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In Mark, for that matter, the two miraculous engines that push the story forward at the start and pull it toward Heaven at the end—the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection—make no appearance at all.The story begins with Jesus’ adult baptism, with no hint of a special circumstance at his birth, and there is actually some grumbling by Jesus about his family (“Only in his home town, among his relatives and in his own house, is a prophet without honor,” he complains); it ends with a cry of desolation as he is executed—and then an enigmatic and empty tomb. The Greek word , long taken to mean “carpenter,” could mean something closer to a stoneworker or a day laborer.
(James Tabor, a professor of religious studies, in his 2006 book “The Jesus Dynasty,” takes surprisingly seriously the old Jewish idea that Jesus was known as the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier named Pantera—as well attested a tradition as any, occurring in Jewish texts of the second century, in which a Jesus ben Pantera makes several appearances, and the name is merely descriptive, not derogatory.
Tabor has even found, however improbably, a tombstone in Germany for a Roman soldier from Syria-Palestine named Pantera.)What seems a simple historical truth is that all the Gospels were written after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in the First Jewish-Roman War, in 70 C.
Book after book—this year, ten in one month alone—appears, seeking the Truth.
Paul Johnson has a sound believer’s life, “Jesus: A Biography from a Believer,” while Paul Verhoeven, the director of “Basic Instinct,” has a new skeptical-scholar’s book, “Jesus of Nazareth” (Seven Stories; $23.95).
While accepting a historical Jesus, the scholarship also tends to suggest that the search for him is a little like the search for the historical Sherlock Holmes: there were intellectual-minded detectives around, and Conan Doyle had one in mind in the eighteen-eighties, but the really interesting bits—Watson, Irene Adler, Moriarty, and the Reichenbach Falls—were, even if they all had remote real-life sources, shaped by the needs of storytelling, not by traces of truth.
Holmes dies because heroes must, and returns from the dead, like Jesus, because the audience demanded it.Mark invents the idea that Jesus’ secret was not that he was the “Davidic” messiah, the Arthur-like returning king, but that he was someone even bigger: the Son of God, whose return would signify the end of time and the birth of the Kingdom of God.The literary critic Frank Kermode, in “The Genesis of Secrecy” (1979), a pioneering attempt to read Mark seriously as poetic literature, made a similar point, though his is less historical than interpretative.Verhoeven turns out to be a member of the Jesus Seminar, a collection mostly of scholars devoted to reconstructing the historical Jesus, and much of what he has to say is shrewd and learned.(An odd pull persists between box-office and Biblical study.Ever since serious scholarly study of the Gospels began, in the nineteenth century, its moods have ranged from the frankly skeptical—including a “mythicist” position that the story is entirely made up—to the credulous, with some archeologists still holding that it is all pretty reliable, and tombs and traces can be found if you study the texts hard enough.The current scholarly tone is, judging from the new books, realist but pessimistic.(It’s left to the Roman centurion to recognize him as the Son of God after he is dead, while the verses in Mark that show him risen were apparently added later.)The intractable complexities of fact produce the inevitable ambiguities of faith. (One thinks of the similar shadings of a word like “printer,” which could refer to Ben Franklin or to his dogsbody.) If a carpenter, then presumably he was an artisan.If a stoneworker, then presumably he spent his early years as a laborer, schlepping from Nazareth to the grand Greco-Roman city of Sepphoris, nearby, to help build its walls and perhaps visit its theatre and agora.This curious criterion governs historical criticism of Gospel texts: the more improbable or “difficult” an episode or remark is, the likelier it is to be a true record, on the assumption that you would edit out all the weird stuff if you could, and keep it in only because the tradition is so strong that it can’t plausibly be excluded.If Jesus says something nice, then someone is probably saying it for him; if he says something nasty, then probably he really did.