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The Bible in and as History: Acts

 

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Peter the Apostle is delivered from prison

With the Gospels behind me, I move away from the life and times of Jesus, and into that of the early church which preached in his name.

 

Acts, or more properly the Acts of the Apostles, is generally thought to have been written by the same author as Luke.  Some scholars contend the two were originally a single composed text.  Both open with reference to Theophilus, a figure about whom there are many theories;  Some believe him to be a particular person to whom the works were addressed: a convert, a Roman official or something else.  Others believe it was an honourary religious title.  Regardless, this and other elements, such as the similarity in the structure of the written work in its earliest sources, makes Luke and Acts part of a greater whole.

Where Luke ends with the resurrection, Acts picks up immediately after and follows the tribulations of an earthly Church now bereft of its saviour.  Like Luke, however, the intent is not a recording of historical events, but rather to recount events as they pertain to a particular theological vision.  Events as prophecy or fulfilment therein, events as showing the path for the Faithful.

There are two different textual ‘traditions’ for Luke-Acts, the Western Text-type and the Alexandrian.  These vary in several ways and for Acts, the Western is longer and has more blame for the Jews and intercessions of the Holy Spirit.  The existing manuscripts date from the 6th and 4th centuries respectively, though we have referent works going back to the 3rd century.  This suggests an ongoing process of revision well after the initial writing, which most place around 80-90 CE, decades after Pauls imprisonment in Rome in 63 CE, which is the final event recorded in the work.  Others place the books authorship significantly later.  What is important is to remember that the Bible is not a static thing existing apart from time.

The King James version which I follow goes like this; After the resurrection, the Apostles elect Matthias to replace Judas.  The Holy spirit infuses them and they go out to perform miracles and good works in Christ’s name.  There are many conversions as they show the power of the Holy Spirit.  However, Jewish authorities begin to persecute the Christians, eventually leading to the execution of Stephen, a deacon of this early Church.

Stephen is accused of Blasphemy, gives a speech deriding and accusing the Jewish authorities of various improprieties and is then found guilty and executed by stoning.  In some considerations, he is the first Christian Martyr.

This is taken as a rejection of the Holy message by the Jews, and the message is then taken to the Samaritans and the Gentiles.  Saul of Tarsus, who would become Paul the Apostle,  is a Jew who persecutes Christians until he has a religious experience and converts.  A central figure of early Christianity, we’ll be talking plenty about him in coming posts.

The Apostle Peter converts a Gentile Centurian, and the Holy Ghost descends to show that there is Divine approval for this new mission of bringing the message to the Gentiles.  The new Church of ‘Christians’ is firmly established.

Paul starts travelling around establishing new Churches.  While in Jerusalem he is set upon by a Jewish mob, and after some trials and tribulations gets Sent to Rome as he asserts his rights as a Roman Citizen.  We don’t know what happens after he is imprisoned in Rome because the work just kind of ends.

Interesting to me is this portrayal of the early church, or perhaps ‘a’ early church.  We know that early Christianity was one of many Jewish sects emerging from the period of Roman rule, leading up through the destruction of the Second temple.  Christianity itself seems to have broken into various sects almost immediately, with conflict between those who saw Jesus message as being a strictly Jewish affair and those who spread it to Gentiles.  Luke and Acts both paint negative pictures of the Jewish community, and they would be used later to justify various kinds of Anti-semitism.

Acts thus served as a textual way to explain the early history of the Church and to theologically justify it.  It also bears our first image of Paul the Apostle, who would be a central figure in Christianity as the religious would become.

Indeed after Acts, we start into the ‘Pauline Epistles’, the letters of Paul.

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The Bible in and as History: John

So finally we round out the four Canonical gospels with John.  We’ve thus-far seen Jesus as a revolutionary preacher, as a religious Icon, and as a sort of Wizard performing Magic for the faithful.  What we have also seen though, are four closely related Gospels.  Mark, Mathew and Luke are called the Synoptic Gospels because there are elements of unity between all three.  Speeches that repeat.  Doctrines that repeat, sometimes almost word for word.  You can see, in the Synoptic Gospels, a story told through three lenses, but linked to common sources.  As mentioned previously, most believe Luke, for example, was composed utilizing Mathew and another source, some sort of Oral tradition now lost.

John is the odd man out then.  This Gospel comes from another tradition, another set of sources, and though it possesses some similarities, it also is very set apart.  One can read Mathew for example and then John and see two almost completely different narratives.  In this Gospel, John the Baptist is more a sign himself than a Prophet.  One set to clear the way for the Messiah, and one of several.  What’s more, nothing regarding Jesus’ miracle birth is covered in John.  Like Mathew, it goes straight into his ministry, though the things it talks about are quite different.

In common with the other Gospels, Jesus preaches in Galilea, but he performs many more miracles, especially of healing, and some of the things he expressly does in the other gospels, such as his disputations with authorities over his disciples picking wheat on the Sabbath, are omitted.  None of the familiar Parables are here, nor are many of the sections regarding Jesus’ teachings.  Though he feeds the multitudes and walks on water, he also claims directly to be the son of God, and that he is sent from Heaven, which the Jews Dispute.  He turns water into Wine at the wedding of Cana.  He uses his power to raise Lazarus from the Dead, as a foreshadowing of his own resurrection.

Jesus’ execution is more similar to what has transpired before, with his judgement, being brought before Pilate, his crucifixion.  Though while the crucifixion has various places within the Gospels, here it seems more a known outcome.  Less something the people do without realizing what they are doing and more a fore-ordained event permitting Jesus to return to ‘the Father’.

After his death, his resurrection is also far more drawn out. There are more references to his disciples seeing him, and he delivers greater messages and portents after his resurrection.  This is a Jesus for whom the resurrection was assured, and offers not a break, but a continuation, or perhaps culmination of his ministry.

John is written, as each of the Gospels are, in a particular historical context and for a particular audience.  Its authorship is in dispute.  Traditionally it is according to John the Apostle, one of Jesus twelve apostles, though this is not considered likely by most biblical scholars.  Its authorship is generally placed at 80-100 CE, and it is placed within a tradition of Johannine literature, which includes John, the First, Second and Third Epistles of John and the Book of Revelations.  It is believed there was a specific or several specific, Johannine ‘sects’ that composed these particular works, based around a theological conception of Jesus as a direct deity and interceder.  That is, in Mark, you have Jesus as a very Jewish-type Prophet.  John see’s Jesus as a more mythical figure, who rather than being the Son of God who shows us the way through his teachers, is the Son of God who gives us the way through his existence.

The context of this group in the case of the Gospel of John is also the emerging divergence between Judaism and early Christianity.  It is clear that initially, ‘Christians’ were in a way a ‘sect’ of John the Baptists followers, who were themselves a sect of unorthodox Judaism(for the 1rst century that is).  Over time there came to be separation, as more Gentiles entered the faith, as the faith mutated and split.  By the time of the Gospel of John, there is a clear need to differentiate one-self from ‘The Jews’ of the Second Temple.  Keeping in mind of course that this temple was destroyed in 70 CE, right before John was likely written.  So you have the orthodox Jewish religious authorities, with the central object of their authority having been destroyed by the Romans, dealing with a separate sect supporting eclectic and apocalyptic claims regarding the death of their saviour figure two generations or so earlier.  John clearly sets out to provide separation between ‘Christians’ and ‘Jews’.  Its language establishes ‘The Jews’ as separate from the author, and it is here one finds the most direct ‘blame’ for Jesus Crucifixion.  While in later centuries this would be a source of justification for anti-Semitism, John is largely concerned with the preservation of its own religious community.

Interesting to consider is how this book, compared to the other three Gospels, enters into ‘Canonicity’.  The Gospel of John was clearly in use in a host of early Christian communities, though not all.

Its message seems to have appealed in a broader Roman World, in a way perhaps that Matthew or Mark might not have.  As we shall see going forward, the Pauline works will take a subsect of a subsect of Judaism and transform it into a distinct religion, infused with Greek and Roman tradition, as well as Hebrew.

With the Gospels finished we move on to works that vary more in their content; Next time is Acts.

 

 

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The Bible in and as History: Luke

 

The Good Samaritan

If one were to ask a layman, the sort who hasn’t ever read the Gospels in full and absorbed most of what he knows of Jesus from a combination of Sunday School, popular stories and badly drawn Children books, what the main beats of Jesus’ life are, what I think would be interesting is how many of them come in part from Luke.

 

Like Mathew but unlike Mark, Luke has a far more supernatural bent.  The Jesus of Luke is a divine figure, less a man than a proxy for God who speaks in mystical parables and with hints of hidden knowledge.  Where the Jesus of Mark laments his death on the Cross, a Prophet and Messiah figure asking ‘Where are you God?’, Luke’s Jesus is more serene, surrendering himself up to God as if the entirety of these events was expected.  That indeed is the part of Luke’s theology that becomes apparent and the part where, like each of the two previous works, we must try and see in historical context what was recorded for Theological purposes.  Mark, Mathew, Luke and Later John will all record events of supposedly the same person, yet have very different purposes, interpretations and even actually recordings of sayings.  Like the Akira Kurosawa film ‘Rashomon’ in which several different people each retell the same set of events from their perspective, we are left with different reflections of historical and ahistorical events, and we must parse them.

To my first point; My own, very vague, limited ‘Anglican in Theory’ upbringing would lead me to the following ‘stories’ about Jesus; The Christmas Narrative, we all know Jesus was born in a Manger in Bethlehem, under a glowing Star.  Three Kings show up to give him gifts.  A whole bunch of animals; humble birth to the sainted King of Kings.  What’s interesting is how much of that popular fiction isn’t even constructed from the Biblical texts.  The ‘Three Kings’ or the ‘Magi’ as I’ve referenced before, show up years after Jesus birth in the biblical tellings.  More interesting is that much of this is almost assuredly fiction.  The parts we could match to history simply don’t’ have any support.  No indication of a wide-spread hunt and slaughter of Babies by Herod for example.  Absolutely no reason for people to ‘return to their birthplaces’ for some sort of Census or tax thing.  The Romans were effective tax collectors, and the idea that people would have to return to their supposed birthplaces to do so would appear as strange to them as it does to us.  Astrological indications also don’t seem to point to any Star.  Certainly, the expansive Persian records would record something in this regard?  But all that is sort of immaterial in talking about Luke.  Luke’s start of Jesus’ life is about a consistent theological construction of that life.  Where for Mark, Jesus shows up as an Adult man, a follower, or something similar to John the Baptist to whom the torch is passed, etc.  In Luke Jesus is foretold, and everyone around him knows it.  John is birthed in mystical circumstances as well, a prophet of Jesus’ coming.  These are not historical understandings of events.

Moving on discussing the limited knowledge of my youth; Jesus was a preacher or something, he walks on water, feeds a whole bunch of people Loaves and Fishes through some sort of Magic, throws the Money Changers out of the Temple for some reason, and gets nailed to the Cross, where he dies and then comes back three days later.  What one notices is that much of what I ‘recall’ of my childhood exposure is magical.  Now obviously the fantastic is going to stick with a child more than any esoteric theology is going to.  That’s precisely why fairy-tales and all manner of fantasy are engrossing to children of varied cultures.  As my previous discussion on Mark talked about, however, merely because something is magical doesn’t mean there isn’t a potential for historical truth within.  The Stories of Troy, famously, are filled with the intercessions of Greek Gods, yet they led to the discovery of actual historical cities that were thought mythical.  We don’t take this as evidence that Zeus is an actual figure, however.

So Lukes text is similar, but more expansive and focused on other things compared to Mark and Mathew; Jesus and John the Baptist are born in mystical circumstances, Jesus is baptised by John, prophecy is fulfilled.  Jesus starts his ministry, isn’t well received in his home.  He travels to Jerusalem, whereby he knows the future that awaits him.  This is the biggest departure from the other two I think; wherein Mark and Mathew might abstractly suggest Jesus had some inkling of things going south, Luke straight up says “Jesus knew his destiny was to die on the cross”.  This different obviously has theological implications, if not historical ones.  In any case, Jesus has confrontations with local Jewish Leaders, he is arrested and executed on the Cross, he arrises three days later, miracles abound, etc.

Textual analysis of Luke pairs it with Acts, a book of the bible I haven’t gotten to yet.  These are generally considered to be done by the same author(s).  Luke has many similarities to Mathew and Mark, and it is generally agreed upon that Luke was formed through utilisation of Mark and ‘The Q Source’, with about a third of it unique to Luke.  Looking at surviving texts, we actually have two separate ‘streams’ or ‘families of versions’ of the two works.  There is considerable evidence that Luke was being revised well into the 2nd century.  To a society such as our, where the copying of text is so astoundingly easy that we often forget how difficult it once was, it can seem amazing that a central religious text would be altered over time.  Yet when books have to be copied out by hand, and where the survival of texts beyond a few centuries is most assuredly not guarantee, it is entirely possible and indeed likely for variations within a codex to propagate.

 

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The Bible in and as History: Mark

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The Gospel according to Mark is the shortest of the four Gospels presented in the King James Bible and is, according to Biblical scholars, almost certainly the oldest.

Biblical scholarship believes that Mark, Mathew, and Luke have a close relationship.  There is much shared between all three books.  The most broadly accepted theory is the ‘Q-Source Hypothesis’.  This posits that Mark was written earliest and both Mathew and Luke were derived in Part from Mark, but also in part from another source, called the ‘Q’ Source, thought to be an oral tradition of sayings of Jesus.

I won’t be talking in great detail about the text of Mark because it basically does the exact same narrative as Mathew, though shorter.  There is no virgin birth, it starts right in with his ministry, meeting with John the Baptist and so forth.  Many of the incidents are the same; Banishing demons, healing a woman, curing the sick, etc.  But others are missing or different.  The books ending is also very controversial.  The earliest sources we have for the book seem to end at 16:8, with a woman coming out of Jesus’ empty tomb.  The following text, about his appearance, is believed to be a later addition by Church fathers in the 2nd century.

Mark was written probably within 2-3 generations of Jesus death and is different in tone and character from Matthew.  The Jesus of Matthew is a supernaturally divine figure, born of a virgin, anointed by Magi.  He speaks with a mythical voice.  The Jesus of Mark is a smaller, perhaps a more relatable figure.  A man who still performs miracles; who heals, exorcises spirits and such.  But almost a magician.  He’s also a man who asks ‘Why have you forsaken me’ of his God on the Cross, and strikes me as a more relatable historical figure.

Therein lies the trap.

In this blog before I’ve talked about looking at the source, trying to understand who was writing any particular part of the bible and why.  Here we see precisely why historians must look at the context of sources outside of their own perspectives in dealing with a source.  As someone with a hefty scientific and secular background, my inclination is, if two sources are presented and one is filled with Unicorns and Magic and one isn’t, to presume the latter is the more historically accurate.  Given that Mark was written before Matthew the temptation is to see Mark as more accurate, Matthew as an addendum to dress up Mark.  The problem, however, is that Mark isn’t being written as history for some 21st-century blogger.  It’s being written by someone in the 1rst century A.D., for a Gentile audience(we can know this because he has to explain certain Jewish rituals and practices), and as a theological work.  Its intent isn’t to tell me history, but to convey a view of Christ for followers of the 1rst century Church.  We have no more reason to accept it’s account over that of Mathew’s(or indeed other sources) save by looking at other sources, comparing them, and making judgements.

So still, looking at a ‘historical’ Jesus, we see a religious figure, broadly gaining influence, who comes afoul of the authorities in Jerusalem.  He threatens their basis of power in some way and is crucified by the Roman authorities for it.

For much of the history of Christianity, Mark was the ‘lesser’ Gospel, numbered 2nd or 4th in the order.  It was a ‘synopsis’ of Matthew to an extent.  One can see, from my prior descriptions, how the Jesus of Matthew is a fuller divine character than that of Mark.  To those composing the King James Bible then, it was still an important book, but less important than the other Gospels.  There are things unique to Mark; It’s the only Gospel that directly calls Jesus himself a Carpenter rather than the son of a Carpenter.  It names Jesus’ brothers and sister.  Yet no great parables or descriptions that were not in Matthew.

For the 1rst century Author, perhaps this telling of Jesus reflected an event that was still within the range of historical memory, if separated by a number of years, but also aimed at people who might reject outright a more ‘mythical’ figure.  People looking less for a God striving down from the heavens, but a Man leading them upward towards them.

The Gospels will continue to be interesting as we head into Luke.  I will continue to compare and contrast and try and through in any historical data that comes my way.

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The Bible in and as History: Matthew

 

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Jesus is baptised by John the Baptist

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.

 

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