At long last, we reach something about this Jesus guy and things historically get more interesting again. The Gospels, as the books directly about Jesus are called, are Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. At least those canonically accepted by most branches of Christianity. There are a host of other Gospels, but they remain beyond the scope of this post and project, perhaps later. I will just say that there were a bunch of different gospels, and the four that ended up in the bible did so for historical, political and theological reasons which I might talk about later.
Because the Gospels are in some ways a retelling of the same ‘story’ four times these posts will focus partially on the history of that particular gospel and it’s textual analysis, but also on different topics important to understanding the historical period of the Gospels, and how they have been interpreted in different ways over time.
First the basics of historical context; Judea was conquered by the Romans during the 1rst century BCE, first being a tributary Kingdom and then a province of the expanding Roman Empire. As was common, especially in the east of the Empire, local rulers were appropriated into governing the state and Roman figures were placed in overseeing positions. This is centuries after the Persian conquest/liberation of the area, which was the last historical period we had seen.
The Romans permitted local religious practice and, until after the period we are discussing, permitted local laws to deal with a host of crimes. In Matthew, we have a couple of historical figures which help us place when this is happening(beyond of course that the CE calendar is based on the Gregorian Calendar which uses the Birth of Jesus as it’s periodization.)
The first is Herod, also called Herod the Great. Historically we know quite a bit about him outside the Gospels. He was raised a Jew but his father was a convert. He was supported in what amounts to a Civil War by the Roman Senate as the King of the Jews. He ascended said Throne, and was always questioned by some religious elements within Jewish society. He was responsible for much building in the state, including expanding the second temple. Upon his death, Rome divided his kingdom into five pieces.
His mention in Matthew, however, is what is called the ‘Murder of the Innocents’. Hearing from three Magi about the birth of Jesus, Herod is supposed to have ordered the execution of all children of a certain age to end this potential threat to his rule. This episode has a historicity problem, however. Matthew is the only place it is recorded, and even sources, like the 1rst century Jewish Historian Josephus, that are hostile to Herod and record many other things he did, make no mention of it.
Pontius Pilate is the other significant historical figure we can place; We have enough sources to know he was appointed prefect of the Roman province of Judea in 26 CE and was deposed in 37 CE after putting down a Samaritan uprising. While a historical figure in the Bible in that he presides over the execution of Jesus(and famously ‘washes his hands’ of the affair) what third-party information we have gives us little to go on.
So the Gospel itself; Mathew is a record of the life and times of Jesus Christ. It seems almost trite to go over the story, as it suffuses aspects of western culture, but it also varies from Gospel to Gospel so I’ll try; Jesus is born to Mary, a young wife of Joseph. A man descended, we are told, from Abraham and King David. Jesus is not Joseph’s son, but angels appear and so he doesn’t do what most men of the time would do if their wife was pregnant not by them. Jesus is born, the story with Herod Happens, Magi show up etc.
A note regarding the Magi; Magi were the priest class of the Persian Zoroastrian faith. They were experts on Astrology and Astronomy, Mathematics, and a host of other things, including occult and hidden matters. Magi is where our English term ‘Magic’ comes from. The function here, besides helping Herod fulfil a little bit of old testament prophecy, is one of celebrity and authority. If the biblical tale was happening today you’d have a group of scientists show up. The intent would be the same; These really wise and powerful guys showed up to vouch for Jesus.
A period of time skips and we get to John the Baptist. My basic impression is that John is a fringe religious figure; a sort of ‘cult-leader’ who goes around absolving people of sins and so forth. Jesus shows up and there is a sort of passing of the torch in which John baptises Jesus. It’s unclear if Jesus was one of John’s followers but the intent of Matthew(which we recall is establishing religious doctrine through stories set in the past) is to show a sort of succession and that John the Baptist ‘predicts’ Jesus. John gets executed and Jesus starts a ministry.
The majority of the text is this ministry; where we get the various sayings, parables, etc. From a historical point of view, the important bit is this; Jesus gains more followers, including a core group of believers(the Disciples), impresses the multitudes, and comes afoul of the Judean religious authorities. They try and trip him up, and eventually, he crosses some sort of line and they are able to, with the help of a traitorous Judas, seize Jesus and then have him executed. After which he is buried, rises from the grave, etc.
Historically what this paints is the picture of a religion/political ‘radical’ upsetting a status quo. Disregarding the overt supernatural elements we have stories of a man confronting a religious and political orthodoxy and seeking to overturn it. Being half-tolerated until he becomes politically dangerous. Then being executed.
What is interesting from a textual standpoint is how this book, being written decades later, deals both with what happened and what is happening at the time of it’s writing. For example, Jesus’ burial has a section wherein the author basically says “Well The Jews and others say that Jesus’ followers stole his body, but no look, this is why that couldn’t be so.” That’s not something you include if you’re recounting history; it’s something to prove a point to others.
A good number of scholars believe Mark(the next gospel) was the first to be composed and that Mathew follows from, and utilises much from Mark. Mark was composed in the last quarter of the 1rst century, so easily a full generation after the death of Jesus and into a successive generation of Christians. Christians who not only had not seen Jesus personally but might be dealing with third person accounts at this time. They would also have dealt with radical historical changes in Judea. Including the Destruction of the 2nd Temple and Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans in 70 AD after a series of unrests. This undoubtedly shapes and shift the tone and content of the Gospel.
I’ll deal more with the historical context and change in Judea of the 1rst century with the Next Gospel, Mark.