Jesus Eclipsed: Part 3

As I noted in my second post, the real thrust of my book, Jesus Eclipsed: How Searching the Scriptures Got in the Way of Recounting the Facts, can be summed up in this sentence: Many stories about Jesus likely owe their existence not to genuine recollections of actual events handed down (distorted?) by oral tradition (as historical Jesus scholars have typically claimed) but to invented memories of fictitious events worked up from Old Testament texts.

Here I want to show why that happened by examining the belief that prompted this approach to telling the story of Jesus—the belief that Scripture provides a script for the gospel.

The earliest formulation of this belief is found in the letters of Paul, where he tells readers that the death and resurrection of Jesus took place “in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3-4). As Robert Miller has shown, “The belief that Jesus fulfilled scripture…goes back as far as anything historians can trace in early Christianity” (Helping Jesus Fulfill Scripture, 1).

The opening lines of Mark’s gospel immediately connect his story of Jesus with what stands written in the Jewish Scriptures: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ…as it is written in the prophet Isaiah….” (Mark 1:1-2). Mark’s belief that Scripture provides a script for the gospel reemerges at various points throughout his narrative, but subsequent expressions of that belief are invariably placed on the lips of Jesus (see, e.g., 4:11-12; 7:6-7; 9:12-13; 12:10-12; 14:21; and 14:27).

Matthew’s distinctive contribution to the belief that Scripture provides a script for the gospel is his regular use of explicit OT quotations introduced by a set formula (see 1:22-23; 2:15; 2:17-18; 2:23; 4:14-16; 8:17; 12:17-21; 13:35; 21:4-5; 27:9-10). As Richard Hayes has observed, these formula quotations are editorial comments in which “the Evangelist addresses the reader directly in an authorial voiceover: ‘This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying….’” (Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, 107).

It is on the final pages of Luke’s gospel that he most directly articulates his belief that the OT Scriptures had foreshadowed events in the life of Jesus. In two separate incidents that ostensibly occurred on the first Easter, Luke describes how the risen Jesus appears to his followers and “beginning with Moses and all the prophets…interpret[s] to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (24:27).

The Fourth Gospel also portrays Jesus endorsing the belief that the OT Scriptures should have helped people recognize that he was the promised Messiah. For example, in a heated exchange with his adversaries, Jesus tells them, “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me” (5:46; cf. 5:39). Also, like Matthew, John sometimes uses a citation formula to correlate an OT prophecy with its “fulfillment” in the life of Jesus (e.g., 13:18; 19:23-24; and 19:36-37).

As this very brief survey demonstrates, all the earliest Christian sources apparently agree that the story of Jesus cannot be told without emphasizing how it is connected to what stands written in the OT.

Of course, from the historian’s perspective the church’s reliance on this belief has undermined the credibility of what its sources report. Those sources privilege dogma over data to such an extent that recasting ancient biblical prophecies has eclipsed whatever contemporary testimony about Jesus may have been passed along from eyewitnesses. Thus, as the subtitle of my book suggests, the Gospels tell us more about what the evangelists learned from searching Scripture than they do about what those writers gleaned from researching the facts.

Given this prevalence of OT influences on the gospel accounts, those interested in stripping away the myth from the man can draw at least two related conclusions. First, the church’s belief that Scripture provides a script for the gospel should raise doubts about any incident in the story of Jesus that betrays some connection to biblical prophecies or prototypes. Second, the church’s belief that Scripture provides a script for the gospel should dispel the popular mythicist claim that the story of Jesus was shaped in any meaningful way by existing pagan traditions about dying and rising gods. To the extent that the story of Jesus reflects various OT prophecies and prototypes, it is, indeed, a myth—but not one derived from pagan sources.