Chinese Whispers

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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John the Baptist and the Carpenter from Nazareth

It seems to me that John the Baptist plays a much bigger part in the gospels than he is given credit for.

The gospels tell us that John was a reclusive holy man well-known for preaching that a new world order was about to be established and people had better repent and confess their sins. This would happen very soon. There would be a Day of Judgement after which the righteous would be rewarded and the unrepentant punished for eternity in an unquenchable fire. The gospels say he baptised people by submerging them in the River Jordan to symbolise cleansing, rebirth and delivery from their sins.

He caused quite a stir in the region. According to the Jewish historian Josephus (who, like the gospel writers, wrote in the second half of the 1st Century), John the Baptist was better known, more popular and more troublesome to the authorities than Yeshua Bar Yehosef. Herod Antipas, the puppet king who ruled Galilee on behalf of the Romans, thought that John’s preaching would lead to an uprising, so he had him arrested and executed. But he left Yeshua alone.

The gospels say that the reason for John’s arrest was that Antipas had recently replaced his wife with a younger woman, Herodius. John had angered Antipas by criticising his behaviour, so Herodius persuaded her new husband to have him beheaded. The truth is probably a combination of Josephus’s view and the gospel writers: perhaps John’s reaction to the marriage was not the only reason for his arrest, just the last straw.

The gospels say that John never claimed to be the Messiah, but spoke of one who would follow who would be much greater than he. And when Yeshua sought him out for baptism, John thought he had found him.

Yeshua’s relationship with John the Baptist

According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus and John the Baptist were cousins and John, like Yeshua, was the product of a divine conception. The other gospels make no mention of this. If they were cousins, why do the gospels suggest that John the Baptist didn’t know Jesus?  We must draw our own conclusions.

We know nothing of how the carpenter from Nazareth came to be radicalised but we do know that he decided to take on John’s mantle after John’s arrest.


The theological dilemma

If you consider Yeshua to be a Great Teacher from whose words we can learn and whose example of love and wisdom we can follow, his seeking of baptism from John doesn’t present you with any particular problems. But the early Christians, intent on convincing themselves and others that Yeshua was G_d incarnate, were unable to satisfactorily explain why he would seek baptism from a man who they considered to be his spiritual inferior. Hence they went to extraordinary lengths to portray Yeshua as superior to John.

All four gospels state that John recognised Yeshua as the Messiah when he presented himself for baptism. Then, to strengthen their case, the first three – the Synoptics – tell us that a miraculous event occurred: as Yeshua emerged from the water the Holy Spirit descended from heaven like a dove and a heavenly voice – the voice of G_d – was heard.

(In the 21st Century anyone who claimed to have heard such a voice would of course be admitted to a psychiatric establishment! But in 1st Century Palestine, it seems people were quite prepared to believe in a voice from the clouds.)

  1. In the first and third gospels, the voice addresses Yeshua himself – ‘You are my son, the beloved. With you I am well pleased.’
  2. In the second gospel, it addresses the onlookers. ‘This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’
  3. The fourth gospel did not report a voice from heaven, but instead had the Baptist saying, ‘I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of G_d.’
  4. Interestingly, Paul of Tarsus – the earliest of the New Testament writers and the only one we can identify with certainty – makes no mention of the Baptist at all in his letters.

But here’s a curious thing. The second and third gospels say that after his arrest the Baptist sent a message to Yeshua from his prison cell asking if he really was the Messiah or whether they should expect another [1]. This presupposes that John was kept in a visitor-friendly prison, which seems most unlikely. Yeshua’s response was effectively ‘Yes I am.’ Referencing a passage in Isaiah[2], he replied: ‘The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’ This was their way of claiming that Yeshua was indeed fulfilling the ancient prophecy – the new world order was already on its way, and he was indeed the Messiah.

Don’t you think this is odd? These two gospels say despite a voice from heaven, the Baptist was not convinced that Yeshua was the Messiah. If this had indeed occurred, how could John have doubted it?

Yeshua’s baptism marked the start of his public ministry. The gospels clearly state that he was convinced that G_d had called him to carry on the work of the Baptist. And he never abandoned his faith in his mentor. Towards the end of his life he told an audience of Chief Priests and Elders: ‘John (the Baptist) came to you… and you did not believe him.’

Yeshua echoed John’s teachings so much so that Herod Antipas thought he was the Baptist reincarnated, but he did not try to emulate John’s austere lifestyle. John lived as a hermit, but Yeshua lived among people, enjoyed a good meal and a cup or two of wine. John stayed in one place and people sought him out, while Yeshua went to them. Yeshua did not preach withdrawal from the world, but active participation in it. And while John spoke of hellfire and repentance, Yeshua emphasised forgiveness and love.

Yeshua was above all, like John, an eschatologist

Yeshua’s most passionate teachings were undoubtedly about the imminent coming of the Kingdom of G_d and what people needed to do to prepare for it. This was not some far-distant event; Mark’s Gospel tells us that he told his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the Kingdom of G_d has come with power.’[4]

Paul of Tarsus said the same, and the early Christians certainly took him literally (and were mocked for it). Now, two thousand years later, it is clear that they were all wrong. We’re still waiting.

Most modern biblical scholars believe that Yeshua was primarily an apocalyptic prophet who was put to death by the Romans for sedition when he claimed he would be king of the Jews in a future kingdom. But this view has not reached the people in the pews because the clergy – who study this in seminary – do not share it with their parishioners.

We should have no problem studying Yeshua from a historical perspective. The fact that the early Christian scriptures are inconsistent and contradictory should not worry us if we realise we cannot take the words literally and instead seek the meaning behind the words. Those Christian denominations who argue for the historical truth of the gospels are skating on very thin ice.

Is it possible that if John the Baptist had not been arrested by Herod Antipas, Yeshua would not have taken on his mantel, and we would never have heard of him? I think it is!

©David Lawrence Preston, 22.8.2016

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[1] Matthew 11: 2-6 and Luke 7:18-23.

[2] Isaiah 35:5-9

[3] Mark 11:27-33

[4] Mark 9:1