'Who do Men say that I Am?' by Cullen Murphy The Atlantic Monthly, December 1986, p. 37 Th

Master Index Current Directory Index Go to SkepticTank Go to Human Rights activist Keith Henson Go to Scientology cult

Skeptic Tank!

"Who do Men say that I Am?" by Cullen Murphy The Atlantic Monthly, December 1986, p. 37 This article discusses recent research by biblical scholars using source/form/literary/redaction criticism (as well as archaeological findings) to attempt to reconstruct the historical Jesus: [...] The Gospel accounts, of course, offer clues about Jesus, but the Gospels are highly imperfect historical documents. They did not take final shape until the late first century, a full generation (or two) after the death of Jesus, which is said to have occurred somewhere around A.D. 30. The earliest surviving manuscript fragment ... was produced as many as five generations after the death of Jesus. The Gospels were the work of people who already believed in Jesus as the risen Lord and who, as the letters of Saint Paul attest, had assimilated a body, if not always precisely the same body, of early doctrine. ... The Gospels almost certainly were not by any of the twelve apostles and may or may not have been written by men named Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, who may or may not have been alive at the time of Jesus, and who may or may not represent composites of many individual chroniclers. The Gospels are also based on a wide variety of sources. Extracting historical fact, as modern person would understand that term, from such texts is an enormously complicated task. Contemporary non-Christian documents are of little help. Historical accounts that mention Jesus ... confirm little more than that he lived, preached, and was crucified. Even as statements of belief, rather than of historical actuality, the Gospels are frequently ambiguous, inconsistent, and otherwise problematic. Ok. First let me say that I have been perusing five or six different texts on the NT, and all of them agree with the above paragraphs. Let me itemize what I think are the important points this author makes: 1) The Gospels are not eyewitness accounts. 2) They were written down a minimum of 30-40 years after the Crucifixion. All texts I have seen give Mark as the first, written down AD 66-70, before the Destruction of the Temple, with John as the last, written about AD 90-100. 3) The Gospels were written by people "who already believed in Jesus as the risen Lord". In other words, their accounts are not independent and unbiased. 4) Independent accounts of Jesus are essentially non-existent, and do nothing more than give a fourth-handed reference to him. I myself have read ALL of _The Letters of the Younger Pliny_, _The Annals of Tacitus_, and _The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by Suetonius_, and I can verify that (using the words of one translator): "To our Roman authors the Christians of the 1st century were a pitiable lot. And they give us never a clue as to whether a man Christ actually lived and was crucified, or whether he was a fiction Rome herself pieced together in an effort to create a religious tool by which further to unite the diverse peoples under her dominion." For your convenience I have listed at the bottom of this letter references to Christians in these works. Unhappily I have not yet read Josephus, who also mentions Christ. [I have been informed by a correspondent that Josephus' account is just as useless as the ones I have cited] Now, in light of these *facts*, let us reexamine your assertion above. You say that the OT is devoted to setting the stage for the coming of Christ, and that when he finally did appear, there was evidence that he was who he said he was, because he fulfilled a lot of prophecies. I could read this statement of yours in two ways: 1) Jesus *independently of the OT* fulfilled it's prophecies. In other words, without being cognizant of what had come before him, or what would be expected of a potential Messiah, he nevertheless managed to follow the path of a Messiah. This is patently false, since a major attraction of Jesus was his superior knowledge of the OT when compared to the Church Elders. 2) Taking all the miracles as related in the NT literally and objectively true, we match them up against the OT prophecies. Well, I am not an OT scholar, and don't have a list of these prophecies at hand; perhaps YOU can provide such a list that I could research. Specifically, I would like to know how specific these prophecies are - are they general statements or do they refer to specific events in the NT. The second alternative is probably the one you favor. But I must ask you to review the points I listed above; to wit, that the events of Jesus' life were written down long after the fact; that the only *evidence* for the miracles in the NT are from these four writers, none of whom were eyewitnesses (and in addition, two of them, Matthew and Luke, got most of their material from a third, Mark); and that we have *no* independent sources with which to corroborate their stories. Therefore you must excuse me if I put forward a third hypothesis which fits all of the *evidence* that we possess today. Which is that the NT is a multi-layered accretion of oral legends (later written down) produced within the Christian communities of the early Roman empire. These people were firmly grounded in the OT literature, knew that the best way to attribute authority to their chosen saviour was to relate him as much as possible to the Messiah prophecies of the OT, and did so. This process did not happen all at once, and indeed there were bits and pieces added here and there to strengthen the unity of the gospels and make them more conformable to accepted Christian practice well into the 15th century. (I would be glad to give you specific references to examples of this - just ask.) I would be willing to grant you that there was an actual person named Jesus who was crucified in Palestine, but the surviving accounts of him are at best second-handed and at worst of dubious authenticity. Crucifixion was a common punishment in this era, and I'll just bet that more than one person claimed that *he* was the *true* Messiah. In other words (surely you have thought of this yourself!?) the *evidence* you speak of the in OT predicting the coming of Jesus was all manufactured *after the fact*, and is not *evidence* at all. && My point is that a reasonable person with integrity should && recognise that they *do* make faith assumptions in how they live && their lives and in what their world views are. Such a person is && able to analize their own leaps of faith to see if they are && reasonable or not. And yes, a great many Christians don't do && this either, I'm sad to say. && I agree that people do operate within Weltenschaungs and that they should examine these beliefs. However, after all the lines of this letter, it should be clear that I don't think your own leaps of faith are very reasonable. If you have made an honest attempt to research the origins of the Bible, and have not limited yourself to reading only the Bible without any criticism, if after all this you can still believe, if you can be like Abraham in "Fear and Trembling", then I salute you. But you must forgive me for suspecting that your faith is based on childhood teachings that you have never really questioned...and that your faith is in fact very different from the faith that scientists have in (say) the theory of evolution. Latin author references to Christians: Tactitus, Annals: XV. 43 Suetonius, Lives: Books VI and VIII Pliny, Epistolae: Number 96 Also, try reading "Who Wrote The Bible," by Friedman (excellent)


E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank