33AD and All That

You may be familiar with Sellar and Yeatman’s wonderful work 1066 and All That, and if you aren’t you should go out and find a copy. It parodies a certain style of history and suggests that we might think we know history, but what we actually remember is a jumbled mishmash of contradictory stories, consisting of half-understood folk accounts of famous events stitched together with fragments of misremembered or invented details that seem to fit.

You may not be surprised to know that this is also true of our understanding of the Bible.

Three KingsIt’s trivial to show that people get very hazy about what’s actually in the Bible – just see how commonly people identify a phrase’s origin as “either Shakespeare or the Bible”, or look at the enormous number of websites addressing this or hosting quizzes asking you to tell the difference. And then there are the phrases and concepts which are constantly thought to be in the Bible, even though they aren’t. Pope Benedict XVI had a good old rant about that.

So what, you say – a lot of those beliefs are common understandings based on tradition, or derived from jokes, or whatever. Which is precisely the point. These ideas are a form of folk tradition, just like the general popular consensus parodied by Sellar and Yeatman that King John was a Bad King, Richard II was an Unbalanced King, and Williamanmary was a Dutch Orange who was a Good King and also a Good Thing.

OrangeAnd so people think the Bible says things it doesn’t, from outright inventions like “God helps those who help themselves” to the apple in the Garden of Eden (the fruit isn’t identified – maybe it was a Dutch Orange), and all the way through to the popular notion of “the antichrist”, a being associated with horns and 666, and apparently formed from many distinct concepts from the Bible.

This gets really interesting in the context of the Gospels, where there may be several different accounts of a particular event, or possibly more than one with passing similarity. These different versions are consistently conflated and harmonised into an apparently unified story that contradicts all of the different accounts in one way or another. The order of events is changed, different people are present, and different things are said and done. Popular accounts of the crucifixion in particular tend towards a hybrid narrative not found in any single Gospel.

One striking example is Jesus being anointed by the woman in Bethany. It’s a well-known story – Jesus is having a meal, when a woman comes along with a huge quantity of expensive perfume and anoints him with it. No one seems bothered, but Judas throws a hissy fit at this outrageous extravagance, runs off and shops Jesus to the authorities. Simple enough, but this account is contradicted by all the Gospels in one way or another.

SandalsMatthew and Mark say lots of people objected at the time, Luke says only the host objected, and John has no mention of Judas’s immediate betrayal. They disagree on all the other significant details as well. Matthew and Mark say the woman anointed Jesus’s head, Luke and John say feet. Matthew, Mark and Luke all agree the host was called Simon, but Matthew and Mark call him a leper, while Luke says he was a Pharisee. John, in contrast, says Jesus was visiting the recently not-dead Lazarus.

Only John mentions a name for the woman, calling her Mary. Luke adds an exchange in which Jesus preaches to his host about the importance of gratitude while also complaining that he wasn’t treated like royalty when he arrived. Matthew and Mark appear to have a common origin, but Mark puts a price and a name to the perfume which only otherwise appear in John. Just as with 1066 and All That, these complications are smoothed over to create a new, simpler narrative that ends up as the accepted orthodoxy.

It would be rather fun to rewrite some stories in this style, especially as there are lots of Bad Kings in the Old Testament. Add it to the list of ideas I’d like to explore one day.

Images courtesy of Ambrozio, bingbongc and matanbu, used with permission

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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

5 responses to “33AD and All That”

  1. bigstick1 says :

    Reblogged this on Critical Thinking – A World View and commented:
    Sounds like an interesting read.

  2. Karin says :

    The trouble with the gospels is that they aren’t factual accounts of Jesus’ life, but a lot of people still understand them to be biographies in the modern sense of the word.

    It is very hard to adopt the 1st & 2nd century way of thinking with which they were written and even harder to determine which bits might be fact, which bits could be true but in a metaphorical or other non-factual sense and which bits reflect the beliefs of the communities in which the ideas in these documents originated.

    The texts themselves are worth serious study as are all ancient texts; even a shopping list can throw some light on how people lived and history can inform the present.

    The ideas we have today, based on our false understanding of these texts, do need to be challenged, however.

  3. rodalena says :

    The synoptic gospels record one event: an anonymous woman annointing Christ’s feet; John records a different event entirely. John tells of Mary of Bethany, Lazarus’ sister, annointing Him with spikenard. One event was witnessed by one group of religious men who flipped out, the other by another group of religious men, one of whom also flipped out. Two different meals. Two different crowds. Two different heads of hair. Two different ointments. Two different stories.

    Jewish story-telling often was more focused on the truths it wanted to illustrate than the “facts of the case.” We westerners, with our DNA testing and our carbon-14 dating get lost in the facts and miss the entire point of the story. And, if the facts don’t satisfy our standard of proof, many render the entire account a “lie” and therefore totally worthless. Which is quite sad.

    (I actually wrote about her not long ago. She has been making men uncomfortable for a very long time.)

  4. tlethbridge says :

    The Diatessaron was probably the earliest attempt to synchronize the various gospel accounts. Looking forward to working my way back through your posts; just discovered your blog through your guest post at heretic husband.

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