Passover week reflects foundational events for both Judaism and Christianity: the Exodus and the Passion. We might ask ourselves how factual are the Old Testament and New Testament narratives; and more importantly, does it really matter?
There is no Egyptian recording of a mass revolt of Jewish slaves during pharaoh times and there was no military conquest of Canaan. The cities mentioned in the Old Testament as destroyed were abandoned centuries later. While there were no military conquests, archaeological evidence does identify primitive settlements absent of pig bones. They are on the periphery of agricultural areas, on the poorest soil with inferior pottery. These areas probably housed the first Jewish believers. Given their inferior status, it is not surprising that the Old Testament is filled with concern for the poor and contains the anti-royalist stance of Samuel. While undoubtedly Judaism was initiated by those who had experienced some measure of enslavement, there should be no question that the Exodus story is an exaggerated embellishment meant to give grandeur to the faithful.
The Passion narrative also is dominated by exaggerated embellishments. While the Gospels indicate that Jesus had a large following in the Galilee and was considered a serious threat to the temple leadership, the facts seem to indicate otherwise. Nowhere in the New Testament is there any example of a settled Christian presence in the Galilee after his death. This is why some scholars characterize the initial disciples as wandering charismatics. And given how infrequently Jesus visited Jerusalem, it is hard to believe he had more than a small band of supporters there.
Writing Jewish history near the end of the first century, Josephus had little to say about Jesus and his followers; and nothing about Christians in the Galilee, the area in which he was an administrator. Despite the paucity of Jewish religious leadership after the temple’s destruction, no Christian settlement took hold in the Galilee. When the rabbis chose to move there after the Bar Kochba revolt, they encountered no Christians.
A common retort is: The Jesus movement must have been substantial; why else would the temple leadership not oppose his death. At the time, there were many advocates for Jewish renewal that threatened their hegemony. Indeed, the Pharisees advocated withholding tithes from the temple leadership by claiming they could go to rural Levites. As a result, temple leaders might not have opposed Jesus’ crucifixion because they reasoned, “If the Romans make an example of the head of a relatively inconsequential movement, it could discourage others from joining more substantial opposition movements.”
The claims made here, while interesting, are inconsequential. Does it matter whether sixty, six hundred, or sixty thousand Jewish slaves escaped? The religious truths will still endure. The power of the Passover Exodus is not the numbers who fled but the meaning of freedom. It doesn’t matter how Jews settled in Canaan. Why embrace the story of Joshua’s conquest which shows a God willing to kill all non-Jews, including babies. Not without reason did the second century Christian, Marcion, contend that Christianity should be purged of the vengeful God of the Old Testament.
Similarly, does it matter whether Jesus had a large following in the Galilee or if he was a significant threat to the temple leadership? Indeed, Pauline Christianity cares little about the Christology found in the Gospels. The Passion is central not Jesus’ prophetic sayings nor his embellished activities. Of course, it was not possible for second-century Christianity to abandon its Jewish roots and its twelve Jewish apostles so that Marcion was rejected. Unfortunately, early Christianity, by considering itself the true heirs of the Old Testament, had difficulties separating itself from anti-Judaism.
Archaeologists will continue to seek evidence of the Jewish experience in ancient Palestine and New Testament scholars will seek evidence of the life of Jesus and his first apostles. But there can be no findings that will overturn core religious truths: Jewish belief in the centrality of the Exodus narrative and Christian belief in Jesus’ death and resurrection. And both religions have built ethical edifices upon these foundational truths that have stood the test of time; and will continue to do so in the future.