8 September 2016
It was with some feelings of trepidation that I opened this book, the origins of Christianity being a subject on which I was woefully ignorant, but aware that the provenance and reliability of its early documents, with which this book is largely concerned, were the subject of considerable scholarly controversy. There is a real risk that a work covering such contested ground gets bogged down in long fought-over disputes over arcane (to the non-specialist, at least) issues or, worse, in academic score-settling in a series of ripostes to previous refutations of earlier rebuttals.
I need not have worried. Peter Marchant states at the outset that this book is intended as an introduction for the general reader, setting out the arguments concisely, clearly and fairly, and he is as good as his word. Although he is evidently very familiar with the subject’s source texts and widely read in the secondary literature, he is careful not to assume prior knowledge on the part of the reader and takes care to explain at each point where his argument is proceeding. This he does in admirably lucid prose, written in an engaging style, with a light touch and the occasional flash of dry wit.
As the book unfolds, the author develops his argument with logic and rigour, care being taken to define his terms and explain in some detail the historical method employed before setting out on an examination of the historical source material. He makes the telling point that, by contrast, much of the existing writing on the subject is parti pris, being written by those committed to the Christian faith and lacking intellectual rigour or the proper application of historical methodology, and intended to persuade rather than objectively to evaluate the historical material.
The main body of the book is in two parts. To simplify greatly what is a many-faceted and subtle examination, the first part considers the documentary sources and the historical background from which they sprang. Mr Marchant convincingly demonstrates how flimsy is the early written record when seen through the perspective of a proper historical examination. In particular, he shows how the Gospels, written long after the events they purport to describe and subject to extensive later amendments by numerous hands, cannot be treated as reliable historical documents, and he highlights some of their historical anachronisms and geographical anomalies. He also brings into his argument a consideration of the purposes for which various early Christian texts might have been written and the light this sheds on the reliability of their contents. He places early Christian writings in their historical context, including existing religious and cosmological beliefs, as well as Greek mythology, literary forms and philosophy, in order to offer some pointers to the origins of certain elements of early Christian writings. He emphasises in particular the importance of midrash (a Jewish literary term referring to the recycling of sacred stories) in explaining parts of the Gospels as a recasting of religious/mythic prototypes. A ‘worked example’, looking at the figure of Judas, gives us a fascinating illustration of the workings of midrash.
In the second part, the author subjects to analysis key elements of the Creed (incarnation, crucifixion and burial, and resurrection). He finds the historical evidence for the claims made by the Creed to be weak, the relevant texts being riddled with anomalies and inconsistencies. In one amusing aside he notes that there are seven categories of evidence deemed inadmissible by US Federal Court Rules, any one of which is sufficient to render testimony inadmissible, and that Mark, the originator of the Passion narrative, fails on six (or perhaps all seven) counts. He goes on, in an interesting passage, to speculate on the probable psychological characteristics of early Christians that may have rendered them more susceptible to a belief in the resurrection. He then proceeds to subject to similar analysis a number of other aspects of the Christian story, including the figure of John the Baptist (the presentation of whose head on a silver platter, we learn, may have had its origins in Homer’s Odyssey), the teachings attributed to Jesus, and the Eucharist.
Finally, Mr Marchant goes on to conclude that, on the balance of probability, Jesus (meaning, he makes clear, not a historical character for whose life evidence exists, but ‘a traditional figure about whom much is presumed’) represents the historicisation of a mythical figure, rather than a historical figure who has been mythicised. For this conclusion, he draws, among other things, on the Rank-Raglan mythotype, a list of 22 characteristics of mythical heroes drawn up in the first half of the twentieth century of which Jesus exhibits no fewer than 19.
There is at the end a helpful glossary for those of us who may have difficulty remembering (if we ever knew) such things as the distinction between the Pharisees and the Sadducees.
In short, at just over 200 pages, 3 Peter: A Sceptic’s Guide to the Origins of Christianity seems to me an admirable introduction to the subject.