A Curious Key to a Historical Jesus (Part 3 of 9)

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)


Jason Pratt said…
Just registering for comment tracking...
Metacrock said…
Interesting approach. It dove tails with my no other versions argument.
Anonymous said…
I have no problem believing Jesus actually existing, nor that He was crucified one Spring day in 1st century Palestine, nor that the body was taken down and lain in a tomb, only to go missing several days later. Nor even that the guards would even confirm the body missing.

What I DO have a problem with is that I am not convinced that the Key of Guard Adventure-B confirms historical fact that the prevailing thought among non-Christian Jews was that the body was STOLEN.

In the first place, the whole account of GA-B appears have been inserted into the text at a later date. Verse 10 in Matthew 28 has Jesus telling the party visiting the grave to go tell His brethren to go to Galilee where they will see Him. But that part of the story picks up in verse 16, where we see the disciples doing just that. In the heart of that sequence, we have this story of the guards being bribed.

The same insertion phenomena seems to have taken place in the previous chapter with the account of the chief priests asking Pilate to set a guard. It is couched between the scene where Mary Madalene and the other Mary watch over against the sepulchre as Joseph of Arimithea was setting the stone over it as evening approached on the day of Christ’s crucifixion AND the early dawn as the Sabboath ends where the same Mary Magdalene and other Mary appears at the SAME sepulchre, for reasons we don’t benefit from this gospel. Again, it seems that the narrative is interrupted from it’s continuity with the women’s appearance.

I contend that you cannot divorce GA-B from this earlier account in dealing with Pilate, for it sets up precedence for the excuse about having the body stolen. I believe that both were later additions that the authors for some reason felt was necessary. Yet something just isn’t right about it.

I mentioned in my comments in Part 1 that it makes sense that the guards set were Roman, due in part that 1) the chief priests went to Pilate for the request and 2) the stone was sealed, presumable by the signet of the Roman Proctator. But what doesn’t make sense is that these same Roman soldiers would take a bribe from the same chief priests to SAY that the body was stolen while they slept, when any admission to such delinquency would surely buy a sentence of death, no matter how much money was transacted (unless, of course, they had aim to financially care for their families in the event of their death). At any rate, I find it hard to believe they would take a bribe from leaders of some backwoods religion in some corner of the Empire, at the risk of being caught with dire consequences.

On the other hand, I’m also privy to believing that the Temple guard had a hand in being set at watch that eventful night. If the Temple guard consisted of Jews, as one must suppose, then to send them off to guard a tomb on the Sabbath makes no sense whatsoever. Not only does it offend the Sabbath by working that night, but there are laws that might come into play regarding being in proximity of the dead. And this would explain why the chief priests would implore Pilate to set a guard, seeing that a Gentile watch would save the Temple Guard from the Law.
Furthermore, the contention that there was a story going around about the body being stolen doesn’t even play out when we read the early chapters of Luke’s account in Acts. There in chapter 5, for instance, we have the chief priests, along with the CAPTAIN of the Temple attempting to suppress the disciples of witnessing a risen Christ, resorting to beatings and jail time due to their diligence in proclaiming the gospel. Nowhere in that account do we even see a HINT of accusation that the disciples stole the body.

Such are my observances.

Jason Pratt said…
Jason (back toward the end of Part 2, emphases original):"Now, I do not say that this therefore must have been a (much less the) stock official response by all Jews to all Christians everywhere during the time GosMatt was composed. I would agree that proposing such a widespread defense may be going beyond the existent evidence (including a rather prevalent silence or two in the data--more on that much later, though). Let it be just this one population, or even one section of this one Jewish population. That will be fine for my purposes."

Dondi (new emphasis in bold): "What I DO have a problem with is that I am not convinced that the Key of Guard Adventure-B confirms historical fact that the prevailing thought among non-Christian Jews was that the body was STOLEN."

Me neither. See prior quote. {g}

I have been pretty consistent, I think, in limiting contact with this counter-apologetic. And, though I haven't said so yet, one of my purposes in putting up this series is to connect back to a debate I had with atheistic counter-Christian apologist Keith Parsons. (It was this debate which led a Cadrist member to join the Cadre as a contributing member, btw.) During our debate on the resurrection (more like an exchange of articles hosted at Victor Reppert's DangIdea journal), I pointed out a curious variation of the old argument about the Sanhedrin-not-producing-the-body: namely that they didn't even have to produce the real body! And yet they didn't even do that. Why not? I hinted at the time that something in GosMatt tacitly explains why not, but that I would need a lot of analysis in order to arrive at why that explanation worked.

Many years later... we'll see how well my explanation eventually synchs up. {g}

I'll address more particular details from your comments next. I just wanted to clear up what I had actively tried to avoid as a misunderstanding: I don't treat this as being the prevailing theory among all Jews everywhere, even at the time of GosMatt's composition, and not even necessarily among all Jews in contact with his audience. (As I will explain much later in a sequel series, I expect this is a leftover artifact explanation by the time GosMatt was composed.)

Metacrock said…
The majority of non Christian Jews didn't have to believe the body was stolen. But some Jews apparently argued that.

I think most non Christian Jews either believe it was stolen, that it was moved without being stolen before the guards were put on, or that Jesus was raised form the dead but that doesn't make him Messiah.

I would be interesting to know what the majority believed Jesus to be.
Jason Pratt said…
Dondi: {{In the first place, the whole account of GA-B [and GA-A for that matter] appears to have been inserted into the text at a later date.}}

A few things to note about this combination source/form critical argument.

1.) There is exactly zero text-critical evidence for this theory. (The adulteress pericope in GosJohn would be an ultra-famous example of having text-critical evidence for insertion of material into a text; the Coda of GosMark would be another only-slightly-less-famous example.) It isn't like we have variant texts where the Guard story is missing, in whole or in parts.

2.) Relatedly, the Guard Adventures are included in the midst of material either unique or almost unique to GosMatt. (The only shared material in proximity is the announcement of the angel to the women at the tomb, which has either been ramped up from GosMark's equivalent material or the latter radically ramped down. GosLuke's and GosJohn's angel material is so different as to be almost/entirely independent, respective to each text, by the way.)

The upshot is that all the positive (and negative) evidence points squarely to the material having been included no later than the publication of the received Greek text of GosMatt. And that's what the argument is focusing on: why is the final author/redactor/whatever of GosMatt including this anecdote?--an anecdote he expects to be relevant to his contemporary readers because he himself qualifies it with the phrase "to this day". Even if he's passing on tradition, and even if he's welding this piece of tradition into another received narrative form (which as you note there's also some stylistic evidence of), he still thinks the tradition is relevant because...? (Answer: because this story is still being spread among at least some Jews in contact with his target audience.)
Jason Pratt said…
Dondi: {{I contend that you cannot divorce GA-B from this earlier account in dealing with Pilate, for it sets up precedence for the excuse about having the body stolen.}}

Certainly, I said as much myself in Part 1 (if he writes Adv-A, he need not write Adv-B, but if he writes Adv-B he pretty much has to have something like Adv-A). But I'm looking at the implications as an experiment in the progressive results of adding up the implications of even a feasible sceptical minimism. Theoretically, the author could be completely inventing the material in Adv-A, so far as I've gone, as a way of making a narratively convenient explanation of how those guards got in place. The most I can appeal to that earlier portion for, is evidence for how the author intended Adv-B to be understood in some details.

Dondi: {{the stone was sealed, presumable by the signet of the Roman Proctator}}

Not a detail of the text, though; and as I mentioned in a previous comment, not only was there a reason for the tomb to be sealed even if the Roman government was no longer directly involved, but mentioning the seal adds less than nothing to the author's narrative thrust--it ultimately serves no narrative function, and could be construed as counter-apologetic detail fodder! (So the body was discovered missing after the seal was broken, hm? No big surprise there!)

As to asking for the guard, I'll have more to say about that later in the main text of the series (at which time I'll add a comment with some more narrative context details.) You're certainly right about it being goofy, for (supposedly) Roman soldiers, not only to report to the Sanhedrin first, but for the Sanhedrin to promise protection if (notice the conditional clause) news of their failure gets back to Pilate. (IF??! If they had been Roman soldiers detailed by Pilate, there would be no if about him hearing of their failure.)

Dondi: {{If the Temple guard consisted of Jews, as one must suppose, then to send them off to guard a tomb on the Sabbath makes no sense whatsoever.}}

They didn't set a guard on the Sabbath, according to the GosMatt text. They set the guard after the Sabbath had ended (i.e. Saturday night at sundown), with the body still being verified as present.

Being in a graveyard would be defiling (I suppose; or maybe not, there were probably ways around it). But y'know what? If it's a national emergency, let those Temple soldiers be temporarily defiled. Not a big deal. Ditto for sending a servant of the high priest, or a few volunteer chiefs, to oversee the stationing. The priests understood that sometimes defilement was unavoidable in pursuit of duty, especially when larger issues were at stake. The Law itself made provisions for some such things in principle, including in regard to the proper handling of dead bodies.

As to why either side might be loath to bring up the "disciples stole it" explanation again: I'll be discussing that later, too, after this series. It has some connection to the topic of why we have no indication, even in Christian counter-polemic, that they tried to pass off a fake body for the real one.

"Historical J....."!?!

The persons using that contra-historical oxymoron (demonstrated by the eminent late Oxford historian, James Parkes, The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue) exposes dependancy upon 4th-century, gentile, Hellenist sources.

While scholars debate the provenance of the original accounts upon which the earliest extant (4th century, even fragments are post-135 C.E.), Roman gentile, Hellenist-redacted versions were based, there is not one fragment, not even one letter of the NT that derives DIRECTLY from the 1st-century Pharisee Jews who followed the Pharisee Ribi Yehoshua.
Historians like Parkes, et al., have demonstrated incontestably that 4th-century Roman Christianity was the 180° polar antithesis of 1st-century Judaism of ALL Pharisee Ribis. The earliest (post-135 C.E.) true Christians were viciously antinomian (ANTI-Torah), claiming to supersede and displace Torah, Judaism and ("spiritual) Israel and Jews. In soberest terms, ORIGINAL Christianity was anti-Torah from the start while DSS (viz., 4Q MMT) and ALL other Judaic documentation PROVE that ALL 1st-century Pharisees were PRO-Torah.

There is a mountain of historical Judaic information Christians have refused to deal with, at: www.netzarim.co.il (see, especially, their History Museum pages beginning with "30-99 C.E.").
Original Christianity = ANTI-Torah. Ribi Yehoshua and his Netzarim, like all other Pharisees, were PRO-Torah. Intractable contradiction.

Building a Roman image from Hellenist hearsay accounts, decades after the death of the 1st-century Pharisee Ribi, and after a forcible ouster, by Hellenist Roman gentiles, of his original Jewish followers (135 C.E., documented by Eusebius), based on writings of a Hellenist Jew excised as an apostate by the original Jewish followers (documented by Eusebius) is circular reasoning through gentile-Roman Hellenist lenses.

What the historical Pharisee Ribi taught is found not in the hearsay accounts of post-135 C.E. Hellenist Romans but, rather, in the Judaic descriptions of Pharisees and Pharisee Ribis of the period... in Dead Sea Scroll 4Q MMT (see Prof. Elisha Qimron), inter alia.

To all Christians: The question is, now that you've been informed, will you follow the authentic historical Pharisee Ribi? Or continue following the post-135 C.E. Roman-redacted antithesis—an idol?
Jason Pratt said…
Andreas: {{there is not one fragment, not even one letter of the NT that derives DIRECTLY from the 1st-century Pharisee Jews who followed the Pharisee Ribi Yehoshua.}}

And yet, somehow you're entirely (even viciously?) sure that Jesus was a Pharisaic rabbi. Based on... what exactly? The DSS have nothing to say about Jesus, unless one purely speculates that Jesus was the Teacher of Righteousness or some other coded character in their tracts--a totally unverifiable hypothesis. (Indeed, even if Essene party members in general might usually have been allies of the Pharisee party generally, the group at Qumran is well-known for their extremist rejections of other religious parties and authorities in the land at the time.)

Whereas, many Christian scholars (myself included) have no problem finding plenty of evidence in the canonical Gospels that Jesus was regarded as being, more or less, a Pharisaic rabbi, including by other members of the Pharisee party. Yet still a rabbi who got into massive trouble with other rabbis and scribes (especially members of the Pharisee party) for critiquing Israel (as if no prophet ever did that! {wry g}); for critiquing religious leaders in Israel (as if no Pharisee ever did that!); for critiquing Pharisees (as if no Pharisee ever did that!!)--and for making blasphemous claims of identity and authority about himself.

The man got himself rejected by the Jewish religious leadership (including by factions of the Pharisee party who, while not totally powerful, had been trying to protect him--according to those same "post-135 Roman Hellenist texts"), and handed over to the Roman occupation authorities for legal execution, for some reason. And rabbis afterward, in definitely non-Christian documents, didn't have much trouble denouncing him themselves without even reference to Roman collaboration in his undoing. (Although there were also sympathetic rabbis for many centuries afterward, and even ones who converted to believing in Jesus and his, or His, claims about Himself.)

What any of this has to do with the post you're commenting to, is left up to the imagination I guess. {g}

Jason Pratt said…
{{Building a Roman image from Hellenist hearsay accounts, decades after the death of the 1st-century Pharisee Ribi, and after a forcible ouster, by Hellenist Roman gentiles, of his original Jewish followers (135 C.E., documented by Eusebius), based on writings of a Hellenist Jew excised as an apostate by the original Jewish followers (documented by Eusebius)...}}

Um... are you talking about Saul/Paul of Tarsus at the end there?

If so, does that mean you regard at least some of the epistles claiming to have been written by him, as indeed having been written by him (thus predating the destruction of the Temple by at least several years)? If not, which "writings" of his are you claiming the "Hellenist hearsay accounts" are based on?--and where are they? (Or do you mean some other "Hellenist Jew excised as an apostate"? If so, which one? And why isn't he more famous to Christians if he supposedly had so much influence on the composition of the canonical Gospels?)

If you do mean you accept that some of the NT epistles were written by him, which ones do you accept? Not the ones where he claims to be a Pharisee of Pharisees who learned at the feet of Gamaliel (I), I suppose; or where he claims to be in basic doctrinal agreement with the Jerusalem church leadership; or where he emphasizes to both Gentile and Jewish readers that paganism is wrong and should be rejected for Jewish monotheism; or where he only uses references to Jewish scriptures when instructing and exhorting his readers; or where he warns that Gentiles ought not to look down on any Jews who currently don't accept Christ, because God will one day save those Jews, too; or where he presents Gentiles as being grafted into the promises of Israel, outside of which there is no salvation (and in which Jews have a natural advantage at by virtue of God's grace in their being born into Judaism)?

Or do you accept any of those texts, too? If not, which ones in the NT are left over that you accept as actually having come from this Hellenist anti-Jewish Jews? (Galatians?? and...??) And why did anti-Jewish Roman Hellenists insist on keeping those other epistles you reject (if any) as being too pro-Jewish and so clearly not written by the excised apostate Hellenist Jew?

Incidentally, St. Paul's claim to have been taught by Gamaliel (who would be Gamaliel I, grandson of Hillel and grandfather of Gamaliel II) would fit pretty well with the Hillel party's tendency to emphasize keeping the Torah in a spiritual fashion (even if Paul goes somewhat farther with that than a Pharisee of the Hillel school might be comfortable with, much moreso a Pharisee of the rival Shammaite school.)


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