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Wednesday, February 18, 2004

The Passion - a spin off debate

On a forum I frequent I have gotten involved in a spin-off discussion about Mel Gibson's new film (why on earth can't it be released in the UK on Ash Wednesday too is what I want to know. We get it late in March, so perhaps I'll go see it on Palm Sunday or something - though in fact I'll probably go the weekend it comes out unless all my trusted sources come out universally against it).

Some one posted an article, running the fairly typical this will inflame Europe's anti-Semitism, yadayadayada. Just about everyone who posted disagreed with the article, but a debate did start about how useful are the gospel accounts historically. I post my own thoughts on this - partly in response to a guy who was claiming the gospels are as reliable as Homer for historical info, because they include miracles and the divine et al.

Attempts to draw parallels between the gospels and Homer runs into a serious problem when you consider the situations when both were written.

Homer was compiling various oral traditions several centuries after the events he recounts. The gospel writers (well, Mark, Matthew, Luke - given that John was later revised) all wrote well within living memory of the death of Jesus. And in the case of John the revision could possibly have occurred within living memory, or would have occured not far outside that envelope, probably by c.100AD at the latest.

That is a pretty serious difference. You are, of course, entitled to your own opinion of the miracles, but the presence of miracles
does not invalidate the historicity of other elements in the account. From a historical perspective the gospel accounts (or, for that matter, any of the more 'historical' texts in the Bible) should be examined just as if there were another contemporary historical source, but with no especial cautions because of their religious nature.

And I repeat again, these are accounts that probably rely on eye-witnesses, and it is more than possible that the writers were eye-witnesses for substantial chunks of what they report. Rather different from Homer, who existed at least 300 years after the events he was telling, and possibly much longer, with a dark age intervening between him and the his subject-matter.

Now, the prime point of the gospels is not history, so their value historically is from indirect reference. But then, Plutarch's point of writing was not history, but rather moral tales. Neither was Juvenal writing history, but it is from Juvenal that we try to understand social conditions in early Imperial Rome. Most of our roman sources write compilations of letters or court cases, but we plumb them for historical information. And the same is true for the gospels.


This highlights two of my pet-peeves. The first is Homer-Bible comparisons. The Iliad and Odyssey are not religious texts, the Bible is. A simple, but rather fundamental difference. Homer is not the basis of Greek religion, but is the basis for much of ancient Greek (and Graeco-Roman) culture. Shakespeare's role in the English world is probably the best analogy to the place that Homer played in ancient Greek/Graeco-Roman society - especially when one examines the great influence of Shakespeare's Histories. He is so uniquitous in our culture we hardly notice his presence. Arguably the only writer since to have come anywhere close to Shakespeare's influence is JRR Tolkein, and he is definitely far to recent to make an accurate evaluation of his long-term place in English/English-speaking culture.

The second is that just because a text happens to be in a religious context it has no historical value (the other assertion the person made that I was responding to). As someone who has studied ancient and mediaeval history I know you have to search hard to find any historical text that does not include explicit religious elements like divine intervention throughout the whole 2000 year period I ended up studying at university*. We do not throw away countless ancient and mediaeval historians, be they Christian or pagan, just because they talk openly about gods and miracles. Nor do we throw away countless accounts because they are not explicity historical in purpose. We evaluate them, and look for corroboration.

In the gosepls themselves there appear to be at least two separate accounts, Luke and Mark/Matthew. Some people would say three, and separate Mark and Matthew. I leave out John because, as anyone who has read all the gospels knows, John is very different in nature from the other 3. Among those 3 though, the Synaptics iirc, there is a remarkable degree of corrorboration in the events of Jesus' minsitry and Passion. There are differences, but these are either eye-witness accounts or are based on such. Considering that, and considering how variable eye-witness accounts can be, there is remarkable homogeneity. For me that alone is powerful evidence for the basic historical facts of Jesus' life - that is his minstry and his death. Well I also believe in the Resurrection, I accept that is a matter that is outside proper historical debate.

Incidentally another person was trying to argue that Christ could not be crucified because Tiberius apparently ordained that executions were to be carried out by strangulation. His source was a chance line in Suetonius' The Caesars, which were written about 120AD. He never actually produced the relevant quote in Suetonious (or hasn't yet that I've noticed), but even if he did it would not matter. Unfortunately I think that counts as good historical argument in popular circles.

*I took courses that covered the ancient world from the 5thC BC to the 6thC AD, most detail on the 3rd+4th AD; and from the 9thC AD to the 15thC AD. A large part of my course was studing historical documents from England from c.1320-c.1420.

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