Sunday, October 16, 2011

No History Here, Just Wild Speculation. Plus My Own Thoughts

Over and over again in the writings of modern and contemporary theologians and Biblical scholars, one reads the assertions that neither Jesus nor his disciples could read or write any Greek, that maybe some of them could read some Hebrew, but that most likely the only language they were really fluent in was Aramaic.

You get this even from the most supposedly enlightened people in these specialties. The ones who freely admit that the chronology of the Gospels is very suspect and that there was no census bringing Joseph and his pregnant bride Mary to Bethlehem, and no Slaughter of the Innocents, that the story of the Slaughter of the Innocents is clearly borrowed from the equally-fictitious story from the infancy of Moses, who himself may never existed. These scholars do not believe in any miracles, neither walking on water nor Resurrection nor healing by laying on of hands, and they will tell you that Jesus probably never said most of the things the New Testament says he said, and even that some of the 12 Apostles may be fictitious. But it's certain, they say, that Jesus existed, and also certain that he couldn't read or speak Greek.

Finally, finally, these days you can be a Christian theologian or a New Testament scholar and say publicly that you're actually not certain that Jesus existed and still keep your job. And so some people in those fields are saying it, more than the few who said it before and were fired, and then, as if that weren't bad enough, ridiculed in unison by their former colleagues. The ridicule is still par for the course. But listen closely to the average theologian or Biblical scholar scornfully dismissing a black sheep who says it's not certain that Jesus existed, and see if the reaction extends beyond dismissal to any actual explanation of why doubt is ridiculous on this point. All I ever see is the peremptory dismissal.

Even from the ones who cast doubt on almost everything the Gospels say, one encounters this certainty that Jesus' existence is well-established historical fact. Uh, excuse me, established how exactly? What sources do we have besides those accounts you just finished trashing when it comes to their historical reliability? That's right -- none. But they -- the current academic mainstream -- don't stop at being certain he existed, they're currently also certain that he was preaching political revolution and socialism, and that he like his father was more of a day laborer than an actual skilled carpenter, and that the whole family was veryvery poor, and that Jesus neither wrote nor spoke Greek, and maybe not even Hebrew either.

Where did they get all this? Mostly from our increasing knowledge of what a typical 1st-century Jewish peasant living in a small town near Jerusalem was like. They've decided to agree that Jesus was a typical peasant. There's no logical reason to make these positive assumptions. There are only contemporary theological reasons. In short: they pulled all of that right out of their butts.

I say: we don't know. We don't know whether Jesus existed, and if he did, we don't know how much of the information in the Gospels is true, much less things not mentioned in the Gospels such as whether or not he could read and speak Greek.

If Jesus existed, then, it seems to me, contemporary theology is wrong. If he existed, then most likely the last thing he was was typical.

There is the story of Jesus' family coming to Jerusalem when he was 12, and Jesus going to the Temple and amazing the elders with his learning. There is no mention in the Gospels of what Jesus did between the ages of 12 and 30. There are mentions of a wealthy friend of his, Joseph of Arimathea. Maybe Jesus could read Hebrew quite well by age 12, and could talk about the Bible like a scholar. That's the sort of thing which would have amazed elders at the Temple. Maybe a rich man, such as Joseph of Aremathea, took an interest in this bright young lad and offered to educate him. That's the sort of thing which has happened to a few lucky bright poor children since long before Jesus' time. Maybe Jesus spent 18 years at Joseph's house, happily burrowing through mountains of codices and scrolls, learning Greeka and Latin as well as Hebrew.

I've often wondered about that conversation between Jesus and Pilate. Did they communicate through an interpreter? Or did Pilate know some Hebrew or Aramaic? Or did Jesus know some Greek or Hebrew?

Only lately I've begun to wonder whether people such as Pilate or Herod would have condescended to speak to a typical peasant or day-laborer at all. It's embarrassing that it took me so long to wonder about that. But if Jesus was not just a typical peon, but a highly-educated young man who for the last few years had returned to the milieu of his early childhood, an articulate fellow who spoke good Greek, and possibly even good Latin, in addition to his native Aramaic -- well, that sort of person would be much more likely to pique the interest of the governor of the entire province, and cause him to take a few minutes out of his busy day of plotting against other politicians and playing in his harem, wouldn't he?

What's that? You say that I'm speculating very freely here, extrapolating from very, very little concrete evidence? Why thank you, that would put me on a par with the leading Jesus scholars of our day. Except that I freely acknowledge that the picture I've just spun is only one of many possible versions of the beginning of Christianity, including the distinct possibility that Jesus never existed at all.

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