The Gospels (4) ‘Religious Tracts’

Continuing to look at the Gospels as literature – as religious tracts designed to confirm and persuade, with their contents selected and shaped to meet that aim – authors can be tempted to stretch things a bit, and indulge a bit of ‘hype’.

To ‘prove’ that Jesus is the promised Messiah, Matthew ransacks the Jewish Bible (most likely the Greek version, since he was a Greek speaker) and pulls out more than 50 ‘cherries’ – verses which can be claimed as ‘prophecies’, written centuries beforehand, of various events ‘coming to pass’ in the life of Jesus. Again and again, things happen which ‘fulfil what was written by the prophet’. Most, if not all of these, to many us, may well seem somewhat far-fetched. There is also, of course, the possibility that most, if not all, of the so-called ‘prophecies’ represent wishful thinking that leads to the inclusion of ‘events’ which fit the writer’s purposes. We must each make up our own minds about that, although I continue to say that this issue is, for me, very much secondary to what practical/spiritual meanings the given stories can have for us.

With regard to ‘hype’, Matthew tells us that Jesus’ “fame spread throughout Syria … and great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan”. Wow! That doesn’t leave many people out! Something I find interesting here, is the reason why King Herod Antipas arrested and executed John the Baptist. According to Matthew, it was because John condemned the King’s marriage to a woman previously married to his brother, and he tells a suggestive story, subsequently fully eroticised into the seven-veiled dance of Salome and the decapitation of John. 

The Jewish historian Josephus, however, gives us a different version – “Now many people came in crowds to John, for they were greatly moved by his words. Herod, who feared that the great influence he had over the masses might put them into his power, and enable him to raise a rebellion (for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise), thought it best  to put him to death. In this way, he might prevent any mischief John might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late.”

Herod was responsible to the Romans for maintaining peace and good order, with his continuance as King at stake if he didn’t, and so was disinclined to take any chances. This raises the question – if attracting huge, excitable, unpredictable crowds led to the arrest and execution of John, why did Jesus get away with reportedly attracting even larger crowds? It could be, of course, that Matthew has ‘swelled the numbers’. 

It’s noteworthy that there are no reports of Jesus preaching in the two large, well-populated Galilean cities of Sepphoris and Tiberias, but only in small villages and hamlets. Nazareth, at this time, is reckoned to have extended over 4 acres with around 50 houses, and Capernaum, said to be Jesus’ main base, over 12 acres and so around 150 houses. There are also indications of villages where his message was not welcomed – Chorazin, Bethsaida, Nazareth and Capernaum are mentioned, as well as unnamed places in Samaria and the Decapolis. 

This is another reminder that understanding the Gospels as pieces of literature, enables us to enjoy these great stories, without being required, or feeling any need, to simply take them at face-value, which would then be doing both ourselves and them an unhelpful disservice. Let’s just read, relax, appreciate and enjoy. 

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