Part 3: A Shape of Results, and Other Shapes
I have been engaged in considering how far even a minimal acceptance of various historical facts, and the most historically plausible consequences of those facts, might be reasonably carried in building a set of beliefs about the person (or literary character?) known as Jesus of Nazareth. This consideration has been mainly focused on the historically certain existence (as a piece of textual data) of the small narrative included in The Gospel According to Matthew (or GosMatt) 28:11b-15, and its most historically plausible relationship to the author (or final redactor or whatever) and the target audience of GosMatt. This small narrative, which I have been calling Guard Adventure-B (i.e. what happens when a set of guards reports to authorities about the missing body of Jesus), has been the key to unlocking an increasing number of details which (as a most-plausible historical inference) may reasonably be believed to have been agreed to by total opponents: namely GosMatt’s Christian audience, and some non-Christian Jews with whom they were in ideological contact (and conflict).
Because this substantial list of points (see the end of Part 2 for the list) are agreed to by opponents who are each in a position where they cannot easily wave off what the other side is saying in some simpler fashion, then we have strong evidence for these points to be a set of core historical facts: we can establish them by solid historical reasoning, from the actual existence of a real document written by a real person to a real audience with real opponents who were (evidently) reporting real testimony by other real people.
This small narrative turns out to be a curious key--when soberly and carefully and methodically considered even from an initially sceptical and absolutely minimal historical standpoint.
But of course, as I ended by saying last time, there are some consequences, even some immediate consequences, of the acceptance of these points as inferred historical facts.
The first result, is the rejection of the "mythicist" theory--that Jesus never existed in the first place. There is no legitimate reason to suppose that a group of Jews would have been replying to claims about Jesus with an official and embarrassing admission of his existence, if the man had not existed and was not known by someone (other than Christians) to have existed.
We can still disregard the semi-contemporary non-Christian references to the man, if we wish, as being hearsay accepted in good faith by historians and officials.
Pliny the Younger, after all, only was testifying that the Christians existed whom he tortured and executed, and what they believed.
Tacitus was only testifying (50ish years after the fact) to what the people (whom he loathed as abominations) believed, who were murdered (as he grudgingly admits) by Nero in the early 60s.
Josephus, the Jewish historian, might only be accepting by hearsay, without sufficient critical qualm, that the man existed; and his other reference to James the brother of Jesus, really only testifies to Josephus' belief that James existed (or at best to the belief that people thought James' brother was this man). We would be pushing a mere assertion of critical failure on Josephus if we did this, but we could do it.
Anything later might be dismissed as hearsay from Christian propaganda. Anything earlier (if any gospel accounts are earlier than Josephus) might be dismissed as fanciful confabulations by the Christians themselves. We could say that Saul of Tarsus (who certainly seems to be writing earlier than Josephus!) was simply lying about how he believed the man had existed back when he was hunting the man's followers with lethal intensity; or we can say that he knew, of course, the man hadn't existed, and yet due to a brain hemorrhage or something he became convinced that the man had existed after all. Or why stop there?--we can simply claim that "Paul" never existed either!
There; that is all nice and tidy. It abuses historical methodology to the breaking point, but some (few) scholars evidently have no care about that.
Yet: here we have a little story, the real existence of which (even as simply 'a little story') makes no feasible sense whatever, unless real people with a definite hostility toward admitting the claims about Jesus, were nevertheless admitting that the man did in fact exist--among other things--and were in a position to know at least that much.
We could, of course, simply toss this away, too, and imagine GosMatt's writer was living in a historical vacuum--if we wish to be utterly unrealistic, rather than admit Jesus existed. For even if we suppose (on what evidence?--on no evidence?) that the writer invented the countercharge about the guards being bribed, he would not have invented it without a sufficient reason. The only sufficient reason that has any historical plausibility, is that some Jews were saying (with a force recognized by those Jews and some Christians alike as being 'official') that some soldiers had testified they fell asleep the night they guarded Jesus' body.
If Jesus himself was only a fiction, then this hind-end of polemic cannot be very feasibly explained.
I am not saying, by the way, that the mythicist theories are totally devoid of reason.
It is quite true that, in a way, Pliny's testimony (for instance) is about Christians, not about Jesus. Pliny's testimony offers no ironclad assurance that the man ever existed. The same for Tacitus.
When we come to Josephus, I think we are being uncharitable to assume his competency and sources were so poor that he would unquestioningly agree Jesus did exist. But it isn't impossible that he was so incompetent. (Some of Josephus' words about Jesus most probably were tampered with; but such tampering is not the faintest evidence whatever that Jesus didn't exist.)
And it is a fact (as annoying to believers as it is) that outside the canonical Christian documents we have precious few early references to the man as having lived. Which of course is why there are apocryphal stories! Which (again) is disturbing testimony that some Christians, even among what came to be known as the 'orthodoxy', will invent stories about Jesus and pass them off as (more or less) true.
But this little Key of a story does have one advantage, even over what (on any otherwise sane historical analysis) would be Saul’s (i.e. Saint Paul's) vast rock of certainty regarding Jesus' historical existence: the Key reflects the official admission of existence, by contemporary opponents, independent of the writer himself, who would be in a position to know.
This is no argument from silence (upon which, you should observe, practically all of the mythicist proposal hangs!): the Key is a positively unquiet witness. It is not a matter of 'the opposition didn't say he didn't exist'; the opposition evidently was saying that he existed, as an officially accepted fact.
The next thing the Key does, is offer historical verification that at some point in time Jesus' body went missing.
This blows away a whole other subset of theories regarding the events of that historic Passover. To any theorist who suggests that the women went to the wrong site, or that someone (maybe Joseph of Arimathea? or Nicodemus?) simply moved the body to another burial site (I mean in a legitimate manner--theft by someone, including by one of those characters, is still a live option at this point), we can here see the real echo of the historical fact: the guards of the body said the body was missing. Someone was accepting and promoting the story of the guards, in the interests of Jewish counter-argument to Christians: the guards fell asleep, or were otherwise (severely) lax in their duties, and the body was gone.
We could hypothesize that the guards did not go to the correct site of the body that night. But if that had been the case, then the official explanation (as ridiculous as it sounds) would have been not that the guards were irresponsibly lazy but that they were incompetently stupid; we would have a different echo in the Key: "The guards said they went to the wrong site, and that was why disciples were able to steal the body." "No, the Sanhedrin bribed them to say they went to the wrong site", etc. Or rather, the official explanation would have been echoed in the Key as the guards testifying they went to the wrong site leading to other people mistakenly believing the body was gone when, following the position of the guards, those other people showed up at the wrong site. But really the body was entirely and easily accounted for somewhere else. In which case the Christian answer, at best, would have to be, “No, they’re lying about the body being easily accounted for, because we eventually went to the right site and found the body gone.” Which would be fatally weak as an answer, since it would instantly invite the indefensible countercharge, “So you testify that you were alone with the body in a vulnerable condition where no one could stop you from stealing it!”--assuming there ever was a missing body at all, of course, and recognized as such by whoever was promoting the guards’ side of the story. If there was no such missing body being acknowledged by the promoters of the guards’ testimony, then once again the shape of the Jewish polemic being answered in the Key would be substantially different--and probably indefensible by Christians. (What were they going to say?!--"No, the Sanhedrin bribed the guards to say they went to the wrong site and then went on to lie about the body not being gone, but we know that the unguarded body really disappeared over night, trust us!”?)
There are certain arguments from silence sometimes employed by Christian apologists concerning that body, and its location: if the Sanhedrin had known where the body was, they would have said they knew, thus chopping the stilts out from under the Christians, but they didn't ever say that, etc.
Well, no, we have no record of them ever saying that. We do, however, have a historically reliable conclusion that some opponents to Christianity were saying something with authoritative force: they were saying the body was missing (among other things).
Even if the women (or whoever) had gone to the wrong site; even if the guards had gone to the wrong site; the body still was missing. We don't have to bring in non-denials of which we have no record, to testify for this. We have the positive oppositional testimony, preserved in the Key. And that testimony isn’t that the guards went to the wrong site leaving the body vulnerable before it went missing. What GosMatt’s author is defending against, is something very different: he’s defending against an explanation for why an admittedly guarded body went missing despite being guarded.
But even more than a verifiably missing body of a existent man (not merely a cosmological myth) named Jesus, can be inferred with reliability.
(Next up: some implications to them not having a body)
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Part 3: A Shape of Results, and Other Shapes