I’m excited to have Dr. Trevan Hatch on the show. He’s a Jewish Studies scholar! Trevan works at the Harold B Lee Library and teaches New Testament classes at BYU. We’re going to cover historicity of the Gospels. What are common misconceptions of the Christmas story? Did Jesus ask Judas and Peter to betray and deny him? Are the Gospels historically reliable? Were Pharisees friends, rather than enemies of Jesus? I think Dr. Hatch’s answers will surprise you as we take a deep dive into the Gospels and the life of Jesus. Check out our conversation…
What Do We Get Wrong with Christmas Story?
Trevan 22:09 Even if you really want to be provocative, there’s complications with him even being in Bethlehem. So, some of the scholarship is that he was never there. And if you take all the Gospels and look at it and find out where the incongruities are, they’re from Nazareth. Why are they in Bethlehem? Well, the standard answer is that there’s a census, in the days of Quirinius. There’s no census mentioned anywhere. You know, Josephus doesn’t mention it. There’s no census mentioned anywhere. That’s a big deal, because that would have been so big, where everyone was traveling throughout the Roman Empire, going back to their ancestral lands to pay taxes? I mean, a thousand years before? Not like that, to have how many million? So, just 6 to 8 million Jews, like forget everybody else, just 6 to 8 million Jews traveling on all the highways, going back to wherever town.
GT 22:53 Is that how big Jerusalem was back then, or Israel, I guess I should say?
Trevan 22:57 I’m using data from scholars who do demographic studies and their estimate of 6 to 8 million Jews in the Roman Empire. So, it’s in the diaspora and it’s also in Galilee.
GT 23:06 So, that includes Italy, and…
Trevan 23:08 Yeah, everywhere. Can you imagine? So, just that point alone is not, it’s okay. I mean, there’s no evidence of there’s– maybe there could have been there for another reason. And that’s fine. And maybe they were in Bethlehem, but scholars say it’s a little bit suspicious, because they want to tie, especially Matthew, wants to tie Jesus to David. And David’s from there. And Micah mentions this prophecy.
GT 23:36 So, was the census made up then? Well, it seems like most people who date the birth of Jesus, ignore the census because it doesn’t make sense. There’s no evidence of it. And so most people tie his birth to the death of Herod, right?
Trevan 23:37 I think so, in Luke. Yeah, I think it’s made up. Because Luke has to get, they have to have a reason for Jesus to be in Bethlehem. This is not so scandalous. I’ve heard our colleague, Jeff Chadwick, who is an archaeologist, and he does some Jewish Studies. He studied at Hebrew University. He’s one of our senior archaeologists here. And he wrote a self-published a book called Stone Manger. And he’s very orthodox, and he’s teaches in religion. Even he says in his book, there’s no census. It’s impossible. It can’t happen. So, we don’t have to throw out the story that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but there is some scholarship, there are some complications for why they would be there. Yeah, 4 BCE. So Jesus would have had to have been born 4-6 BC, somewhere in that range.
Did Jesus Ask Judas to Betray Him?
GT 38:07 I’ve heard speculation that–we get into Judas, Judas is kind of the definition of anti-Semitism, right? He betrayed Jesus and he was a horrible person. But, I know, I heard somewhere that Jesus said, “One of you will betray me.” And, it was almost as if Jesus was saying, “I’m going to pick one of you to betray me, and you need to do that.” Not that–in the gospels it says that the devil was in Judas’ heart, and he was worried about…
Trevan 39:46 That’s one of the theories. And so when we go through, there’s different [possibilities.] Let’s walk through it. There’s three or four different, I guess, topics or aspects of this Judas material. And then we can say, Okay, if we’re thinking like a scholar, how do we understand these three or four topics? The first one is, what Judas’ motive was. What’s his motive? We don’t have a clear answer. There’s no unified understanding in early Christian communities of what his motives are.
GT 40:25 It turns Jesus into a manipulator, basically. Right?
Trevan 40:27 Yeah, yeah. Like, if he’s going to have somebody do something that has to be done to fulfill some goal, it’s kind of like Abraham. Abraham was asked to do this horrible thing, but he didn’t end up doing it, but it exalted him. So, he’s going to ask Judas to do this, and then Judas is going to do it, it’s going to lead to his depression and death and his legacy disgraced. So, those are all the different things we wrestle with. So his motives, we don’t have an answer of why.
GT 40:29 Maybe Matthias had already replaced Judas? Probably not.
Trevan 42:11 I don’t know. Not right when he showed up in the 40 days when he was with them. So, I raise all those questions, and then my argument is, (it takes 10 pages to get through the argument.) My argument is that if Judas was like many of the other Jews at the time, including Jesus’s own followers, where Peter, in many instances, sees Jesus as the Messiah. He says in Caesarea Philippi, “You’re not going to be killed. What do you mean you’re going to be killed? Basically you’re a Messiah. That’s not going to happen.” In Paul, I think, in First Corinthians, he says that Jesus’s death was a “scandalon,” a stumbling block for Jews. It’s a scandal for Jews. This is why I’m [Paul] having a hard time talking with Jews. So he goes out and starts bringing in Gentiles, which we’ll talk about later. But he knows that this is a problem for Jews that a Messiah would die.
Pharisees Were Friends (not enemies) of Jesus
Trevan: So you get a sense that now here’s the Sadducees, who were a priestly group, are now forced to follow the rulings of the Pharisees. But everyone hates them [Sadducees,] everyone. The Pharisees hate them. The populace hates them. All over Josephus, the Sadducean and the other priestly establishment that might not be Sadducean, they’re not popular with the masses. We have riot after riot after riot in Josephus, and sometimes even in the gospels. When they’re in Jerusalem, it says that they feared the people. I mentioned all that to show that there’s these different groups. And there’s this power structure, this power struggle.
And now, if you want to hear my argument about the Pharisees and Jesus, in making a book, a lot of us will come together. When Jesus comes on the scene, after He’s baptized, and he start his ministry, we noticed that there are Pharisees that are following him around. They’re constantly around. Right? And the default explanation for Latter-day Saints or most Christians is what?
GT 09:15 They are trying to trap him.
Trevan 09:16 All the time! That doesn’t make sense to me, though. And Matthew does this all the time. Matthew formulaically puts Pharisees and Sadducees together, traipsing around the Galilee, following Jesus on the Sabbath in a cornfield saying, “You can’t eat that corn. It’s the Sabbath.” That’s hyperbole. That’s a literary [device.] He’s got some rhetorical literary goals. The Pharisees are not hanging out with the Sadducees. Josephus makes this clear that they’re enemies. Even in Acts, Paul is put up there in the Sanhedrin. And he knows that they hate each other. And he mentions resurrection and then they start this big fight, Sadducees versus Pharisees. Because Pharisees believe in resurrection, Sadducees don’t. They didn’t like each other. Josephus says that the Sadducees control the Sanhedrin. But they also had to have the notables among the Pharisees to participate. Why? Because they had the support of the populace.
So that doesn’t make sense to me that Pharisees are following Jesus around to entrap or to trap Him and to jab him and kill him. I see this as a cordial relationship. And the reason why I say this is because I break down every Pharisee episode. There’s 38 episodes, if I remember correctly, 38 different settings and episodes where the Pharisees are mentioned. They’re mentioned 98-99 times in 38 episodes. So I go through and I analyze every single episode. And I found that more than half of them are very positive. They come to Him. They ask him a question. They call him master. There’s a very cordial thing. There’s one instance where Jesus in Luke where Jesus is giving a big sermon. And a Pharisee steps up and interrupts him, and then asked him to be a guest in one of these mealtime symposia. So Jesus leaves. What are the implications of all that?
Number one, people supported the Pharisees. They didn’t hate the Pharisees. Otherwise, they would have been mad and rioted against this guy. Why are you interrupting him? They respect this guy. They let him interrupt. Then Jesus goes with him, and everything’s peaceful. And then now, this doesn’t represent all Pharisees. But that one Pharisee, or whoever this Pharisees he is eating with, he brings Jesus in. So, I look at every single one of those episodes, and I show that half of them are positive. There are 17 episodes that appear to be negative just from a superficial reading. We think, “Oh, this is negative.” Some things show some contention here. But then I analyze them, and most of those aren’t. So another example, in fact I’ve got the references. I couldn’t remember. There’s so many. Okay, this is in Matthew 21, where this is the last week of Jesus’s life. Jesus goes to the temple. And in Matthew it says the chief priests and the elders approached Jesus. They were going to arrest him. And it says that the populace saw Jesus as a prophet. And so, the chief priests were scared. Remember that? So, they left. They weren’t going to arrest him because they feared all the people. And they sent back Pharisees to trap Jesus. Okay, that doesn’t make sense to me. Because we know the relationship between chief priests and Pharisees. You’re not just going to Pharisees doing the dirty work of priests. Even if the Pharisees were aligned with the chief priests, why would the chief priests leave and send back Pharisees who everyone hates to talk to Jesus? Like the fact that they’re sending Pharisees back means that people trusted the Pharisees. And Jesus is sitting there talking to him.
Are Gospels Historical?
GT 1:00:53 So how much of the Gospels are historical then? Can you put a percent on it?
Trevan 1:00:58 That’s a good question.
GT 1:00:59 Because it sounds like–I mean, in your book, you went into so much detail about this story mirrors this story. The story mirrors this story. And the question comes in, can we believe that anything is historical? We talked about the Jesus Seminar with the beads. Did this really happen?
Trevan: We can say anything we want in Church. We don’t know what Jesus said to Caiaphas. He died after that. So how do we know that conversation? How do we know? We don’t know what he said. And some of my colleagues will say, “Yeah, but Jesus gave it in revelation. He revealed it to the author of Matthew, and Matthew wrote it.” Okay. I mean, that doesn’t really fit with what we know about revelation. How many revelations are given where they’re writing detail? And not only that, Matthew is not even in agreement with Mark. They are not even in agreement. So, if it was a revealed conversation, within 10 years, it’s complicated because now Luke doesn’t agree with Matthew and we don’t have the revelation. Right?
GT 1:10:41 Yeah. I mean, as LDS, we like to say, “We believe the Bible is the Word of God as far as it’s translated correctly.” But then you hear the stories that the Woman at the Well, that wasn’t in the original texts. And then, the short ending of Mark that the resurrection didn’t happen. And there’s no birth story. And for some people, I think those can lead to a crisis of faith and say, “Well, can I can I trust anything? I mean, there are plenty of people who say that the Book of Mormon is… like inspiring fiction or something. I mean, there will be people Bart Ehrman, I guess would be one of those. Are the Gospels just fanfiction for Jesus? Is it like “Tennis Shoes Among the Nephites,” essentially? How would you respond to that?
Trevan 1:11:36 Okay, if my students asked that question in class, is this just made up stuff? And I’d say no. I mean, all semester long. We’ve looked at Jesus. We’ve looked at all these different scenarios, the mealtime symposia, the rift between Paul and Peter. There’s clearly a story here. There’s clearly somebody who was killed, who was believed to be a messianic candidate. In other words, people thought he might be the Messiah, or a miracle worker. He had followers. There are traditions about where he died, and where he was born, where he died. All that’s there. And so the stories, these parables, some of them go. I don’t think the author of Matthew & Mark are just making up a bunch of parables out of thin air like these brilliant parables. I do think a lot of that is oral tradition coming from the teachings of Jesus. Sometimes they change them, or they see that Jesus said something, but they don’t know the context. And so they create a context. Like in one example is when Jesus comes out of the temple with his apostles. In it, the Apostle said, “Look Jesus. What great big stones there are!” That’s a child’s way to say something. Look what big teeth you have. Do you know what I mean? They know what the temple is. They’ve been there many times. So for them to come out of the temple and pretend like they’ve never seen it. “Look, Jesus what big stones there are.” That’s because the writer doesn’t have the context. The oral tradition is that Jesus said, not one of these stones will be left upon [another.] There’s tradition that Jesus maybe prophesied of this. That’s oral tradition. He prophesied of the destruction of the temple, but they don’t know the setting. So they create the setting. It is coming out. So that’s all it is. I think it’s still historical. Right? It’s just we have to be careful about how we interpret and how we use it, and why we know what we know.
How reliable do you think the gospels are, historically? Are you surprised the census and Herod’s death don’t line up? Is the New Testament historical fiction? Have you considered other interpretations of Judas and Peter’s actions?
I believe that John Pratt gives very reasonable explanations for why Jesus was born on April 6, 1 BC. He resolves the census question, the death of Herod and why it couldn’t have been at the assumed 4BC date, etc. https://johnpratt.com/items/docs/herod/herod.html
Rick B, to answer the starter questions, I don’t think the gospels are historically that reliable. They can’t even agree on fairly significant details of the story of Jesus’s life and ministry (John especially), but, when you dig into how, when, and by whom the gospels were most likely written, it becomes less surprising that the gospels aren’t all that reliable. You run into the same problems with the gospels that you do with the traditional Latter-day Saint narrative of the Restoration. When you start to look at the details (or more likely have someone like Bart Ehrman or Reza Aslan start pointing them out to you), you start to see the seams.
Historical Fiction does not at all correctly define the meaning of scripture. First the tools used to write scripture, were absolutely accepted by the elite , in other words..the acceptance that what was written was to conform with their lack of knowledge regarding history, and objective reality was known. It was known that the facts were not as important as the spiritual truths beyond those facts..think platonic. Sacred History (meaning using inspiration and a form of writing cultural history regarding sacred things and an inspired writer getting the info from Elohim or Theos were combined , known and accepted as a link to the divine….Historical Fiction as a term does not explain this. Presentism has no word for this that entails a deeper meaning. I suggest to you Sacred Symbolic History, which allows true objective reality to be mixed with spiritual knowledge and inspiration….the term Faith..means , assuming this was fact and true…what is the “meaning” presented by the divine to you. Also assuming there is a meaning and that , that meaning trumps the truth of objective reality…again think platonic.
“the term Faith..means , assuming this was fact and true…what is the “meaning” presented by the divine to you.” No. Faith means assuming something is fact without any evidence to substantiate it,
We talk a lot about shelves breaking. I think it’s safe to say I had two shelves in the years leading up to my faith crisis: my Joseph Smith shelf and my Jesus shelf. Learning about the historicity of the Book of Mormon broke my JS shelf but it wasn’t until much later that learning about NT historicity broke my Jesus shelf too.
This is really timely because I just started listening to one of my favorite historical podcasts, and they are doing an episode about Jesus Christ that covers a lot of these topics as well. Here’s a link: https://shows.acast.com/the-rest-is-history-podcast/episodes/287-jesus-christ-the-mystery
I really enjoyed your write up of this interview. Great stuff. So rare to hear this kind of fantastic analysis from an LDS source, a BYU professor no less. No tea, no shade, but 99% of what I hear from the Church on the New Testament, including (checks notes) every apostle who has ever spoken on this topic is just so utterly lacking in critical reading skills that it drives me nuts. The harmonization of the gospels is one such approach that is just really really braindead. Dr. Hatch has restored my faith in the possibility that someone on the inside actually knows how to read and do history!
“. . .every apostle who has ever spoken on this topic is just so utterly lacking in critical reading skills that it drives me nuts.”
A preacher of righteousness need not be a scholar.
When you think about it, the Book of Mormon is really not all that much more ridiculous than the regular gospels.
The gospels are chock full of supernatural passages, therefore untrustworthy. Furthermore, two of them appear to have copied a third almost completely. (That “Chosen” series should show Matthew copying off Mark.)
“Judas” did not really exist. The 12 represent the 12 tribes.Judas stands for Judah, He represents early Christian hate for “the Jews.”
We cannot know, even approximately, when Jesus was born, or how old he was when he died.
Jesus as a Pharisee is plausible, but he was also an apocalyptic follower of John, who thought the world was coming to an end.