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St Joseph Barsabas
(entered heaven sometime in the first century)
I knew this would happen. I told you from the start that this summer theological seminar looked suspicious (its location clued me in; why go to the Bahamas to do theology?). I won’t say “I told you so”, but I will say that I’m grateful you wrote to me about your concerns. And without any doubt, contrary to what your discussion leader seems to be asserting, you can confidently affirm the historicity of the Gospels: they are what they say they are, documents about the life, teachings, and actions of Jesus Christ written by eye-witnesses or near eye-witnesses (in the case of Mark and Luke) in order to explain and spread the Christian faith. Today’s saint is part of the “proof”.
Joseph Barsabas, one of our Lord’s 72 disciples, was the second candidate nominated to take over for Judas as the twelfth Apostle after Judas’s suicide. He didn’t win the election (St Matthias did), but he went on to live a holy life spreading the Kingdom of Christ with the first generation of Christians. He was such an example of virtue that he was later surnamed, “Joseph the Just.” Only one detail of his work has come down to us: he bore witness to the power of Christ through drinking poison and remaining unaffected.
St Joseph is part of the proof that the Gospels are authentic historical documents because he illustrates two of the characteristics that historians look for to verify the historicity of such texts: internal coherence and external concurrence. Internal coherence means that the texts themselves don’t contradict each other. And as much as critics hem and haw about variations among the four Gospel narratives, the truly remarkable thing is how much they coincide. Maintaining the peculiar flavor of their respective authors, each Gospel provides its own insights into a series of events about which all concur – much as four journalists would each give their own version of a series of skirmishes in a war-torn country that all had seen; it would be unreasonable to expect each of the writers to produce the exact same text or list all the same details.
But the Gospel narratives also harmonize with the references to Christ made in the other books of the New Testament (just look at St Peter’s first sermon, for instance, in Acts 2). And they also concur in many historical details that other ancient texts corroborate – the early Christian historians mention St Joseph Barsabas, for instance, as well as secular texts; here’s where the external concurrence comes in. And to top it all off, we have hundreds more copies of the Gospel texts that were made within a century or two of their first redactions than we have of any other important text from ancient times. In other words, all the documents by which we learn of Julius Ceasar, the conquests of Alexander the Great, Plato’s writings, Cicero’s speeches, and the fall of the Roman Empire (and its rise), etc. come from much, much later than the period in which those events took place and those people lived. They were copies made from copies made from other copies of the originals. Our oldest Gospel texts, however, were copies made from the originals. The oldest copies of the pagan texts were made hundreds, and some times a thousand years after the fact, and they are precious few in number; the Gospel copies are from the same century in which our Lord lived, or the early part of the following century, and they are numerous.
Furthermore, the Gospel writers meet perfectly the two generally accepted criteria for historical trustworthiness in historical witnesses: sincerity in relating the events described and personal familiarity those events.
Well, books have been written on this subject, you know (there’s always room for discussion when the will to be reasonable is lacking – even some eye-witnesses denied Christ’s miracles), and I don’t have time to write a book. But I hope I’ve given you enough data so you don’t get fooled into taking any prufrockian postures in relation to the faith you hold so dearly, and which was held so dearly by so many saints throughout the ages, included St Joseph Barsabas.
Your loving uncle,