Nowadays if you wanted to write a biography of someone who died half a century ago, like Dr Martin Luther King, Sir Winston Churchill or President Kennedy for instance, you would search the internet, visit a library and bookstore and look for film clips and old newsreels. You could even try to make contact with people who knew him, although they would either be in their dotage, their memories faded, or very young at the time in question.
This is the situation that faced the New Testament gospel writers. The earliest gospel, ‘Mark’, is dated around 70 CE, forty years after the crucifixion of Yeshua, the Christian prophet and allegedly Son of G_d. ‘Matthew’ and ‘Luke’s’ gospels were written around 75-85 CE, and ‘John’s’ around the turn of the 1st and 2nd centuries. Scholars are quite clear that the authors could not have known Yeshua personally – they doubt that three of them ever visited Palestine. They would, of course, been quite elderly, and bear in mind, the average seventy year-old today is much fitter than they were in the 1st Century.
Imagine. It’s forty or fifty years since Yeshua’s death – two or three generations in those times – and you’re writing a biography of him. You live in Syria, Turkey or Rome, hundreds of miles from Palestine. You’ve never visited Galilee or Jerusalem and know little about the area. You have never lived as a Jew in a predominantly Jewish region, so are not as fully steeped in Jewish culture as were Yeshua and his disciples. You don’t speak his native language, Aramaic. All his family and close companions (except perhaps one elderly disciple who is blind) are dead and they don’t speak your language, Greek. You try to piece together his teachings, but have no recordings of his actual words, intonations and gestures. His followers share anecdotes with you, based on what they’ve heard, but you have no reliable way of checking whether their versions are correct.
Today we know exactly what Dr Martin Luther King said at the Washington Monument in 1963 or President Kennedy at the Berlin Wall that same year. We can even go back to recordings of Churchill’s wartime speeches and his warnings about the Soviet threat in the 1950s. Their content is beyond dispute. But we can never know, for instance, what was said during Yeshua’s trial or the Sermon on the Mount; if they ever took place at all, which is highly unlikely.
Now jump forward to the present day. You obtain a partial biography of Yeshua written more than nineteen centuries ago – it’s called a gospel. It’s been copied, miscopied, edited, added to and translated many times. It’s been amended many times by people with vested interests to ensure it’s ‘on message’. How reliable is it as a factual account? And yet, incredibly, a third of the people in the world live under political and religious systems based on these writings!
Wherever people gather and tell stories, the Chinese Whispers effect is present. Always was, and always will be!
Copyright David Lawrence Preston, 23.8.2016
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Balboa Press, 2015