Thursday, March 01, 2007

Burning Cortes' Ships on the Sea of Tiberias

Mark A. Smith consults the book of cheating husbands:

In the forty days between the “resurrection” and alleged ascension of Jesus, the Apostles either never left Jerusalem (per Jesus' command) -OR- they did leave Jerusalem (for Galilee, per Jesus' command)

In the real world, people cannot be in two places at the same time, and to claim otherwise is to be caught up in a contradiction. In the real world, in that forty day span, Peter either left Jerusalem or never left Jerusalem, but there’s no way in hell he could have done both, Bible or no Bible.

The Bible, like the cheating husband, has been caught in a contradiction, exposed as a liar, and therefore can't be trusted to tell the truth.
Of course, all historians know that if we have difficulty reconciling accounts, they must all be tossed, right? That's why we only know anything that happened until the second newspaper of the day is published, I guess.

Actually, while Mr. Smith's Table of Contradiction (which you must click thru to see) is conclusive in isolation, what actually happened is fairly easily discerned by what he left out**. John (20:19) for example explains how "that same day" (the day of the Resurrection) Jesus appeared to the disciples in Jerusalem, then again a week later (20:26). Then a mere 5 verses later (21:1 and following) we read, "After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples at the sea of Tiberias..."

Where, you might ask, is this "Sea of Tiberias"? It's in Galilee. In short, the disciples were not in Jerusalem the whole time - and no one claims they were - but for a week or a little more. They were in Jerusalem for the Passover, then went home, then returned later for the feast of Pentecost. They were Jews, and that's what Jews did. It makes perfect historical sense because the disciples did not live in Jerusalem and probably had no financial support that would enable them to remain there for 2 months even if they wanted to. How many of us could remove to DC for 2 months with just the money we're carrying on us?

But if Jesus ordered them to Galilee, why didn't they take off at a brisk trot right after the Last Dessert? Here we enter the realm of historical reconstruction. Immediately following the arrest of Jesus (very late Thursday night) all of the disciples are scattered in the Garden of Gethsemane. Most of them, in the dark and knowing that Jesus had been taken, headed back to Bethany where they had been staying and which was right up the road upon which they would find themselves once they fled the garden. So early Friday morning finds Jesus' 9 disciples dragging themselves, perhaps in small groups, perhaps one-by-one, back to a little home owned by Martha, Mary, and Lazarus.

Did I say 9? Well, Judas dared not show his face of course, but where are the other 2? Peter and John followed Jesus' arrest party and were watching the trial. Did the 9 know this? No, at this point they can only assume that the 2 have been arrested as well and that therefore they are in some danger. That's why once Jesus is on the cross, we find only John there with Jesus' mother Mary. The others are still hiding, Peter is off alone with his shame.

Jesus comes off the cross late Friday afternoon and at last the women arrive and watch as strangers lay the body in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea (whom if they recognize at all, it's only as a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin). A message was obviously sent (by whom? No idea) to Bethany to inform them that Peter and John had not been arrested after all and therefore their own danger is past. So they assemble in Jerusalem for news.

But now the sun has gone down and it's the Sabbath. No travel this day by law. The women decide to pay last respects to Jesus' body by packing it according to custom, and they stay in Jerusalem so Mary, Mary, Mary, and Mary can get to the tomb early.

Sunday arrives, the women visit the tomb, and Jesus goes all Lord of Life on them. Obviously the disciples aren't going to travel now but are going to await events. They are still in Jerusalem a week later. Why? The only plausible reason is that a live Jesus told them to wait; otherwise they would have gone home when the crowds did.

OK, so that explains a) why the disciples didn't leave Jerusalem right away, why they did eventually, and why they came back and Luke therefore had something to write about in Acts (it would have been awfully boring otherwise). That means the right side of Mr. Smith's table can be mostly set aside (with one exception, which I'll get to). In accordance with Scientific Law, Peter was never in two places at once, though I'm pretty sure his wife had a tough time believing his story anyway.

But what of the crux of the problem, that Jesus specifically said that his bretheren were to go to Galilee and see him there? Well first of all the disciples did and did. But more importantly, not all of Jesus' followers were in Jerusalem.

"Wait a minute," you might say, "Jesus had twelve disciples and you just said they were in Jerusalem! What do you take us for?" And it's true that those twelve make up the group that we call "The disciples." But they were simply the innermost circle of his followers. He also had among the Jews of Jerusalem Nicodemus and the aforementioned Joseph, among Herod's household Joanna, and Mary and Martha and Lazarus of Bethany. He had trained and sent out "The Seventy" (Luke 10:1) which did not include the disciples. At Pentecost (Acts 1:15) there were 120 present, and Paul is probably referring to Galilee in 1Cor 15:6 when he says that after Jesus was seen by the Twelve he was seen by 500. If Jesus was going to appear to and teach 500 people, he could not do so in Jerusalem: he had to travel to Galilee, where a) they probably lived, as that was his base, b) they could be relatively undisturbed. It's not likely that he would rent an auditorium in Jerusalem and make everyone travel there. Jerusalem and Galilee are both necessary if our story is to include all the facts.

So finally, what of Luke's note where Jesus commanded that they "should not leave the city until (they) receive power from on high" which in all honesty is the toughest "contradiction" on the Table of Biblical Doom? It is simply a summary statement to the effect that what was about to happen was going to begin in Jerusalem. They were not to permanently*** leave the city, which after the Resurrection would mark the beginning of the Christian mission, until the Holy Spirit came and equipped them for the task.

OK, so what's the Cortes reference above? It's an interesting exercise to compare how historians treat history to how non-historians treat scripture. For example, in the Hunt for Red October, Captian Ramius states, "when Cortes reached the new world, he burned his ships..." and that image is part of the common knowledge of most educated people. But not historians. What do they say happened to Cortes' fleet?

"Five of the best ships were allowed to drift ashore. Four others were then sunk in the harbor." (WW Johnson)

"Only five of the ten ships were run aground at first... a few days later, four other ships were run aground." (Madariaga)

"All the vessels were sunk except one caravel." (Fuentes)

The ships were "scuttled and sunk." (Abbot)

Bernal Diaz and Cortes (who were both there and who are the main sources of our knowledge of what did happen to the ships) give accounts that differ with every one of the above, and with each other, in particulars.

Since we have "contradictions," does that mean Cortes' ships are still floating off Vera Cruz? Does it mean Cortes never existed? Does it mean that all historians - and all eyewitnesses - are liars, on the level of cheating husbands? After all, we know that ships can't be both run ashore and sunk in the harbor, right?

No, what it means is that a man with one watch always knows what time it is, but a man who wears two is never completely sure. Looking at 4 independent accounts of ANY event is going to give us differences to deal with. Any time 4 people describe anything, they are going to disagree, they are going to leave things out, they are going to emphasize what interests them or their audience, they are going to summarize the things that don't. It does not mean the accounts are not historical; in fact, multiple differing accounts by eyewitnesses and those who rely on them raise our confidence that what was claimed to happen happened pretty much as they claim. No historian denies that Cortes' fleet was destroyed before he headed to the Halls of Montezuma.

We may never perfectly know the particulars and we can never know the things that were said and done - things that might clear up our contradiction - that were not recorded for us. However, that doesn't give us historical license to throw away the things that were written down. It just means that we're going to have to treat the accounts like we treat any other historical account, understanding and respecting the limitations of history and - perhaps most importantly - the limitations of our own knowledge.

*Why does Jesus look so bummed? Because his disciples forgot where they were supposed to meet him.

** He also makes the mistake of assuming that Jesus' commands were to be carried out immediately and literally regardless of circumstances, that summaries necessarily contradict specifics, and that the disciples always did as they were told. None of those, I think, hold up very well.

*** I say 'permanently' because it's not like they were under some kind of house arrest. In fact, they walked out of the city with Jesus in the very next verse.

1 comment:

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