The Gospels contain very few passages which give rise to a confrontation with modern scientific data.
Firstly however, there are many descriptions referring to miracles which hardly lend themselves to scientific comment. The miracles concern people-the healing of the sick (the insane, blind, paralytic ; the healing of lepers, resurrection of Lazarus) as well as the purely material phenomena that lie outside the laws of nature (the description of Jesus walking on water that held him up, the changing of the water into wine). Sometimes a natural phenomenom is seen from an unusual angle by virtue of the fact that the time element is very short: the immediate calming of the storm, the instantaneous withering of the fig tree, the miracle catch of fish, as if all the fish in the sea had come together at exactly the place where the nets were cast.
God intervenes in His Omnipotent Power in all these episodes. One need not be surprised by what He is able to achieve; by human standards it is stupendous, but for Him it is not. This does not at all mean that a believer should forget science. A belief in divine miracles and in science is quite compatible: one is on a divine scale, the other on a human one.
Personally, I am very willing to believe that Jesus cured a leper, but I cannot accept the fact that a text is declared authentic and inspired by God when I read that only twenty generations existed between the first man and Abraham. Luke says this in his Gospel (3, 23-28). We shall see in a moment the reasons that show why Luke's text, like the Old Testament text on the same theme, is quite simply a product of human imagination.
The Gospels (like the Quran) give us the same description of Jesus's biological origins. The formation of Jesus in the maternal uterus occurred in circumstances which lay outside the laws of nature common to all human beings. The ovule produced by the mother's ovary did not need to join with a spermatozoon, which should have come from his father, to form the embryo and hence a viable infant. The phenomenon of the birth of a normal individual without the fertilizing action of the male is called 'parthenogenesis'. In the animal kingdom, parthenogenesis can be observed under certain conditions. This is true for various insects, certain invertebrates and, very occasionally, a select breed of bird. By way of experiment, it has been possible, for example, in certain mammals (female rabbits), to obtain the beginnings of a development of the ovule into an embryo at an extremely rudimentary stage without any intervention of spermatozoon. It was not possible to go any further however and an example of complete parthenogenesis, whether experimental or natural, is unknown. Jesus is an unique case. Mary was a virgin mother. She preserved her virginity and did not have any children apart from Jesus. Jesus is a biological exception. [ The Gospels sometimes refer to Jesus's 'brothers' and 'sisters' (Matthew l3, 46-60 and 64-68; Mark 6, 1-6; John 7, 3 and 2, 12). The Greek words used, adelphoi and adelphai, indeed signify biological brothers and sisters; they are most probably a defective translation of the original Semitic words which just mean 'kin'. in this instance they were perhaps cousins.]
The two genealogies contained in Matthew's and Luke's Gospels give rise to problems of verisimilitude, and conformity with scientific data, and hence authenticity. These problems are a source of great embarrassment to Christian commentators because the latter refuse to see in them what is very obviously the product of human imagination. The authors of the Sacerdotal text of Genesis, Sixth century B.C., had already been inspired by imagination for their genealogies of the first men. It again inspired Matthew and Luke for the data they did not take from the Old Testament.
One must straight away note that the male genealogies have absolutely no relevance to Jesus. Were one to give a genealogy to Mary's only son, who was without a biological father, it would have to be the genealogy of his mother Mary.
Here is the text of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, 1952:
The genealogy according to Matthew is at the beginning of his Gospel:
So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations". (Matthew, I, 1-17)
The genealogy given by Luke (3, 23-38) is different from Matthew. The text reproduced here is from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible:
"Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age, being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph, the son of Heli, the son of Matthat, the son of Levi, the son of Melchi, the son of Jannai, the son of Joseph, the son of Mattathias, the son of Amos, the son of Nahum, the son of Esli, the son of Naggai, the son of Maath, the son of Mattathias, the son of Semein, the son of Josech, the son of Joda, the son of Joanan, the son of Rhesa, the son of Zerubbabel, the son of Shealtiel, the son of Neri, the sOn of Melchi, the son of Addi, the son of Cosam, the son of Elmadam, the son of Er, the son of Joshua, the son of Eliezer, the son of Jorim, the son of Matthat, the son of Levi, the son of Simeon, the son of Judah, the son of Joseph, the son of Jonam, the son of Eliakim, the son of Melea, the son of Menna, the son of Mattatha, the son of Nathan, the son of David, the son of Jesse, the son of Obed, the son of Boaz, the son of Sala, the son of Nahshon, the son of Amminadab, the son of Admin, the son of Ami, the SOD of Hezron, the son of Perez, the son of Judah, the son of Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham, the son of Terah, the son of Nahor, the son of Serug, the son of Reu, the son of Peleg, the son of Eber, the son of Shelah, the son of Cainan, the son of Arphaxad, the son of Shem, the son of Noah, the son of Lamech, the son of Methuselah, the son of Enoch, the son of Jared, the son of Mahalaleel, the son of Cainan, the son of Enos, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God."
The genealogies appear more clearly when presented in two tables, one showing the genealogy before David and the other after him.
Apart from variations in spelling, the following must be mentioned:
The genealogy has disappeared from the Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis, a very important Six century manuscript in both Greek and Latin. It has completely disappeared from the Greek text and also a large part of the Latin text. It may quite simply be that the first pages were lost.
One must note here the great liberties Matthew has taken with the Old Testament. He has pared down the genealogies for the sake of a strange numerical demonstration (which, in the end, he does not give, as we shall see).
The most important variation is the Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis which attributes to Luke a whimsical genealogy taken from Matthew and to which the scribe has added five names. Unfortunately, the genealogy of Matthew's Gospel has disappeared from this manuscript, so that comparison is no longer possible.
We are here faced with two different genealogies having one essential point in common, i.e. they both pass via Abraham and David. To make this examination easier, we shall separate the whole into three critical sections:
-From Adam to Abraham.
Matthew began his genealogy with Abraham so we are not concerned with his text here. Luke alone provides information on Abraham's ancestors going back to Adam: 20 names, 19 of which are to be found in Genesis (chapters 4, 5 and 11), as has already been stated.
Is it possible to believe that only 19 or 20 generations of human beings existed before Abraham? The problem has been examined in the discussion of the Old Testament. If one looks at the table of Adam's descendants, based on Genesis and giving figures for the time element contained in the Biblical text, one can see that roughly nineteen centuries passed between man's appearance on earth and the birth of Abraham. Today it is estimated that Abraham Was alive in circa 1850 B.C. and it has been deduced from this that the information provided by the Old Testament places man's appearance on earth at roughly thirty-eight centuries B.C. Luke was obviously guided by these data for his Gospel. He expresses a blatant untruth for having copied them down and we have already seen the decisive historical arguments leading to this statement.
The idea that Old Testament data are unacceptable in the present day is duly admitted; they belong to the 'obsolete' material referred to by the Second Vatican Council. The fact, however that the Gospels take up the same scientifically incompatible data is an extremely serious observation which may be used to oppose those who defend the historical accuracy of the Gospel texts.
Commentators have quickly sensed this danger. They try to get round the difficulty by saying that it is not a complete genealogical tree, that the evangelist has missed names out. They claim that this was done quite deliberately, and that his sole "intention was to establish the broad lines or essential elements of a line of descent based on historical reality." [ A. Tricot, Little Dictionary of the New Testament (Petit Dictionnaire du Nouveau Testament in "La Sainte Bible", Desclée, Pub. Paris)] There is nothing in the texts that permits them to form this hypothesis. In the text it says quite clearly: A was the father of B, or B was the son of A. For the part preceding Abraham in particular, the evangelist draws moreover on the Old Testament where the genealogies are set out in the following form:
When X had lived n years, he became the father of Y .
. . When Y had lived n years, he became the father
of Z. . . .
Here the two genealogies tally (or almost), excepting one or two names: the difference may be explained by copiers' errors.
Does this mean that the evangelists are to be considered accurate?
History situates David at circa 1000 B.C. and Abraham at 1800-1860 B.C.: 14 to 16 generations for roughly eight centuries. Can one believe this? One might say that for this period the Gospel texts are at the very limit of the admissible.
It is a great pity, but unfortunately the texts no longer tally at all when it comes to establishing Joseph's line from David, and figuratively speaking, Jesus's, for the Gospel.
Leaving aside the obvious falsification in the Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis concerning Luke, let us now compare what the two most venerable manuscripts have to offer: the Codex Vaticanus and the Codex Sinaiticus.
In the genealogy according to Luke 42 names are placed after David (No. 35) down to Jesus (No. 77). In the genealogy according to Matthew 27 are mentioned after David (No. 14) down to Jesus (No. 41). The number of (fictitious) ancestors given to Jesus after David is therefore different in the two Gospels. The names themselves are different as well.
This is not all.
Matthew tells us that he discovered how Jesus's genealogy split up after Abraham into three groups of 14 names; first group from Abraham to David; second from David to the deportation to Babylon; third from the deportation to Jesus. His text does indeed contain 14 names in the first two groups, but in the third-from the deportation to Jesus-there are only 13 and not 14, as expected; the table shows that Shealthiel is No. 29 and Jesus No. 41. There is no variation of Matthew that gives 14 names for this group.
To enable himself to have 14 names in his second group, Matthew takes very great liberties with the Old Testament text. The names of the first six descendants of David (No. 15 to 20) tally with the data in the Old Testament, but the three descendants of Ioram (No. 20), given in Chronicles 11 of the Bible as Ahaziah, Joash, and Amaziah, are suppressed by Matthew. Elsewhere, Jechoniah (No. 28) is for Matthew the son of Josiah, although Kings II of the Bible tells us that Eliakim comes between Josiah and Jechoniah.
It may be seen from this that Matthew has altered the genealogical lines in the Old Testament to present an artificial group of 14 names between David and the deportation to Babylon. There is also the fact that one name is missing in Matthew's third group, so that none of the present-day Gospel texts contains the 42 names mentioned. What is surprising is not so much the existence of the omission itself (explained perhaps by a very old scribe's error that was subsequently perpetuated), but the almost total silence of commentators on this subject. How can one miss this omission? W. Trilling breaks this pious conspiracy of silence in his book The Gospel According to Matthew (L'Evangile selon Matthieu) [ Pub. Desclée, coll. 'Parole et Prière', Paris.] by devoting one line to it. It is a fact which is of considerable importance because the commentators of this Gospel, including the Ecumenical Translation and Cardinal Daniélou among others, stress the great symbolical significance of Matthew's 3 x 14. This significance was so important for the evangelist that he suppressed Biblical names without hesitation to arrive at his numerical demonstration.
To make this hold good, commentators will, no doubt, construct some reassuring statements of an apologetic nature, justifying the fact that names have been craftily suppressed and carefully avoiding the omission that undermines the whole point of what the evangelist was trying to show.
In his book The Gospels of Childhood (1967) Les Evangiles de l'Enfance) [ Pub. Editions du Seuil, Paris.], Cardinal Daniélou invests Matthew's 'numerical schematisation' with a symbolic value of paramount importance since it is this that establishes Jesus's ancestry, which is asserted also by Luke. For him Luke and Matthew are 'historians' who have completed their 'historical investigations', and the , genealogy' has been 'taken down from the archives of Jesus family'. It must be added here that the archives have never been found. [ Although the author assures us that he knows of the existence of these supposed family archives from the Ecclesiastic History by Eusebius Pamphili (about whose respectability much could be said), it is difficult to see why Jesus's family should have two genealogical trees that were necessarily different just because each of the two so-called 'historians' gave a genealogy substantially different from the other concerning the names of those who figure among Jesus's ancestors.] Cardinal Daniélou condemns out of hand anyone who criticizes his point of view. "It is the Western mentality, ignorance of Judeo-Christianity and the absence of a Semitic outlook that have made so many experts in exegesis loose their way when interpreting the Gospels. They have projected their own categories onto them: (sic) Platonic, Cartesian, Hegelian and Heideggerian. It is easy to see why everything is mixed up in their minds." Plato, Descartes, Hegel and Heidegger obviously have nothing to do with the critical attitude one may have towards these whimsical genealogies.
In his search for the meaning of Matthew's 3 x 14, the author expands on strange suppositions. They are worth quoting here: "What may be meant are the common ten weeks of the Jewish Apocalypse. The first three, corresponding to the time from Adam to Abraham, would have been subtracted; seven weeks of years would then remain, the first six would correspond to the six times seven representing the three groups of fourteen and leaving the seventh, started by Christ with whom the seventh age of the world begins." Explanations like this are beyond comment!
The commentators of the Ecumenical Translation-New Testament-also give us numerical variations of an apologetic nature which are equally unexpected: For Matthew's 3 x 14:
a) 14 could be the numerical total of the 3 consonants in the Hebrew name David (D= 4, V= 6), hence 4+6+4= 14.
b) 3 x 14 = 6 x 7 and "Jesus came at the end of the sixth week of Holy history beginning with Abraham."
For Luke, this translation gives 77 names from Adam to Jesus, allowing the number 7 to come up again, this time by dividing 77 by 7 (7x 11= 77). It is quite apparent that for Luke the number of variations where words are added or subtracted is such that a list of 77 names is completely artificial. It does however have the advantage of adapting itself to these numerical games.
The genealogies of Jesus as they appear in the Gospels may perhaps be the subject that has led Christian commentators to perform their most characteristic feats of dialectic acrobatics, on par indeed with Luke's and Matthew's imagination.