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Is Theological “Truth” More Important than Historical Accuracy?

In the previous post I began to explain how there could be an account in the Gospels that is not historically accurate because an author is more interested in conveying what, to him, is a theological “truth” than in giving a history lesson about what actually happened in the life of Jesus.  In my view, the early Christian story tellers and Gospel writers (often?) changed historical data in order to make theological points.  What mattered more than historical accuracy was the ultimate point of the story.

In this post I give a concrete example of how it works.  To make sense of what I have to say about this story you need to remember what I said yesterday about how the Passover feast worked in the days of Jesus.  This particular example involves only a small detail in the Gospel of John – a tiny detail, in some ways.  But it is illustrative of a larger point.  Sometimes Christian authors changed a historical fact in order to express what, for them, was a theological “truth.”

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So, back to the Gospels.  According to all four accounts, Jesus died sometime during the feast.  But when?  The earliest account we have – that is, the first Gospel to have been written — is Mark’s.  Here the chronology of events is quite clear.  In Mark 14:12 …

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Another “True” Story that Didn’t Happen? Jesus’ Birth in Luke
An Example of a True Story that Didn’t Happen: Part 1

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    godspell  May 30, 2017

    I suppose the answer to that largely rhetorical question would depend on who you’re asking.

    But to an historian, definitely not–except, as you’ve just demonstrated, one of an historian’s jobs is to understand how different people can arrive at different truths.

  2. Avatar
    jhague  May 30, 2017

    There’s a couple of problems with this having happened. First, the theological truth is the author’s truth, which may not be truth at the time but then becomes “truth” later because readers believe that what was written is God’s word. Now there are two “truths,” Mark and John which cannot both be true but readers say they both have to be true because it’s God’s word. The other problem is related, Christians today think that they have to believe that everything they read in the Bible is not just a theological truth but also historically true. And much of it might not be either!

    • Avatar
      godspell  June 1, 2017

      Excuse me, but you just repeated a myth yourself–most Christians today do not believe the bible must be literally interpreted. Catholics don’t. Mainline Protestants don’t. A subsection of evangelical Protestants do. And you are only making them happy, giving them the one thing they most desire, by implying they and they alone are the true Christians.

      • Avatar
        jhague  June 2, 2017

        I should have been more specific and clear rather than general. The Christians that I come in contact with most, which are primarily Christians who attend community style churches that consider themselves progressive due to worship style, etc but are very conservative in their views of the Bible (look at any of their website sections “What We Believe,” for the most part believe what the leaders of the churches tell them. The leaders of these churches primarily teach that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, the earth was created in six days, there was an exodus, Jesus was born a virgin birth, all the miracles in the Bible occurred as written and there are no discrepancies in the Bible. All of the community style, Willow Creek style, Saddleback style, etc church website are very clear that these are their beliefs and no on e can be a leader in their church without believing the same way. I do not think that the majority of the attendees are fundamentalist and I do not think the majority of the attendees are being evangelical, but the some of the leaders of these churches are fundamentalists and most are evangelical.

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        • Avatar
          SidDhartha1953  June 5, 2017

          Ironically, another group who take the texts at face value — at least when it suits them — are the village atheists. For instance, they assume all the slaughters recorded in the OT really happened. But if the million+ Israelites who left Egypt are a gross exaggeration, or even a complete fabrication, why not presume the same for all the slaughters of men, women, children, sheep, etc?

          1
        • Avatar
          HistoricalChristianity  June 6, 2017

          You bring up a growing problem in churches today. Fewer Christians are Fundamentalists. Yet most doctrinal statements remain Fundamentalist.

          2
  3. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 30, 2017

    These are fascinating posts. I still struggle with the idea that Christian authors intentionally changed historical facts to express theological truths, It’s an intriguing theory, but I still think it is more likely that stories got unintentionally changed during transmission maybe, with these changes, fitting in better with confirmation biases about theology as they were passed along and then the Gospel authors heard these modified stories and considered them to be historically accurate and wrote them down as such. The stories in Mark and John are different because they were passed down through different paths of storytellers before they were written down. Anyway, I think this fits what you so capably described as happening in “Jesus Before the Gospels.” I just don’t see a Gospel author telling himself I want to illustrate a theological truth and then making his account fit into that truth.

    • Avatar
      HistoricalChristianity  June 6, 2017

      The authors didn’t change historical facts. They had no historical facts to work with. An ancient bios narrative didn’t need them. The method of the genre was to tell stories showing what kind of person you believe your protagonist to be. You think Jesus was a sage of Second Temple Judaism? Then portray him saying the kinds of things sages said. For the most part, they picked Hillel. You don’t think Jesus was a Zealot, but you want to be inclusive of Christians who do, so you include texts showing him doing things a Zealot would do. You show him being accused of that crime. But then you show him judicially exonerated.

  4. Avatar
    bensonian  May 30, 2017

    Few questions: 1) Was the Passover was a week-long event, rather than a single day? 2) Were there Jewish sects that disagreed about what day kicked off the Passover, or ended the Passover – like Saturday perhaps? 3) Could one of the authors been thinking about the day, the other the week long event? I also heard another writer indicate that there was another type of Passover, like a Passover ‘year’ even. I guess what I’m getting at is the intent. Perhaps the intent wasn’t to ‘alter history’ for a theological reason, but to simply provide a perspective based on ones knowledge about the Passover at that time. What are your thoughts regarding the intent?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 1, 2017

      The Passover itself was a day, but it began the Feast of Unleavened Bread that took a week. There was only one day on which the Passover was eaten and only one day (the one before) on which it was prepared.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  June 1, 2017

        I’m not questioning your explanation of the difference between the Gospels. But I’ve gotten the idea – somewhere – that we don’t know the exact date that Passover was celebrated in Jerusalem, because in those days, not all Jews everywhere celebrated it on the same date. So we can’t determine the year of Jesus’s crucifixion by its having been a year in which the Passover was the day before the Sabbath. Is that correct?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 2, 2017

          There were some Jewish sects that celebrated Passover on a different day (at least the Essenes did), but they were very much on the margin.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  June 1, 2017

      1) The Passover festival (the so-called Feast of Unleavened Bread) was a week long, but the Passover meal — what we call today the Seder — was only eaten on the first night. In reality, the festival was a longer affair, with Jews arriving at Jerusalem days if not weeks in advance, making arrangements for room and board, securing a location for the paschal meal, preparing themselves to be ritually pure enough to offer the sacrifice, etc. The Gospel accounts even narrate some of the prepatory period, for example, when Jesus and the disciples spend a week in Bethany (Bethphage) just outside of Jerusalem ahead of the festival.

      2) Yes, there were sects that did reckon the holy calendar differently from the established calendar in Jerusalem. The most famous sect was the Essenes, whose calendar we have preserved amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls, and somewhat in the Book of Jubilees, as well. However, the Essenes believed the Temple in Jerusalem was lead by a corrupt and illegitimate priesthood, and so they wouldn’t be caught dead making sacrifices in the Jerusalem Temple. In fact, it seems many of the Essenes were vegetarians because they believed there was no legitimate place to make the proper sacrifices for meat.

      3) In all probability, the author of John altered the day of the Last Supper and Jesus’ arrest simply to make it fit his particular christological theory. That’s all.

    • Avatar
      HistoricalChristianity  June 6, 2017

      Torah is quite clear and detailed about Passover observance. But its timing is based on a lunar calendar. But someone had to decide whether the new moon is really tonight or tomorrow night. Again, these authors had no history to alter. They were inventing the history as they went along. But not really, since they were writing bios, not history. They had some oral traditions and legends to choose among. With no real evidence about the historical Jesus, and with no other writings from that time on the subject, we can’t tell which details were culled from traditions and legends and which were invented for the story.

  5. Avatar
    nbraith1975  May 30, 2017

    Bart – Do you think these kinds of alterations of events were done to make Jesus appear to be the “true” Messiah? And what about the eventual changes made by the Catholic Church to strip Jesus of his historical Hebrew/Jewish heritage and make him the “leader” of a new religion called Christianity?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 1, 2017

      Yes, that would have been a major part of the intention. And yes, Jesus eventually becomes non-Jewish for some Christians, and then later still even anti-Jewish.

      • Avatar
        nbraith1975  June 1, 2017

        Bart – Have you written anything about the anti-Jewish history of the Catholic Church. What I have read so far tells quite a disturbing story.

        • Bart
          Bart  June 2, 2017

          Not at any length. A terrific treatment in James Carroll’s book Constantine’s Sword.

          1
  6. Avatar
    michael_kelemen  May 30, 2017

    Michael Skobac points out that the Passover lamb was not a sin offering. http://jewsforjudaism.ca/jesus-not-passover-lamb/

    • Bart
      Bart  June 1, 2017

      That’s right, it never was a sin offering.

      • Avatar
        searchingfortruthineverything  June 4, 2017

        Some say that Christ “offered” his body as a “sin offering” because it was pure to fulfill the Law that a unblemished lamb, without any defects was offered as a “sin offering” under the Mosaic Law to pay for the “original sin” that Adam committed in Eden so as a pattern, or Bible antetype, Jesus was “lifted up” like the “rod” of the “serpent” was lifted up for healing if someone was bitten by a serpent during the time of the ancient Israelites.

        • Avatar
          HistoricalChristianity  June 6, 2017

          That’s because Paul was proposing Jesus as a solution to a different problem. In early Romans, Paul postulates a universal problem. With at least some Jewish background, Paul believed that there was only one god. He said that God finds no human acceptable. Not because of original sin, but because all have sinned. Then he offers Jesus as the universal sacrifice.

          The Johannine community had a very strong Gnostic background, but probably not much Jewish background. They were the ones who thought to associate Jesus as a sacrificial animal with the lamb of the Passover sacrifice. They probably didn’t even realize that, as others noted here, that the Passover lamb wasn’t even a sin offering.

    • Avatar
      rburos  June 1, 2017

      thanks for that!

  7. Avatar
    rburos  May 30, 2017

    Of course I find your argument satisfying and compelling, but the implications on modern Christianity are potentially disturbing:

    1. Is this to say that the evangelists weren’t all that caught up in the death of Jesus other than to justify why it happened? Are all four then an argument against the apocalyptic nature of his teachings?
    2. Is then the resurrection of greater importance than the death? Or is it his moral teachings? Or imitatio dei?

    There are far too many questions packed into the above, and I’m afraid the answer to all of them is ‘yes’, leaving me just as kerfuddled as before. . .

    The answer I suppose is like you said previously, that we all make Christ into our own image. Happy you brought Crossan into that discussion, as I’ve never seen anybody do Christian morality better.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 1, 2017

      I think they saw the death as centrally important, but the “why” was especially important. Some emphasized his death; others his resurrection; others both.

      • Avatar
        Hank_Z  June 1, 2017

        Bart, I have experienced his difference. I have lived in Costa Rica the past 10 years. It’s officially a Catholic country under the constitution, and I was raised in fundamentalist Prorestantism.

        Every semana santa (holy week, which ends on Easter), I notice that Good Friday, not Easter), is THE big day. The people here celebrate/comemorate Jesus’ death FAR MORE than his supposed resurrection. Protestant denominations I’m familiar with in the U.S. do the opposite.

  8. Avatar
    joncopeland  May 30, 2017

    Great post! This has been an informative series and helpful for me as I try to broach these subjects with my bible study class.

    Another example of that comes to mind is the rejection at Nazareth story. In Mark 6 and Matthew 13, Jesus is named as the son of Mary, but in Luke 4, he’s the son of Joseph. I’m curious as to why Luke did this.

    Luke also relocates the story to the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry and adds a lot of dialogue and detail. He seems to be establishing the motif of rejection at the synagogue, which appears again and again in Acts. What was something of an afterthought in the other gospels is a major plot point in Luke. The motif sets up the “hand-off” of the covenant of God to the Gentiles. His motives seem more clear in this example; Luke gives Gentiles priority over Jews to salvation. I think Paul would challenge Luke’s gospel, if he were alive to see it.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 1, 2017

      Yes, it would be strange and unusual in antiquity to be identified as the son of a woman as opposed to a man. And yes, Luke rearranges the sequence so that they rejection is the first thing that happens publicly to Jesus, anticipating both what happens to him in Luke and to his disciples in Acts.

  9. Avatar
    Wilusa  May 30, 2017

    Yes, this is all very understandable. *Those* authors, writing two thousand years ago, had different beliefs than ours about the importance of “sticking to the facts”…especially when their *main purpose* was not to write histories, but to make theological points.

  10. Avatar
    Stephen  May 30, 2017

    Is the assumption that Mark’s chronology is historical? Couldn’t Mark have been making a theological point as well? Perhaps the original tradition was that the crucifixion took place sometime during the festival and both gospel writers are molding the account to their own theological ends?

    thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  June 1, 2017

      Yes, it’s possible that Mark is non-historical as well! That would be a separate question though. John could “change a datum” even if the datum itself was not historically accurate.

      • Avatar
        godspell  June 1, 2017

        The difference is that John was changing a datum after three gospels had already been written and disseminated, all of which agreed with each other on this point (if not on some others). We don’t know that Mark wasn’t making a theological point (he certainly does make them), but we can be sure John did that, because John was the last gospel to be written, and it dissents quite obviously from the previously existing narrative. And that begs the question why did he dissent, and the answer you present here is more than satisfactory, far as I’m concerned. It’s nice when things make sense. Even when the thing you’re making sense of is myth. Which has its own kind of sense.

    • Avatar
      HistoricalChristianity  June 6, 2017

      By the time people got around to writing bios narratives at least 4 decades after Jesus died, no one knew what season, or even what year, Jesus died. It’s not changing facts when there are no facts to change.

  11. Avatar
    Boltonian  May 30, 2017

    Brilliant illustration! I would like to know where the ‘Lamb of God,’ meme came from – does it, for example, pre-date Jesus as a symbol of human self-sacrifice? Was it (this symbolism) circulating as an independent (or even competing) oral tradition from Mark’s sources? Was John aware of other versions, such as Mark’s? Were the different gospels even written down in the same part of the world or were these the theologies of churches which existed in complete ignorance of, and isolation from, others?

    Sorry for the multiple questions.

    Thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 1, 2017

      The Passover lamb was part of the Jewish tradition for as far back as we can trace it. It represented God’s act of salvation for his people Israel. Since Jesus died on the Passover, Christians claimed he was the embodiment of God’s act of salvation.

      • Avatar
        HistoricalChristianity  June 6, 2017

        I think the reverse is more likely true. Christians considered Jesus the embodiment of salvation, therefore they chose Passover as the scene for showing his death.

  12. Avatar
    mjt  May 30, 2017

    I first encountered this idea, that the gospel writers were writing theology and not history in some cases, in a book by Randel Helms called Gospel Fictions. Are you familiar with this book, or this author? I wasn’t sure when I was reading it, if this was the work of an actual scholar.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 1, 2017

      I read it when it first came out and remember really liking it. But I don’t remember it now, except in very general terms.

  13. Avatar
    Silver  May 30, 2017

    I can see the virtue of telling the tale of George Washington (that we should be honest even if it gets us into trouble) and the story of Red Riding Hood (if that is a way of teaching about ‘stranger danger’ or some such cautionary advice.) However, do you think it is justified to alter the chronology of Jesus’ death so that it fits in with and supports his contention that Jesus is ‘The Lamb of God’ – something which, as I understand it, you for one do not believe? Surely such subterfuge and the concocting of ‘evidence’ is underhand. If one’s belief has to rely on such methods does that not smack of desperation? Can it really figure as ‘truth’?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 1, 2017

      I’m not advocating this reading, simply pointing out that history is not hte only thing that matters.

  14. Avatar
    gavriel  May 30, 2017

    Is it possible to say anything at all about the exact day of the crucifixion? To me it seems that Mark as well has a theological point in fixing the last meal to be a Passover meal. Or do you think that there really are only two possible historical answers, Mark or John ?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 1, 2017

      I think they both could be wrong! But they both can’t be right. And John has apparently changed an earlier tradition (whether that tradition was right or wrong)

      • Avatar
        gavriel  June 1, 2017

        What I did not understand was how you can say that John/John’s sources altered an earlier date. Couldn’t both Mark’s and John’s dates have branched off from an original and more reliable narrative?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 2, 2017

          Yes, and if so John has altered the earlier one. (Since he branched off from it)

  15. Avatar
    john76  May 30, 2017

    This understanding of Truth certainly makes sense in the Gospel of John. For instance, Jesus lied when he told his family that he wasn’t going to the feast, but still went “in secret”:

    “[Jesus said] Go ye up unto this feast: I go not up yet unto this feast. … But when his brethren were gone up, then went he also up unto the feast, not openly, but as it were in secret. (John 7:8-10)”

    Jesus’ statement was a “lie,” but it “re-vealed” or “un-covered (a-letheia)” what one should do in a situation of persecution.

  16. Avatar
    seeker_of_truth  May 30, 2017

    Has a release date been set for the second edition of your textbook The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 1, 2017

      I’m not sure actually. Early fall? Maybe before then: I’ve turned back all the corrected page proofs.

  17. Avatar
    gwayersdds  May 30, 2017

    I feel that theological truth is much more important than historical fact. To me that is what the Bible is all about. Since these stories were written so long after the events it is unlikely that the historical truth will ever really known. To me the Bible should not be read as a history book, but as a way to learn what being a Christ follower is all about.

  18. Avatar
    mathieu  May 30, 2017

    It seems to me that the time line is more skewed than that. If Jesus dies after the Passover, he was buried Friday evening, stayed in the tomb Saturday, and arose on Sunday morning. 3 days. If he died on the day of preparation, and subsequently buried, doesn’t that leave him in the tomb longer than 3 days?

    I’m confused.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 1, 2017

      The Day of Preparation, in the Synoptics, was on a Thursday. He died the next day, Friday, and rose again on Sunday. So it’s three days.

  19. Avatar
    Jimmy  May 30, 2017

    How did they tell time in the early first century? Today we have clocks on our wrist, the walls of our homes and on our phones. What device did they have back then ?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 1, 2017

      Now *that’s* something I should know. Sun dials?

    • talmoore
      talmoore  June 1, 2017

      The vast majority of people (peasants, farmers, slaves, etc.) reckoned the time simply by looking at where the sun was in the sky. Since down to the minute accuracy was very rarely necessary for most activities, this rough idea of the hour was perfectly adequate. When a more accurate time was needed, they would designate certain universal events as markers — e.g. at dawn, after sunset, after the cock crows, at noon, when the shephards return from the pastures, etc. For those in professions where accuracy was necessary, such as priests, generals, bureaucrats, etc. they had various methods of time keeping, such as sundials, hourglasses, water clocks, candle clocks, etc.

  20. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  May 30, 2017

    Bart, can you please tell me what is the land of nod in old testament and who were they ?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 1, 2017

      It’s a legendary place. So we do’t know where it’s supposed to have been.

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