New Testament Studies, Professor Wells

Home | Intro to the Jesus legend articles | In the Gospels Jesus Was a Mortal--jk | Mark Describes Jesus' Gay Affair | SOURCE FOR JESUS LEGEND | SKEPTICISM ON HISTORICAL CHRIST by Catholic theologian | Published Commentary on the Previous Article | Fictional Christ--McKinsey | New Testament Studies, Professor Wells | EARLIEST CHRISTIANITY--Prof. Wells | Who Was Jesus--Prof. G. A. Wells | NO HISTORICAL JESUS, response to critic by Prof. Wells | Old Testament Messiah Prophecies and the Gospels | Balanced New Testament Analysis | THE HISTORICAL REFERENCES TO JESUS; A Scholarly Analysis | Jesus Legend Sources--Wikipedia | TEXTUAL CRITICISM OF THE NEW TESTAMENT | TEXTUAL PROBLEMS OF THE NEW TESTAMENT | THE HISTORICAL REFERENCES TO JESUS | Did Jesus Exist?--Walker | The Jesus Puzzle--Doherty | The Jesus Puzzle--Doherty, continued | NASTY JESUS & STUPID ADVISE | New Testament, Sources, Transmission, Variations, & Modifications | CONTRADICTIONS: New & Old Testaments | BIBLE CANON: History & Analysis Thereof | End of the World is soon, Bible Tells US--quotes


No English writer in a book length work has said so much with so few words--and with such clarity!  In a work presenting analysis, his style is a paradigm.  His arguments are beyond quibbling. 

 I, who am a chronic scribbler of critical comments in the margins, go chapters without lifting my pen.    



Who Was Jesus:  a Critique of New Testament Records

Open Court, La Salle, Illinois, 1989

George Albert Wells



Non-Christian evidence is too late to give any independent support to the gospels.  When Tacitus wrote (about AD 120) that Christ was executed under Pontius Pilate, he was merely repeating what Chris­tians were by then saying (HEJ, pp. 1617; France, pp. 21-23).  The other pagan writer commonly adduced is Suetonius who wrote, also around AD 120, that Claudius (who reigned AD 41-54) expelled Jews from Rome because they constantly made disturbances at the in­stigation of Chrestus.  Many commentators think that, by Chrestus, Suetonius really meant Christus (the Messiah); and Watson has con­vincingly argued that the disorders to which Suetonius here refers were caused by controversy between orthodox Jews and Jewish Christians at Rome about the truth or falsehood of Christianity.30 No more about the historical Jesus need have been included in this Christianity of Claudiuss day than what extant Christian writers (Paul and others) were saying on the subject before the gospels became established much later in the first century; and that, as we saw (above, pp. 6f) does not confirm the gospels portraits of Jesus. Suetonius also mentions Neros persecution of Christians at Rome, but, as France notes, tells us nothing more than what we already know about this from Tacitus, and nothing about Jesus himself (p. 42).  Pliny, as I have noted elsewhere (HEJ, p. 16), is equally unhelpful in the latter regard, as France (p. 43) agrees.

Rabbinic references to Jesus are entirely dependent on Christian claims, as both Christian and Jewish scholars have conceded.  I quote Sandmel and Bornkamm, among others, to this effect in DiE, p. 12.  France, who gives no indication that this is the view of reputable scholars, regards what I say there as dogmatic scepticism (p. 39).  Catchpole, however, in a thorough survey, gives the arguments of seven Jewish scholars who, between 1929 and 1963, totally dis­missed, with varying degrees of firmness, the Talmudic evidence on Jesus.3 I note in DJE (pp. 12, 16) that even Goldstein, who accepts as authentic five passages about Jesus in the vast rabbinic literature of the first two and a quarter centuries AD, admits that they do not conclusively establish even that he existed at all, as none of them can be shown to be sufficiently early.

Appeal is still commonly made to the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, in whose Antiquities of the Jews it is suggested that Jesus was more than human, and where he is said to have been the Christ, a doer of marvellous deeds condemned to crucifixion by Pilate upon an indictment brought by the principal men among us.  But a Pharisee such as Josephus would not have written so admiring­ly of him, nor have dropped the subject abruptly had he believed all this of him.  The passage as it stands was obviously interpolated by a Christian writer there are only three manuscripts of the chapter in which it occurs, none of them earlier than the eleventh century and the only remaining question is whether the whole is an interpolation, or whether Josephus at this point made some mention of Jesus which was later reworked by a Christian hand.  Conzelmann, in a standard religious encyclopaedia, says that the whole is an interpolation; and Paul Winter; in the recent revision of Schurers book (p. 433), names other scholars of established reputation who likewise consider the passage a complete fabrication.  Even if, as Winter himself and many others suppose, part of the passage was written by Josephus, its date (about AD 93) makes it too late to be of decisive importance, for the gospel account was already in written form by then, and Josephus could, like Tacitus, have taken his information from what Christians were by then saying.33

                       Winter allows that, even though the passage includes what he regards as certain terms of speech, however fragmentary that can be ascribed to Josephus, it is not possible to reconstruct what Josephus may originally have written at this point (pp. 434, 438).  The Josephan terms of speech may, as Herrmann holds, be there because the passage was added by someone who knew Josephuss style and made a pastiche from it.34   France (p. 28) distorts the case I have made elsewhere for excising the whole passage when he says that my argu­ment implies that all Josephuss stories about Pilate must occur together, in unbroken sequence, so that everything after the Jesus passage but in the same chapter will also have to go, as Josephus returns to Pilate only at the beginning of the next chapter. In fact my argument (in JEC, pp. 19192 and DJE, p. 10) was that the Jesus passage occurs in a context which deals exclusively with the misfortunes of the Jews (only some of which are attributed to Pilate) and that Jesuss condemnation by Pilate at the behest of the Jewish leaders has no connection with such misfortunes except from the standpoint a Christian, who would naturally regard this crime as the greatest misfortune ever to have befallen the Jews.  If the whole passage is removed, there remains a coherent account of a series of their misfortunesfirst, two instigated by Pilate, then (after the passage about Jesus) another sad calamity which put the Jews into disorder, followed by yet another (4,000 Jews banished from Rome for the wickedness of four).35

Josephuss only other mention of Jesus occurs in a statement about the killing of James, the brother of Jesus, him called Christ.  This, if genuine and not a Christian interpolation, does nothing to confirm the gospel accounts of Jesus, and its late date makes it only marginally relevant to the question of his historicity.  France, like many others, has pleaded (p. 27) that no Christian interpolator would have been content to designate Jesus as him called Christ.  In fact, however, Matthew, in a passage where he introduces Jesus to his readers, refers to him with these very words (1:16); and at John 4:25-26 Jesus claims to be the person who has just been referred to as him called Christ, so that Christian use of the phrase is well at­tested.  Indeed, it would be remarkable from an orthodox Jew such as Josephus, who might be expected to have qualified it with something like called Christ by some.  (Cf. Herrmann, pp. 10102 for this and further evidence for interpolation).  Also, Origens comments on Josephuss mention of James do not really square with this passage (see JEC, pp. 193-94 and Frances concession, p. 172 n.14).  It is readi­ly understood as a marginal gloss, from a Christian hand, incor­porated innocently into the text by a later copyist (see DJE, p. 11).

The manner in which apologists exaggerate the significance of non-Christian evidence which they take as pertaining to the events recorded in the gospels is well illustrated by Habermass statement that within 100 to 150 years after the birth of Christ approximately eighteen non-Christian . . . sources from secular history mention . . . almost every major detail of Jesus life, including Resurrection, and his claim to be deity.36 It is all the more striking that so many of the earliest Christian documents do not do the same, but say nothing of any item in his biography except his crucifixion and resurrection (both in unspecified circumstances). And contrary to Habermass suggestion, there is no early non-Christian evidence concerning the Resurrection.  As the theologian Ulrich Wilckens has noted, for the first century we are, without exception, forced to rely on the testimony of the Christians on this matter: There are no non-Christian witnesses of any sort who could give us information about the resurrection of Jesus and his appearances, or comment from a non-Christian aspect on the statements made about the resurrection by the early Christians ~ As for Jesuss claims to be deity, these are not merely absent from but even incompatible with the earliest Chris­tian documents, where he figures as a supernatural personage higher in status than the angels, yet subordinate to the Father, to whom he will finally deliver up the kingdom (1 Corinthians 15:24 and 28), and himself then be merely the first-born among many brothers (Romans 8:29).38

      One of Habermass 18 secular sources on the life of Jesus is Thallus, who, he claims, mentioned the darkness and the events sur­rounding the Crucifixion. . . about AD 52 (p. 106).  Thalluss History has not survived, and only a few references to it in Christian writers are extant.  Of these the one that Habermas has in mind is Julius Africanuss statement in the third century, apropos of the three-hour darkness from noon which covered the earth at Jesuss crucifixion (Mark 15:33): Thallus sayswrongly it seems to methat this darkness was an eclipse of the sun.  Jacoby, who prints Africanuss quotation and who comments on it in a companion volume, notes that Thallus may in fact have made no mention at all of Jesus or Jewish history, but simply have recorded (as other chroniclers did) the eclipse in the reign of Tiberius for which astronomers have calculated the date 24 November AD.  It may have been Africanus who introduced Jesus in retorting that this was no eclipse but a super­natural event.  If, however, Thallus did mention the death of Jesus, then his testimony would be important if it antedated the gospel traditions.  But all we in fact know of him is that he wrote later than the eclipse he mentions and probably before Phlegon, the freedman of Hadrian (if Eusebius is right in asserting that Phlegon drew his in­formation about the same eclipse from Thallus).  Jacoby says that Christian writers were drawn to Thalluss History because it was the latest thing and appeared only in the second century.  Thus if he mentioned the crucifixion at all, he probably derived his information from what Christians were already saying, and is therefore not an in­dependent witness.  Conzelmanns article on Jesus in a standard religious encyclopaedia notes curtly that Thallus cannot be con­sidered as witnessing to events in the life of Jesus.40

The three-hour darkness at Jesuss death cannot, in the passover context in which it is set in the gospels, have been a solar eclipse, as the Passover is celebrated about the time of the full moon, and solar eclipses can occur only at the time of the new moon.  The evangelists of course do not intend to represent the darkness as naturally caused, but as a miraculous portent, no doubt signifying the judgment of heaven on what was taking place (Nineham, p. 426).  Nineham adds that similar portents are said to have marked the deaths of Julius Caesar and other pagan figures, and also of some of the great rabbis.




According to Karl Barth, we rightly turn up our nose at the many inconsistencies in the attempts of liberal theologians to explain belief in the resurrection naturalistically1 If inconsistencies are a ground for scornful rejection, then it will fare ill with the New Testament ac­counts of the Resurrection.  A. E. Harvey notes in his The New English Bible Companion to the New Testament (Oxford and Cam­bridge University Presses, 1970, p. 297)--hardly a sceptical work that all the gospels, after having run closely together in their accounts of the trial and execution, diverge markedly when they come to the circumstances of the resurrection, and it is impossible to fit their accounts together into a single coherent scheme.  Fuller gives a brief summary of what he calls the palpable inconsistencies (pp. 25), and early this century they were set out in detail by the Zurich theologian P. W. Schmiedel, who gives ample evidence that on this matter the canonical gospels are at irreconcilable variance with each other and that the non-canonical notices serve to show how busily and in how reckless a manner the accounts of the resurrection of Jesus continued to be handed on.2 Karl Barths way out of all this is that we ought not to ask for evidence for the Resurrection, but should believe on faith alone; to which another theologian, Paul Badham, has appositely replied: A faith which claims something which happened in the past is important cannot evade historical scrutiny of that claim.3

       Strauss emphasized how glaring the contradictions are when he declared, of the Resurrection; Rarely has an incredible fact been worse attested, and never has a badly attested one been intrinsically less credible.4  Matthew makes Jesuss appearances to his disciples oc­cur exclusively in Galilee, while Luke sites them exclusively 80 miles away at Jerusalem.  (The final redactor of the fourth gospel tries to harmonize such discrepant traditions by appending a chapter of Galilean appearances, John 21, to a chapter of Jerusalem ap­pearances.) I know that witnesses of an event can give discrepant ac­counts of it, but one would not expect the discrepancies to extend to

essentials.  If one witness of a street accident affirmed that it took place in London, we should not expect another to site it in Birm­ingham.  If we were faced with such discrepant reports, and also had no other evidence that there had been any accident, we should dismiss the whole thing.  But this is our position in regard to the Resurrection.  As Elliott has said: There is no independent witness to the Easter events outside the New Testament (p. 84).

The documents make it clear that the Christophanies were not vouchsafed to enemies, only to those who either already believed or subsequently became believers.  As Elliott puts it: Jesus in his resur­rected state is visible only to those who have faith (p. 86); or, in the wording of the New Testament itself, only to witnesses who were chosen before of God (Acts 10:40-41).  According to Acts, the ap­pearances of the risen Jesus went on for 40 days.  This feature con­tradicts even Luke (by the same author), which ends with Jesus leading his disciples on Easter day, after numerous appearances to them, from Jerusalem to the neighbouring locality of Bethany, where he solemnly blesses them with uplifted hands before he parted from them and was carried up into heavenon that same day.  Some manuscripts have only he parted from them, but Fuller concedes, after discussing the manuscript evidence, that the words reporting the ascension are textually Lucan and integral to the narrative (p. 122).  Evidently some copyists deleted them in order to represent the parting as only temporary and thus avoid contradicting Acts where the author seems to be drawing on a tradition not available when he wrote his gospel, and one on which he gladly seized because, while occasional appearances of the risen one might be dismissed by scep­tics as hallucinations, a sojourn of forty days, during which he presented many proofs (Acts 1:3), was more substantial.

Conservative apologists admit what they call apparent dis­crepancies in the evidence for the Resurrection, but point out that certain cardinal facts are independent of them: all the accounts agree, for instance, that Jesus was crucified and subsequently raised.  But this amount of agreement is frequently found in stories admittedly mythical.  Historians agree that Wilhelm Tell is a legendary figure, but there are chronicles enough telling discrepant stories of how he founded the Swiss Confederation.  Reverting to my example of a street accident, I would note that the conservative position implies that, although those who claim to be witnesses disagree even as to where it happened, and although there are no injured people, damaged vehicles or indeed any evidence apart from their discordant testimony, we are nevertheless to believe that an accident did occur.  Scholars who today still defend Jesuss virgin birth as historical fact are obliged to resort to this manner of arguing: as we shall see, the event is documented only in the two nativity stories of Matthew and Luke (not elsewhere in the New Testament), and each of these stories is incompatible with the other, as well as being full of its own dif­ficulties.  But they agree in alleging that Jesus was virgin born.  Such minimal agreement between narratives with.  no historical basis is, however, what one would expect if for some reason certain beliefs about Jesus and about Tell had come to be accepted and if believers then, independently of each other, tried to envisage historical circumstances which would justify these beliefs.

The discrepancies in the gospel accounts of the Resurrection events are not mere muddle but arise because one evangelist pursues theological purposes alien to another.  For Luke, Jerusalem is of great theological importance,5 and in order to place the appearances there he amends the Marcan narrative at two points.  First he omits the record at Mark 14:28 of Jesuss prediction (during the walk to Gethsemane after the Last Supper) that after his Resurrection he would go before his disciples into Galilee.  Then he rewords what Mark had recorded as the instruction to the women at the empty tomb.  Mark has:


Go, tell his disciples and Peter, He goeth before you into Galilee; there shall ye see him, as he said unto you (16:7).


In Luke this appears as:


Remember how he spake unto you, when he was yet in Galilee, saying that the Son of man must be . . . crucified, and the third day rise again (24:6-7).



Having thus eliminated the instruction that the disciples should go to Galilee, Luke goes on to make the risen Jesus tell them to remain in Jerusalem until ye be clothed with power from on high (24:49), which he represents (at Acts 2:14) as happening at Pentecost, that is, some fifty days later.

          Theologians speak in this connection of Lukes editing of Mark; but we can hardly feel confidence in a writer whose theological pur­pose leads him to adapt a source so as to obliterate its plain meaning.  As Evans has said, it is not natural confusion but rather the lack of it, and the influence of rational reflection and apologetic which have given rise to such contradictions (p. 129).

The best manuscripts of Mark end at 16:8.  The remainder of chapter 16 is an appendix (distinguished as such in the RV, the RSV, and the NEB) which makes the risen Jesus promise (among other things) that believers will be able to handle snakes and drink deadly poison without coming to harm.  Up to 16:8, there have been no ap­pearances of the risen one.  The women visitors to the tomb have discovered it to be empty, and have been instructed there by a young man arrayed in a white robe to tell the disciples to go to Galilee to experience an appearance.  In Luke, the young man becomes two men in dazzling apparel, and in Matthew he is called an angel.  Commentators point out that this is the meaning in all three gospels, as young man sometimes designates an angel in an­cient Jewish literature, and in the New Testament men in white and/or radiant clothes are always heavenly beings. In John (20:12) there are two angels.  Commentators are apt to say that we have here various accounts, the exact details of which are not important.  Of course the details are unimportant if the important fact is admitted that Jesus had risen from the dead and that real angels stood by his tomb and spoke to the women.  If we accept all this, it does not mat­ter whether there was one angel or two, whether they were outside the tomb or within.

Mark continues by representing the women as too afraid to deliver the young mans message to the disciples, so that they said nothing to anyone.  Fuller, like many others, thinks that the empty tomb story is no part of the early tradition, but a later legend, in­troduced by Mark for the first time into the narrative (p. 52).  And it has often been suggested that Marks motive for making the women keep silent was to account for the fact that, as he well knew, there was no already existing tradition about an empty tomb when he wrote.  As Lampe says: The fact that the women do not pass the message on may suggest that the evangelist, or his source, knew that the story of the tomb and the angel was not part of the original Easter proclamation and had only developed at a relatively late stage in the tradition (p. 48).

Whatever Marks motive may have been, Luke reworded this passage so as to make it lead in to the Jerusalem appearances he has added to Mark:


Mark 16:8

And they went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and aston­ishment had come upon them: and they said nothing to anyone; for they were afraid.

Luke 24:9

And they returned from the tomb and told all these things to the elev­en, and to all the rest.


         1 do not mean to suggest that Luke is here concocting a narrative he knew to be false. As he was convinced that it was beginning from Jerusalem that the Christian mission went forward to all the nations (Luke 24:47), he will naturally have supposed that his predecessor had got his facts a bit wrong, and so will have amended the Marcan narrative in perfectly good faith.  One thing that this kind of editing clearly indicates is that Marks gospel was not regarded as authoritatively based on reliable eyewitness information.

If we turn from Luke to Matthew, we find similarly a narrative shaped by conscious purpose.  Matthew has decided to have the sepulchre guarded by Jewish (or Roman) soldiers so as to prevent the Jews from alleging, when it is later seen to be empty, that disciples stole their masters body and merely pretended that he had risen from the dead (Matthew 27:6266).  In consequence, Matthew cannot ac­cept Marks statement that the women expected to enter the tomb (to anoint the body) and has to represent them as intending merely to visit it (28:1).  Before they can look inside it, the guard has to be put out of action; hence the need for the great earthquake of the next verse caused not by any natural seismic conditions, but by the de­scent from heaven of an angel of the Lord who both rolls away the stone sealing the tomb and pet rifies the guards with fear.  But why did not these soldiers, once they had recovered, tell of what they had seen and thus make it difficult for the Jews to deny the fact of the Resurrection?  To provide a plausible answer to this question, Mat­thew has it that the chief priests persuaded the guards with bribes to pretend that they had slept on duty and thus given Jesuss disciples a chance to steal the body.  The guards took the money, and did as they were taught: and this saying was spread abroad among the Jews and continueth until this day (28:15).  This is psychologically quite incredible. Whoever has seen an angel descending from heaven, with an appearance like lightning (28:3), is not going to sayeven for a Considerable sum of money that he was asleep and saw nothing (Haenchen, pp. 549-550). The phrase until this day betrays the whole narrative as late apologetic, accounting, to both Jews and Christians, for the silence of alleged Jewish witnesses. Lampe has noted that what he calls Matthews legend of the guard has no historical value, is very much in the manner of the later apocryphal gospels, and reflects controversy with the Jews (p. 51).

C.        H. Dodd refers to two passages in Matthews account (28:8-10 and 16-20) which, he says, represent the formed tradition, stereotyped through relatively long transmission within a communi­ty, and express the corporate oral tradition of the primitive Church.6  In the first, the women have just been told at the tomb (as in Mark) that the risen one will appear in Galilee, whereupon (diverging from Marks account) they run to bring his disciples word, but are intercepted by the risen Jesus. Matthew may have ad­ded this detail because he feared that the testimony of the angel at the tomb, which is all that Mark offered, could be dismissed as hallucina­tion. It is hard to see any other reason for this added episode, for in it Jesus effects no more than to repeat the angels message that he will appear in Galilee. The women, however, introduce something novel in that at this point they took hold of his feet and worshipped him. [This and other passages are given in support of the doctrine of resurrection of the bodyJK.]   This kind of physical contact with the risen one is characteristic of the stage of tradition represented by the gospels, but excluded, as we shall see, by Paul, who also knows nothing of appearances to women. These, by the way, are also unknown to Luke. He records the womens visit to the tomb and their encounter there with two men in dazzling apparel (24:110), but says nothing of any ap­pearance to the women, and goes on to imply at 24:22-24 that, up to that point, no one had seen Jesus.

In Dodds second Matthaean passage the risen Jesus instructs the eleven on a Galilean mountain to make disciples of all the nations. Such words could have been put into his mouth only when the fierce Controversy about the gentile mission that dominates the earliest Christian literature was not only over and done with, but even barely remembered. The eleven are here further instructed to baptise all the nations into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. This again can only be late, for there is no suggestion in fhe early literature not even in Acts account of the Churchs early historythat this formula was used. At Acts 2:38 Peter urges poten­tial converts simply to be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ.

      Matthews risen Lord also instructs the eleven to teach converts to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you. This rep­resents a special theological interest of Matthew, who presents his gospel, with its five carefully constructed Jesuine discourses, as the new Torah; and all that I commanded you is meant to refer back to these (cf. Fuller, pp. 8889). It is with such facts in mind that Evans has said (p. 67) that, not only does the risen Lord not say the same things in any two gospels, but also it is hardly the same Lord speak­ing: In Matthew it is evidently a Matthaean Lord who speaks, in Luke a Lukan Lord and in John a Johannine Lord. Each gospel was written for a different Christian community, and as Fuller puts it (p. 172) the words spoken by the Risen One are not to be taken as recordings of what was actually spoken by him, but as verbalizations of the communitys understanding of the import of the resurrection.

       This second Matthaean passage also represents the risen Jesus as declaring that all authority hath been given unto me in heaven and on earth. Dodd allows that the intention here is clearly to introduce the risen Christ as King of the World. He suggests that the passage nevertheless has a ring of authenticity because it is notably sober and almost matter-of-fact in tone, entirely lacking the conventional symbolism of apocalypse (pp. 11617). He also hints that, apart from these two passages in Matthews chapter 28, even the remaining accounts of the Resurrection events merit careful attention because they lack the mythical tendencies of much ancient literature this when, in one of these remaining accounts, an angel is said to descend from heaven, roll away the stone sealing the tomb and sit on it (Mat­thew 28:1-3). Although Dodd is certainly concerned to represent these narratives in the best possible light, in his 1971 book on Jesus widely hailed on its appearance as the distillation of a life­time of study he concedes that whether Jesus had in some way left his tomb is a question on which the historian may properly suspend judgment.~ If we are to accept the miracle of the Resurrection, we need grounds more positive than this.

      If Jesuss tomb was empty, he did not leave his flesh and bones in his grave; and so either they had been transformed into something different, or else he rose in physical body. Paul (as we shall see) takes the former view, and the gospels (other than Marks, which gives no evidence either way) the latter. They refer to the flesh and bones of the risen Jesus (Luke 24:39), who eats and drinks with his disciples (Acts 10:41) and invites Thomas to touch him (John 20:27; cf. Luke 24:39 where he invites the eleven to handle him). It is on the basis of such evidence that the fourth of the Church of Englands 39 articles affirms that he ascended into heaven (where he now sitteth) with flesh and bones. His risen body also has to be solid enough to sup­port clothes, as no one supposes that the gospels would have us believe that he manifested himself naked. Yet, as the Bishops of the General Synod of the same Church of England have recently noted, this risen body must have been of a very unusual kind; for ac­cording to these same gospels, it enabled him to arrive within closed doors and vanish at will.8 Badham has stressed what he calls the in­ternal incoherence of the narratives here (p. 37): the body is represented as solid for some purposes but not for others.




Pauls detailed statement on the Resurrection events is as follows (1 Corinthians 15:38):


(3)        For I delivered unto you first of all that which also I received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures;

(4)        and that he was buried; and that he hath been raised on the third day according to the scriptures;

(5)        and that he appeared to Cephas; then to the twelve;

(6)        then he appeared to above five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain until now, but some are fallen asleep;

(7)        then he appeared to James; then to all the apostles;

(8)        and last of all, as to one born out of due time, he appeared to me also.


The passage does not locate the crucifixion in time. It places the Resurrection three days after the death, but does not say when the death occurred. The appearances are said to have been vouchsafed to Paul and to his contemporaries, but it is not said how near in time they are to the death and the Resurrection. Someone who claims to see a ghost does not necessarily suppose that it is the wraith of a recently deceased person. The reference to Jesuss burial (verse 4) need not be taken to imply knowledge of a tomb, still less of a post-Resurrection empty tomb. Paul may simply be emphasizing the reali­ty of Jesuss death, as when we say someone is dead and buried (cf. Evans, p. 75 and note). That he was actually buried is important theologically for Paul, who regarded the death, burial, and Resurrec­tion as reflected symbolically in Christian baptism of total immer­sion: into the water constitutes death; under the water, burial; and out of the water, resurrection (Romans 6:34 and Colossians 2:12 where references to Jesuss burial are explicit).  [This passage is likely an interprolation because of (a) it supports the later-written gospels; (b) because it found no where else in the Epistles (Pauls and others); and (c) is contains so much more knowledge of what happened in a work so lacking knowledge (inconsistent with Pauls admitted and demonstrated lack of knowledge, see Cor. 1:18-23)--JK]. 

As we have seen, in the gospels Jesuss tomb is said to be empty because he rose in physical body. Paul, however, has a quite dif­ferent view of rising from the dead and roundly declares in the same chapter of the epistle where he writes of Jesuss Resurrection and subsequent appearances that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 15:50). It is clear enough, says Bishop Carnley, that in verses 38, Paul understands Jesuss Resur­rection as a truly representative sample of the resurrection of all believers, to which he makes reference in this later verse.9 In the same context (verse 43) he writes of the dead being raised in glory; and at Philippians 3:21 he argues directly from the Resurrection body of Christ to the future resurrection body of believers: Christ will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body. As Fuller has noted (p. 20), if Paul believed that Christs physical body had been transformed he could not have accepted any tradition that Jesus rose in physical body and ate and drank.

Of course, if Jesus rose, he will have left his tomb empty even if his body had been transformed into something quite different. But whether Paul had any actual knowledge of an empty tomb is another matter. In 1 Corinthians he is writing to men who were denying that there was a resurrection of the dead, and had he known of an empty tomb, he would surely have been glad to adduce this as evidence of resurrection, instead of merely saying, as he does, that Jesus was buried and then raised [the empty tomb is given as proof of resurrection of the boyJK].  As Conzelmann notes in a standard religious encyclopaedia, Paul seems to suppose that Jesus ascended to heaven at once on being resurrected, and with a body of heavenly radiance, so that his subsequent appearances were made from heaven.10   So much is implied even in Acts version of Jesuss appearance to Paul, who sees a light out of heaven (Acts 9:3ff) and hears a voice, which his companions also hear, although they see no one. Later, at Acts 22:9, his companions are said to have seen the light, but not to have heard the voice. The implication of both passages may be that all saw the 


light, but only Paul saw the figure of Jesus in it. However construed, all this is quite different from the physical appearances recorded in the gospels.

Paul would surely have rejected as blasphemous any claim to have eaten and drunk with the exalted one. Lukes story of the risen Christ consuming broiled fish (Luke 24:4143) represents later apologetic, relevant to a situation where Christians were replying to Jewish and gentile incredulity with a narrative which established the physical reality of his Resurrection, but which today can only strike many readers as more than slightly ridiculous.11

One important factor which helps to account for Pauls testimony is that, when he wrote, Christian leaders established their authority by claiming to have seen the risen Lord.12   For Paul, an apostle was precisely a person who had had such a vision and been called to the lords service in consequence of it, for it is on this basis that he declares himself to be as much an apostle as were rival Christian teachers: Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? (1 Corinthians 9:1). The psychological predisposition to such visions can hardly have been absent if there was such a strong motive for claiming them.13   One reason why this is not known to the general reader is that the word apostle puts him in mind of the twelve apostles and so makes him think that only someone who had been a Jose disciple of Jesus during his lifetime could be an apostle.  In fact the first author who uses the term fairly consistently in this sense is Luke (both in his gospel and in Acts), his purpose being thereby to resist heresy by limiting true doctrine to what had allegedly been pro­claimed by men who had kept Jesuss company from his baptism to his ascension. For earlier Christian writers, and for those of about the same date as Luke but ignorant of the gospel traditions, the term had no such implication. For instance, at Revelation 2:2 the Church of Ephesus is congratulated for having tested them which call themselves apostles and . . . are not. If apostles here meant (twelve) companions of Jesus, they could have been identified without being put to the test and found false.14  

      As, according to Paul, Jesus sometimes appeared to more than one person on a given occasion, some apologists hold that there real­ly must have been some external reality to be perceived. It still would not follow that what was there was interpreted correctly. There are examples enough of collective perception of what were taken for ghosts.  The evidence offered by sworn eyewitnesses at witchcraft trials likewise suggests that what people observe depends at least as much on their habits of thought as on what is actually there. A firm belief in the miraculous and in the ceaseless efforts of the Devil was presupposed in the observations and reasonings of witnesses and judges alike at these trials, and, as Huxley noted (see above, p. 16), the number of witnesses counts for very little when all are affected by the same underlying beliefs. More recently, at the battle of Mons (1914), angels, varying in number from two to a platoon were wide­ly believed to have fought on the British side.16   The virgin Mary is alleged to have been seen by two children at La Salette (France) in 1846 and by three children at Fatima (Portugal) in 1917, complaining in both cases of neglect of sacred rites. A standard religious en­cyclopaedia regards these as instances of the type of popular piety that in Romance-speaking areas was linked with nineteenth-century revivalist movements.7 At Fatima the initial appearances were followed by an awed crowd of 30,000 seeing first Our Lady of Sor­rows, followed by Our Lady of Carmel, then Saint Joseph holding the Holy Child in his arms, and lastly the Lord Jesus. A solar prodigy on the same occasion (13 October, 1917) was witnessed by thousands of people within a twenty-five mile radius: the sun spun three times, then moved away from its natural axis, and falling from side to side plunged down towards the earth at tremendous speed, zigzagging wildly as it came.18
     It is of course true that hallucinations, even when induced by some common physical means, will not be the same for different peo­ple, since they depend not only on the present physiological state but on the stock of memories in the mind of each individual. But inasmuch as the Appearances of Jesus were vouchsafed to groups such as the 500 and more of 1 Corinthians 15:6, who may, like Paul, never have known Jesus personally, the agreement between what each per­son experienced could have been minimal yet sufficient for all to say that they had seen a vaguely-conceived risen Jesus. Furthermore, the nonconformist is mistrusted, and so every individual, whatever he may inwardly feel and believe, may try to give the impression that he believes what those around him seem to believe a phenomenon made familiar by Hans Andersens story of the emperors new clothes. These conditions prevail not only in crowds  where every member is ready to sink his private view in deference to what he takes to be the general opinion, as soon as he thinks he has ascer­tained it-- but wherever people feel that their actions may be subjected to public scrutiny. And with early Christianity we are dealing with a social phenomenon where unbelief is a cardinal crime (John
3:18 and 36) for which whole communities are to be most frightfully punished (Matthew 10:1415). He that doubteth is like the surge of the sea driven by the wind and tossed (James 1:6).

What is striking about the whole passage I have quoted from 1 Corinthians 15 is, as Elliott says (p. 83), that Paul does no more than provide a list. There are no details of how, where or when the Easter encounters took place or what happened. And the items in his list correlate very poorly with the record of appearances in the gospels. Beare even says that Pauls account of the appearances has no rela­tionship with any of the accounts in the gospels and is not reflected in them in any shape or form (pp. 54142). Let us study the details.

The gospels know nothing of the appearance to above 500 simultaneously. Again, Paul places an appearance to Peter (alias Cephas, verse 5) as the first in time of all those which he records, whereas in the gospels Peter plays only a very minor role in the ap­pearances. They contain no account of an appearance to him. At Mark 16:7 an appearance to the disciples and Peter is promised by the angel in the empty tomb; and Luke 24:34 mentions, in a surpris­ingly casual manner, that an appearance to Peter had occurred without making it clear whether this was the first the risen Jesus made. The eleven disciples and others with them in Jerusalem are there reported as saying: The Lord is risen indeed and hath appeared to Simon. This, says Eduard Schweizer, sounds like a set formula and shows by its brevity that this is all Luke knew about an ap­pearance to Peter.19   The other two gospels are completely silent on the subject of an appearance specifically to Peter.

Paul also records in verse 5 an appearance to the twelve. Critical theologians have given weighty reasons for doubting whether this means the twelve who, according to the gospels, accompanied Jesus throughout his ministry. One of their arguments is that it is univer­sally agreed that Pauls words here are not his own composition, but that he is quoting an already existing creed about the Resurrection events, for the passage is full of un-Pauline words and phrases.20   [An interpolation would beas I argued abovea more reasonable analysis--JK].  He never mentions the twelve elsewhere-- only in this one passage which, for him, was a quotation-- but could hardly have avoided do­ing so had he known them as the companions of Jesuss ministry. He knows nothing of twelve as leaders of Jerusalem Christians, whom he names as Cephas, James and John.21 For him, then, the twelve

could only have been personages named in a creed which specified witnesses of the appearances. And the Christian community which formulated this pre-Pauline creed would have known these twelve not as companions of Jesus, but as a group of enthusiasts who, hav­ing heard of the appearance to Peter, thought that it presaged a general resurrection of the dead (cf. below, pp. 40f). In the exalted state of mind which went with such expectation, the group would have become convinced that Jesus had appeared also to them, but have fallen apart when the hope that had led to its inception was not fulfilled. If it had persisted as an important group, Paul would surely have mentioned it again, and not merely named it once in a creed he quoted. Such considerations convinced Schneemelcher that the twelve are a phenomenon of the post-Easter community, which in­deed soon disappeared again; and he refers his readers to Vielhauers conclusive proof of this.22   That Pauls mention of the group he calls the twelve is not dependent on knowledge of the traditions which were later recorded in the gospels is also apparent from the fact that, according to the evangelists, the risen Jesus did not appear to his twelve disciples, but to eleven of them, Judas (whom Paul never mentions) having defected. Mark 16:14 and Matthew 28:16 are quite specific on the matter, and record appearances not to the disciples but to the eleven.

As already noted, the gospels themselves completely contradict each other on where the appearances to the disciples occurred. There was, then, little uniformity in the traditions concerning a matter of the greatest importance to Christianity. It looks as though there was initially simply a belief that the risen one had appeared, and that, as this lacked any true historical basis, discrepant accounts of the rele­vant localities came in time to be composed.

The apologists case is not helped by the fact that Paul, in his statement about the appearances, is reciting an early Christian creed. That the earliest extant mention of the Resurrection occurs in a for­mula handed down from even earlier Christians is readily explicable if the event is in fact unhistorical. The earliest Christians will simply have asserted that Christ died and was raised, and will have em­bodied these convictions in the kind of preaching formula that Paul here quotes. The next stage in the development will have been to of­fer supporting evidence by listing recipients of appearances, and this stage is represented in the Pauline passage. Such visions are quite in accordance with religious psychology,23 and Paul himself records that he and others were prone to supernatural visions (Colossians 2:18; 2 Corinthians 12:14). The next stage in the developing tradi­tion was to give actual descriptions (not mere listings) of the ap­pearances, as in the canonical gospels. Finally, in the apocryphal Gospel of Peter, there is a description of the Resurrection itself. These stages are summarized by Fuller (pp. 28-29, 66-67) who shows that, in the course of the development, the claims about the Resurrection become different sorts of claims. The theologian John Hick admits that the earliest references to the Resurrection simply allege Jesus to be risen, and that the gospels elaborate this message into a catena of incompatible stories characterized by progressive degeneration  from history to legend, so that we cannot tell whether he did actually emerge from his grave, or whether this was merely an idea based on a series of visions of him as a glorified figure of exalted majesty.24   In other words, the stories of the appearances (the stage represented in the gospels) do not record events on which the Resurrection faith was based, but are clumsy attempts to justify this faith by allegations of underlying events. That such divergent accounts could be written by authors who had already come to believe (for reasons that need to be investigated) that Jesus rose from the dead is perfectly plausible:

that their narratives provide any basis for such belief is not.




Defenders of the miracle of the Resurrection take comfort, with Pan­nenberg, in the thought that the legends created by excessive criticism have been less credible than the biblical reports themselves 25 He is here alluding to the theory that Jesus did not die but merely swooned on the cross, recovered consciousness in the cool tomb, crept out unnoticed when the earthquake rolled the stone away, and showed himself from time to time to his followers. Such nonsense is not the result of excessive criticism, but of yielding up only some of the traditional assumptions while clinging obstinately to others. In this example, belief in miracles has been surrendered, but the view that the gospels are based on eyewitness reports is re­tained, so that the miracle of Resurrection is cpnstrued as a mis­understanding on the part of Jesuss entourage.

     It is equally unsatisfactory to trace the gospel Resurrection nar­ratives to deliberate lies by eyewitnesses of the crucifixion who con­cocted Resurrection stories they knew to be false. Schmiedel shows how such stories as the sepulchre guard (unique to Matthew) and the empty tomb could have arisen in stages in perfectly good faith.26 He imagines a Christian confronted with the charge that the disciples had stolen the body. The obvious retort would be: The Jews, we may be quite certain, saw to the watching of the sepulchre; they could very well have known that Jesus had predicted his rising again on the third day. Another Christian, hearing this, might take it not for conjecture, but for a statement of fact, and pass it on as such. But~ if Roman soldiers guarded the tomb they must have witnessed the Resurrection. What, then, did they see of it? The attempt to answer this would give rise to the story of the angel coming down from heaven and rolling away the stone. This again might well have originated as conjecture, but have been passed on as fact. And in order to explain why the soldiers did not tell of their experiences, it would be said that the Jewish authorities bribed them to suppress the truth and circulate instead the rumour that the disciples had stolen the body. A similar series of processes could have led to the story of the empty tomb. If Jesus was risen, his grave must have been empty. Therefore no hesitation was felt in declaring that, according to all reasonable conjecture, the women who had witnessed Jesuss death had wished to anoint his body and thus had come to know of the emptiness of the grave. But why should not the disciples have gone to the sepulchre?  Schmiedel answers: The earlier narratives repre­sent them as fleeing and deserting Jesus at Gethsemane (Mark 14:50, Matthew 26:56), and remaining in concealment while they were in Jerusalem. Lukes narrative changes this by very significantly omit­ting Marks statement that they dispersed at Jesuss arrest, and by saying that certain disciples (24:24) did in fact go to the sepulchre. John expands this, naming the visitors as Peter and the beloved disci­ple, and reporting on their rivalry. It is clear that if, for some reason the belief that Jesus was risen was once established, all these other traditions could have arisen in the way indicated.

What, then, occasioned this belief in the first place? Our psychologists are not very successful in explaining even ordinary mental phenomena, so one must not expect too much by way of ex­planation of apparitions. Furthermore, it is almost universally be­lieved that Jesus was crucified ca. AD 30, and that the gospel account that persons who became convinced of his Resurrection included some who had known him before his death is not to be challenged. I do not myself believe that the earliest (pre-gospel) Christian literature 


supports either of these premisses. I have argued elsewhere that the earliest Christians regarded Jesus as a supernatural personage who had come down to Earth in human form long (one or two centuries) ago, had lived quite obscurely, been crucified in circumstances about which nothing was any longer known, and had risen from the dead. However, I do not wish to make my account here dependent on these views; so I shall try first to specify what might account for the ap­pearances whether or not Paul or the other early apostles had known Jesus personally, and second to inquire how belief in these ap­pearances might have arisen among disciples who had so known him.

Every careful reader of the New Testament must notice how its authors twist and torture the most unpromising passages from the Jewish Scriptures into meaning something about Jesus. But the resur­rection seems to have baffled them, and no adequate Old Testament quotation is ever produced (Elliott, p. 82).  Nevertheless, the Jewish Wisdom literature does seem to have influenced the earliest Christian thinking on the Resurrection. Proverbs 3:19 and 8:2236 represent Wisdom as a supernatural personage, created by God before he created Heaven and Earth, mediating in this creation and leading man into the path of truth. In the Wisdom of Solomon (from the Old Testament Apocrypha), Wisdom is the sustainer and governor of the universe who comes to dwell among men and bestows her gifts on them, although most of them reject her. 1 Enoch tells that, after being humiliated on Earth, Wisdom returned to Heaven. It is thus obvious that the humiliation on Earth and exaltation to Heaven of a super­natural personage, as preached by Paul and other early Christian writers, was well represented in the Jewish background. And it is not just that such ideas could have influenced Paul; they obviously did, for statements made about Wisdom in Jewish literature are made of Jesus in the Pauline letters. 1 Corinthians 1:2325 comes very near to expressly calling the supernatural personage that had become man in Jesus Wisdom.

There is another factor. Paul uses the phrase first fruits apropos of Christs Resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:20) and also of the gift of the spirit to the Christian community (Romans 8:23). Both Jews and early Christians expected the end of the world to come quickly, and thought it would be presaged by a general resurrection and by the gift of the spirit. In these circumstances it is hardly surprising that some persons should, as Paul records, come forward with gifts of the spirit and make ecstatic utterances. But if the presence of the spirit was a sign that the first fruits of the harvest of the end-time had already been gathered, then the resurrection must also be nigh. It may have been partly on this basis that early Christians came to believe that Christ was risen, that resurrection had, to this extent, already begun; and that a pledge had thus been given that a general resurrection of mankind would shortly follow.

In this connection I may mention Goguels discussion of Talmudic evidence for the belief that the general resurrection will occur three days after the end of the world. Early Christians affirmed a close and direct relation between the Resurrection of Jesus and this general resurrection, and so, he says, it is natural that the resurrection of the Christ was placed in a chronological rapport with his death similar to that which was thought would occur between the end of the world and the general resurrection.27   Fuller notes that this implies that Pauls reference to Jesuss Resurrection on the third day is not a chronological datum, but a dogmatic assertion: Christs resurrection marked the dawn of the end-time, the beginning of the cosmic eschatological process of resurrection (p. 27).

It is in any case clear that the earliest Christian thinking on the Resurrection occurred within the context of Jewish apocalyptic thought: soon the end would come, the dead would be resurrected and judged, the righteous would then enjoy eternal blessedness, and the wicked would be punished. As the theologian J. L. Houlden says, in its origins the resurrection faith was part and parcel of a convic­tion that the last days, as foreseen in apocalyptic, were in process of realization and soon to be consummated. In its totality that convic­tion was not borne out by events.28   Elliott suggests how this apocalyptic framework facilitated belief in Jesuss Resurrection among disciples who, after his death, felt that he was still guiding them:


Resurrection was the natural first-century Jewish way of describing this continuing influence. . . . Some people thought that John the Baptist had been raised from the dead (Mark 6:l4ff), and that Elijahs spirit lived on in Elisha (2 Kings 2:15) and legends exist in the New Testament telling of people who were raised from the dead by Jesus and, later, by Peter and Paul. All these provide the environment in which belief in Jesus resurrection took shape and flourished. These Jewish ideas would and did find favour in the Hellenistic world outside, where stories of dying and rising gods were part of the native folk myths. Thus to talk of the resurrection of Jesus would not have seemed so strange. (p. 90)


Elliott adds that the earliest impression of Jesuss abiding power after his death may well have been felt at his disciples communal meals. It is significant how many of the Easter Narratives have a eucharistic setting.  Many theologians understandably find this kind of explana­tion more acceptable than believing the muddled evidence for a supernatural event.

Let us now turn to the gospels and their clear statement that the persons who saw Jesus risen had known him before his death. That they experienced mere subjective visions is often said to be excluded by the fact that they regarded his execution as the end of all their hopes. At his arrest they deserted him and fled (Mark 14:50). Peter, in this gospel the only one with courage enough to follow him as he was led a prisoner to the high priests house, did so only to deny him in the courtyard there. In Mark this is the last we hear of the disciples until the women at the empty tomb are told to announce Jesuss Resurrection to them. Now if they really despaired at his arrest and execution, then it is not possible to believe that, on three separate oc­casions, he had predicted his own Resurrection, telling or teaching them (Mark 8:31, 9:31 and 10:32-34) that the Son of man must be killed and after three days rise again. Morna Hooker says, justly, that it is impossible to believe that the disciples were incapable of. understanding the plain meaning of these words (p. 92). Pannenberg (p.     132) takes the same view, and notes that most scholars share this scepticism concerning the authenticity of these predictions. Perhaps one reason for this is that, if authentic, they would put Jesuss at­titude to his own death in a somewhat questionable light; for can facing death be the same if one knows that three days later one is go­ing to be raised up to share the glory of the Father?29   If then, we set them aside as unhistorical, we are left with disciples despondent at Jesuss death. How could such despondency have been replaced by belief in his triumph over death? Carnley notes in this connection:


Most of those who have argued for the subjective nature of the visions contend that psychological disturbance induced by the guilt of having deserted Jesus sufficiently accounts for them. The presence of the guilt IS hinted at in the New Testament traditions at least in the case of Peter, whose denial of Jesus (Mark 14:66-72) may have had psychological repercussions, and Paul, whose persecution of Christians may have been a contributing factor to his experiences (Acts 26:911). The fact of the temporal dispersion of the experiences might count against the possibility of the visions being caused by brief mass hysteria following close upon Jesus death, but not if, in the passage of time, nagging guilt was a basic contributing factor. (p. 71).


He notes too that this subjective vision hypothesis is by no means implausible, and that today even a relatively conservative scholar such as James Dunn admits that it is a possibility given the evidence we have (p. 244). The late J. A. T. Robinson (author of Honest to God) tentatively held it in 1973 when he hinted that the disciples ex­perienced hallucinations which made them love one another.30




I have to agree with Bishop Carnleys remark that:


One of the most conclusive results of contemporary redactional studies of the New Testament traditions of the appearances, no less than of the empty tomb, is that an original nucleus of tradition has been developed during the course of its transmissions and that the resulting diversity can be explained by reference to apologetic motives and concerns along the way; the modification of the tradition is an inevitable by-product of the attempt to communicate and defend resurrection belief in different contexts to different people with different preconceptions and concerns. All this conditions what is said. The diversity of the resulting traditions cannot just be added together to form one synthetic account of what is supposed to have happened at the first Easter. (pp. 67-68)


He also finds that fundamentalist writers and ultra-conservative popularizers of the Easter faith do the Church no lasting service by nervously seeking to defend a superficial harmony of the gospel nar­ratives (p. 27). Bishop Carnleys account of the New Testament evidence, and of what theologians since the end of the eighteenth century have made of it, is both full and fair, and his book, like many of those to which I have made reference, shows how much students outside the faith can learn from the work of serious Christian scholars. Nevertheless, his conviction that our present experience of the spirit of Christ convinces us that the stories of the empty tomb and appearances are substantially true (p. 249n.) supplies no ade­quate basis for such convictions. He states his position more fully as follows:


The tradition of the heavenly visions of the raised Christ did not stand alone in the experience of the first Christians . . . . They had access to a second empirical anchor of their resurrection belief and eschatological hope, [namely] the continuing presence of a reality in the life of the Christian community which is identified as the presence of Christ . . . .  This additional datum is one to which we have direct access in the pre­sent, so that it grounds our continuing Easter faith no less than theirs. (p. 248)


I have suggested (above, p. 40) that in fact the early Christian em­phasis on experience of the spirit of Christ was a potent source of er­roneous belief; and Graham Shaw (until recently Chaplain of Exeter College, Oxford) has found, contrary to Carnley, that precisely this early Christian emphasis destroys the most widespread basis for belief both in the resurrection of Jesus and in our own life after death.31   So let us look more closely at the role of the spirit in early Christian communities.

Paul says that a man is no Christian if he does not possess the spirit of Christ (Romans 8:9), and that in the spirit a man can speak mysteries (1 Corinthians 14:2). In this latter context he goes on (verses 26ff) to note that, at Christian worship, some make spirit-inspired utterances, not understanding what they are saying, and others supply an interpretation. This procedure interpretation of unintelligible utterancescould readily lead to the establishment of all manner of ill-founded doctrines. Moreover, at these meetings for worship, those, who considered themselves prophets (and that in­cluded all present, verse 31) could pronounce some revelation (cf. below, pp. 85, 129f, 185, 192). Shaw points out that this kind of thing has been characteristic of many religions and has a social rather than a supernatural origin. The way in which such spirit-inspired pro­nouncements could make the Resurrection of Jesus plausible to early believers is evidenced in chapter 8 of the epistle to the Romans, which is entirely about the role of the spirit in their lives and the associated promise of resurrection: Jesus Spirit speaking in their midst was a sign both of Jesus continuing life, and also of their inclu­sion in that life (p. 166). And the corollary of this position is that the validity of much of Pauls gospel is dependent on the authenticity of the charismatic phenomena to which he appealed in the experience of his hearers (p. 167). Pauls evidence for the Resurrection is a series of immediate revelations, to others and finally to himself, which puts

him in the same position as the charismatics to whom he refers.

         My survey in this chapter reinforces Shaws statement that, when with increasing urgency Christians asked what historical events could vindicate the metaphysical uniqueness of Christ, tending to place ever greater weight on the resurrection, the result was that the poverty of the factual basis for such claims only became more ob­vious (pp. 27374).

       Quite apart from doubts resulting from historical inquiry, it is disconcerting to find Paul putting his arguments for Jesuss Resurrec­tion in the very implausible context of an alleged link between sin and death, with death figuring as Gods punishment for sin: For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive all, that is, who belong to Christ (1 Corinthians 15:22-23). At Romans 5:12, 15, and 17, death is expressly said to be a consequence of sin. But this is ridiculous. I again quote Shaw:


Physical death is an integral part of organic life, and long predates the appearance of man. Man did not introduce death into an uncorrupted world; he evolved in an environment in which death was a necessary part of its organic processes. The assertion of a link, therefore, be­tween human sin and actual death cannot be true; and Pauls theology of cross and resurrection, the conquest of sin and death, is thus de­prived of any coherence (p. 280).


     A further weakness is that part of Pauls argument for resurrection of the dead depends on spurious analogies. He holds that the seed develops into the plant only if it is first dead (1 Corinthians 15:36). In fact the seed that does so develop is not dead at all. He then in­troduces the contrast between seedtime and harvest: a dead and perishable body is sown (by being buried), but is then raised as imperishable; sown in - dishonour, it is raised in glory; sown in weakness, it is raised in power; sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body (verses 4244). The reader is meant to suppose that the phenomena of seedtime and harvest justify these stark contrasts, whereas, as Shaw says, the use of harvest language itself is nowhere justified (p. 98). Then, inevitably, Paul has recourse to the Old Testament, saying (verse 45): So also it is written. The first man Adam became a living soul, the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. Genesis 2:7, which is here alluded to, says only that Adam became a living soul and nothing about the last Adam.


Shaw allows that it is quite probable that Paul had a convulsive experience which he interpreted as a manifestation of the risen Jesus in the light of claims he had already heard. Nevertheless, that Christ was raised to life anywhere other than in Pauls imagination is unlikely (p. 96). One can understand Shaws statement that, if the intention of his book was not to recognize the truth but to defend the articles of the creed, then its implications would be devastating (pp. xi, 182). If the earliest witness to Jesuss Resurrection has been shown to make out such a poor case, one can have little confidence in the very different and discrepant cases made out by later hands.

{46} [The Epilogue, A Resurrection Debate was omitted primarily because it did not significantly present new analysis but rather was a debate between scholars running 6 pages.]








It is now generally accepted that many of the canonical epistles were written before the gospels, and that the earliest extant gospel is Marks, used as a source by Matthew and Luke, each of whom was unacquainted with the others work. The fourth gospel, ascribed to John, is independent of the others, but clearly used sources which were in part identical with theirs.

The virgin birth of Jesus is recorded in only two of the 27 books of the New Testament, namely the gospels of Matthew and Luke. None of the epistles nor the book of Revelation make any mention of it. All that Paul says about Jesuss birth is that he was born of a woman (Galatians 4:4). He believed that Jesus existed as a super­natural being before the world was created, and he is here arguing that he humbled himself by being born as an ordinary Jew under the law. Anything but a quite ordinary birth would go against this argu­ment which is concerned to stress Jesuss extreme self-abasement in adopting human existence.

Of the four gospels, the earliest (Marks) shows no knowledge of Jesuss origins, and does not even mention Josephs name. It in­troduces Jesus as an adult from Nazareth of Galilee, coming to be baptized in the Jordan by John the Baptist. The fourth gospel does not name his mother as Mary and has nothing to say about his birth. It begins with a metaphysical prologue which states that, to those who believe in him, Jesus gave the power to become children of God, which were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God (John 1:13). To see any allegation of virgin birth here would mean ascribing such a birth to all believers. A few late manuscripts have tried to introduce a reference to Jesus by changing the ~which and the were born into the corresponding Greek singulars. What the evangelist is really saying is that true Christians do not owe their becoming such to their natural origin, nor to any earthly conditions.1

After this prologue, the fourth gospel introduces Jesus as an adult, called the lamb of God by John the Baptist; whereupon Philip describes him as Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph (1:36, 45). In continuing his presentation the evangelist never disav6ivs these statements that Jesus was naturally born and hails from Nazareth, not from Bethlehem. He even represents the Jews as rejec­ting his Messianic claims on the ground that he was not born in Bethlehem (7:42). In this gospel his brothers seem not to regard him as of supernatural origin, for even they did not believe on him (7:5).

The fourth gospel is not an early work, and its author may have known traditions that Jesus was virgin born and deliberately rejected them. However, that the doctrine is also absent both from the epistles and from the earliest of the four gospels does suggest that it entered Christian tradition only at a relatively late stage. This is con­firmed by non-canonical evidence, in that the earliest Christian writer outside the canon to mention the doctrine is Ignatius of An­tioch, writing probably about AD 110. (What he says on the subject shows that he was dependent on the same kind of traditions as Mat­thew had drawn on.2)  It is confirmed even more strikingly by the on­ly two canonical gospels which do treat of the birth and infancy; for in both of them, the accounts of Jesuss ministry (his adult preaching and wonder-working) which follow the infancy narratives were clearly drawn from traditions which knew nothing of the infancy material. Let me illustrate.

According to Matthews infancy narrative, Herod and all Jerusalem knew of the birth in Bethlehem of him that is born King of the Jews (2:23), and Herod proceeded to slaughter all the male children of Bethlehem in order to eliminate him (2:16); yet when the adult Jesus comes to his own country and preaches there, he is regarded by the inhabitants as a familiar but totally undistinguished citizen, whose wisdom and mighty works take them completely by surprise. They say of him:


Is not this the carpenters son? Is not his mother called Mary? And his brethren, James, and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And his sisters, are they not all with us? Whence then hath this man all these things (i.e. this wisdom and these mighty works)? (13:54-56).


It is, then, precisely the indisputable ordinariness (Von Campen­hausen, pp. 12-13) of Jesuss home, occupation, and family rela­tionships that is alleged to have stood in his way. Even Herods son has no inkling of his origins (14:12). The foremost Catholic exe­gete of the nativity stories, Raymond E. Brown, has said that it is obvious from these and other discrepancies that the stories of the ministry were shaped in Christian tradition without a knowledge of the infancy material, and Matthew never really smoothed out all the narrative rough spots left by the joining of two bodies of once-independent material (p. 32). Brown adds that if the first two chapters had been lost and the Matthaean Gospel came down to us beginning with 3:1, no one would ever have suspected the existence of the missing chapters (p. 49). He shows that Lukes gospel displays exactly the same discrepancy between infancy narrative and main body: If John the Baptist was a relative of Jesus who recognized him even before his birth (Luke 1:41, 44), why does John the Baptist give no indication during the ministry of a previous knowledge of Jesus and indeed seem to be puzzled by him (7:19)? (p. 32).

Such residual discrepancies are the more striking because Mat­thew and Luke have obviously edited the material about the ministry that reached them from Marks gospel so as to eliminate any suggestion that Jesus was misunderstood by his own family who if the birth narratives record historical facts must have been well aware of his supernatural origin. Mark 3:21 has it that the ones from beside him (or those alongside him) went out to seize him, thinking he had lost his senses. Some older English versions translate the Greek here as though the reference were to his friends. However, the meaning in this context is his family, for when they reach him in verse 31, they are identified as his mother and brothers. Matthew and Luke simply omit this story. Again, at Mark 6:4 Jesus says: A pro­phet is not without honour, save in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house. Matthew cuts out the words and among his own kin, and Luke makes Jesus say merely that no pro­phet is acceptable in his own country.

      The New Testament epistles (and not only the Pauline ones) make it obvious that the earliest Christian preaching concentrated almost exclusively on the crucifixion and Resurrection. At this early stage these events were simply alleged to have happened and not given any historical context. I have given the evidence concerning the Resurrec­tion in this regard in the previous chapter, but it may surprise readers to learn that the crucifixion is also, in the earliest documents, in­variably mentioned wfth no specification of time, place or attendant circumstances. It is merely said again and again that it took place in due season (Romans 5:6), for us, for our sins. Not until the gospels is the event set in a definite historical context, and I have argued elsewhere that this discrepancy strongly suggests that, for earlier writers, the crucifixion was not something that had occurred recently in known circumstances, but was believed to have happened in unknown circumstances one or two centuries previously. Be that as it may, the distinction between what is said about it in the two layers of tradition is a real one that is constantly blurred by apologists. Typical is A. E. Harvey, who claims that the crucifixion under Pontius Pilate is not only described in considerable detail in all four canonical gospels, but is referred to on countless occasions in the other New Testament writings;3 whereas in fact these countless other references are not to a crucifixion under Pilate, but to one in completely unspecified circumstances.

However one interprets this earlier evidence, it is clear that, by the time the earliest gospel was written, Christian interest in the crucifixion had led to the formation of a detailed passion narrative. And it is understandable that, by then, interest had extended further to what Jesus had done and taught in his lifetime, so that this nar­rative is preceded by an account of his ministry. But only the yet later gospels of Matthew and Luke represent a stage where curiosity had reached out to his origins; and their accounts are so full of difficulties in themselves and so discrepant with each other as to suggest that there was no reliable information on the subject, that all that tradi­tion provided was an allegation of virgin birth at Bethlehem in the days of Herod the Great which speculation had free rein to develop as free as we have seen to have been the case with the Resurrection appearances.




a. Matthews Account

Unlike Luke, who introduces Joseph and Mary as residents of Nazareth from the first, Matthew implies that their home was in Bethlehem of Judea; for he begins his second chapter by recording Jesuss birth there, and he i~presents the holy couple as wishing to return there after their flight from Herod into Egypt. They failed to do so only because Joseph was warned in a dream that Herods son Archelaus (who by this time had succeeded his father and reigned over the southern part of the kingdom) was an equal danger to them; and so they went instead to live in Nazareth in Galilee (2:2123). Here, in the north, another of Herods sons, Antipas, was ruler.4

Matthew represents the change of abode from Bethlehem to Nazareth not only as unexpected but also as fulfilment of prophecy; and he says the same of Herods slaughter of the Innocents in Bethlehem. This massacre is not mentioned by Luke, nor by any an­cient historian. It is in particular unmentioned by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who in the first century AD recorded the history of Herod and his family, and even stressed its horrors. This particular horror would in any case have constituted a quite unnecessary action on Herods part. Exotic magi from the east with royal gifts would have made a great impression in a small place like Bethlehem, and it would have been no great task for Herods intelligence system to discover which child they had visited and then kill him. This would have been more to Herods purpose than the hit-or-miss method of killing all the male children under two years in the place (cf. Brown, pp. 188-89). Apologists have nevertheless argued that Herod was ferocious enough to have done something of this kind, particularly in the final years of his life, and that Matthews account therefore rings true in respect of this detail. The answer must be made that Matthew himself may well have had the same idea; that he knew enough about the reign of Herod to realize that ferocious acts could plausibly be at­tributed to him, and to anticipate that readers who also knew something (if not much) of him would find such a story believable.

Brown makes this point, and adds (pp. 227-28) that an Old Testa­ment parallel to Matthews story was ready at hand, namely the Pharaohs massacre of the Hebrew male children of Egypt (Exodus 1:22), from which the infant Moses nevertheless escaped. It has lone been recognized that Matthew is much concerned to portray Jesus as a second and greater Moses. The experiences of the leader of the Exodus are, as it were, recapitulated in the great Redeemer who will bring about the final deliverance of the people of God (Beare, p. 72).

Altogether there is much in Matthews infancy narrative which although quite implausible as history, is perfectly intelligible as rewritings of Old Testament scenes or themes (Brown, p. 36). Fox instance, the Joseph of the infancy narrative dreams dreams (he is thrice advised in a dream, and on two of these occasions the advice is said to come from an angel). He also goes down into Egypt, the only man in the New Testament to do so. Precisely these two activities are associated with the patriarch Joseph, the hero of Genesis 37-50. Matthews story of the magi, the wise men from the east (2:1) and their guiding star seems to owe something to the story of Balaam in Numbers 2224, where this soothsayer from the east is represented as foretelling the destruction of Moab and Edom at the hands of a future ruler of Israel, symbolized by a rising star:


There shall come forth a star out of Jacob,

And a sceptre shall rise out of Israel,

And shall smite through the corners of Moab,

And break down all the sons of tumult.

And Edom shall be a possession. (Numbers 24:1718)


The commentator in the old Century Bible notes that it is difficult to believe that the author of these lines had in view any other than King David, who first reduced Moab to subjection (2 Samuel 8:2).5   The lines (like the whole of the Pentateuch) date from long after David, and so the prophecy was written with hindsight. The early Church came to regard it as referring not to David, but to the Messiah, and so for Matthew it seemed appropriate that a star should point to the Messianic child.

Matthews magi are not said to be kings nor to be three in number. (This latter idea arose probably because they present three gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh to the newborn child.) Their story is firmly set in a context of astrological belief. They observed the star at its rising (Matthew 2:2, cf. NEB, not in the east, as older versions have it. When Matthew means the relevant Greek noun to mean the east, he uses it in its plural form, as in the previous verse). The moment of a stars appearance above the horizon was of prime importance in astrology. Probably it is assumed that the star ap­peared at the precise moment of the Saviours birth or conception (Beare, p. 77).

On reaching Jerusalem the star turned south to Bethlehem miraculously, as the apparent movement of all stars in the sky is from east to west. It seems an unnecessary miracle, as Herod has instructed the magi to seek the child at Bethlehem (2:8), and no star is needed to guide them across the five miles from Jerusalem to this known destination. The star is, however, made to perform a useful function by the further miracle of hovering over where the young child was, i.e., as the sequel makes clear, above the very house where he lay (2:911). A star which not merely turned south but also came to rest so as to point out a particular house would have constituted a celestial phenomenon unparalleled in astronomical history: yet it received no notice in the records of the times (Brown, p. 188). Noteworthy in this connection is that there is n suggestion in Matthew, as there is in Luke, that Jesus was laid in manger because Joseph and Mary could not find accommodation an inn. When the astrologers find him, he and his mother are in house, and the reader would naturally assume that it is their ow house (Beare, p. 76).

Apologists have tried hard to find some astronomical occurrence which might have been interpreted as the star of the magi. Halley comet (visible every 77 years) appeared 1211 BC; there was a rare conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in 7 BC, and Ma passed by early in the following year. None of this makes Matthews story into plausible history, for, as with his account of Herods slaughter of the Innocents, he may have been drawing on son remembered phenomenon and linking it, with considerable distortion and embellishment, with Jesuss birth. Matthew wrote after 70, and what legends had then come to be told of astronomical  occurrences of two or three generations earlier, in the days of Herod the king, might have prompted his story. Such a story was n unusual in that Mediterranean world, which had many a star, ma a planet to herald important births.6

     If, as we have seen, the traditions of Jesuss ministry km nothing of those embodied in the infancy narratives, the lati themselves, as they stand in the two relevant gospels, are compos and comprise elements. of different provenance. For instance, Mathews first chapter records the virgin birth, but does not name a place of birth. His second chapter seems to mark the beginning another, originally independent, birth story, which locates the event in Bethlehem, but knows nothing of a virgin birth. Nothing in presupposes information from chapter 1. This second chapter itself combines originally independent stories. Joseph, prominent 2:1323, is totally absent from 2:112, and this is quite intelligibl4 the substance of 2:1-12 came from another tradition in which he I no major part. At the beginning of this chapter, the wise men guided by the star to Herod at Jerusalem, and their question when he that is born King of the Jews? leads, by means of an investigation of the Scriptures, to the answer: in Bethlehem. But this place is in the sequel pointed out to them by the star, thus making the scriptural in­vestigation unnecessary. On all this, Brown comments:


Why does the star, which eventually leads the magi to the house where Jesus is, not lead them directly to Bethlehem from the East, so that a stop at Jerusalem would not be necessary? We seem to have two dif­ferent stories pointing to Bethlehem, one through investigation of the Scriptures, the other through the star. Herods failure to find the child at Bethlehem would be perfectly intelligible in a story in which there were no magi who came from the East and where he had only general scriptural knowledge about Bethlehem to guide him. It becomes ludicrous when the way to the house has been pointed out by a star which came to rest over it, and when the path to the door of the house in a small village has been blazed by exotic foreigners (p. 191).



b. Lukes Account

Although the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke are quite in­dependent, neither evangelist having read the account of the other, both were clearly acquainted with traditions which located Jesuss birth in Bethlehem during the reign of Herod the Great, and both knew from Marks gospel that he spent his adult life in and around Nazareth and in Galilee generally. But on these bases they build very differently. Matthew, we saw, makes Bethlehem the home of his parents, and solves the problem of the familys later departure from that place with his stories of persecutions and angelic warnings, which are unknown to Luke. Luke however makes the parents resi­dent in Nazareth, so his problem is to get them to Bethlehem for the birth. His solution is to make Joseph and Mary go there because Augustus had ordered a census of the whole Roman Empire: Now it came to pass in those days there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be enrolled (2:1). By enrolment is meant the registration of names and property as a basis for taxation.

There is in fact no evidence for a census of the whole Empire under Augustus. Obvious authorities, such as the Monumentum An­cyranum, Dio Cassius, and Suetenius are silent on the matter, and the only witnesses who speak of such a thing are Christians, from the sixth century onwards, which creates a very strong suspicion that they simply drew their information from Luke (Schurer, p. 409). The census thus seems to be a purely literary device used by Luke to associate Mary and Joseph, residents of Nazareth, with Bethlehem (Fitzmyer, p. 393).

By the expression in those days (2:1) Luke means in the days of Herod, king of Judea (1:5) a verse which introduces the story of Marys kinswoman Elisabeth. She, having in her old age become pregnant with John the Baptist, hid herself five months (1:24). A month later, the angel Gabriel visits Mary, informs her of her kinswomans condition, and tells her that she herself will conceive Jesus miraculously; whereupon Mary arose in these days, went to Elisabeth and stayed three months with her (1:3940, 56). On her ar­rival, Elisabeth addresses her as the mother of my Lord and says blessed is the fruit of thy womb (1:4243), clearly indicating that Mary herself is also pregnant. Chapter 2 takes up Marys story when she is about to give birth to her child. This will be six months later, and it was in those days that Augustus decreed the census (2:1). Thus Lukes initial in the days of Herod (1:5) is followed by the phrase in these days (1:39) and in those days (2:1), with no sugges­tion of any gap in time, and with intervening events which in no way imply any such gap. Hence, for all its vagueness, this phrase dates the birth of Jesus in the days of Herod (Fitzmyer, p. 399).

Now a Roman census in Palestine in Herods time was out of the question. Although then under Roman influence, it was not made part of the Empire until AD 6, ten years after Herods death, when Augustus deposed Herods son Archelaus and incorporated his ter­ritory into the province of Syria. Herod was a client king, holding his title and authority from Caesar and the Senate; he had to defend the imperial frontier and was not allowed to make treaties or wage war at pleasure, but was permitted freedom in his management of Palestines internal affairs. If the Romans had contrary to their known policy carried out a valuation census on his territory, this would have been extremely unpopular, would have offended the people to the quick, as Schurer says; in which case we should expect it to be recorded by Josephus, for on no other period is Josephus so well informed, on none is he so thorough, as on that of Herods last years (p. 418). But he makes no mention of it.

Luke not only alleges a Roman census on Herods territory in his lifetime, but also says: this was the first registration, and it was made when Quirinius was governor of Syria (2:2).7   Herod died in 4 BC, but Quirinius became governor of Syria only in AD 6 (Schfirer, p. 420). His career is fairly well known and defies all attempts either to  attribute to him two censuses in Judea or to date the start of his legateship of Syria to any other period than AD 6-7 (Fitzmyer, p. 4O2). 8

Josephus mentions a census under Quirinius in the year AD 6.  This was quite in order, for Judea had just been converted into a Roman province, and the imperial legate needed to make a list of the in­habitants and a reckoning of their landed property for the purpose of apportioning the taxation.  Josephus says that this census was the first and that it was altogether novel for the Romans to raise a tax in Judea.  (The passages are quoted by Schurer, p. 419.)  He also says that it caused the Jews to revolt, under the leadership of Judas the Gaulonite of Gamala. The Acts of the Apostles, written by the author of the third gospel, refers (5:37) to Judas of Galilee in the days of the enrolment (apographe, as at Luke 2:2).  He would not have referred to this census of AD 6 as the enrolment if he had known of an earlier one.  Hence we must infer that in his gospel he had in mind the census of AD 6, but antedated it and supposed it to have oc­curred in Herods lifetime.

It is not hard to see how this error could have happened.  The death of Herod in 4 BC and the Roman annexation of Judea in AD 6 were both striking events in Palestinian history which would leave their mark in the minds of men and serve for approximate dating in a society not given to exact documentation.  9 It would be all the easier to confuse the two, as each was followed by an uprising. Ac­cording to Josephus, Varus, then legate of Syria had to intervene in 4 BC with the whole of his army.  But the uprising of AD 6 was the more sharply remembered because it was then that Roman rule and taxa­tion were imposed.

A further objection to Lukes account is that even the census of AD 6 would not have affected Galilee where Mary and Joseph were liv­ing.  When Herod died, the southern part of his kingdom (Idumea, Judea, and Samaria) was given to Archelaus, but Galilee in the north was put under another of his sons, Antipas.  Archelaus was deposed in AD 6 and his territory annexed to the Empire, but Antipas re­mained in office and ruled Galilee until AD 39. Luke implies that the inhabitants of Galilee were affected by a Roman census that in fact applied only to more southern provinces.  Again we see that he is not concerned with accuracy of historical detail.  His purpose is to get Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem in time for the birth of her child. In obedience to the imperial decree:


All went up to enrol themselves, every one to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David: to enrol himself with Mary, who was betrothed to him, being great with child (2:35).


We are thus required to believe that the own city to which everyone was required to go was the place where his family originated; and that Joseph therefore went to Bethlehem, 85 miles away, because a thousand years earlier his ancestor David had been born there.  But the practical Romans had no such cumbersome custom.  In a Roman census, landed property had to be registered for taxation in the locali­ty within which it was situated, and the person to be taxed had to register in the place where he lived or in the chief town of his taxation district (Schiirer, p. 411). It would have been ridiculous to make a man give his returns miles away from his home, where the authorities would be unable to check the entries he made. In any case, Schurer adds, it is very doubtful whether a registration according to tribes and genealogies was possible; many were no longer able to establish that they belonged to this or that family. Nor would Mary have needed to accompany Joseph, for the particulars needed for a Roman census could be supplied by the father of the family.

From all these considerations we can hardly avoid the inference that Luke has invented the journey of Mary and Joseph across some 80 miles of difficult country in order to have Jesus born in the place which, he stresses, is Davids city (2:11), as he thought was expected of the Messiah.

We can see already by now that the infancy narratives of the two evangelists cannot be harmonized.  In Matthew an angel announces the virgin birth to Joseph in Bethlehem in a dream. In Luke the angel,

named as Gabriel, comes to Mary in Nazareth, and not in a dream but in person. The exalted status of the child is attested in Luke by an angels words to shepherds and the song of the heavenly host (neither of which is mentioned in Matthew), but in Matthew by the ap­pearance of the star (not mentioned in Luke). The child receives his first adoration in Luke from the shepherds who go unmentioned in Matthew, and in Matthew from the magi (unmentioned in Luke). In Matthew the holy family lived originally at Bethlehem, but in Luke they go there only because of a census of the people (not mentioned by Matthew). After the birth they went, according to Luke, first to Jerusalem, where the child was presented in the temple, and where the pious and aged Simeon hailed him as a light to lighten the gen­tiles, and the prophetess Anna gave thanks to God for his birth. Then the holy family went straight back to Nazareth (2:39), where by the grace of God the childs early years were passed in uninter­rupted growth (2:40). None of this is known to Matthew, who represents these early years as disturbed by perils and changes of abode. Matthew implies (2:16) that the child was a little under two years old when the family fled from Bethlehem to Egypt, and ob­viously older, perhaps years older, when they left Egypt to settle in Nazareth. As Brown notes, their flight into Egypt is quite irrecon­cilable with Lukes account of an orderly and uneventful return from Bethlehem to Nazareth shortly after the birth of the child (p. 225).





Lukes narrative begins with the story of the priest Zacharias, vis­ited in the temple by the angel Gabriel who tells him that his aged wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John (1:13). Old Testament material has obviously been remodelled here. Luke is reviving the pattern of the births of Old Testament promise-bearers and saviours,  Isaac, Samson and Samuel,  who are likewise miraculously born to old and barren women through the unexpected intervention of God (Von Campenhausen, p. 27).  And Lukes description of Zacharias and Elisabeth is taken, at times almost verbatim, from the Old Testament description of Abraham and Sarah (Brown, p. 36).

Zacharias is struck temporarily dumb as a punishment for ques­tioning Gabriels announcement; and Elisabeth, on becoming preg­nant, hides herself for five months (1:20 and 24).  Both these events are dictated by what Creed calls the necessities of the narrative (p. 12); for when Gabriel subsequently visits Mary and promises her a child he needs a sign with which to dispel her incredulity, and this sign consists in his assurance to her: Behold, Elisabeth thy kinswoman, she also hath conceived a son in her old age; and this is the sixth month of her that was called barren.  For no word from God shall be void of power (1:3637).  Obviously, but for Zachariass dumbness and Elisabeths seclusion, Mary would have come to know of her kinswomans pregnancy, which thus would not have been available as a trump card to Gabriel.

If the conception of John the Baptist required a miracle, that of Jesus requires an even greater one, a virginal conception.  The parallelism between John and Jesus in this chapter is what Fitzmyer calls a step-parallelism, i.e. a parallelism with one-upmanship. The Jesus-side always comes off better (p. 315).

Gabriel comes to Mary in Nazareth and tells her: thou shalt con­ceive in thy womb (1:31).  She takes this as implying a natural con­ception, for she replies: How shall this be, seeing I know not a man? a question which can only mean: I have no such acquain­tance with any man as might lead to the fulfilment of this prophecy.  But the exact opposite of this is involved in the actual situation.  She is betrothed to Joseph (1:27) and must necessarily have looked to the fulfilment of the prophecy through her marriage with him.  Marys question is thus, not how a woman in her situation would have reacted to the angels announcement, but is perfectly intelligible from the needs of Lukes narrative.  The real purpose of her question is to advance the dialogue (Fitzmyer, p. 350), to give the writer an open­ing for the angels prophecy as to how the conception is to come to pass (Creed, p. 19).  And so the angel is able to answer by telling her that the Holy Ghost shall come upon thee so that she shall give birth to the Son of God (1:35).

Lukes second chapter may well have been drawn from a different tradition,  one which knew nothing of a virgin birth; for at 2:7 and 4;8 it is implied that Jesus is the first-born son of Mary and Joseph.  Chapter 2 itself combines three incidents which may have been originally independent stories: the homage of the shepherds, Simeons recognition of Jesus as the saviour, and the temple-teaching of the twelve-year-old. Each of these stories,  they are all found only in Luke,  shows when Jesuss true significance was recognized, and Luke has simply combined them into a sequence.

      The story that the twelve-year-old amazed the learned doctors in the temple records also Marys lack of comprehension at the behaviour of her child (2:4850).  This blank failure to understand that the child was abnormal is not what one would expect from a mother who had been visited by an angel and told that he would be born of the Holy Ghost, be great and be given the throne of David to reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end (1:3235). Marys entire oblivion in the temple of all these stupendous circumstances does seem to imply that the temple story comes from some pre-Lucan source which knew nothing of the traditions represented in the annunciation. Fitzmyer observes that it may belong to a tradition which grew up about the childhood of Jesus and that continued to manifest itself in the apocryphal gospels, such as the Infancy Story of Thomas, which tells what Jesus did or said at the ages of five, six, eight and twelve (pp. 43536).

Returning to chapter 1 we note that it contains the Benedictus or joyful song of Zacharias at the birth of his son (1:6779) and the Magnificat which Mary is represented as speaking in exaltation at her own pregnancy when she visits the pregnant Elisabeth (1:46-55).  Since these two songs are only loosely connected with their context and are full of Jewish ideas (they mention Israel, David, our Fathers and Gods covenant with Abraham), there is general agreement that they are Jewish or Jewish-Christian hymns which Luke has incor­porated into his narrative (with perhaps a few verses of his own com­position to adapt them to this context).  If the Magnificat were omit­ted, the account of Marys visit to Elisabeth (1:3945) would ter­minate naturally with 1:56 (And Mary abode with her about three months and returned unto her house).  Likewise, if the Benedictus were omitted, 1:5766 (the birth of John and his naming as John, with the final statement that the hand of the Lord was with him) would terminate naturally at 1:80 (And the child grew and waxed strong in spirit and was in the deserts till the day of his showing unto Israel).  Much of the substance of both hymns has little relevance to the situation of the persons Luke represents as speaking them.  That Mary has conceived a child gives her no ground for the martial tone of the Magnificat (the proud have been scattered and the mighty put down).  Brown thinks that we have here a hymn that describes Israel, specifically the poor and oppressed remnant (p. 340).  Similarly, most of the Benedictus has little relevance to John the Baptist.  It is a Messianic hymn, rejoicing in the horn of salvation that has been raised up in the house of David, to the discomfort of the Jews enemies; whereas John is not of Davidic descent at all, but of the priestly line.

It is doubtful whether the evangelist even meant the Magnificat to be spoken by Mary; for although all Greek manuscripts introduce it with and Mary said, same old Latin manuscripts have here, instead, and Elisabeth said, and this may well be the original reading (unless, as the NEB suggests, the original may have had no name and have simply been and she said).  For, first, it is hard to see why a copyist should change Mary to Elisabeth, while the opposite change is quite intelligible as prompted by increasing Mariolatry.  Se­cond, Elisabeths position as an aged and barren woman resembles that of the long-childless Hannah (mother of Samuel), whose song of 1 Samuel 2 the Magnificat to some extent follows.  Elisabeth, not Mary, is the one who, like Hannah, has been raised from the humilia­tion of childlessness.  Third, the words immediately following the Magnificat at Luke 1:56 are more natural and grammatically better if Elisabeth is the author of the hymn (Elliott, p. 12).  This verse reads:  And Mary abode with her about three months.  If Elisabeth had hitherto been the speaker, it makes good sense that Mary is actually named here, as the subject of the verb, and that Elisabeth is referred to with the pronoun her.  But if Mary had been the speaker up to verse 55, it is most unnatural that Elisabeth should then be called her (cf. Creed, p. 22).  If, then, the Magnificat is Elisabeths song of thanksgiving, the evangelist meant it to apply to John the Baptist, not to Jesus, and it then becomes a true parallel to the Benedictus, which is the thanksgiving song of Elisabeths husband for the birth of John.10

In the present chapter, 1 am concerned only with the relation be­tween Jesus and John as it appears in Lukes infancy narrative.  What dealings the two men are supposed to have had as adults will occupy us in the<next chapter, and we shall see that this is a matter that is handled very differently in the different gospels.



Matthew represents five details in his infancy narrative as fulfilment of prophecies, but in fact, the relevant Old Testament passages bear no relation to the events which he describes as fulfilling them.  Let us study the details.


(a)        When the angel has told Joseph that Mary will bring forth Jesus of the Holy Ghost, the evangelist adds:


All this is come to pass, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, Behold the virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son. And they shall call his name Im­manuel; which is, being interpreted, God with us (1:2223).


The reference is to Isaiah 7:14, where the prophet is addressing Ahaz (King of Judah about 735715 BC) in Jerusalem. At this time, the united kingdom of David and Solomon had been divided into Israel in the north, ruled over by Pekah, and Judah in the south. Pekah had allied himself with Rezin, king of Damascus (Syria), intending a revolt against Assyria, the super-power of the day, and wanted Ahaz to join them. When he refused, they attacked him in Jerusalem, but could not prevail against it (Isaiah 7:1). Isaiah assured him that he really had had nothing to fear from these two adversaries, and that, before a child shortly to be born to a young woman will be old enough to tell good from evil, the land whose two kings thou abhorrest shall be forsaken (7:16).  As early as the childs birth, the political and military situation will be so much improved that his mother will give him a name of good omen, Immanuel (verse 14).

The AV and the RV render Isaiah 7:14 as a virgin shall conceive and bear a son.  But the Hebrew text makes no reference to a virgin and uses the word almah, meaning young woman, which is the rendering given in recent scholarly English versions such as the RSV and the NEB.  (American fundamentalists burned copies of the RSV because of this change).  It is the Septuagint (an influential Greek ver­sion of the Old Testament) that uses the word meaning virgin, and renders the passage: the virgin shall be with child and thou [the hus­band] shall call his name Immanuel. Brown notes that both the stan­dard Hebrew (Massoretic) text and the Septuagint, and of course Matthew, use the definite article (the young woman or the virgin, not a young woman), so that it is likely that Isaiah was referring to someone definite whose identity was known to him and to King Ahaz, perhaps someone whom the king had recently married and brought into the harem (pp. 14748). Even in the Septuagint ver­sion, nothing supernatural is asserted. Isaiah is simply saying to Ahaz that a woman who is now a virgin will (by natural means, once she is united with her husband) conceive the child.

Isaiah, then, did not suppose that this child would be the Messiah, to be born about 700 years later. In any case, Messianism as we know it from later Jewish history did not exist in his day. Messiah simply means anointed and was used to designate kings and high priests who were always anointed with oil. Saul, the first Israelite king, is

called the Lords anointed (1 Samuel 24:6). The term at this stage did not indicate a future redeemer. But when the Babylonian Exile of 587-539 BC brought the monarchy to an end, expectations that the anointed kings of the House of David would deliver the Jews from their enemies or from catastrophe were transferred to an anointed king of the indefinite future; and thus hope was born in the Messiah, the supreme anointed one who would deliver Israel (Brown, p. 67n.). When such expectations developed, many Old Testament passages were reinterpreted as references to this coming Messiah. But even then, Isaiah 7:14 was not understood in this way in Jewish usage.

In sum, Isaiahs oracle does not predict a miraculous birth from a virgin, nor does it bear upon the birth of a Messiah still more than seven centuries in the future. It is an assurance to King Ahaz, terrified as he is by the threat of an invasion from the north, that the danger is negligible. And the name Immanuel is to be given by way of a thankful acknowledgement that God has made his presence known among his people by removing the danger that has threatened (Beare, pp. 7172).


(b) Herod is troubled to learn from the wise men that a King of the Jews has been born. He gathers together all the chief priests and s&ibes of the people to inquire from them the relevant locality. (The author obviously knew nothing of the bitter opposition that existed between Herod and the priests, nor of the fact that the Sanhedrin was not at his beck and call: Brown, p. 188). They tell him:


In Bethlehem of Judea: for thus it is written by the prophet,

And thou, Bethlehem, land of Judah,

Art in no wise least among the princes of Judah:

For out of thee shall come forth a governor,

Which shall be shepherd of my people Israel (2:56).


The first three lines of the citation are drawn from a textual tradition of Micah 5:2 that is identical neither with the Massoretic text nor the Septuagint. This indicates the multiplicity of texts available in Mat­thews day variant Hebrew wordings, Aramaic targums and a number of Greek translations (Brown, p. 103). The final line has been added from 2 Samuel 5:2, where David is reminded that the Lord said to thee, Thou shalt feed my people Israel.  This, of course, pace Matthew, cannot belong to what was said by the prophet Micah, but it does serve to associate Jesus with David, which was doubtless the evangelists intention. He was clearly also very much concerned to insist that the credentials of the Messiah include birth in Bethlehem rather than in some other city such as Jerusalem; but the passage in Micah says only that from the insignificant clan of Ephrathah, which included Bethlehem the text reads Bethlehem Ephrathah, little among the thousands (clans) of Judaha ruler of Israel shall come forth. A few verses later there is mention of deliverance from an impending Assyrian invasion, and the writer seems to have had in mind not a Messiah of the remote future, but a leader who would deliver Judah from the Assyrian. Also, he does not say that Bethlehem will be his birthplace, only that he will come forth as leader from it.  The Old Testament makes David a native of Bethlehem, but does not suggest that he was there as king; in Jewish tradition up to Matthews time, Jerusalem, not Bethlehem, was the ci­ty of David. Micahs prophecy of a ruler emerging from Bethlehem does not seem to have been understood by pre-Christian Jews as referring to the Messiah, for it is interpreted messianically only in the Targum of Micah (about AD 300) and not, for instance, at Qumran, even though Micah was used there.  Hence, as Burger notes (p. 24), the location of the Messiahs birth at Bethlehem was not common Jewish tradition ready and waiting for Christians to assimilate. However, both Matthew and Luke, in their wholly independent in­fancy narratives, make Jesus be born there, and so this must have been a widespread tradition among the early Christians, perhaps in­spired by the tendency to imagine that the Messiah Son of David must recapitulate the experience of his famous ancestor (Beare, p.79).


(c) Joseph, warned in a dream by an angel to flee from Herod in­to Egypt, remained there with Mary and the child until Herods death, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt did I call my son (2:1315). This is cited from Hosea 11:1, where the prophet is re­minding the people of Yahwehs loyalty to them in the past when he delivered them from Egyptian captivity: when Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt. Here, my son means the nation, not the Messiah, and the reference is to a past deliverance (the Exodus), not to a future one. Matthews use of the  passage well illustrates

his complete lack of concern with historical interpretation of the Scriptures.


(d)        When Herod saw himself foiled, he had all the male children of Bethlehem and its environs killed. Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying,


A voice was heard in Ramah,

Weeping and great mourning,

Rachel weeping for her children;

And she would not be comforted,

because they are not. (2:1718)


 Rachel was Jacobs second wife, mother of Joseph and Benjamin, and according to one tradition she was buried at Ramah (near Jerusalem). Commentators explain that Jeremiah envisages her weeping in her tomb (31:15) as she watches the columns of captives (her children) marching along the road into exile, under the guard of the victorious Assyrians after the fall of the (northern) Kingdom of Israel (2 Kings 17:6) (Beare, pp. 82-83; cf Brown, pp. 20506). For Matthew she has come to represent the mothers of Bethlehem weeping for their murdered children, and the historical context of the passage in Jeremiah has been wholly lost.


(e)        Joseph is warned in a dream to avoid Herods son Archelaus, ruler of Judea, and so withdrew into the parts of Galilee, and came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, that he should be called a Nazarene (2:2223). No such passage exists in the Old Testament, and Mat­thews ascription of it to the prophets, rather than to a particular prophet, may indicate that he did not have in mind any passage that would exactly bear him out. There are, however, a number which, with some manipulation, can be made to yield the meaning desired. One suggestion, favoured by Howard C. Kee, is that Matthew, who will have

known from Mark of Jesuss connection with Nazareth, produced a prophecy about Jesuss coming from that obscure hamlet by taking the consonants of the Hebrew text of Isaiah 11:1, which promises a shoot (n-tz-r in Hebrew), later interpreted as the Messiah, and providing it with different vowels, which can be done readily in Semitic languages.11

In sum, Matthew is clearly much concerned to prove from the Jewish Scriptures that Jesus really is, according to his origin and home, the expected Messiah. That the passages he adduces for this purpose are not to the point typifies the use of the Old Testament made by the authors of the New. The latter tear passages out of con­text, use allegory or typology to give old stories new meanings, con­tradict the plain meaning of the text, find references to Christ in passages where the original authors never intended any, and adapt or even alter the wording in order to make it yield the meaning they re­quire.2 This is the verdict not of some rationalist scoffer, but of the Lady Margarets Professor of Divinity in the University of Cam­bridge. The argument that the Old Testament can be read as pro­phecy of Jesus has lost all force.



Enter supporting content here