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.
It’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.
And 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.
Matthew 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.