Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Analyzing the Narrative

Detail from Meister Francke’s Resurrection, ca. 1424
I read a lot of fiction. I always have. And, like most avid readers, I can tell the difference between a good story and a bad one; between a narrative account that holds water and one that is flimsily constructed or implausible.

The stolen body hypothesis is one of the latter, one that has been around from the very beginning. Matthew points out that the chief priests and elders paid to circulate the rumor as soon as it was clear the Lord’s body was no longer in his tomb.

Of course the stolen body hypothesis takes for granted the basic historicity of the Bible. If you don’t believe at least the bare bones of the written record of Jesus and his disciples — or for that matter, Pilate, Joseph of Arimathea and the guards at the tomb — there’s little sense in wasting your time picking away at the minor details of the gospel accounts.

But for those who do …

You Tell Me Which Seems More Likely

It’s A.D. 33 or thereabouts. Your name is John, James, Thaddaeus … you pick one, I don’t care.

Your master and teacher has just been falsely accused by his own countrymen, handed over to Roman authority, given a mockery of a trial, tortured, crucified and buried in a cave, not by his followers but by a former secret disciple who was the only one with enough courage to claim the body.

You are stricken with grief and both embarrassed and disappointed in your own cowardice and that of your fellow disciples who deserted him and ran. You are probably sorry you quit your day job. But you had hoped (and even thought you really believed) that Jesus was the one to redeem Israel and now it has become clear that is not going to happen. The man who was “the Son of God, the King of Israel” according to Nathanael and the “Christ, the Son of the Living God” according to Peter has now been downgraded in your estimation to a mere “prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people.”

The last three years of your life have just turned out to be a giant waste of time.

Here’s What You Do

You meet with the few close friends who followed him because, well, these are your people now. Who else would you turn to? You left your family, friends and job to follow an itinerant who, it is now claimed, was actually a criminal and blasphemer. You probably lost a fair bit of respect and goodwill in the community along the way. Even if your family wants you back, they’d be a little afraid of harboring a known associate of an insurrectionist. For their sake alone you’d be inclined to keep your distance for a while.

You meet behind locked doors, in secret, of course. After all, if they murdered your master they will surely do the same to you. Best to keep your heads down, at least until all this blows over.

Or, like Thomas, maybe you miss a few of those early post-crucifixion get-togethers entirely. What’s the point after all? The Rabbi is dead. The movement is over.

Maybe, like Peter, in the absence of any specific sense of what to do next, you go fishing.

In short, you do everything the gospels say the disciples did. Their behavior is entirely logical, predictable and consistent.

If we assume the Lord does not rise from the dead and the story goes on, then likely the locked-door gatherings become fewer and further between, the disciples gradually drift apart, go back to their communities, families and fishing crews, eat a little crow, get used to wearing a rueful expression for a while, and eventually all is forgotten.

Here’s What You DON’T Do

Remember, in this version of the story, the Lord has not risen. There’s nobody in all of Jerusalem more sure that he’s dead than you are. Some of you were right there watching it happen.

So you don’t turn around in that locked room one day to your disillusioned companions and say, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if we could just steal the Lord’s body and pretend he’s alive? That would just blow everybody’s mind!”

What would be the point?

And you don’t say, “You know, if we wrote this up and promoted it just the right way, we could probably start a new religion.” You are all faithful, orthodox Jews who believe in the Old Testament. That’s why you followed the Lord in the first place. Are you going to take the moral risk of bearing false testimony about something so serious? Are you going to take a stand against your own religion when its leaders have just been proved to be right about Jesus?

For what? You’ve just spent three years following a man who didn’t even have a foxhole to sleep in. Do you imagine there’s money or any other sort of advantage to be had from perpetuating this? I think not.

And you definitely don’t say, “Let’s go preach Jesus as raised from the dead in the temple every day until we get some attention.” After all, you weren’t willing to die with him when you believed he was the Messiah. Why on earth would you be willing to do so now, knowing he was either a liar, or horribly mistaken about his relationship with the Father.

And even if you do all these nutty, impossibly unlikely things, what are the chances you hold up and maintain your conspiracy — eleven or more of you — under the intensive scrutiny of the entire Jewish population and the furious opposition of the chief priests, scribes and Pharisees.

You’ve got to be kidding me.

What Does It Prove?

Well, strictly speaking, it doesn’t prove anything at all, does it. I’m analyzing the motives of dead men with two millennia of history between me and them.

But when you really look closely at it, the version of events in the gospels is far more logical and plausible, at least in accounting for the behavior of those who followed Jesus, than any other explanation that has been advanced. It’s a narrative that holds water.

The theory that Jesus never existed at all currently has very little scholarly support. Still, taking the position that the gospel accounts are fiction from beginning to end has the advantage of being rational, if not in line with the historical consensus.

But holding on to the general outline of the gospels while disputing the details you don’t like is straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel.

It’s the narrative advanced by the Bible’s critics that makes no sense.

1 comment :

  1. It seems to me that none of these scholarly investigations seem to focus on what really counts, and which I have mentioned previously. Namely, that the biblical account of the life of Jesus in the gospels is basically a suggested methodology with a call to action and its implementation in the private and public sphere. This call to action is so significant that it is portrayed in the gospels and by Jesus as the only way to achieve personal and public redemption in such an effective manner that it is likened to being born again. Now, it is a fact that a methodology is quantifiable by its results which depend on how it is applied. That's why I have always stressed that the effect of Christianity must be and actually is measurable, especially nowadays with the scientific method, and that that is the most significant criterion when evaluated in terms of being negative or positive for the individual and humanity. It must be understood that this, the change in character of the individual and therefore the human situation, was the aim and purpose of Christ's existence and teaching. Christ's authenticity and historicity should therefore strictly be measured by its impact on the person, societies, and the world, which not only includes a measurement of positive trends but also detrimental trends if one elects to ignore his historicity.