The Rejection of Pascal's Wager
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The Duration of Jesus' Ministry

From the purely legendary accounts of Jesus' nativity and childhood, we come to the public period of his life. One would probably expect this portion of his life to be based on more reliable accounts than the former as there would naturally be more eye witnesses, and as his fame spread, many would tend to remember him more. Presumably, once he had gained some kind of a following, his immediate disciples would have certainly taken some pains to put to memory what he had taught. However, it should be remembered that the sayings and deeds attributed to Jesus existed only in an oral form for at least four decades after his death before they were put into writing in the now missing Q and the gosepl of Mark. These oral traditions must have passed through many different persons before reaching its written form.

Furthermore, there was no guarantee whatsoever that the early compilers of Jesus' words and deeds knew how to differentiate the authentic from the fictitious accounts. We have already seen some of these discussed in chapter six. There we have shown that Mark, the earliest of the four gospels, was definitely composed from traditional (not direct eye-witness) sources which already contained mistakes regarding the culture and geography of Palestine. In short, while we may expect more reliable information regarding Jesus from this period of his ministry, we should still tread very carefully to ensure that we do not accept as historical what is mythical.

In fact, uncertainties abound regarding the events described by the gospels regarding Jesusí period of ministry. An example of this uncertainty is in the actual duration of it. While it is not stated explicitly in any of the four gospels, we can gather allusions to the actual length of time Jesus went about preaching by looking for internal clues within these documents. A reading of the synoptics (due to only one celebration of the Passover alluded to and the fact that at no point in the earlier narratives was it hinted that even a year had gone by) tend to show that Jesus career lasted, at the utmost, a single year. In John's gospel however, we find that three Passover festivals were mentioned to have occurred during the ministry (John 2:13; 6:4; 11:55) which showed that the author thought that Jesus' career lasted three years. [1]

From the material derived from Mark's gospel, it has been calculated that three to four weeks would suffice for everything related in Mark, with the exception of Mark 1:13 where Jesus was said to be in the wilderness for forty days. [2] The minimum time of Jesus' ministry derivable from Mark is therefore around two months. Other estimates range from a few months [3] to the full three years of the Johanine itinerary.

The truth is that even such a basic information as the duration of his ministry is no longer available to us. The contradictory information derived from the gospels only served to underline this paucity of certain knowledge about the ministry of Jesus.

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1.Guignebert, Jesus: p205
2.Nineham, Saint Mark: p35
3.Guignebert, Jesus: p211

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