|The Historical Jesus
When Witnesses Disagree
There are many ways of approaching the
Jesus of history. One can treat the evidence loosely, allowing it as much
leeway as possible. Conclusions drawn about Jesus from loose evidence will
not take divergent versions of events too seriously as long as they are
"Bare bones" history attempts to provide
an account of the life of Jesus which stands a good chance of satisfying a
reasonably critical historian that this is what "really happened" and that
Jesus "actually said" this or that.
A simple and trite example may be
useful. Examining two brief accounts of the dropping of the atom bomb on
Hiroshima in 1945, I found them agreeing that:
- the date of the event was August 6,
- the name of the United States bomber
was the Enola Gay.
Neither source gives the name of the
person in command of the bomber, though one mentions a Captain Lewis.
Lewis is supposed by the first source to have exclaimed, "My God, what
have we done?" as he saw the massive explosion. The other source says the
the crew heard their Commander remark, "My God, look at that son of a
It doesn't much matter exactly what the
commander of the bomber did say. But in the case of Jesus, millions over
the ages have looked and today still look to his words for guidance in
their lives. In some cases they claim that his words have definitive
authority over the lives of Christians. In such cases it matters very much
exactly what he "really did say".
Bare bones history recognises that our
primary sources for "what really happened" in the life of Jesus are at
least second-hand. They are most likely sometimes third- or
fourth-hand. The society in which Jesus and the Gospel authors lived had
little concern with history as we know it today. We can't easily get back
to the original sources. More often than not later additions overlay them
so thoroughly that they can't be known.
What the Commander of the Enola Gay
said - if he said anything at all - is different. Bare bones history is
easier to do in this case than in the case of the Gospels. We take greater
care today to preserve important information. So I stand a good chance of
finding first-hand accounts of "what the Commander really said" if I
decide to do that.
There are obvious cases in which it's
important to try to get at "what Jesus really said." One such is what has
been taken to be his ruling on the ethics of marriage.
Multitudes of Christians, especially in
recent times, have been condemned because their marriages have collapsed
and ended in civil divorce. They have been excluded by Church authorities
from participating in the Eucharist on the basis that their divorce has
placed them in a state of mortal sin. The authorities point to biblical
passages which apparently report a firm ruling by Jesus on divorce and
remarriage. Are they right?
The earliest reference to the matter
occurs in Paul first letter to the Corinthians (7.11). Paul says bluntly,
"A husband must not divorce his wife" unless - and there follows a caveat
which makes it clear that this is not an absolute prohibition.
Some assume that Paul's view is more
likely to reflect Jesus' position because he was writing some 10 years
before Mark's Gospel was put together. On the other hand, Paul doesn't
claim that what Jesus said is his authority. He gives his own advice
elsewhere on other matters, and he here appears to be doing the same.
So we have to turn to the Gospels, which
do claim to contain "what Jesus really said." If we're to give credence to
Paul, then they should agree in detail with him. The insistence in this
case upon detailed agreement is necessary because what Jesus "really said"
has been and is used to exclude persons who would otherwise claim full
membership of the Christian Church.
Three witnesses present evidence for
what Jesus said about divorce. Right from the start, we the jury have to
accept that what we're using as evidence wasn't intended as such by the
witnesses. They intended to testify to Jesus as the Christ (or, in Hebrew,
the "Messiah"), not to "what really happened" as would a modern historian.
Theirs was more a theological statement than an attempt to record history
as "what really happened". They did not perceive the difference between
truth and untruth as we do.
Nevertheless, their written material is all we have so we must delve into it
to sift out "what really happened" from the theological teaching which was
their main emphasis. Several things have to be noticed when comparing the
accounts of the three witnesses (Mark 10.2-12; Matthew 19.3-9; Luke 16.18):
- The words they report as "what Jesus
really said" differ.
- The order of "what Jesus really said"
isn't the same.
- Matthew allows an exception (for
"infidelity") which the others don't.
- Luke's version is very short. He
mentions only that anyone who remarries after divorce is committing
adultery. None of the material of the other witnesses is mentioned.
The rough drift of the material is
reasonably clear. Jesus, if we believe two witnesses, said that there's a
link between God's creation of humans as male and female and their unity
in marriage. The link is assumed, not explained - so I for one am
uncertain about what it means. This is not, in terms of bare bones
history, very convincing stuff.
Even though what Jesus said appears in
differing sequences in Mark and Matthew, the content is roughly similar. I
say "roughly" because the similarity resides more in the English
translation than in the original Greek, in which the verbal differences
are somewhat greater. As a result, we can't be sure about the words Jesus
actually spoke. The witnesses seem to be reporting the sense of what Jesus
said, rather than his actual words.
Finally, we would expect Luke's Gospel
to report much the same thing as the others on so important a matter. He
doesn't, leaving out everything except the blanket condemnation of divorce
with which the other accounts end. We don't know why he did that.
The upshot is that the witnesses don't
agree sufficiently for us to be to any degree certain about what Jesus
really said. In the absence of close agreement, we are forced to guess.
Guesses are not good enough for bare bones history, especially when
important matters of discipline hang upon them.