Friday, May 08, 2020

Christianity as seen in the New Testament

Continuing the Abrahamica investigation

We turn now to some fundamental problems of Christian origins.

Did Jesus actually exist?  Over the years some have thought not.  Contemporary biblical scholarship has established that there is no conclusive evidence that such worthies as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; Moses, Aaron, and Joshua actually lived. It seems that they belong exclusively to the realm of myth.

So much for the historicity--or more accurately, the nonhistoricity--of the figures who populate the Pentateuch. Gradually, it seems (as we read on in the story and the generations roll by), the world of the Hebrew Bible becomes less mythical and more historical. But when does it do so? It is a startling fact that no solid evidence has emerged for the existence of David and Solomon. To be sure, there is one doubtful inscription supposedly pertaining to the former, but the interpretation of the name David therein is disputed. Where are the commemorative steles and other monuments we would expect to find as evidence for a great Middle Eastern empire, as Solomon’s was reputed to be? What became of the polity’s archives? It is becoming increasingly evident that if David and Solomon ruled over anything it was a petty chieftainship, too minor to merit notice in the annals of the great kingdoms of the Middle East.

So there is abundant room for doubt. Why though should the Hebrew Bible be the exclusive target of this well-merited skepticism? The New Testament deserves close scrutiny in it own right.

The idea that Jesus never existed as a historical figure goes back more than 200 years. To the best of our knowledge, the first writer to argue this was the French savant Charles François Dupuis (1742-1809). Trained as a lawyer, Dupuis developed a passion for astronomy. Oddly enough, this interest informs his magnum opus Origine de tous les Cultes, ou la Réligion Universelle, which appeared in 12 volumes in Paris in 1795. In this vast work, the French scholar held that religious myths of all nations adhered to common principles, which derived from nature. Chapter Nine of this gargantuan work bears the title of “An explanation of the fable in which the Sun is worshiped under the name of Christ.”

Dupuis’s rejection of the historicity of Jesus resurfaced in the more popular work of his contemporary Constantin François Volney (1757-1820), entitled Les Ruines, ou méditation sur les révolutions des empires. Although this work appeared earlier than Dupuis’ (in 1791), Volney probably depended on his older colleague for his dismissive conclusions about Jesus.

On a different basis, these doubts resurfaced in the work of the German theologian and philosopher Bruno Bauer (1809-1882). Starting in 1840, he began to publish a series of controversial works arguing that Jesus was a myth, a second-century fusion of Jewish, Greek, and Roman theology. Bauer’s arguments reflected his deconstructive analysis of the text of Mark, which by his time had come to be generally recognized as the earliest of the gospels.

Some light in the matter stems from the Jesus Seminar. The Jesus Seminar, founded in 1985 by the late Robert Funk of the University of Montana, was a serious enterprise, even though it met criticism on various grounds—its voting method (marbles), the grandstanding of some of its members, the public style of its meetings, not to mention its openly defiant stance regarding the claims of miracles in the Gospel (including the resurrection of Jesus). Except for the use of the voting marbles, none of this was new.  By contrast, the deployment of additional sources, such as gnostic and apocryphal gospels, to create a fuller picture of the Jesus tradition and the focus on context were innovative. And yet, it is fair to say, the Jesus who emerged from these travails was very much diminished, so much so that few could muster any enthusiasm for the result.

As they neared the end of their labors in 2000, the Seminar members had pared the authentic sayings of Jesus down to 18 percent of those ascribed to him in the New Testament. From this minimalist kit they pictured him as a wandering teacher of wisdom who preached in riddles and parables about a God of love who preferred sinners to the wealthy, comfortable, and wise of the world. Gone, by and large, was the eschatological prophet who preached the end of the world and never expected to found a church—much less a seminar—in his name.

What the Jesus Seminar had tacitly affirmed--without exactly trumpeting the result--is that over 80 percent of the utterances of “Jesus” had been fabricated by the Gospel writers. That is to say that, if we are to judge a man’s accomplishments by his purported sayings, the greater portion of the literary artifacts known as the Gospels is fictional.

If we are to judge by deeds and events, then what actions survived historical criticism? Not the virgin birth, or the Transfiguration, or the healing of the sick, or such purely magical feats such as Cana, or the multiplication of loaves and fishes. The Resurrection had quietly been dumped by theologians in the nineteenth century. In fact, by and large, the deeds—except, perhaps, the attack on the Temple (Mark 11:15–19)—had preceded the words to the dustbin years before: yet some scholars continued to hold that the historical figure remained untouched. Only faith could explain this seeming invulnerability, a conclusion being that Jesus had not existed, a judgment that in this view most participants would not have accepted.

In fact recent years have seen a groundswell of adhesion to the idea that Jesus is a myth, represented by such writers as Earl Doherty, Thomas Thompson and Frank Zindler. For information on these figures see Bart D. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (New York, 2012).  Professor Ehrman, a prolific New Testament scholar, concludes that Jesus did actually exist.

There is one final consideration, to my mind the most significant of all. By modern standards, few figures from Greco-Roman antiquity are well documented. For some ancient philosophers, for example, we have (to all intents and purposes) only the data recorded by Diogenes Laertius. Yet few doubt that Heraclitus or Democritus actually lived. Still, in her book Lives of the Greek Poets, Mary Lefkowitz points out that "virtually all the material in the lives is fiction."

The information we have on the majority of the ancient Greek philosophers and poets is exiguous at best. That being so, why is the historicity of these figures not challenged? The reason is that there no motive for such doubt, even though their careers are less well attested than that of Jesus.

A major problem with sorting out the facts, however uncertain they may be, concerning the life of Jesus stems from the situation that we have too many sources, not too few. In addition to the four canonical gospels, the texts of at least sixteen other such texts are known. Other data stem from the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles, not to mention such early writers as Marcion, Clement of Alexandria, and Irenaeus of Lyon. The situation is closer to that of Socrates and Alexander, well attested but with numerous contradictions, than it is to that of Heraclitus and Anacreon, two somewhat mysterious figures. I am inclined to think that the argument that Jesus did not exist is ideologically motivated. It is based on special pleading--a one-sided presentation of the evidence that highlights every contradiction and dubious assertion, refusing to countenance any other evidence.

It is useful to recall the legal principle of neutrality of result. For example, legislation barring excessively high rates of interest should not be crafted so that the prohibition applies to some banks but not to others. Of course, there are disputed cases. Some would argue, I think correctly, that marriage should not be construed so as only to apply to opposite-sex instances ("traditional marriage"), but should cover same-sex ones as well. Others may disagree.

Still, it is a good plan to follow the principle of neutrality of outcomes. Yet that principle is conspicuously ignored by the Jesus-didn't-exist crowd, because they decline to apply their stringent criteria to analogous cases. Take, for example, the case of Jesus' older contemporary, Rabbi Hillel the Elder, after whom many Jewish student groups are named. He looks like a good candidate for erasure, because the evidence for his existence is considerably more skimpy than that for Jesus. Yet I know of no detailed argument for the nonhistoricity of Hillel. Nor is one needed.

When all is said and done, Jesus probably did actually exist — not the divine Jesus of the innovative “Holy Trinity,” but the relatively modest teacher admired by Thomas Jefferson. Still, it is sobering to remind oneself than in trying to understand a society that flourished 2000 years before our own, we are generally restricted to probabilities, not certainties.

The previous section concluded by rejecting the nonhistoricity of Jesus. Absolute skepticism is not warranted, even though it is true that we know far less about him than we would like to. Yet whether Jesus was real or merely legendary, it is clear that this individual was a Jew.

I can hear some irreverent reader exclaiming: “No sh-t, Sherlock. When did you get the first clue?” In recent memory, of course, there have been various forms of denial. Fortunately, the blond Aryan Jesus, propagated by the anti-Semite Houston Stewart Chamberlain and by implication in some Hollywood blockbusters, is no more. A more subtle version, still cherished in various Christian quarters, holds that Jesus’ critique of Judaism was so radical that to all intents and purposes he became an apostate, who departed from his ancestral faith. In other words Jesus, ceasing to be a Jew, was the first Christian. Most New Testament scholars today, however, believe that many features of organized Christianity as we know it reflect a process of transformation that took place only after Jesus’ death. The apostle Paul is usually regarded as the prime culprit in this enhancement, though this view probably overpersonalizes the process. As far as we can determine, several different grouplets in the Jesus movement, including some strongly influenced by the pagan environment, were involved in the rebranding of Jesus as a god.

What then is the evidence that Jesus was a Jew? In fact the four canonical gospels make this status perfectly clear. From his birth Jesus was raised a Jew. He was circumcised on the eighth day (Luke 2.21) and bore a common Jewish name, Yeshua, “he [God] saves” (Matthew 1.21). In fact, scholars have ascertained that Yeshua was the fifth most common male Jewish name of the time. Joseph was the second most common male name and Mary the most common among women. As the English scholar Jonathan Went notes: “this in itself is sufficient evidence to throw doubt on the recently found tomb of 'Jesus, Mary and Joseph,' as it is like finding the gravestone of Mr and Mrs John Smith!” The child Jesus was presented to the Lord in the Jerusalem temple (Luke 2.22; cf. Deuteronomy 18.4; Exodus 13.2,12,15) according to Mary's period of uncleanness (Leviticus 12.2-8). A sacrifice was offered for him, a pair of doves and two young pigeons, indicating that his family were not wealthy (Leviticus 12.2,6,8; Luke 2.22-24). Thus Jesus was raised according to the Law (Luke 2.39).

After this point, however, matters become murky, owing to the neglect of the “missing years” in the four canonical Gospels. Attempts to fill this gap in with the apocryphal gospels are unconvincing because of the late date of their origin. Jesus’ family, and indeed most of his associates, were what we would nowadays call “working class.” Jesus’ father was either a carpenter or (less likely) a stone-mason. It is therefore improbable that Jesus could have received an elite Jewish education, starting with the reading of the written Torah at the age of five. In fact, it is not certain that he could read Hebrew, though he probably had some proficiency in written Aramaic and perhaps some Greek. The citations he makes (or is said to have made) from the Hebrew Scriptures, which are not always quoted accurately, most likely derive from oral sources. This is what is meant, I think, by the information that by the age of twelve he was found in the temple precincts "both listening and asking questions" (Luke 2.46). The fact that the authorities there “were astonished at his understanding and answers" may reflect surprise that someone of his underprivileged background could show such aptitude.

These examples suffice to prove the point: yes, Jesus was indeed a Jew. To be sure, one must be wary of anachronism, imagining the visible Jesus on the model of some pious Hasidic resident of Brooklyn, with all of the distinctive clothing and hair style such a figure evokes. To be sure, modern Judaism in America is capacious and varied, with four major divisions: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist. Yet the historical Jesus does not map onto any of these. For his part, returning to earth Jesus would probably feel uncomfortable in any contemporary American synagogue--though surely even more so in one of our Christian churches.

The reality is that Jesus was a man of Jewish Galilee in the early Roman era, with all of the qualities and limitations that that status implies.

To be sure, there are significant contemporary scholars in Jesus studies who happen to be Jewish, including Paula Fredriksen, Joseph Klausner, Samuel Sandmel, my old schoolmate David H. Stern, and Geza Vermes.

The case of Geza Vermes is particularly interesting. He was born in Makó, Hungary, in 1924 to Jewish parents. When he was seven, all three were baptized as Roman Catholics. His mother and journalist father died in the Holocaust. After World War II, the young Vermes became a priest. He studied first in Budapest and then at the Collège St Albert and the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, where he read Near Eastern history and languages. In 1953 he obtained a doctorate in theology. He left the Catholic church in 1957, reasserting his Jewish identity.

Jesus the Jew (1973) is the first of three books that Geza Vermes has published on the historical Jesus. He argues that Jesus was a Hasid, a type of charismatic miracle worker active in first-century Galilee. In fact Vermes' claim that Jesus was a type of Galilean charismatic Jew rests on slim evidence. His two comparative examples are Honi the Circle Drawer (first century BCE) and Hanina ben Dosa (first century CE). While there are some similarities between Jesus and these two, Honi was not Galilean and Hanina's Galilean origin is far from certain. More problematically, Vermes relies on later traditions, some stemming from the Mishnah, compiled under rabbinical auspices some two centuries after the death of Jesus, and others as late as the eighth or ninth centuries CE.

In my view, the basic problem of Vermes’ reconstruction of Jesus’ Judaism is that it is anachronistic, because it relies too much on incipient rabbinical motifs that are two or more centuries later. Some of these accounts may have been assembled as an explicit challenge to Christianity. While Vermes’ later books attempt to address these problems, the results are inconclusive.

Post-Exilic and Hellenistic Judaism saw the rise of a new genre of religious writing: the apocalyptic tradition. These texts, generally of pseudonymous authorship, include the Apocalypse of Abraham, The Apocalypse of Elijah, 1, 2, and 3 Enoch, the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs and many others. One may consult the comprehensive set of translations edited by James H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (2 vols., 1983).

The prophets of the Hebrew Bible concentrated on preaching repentance and righteousness so that the nation would escape judgment. By contrast, the message of the apocalyptic writers was one of patience and trust--for deliverance and reward were sure to come. The typical apocalyptic writer despairs of the present, directing his hopes absolutely to the future, to a new world standing in essential opposition to the present. The underlying dualistic principle may ultimately stem from Persian (Zoroastrian) sources, When Jesus speaks of the future coming of the Basileia or Kingdom he clearly has this apocalyptic perspective in mind. The natural corollary of such a belief is an uncompromising asceticism. One who would live to prosper in the next world must shun this one. Visions are vouchsafed only to those who have added fasting to prayer.

In New Testament studies the apocalyptic or eschatological approach became dominant about a hundred years ago, through the work of Albert Schweitzer and others. While it is currently discounted by the members of the Jesus Seminar, clearly the apocalyptic strand, with its visions of Armageddon and the Last Judgment, was paramount for the early followers of Jesus.

A contrary view holds that Jesus’ critique was directly primarily to the iniquities of the present world, and that he was a Zealot, a kind of Jewish revolutionary. The Zealots were a religious-political faction, who thrived for a period of about 70 years or possibly more, in the first century CE. In their theology the Zealots were relatively close to the Pharisees, but their doctrines strongly focused on the necessities of violent actions against the enemies of Judaism. In their time they were a Jewish Defense League.

According to Luke 6:15, Simon, one of Jesus' disciples, was a Zealot. It was also in a climate of tension that their agitation and violence had aggravated that Jesus was executed. Was Jesus a subversive of this kind? A clue to the puzzle was his execution on a cross, a punishment the Roman authorities preferred for political rebels. Another indicator is the cleansing of the Temple depicted in Mark 11, a text that aligns with the Zealot ideology. A third factor is that at least a few of the disciples carried weapons (Mark 14:47), either regularly or under certain dangerous circumstances.

Nonetheless, other evidence points away from this theory, for Jesus was not a “standard-issue” Jew, which Zealotry required. He did not teach strict adherence to the Law, and he associated with sinners and people outside the Law. The fact that Jesus may have been perceived as a Zealot does not mean that he actually was one.

There is another possible connection that is worth exploring. The Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) comprise almost 1,000 documents, discovered between 1947 and 1979 in eleven caves in and around the Wadi Qumran, on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. The texts include the only known surviving copies of Hebrew Scriptural documents made before 100 CE. There are also original treatises. Most scholars believe that this sacred library constituted the intellectual capital of an ascetic sect, the Essenes.

Some went so far as to assert that Jesus was himself an Essene, living within the community’s precincts for much of his life. These claims are now seen to be overblown.

As more sober voices prevailed, it became possible to offer a more plausible assessment of the relationship of the scrolls, if any, to Jesus of Nazareth. The case has been summed up by the Princeton scholar James H. Charlesworth (Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls, 1991). Charlesworth enumerates 24 links. On closer examination, however, most of these turn out to be inconclusive. We learn that both Jesus and the Qumran Community believed in one God and appealed to the Scriptures as a repository of authority. Whoop-de-do! so have most Jews throughout the ages. Other motifs, such as the importance of water and the two-age theory, were common beliefs at the time. Moreover, as Charlesworth acknowledges, there are a number of significant differences between the isolated community that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls and the public Jesus movement. In short, Jesus may have been influenced in some respects by the religious currents documented in the Dead Sea Scrolls, but if so, these were merely one of a number of significant sources. In short the evidence suggests that Jesus was not an Essene.

The late Morton Smith is best known for his purported discovery of the Secret Mark. In 1978 Smith published another controversial book, entitled Jesus the Magician. He argues that, among other roles, Jesus was a magician in the sense that the word was understood in the ancient world. In this capacity he functioned as a village medicine man, a kind of curadero, traveling through Galilee and healing people with folk remedies.

The monumental work of John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Peasant (1993) seeks to depict Jesus in almost anthropological terms, as a product of his time and milieu. Crossan's erudition brings together otherwise disparate pieces of ancient history and literature, biblical and secular, to create a detailed portrait.

Crossan is often criticized for classifying Jesus as a sort of Jewish Cynic in the philosophical sense, Still, this view may be worth pondering. In his 1993 volume The Lost Gospel Burton L. Mack (a member of the Jesus Seminar) goes so far as assert that the earliest stratum of Q “enjoins a practical ethic of the times widely known as Cynic” (p. 114). Mack further notes that “New Testament scholars have often remarked on the Cynic parallels to much of the material in Q1.” This ascription will strike many as improbable, as the world of the Cynics seems far from the rigors of the Hebrew prophetic tradition. Moreover, in common parlance the word cynic (with a lower-case c) has come to have an unsavory connotation of disengaged negativity. Yet this view is not historically accurate, for the ancient Cynics were popular philosophers who traveled about imparting the truths of Hellenic wisdom. If circumstances required it, they were capable of bluntness, of “speaking truth to power.” In these respects they were not unlike Jesus in his public life. It is uncertain, though, whether the parallel is more than an analogy.

The above account is by no means exhaustive. There are a number of variants of these views, and nowadays a proliferating set of popular accounts. Still, one is struck by the lack of consensus as to what the expression “Jesus the Jew” really means. Striving (as we must) to avoid anachronism, the picture of Jesus as a first-century Jew remains murky. In part this unclarity reflects the ongoing difficulty of determining a plausible sequencing of the earliest Christian beliefs and practices.

When all is said and done, it is likely that Jesus was a kind of bricoleur or eclectic. He combined mainstream Jewish views with others that were oppositional. Some of these latter stemmed from heterodox Jewish sources (such as the apocalyptic literature), while other motifs were Greek in origin.

We turn now to the mother of Jesus.  Over the centuries the Virgin Mary has become a portentous figure in Christian ritual, art, music, and literature. In the perspective of Salvation History, she ranks as the Counter-Eve, the supremely good woman whose role it was to end the reign of woe unleashed by her predecessor, the First Mother. She is accounted as preeminent among the saints. As the Intercessor, Mary is the object of countless Christian prayers.

It comes, then, as something of a surprise to find that her role in the New Testament is relatively modest. Of course, she figures in the birth stories of Matthew (1-2) and Luke (1-2). While Mary is mentioned several times during the public ministry of Jesus, she remains largely in the background. According to the fourth Gospel, she appears at the foot of the Cross (John 19:25). She was in the Upper Room in Jerusalem to witness the emergence of the Christian community (Acts 1:40).

The Gospels assert both Mary’s maternity and virginity. The belief in the Virgin Birth ostensibly finds support in Isaiah (7:14): “behold, a virgin shall conceive.” Yet this familiar phrase does not reflect the wording of the Hebrew Bible, but stems from the Greek Septuagint version, where the word parthenos is used. The Greek word parthenos can mean either a young woman or a virgin; for this reason the word parthenos can be found in the Septuagint referring to someone who is not a virgin. For example, in Genesis 34:2-4, Shechem raped Dinah, the daughter of the patriarch Jacob, yet the Septuagint refers to her as a parthenos after she had been defiled. The Bible reports that after Shechem had violated her, his heart desired Dinah, and he loved the damsel (Septuagint: parthenos) and he spoke tenderly to the damsel (Septuagint: parthenos). Clearly, Dinah was not a virgin after having been raped, and yet she was designated a parthenos, the same word the Septuagint used to translate the Hebrew word alma in Isaiah 7:14.

Some modern scholars have surmised that the doctrine of Mary’s virginity has been imposed on the infancy narrative in order to give the appearance of fulfilling an Old Testament prophecy — at least in its Hellenic (Septuagint) version. In early times, however, only a few obscure sects, including the Psilanthropists and the Adoptionists, doubted the idea of the Virgin Birth. The Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds affirm it. In 432 the Council of Ephesus defined the Virgin Mary as the Mother of God (Theotokos).

Comparative mythology suggests some interesting parallels. Legendary heroes and kings sometimes figure as offspring of gods. Both Egyptian pharaohs and Roman Emperors were accorded divine status, though the latter achieved divinization in Rome only after death.

Extra-biblical birth narratives typically involve sexual intercourse, sometimes involving rape or deceit, by a god in human or animal form—for example, the stories of Leda, Europa, or the birth of Hercules. Reputedly, the mother of Alexander the Great was impregnated by a snake. However bestial, these tales are about copulation. Yet an example of a story where the woman's physical virginity is explicitly maintained by the god who impregnates her by artificial insemination is found in the vast Hindu epic the Mahabharata. "The sun-god said: O beautiful Pṛthā, your meeting with the demigods cannot be fruitless. Therefore, let me place my seed in your womb so that you may bear a son. I shall arrange to keep your virginity intact, since you are still an unmarried girl." Zoroastrianism also holds that the end-of-time Saoshyant (“Saviour”) will be miraculously conceived by a virgin who has swum in the lake where Zoroaster’s seed is preserved.

The birth narratives of Jesus are distinctive in that they speak of the Holy Spirit, not of male seed, as the active agent in his conception (Matthew 1:21; Luke 1:35). The historicity of this account may be doubted. As regards the actual circumstances of Mary’s impregnation, it is a truism that “no one knows.” For some, the bizarre nature of the posited event precludes its actually happening. Yet for the believing Christian it is precisely this implausibilty that assures the Virgin Birth its status as one of the supreme mysteries of the faith.

Over the centuries mainstream Christianity has come to cherish an exalted notion of the Mary the mother of Jesus. Some went even further. Collyridianism was an obscure early Christian sect whose adherents seem to have worshipped Mary as a goddess. According to our main source, Epiphanius of Salamis (writing about 375 CE), certain women in then largely-pagan Arabia combined indigenous beliefs with the worship of Mary, offering little cakes or bread rolls (Greek kollyris) to her.

In his book The Virgin, Geoffey Ashe proposes that the Collyridians constituted a separate Marian religion rivaling Christianity. Founded by first-generation followers of the Virgin Mary, some their doctrines were takenup by the Council of Ephesis in 432--a landmark in Mariology. Today, some women interested in feminist spirituality claim the Collyridians as precursors.

The Collyridians also figure in some recent discussions of the Qur’anic concept of the Christian Trinity. Certain verses in the Qur’an (5:73; 5:75; and 5:116) have been taken to imply that Muhammad believed that Christians considered Mary part of the Trinity. She would take the place of the Holy Spirit as the third person of the Trinity. Of course, this idea has never been part of mainstream Christian doctrine, but there has been some modern speculation that Muhammad might have confused heretical Collyridian beliefs with those of orthodox Christianity.

If Mary was a Virgin prior to her encounter with the angel Gabriel, and if the Virgin Birth was truly virginal, what was the sexual status of Mary afterwards? It would seem that her special role in the Incarnation had been fulfilled, and that she could go on to conceive and birth other children in the normal way. Indeed, the gospels refer to Jesus’ brothers and sisters.

Some early Christians--and many other believers after them--have maintained a belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary. This view, or something like it, surfaces in the Protoevangelion of James, a noncanonical gospel, probably dating to the latter part of the second century CE. The text recounts how a test confirms Mary’s virginity before birth. Then the absence of labor pains, and a midwife’s examination, demonstrate Mary’s virginity during birth. The work also asserts that Jesus' "brothers" and "sisters" are Joseph’s children from a marriage previous to his union with Mary. This text does not explicitly assert Mary's perpetual virginity after the birth of Jesus. But another book, The History of Joseph the Carpenter, presents Jesus as speaking, at the death of Joseph, of Mary as "my mother, virgin undefiled".

The idea of the perpetual virginity of Mary spread rapidly in the Near East, beginning in the third century. Today it is part of the teaching of Roman Catholicism, as well as Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxy, as expressed in their liturgies. Mary was ever-virgin (Greek ἀειπάρθενος, aeiparthenos) throughout her life, making Jesus her only biological offspring. This tradition of the perpetual virginity of Mary is one element in the well-established theology regarding the Theotokos, [Mary as] Mother of God.

From the fifth century to relatively modern times, little opposition to the doctrine arose in either East or West. Even Martin Luther maintained that Mary had no other children and did not have marital relations with Joseph. However, some subsequent Protestant authorities have thought otherwise, and so too do most unaffiliated students of the New Testament.

Recent scholarship has emphasized the importance of the so-called gnostic Gospel of Thomas, which some regard as a fifth such text, on a par with the canonical set of four.

The gospel is ascribed to the apostle Thomas, one of the twelve. What in fact do we know of this Thomas? His full name was Didymus Judas Thomas. That is to say, Judas was his proper name, while the additions Didymus and Thomas (Te’omas) are descriptive adjuncts. Both mean “twin,” one in Greek and the other in Aramaic. This disciple then was a twin of someone. But of whom?

The apocryphal Acts of Thomas, apparently written in Syria in the third century, holds that this disciple became a missionary in India. The text also asserts that Thomas was the brother of Jesus. Likewise, this claim appears in one of the gnostic Nag Hammadi documents.

For a long time, Catholics and others, eager to defend their notion of the perpetual virginity of Mary, have claimed that Jesus’ brothers were not truly uterine siblings, born of the womb of Mary, but cousins perhaps, or children of Joseph by another mother.

The New Testament texts do not offer support for these speculations. Instead, they speak directly of Jesus’ having brothers (and sisters as well, though they are not named). The fullest list of brothers (not necessarily exhaustive) is given in Matthew 13:55, where four are mentioned: James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas. It is unlikely that the last is the disciple who betrayed Jesus, as he is never identified as Jesus’ brother. This person could be the Jude to whom an epistle is ascribed in the New Testament. Yet there is a real possibility that the last brother named in Matthew’s list is our Didymus Judas Thomas.

On this interpretation Jesus had a twin brother, also born of Mary. One child was divine, the other an ordinary human being. This seems bizarre, yet the situation is not without precedent--at least in classical mythology. One parallel concerns the Greek hero Heracles (Hercules), who had a mortal twin named Iphicles. According to the story, Alcmene had conceived a child with her husband, Amphitryon. Then she attracted the amorous attentions of Zeus, who made love to her in human form--in the guise of her husband Amphitryon. As a result of this coupling two children grew in her womb, one the son of a mortal, the other the son of a god.

Let us review the facts as presented in the legend. First came the “normal” impregnation: male human to female human. Then there occurred the extraordinary fertilization of the woman with the sperm of a god. The result of the first act was the mortal Iphicles. Herakles, whose heroic stature approached but did not quite attain the status of a god, resulted from Alcmene’s second coupling.

In the case of Mary we would need to reverse the order. First she was impregnated by the Holy Spirit, while still a virgin. Not long thereafter, Joseph (or some other man) impregnated her with the child who was to become Didymus Judas Thomas, Jesus’ twin brother. As the Trinity could not become a quaternity, Thomas was denied divine status.

Recent scholarship has explored many fascinating bypaths of Early Christianity. To the best of my knowledge, though, Bart Ehrman (in his book Lost Christianities) is the only one to have discussed frankly this extraordinary possibility--that Jesus had a twin brother. However, he declines to explore the implications further.

Did Thomas acquire special knowledge of divine truths while still in the womb? Was it uncomfortable for him, having to share the cramped space with a divine being? Did Thomas receive any of the gifts of the magi? What was his role in Joseph’s carpentry shop? And so forth.

These questions may seem far-fetched. But the theological implications of this twinship, if it was the case, are enormous. They literally boggle the mind.

The modern critical approach to the biblical texts acquired status some 150 years ago in Germany. Sometimes termed the Higher Criticism, this approach stresses that things are not what they seem. The Pentateuch, for example, was not written by Moses or dictated to him by Yahweh. Moreover, according to the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis, which further research has largely confirmed, that foundational text breaks down into four main streams, known by the initials J, E, D. and P. These do not correspond to the traditional ordering of the five books, but afford a glimpse into the stratigraphy, as it were, of the Pentateuch--the stages of its formation. Each stream is dominated by a particular theological concern.

Other scholars began to apply a similar approach to the New Testament, especially the four canonical gospels. Since the publication of Johann Griesbach in 1776, it has come to be generally agreed that the Gospel of John stands apart. In fact, it has long been recognized that John differs significantly from the other three canonical gospels in theme, content, time duration, order of events, and style. Some 1800 years ago, Clement of Alexandria famously summarized the unique character of the the Gospel of John by stating "John last of all, conscious that the 'bodily' facts had been set forth in those [earlier] Gospels, ... composed a 'spiritual' Gospel."

Our focus here lies elsewhere, with the other three, ascribed to Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Known as the synoptic gospels, these form a set. The synoptic gospels display an enormous range of parallels among them. About 80% of the verses in Mark have parallels in both Matthew and Luke. Since this material in common to all three gospels, it is sometimes known as the Triple Tradition. The Triple Tradition is largely narrative but contains some sayings material.

Once their kinship is granted, what of the relations among the three synoptics? During the Middle Ages, the relatively short Gospel of Mark was thought to be a summary or epitome of the others. In 1838, however, Christian Wilke established the priority of the Mark, now generally accepted as the earliest of the four.

Mark is the shortest of the gospels, suggesting that the longer gospels took Mark as a source, adding additional material to it (as opposed to Mark taking longer gospels but deleting substantial chunks of material). Mark's diction and grammar are less sophisticated than those found in Matthew and Luke. It would appear that Matthew and Luke improved Mark's wording (as opposed to Mark intentionally "dumbing down" more sophisticated language). Mark regularly included fragments in Aramaic (translating them into Greek), whereas Matthew and Luke do not.

Another finding is extremely important. Matthew and Luke share a large amount of material that is not found in Mark. In fact, more than 200 verses in the two later Synoptics are common to both. Technical analysis suggests that neither copied the other, so that the material derived from yet another fund of technical material.

This recognition has led to what is termed the “two-source” theory for Matthew and Luke; they came about through merging the Markan component with the other body of material. Nowadays, this other body of material is commonly termed Q (Q standing for the German word Quelle, “source”). It has also been shown to underly about a third of the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas.
The grounds for the recent interest in Q are quite different. Once the text is properly reconstructed, it will serve, it is held, to throw light on the beliefs and practices of the earliest followers of Jesus. For some time, now, the conventional wisdom has maintained that the apostle Paul altered and enlarged the message of the earliest followers of Jesus. Yet because some of the Pauline Epistles (at least four) are the earliest surviving documents we have, peering into the pre-Pauline stage has been hazardous and often subjective. If, however, we can rely on the Q to document this phase, the problem is solved--or at least very substantially addressed.

Notwithstanding the enthusiasm it has been eliciting of late, some problems remain with the Q claim, the hypothesis of the recovery of a “lost gospel.” For example, we now have the texts--in their physical embodiment--of at least sixteen “noncanonical” gospels (that is, those in addition to the traditional four). As far as I know, no tangible physical evidence, not even a few slivers of papyrus, has come to light of Q. All we have is material in other documents that is assumed reliably to have derived from Q. Thus the situation is not unlike some planet that is not actually observed, but assumed to exist because of its effect on other celestial bodies.

One possible solution to the intangibility issue is to hypothesize that the Q document was not written down as such, but circulated in oral form. Studies of various cultures have shown that such transmission can occur. However, because of the so-called “telephone effect” oral documents change with each retelling, no matter how careful the tellers are to preserve the wording. As found in Matthew, Luke, and Thomas, however, the texts are stable, suggesting access to a written archetype.

In the apocalyptic discourse of Matthew 24-25, Jesus describes in stark terms the forthcoming crisis, a testing time in which the present dispensation will pass away, to be replaced by a New Age. The key event will be the Savior’s own Second Coming (Parousia), when he will return in glory to judge the living and the dead and to establish his Kingdom (Basileia). Some thought that the Kingdom would last one thousand years, and this belief has, over time, periodically inspired charismatic movements that are part of a general trend called Millenarianism.
Yet there was a big problem with the scenario Jesus outlined, for he seems to have regarded the inception of these eschatological events as imminent. “Truly I tell you, this generation shall not pass away until all these things have taken place.” (Matthew 24:34). Note also Mark 1:15: “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come in power.”
Of course these things did not take place on schedule; indeed--unless most of us have missed something very important--they still have not. Why did the Messiah tarry? The “delayed parousia” was a major problem for the early church, which needed to engineer a fundamental reorientation of its world view and priorities, building institutions for the long haul instead of just preparing for imminent catastrophe and transformation. Jesus’ predictions were falsified, but the Christian church needed to stay in business. Such at any rate, is the analysis advanced by Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer somewhat over a century ago.
Johannes Weiss (1863-1914) saw Jesus not just as a great ethical teacher--the common view when Weiss wrote--but as the proclaimer of a new era, the Kingdom of God. Jesus believed he stood at a critical juncture in history and expected the beginning of the Kingdom, which would be accomplished not through gradual ethical progress, but as "the breaking out of an overpowering storm of God which destroys and renews, . . . bringing in a lasting order of things" (Weiss: 5). Although at first Jesus did not think he would have to die to usher in the Kingdom, he eventually came to that realization, believing (as we have seen) that some persons in the generation then living would witness its coming.
Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) went beyond Weiss's emphasis on Jesus' proclamation of the imminent kingdom to contend that Jesus' entire life was dominated by the vision of this apocalyptic transformation. Confident that the realization of the Kingdom was so close it could almost be said to be present, Jesus sent out the disciples out to give the "lost sheep of the house of Israel" one final chance to repent (Matthew 10). On the basis of Matthew 10:23, where Jesus tells his disciples, "You will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes," Schweitzer concluded that Jesus had originally expected the end of the Age to occur before the disciples had concluded their preaching tour. When this transformation failed to occur, Jesus quietly concluded he had been mistaken. Now believing he himself must suffer the messianic woes that would constitute the birth pangs of the new dispensation, Jesus prepared to go to Jerusalem to die so as to usher in the Kingdom.

The foundation for the doctrine of the Trinity is commonly--though I think erroneously--detected in certain New Testament passages linking the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Two such passages are the so-called “Great Commission" of Matthew: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:19); and Paul’s: "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all" (2 Corinthians 13:14). A few other passages exhibit similar wording.

One of these is certainly spurious. The King James Version states, as 1 John 5:7, "For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one." Yet this Comma Johanneum, to use its technical designation, is now generally recognized as a parasitic addition to the Gospel text. Appearing in a few early Latin manuscripts, it is absent from the more authoritative Greek manuscripts--except for a few late examples, where the passage appears to have been back-translated from the Latin. Desiderius Erasmus, the editor of the Textus Receptus on which the King James Version was based, noticed that the passage was not found in any of the Greek manuscripts at his disposal. In the first edition of his Greek New Testament he took the principled step of refusing to include it, as he rightly suspected that it was a spurious intrusion. Later, he yielded to pressure to change his mind.

Erasmus was right in the first place. Not now considered to have been part of the original text, the Comma Johanneum has vanished from modern translations of the Bible, even from the revision of the Vulgate that ranks as the official Latin text of the Roman Catholic Church.

With more than their usual dexterity, medieval theologians even affected to detect “prefigurations” of the Holy Trinity in the Hebrew Bible. One example of this exegetical strong-arming is the so-called “Old Testament Trinity” of the three strangers who visited Abraham (Genesis 18) . Artists have often chosen to employ this subject to illustrate the doctrine, which is otherwise hard to visualize.

Returning to the New Testament, what we find there is simply a rhetorical formula of “Father/Son/Holy Spirit.” A moment’s reflection will show that one can habitually connect three things verbally without implying that they share a common essence. For example, the expression “Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe” refers to the fact that these three disparate towns were linked by a railroad. (Imagine, if you will, purchasing a vacation plan for Santa Fe, only to have the travel agent disclose that one has been redirected to Topeka: "after all, they're the same place.") In fact the familiar railroad nomenclature advances no claim of organic similarity, not to speak of the bizarre notion that the communities are somehow the same: “triune” as it were. Yet we are asked to believe something much grander than that on the basis of a few fragments of New Testament rhetoric.

Thinking in threes has enjoyed currency in many cultures. Ancient Egyptian religion honored several sets of three deities, including the triad of Osiris (husband), Isis (wife), and Horus (son); local triads like the Theban triad of Amun, Mut and Khonsu; as well as the Memphite triad of Ptah, Sekhmet and Nefertem, These divine triads show family relationships, but not identity. The Egyptians also held that there were three seasons in the year, not four. For its part, later Chinese civilization honored three great systems of thought: Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism.

The approach is also common in folklore (three wishes, three guesses, three little pigs, three bears, three billy goats gruff, and so forth). In medieval Europe, sorcerers would reputedly sacrifice three black animals when attempting to conjure up demons. On the other hand, a three-colored cat was a protective spirit. In William Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1606–07) there are three witches, and their spell begins, “Thrice the brindled cat hath mewed,” reflecting this bit of folklore. Even today, common parlance distinguishes among the animal, vegetable, and mineral realms.

This being said, the number three seems to have enjoyed particular prominence in Greek thought. For example, the Greek language has three genders. By contrast, Hebrew (like the Romance languages) has only two. Three was an important number for the Pythagoreans. Plato regarded three as being symbolic of the triangle, the simplest spatial shape, and considered the world to have been built from triangles. There were three major tragedians: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Later Greek thought conceived of the soul as having three parts.

This profusion, contrasting with the relative unimportance of the number three in Hebrew thought, suggests that the concept of the Holy Trinity is of Hellenic origin. And indeed most of the Christian theologians who addressed this issue had a Greek education and wrote in that language. Significantly, the Greek word "Trias," which these writers employed for the Holy Trinity, does not occur in this sense in the New Testament. All this evidence suggests that the concept, like the word, was an alien intruder.

If the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is a Greek intrusion into the original Semitic base of earliest Christianity, when did it first penetrate.? It is impossible to say for sure. Some scholars claim to have found adumbrations of the doctrine of the Trinity in writers of the sub-Apostolic age. An early, though typically problematic example of this claim occurs in the Church father Ignatius (d. CE 107), who exhorts the Magnesians to "prosper . . . in the Son, and in the Father, and in the Spirit." As we have noted, though, such triadic formulae are scarcely conclusive. In his letter to the Ephesians, Ignatius maintains that "our God, Jesus Christ, was, according to the appointment of God, conceived in the womb by Mary, of the seed of David, but by the Holy Ghost." Here Jesus is thought of as God, but the Holy Spirit seems a mere agent acting at the behest of God the Father. Ignatius does not say that the Spirit was "consubstantial, coequal, and coeternal" with the other two, as later orthodoxy claimed. This text presumes no explicit Trinitarian doctrine of the equality of all three.

One thing, however, is clear. Crucial shifts in thinking began at a time when everyone who had known Jesus personally was dead. No one would have been alive to contradict the changes.

What did Ignatius really have in mind? He seems to be professing bitheism (sometimes termed "binitarianism"), a belief in two equally powerful gods with complementary or antonymous properties. In contrast to ditheism, which implies rivalry and opposition (as between Good and Evil), bitheism posits two divine figures acting in perfect harmony. (A curious sidelight appears in the Marcionites, an early Christian sect which held that the Old and New Testaments were the work of two opposing gods: both were First Principles, but of different religions.)

Setting aside later elaborations, one must take Ignatius' bitheistic concept on its own terms. Doctrinal development might have stopped right there, and the Christian mainstream might have become Ignatian. Bitheism affirms the divinity of Christ, who is coequal with the Father. That is all that the doctrine of the Incarnation really requires.

Methodologically, the key point is this: one must resolutely abandon the common assumption (fetish, really) of the Holy Trinity as the starting point. Instead, we must understand the doctrine as a point of arrival, not necessarily an inevitable one. The reader must look elsewhere for further details of this gradual process (Carpenter, 2005). By the way, popular writers like Dan Brown are mistaken in suggesting that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity just popped up, as it were out of nowhere, at the Council of Nicaea. Such major changes in consciousness do not occur suddenly.

At all events, the doctrine of the Trinity does come into clearer focus as a result of the deliberations of the Council of Nicaea, convened by the emperor Constantine in 325. The Council adopted a term for the relationship between the Son and the Father that stood from then on as the hallmark of orthodoxy; it declared that the Son is "of the same substance" (ὁμοούσιος) as the Father. This notion was further developed into the formula "three persons, one substance." In a paradox that has proved enduring, the answer to the question "What is God?" indicates the one-ness of the divine nature, while the answer to the question "Who is God?" indicates the three-ness of "Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” Or so it seems.

Athanasius, a participant in the Council of Nicaea, stated that the bishops were compelled to use this terminology, which is not found in Scripture, because the Biblical phrases that they would have preferred were appropriated by the Arians, who doubted that Christ enjoyed the same status as God the Father. They therefore glommed onto the non-scriptural term homoousios (“of one substance”) in order--so they believed--to safeguard the essential relation of the Son to the Father that had been denied by Arius.

The Holy Spirit was now definitively in the picture, though Council of Nicaea said little about it. The doctrine of the divinity and personality of the Holy Spirit was developed by Athanasius (ca. 293-373) in the last decades of his life. He both defended and refined the Nicene formula. By the end of the fourth century, under the leadership of Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus (the Cappadocian Fathers), the doctrine had reached substantially its current form. In ancient times it was challenged by the Arians and others, while the Socinians, founders of Unitarianism, began a more sustained attack in the sixteenth century.

My conclusion is that there is no certain evidence that the writers of the New Testament documents adhered to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. In all likelihood this innovation crept into post-Apostolic Christianity from Greek sources. Through sheer legerdemain, it was read back into the canonical texts. 

This tempting, but dubious exegetical technique foreshadowed the later efforts by the rabbis to impose their own concepts on the Scriptures that ostensibly commanded their strict adherence. 

[Islamic section omitted for the present.]