A while back, I read Phillip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. The novella retells the story of Jesus by replacing him with two characters — twins — named Jesus and Christ. Jesus, the radical and powerful preacher, goes about ancient Judea gathering followers and spreading a message of brotherly love and forgiveness. Christ, on the other hand, is conflicted and jealous of his brother. Ultimately, he is persuaded to record his brother’s life and teachings. In his recording, he is encouraged to emphasize the fantastic and the miraculous — even to invent it and insert it into the narrative — to serve the higher cause of Truth. He is assured that if he will do this the teachings of Jesus would continue to live through an institutionalized church. By the end of the story, Jesus is killed and Christ steps in to fulfill the miracle of the resurrection.
Pullman’s tale is a little too tidy, but it raises some interesting questions. When I talked about the Gospels, I made the point that our ‘primary’ sources are built from “copies of copies of memories and reflections from a handful of poor fishermen that lived 2,000 years ago.” Our institutions, as valuable as they are in preserving these stories and memories, have the unintended side-effect of calcifying assumptions around them.
Take for example, the idea of the virgin birth.
I didn’t realize until just a few years ago that when Catholics talk about the “Immaculate Conception” they are referring to the birth of Mary rather than the birth of Jesus. According to the (il)logic of the original sin doctrine, Mary had to be born without sin as well so she wouldn’t pass on the guilt (associated with sexual union I am guessing?) to Jesus. In my mind, this is theology at its worst — bad assumptions built on top of one another.
Lest any Mormons get smug about silly Catholic teachings, let me remind the reader of some unfortunate Mormon speculation on the matter. One does not have to dig too deeply to find scandalous quotes from Brigham Young, Orson Pratt, or Bruce McConkie on the logistics of Jesus’ conception.
What can we know?
I don’t want to go too far down the post-modernist ‘there-is-no-such-thing-as-truth’ rabbit-hole, but we should remember that we are dealing with pre-modern authors here. They weren’t so concerned with factual accuracy in their stories. The gospels and other writings that make up the New Testament had an agenda (and it certainly wasn’t to put down Jesus’ biography).
Two of the four gospels don’t even discuss the events surrounding Jesus’ birth. Mark and John both basically begin with Jesus’ baptism (John tacks on that bit about the Beginning and the Word). Paul’s silence on the subject of Christ’s birth seems suggestive to me that it wasn’t that important to him whether or not Jesus was born miraculously.
The biblical authors who were more concerned about Christ’s earthly origins don’t themselves agree on his family history (see this article for some discussion of the discrepancies between Matthew and Luke).
We might expect the details of Jesus’ birth to be a little hazy, but even events that were presumably better documented than the Nativity are problematic. The LDS Bible Dictionary includes a Gospel Harmony that attempts to correlate the different accounts of the same events in Jesus’ ministry (you can find a more extensive Harmony here). Of the 160 events listed in the linked Gospel Harmony, only 11 (less than 7%) were mentioned by all four Gospel writers. Nearly half (76 out of 160) of the events discussed in the Gospels were only mentioned by one of the four authors.
It gets even worse. The gospels are not four independent accounts of Jesus’ life. Scholars believe that the gospels of Matthew and Luke draw heavily from Mark’s (older) account, so some of the correspondence we see in the Gospels results from the fact that they are drawing from the same second- or third-hand source material. There is also likely some selection bias in the Gospels that were ultimately canonized. I would guess that the Church Fathers who were responsible for canonizing the gospels were inclined to make their choices — at least in part — based on the consistency of the accounts.
The devil is in the details
For centuries, Christians have been trying to piece together the details of Jesus’ life. The incomparable Alan Watts described the problems with focusing too much on the particulars (emphasis added):
the Church, still bound to the image of God as the King of kings, couldn’t accept this Gospel. It adopted a religion about Jesus instead of the religion of Jesus. It kicked him upstairs and put him in the privileged and unique position of being the Boss’s son, so that, having this unique advantage, his life and example became useless to everyone else. The individual Christian must not know that his own “I am” is the one that existed before Abraham. In this way, the Church institutionalized and made a virtue of feeling chronic guilt for not being as good as Jesus. It only widened the alienation, the colossal difference, that monotheism put between man and God. (from this site)
Separated as we are by 2,000 years of history, we should be a little more cautious in what we claim to ‘know’ about Jesus.