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A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

See here for Part 1 of this Round, where I discuss some principles of legendary accretion as a preparation for analyzing whether the Iscariot material shows blatantly clear signs of unhistorical legendary development in a procession from GosMark to GosJohn (through GosMatt, GosLuke and Acts in sequence.)

In this part, I'll be looking at the Iscariot textual data from the first two texts in that list.


GosMark: The chief priests and scribes want to kill Jesus, but are afraid to move against Him due to the crowds whom they worry might riot at Passover if they try. Iscariot at some point (possibly but not necessarily after the anointing of Jesus by the woman in the house of Simon the leper--the grammar isn’t clear) goes to the chief priests in order to give Jesus up to them. They’re glad to hear this, and promise to give him money. Judas begins seeking how to betray Him at an opportune time. Judas is present at the Last Supper, where Jesus knows that one (or the one) of the Twelve who dips with Him in the bowl will betray Him. Jesus wails a lament about this traitor. Judas isn’t shown leaving the party, including before the institution of the Lord’s Supper. After Jesus has spent some hours at Gethsemene (the olive press) on Olive Hill, Judas comes up (having departed the group at some unspecified point) with a mob sent by the chief priests; Judas has prepared a signal for them to know who Jesus is, by him kissing Jesus and calling Him “rabbi”. Jesus knows Judas is coming and warns the apostles to get ready. Judas gives the signal, and the arrest proceeds. Iscariot isn’t mentioned again in surviving copies of GosMark. (We don’t really know what, if anything, originally followed Mark 16:13, including whether Judas was mentioned in it.)

This is the baseline data for testing the hypothesis of developmental accretion by comparison with (assumedly) progressive subsequent data sets.


GosMatt: The chief priests and scribes, plotting at Caiaphas’ house, want to kill Jesus, but are afraid to move against Him due to the crowds whom they worry might riot at Passover if they try. Iscariot (a little more clearly, grammatically speaking) leaves after the anointing of Jesus by the woman in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper, and goes to the chief priests, asking them what they are willing to give him in order to give Jesus to them. They weigh out 30 pieces of silver. (“Glad to hear this” is not included, although of course it would be implied in their agreement to pay.) Judas begins seeking how to betray Him at an opportune time. Judas is present at the Last Supper, where Jesus knows that the one of the Twelve who dipped his hand in the bowl with Him will betray Him. Jesus wails a lament about this traitor (the same lament as in GosMark.) Judas is specifically shown asking the general question/exclamation of the apostles (reported also in GosMark, though not specifically of Judas), “Surely it is not I, Lord!?” Jesus answers with the polite-sad Aramaic affirmation “as you say” (used when courtesy forbids a direct response)--which, given the exhortative appeal, could sound like agreement that it isn't him. (Multiple levels of meaning to the exchange, typical of a rabbi’s subtle rebuke to a student, by the way.) After Jesus has spent some hours at Gethsemene (the olive press) on Olive Hill, Judas comes up (having departed the group at some unspecified point) with a mob sent by the chief priests; Jesus knows he is coming and warns the other apostles to get ready. Judas has prepared a signal for the mob to know who Jesus is, by him kissing Jesus and calling Him “rabbi”. When he does this (with a “rejoice, rabbi!”) Jesus responds, “Friend, what have you come for?” (Or possibly “Friend, do what you have come for”.) After the morning has come, and all the chief priests take counsel together to put Jesus to death, and have bound and led Him away to Pilate, Judas sees that Jesus was condemned and feels remorse and tries to repent by returning the silver to the priests claiming “I have shed innocent blood”. The priests refuse to absolve him, so he throws the pieces into the sanctuary and goes away and hangs himself. The priests decide it isn’t lawful to put the silver back in the treasury, and so they buy a clay pit previously used for pottery, in order to bury strangers to the city. GosMatt’s author reports that this is why the field is called “The Field of Blood” to this day (the time of authorship), and then tries to adduce this to an obscure saying in Zechariah as fulfillment of a prophecy. Iscariot is not mentioned again in GosMatt.


In some ways the progression could be legendary accretion so far--or, it could just be more historical detail included by the author. Very little has dropped out, the wording of shared material is quite similar (even identical in places), and what little has dropped out can be easily supposed included in the replacement material.

The various small differences in wording throughout the data set could in some ways count as narrative drift or even as very minor bits of legendary accretion. Others could be historical addition or reasonable guesses; it’s hardly implausible for the plotting to occur at the house of Caiaphas, for example. Nothing substantial has changed in these minor tweaks.


There are basically three substantial extra pieces (compared to GosMark); two of them are still fairly small and one of them extensive. The smallest new substantial detail is Jesus’ reply to Judas at the moment of betrayal. The next largest is Jesus’ answer to Judas’ question about being the traitor (a question generally implied in GosMark, too)--an answer that fits in well enough with Jesus’ established habits elsewhere in GosMark and GosMatt (rabbinic multi-meaning.) By far the largest new piece is the whole 30 pieces of silver detail, which stands as its own anecdote almost apart from the other material.

How well do the extra bits fit a theory of legendary accretion, though?

The answer to Judas at the Last Supper could easily be a creative plausible guess; although it could also just as easily be an extra bit of historical detail. There’s no way to tell for sure, but there’s nothing about it that counts necessarily against it being a bit of legendary accretion. (And harmless, too.)

The answer to Judas at the arrest, on the other hand, is rather more problematic. If the theory is that GosMatt is even more gung-ho than GosMark about painting Judas as a traitor (painting Iscariot “with an ever more sinister brush” as Bishop Spong puts it later in regard to GosJohn’s data), Jesus’ address of “Friend” is very peculiar. The concept of creatively imagining a brief answer to Judas’ treacherous greeting, makes sense as a typical bit of legendary accretion, but the direction doesn’t fit very well with the theory for why the accretion is supposed to be occurring. One could at least as easily suppose (maybe more easily!) that GosMark left out this small detail because he didn’t want to show Jesus having any remote amount of kindness to Judas!

This problem becomes greatly exacerbated when we look at the third and by far the largest additional data. The 30 silver anecdote, ironically, has the least call to even be considered legendary accretion! (Although it would not be surprising for readers who don’t understand the process very well, to be more impressed with this as ‘evidence’ of accretion merely because it’s ‘larger’ and obviously not part of GosMark.) There is no development to this detail in evidence anywhere. It barely connects at all to the main narrative. And it presents Judas, at the end, in a highly sympathetic pitiable light!--exactly the opposite thrust from a theory about increasing the detail in order to be hateful to someone (be that an innocent Judas, or “Jews” in general represented by a fictional Judas).

It might be replied that this whole anecdote was created in order to synch up with a prophecy from Zechariah; after all, the Matthean author explains it as being such a fulfillment. This wouldn’t be a process of legendary accretion, per se, however (although future uses of the material, once introduced, might count); and more importantly, the material doesn’t synch up well with Zech 11:12-13, which isn’t presented as a prophecy but as an obscure sign enacted by Zechariah the loyal prophet concerning God’s displeasure with the religious authorities of that day. There is no field involved in the original text, either; Zechariah demands his wages (or not, if they would rather let him go), they (whoever ‘they’ are--'the afflicted of the flock’, probably meaning the religious authorities of Zech’s day) weigh out thirty pieces of silver, and then YHWH directs Zech to “throw it to the potter, that magnificent price at which I was valued by them”. So the prophet throws it at a potter in the Temple.

This is not a Messianic prophecy in any remotely obvious way. It is not a prophecy about God eventually doing something either. Nor is it presented as any clear prophecy about the chief shepherds doing something to YHWH. Consequently, there is no clear reason why the Matthean author would invent a 30 silver incident to attach to Jesus via a traitor. Even if Matthew is trying to teach that Jesus is YHWH, a created version of the story could have synched up much better with the details of this as supposedly a ‘prophecy’.

On the other hand, if this Iscariot incident is largely accurate as to history, then someone who heard about it and happened to be in the habit of studying the scriptures looking for prophecies concerning Jesus, would understandably be struck by interesting similarities in an unexpected fashion. This process would also comport with a far more common and normal way of treating ‘prophecy’ than ‘creating’ ‘fulfillments’ and passing those off as history; namely, taking notable historical details and trying to synch them up with prior material from a prophet. If the link seems dubious, or previously unrecognized as such, it could easily be omitted for such reasons. Ditto if the anecdote happens to show a traditionally hated traitor in a somewhat favorable light.

This kind of explanation of the data’s existence fits better with the data’s characteristics, than an explanation of legendary accretion; or, put another way, legendary accretion would have more probably arrived at another result.


[Next time, part 3 of 4 for this Round: Iscariot material in GosLuke, Acts and GosJohn is assessed for accretional development.]

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