Dr Perse's Sermon 2023
Holmes and Herod: a Detective’s view of the New Testament
The Rt Hon. Lord Blair of Boughton
Former Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police
To begin somewhere near the middle. Most Christians will recognise the stirring words of Isaiah that ‘those who have walked in darkness have seen a great light’. What I certainly did not understand until recently was that those words and that happening were directly referenced by Isaiah to two named districts on the edge of the Sea of Galilee, exactly where Christ is reported in the Gospels to have begun his public ministry. It does not matter for these purposes as to whether Isaiah was a single person: his voice was considered by the Jews to be that of a significant prophet.
For the moment putting aside the possibility that the entire New Testament is a fabrication, that produces the perfect example of the conundrum which this sermon is seeking to explore.
As the gospels report, is it true or false that, sometime around what we would now describe as 30 AD, Christ began his ministry exactly at this location? If true, was that just a coincidence or was it the fulfilment of a prophecy or was it a deliberate act by Jesus himself to strengthen his claim to be the expected Messiah? If not true, was it an invention by others 30 years after his death to support that claim?
All of those are possibilities. Where is truth to be found?
I am honoured and grateful to the Acting Dean, the Reverend Dr Megan Daffern, for inviting me to deliver the Perse Sermon 2023. The late Duke of Edinburgh was no fan of long sermons, once apparently remarking that the mind cannot comprehend what the backside cannot tolerate but I should warn you that the Perse sermon is designed to be longer than a normal sermon and there is no interval. I will do my best to retain your interest.
A couple of points before I warm to the main theme. First, as its title suggests, this sermon is an exploration as the provable veracity of the Gospels. There is apparently an academic school of thought that the gospels were not written to be truthful but as extended parables. That is a totally different intellectual approach which I am not going to address but I do think you should be aware of it. I am not convinced myself that that would be a common mindset in many congregations.
Secondly, I am a Christian and I believe that Jesus, in some mysterious way, was both wholly divine and wholly human. However, as the former chairman of the Woolf Institute for interfaith education, just up the Madingley Road here in Cambridge, I do not believe in a claim of exclusivity for Christianity. I believe there are many roads to the top of the mountain and I am aware that the most certain predictor of what faith you believe in, if any, is the faith of your parents and excluding people from some promise of eternal life just because they were born a Sikh, for instance, does not resonate with what I hope will be the mercy of God. And which version of Christianity, please, as there are some 250 separate denominations represented within the World Council of Churches?
With those points off my chest, what might be a Detectives’s view of the New Testament?
The first thing to emphasise is the importance of doubt. I think my faith is stronger for admitting and wrestling with doubt. I am in good company.
Even John the Baptist was not sure. St Matthew and St Luke have John sending messengers to Jesus from Herod’s prison, asking ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ And at the very end of his gospel, in the passage sometimes called ‘the Great Commission’, in which Christ sends out his eleven remaining disciples to ‘make disciples of all nations’, St Matthew notes even of them that ‘When they saw him, they worshipped him: but some doubted’. And these were people who had had a ringside seat.
I spent many years as a detective, hence the title of this sermon. It is worth emphasising that very often at the outset of an investigation the circumstances faced by a detective and the accounts being given are extraordinarily confusing. This is the case with the New Testament and indeed some common parts of the Nicene Creed itself: would anybody like to explain the concept of the Trinity in a few sentences?
It is the task of the detective to work through that confusion and come to a conclusion as to what happened. That will be the underlying motif of this sermon.
Let us just consider the central issue: what kind of being was Jesus Christ? Most Christians today, perhaps largely because of the familiar beauty of the nativity stories of shepherds, angels and kings set out in Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels - but with very different details, shepherds in one and kings in the other, for instance - probably believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God at birth.
That is not the view of St Luke. He pushes it further back to the Annunciation and Magnificat. On the other hand, St Mark suggests it is a bit later when he is recognised as the Son of God at his Baptism. St John’s mystical statement ‘in the beginning was the word’ makes it an eternal appointment. St Paul in Romans 1.4 is clear that he only becomes the Son of God at the moment of his resurrection. That is not a good start for certainty.
Being a detective actually taught me that certainty in a detective is a dangerous way of thinking. The good detective asks three questions at the beginning of an investigation: first, what do we independently know and secondly, what are we being told?
The third question is as to on what basis will we sift what we are told to determine whether the case will prove negligible, circumstantial or beyond reasonable doubt, even if we have to adopt the observation of the most famous of detectives – or rather the most famous of fictional detectives, Sherlock Holmes - that ‘when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”.
And there are only four facts which we know to be true about the New Testament.
First, a man called Herod was a Jewish prince. Secondly, there was a Roman Prefect called Pontius Pilate, who lived at the same time and had been posted to Jerusalem. Thirdly, the Roman historian Tacitus wrote many years later about the cruelty of the Emperor Nero towards the Roman followers of a man called Christus, who had suffered the supreme penalty in Jerusalem at the orders of Pontius Pilate. There is no mention of him being crucified but that was a form of death widely used by the Romans to terrify subject populations.
And then the fourth thing we know is that, some 300 years later, the Christian religion was declared by the Emperor Constantine to be the official religion of the Roman Empire and so what had happened to an individual man from Galilee, in an obscure province of that Empire three centuries before, now was to form an absolutely crucial part of the history of the whole world.
That much we know.
So to the second detective’s question, what are we being told? Well, the whole New Testament. I am obviously not going to go through that in a single sermon. What I want to examine is that New Testament through the lens of the third detectives’ question which is on what basis will we sift what is written in the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles?
I return to the concept of doubt. Doubt does not mean that I do not believe in some aspect of the Gospels’ narratives per se but that I cannot be sure. I am going to go through a few examples of things I want to believe in but feel no certainty about but then also to concentrate on and contrast two resurrections, that of Jesus himself but, before that, the account of the earlier resurrection of Lazarus.
If Jesus was God on earth, I am prepared to believe that there was at this particular time and place in human history, what the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins described as ‘an inbreaking’ of the divine into the human sphere. I am quite prepared to believe in miracles, hence my choice of Moses and the burning bush as our first lesson.
However, as a detective, I am also alert to the possibility that human witnesses, to use a police phrase, will ‘gild the lily’ in order to reinforce an account about a cause in which they believe by adding extra and untrue reinforcement.
The first crucial difficulty in the gospel stories is how few parts of the story occur in all four Gospels. The nativity does not, the annunciation does not, for example. The principal exceptions to that rule are the last supper, the crucifixion and the resurrection.
The second difficulty is to work out whether something actually happened or whether it is recorded in the story to fulfil an earlier prophecy about the Messiah in order to strengthen the case for Jesus being that Messiah.
The supporters of Jesus faced an uphill task. The expected Messiah was to be a prince, a warrior. He was not expected to be the son of a carpenter, with a heavy Galilean accent, proclaiming peace rather than war. And worse was to come. The followers of this Messiah were to claim that Jesus was divine which was not the Jewish concept of a Messiah at all, with that word only meaning ‘the anointed one’ (Christos being the Greek translation), that he had replaced the Covenant between the Jewish people and their God with a new one, then opened up that Covenant to Gentiles, then allowed himself to be killed and then rise from the dead.
Everything had to be thrown into the mix to support the followers of Jesus who would come to be known as Christians, that Jesus Christ was the Messiah. The future Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, so those gospels which mention the nativity have him being born there. I have already mentioned the beginning of Jesus’ ministry beginning in Galilee. The prophet Hosea mentions a son coming out of Egypt and the importance of Nazareth, so the child Jesus goes to Egypt and is then later brought up in Nazareth. Nazareth is a mixed example, there is no proof but he is called Jesus of Nazareth so often that he probably lived there. Some examples will be deliberate and probably did happen as in Christ’s entry into Jerusalem on a foal, fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9 "Exult greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout for joy, O daughter Jerusalem! Behold: your king is coming to you, a just saviour is he, Humble, and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey."
Some of the stories just seem unlikely but designed, as W S Gilbert put it, ‘to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.’ The betrayal narrative around Judas always sets my detective’s nose twitching. From what I can tell, Jesus, fresh from publicly throwing out the moneylenders in the Temple and surrounded by adoring crowds, must have been one of the most recognisable figures in Jerusalem. There can have been no real reason for the kiss to identify Jesus to those who had come to arrest him.
I am now going to stop this broad but scattergun scepticism and concentrate on getting to why, despite it, I believe that Jesus was the Son of God. I am going to do that by comparing and contrasting the two resurrection narratives of Lazarus and of Jesus, the first of which I simply do not believe and the second of which I do believe. Our second lesson from St John’s Gospel, chapter 12, does not describe the resurrection of Lazarus but a later event, his interaction with Jesus and Mary and Martha and, interestingly, once again the figure of Judas at supper when Mary wipes Jesus’ feet with nard.
I have chosen this passage because the resurrection of Lazarus, recorded in St John’s Gospel in the previous chapter 11, runs to 57 verses, which I thought was a bit much for a Sunday evening. In any event, it is a well-known story, until you really look into its details, which I will now do.
The first physical problem is that this was not a case of narcolepsy. Verse 17 notes that when Jesus arrived having been summoned by Mary and Martha, Lazarus had been in his tomb for four days. Verse 38 has Martha complaining about the stench. Lazarus was decomposing. As a detective, I have smelt that smell.
But the oddity of the passage is not confined there. One oddity is this passage, verse 21 to 27:-
21 Then said Martha unto Jesus, Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died.
22 But I know, that even now, whatsoever thou wilt ask of God, God will give it thee.
23 Jesus saith unto her, Thy brother shall rise again.
24 Martha saith unto him, I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day.
25 Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live:
26 And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?
27 She saith unto him, Yea, Lord: I believe that thou art the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world.
This is clearly not what anyone would say to a mourning sister. It appears to be someone using the resurrection of Lazarus to strengthen the Messiah claim.
Then Jesus commands Lazarus to come out of his tomb and the Gospel records that ‘Many of the Jews therefore who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him’, verse 45.
There is then a passage, verse 48, which sets out Caiphas’s reasoning, on learning of Lazarus’ resurrection, that it was this event that made it necessary for Jesus to die: ‘If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy places and our nation’. All of this then comes before the second lesson’s description of the dinner given by the sisters for Jesus on the way to the Passover. Lazarus is there, just sitting chatting, as if being resurrected is normal. Then Judas comes into the picture, with the betrayal narrative again and a clearly added in passage about him being a thief.
The veracity of the story is not helped by being only in one gospel but is also further weakened by the fact that John 12 then moves straight into Christ’s triumphant arrival into Jerusalem and all that followed. No other gospel puts forward the resurrection of Lazarus as a reason for Jesus’ arrest. I am sorry but I do not find this account particularly convincing, striking and lovely as the whole Lazarus story may be.
This in stark contrast to the resurrection of Jesus which in my view is proven quite simply by the reaction of the apostles to it. Rather oddly, that proof lies in them acting in a way in which no other human beings in human history have done.
The story of the resurrection of Jesus is too well known to repeat. My faith is based, quite extraordinarily, on an impossibility. It is based on something that everyone, Gentile and Jew alike, knows, as they know more than anything else on earth, simply cannot be true. No one rises from the dead. No one.
With the possible exception of some non-bodily aspects of Hinduism and Buddhism, no other religion is based on such a proposition. Objectively, it is an impossible, ridiculous, almost laughable concept. But it is the essence of the faith that the disciples spread and which we inherit. Together with St Paul, eleven of the final twelve apostles, including Mathias selected to replace Judas, were martyred for this faith and, we have to assume, that news of each death would have been brought to those who still survived and yet they went on.
An objective reading of the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles makes clear that something happened after the crucifixion which changed peoples’ lives forever, their behaviour, their value systems and their core beliefs. Something happened, in the garden with Mary and on the road to Emmaus and in the upper room and on the shore of Lake Galilee but certainly something happened. The apostles and Mary describe meeting the risen Jesus, eating with him and learning from him. You cannot read the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles without acknowledging that and yet at the same time acknowledging that people were prepared to die to declare something unprecedented in human history, that a man was the son of the living God and had been killed and had risen from the dead.
There are only three possibilities about the crucifixion of Jesus. First, that he died and no resurrection took place. Secondly, that he survived, as described in D H Lawrence’s short story, The Man who Died, enthusiastically echoed in the nonsense of the Da Vinci Code, or thirdly that he was resurrected from the dead.
Crucifixion ends in death because the person drowns in their own bodily fluid, as the lungs collapse. The description of Jesus’ death with the spear in his side and his legs broken, followed by his burial – and the guarding of the tomb - is pretty graphic.
Which leaves only two possibilities. That the story is all a lie or that Jesus rose from the dead.
I know which one I believe because lots and lots of people will not be prepared to die, individually, over many years, for an outright lie about what they claimed to have witnessed, especially one which defies belief.
As a detective, I would have presented the case to learned counsel as being beyond reasonable doubt and he or she would have done the same to judge and jury. Case closed.
As I mentioned earlier, Sherlock Holmes once or twice observed, ‘when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”.
Dr Watson would have reluctantly agreed with that comment. So would I have done if I had not looked further into the text.
But the fictional Holmes was dealing with ordinary human life, whereas the resurrection of Christ is an inbreaking of the divine. I do not believe it simply because, however improbable it is the only explanation. It is not improbable, it is impossible and that is precisely why I believe it.
And in that I am in good company. Tertullian of Carthage, a Christian thinker and writer who died early in the third century explained that his faith was based on the dictum that ‘Certum est quia impossible est’.
It is certain because it is impossible.
Precisely. I rest my case.