nothing to cling to. Hence the caution to Mary only makes sense if Jesus' body is physical. And Jesus invites Thomas to "put out your hand and place it in my side"; spirits do not have sides (John 20:27; where the soldier had pierced his side on the cross, John 19:34)—another clue that the body of Jesus was physical and not spirit. In Matthew the women who had come to the tomb "took hold of his feet" (Matt 28:9); spirits don't have feet, but physical bodies do. Luke notes that the resurrected Jesus was given a piece of broiled fish "and he took it and ate before them" (Luke 24:39-42); spirits do not need food but bodies do.

            According to true believers, however, why would one doubt the resurrection? God can, and has done, many things more marvelous than raising Jesus from among the dead. For example, the Bible reports that God transported Elijah bodily into heaven in a chariot of fire by means of a whirlwind—body, blood, bones, calloused bunions, and all (2 Kgs 2:9-12).

            Paul, on the other hand, in discussing the concept of resurrection (1 Cor 15:35) specifically rules out a physical resurrection: the body is destined for corruption; it is only in the spirit that one may inherit eternal life (Gal 6:8). It is foolishness, Paul says, to conceive of resurrection in terms of a physical body (1 Cor 15:36-42). In short, "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable" (1 Cor 15:50). What can inherit the kingdom of God is the "spiritual body" (1 Cor 15:44), Paul argues, and that must include Jesus as well (1 Cor 15:45).

            Paul's idea of a spiritual resurrection does seem to make more sense than what is found in the gospels, but if we are transformed what happens to the old body? Paul argues that it will be changed (allagēsometha), like one changes a suit of clothes (1 Cor 15:52), and "puts on" the imperishable and immortal spirit (1 Cor 15:53-54). Nevertheless, there seems to be a continuum between the mortal and the immortal; the physical body is not divested but "further clothed" (2 Cor 5:1-4).

One of Paul's disciples, however, did not follow this last idea of the great apostle, and argued instead that "at death, the Elect are 'drawn' to heaven by the Savior (Treatise on the Resurrection, 45.34-39). The inner, spiritual self 'departs' and experiences a blessed 'absence' from the fleshly body" (Treatise on the Resurrection, 27.19-24, 35-38).1 In other words, the resurrection is a completely spiritual event. If the writer of this treatise on the resurrection is correct, it would seem that we might yet find the bones of Jesus buried somewhere in Israel.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Malcolm Peel, "The Treatise on the Resurrection," in Harold Attridge, ed., Nag Hammadi Codex I (Leiden: Brill, 1985), 142.