Friday, November 13, 2009

The historical Jesus' movements can be mapped: Gauging a gospel's historical view of Jesus

Another thing that struck me as a point of difference between the canonical gospels and the non-canonical gospels is how they handle geography: that is, the question of where things happened. The canonical gospels we have these days usually come with maps. The Bible I have in hand right now has a detail map of the region described in the gospels with the location of a number of towns, cities, rivers, and lakes. The maps are necessary because the canonical gospels name so many places in a region where very few of us have lived. These places are already familiar to us from the events recorded in the canonical gospels: Bethany, Bethlehem, Bethphage, Bethsaida, Cana, Capernaum, Galilee, Jericho, Jerusalem, the Jordan, Nazareth, Sidon, Tyre, and others. My Bible also has a detailed map of the Jerusalem area showing the location of the Temple, various named gates and pools, and the Mount of Olives. This detailed map also helps the reader find the places mentioned by the writers of the canonical gospels. The canonical gospels have actions that you can trace on a map.

Maps would be little help in studying the non-canonical gospels. In the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of the Savior, the Gospel of Thomas, and the Gospel of Truth, I have not found a reference to any city, town, river, or lake in that region. What is recorded in these gospels does not have a specific location. These particular non-canonical gospels do not have much connection to any geographical context; they show no interest in the question of where things may have taken place.

Other non-canonical gospels may not be completely silent about where things took place, but they fall far short of the level of detail found in the canonical gospels. The Gospel of Philip mentions Jerusalem and the Jordan; the Protoevangelium of James mentions Jerusalem and Bethlehem; the Infancy Gospel of Thomas mentions Jerusalem. None of them mentions Bethany, Bethphage, Bethsaida, Cana, Capernaum, Galilee, Jericho, Nazareth, Sidon, or Tyre. The complete lack of mention of Galilee in these seven non-canonical gospels is especially remarkable when we compare those seven to the four canonical gospels, which mention Galilee sixty times all together.

This is not yet an exhaustive study; it is more just checking my general impression against readily available facts. I hope to do a more comprehensive study in the future with an actual read-through of all the canonical and non-canonical texts to make sure every angle has been covered. Still, what is available through on-line text and searching is enough to confirm the general impression: the non-canonical gospels have relatively little interest in where things happened. I expect a more thorough study would show the difference to be greater than the initial review, as the canonical gospels at times even locate the action not just within a city, but even in the home of a particular person or near a particular landmark.

Here again, if we have an interest in the historical Jesus, we have to ask ourselves which sources are better: the sources that make more effort to identify the location where things happen, or the sources which rarely (or in some cases, never) identify the location where things happen. Once again, the canonical gospels have more to say about the historical Jesus in an objectively measurable way.


Howard said...


I was very struck last year to read Carsten Theide's last work on the archeological discovery of Emmaus. Many had argued that its absence argued against gospel accuracy, but it was simply a case of finding it - the Gospel was history all along.


Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Howard

Thiede was certainly a character. He kept things interesting.

I always get a kick out of people criticizing Luke for the "first census that took place when Quirinius was governor of Syria." Apparently we've only found other records of one census at that time, so people of a certain persuasion are jumping all over Luke for that. Meantime, he was a first-century writer who had spent time in Syria. On exactly what grounds is Luke "guilty until proven innocent", y'know?

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF