Thursday, April 26, 2012

How to Explain Paul's Silence on Jesus?

One of the most central points generally raised by Jesus mythicists concerns the alleged silence surrounding the existence of Jesus in the Epistles of Paul. If Paul was genuinely familiar with Jesus as a historical being, how might one account for the lack of biographical information he provides about Jesus in his letters? Why are there no details concerning, for instance, Jesus' origins, his teachings or the circumstances surrounding his death? Surely these are not insignificant details, so why were they omitted?

Scholars might reply in one of two ways:1

  • In actual fact, Paul does on many occasions relate - albeit fleetingly - biographical details concerning the life of Jesus. He mentions, to give just a few examples, that Jesus was born of a woman (Gal 4:4), "was descended from David according to the flesh" (Rom 1:3-4), that he left instructions concerning divorce (1 Cor 7:10), that he had brothers (1 Cor 9:5) and that he "died" and "was buried" (1 Cor 15:3-4). Scarcely enlightening stuff, but enough to suggest that Paul understood Jesus as a human being rather than a purely heavenly one.

  • As an occasional writer (meaning one who wrote only when the occasion required it), writing only to churches he had played some part in founding, there may have been no need or opportunity to go into great details concerning what he knew about the historical Jesus. Presumably the recipients of his letters already knew what he knew concerning this topic, so there was no cause for Paul to provide these details gratuitously. 

Such arguments have merit, I think, and may even be sufficient to address the argument from silence by themselves. But there might be another reason for Paul's silence on the life of Jesus (and the lack of overlap with the Gospel material in his writings) that I don't often see addressed in relation to this problem. It concerns Paul's self-perception as an apostle.

Paul is frank in his writings that Jesus appeared to him "last of all, as to someone untimely born" (1 Cor 15:8) and that (for this reason?) he is "the least of the apostles" (v. 9). Although one might be struck by his humility in these verses, in other places he is rather more prickly and defensive concerning this subject. He, for instance, berates the Corinthians for being seduced by those who "proclaim another Jesus... or a different gospel" from the one he delivered to them, before going on to assert that he believes himself to be "not in the least inferior to these super-apostles" and is, in fact, a "better" minister of Christ than they (2 Cor 11:4-5; 12:11; 11:23). Quite who these "super-apostles" might be is not clear, but given the fact that they were apparently Jewish (2 Cor 11:22), is there not the possibility that they were allied with the Jerusalem Church2 and therefore heirs to a tradition that might have begun with the historical Jesus? Could these close ties be the source of Paul's jealousy and sarcastic derision?

Speculation aside, it does seem clear from other passages that Paul was tetchy concerning the teachings of those who actually knew Jesus and what they might have to say about him. In the first place, Paul emphatically asserts that he "did not receive [the gospel] from a human source" but rather "received it through a revelation" (Gal 1:12) and that after his conversion he "did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me" (vv. 16-17). Even when he did make it to Jerusalem, he refused to "see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother" and Peter (vv 18-19) and on his second trip claimed that "those who were supposed to be acknowledged leaders... contributed nothing to me" (Gal 2:6). His position here is rather unambiguous: what he knew about Jesus he knew only through divine revelation, and he had little interest in what the men who actually knew Jesus had to say about him (or what anybody else had to say, for that matter)3. Even if he had inherited material about the life of Jesus along the way, would it not be fair to presume that he might have been reluctant to include it in his letters for fear of privileging someone else's gospel over his own?

Could the reason that Paul didn't mention anything about the life of Jesus in his letters really be so petty? Did he really ignore the biographical material that eventually made its way into the Gospels for no reason more serious than the potential authority he felt it may have leant to James, Peter and the rest of the Jerusalem Church? It's difficult to muster conclusive evidence for this conclusion, but I certainly don't think it's a particularly outrageous thesis given the querulous tone he frequently adopts throughout his letters. In any case, along with the two other explanations I've give above, I think we seem to have a fairly convincing case for Paul's silence on Jesus.

(1) - See for examples Bart Ehrman's "Did Jesus Exist?"

(2) - We can see elsewhere what an acrimonious relationship Paul had with this Jerusalem Church, especially in his account of the debates within the early church concerning the role of Gentiles and the applicability of the Jewish law. In this matter, Paul saw himself plainly as an "an Apostle to the Gentiles" (Rom 11:13) and it seems that he was "entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised" (Gal 2:7) by common assent. As such, Paul was keen to assert that it should not be necessary for Gentiles newly inducted into the faith to observe Jewish requirements such as circumcision and dietary laws, contrary to the opinion of other Apostles in the early church. He saw his work with the gentiles being undermined by those "sent from James" (Gal 2:12), encouraging the practice of Jewish rites. He then opposed Peter "to his face" when Peter went from dining with gentiles to apparently only dining with Jews again (Gal 2:11)(Paul himself apparently was happy to "become as one outside the law" where the occasion called for it - 1 Cor 9:21).Such intrusions by James and his followers onto what Paul perceived as his own territory sufficiently angered him to wish for those advocating circumcision to "castrate themselves" (Gal 5:12) - this was apparently not seen as a minor matter!

(3) - "For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified." (1 Cor 2:2)

Monday, April 23, 2012

On Criticising Religion

"Suppose I live under a totalitarian regime that has indoctrinated
me to venerate its leaders and accept the state’s values. I might be happy,
yet inauthentically so: my happiness is not autonomous, for it depends on the
acceptance of values imposed on me through manipulative practices. This is a
problem. Is it a subjectivist problem? It is not a problem from the subjective
point of view: I wholeheartedly endorse my values and way of life. I see nothing
wrong with my circumstances. This affirmation may persist through reflection
and exposure to the facts. You might call my attention to my lack of autonomy,
the inauthenticity of my happiness. I might agree with you on this, but then say,
‘‘so what?’’ I do not value autonomy or authenticity. As far as I am concerned,
these are the decadent values of a pathologically individualistic society. Leave
me alone.
It is worth considering what is to be done with someone like me. Deprogramming
seems the only route to enlightenment."

- (Daniel Haybron, The Pursuit of Unhappiness, p. 207)

Few things are more difficult to objectively quantify than human happiness, but although any "hedonic calculus" will necessarily have its short-comings, the effort itself - to understand and measure happiness - remains a worthwhile one. In classical economic theory, one can measure human inclinations only in terms of material wants ("demand") and therefore define happiness purely in terms of fulfilling those wants. The rational agent, therefore, is one who maximises consumption.

There are at least two key problems with this homo economicus model. The first is that humans are not inherently "rational", at least not in terms of their capacity to dispassionately assess what actions may be in their best interest, and can on occasion be shown to act in ways which objectively serve to make themselves worse-off. A simple example is an experiment know as the "Ultimatum Game" which shows that people will reject the free provision of money on grounds as tendentious as "fairness", a proclivity that the "rational agent" approach to human nature cannot account for in its model.

The second unrealistic assumption of the "rational agent" model is that people can be made happy (or at least be satisfied) simply by getting what they want. In the first place (and this is something that classical economic models do, to their credit, accurately reflect) human wants are infinite, resources are not: hence the foundation of economics. Secondly, it scarcely needs pointing out that "getting one's own way" (particularly exclusively in the context of material satisfaction) is scarcely sufficient (or even necessary) to the living of a happy life. Do the lives of wanton excess lived by wealthy celebrities frequently lead to deep and lasting happiness?

Part of the reason for this misconception of human desire and happiness comes from the subjectivist account that people are ultimately capable of knowing what they want and that happiness emerges from the pursuit of that want. This is the basis of political and economic liberalism. People must be free to make decisions about their own lives, and it is not for us to make judgements about this: after all, how could we? Who are we to judge what is best for someone?

While this approach may hold some superficial appeal, again we require only a few simple examples to show that we all have limits on how willing we are to support this approach as an accurate reflection of human intentionality. Surely not even the most committed subjectivist, for instance, will agree that a severely depressed or otherwise mentally affected patient can have a better idea of what is in his best interests than the doctor treating him? Would we not be remiss if - in the name of self-determination - we supported without judgement his decision to refuse all medical treatment? Or how about the wife who finds herself regularly beaten by her husband? Would we take seriously her denouements that her marriage is making her happy? Of course not. Such an example demonstrates that - at least in certain cases - we can make the objective judgement that certain decisions that people make are likely to lead to unhappiness, or at least constrain their capacity for self-actualisation in some significant way. We should not withhold the provision of advice to those suffering in cases such as these, and I believe that our realm of empathetic concern should be expanded even further.

Although the "beaten wife" serves as a provocative, perhaps extreme example, I believe that we can be similarly objective in our negative judgements concerning the effect of fundamentalist religions on the mental health of believers. As much as they may protest and insist that their beliefs make them happy, even a cursory examination of their lives betrays patterns of behaviour that severely impinge on their capacity to enjoy anything even approaching "happiness". An integral part of being happy (or at least a consequence of happiness), I think, lies in the ease with which one can socialise with one's fellow human beings. We can see intuitively that the social behaviour of happy person will consist in relaxed and broadly cheerful, egalitarian behaviour with others, where the behaviour of the unhappy person will probably be governed by mistrust, resentment and crippling awkwardness. It may be too easy here to simply point to the almost disconcerting lack of social skills common to religious fundamentalists, but there is also a darker, more serious side to their asocial tendencies.

A key feature of religious fundamentalism (at least of the Abrahamic variety) lies in its exclusivism: that is to say, that the dogmas of these faiths are not only true, but true to the exclusion of all others. This creates a clearly defined in and out group, where the syncretic consideration of ideas from the "out group" are to be fiercely resisted as a matter of course. Plainly, such an adversarial conception of the world is not condusive to healthy human relationships with those seen to be in the "out group", hence the proclivity to either recede from the world or to establish hysterical persecution fantasies in which the beleaguered believers must stand firm against a great (though nebulously defined) enemy. For fundamentalist Christians we need only look at the paranoid treatment of homosexuals (who, it is often believed, are united in some shadowy, pan-global conspiracy to undermine traditional Christian values for some reason) to witness how pathetically warped dispositions to outsiders can become under fundamentalist religion.

Another important cause of (or at least indication of) happiness lies in positive self-image; or, to put it more generally, "feeling comfortable within one's own skin". Highly negative self-appraisal will invariably lead to unhappiness in one's life, if it isn't already an indicator of outright depression. In fundamentalist religions, there are few functions of the human body that are not viewed with strict disapprobation if not complete disgust. Sex is an obvious place to begin, with normal human sexuality derided as sinful under all but a few prescribed conditions. In the stricter expressions of sharia Islam, disgust at the human body can manifest itself in an almost puerile obsession with almost all bodily functions, regardless of their necessity. Virtually all substances produced by the body render one haram, or unclean. How can one have a positive self-image when one sees even the most mundane functions of one's body as abominable in the eyes of the omniscient creator of the universe?

People may say that we should leave believers alone - that they have made their choice, that it makes them happy, and that that should be the boundary of our concern. In some ways, indeed, we must be prepared to acknowledge that the quest to confront religious beliefs is at best Quixotic and at worst unduly intrusive and obnoxious. However, we should also acknowledge that certain patterns of religious belief can be seen to constrain the believer's potential for an authentic, self-fulfilling life. To this extent, we would be doing her an injustice by not pointing out the damaging, self-constraining nature of her beliefs, much the same as if we were to ignore any other forms of self-harm.

Now there may be the objection that religious beliefs have the potential to expand (rather than contract) one's engagement with the world. Certainly such outcomes are possible (theological beliefs may, for example, serve to expand one's realm of concern under the guise of agape, or generalised, fraternal love) but such religious proclivities are assuredly not the ones targeted in this post. My point is not that religious beliefs should be targeted indiscriminately or irrespective of their content, but rather that religious beliefs which restrict free, happy and authentic behaviour should not be allowed to propagate without opposition. Whether or not they are likely to accept it at the time, the airing of such opposition can be shown to objectively help people. If we are capable of facing views that contradict our own without suffering unduly for it, it is surely the height of arrogance to presume that fundamentalist believers will react any differently. Let us not be patronising: we are all adults, capable of exercising the power of reason and changing our minds. There is literally no good reason to deny someone else this same opportunity for self-growth.

Perhaps a more pertinent and practical objection can be raised about the appropriateness of interjecting our opinions where they haven't been solicited. It is, I agree, a fine line which separates honest outspokenness from the kind of reverse proselytism that has unfortunately characterised much publicly-aired atheism in recent years. Clearly choosing the appropriate battles requires a degree of tact that may not easily be taught, but - as a broad rule - it seems that publicly broadcast beliefs are almost always fair game. If one wishes to enter one's beliefs into the public realm, one cannot claim to be offended when such beliefs are the subject of criticism from others. The right to be criticised (or offended!) is both the cost and the privilege of employing one's right to free-speech. It could be objected that religious beliefs occupy a private realm that critics have no business imposing themselves upon, but - by definition - a truly private belief could not be known to anyone else. It therefore behoves us not to engage in a priori attacks on one's religion before we are in possession of all the necessary facts, but public beliefs are not entitled to such protection. Once a belief is uttered publicly, one forfeits all claims to exclusive possession of this belief: it is now a part of the public sphere, for the rest of us to address as we wish.

It's not clear that such a approach will help to erode confidence in fundamentalist beliefs or rather simply further entrench the fundamentalists in their marginal positions, but I think such concerns are largely beyond our control. If a fundamentalist wishes to be offended, or to believe that she is being heroically persecuted for what she believes, then she will be able to do so quite independently of anything we might think to say. If they are going to claim persecution anyway, there is surely little we can say to make it worse. Besides, as Christopher Hitchens pointed out, "argument [is] valuable, indeed essential, for its own sake". As a consequence of an argument, we can expect to find our beliefs either strengthened or exposed as folly by its end. For either eventuality, we should all find ourselves thankful.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Religion and Archaic Language

One curious feature of religious belief is its desire to protect (or even resurrect) archaic forms of language in its modern, everyday practice. Such examples are almost too numerous to mention, but include:

  • The use of archaic forms of Arabic among radical Muslims.1
  • The persistence of Latin in the Catholic mass long after it had fallen into disuse in all other social arenas.
  • The rendering of The Book of Mormon (a mid-19th century document) in 16th century English.
  • The persistent presence of KJV-exclusivism in various modern Protestant sects.
  • The persistence of Hebrew language as an entirely liturgical language from around the 2nd century until its rehabilitation in the late 19th century.

Objectively, this feature of religious expression is difficult to account for. In almost every other situation that calls for the use of human language, the evocation of archaic forms would be detrimental to the clarity of the speaker's message. Why employ language that is no longer in wide-circulation if you want to be understood? What could possibly explain the drive to shroud one's message with such deliberately abstruse prose? The answer, predictably enough, is that religious language differs substantively from everyday language.

In most uses of language, the general inclination is to make ones position as explicit as possible by reducing any potential ambiguity in what one wishes to say. "Sarah Smith holds a rose in her hand", for instance, is less ambiguous than "Sarah holds a flower in her hand", though this latter sentence is itself less ambiguous than "She holds it in her hand". Let us call the first sentence fully-propositional since its meaning is clear without any further elaboration, and let us call the last sentence semi-propositional,  as while it may take the same, general form (syntactically) as a fully-propositional statement, it cannot be properly understood without further refinement, elaboration or explicit contextual clues. In everyday communication, our language is generally composed of fully-prepositional forms; that is, forms that convey a meaning that is not entirely undermined by ambiguity2 and possess a determinate content that can be judged as being either true or false.3
    In religious language, however, ambiguity must not be seen as an inherently undesirable outcome of language use. In fact, as many atheists have fondly pointed-out over the years, religious language often has a decidedly slippery or woolly quality that seems to shield it from direct critique. The argument made by William Downes in this book is that this is no mere accidental quality of religious language, but rather an integral part of it. More specifically, Downes sees the preponderance of semi-propositional forms as being a central and inexorable aspect in the formation (and success) of religious ideas.

    Take, for instance, the rather unassuming sentence "God exists in heaven". It looks like a fully-prepositional statement in form, and the meaning - on a naive reading - may seem to be relatively clear, but the point is that such clarity is deceptive. Two people cannot agree on what is signified by the word "God" in the same way they may reach an agreement on what is signified by "Sarah Smith": one's definition of the former is shaped largely by subjective experience and cannot be anchored by anything that can be pointed to objectively. In this sense, "God" is an ambiguous and highly variable term that is scarcely more explicit in meaning than the pronoun "she". Heaven suffers from similar problems; again, given the impossibility of finding an objectively shared meaning of this word between any two people, we can scarcely say it is any less ambiguous than the word "it". Even the word exists is problematic, since it is obvious (according to most theological tenets) that God doesn't "exist" in the same sense that other objects in the universe "exist". In other words, even a mundane religious utterance like "God exists in heaven" renders itself completely immune to unambiguous explication and must therefore be recognised as semi-propositional in nature.

    However - and this is the important part - simply because religious language is frequently semi-propositional in nature, that is not to say that it is not at all meaningful. In fact, the very ambiguity of language allows words like "God" to be used with a kind of free-wheeling multi-valency that simply isn't possible with words like "rose". Its inherent ambiguity allows religious language to produce an almost inexhaustible supply of meaningful inferences that can be applied to almost any situation encountered. To the extent that it doesn't over-reach and creep into domains better expressed using fully-propositional forms (we might call such domains the world of the "profane") religion can create a web of self-referential meaning that is almost infinitely pliable and profoundly salient within the mind of the believer.

    With respect to the archaic forms of language I introduced at the beginning of this post, I hope it is becoming clear why such language forms are preserved in almost all religious traditions. The archaic language keeps it out of the "profane" domains of fully-propositional language4, and preserves it within its own hermetically-sealed domain of the "sacred". To the extent that archaic language is incomprehensible, so much the better for the inferential salience of religious concepts. This not the only reason for the use of such language within the praxis of religion, however, and I shall explore the other possibility - the importance of ancient authority in religions - in a subsequent post.


    (1) "The fascination of [Islamic] fundamentalism is... bound up with language. Their leaders try to speak pure Arabic, untainted by dialects or foreign words... The Arabic spoken by modern fundamentalists is often appallingly trite, puritanical, conformist and, in fact, artificial. It is, however, perceived as pure and religious, mythical and, in a dull, banal sense, sublime. The mere code of the language becomes a tool used to legitimate their claim to the status of a sacred authority." - The Blackwell Companion to the Quran, pp. 116-117.

    (2) Of course, all language contains some degree of ambiguity given the inherent poverty of language to adequately convey a concept from one mind to another, but I hope it is clear why the final of the three sentences can be said to be incomprehensibly ambiguous (in the absence of any context) in a manner that the first sentence is not.

    (3) Not in any absolute senses of the terms, but rather in principle.

    (4) I think this is why translations of the Bible which use contemporary English (usually for the edification of teenagers etc.) sound so campy: the "sacred" and "profane" domains are in conflict, which the brain struggles to reconcile in any way that doesn't utilise the release valve of laughter.

    Monday, April 16, 2012

    Why Were the Gospels Written?

    When analysing an ancient religious text, one of the first tasks we must set ourselves is to identify which religious genre it aspires to. This is not merely a banal, intellectual exercise in literary taxonomy, but rather is integral to our framing of the text, and to shaping our understanding of it. To use concrete examples, we would be remiss to read the poetic Book of Job as belonging to the same religious genre as the Book of Kings, which aspires to be a work of history. In the New Testament, we plainly can't approach the apocalyptic work of Revelation in the same way we might approach the epistolary works of Paul (though there is some eschatological overlap in this case). Or, to use a more contemporary case, our attitude to a work will be plainly different depending on whether it claims to be a work of "science" or a work of "science-fiction". In all of these cases, our understanding of the genre of the texts will inexorably shape our disposition towards them before we have begun to read a single passage.

    With regards to the gospels, the attempt to fit them into pre-existing genres has been met with failure, or - at best - controversy. Some scholars see the gospels as conforming to the structures of the ancient Greek genre of the bios, which we can roughly categorise as the fore-runner to our modern literary genre of "biography". In the Graeco-Roman world, this genre was largely hortatory: that is, the lives of great figures were invoked as examples of the "good life" and the "facts", such that they were, were generally of secondary importance to the ethics. Still others have attempted to link the gospels to other ancient genres, for instance that of tragedy, myth or - most interestingly - that of the Homeric poems. Perhaps more commonly, though, scholars are prone to see the gospels as works of "theologised history" or "historicised theology" (depending on their skeptical inclinations) emerging from the same religious tradition as the "historical" books of the Old Testament.1

    I'm not going to tackle such disputes here, but I am rather more interested in the categorisation of the gospels as "evangelical" works: that is to say, works constructed with the expressed purpose of spreading the "good news" about Jesus so as (presumably) to win over new converts into the faith. Sometimes this case is made implicitly, other times explicitly (e.g. the continuing designation of the authors of the gospels as the "evangelisers"), but such an assumption - and a largely unfounded one at that - can unfortunately serve to prejudice our readings of the texts by seducing us into believing certain things about the intentions of the authors that may have no basis in reality. For the non-Christian especially, the a priori assumption that the gospel authors are trying to deceive us into accepting a particular theological claim may lead us towards a degree of antipathy and skepticism towards the texts that frankly aren't warranted.

    That is not to say that the gospel authors didn't have an agenda (or, rather, four largely separate agendas) that we must treat carefully when we read the texts. All authors, of course, present a necessarily subjective view of the world which shapes what they write, consciously or otherwise. In the gospel texts, we must recognise that they are primarily works of theology (pace our earlier discussion concerning the uncertainty of assigning the gospels to particular genres) that we cannot approach with the naive assumption that the authors are attempting to provide us with a dispassionate, factual history of events in first-century Palestine. Nonetheless, the kind of untethered skepticism levelled at the gospel texts by many non-believers (especially the "Jesus-Mythicists") is rather an overcorrection and stems in part I think from the implicit assumption that the gospel authors, in their "evangelism", must have been necessarily duplicitous in what they had written so as to better appeal to potential followers.2

    It is this assumption of evangelism laying behind the gospels that I wish to address here. Specifically, I reject the idea of the gospels being composed for primarily evangelical purposes for the following reasons:

    • 1) The evidence seems pretty clear (based on almost total lack of surviving manuscripts) that the gospels were not in wide-circulation until at least the 3rd century. That is, even if the gospels were written as evangelising tools (introducing the good news about Jesus to as wide a population as possible) they were certainly not utilised that way.  
    • 2) As a corollary to the first point, the gospels went almost completely uncited by early Christian authors until the late 2nd century. Even then, they appear to have been used primarily in a sectarian context as evidence for the (proto-)Orthodox position against more "heretical" forms of Christianity rather than as a proselytising tool for convincing those completely outside the faith.  
    • 3) Low literacy rates in the ancient world (perhaps as low as 2%) rendered the book as a tool for the wide dissemination of beliefs rather ineffective. If one wanted to understand the content of the gospels one would either need to be either wealthy and well-placed in society (and it does seem to be true that early Christianity was relatively successful within this demographic) or else be part of a community where it would be possible to hear the texts read aloud (i.e. already a member of a church).
    • 4) The content of the gospels don't seem to have been constructed with a proselytising goal in mind. That is, much of their content must strike one as unusual or counter-productive if their primary intention was to convince outsiders of the veracity of Christian claims.  

    To elaborate on the final point, the Gospel of Mark (which serves as the archetype for the three latter gospels) contains a motif of secrecy that is difficult for even modern scholars of Christianity to make sense of. How would someone ignorant of (proto-)Christian theology in the ancient near-East have approached such claims? Why - if his goal was broad evangelism - did Mark leave so much of his theology implicit, including the resurrection of Christ? Who could have been won over by such an opaque text?

    The other gospels present similar problems. For instance, given the prominence of Jewish themes and the reliance on the OT in the construction of its narrative, it is widely suspected that the Gospel of Matthew was created with the intent to evalgelise to a more Jewish audience. If that is so, the antipathy towards the Jews in this gospel is difficult to understand (e.g. the infamous "blood libel" verse at Mt. 27:25). The Gospel of Luke, often seen to have been written as a gospel for the "gentiles", is similarly difficult to comprehend as a primarily evangelical work. As N.T. Wright notes, "if one started off simply wanting to address an apologia for early Christianity to Roman authorities, one would not necessarily produce a work like Luke-Acts. There is far too much material which seems extraneous; comparison with the work of Aristides, Justin and the other second-century apologists reveals enormous differences". He adds in the footnotes the observation that "no Roman official would have waded through so much (to him) irrelevant material to reach so small an apologia"3. Additionally, Luke seems in his introduction to the gospel to be addressing his work to a specific individual, or - at best - individuals already initiated into the faith.4

    The Gospel of John seems like a better place to start if one wishes to make the case that the gospels were composed with an evangelical intent in mind given its pronouncement that "these [signs] are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name" (Jn. 20:31), but even here there are problems. Firstly there are (as with gMark) secretive elements of the gospel that would appear to be counter-productive in a broader evangelical context. The rather abstruse imagery concerning various dualisms (light / dark etc.) must make for difficult work for the uninitiated, and its persistent use of the otherwise unnamed "beloved disciple" likewise betrays a certain assumption of pre-existing familiarity with the Johannine community. We can also infer from the gospel and the related epistles (i.e. 1-3 John) that this community was rather isolated from the Jewish community at large (based on passages in the gospel concerning expulsion from synagogues), had difficult relationships with other Christian communities (3 John 10) and imposed fairly strict conditions of membership within the community (1 John 2:19; 2 John 10). Put together, such evidence indicates a fairly bleak prospect of this community ever successfully producing a deliberately evangelical work.

    So while I cannot for certain say what may have motivated the "evangelisers" to pen the gospels (though - for what it is worth - I lean towards the "historicised-theology" supposition touched on earlier) I certainly don't think that evangelism (at least in the sense of evangelising to a wide, uncommitted audience) can be posited as their primary motivation. If a solution to this problem is to be found, we must look for it elsewhere.

        (1) See especially N.T. Wright below.

        (2) Quite what their purpose might have been in collectively and nakedly lying to fulfil these ends is not clear. I suppose it might be assumed that with these lies about the resurrected Son of God they were reaching for power and influence over a progressively larger proportion of the population (a prime motivating force in modern proselytism, it must be said) but it certainly didn't help the early Christians, who were (with varying degrees of ferocity) marginalised and persecuted for their beliefs. That is, if one wants to suggest some fraudulent or conspiratorial explanation for the content of early Christian beliefs, one must also explain why it failed so miserably in a political context, at least until the 4th century. Or, to put it another way, why would they have been motivated to lie when it is plain that such mendacity didn't advance their position at all? It's easy enough to trace the trajectory of early Christian beliefs in terms of natural theological developments without needing to invoke malevolent intentions on behalf of its earliest practitioners.

        (3) The New Testament and the People of God (Volume 1: Christian Origins and the Question of God), p 376.

        (4) It's true that the "Theophilus" in Lk. 1:3 may be a general honorific (="god lover"), but even in this case it is clear that he is writing to individuals who "have been instructed" into the faith already (Lk. 1:4) and therefore scarcely in need of further convincing.