Category Archives: Bible

Jesus’ Parable of the Minas (Luke 19 11-27)



For a while I have been unhappy with the interpretation of this parable which is generally accepted. Normally it is linked with Matthew 25 14-30, the parable of the talents and it is seen as effectively the same message. The normal approach is summarised by Marshall. “We may take it, therefore, that one original parable lies behind the two versions, although it is not absolutely excluded that Jesus himself told two similar parables on different occasions.” (Marshall 1978 701) It is assumed that although the details might vary, the basic message of both parables is the same. God’s rule means that those who have and use gifts will be given more and those who cut themselves off from God will be judged. Here we suggest the two parables are very different in situation, intent, and focus. The Luke 19 parable of the Minas is directly political, a commentary on the political situation. Later Jesus uses the parable ironically to showset in In Matthew later, speaking to the disciples, Jesus uses the earlier parable ironically to teach this great lesson, but the earlier parable of Luke 19 is completely different.

First, there are the obvious differences between the two accounts. The details are very different. A man on a journey with servants contrast with a man of noble birth going to be appointed King. In one story the servants are given talents: but in the other given minas, and so on. Cities appear in Luke, but not in Matthew and all kinds of jagged differences occur which betoken a different story at a different place at a different time. More generally, these Gospel accounts are very specific and immediate. We know Zacchaeus was short, sat in a sycamore tree, and was unliked by the ordinary people of Jericho. The details are recorded and the details matter in this parable and throughout the Gospels.

Second, we have two different times and locations for the two parables. Luke 19 records what happens a week or so earlier after Jesus had come into Jericho, healed the blind beggar, gone amid the hubbub to eat at Zacchaeus’ house and was on his way to Jeruselem. It was spoken to a crowd in or around Zacchaeus’ house. This Parable, because it and the conversion of Zacchaeus were a deep attack on the Roman Empire, would have spread round Jerusalem like wildfire. Matthew 24 occurs after Jesus has entered Jerusalem and been involved in a massive public debate with his interlocuters. He and the disciples have left the Temple, walked to the Mount of Olives, and are talking. Jerusalem is buzzing and in uproar at the things going on, but they are now the group of disciples apart probably in the evening before returning to Bethany to sleep. Jesus sets out a series of warnings, about persecution and the sacking of the Jerusalem temple, about not believing in false Christs, and about false prognostications, and then in Matthew 24 turns to the theme of “Be Ready”. He gives the disciples six or so parables on what historical, personal and economic awareness involves which the Church rarely hears. The parable of the talents is one of these. The difference in location and timing is obvious, and the relation between the two parables thus becomes clear.The latter parable of Matthew 24 uses elements of the earlier parable, but the focus is completely different. It is a deliberate retelling of the story in kingdom terms. In the first the focus is the Roman and Herodian rulers; in the latter, it is God. It is one of a series of kingdom parables, saying God asks us to use the talents we have been given, laconically using the form of the first parable.

We must discuss the issue of intelligence. There is an idiom which says that Jesus taught orally and repetitively, so that sayings could be handed down to stupid people like us. We could call this the “thick interpretational method”. This seems to be so inadequate and patronizing. Any careful reading of the Gospels shows that Jesus had what we would now describe as an awesome intellect and a command of many modes of discussion and communication. Jesus obviously had problems with the limited ability of his disciples and others to grasp things, and identified how much people would not understand. We are involved in the Gospels with a very rich academy of communication where there is constantly change of focus, debate, audience awareness, explicit cultural pluralism. The quality of this communication is unrivalled. Playing off what he had said at one time with what is said at another would be a mode of communicating. The boring quality assumed by the thick interpretational method is light years away from the fact that the crowds and the disciples, for obvious reasons, hung on every word of this man and knew they needed to “read” what he said carefully. Two different stories in different situations where the second builds on the first need to be read with an attempt to meet the “intelligence” of the author..

Fourth, there is the question of meaning. The tenor of the two series of events is very different. In the one Jesus is intimately addressing the disciples amid the fear of the situation about what the rule of God means throughout time and history. In the other he is surrounded by a triumphalist crowd and addressing a completely different situation.

The better way, therefore, seems to be to recognize that Jesus told two parables, the one in Luke first to the Jericho crowd, and the one in Matthew second to his disciples on the Mount of Olives. Our concern will be with the first.

The Scene – Jericho.
The situation in Jericho is quite easy to grasp. Jesus is on his way to Jeruselem and comes to Jericho with a crowd already gathered around him as a man of miracles and a famous popular Rabbi, the outstanding teacher of his age. But he is going to Jerusalem where he has expelled the moneychangers, frequently upset the Temple Party, the Pharisees, the Herodians – Antipas is “that fox” and it is clear that this event will be dramatic. Jesus has problems with crowds and regularly acts to prevent popular acclaim building up, but here there is no stopping the crowd which jigs along with him. Some of the crowd including the men and women disciples will have come on from earlier and some would have come out from Jericho to meet him. There is a beggar (Matthew’s account of what otherwise is the same event records two blind beggars ch 20 29-34) sitting outside the city, a man who is blind, probably not receiving any communal support and poor. It may be that within the city he would receive abuse. The crowd which engulfs Jesus passes and the blind man cannot make sense of the event. He asks, and finds out that Jesus is passing. Obviously Jesus’ reputation had reached him, and he cries out. Those in the crowd near him rebuke him, possibly because this beggar would just be dismissed as a nobody or because he was being a nuisance. He is insistant, crying out with a loud voice above the crowd, and Jesus stops. We do not know what had been going on, but now Jesus asks that the blind man be brought through the crowd. The crowd parts and the blind man is helped to Jesus and stands before him. Jesus asks him a direct, simple question: “What do you want me to do for you?” and the man replies, “Lord, I want to see.” Jesus therapon immediately heals him, saying, “Receive your sight, your faith has healed you.” The man is honoured for his faith and the crowd face the fact that God has done this mighty act to the man they probably ignored. The crowd fizzes with the event and Jesus is the centre of attention. The healed man, of course, follows Jesus in his heart and close to the centre of the crowd as they go into Jericho in a riot of praise.

Jericho was no ordinary city. At this time it was dominated by the palace buildings of Herod the Great and had its own unique history. It is probably one of the oldest cities on earth, repeatedly invaded and having its walls knocked down, including by Joshua. Its recent history focussed on Herod the Great, who built a great palace here. Herod was big. He had set out to rule Israel, had fled to Egypt, had a brief affair with Cleopatra, went to Rome and persuaded Augustus to back him, then came back and conquered the country and became King Herod the Great. He had a row with Cleopatra because she wanted the balsam plantations near Jericho as a gift from Anthony for her perfumes, but probably to spite Herod. Later, he was paranoid about his sons killing him to seize the throne and wrongly had two of them killed. He backed the Olympic Games and ordered the killing of the innocents in Bethlehem. This was Herod’s place, and every one knew about Herod. They especially knew how he died, because he died in Jericho from a disgusting stomach cancer roaring in pain. His genitals putrified and he was utterly mad. He even ordered that when he died, fearing that he would not be mourned, several thousand of the leading Jews should be locked in the Hippodrome, about 300 metres long, and all murdered on his death, so that his death would be accommpanied by mourning and not by rejoicing. (Josephus Ant. 17:6:5) Jesus never quite met him. So now Jesus was walking into the city of Herod the Great’s life and death. Everyone knew Herod.

Archelaus, son of Herod.

And everyone knew Archelaus, who succeeded Herod. Jesus knew him. He, of course, did not go back to Bethlehem, but was taken by Mary and Joseph to Nazareth, an obscure hill village, in order not to be too near Archelaus the new ruler. And we know why. Archelaus might kill him. On Herod the Great’s death, he had begun by being nice, hoping to have a different image from his father, but soon has a row with his subjects. At the feast of Passover in 4BC the row came to a head and Archelaus had three thousand massacred to teach them a lesson. He was, not surprisingly, instantly disliked, and when he set off to Rome to be accepted by Caesar as king, a whole load of his enemies set off as well. They included Antipater and Antipas, his brothers vying for the throne. In Rome these enemies appeared before Caesar pointing out what Archelaus had done, and also emphasising that he had done all this before being appointed by Caesar and was therefore presuming that he would be King rather than asking for it in the normal obsequious way. Archelaus’ case was also pleaded by Nicolaus, saying how bad the Jews and Antipater had been, and so Archelaus was made Tetrach, a slight demotion, and sent home to run Judea, while Antipas was given Galilee. All of this was basic public knowledge, just as Mrs Thatcher and Ronald Reagan are to us, only more so.

Archelaus reigned against a background of revolt and dissatisfaction for ten years. He was cruel, sensual, a plotter and vindictive. He deposed three High Priests in order to profit from the changes and was understood to be a nasty man throughout his reign, In 6AD a deputation of Jews and Samaritans waited on Augustus in Rome complaining of Archelaus. He was summoned to Rome, deprived of his crown and banished to Gaul. He was, in sum, a national failure.He remained of local significance because he further extended Herod the Great’s Palace in Jericho and surrounded it with palm trees. So he was the local boy, just like the Queen Mother is local in Sandringham, but instead of fondness, remembered rather with loathing.

The Prelude – Zacchaeus, the Chief Tax Collector.

As Jesus comes into Jericho they key figure turns out to be Zacchaeus who, we learn, was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. This is likely to be no understatement. Zacchaeus is a/the chief tax collector. He lives in Jericho, to which a substantial proportion of the funds come for Herod to spend. It would be interesting to know what the full structure of Roman taxes was, and how much went to Pilate, the soldiers and the other Roman institutions, but certainly much of the money came here through Zacchaeus’ hands. Jerusalem was the capital and far bigger, but keeping tax receipts in Jerusalem was very dangerous. A mountain of silver was the obvious target for any insurrection. So the taxes were carried from Jerusalem to Jericho where they were guarded by Roman soldiers in a secure base well away from the crowds. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was the robber road precisely because a whole load of robbers had probably tried to get their hands on consignments of coins travelling from Jerusalem. The Good Samaritan parable was located where it would be understood. All this is very straightforward.

Zacchaeus, as a chief tax collector would probably be farming out taxes to people who would be collecting for the Romans. Jesus, of course, had related to this group in Galilee, and everywhere they were despised, because they were taking away people’s livelihood and giving it to the Romans. On low subsistence incomes a tax of, say, 20% on very low incomes was crippling, especially with a Temple Tax of a similar amount. These farmed tax collectors were eking out a living along with a few others. They may take some money for themselves, but could not get away with much, because it was collected avidly with Roman supervision. Zacchaeus was therefore close to the centre of the web, an empire of intimidation, probably violence and imprisonment, which brought the funds from the provinces into Herod’s coffers. Mary’s journey to Bethlehem shows how directive this system was; the census was about tax. The Jews hated this system, and they would therefore hate and ostracize a Jew who administered it. Zacchaeus would be rich, but despised, the kind of person people were automatically rude about.

Jesus walks into Jericho with a crowd, some electricity in the air, and looks up into the sycamore-fig tree. Everything suggests that Jesus knew whom he was addressing. As we shall see later, he had a long established knowledge of Herod Antipas and the Herodian system, and Zacchaeus would be known. How Jesus knew him we do not know, but he names him and invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house. The transition is breathtaking. Here is a person who affirms a blind beggar, an outcast, whom it was easy for the Jews to accept, as cured praising God, who now invites himself to the home of a rich enemy, not just of the people, but of Jesus and his friends. This man clearly crosses personal barriers and distance with full impunity. Jesus is firm, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately, I must stay at your house today” , presumably so that the distance and awkwardness can be rapidly crossed. Zacchaeus responds and welcomes him to his home probably with some of the disciples and perhaps the blind man, but the crowd stay outside, for you did not mix with this man who had been socially cut in his rich house. It was unthinkable. Verse 7 “All the people saw this and began to mutter, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.’” sums up the situation completely. The crowd had gone the other way. The perception was that Jesus was a traitor, for this man was unclean, corrupt. Of course, you did not make too much fuss in the city where the Herodian soldiers ruled, but the crowd mood had changed. “Mutter” sums up the feeling of a crowd whose great hero had ratted on them.

But meanwhile, something very different was happening. Zacchaeus had welcomed Jesus and they had had a discussion. The talk is not recorded, but it is likely, given Zacchaeus’ response, that it involved Zacchaeus accepting that he had wrongly taken money from a number of people and had become rich on that basis. Somewhere in the conversation the Mosaic principles of restitution for wrongdoing must have come up, for Zacchaeus states them in the public announcement that he makes either inside his house with the guests, or outside more publicly. If it was in his house, it would very soon be outside and public knowledge. He says to Jesus, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Zacchaeus’ response is wholehearted, immediate, involves concrete action on recompense to others and hpnours the law and the proper processes of justice. Theft required a double repayment (Exodus 22 1-9) and Zacchaeus was therefore going beyond the law in offering four times. Jesus, too, is wholehearted in his response to him. He says, “Today, salvation is come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.” He is saved, because he is no longer a slave to Mammon, but a child of God reunited with his own people. “For the Son of Man came to seek and save what was lost.” Suddenly, the source of the people’s muttering is gone, and the crowd must have become quite euphoric. The ostracism which Zacchaeus had experienced from his fellow and sister Jews was over. Jesus had authority to say that and Zacchaeus is welcomed back to the community of Israel. He is lost, but is found. Zacchaeus would not have an easy time fulfilling his commitments, but he would be among friends, but he would be lost in the crowd reaction. Here was a prophet on his way to Jerusalem at Passover and overthrowing the Roman Tax System. The whole of Jericho was a-buzz.

Immediately, the relationship of the crowd to Jesus would have changed. Jesus was no longer the hero who had gone to eat with a traitor to the Jews, but he had subverted the whole system. He had won a Jew back and had removed a lynchpin from the hated Herodian system. The knees-up which had been going on after the healing of the blind beggar would now become much more focussed and political. The Jews were always looking for the overthrow of the oppressor and here he was. He had come into Herod’s own patch and had taken out one of the key men. They were looking for the salvation of Israel, the defeatof Rome and its henchmen, so that the Jews could again be free. Since the time of the Maccabees this had become an increasingly apocalyptic and violent dream. Zacchaeus’ conversion was a direct attack on Rome and the Herodians. This was the context of the parable. Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, the holy capital, and “the people thought that the Kingdom of God was going to appear at once.” (Lk 19 11) Then comes the Parable.

The Parable of the Minas.

We recall the earlier hubbub associated with the miracle healing of the blind man and Zacchaeus’ salvation, and now, presumably in contact with the full crowd Jesus goes on to tell them a parable. We are told clearly Jesus’ reason for doing this. The Gospel could not be more plain. “While they were listening to this, he went on to tell them a parable, because he was near Jerusalem and the people thought the kingdom of God was going to appear at once.” (19:11) This needs some slight nuancing. Being near Jerusalem was like going up to London on a massive demonstration. Indeed, at Passover something like a million visitors came to Jerusalem and were going to be caught up in the events surrounding the Temple. All the events of the last week were big crowd events. There were a million of us on the Stop the War March in London in 2003 and that was big. So the kingdom of God event that the crowd were thinking might be imminent was not the fulfilment of Christ’s teaching, but an uprising against the Roman/Herodian powers which dominated Judea and beyond. It was the dream of the Maccabees, the Zealots and other insurrectionists. His journey to Jeruselem would have been interpreted by many as the great apocalyptic event when the Son of David would return and throw out the Romans and Hasmodeans. It was “at once”, the decisive time of national liberation which since Ezra and Nehemiah had become the dream of nationalist Jews. The foreign yoke would be thrown off and God would rescue his people. It is into this euphoria that Jesus speaks.

“A man of noble birth went to a distant country to have himself appointed king and then to return.” Immediately there would be hissing as the thin code identifying Archelaus was recognized. This was about Archelaus, the hated successor to Herod the Great. “So he called ten of his servants and gave then ten minas. ‘Put this money to work until I come back.’ But his subjects hated him and sent a delegation after him to say, ‘We don’t want this man to be our king’ He was made king, however, and returned home.” Suddenly, the story was chilling. The obvious references to Archelaus were saying nothing about some great uprising, but were focussed on an oppressive ruler who was in charge and remained in charge. This is the way the system operates. This is not a parable about God, but directly about Herodian rule, “because people thought that the Kingdom of God was going to appear at once” and they needed cold water poured over them. Let’s be clear about this. Jesus is carefully orchestrating events, so that no-one is killed or no futile insurrection breaks out. He is saying, “this is what they are like.” The parable will end with the words, “But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be a king over them – bring them here and kill them in front of me.” So this is scarcely veiled warning. If you are getting excited, especially in relation to me, then stop and face death squarely. The contrast is with thousands of leaders who have happily led their supporters or soldiers to death out of their own ego. And the result was as Jesus intended. Nobody died in Easter week, except Judas who committed suicide, and Jesus himself. As Jesus prayed in John 17:12 “I protected them and kept them safe by that name you gave me. None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction. The saving of life is an actual wise effective principal, carried out through foresight and wisdom throughout Easter week, and for the whole Christian community. We will see it in operation again later.

But the parable moves on, or rather it moves back. “He called ten of his servants and gave them ten minas. Put this money to work (for me) until I come back.” This was in the space when the king, Archelaus was going to Rome. He went to Rome and came back, not as they hoped when they sent the delegation to Rome, without power, but when confirmed as Tetrach by Caesar. So the servants were given a minas each. A minas was about three months wages at a drachma a day, the basic wage labour of ancient Israel. So these servants were not being given great favours, but were being tested by the king for their loyalty to him. And they know what putting the money to work means, because for the Herodians there was only one business in town and that was tax collecting and tax farming. These guys would be collecting taxes. Zacchaeus was standing there, probably at Jesus side, and the crowd knew what was going on. This story was for them. Jesus carries them along.

The crowd were fixed on every detail of the parable, they were being led. Jesus sets out the response of three servants and in so doing he sets out the whole system. “The first servant came and said, ‘Sir, your mina has earned ten more.” This is the one who works within the Herodian system, the goody-goody or baddy baddy as we would call him. This is the unconverted Zacchaeus, now shifting slightly uneasily as his role in the system is laid out. ‘Well done, my good servant!’ his master replied. ‘Because you have been trustworthy in a very small matter, take charge of ten cities.’. No-one would think other than seeing being in charge of cities as being in charge of collecting the Roman, or Herodian, taxes. This is the system rewarding its own. Zacchaeus is struggling a bit at this point. Jesus has just converted him from tax collection to fairness and justice and now in the parable the tax collector is praised, but he is praised by the unjust king, by the Archelaus lookalike. The second servant comes, still working within the system, and he, too, gets his reward. These were the people in charge of the tax system, and the military to back them up. They are the ones who fit in with the system which Zacchaeus has just deserted. And they do well.

Telling the Truth.

But then, says Jesus, another servant comes and says, “Sir, here is your mina; I have kept it laid away in a piece of cloth. I was afraid of you, because you are a hard man. You take out what you did not put in and reap what you did not sow.” This would make their hair rise. This was the truth. The Herodian/Roman system was hard, run by hard men. They were taking out what they had not put in and reaping where they had not sown. This was it. It was exploitation, robbing the poor, and, (there has to be a bit of theatre here), the servant returns the mina kept laid away in a piece of cloth, and Jesus holds his hand out returning exactly the mina that the king had given to him, and dramatising further what taking out what you did not put in meant. So the truth is there on the table for the disciples, the people of Jericho and the gathering crowd moving towards Jerusalem, and the Zacchaeus who can see his overlords as they were.

But the parable does not end there. Jesus stays with the King, who faced with the truth flies into a rage, and more or less accepts what he has been faced with. “You knew, did you, that I am a hard man, taking out what I did not put in and reaping what I did not sow?” Well, I’ll be a hard man as you put it. Always there are echoes of Archelaus in the crowd’s heads. Then comes the why didn’t you, money-lending response. “Why didn’t you put my money on deposit, so that when I came back, I could have collected it with interest?” “Take his mina away and give it to the one who has ten.” It is the set up line, as the courtiers respond, “’Sir,’ they said, “he already has ten!’” The wicked King’s reply is twofold, in both cases telling the truth. “First, he says, “I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who hads nothing, even what he has will be taken away.” It is breathtaking. The evil man tells the truth. The powerful accumulate and the poor are further impoverished. This is the evil system that Jesus confronted and this is the evil system that we still face today. Oxfam’s calculation that the world’s richest 62 people own as much as the poorer half of the worlds population suggests the problem today. The whole parable is about exploitation, and the evil man, the king, the Archelaus figure, tells the truth.

This was the structure of the Roman system, and Jesus points out what it is like, its iniquity, a warning to Zacchaeus, and a warning to everybody who would continue to live with this system. The truth is laid bare. But Jesus freezes any frenzied reaction to this unjust system and also lays bare its viciousness and danger. He voices the words of the Herodian tyrant, “But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them – bring them here and kill them in front of me.” It is chilling, and accurate in its assessment of Archelaus and of the Roman system. None of these people would be walking into a sentimental insurrection in which they would be slaughtered. Later Jesus could truthfully say to the Father, “I protected them and kept them safe.” (John 17 12) Zacchaeus would melt away before the authorities got hold of him, and Jesus alone would go on to the cross. Second, the wickedness of empire was exposed. Empires harvest where they have not sown. The truth confronts the power, as later Jesus would before Pilate.

The incisiveness of Jesus response in this parable is beyond human understanding. When popularity beckons, most of us walk towards it, but Jesus has a care for the fools who are around him. He warns and saves them. The full horror of this insight only becomes evident a generation later when over a million are slaughtered in Jeruselem by the Romans seeking a similar apocalyptic hope. There is a political implication here, too, in the repudiation of the insurrectionist, revolutionary answer. Jesus did not lead people down the route where they would need to commit evil to achieve their (good?)aims. He was, to our inconvenience, but benefit, consistently holy.

Later in Jeruselem Jesus would take the same structure for the story but instead of telling it against the supposedly imminent kingdom would tell it for the kingdom of God. He turned it round. There were good and faithful servants and a wicked lazy servant. Within this kingdom everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance, but whover does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. This is the One they really have to fear, not those who can kill the body.

Jesus finishes the parable of the Minas outside Zacchaeus’ house where the road turns up into the hills towards Jerusalem. The crowd wrestles with its content, as they will discuss its points time and time again. Zacchaeus reels intellectually under the transformation and says goodbye to Jesus. The Gospel reports (Luke 19:28). “After Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.” The crowd it seems were not surging in front.

Truth and the Sociology of the Gospels

Are the Gospels True Records?

Most people want to know in a broad sense whether the Gospels are true or not. Immediately there is a lot to take on before one would give assent including miraculous healings and the raising from death of four people, three raised by Jesus and Jesus’ resurrection itself. More broadly, there is the scholarship based on manuscripts which puts the writing of the Gospels two or three decades after the events, the so-called synoptic problem which sees the differences between John and the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke as a difficulty, and the problems of redaction criticism which tries to find the prior sources out of which the Gospels were formed. These are all real problems and need addressing and answering for Nonchristians and Christians alike.

Of course they need addressing at different levels. Those who do not believe in God will have acute trouble believing in the resurrection, while those who believe that God created the universe and the two billion genetic code in each cell of their body, will not find the odd resurrection a problem. This study does not address these questions, but merely whether and to what extent the events, teaching and person of Jesus are accurately represented in the Gospels – whether they are “true” to what happened or did not happen.

There is one Christian approach which is not helpful. It says, “Of course, the Gospels are true. They are God breathed and God does not lie. More than this they must be inerrant, and so anyone who questions them is not only automatically wrong, but is in some sense culpable.” This kind of dogmatism is not accepted here; it closes the issue down, and we want to discuss it.

This kind of question is dramatically addressed in the Gospel of John in an incident after the Resurrection (if the account is true) recorded in John 20. The text says that Jesus appeared to the disciples Sunday evening after the Resurrection with the doors locked, admittedly a very unlikely event. “He said, “Peace be with you” twice and showed them his hands and side with evidence of the crucifixion wounds he had received on Friday. This poses our issue. Either you believe it or you don’t, or you gawp in suspended belief. Let’s go for suspended belief, even quite negative syspended belief. The account goes on to say, “The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.” Well, they would be, wouldn’t they? That is plausible, if the event happened. But then occurs the account of the event which addresses our issue. Thomas, the twin, was not there on the first occasion, and declared his disbelief. Even though the dozen or so disciples said they had seen Jesus, he disbelieved them. People do not rise from the dead. No evidence. I won’t accept it unless I am convinced. They had told him of the wounds Jesus had shown them, but he said, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand in his side, I will not believe it.” Then a week later they were in the same room with the doors again locked through fear and Jesus came, again said, “Peace be with you.” and addressed Thomas inviting him to fulfil his statement so that he could stop doubting and believe. Thomas, not surprisingly, (if you believe the text) did not start poking Jesus and was happy to accept Jesus as “My Lord and my God” seeing that the resurrection had big implications. Jesus said to him, “Because you have seen me you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” We note that Thomas is not upbraided for not believing. He is allowed his unbelief and verification. Yet others are told they can believe without direct sight of Jesus and be blessed. And, of course, the truth of events, and people, goes way beyond visual verification. So this Gospel incident, if it is an accurate account, allows scepticism as a response, but does not require it. We can well ask how much scepticism is justifiable and still question this account.

The New Testament Studies Eyewitnesses Debate.

Actually, there is a debate going on in New Testament Studies which relates to this. In 2006 Richard Bauckham published Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. (Eerdmans) It raises the issue we are considering fairly straight on. The long tradition of linguistic approaches to the New Testament begin with the manuscripts and focus on the literary construction that seems to take place. This textual work pores over interesting texts and fragments of text which go to make up the Gospels we now have, and clearly it is an important genre of study in this area. But the fragments we have date to the late first century leaving a gap of perhaps seventy years in our information. Bauckham takes a different approach. He looks at the textual evidence and asks, “Where could this information have come from?” So Bauckham looks at the eyewitness theme and the way it plays out. Clearly, this is a game changer. Eyewitnesses one, five, ten or twenty years away from an event are a lot closer than the seventy year plus gap of redaction criticism. Suddenly, scholarship is a lot closer to the events of the Gospel through no other change than the method of approach the scholars are using. The question is, does Bauckham’s approach stand up? Is there the evidence that we have the eyewitness accounts which are the focus of his study? Bauckham’s book is some 500 pages with a range of angles on the issue and swathes of evidence, and it could not be adequately précised here. But the issue is stark. Do we take the manuscript and fragment route, which is mainly linguistic, dwelling on Greek, Aramaic and the other languages of the ancient world, or do we go the route of the eyewitness contributions? Even if we are interested in the latter, there are still some big problems. Eyewitnesses can lie, shape stories, wrongly explain things, forget, be biassed, exaggerate heroes and all kinds of other things. So merely being an eyewitness is not enough. Frequently on television eyewitnesses are questioned with justifiable suspicion by detectives, and the scepticism of a Foyle or Marple seems a virtue. Indeed, we could well seek the detached disbelief of witnesses shown by Foyle and others. So even if we accept eyewitnesses, are the eyewitnesses accurate and true?

Newspapers and the Gospels.

At the same time as Richard was developing the eyewitness theme and publishing it, I was working on a similar question in relation to Jesus and Politics. This is explored in Appendix A “Reporting and Hermeneutics” of Jesus and Politics (Baker Academic, 2005) There are a large number of political events in the Gospels and the question all the time is how you understand them. It brought to the fore an issue of which I have been long aware as a sociologist. Sociologists are made aware of how accounts are constructed – the culture, personal interactions, areas of conflict, power relationships, shared beliefs, body language, conventions, status, dominant narrative themes, seeming incidentals, social distance, social psychology and other things that surround ordinary social interactions. We are actually very complicated.

One of these themes is the temporal distance from events and how they are remembered. So, for example, a few hours ago I learned that poodles need a haircut every six or so weeks and the cut costs about £40 a go. Had I not written that down and told you, it would have gone from my mind, as details often do, and my recall of that conversation would be far more general and filtered than it now is. Distance from events changes the reporting, but events shared stay alive. I, and you, will perhaps never forget that a poodle haircut costs £40, even when it no longer does. So distance from events changes the historical accounts, for a variety of reasons and at a variety of levels.

Crudely put, many of the narratives in the Gospels seemed to me to have more of the character of the reports in yesterday’s Guardian, or the paper of your choice, than of a distant history book, or even a monthly journal. They were full of details of body language, situation, specificity, and location that they seem close to events. Let us look at the example above. Thomas doubts. He has been given the evidence of Jesus hand and side wounds (if the account is true) and his response is “and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side” . This response is specific. Nail wounds are smaller and Roman spear wounds are bigger; he seems to reflect this in his precise words. It has an odd specificity, an echo of authenticity. Now, of course, this does not make them correct. Newspapers get things wrong, as the Guardian’s corrections show. The Grauniad errata can be seen. But newspaper stories, seen as reporting, are often what could be called close history. They contain details that cannot easily be later fabricated, especially by people who were far less media sophisticated than we are. Fabricating pseudo local and immediate historical elaborations, especially in the era when history, novels, reporting and novels were in their infancy, is a big ask for first century, uneducated people. We can legitimately question a whole range of detailed content of the Gospel narratives in terms of their distance from or closeness to events and their authenticity in relation to those events.

Reading Several Newspapers.

There is a second sociological insight we need to heed. Sociologists know that one person’s narrative of events and people is limited. One of the most interesting historical debates surrounds Churchill and History. Churchill insisted on writing his version of the two World Wars and they have become amazingly orthodox and widely accepted. The wily old bird knew what he was about and he emerges as hero. Now a range of historians, notably David Reynolds here at Cambridge, have shown that Churchill’s construction is substantially that. Whereas actually the USSR bore the brunt of the Second World War, losing 25 million dead, while the USA and UK lost half a million each, in Churchill’s account the West won the War and the role of the USSR is partly downplayed. As Churchill hated the USSR that slant is not surprising. But this shows that multiple accounts of events and people are useful. In my slightly simplistic way this is what the Gospels purvey. Whereas the manuscript people have a synoptic problem, I have a synoptic bonus. The multiple accounts (accepting the commonalities in the Synoptic Gospels) give us a more rounded and better account of Jesus’ life and teaching.

In part, the newspaper variations matter. There are some newspapers scarcely worth reading, some biased, some reflecting a particular class, some which are establishment or anti-establishment. But they usually contribute more together than just one paper. They reflect different reporters, different perceptions, different backgrounds and much more. Of course, reading the Gospels is not quite like reading four daily newspapers, but that characteristics of multiple reporting, long discussed anyway by New Testament readers, are an interesting part of the sociology of the Gospels. Doctor Luke has long been noted. The differences of John have always needed explaining. Mark is short and Matthew spends quite a lot of time on taxation. But there is more to it and this, and we will discuss the “Synoptic Bonus” in a range of ways. But do the several accounts add up? There is already a vast literature on this subject, but we might add to it with a bit of sociological background.

Peter Trudgill: spoken and written language.

At school, the CNS in Norwich, Peter Trudgill sat behind me in alphabetical order and Colin Wills sat on the back row at the end of the alphabet with the lockers, unlocked, all alongside us. These and other classroom relationships were important. Colin and I did two hitch-hiking tours down through Europe soaking up the culture and art in which he mainly hunted up the things we should see for which I am ever grateful. Peter was better than me at languages, provided an interesting commentary in my ear when a lesson lagged, I enjoyed his father who worked at Jarrolds in colour publishing, and he became a linguist, an expert on the Norfolk dialect, a dialectologist and sociolinguist who has held six chairs throughout Europe. One of his more simple points is very incisive. It occurs in his book, Dialect Matters: Respecting Vernacular Language (CUP, 2016) and elsewhere. He points out that spoken language has been completely or mainly dominant throughout most of human history and those who give written grammar authority over the spoken word are being linguistic Fascists. I will clear that description with him before this book goes out. Peter in a more restrained way calls it “prescriptivism”. The spoken word is actually more expressive, full of content and ranges of meaning than a grammatical transition of it can convey. The spoken language of ordinary people is not to be demeaned, but is often actually richer. Dialects are OK and deserve respect, and understanding the vernacular is closer to the centre of culture than elites think. This perspective actually changes much of our thinking and understanding of communication whether ordinary or academic.

The point has actually a lot to teach New Testament Studies. The dominant orthodoxy in Biblical Studies and also in many pulpits is that only those who can speak Greek and study the texts in the original can properly understand the Gospels. This is quite tyrannical. The Gospels were not in Greek, but mainly spoken in Aramaic, with some Hebrew and other dialects in the picture. So the Greek text is already conveying a vernacular. This probably does not matter too much because the authors, and oral contributors, were close to their subject, but it does not allow a purist view of the greek text. More than this, the Gospel texts are amazing oral. They are full of conversations, public stories, social engagements and Jesus’ words are far more robust than translation errors. When he says, “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet and then turn and tear you to pieces” the point is not easily going to be lost in translation. Mainly, we are studying what Jesus said, if that is what he said.

But the deeper point, following Peter Trudgill’s respect for the vernacular, is that we must hear the oral richness of the Gospels going into people’s lives. We must hear it. The vernacular is fully as truthful, potentially, as the university text. Indeed, the latter may have restrictions imposed by its own constructed linguistic framework. But the point is actually bigger than this in the Gospels themselves, because humility before God is more important to truth than anything else. Time and again Christ butchers the self important, those who elevate their own knowledge and understanding. Truths and insights are hidden from the so-called wise and given to babes and the humble. And the point stands. The best educated nation of the 1930s elected Hitler and the best educated nation of this generation elected the self-important idiot, Trump. Wisdom is more complicated than formal education and the written word. Perhaps we have to unread and unthink a lot of New Testament so-called explanatory and theological literature and rediscover the vernacular Christ, if we can have any confidence that he is available to us.

Einstein and his students.
Jesus has every claim to being the world’s greatest teacher studied one way and another by two billion or more students. But actually, as we shall see, he seems to be a very odd teacher. Often he is cryptic, not understood, deliberately obscure, talks to different audiences at one, deliberately teaches ahead of events, evoking “Oh, that’s what he means” and covers vast terrains of subject matter about God, himself, the world, people, politics, salvation, sin and history. It is not easy stuff. I have spent ten years on the one pithy sentence, “Those who take the sword, perish by the sword.” He leaves gaps, is allusive through parables and takes a lot of careful study. I went to Cambridge, have a doctorate and other degrees and am no slouch educationally, but I have studied Jesus teaching for a lifetime and am still going, with questions, new insights, confirmation of what he says and new self-knowledge from his words, and I am one of millions more. He is the teacher; we are the students. There are great teachers and they have students, and we could briefly look at the relation between great teachers and students. Students, usually, know less, are scrambling to keep up with their teacher, have to study round their lectures and grow into the kind of understanding their professor has. This difference is magnified two ways among Jesus disciples. We remember Rabbi equals teacher and disciples equals students; the Gospels are a three year education course, perhaps the world’s best degree programme.

Jesus is teacher, Rabbi. We think of Einstein’s lectures, good, but in a certain sense one greater than Einstein is here. We think of Wittgenstein. You go to his lectures and he teaches you to think, but Jesus teaches you to think in spades. You engage with Socrates, and fortunately through Plato we can, but Jesus is light years ahead of Socrates, great man though he was. In this case the teacher is way out there. He is giving us a God’s eye view turning most of the dominant perspectives upside down.

Meanwhile, without being disparaging, his students are pretty poor – manual workers, illiterate, with unconsidered views of race, power, law and many other things. They have an annoying tendency to take Jesus literally when he is making a wider point. Jesus says, “Beware the leaven of the Pharisees” and they think he is talking about bread. Even the Pharisees scarcely shine as educated people and there is obvious resentment in the Gospels that this man is so much more intelligent that all the other educated people of Jerusalem and elsewhere.

All this is by way of overturning another convention of Gospel scholarship. Often scholars focus on John’s or Luke’s interpretation of Jesus implying that they are the main formers of the Gospels. But it seems to be it is not like this at all. If we met Einstein’s students, we would ask, what did Einstein say? What were his theories? Insights? What did he say about E=MC²? We would not ask, “What is your interpretation of Einstein”” or “What words did you feel you needed to put in Einstein’s mouth?” How much more with Jesus. The disciples were scrabbling to get it down, to record what they did not understand. They were educated by Jesus into what he taught. This dynamic of the education process in the Gospels is different from the wooden four authorial formulation so common in the textual approach, and it perhaps opens up what is happening in the Gospels far more fully.

Weighing the Truth of the Gospels.

The truth of the Gospels matters a great deal, really to almost all of us. Before their truth are issues like evidence, witness, accuracy, myth, the construction of narratives and all kinds of question about what we read there. This study, like Richard Bauckham’s, questions whether we are not much closer to the Gospels and their narratives than is conveyed especially by the tradition of textual and linguistic research. Of course, it is not finally either/or, but a difference of approach. And it is also true that historical and archeological evidence plays into our understanding. And after all, we cannot be final arbiters, but merely seek to know. But this study seeks to weigh the truth of the Gospels with five tools.
• First, is the sociology which sets out the social scene of many Gospel events. Many have done this before. William Barclay was one great exponent, but there is far more to mine which shows what was going on.
• Second is the eyewitness theme, looking for immediate context which locates and authenticates what is going on, if it so does, for this is no presumption.
• Third, is the significance of the multiple authorship, beyond the four Gospel authors into other contributors.
• Fourth is the oral/written interaction and Peter Trudgill’s contribution underlining the respect and awareness of the vernacular.
• Fifth is the teacher-student dynamic, the pedagogic milieu of the Gospels and how that shapes the formation and content of the Gospels.

With these a range of perceptions might emerge which throw light on the truthfulness, or otherwise, of the Gospels. So let us go and mine the Gospel accounts.

Psalm 46

Psalm 46 “He makes wars to cease to the ends of the earth.”

What does this Song mean? It rocks across vast themes and defies a merely poetic interpretation. Let’s have a go at it. The opening is defence – the refuge, the fortress, the present help in trouble – and God is the defence, the One who meets fear, who is strength, however desperate the circumstances. This is not just personal defence. Then, there was no public and private segregation and a lot of life was scary anyway. But the reference later in the Song to making “wars cease” suggests this is a big canvas, and it gets bigger.
The structure of the first three verses is: God is our refuge, “though the earth give way” and there are earthquakes and hurricanes. In other words, whatever the natural destructions and catastrophes, God the Creator is our strength. This is somewhat extreme, but this is where it stands. Whatever rages, God.
The next section is like the quiet second movement of a symphony. “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells.” Suddenly the water is calmed and becomes the life giving streams for the city of God, for Jerusalem, the place that acknowledges God. The “holy place” is where life is whole and not segregated off from God. God is within her; she will not fall. God will help her at the break of day, however dark the night has been.
The great epic of disorder comes together again in verse 6. “Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; he lifts his voice, the earth melts.” But it is not entirely satisfactory. Why should the nations be in such turmoil? It is cataclysmic, but how is God in charge? How is this power manifest? The line, “God lifts his voice, the earth melts” suggests something new. God’s voice is to be heard, and the earth melts, melds, how – we do not know.
Even the refrain of verse seven, repeated in verse 11, is not quite adequate. “The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.” It is a local response, a concern with our security. How can God provide this kind of security? What is it? The fortress defends. What defence is this?
Verse 8 “Come and see the works of the Lord, the desolations he has brought upon the earth” is also perplexing. Is it ironic? Why would God bring desolation? It sets us up for what follows, but we can scarcely take it in.
“He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear, he burns the shield with fire” There is no mistake about what this is saying. It is taut – either in describing the breaking of weapons. The chief arms used in these conflicts are taken out, as we world say, to end war. The “shield” may be “chariot”. Indeed, because they were largely wood, they burn more directly, though shields of that period may also have been substantially wood. This is the bonfire of weapons under the rubric, “He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth.” Is this vain hope or the solid understanding of what God is about when God rules, which is always.
The Psalm closes on the verse, “Be still and know that I am God” so often rightly taken as the centre of human life, the place where we are before God personally. So far, so good, but the context is fuller. “I will be exulted among the nations. I will be exulted in the earth” is not so much focussing on the acknowledgement of God, though that it does, as on the reason for recognizing God as supreme, for when we do, wars cease and we are still from war.We see beyond the shallow conflicts of nations in uproar. Be still and know that I am God. The God of Jacob is our fortress, because with God we do not need fortresses.