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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


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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