Let me introduce you to William Robert Bell, my Irish great grandfather. He died of the what was then called the Spanish Flu that swept the world in 1918, one hundred years ago. He was 38 at the time. He was married to Sarah Jane Gordon, and had three children, Ria, Thomas (my Grandfather), and Jimmy Gordon Bell. From this point the names do get a bit confusing as the family followed the Irish traditions of naming children after relatives.
Jimmy married Susan, and they had two children Billy and Doreen.
Ria got married to Ernest Andrews and they had a son in 1931 name Thomas Andrews.
Thomas Bell was in the Royal Navy and met my grandmother Esther at a dance in Barbados. After getting married in England (while on leave) they went to live with his family in Ireland where my Dad, James Ernest Bell was born. In 1947, when my Dad was 8, the three of them left Ireland and moved to South Africa where my grandfather found work on the mines.
Jimmy died in 1948 at age 40. Ria died in 1949 at age 44. Their mother, Sarah Jane Bell died in 1952 at age 52. After Sarah Jane died, her house was plundered by neighbors. Tom Andrews was able to recover her wedding ring which he sent to Thomas Bell in South Africa. The gold from the wedding ring was used to create wedding rings for my brother and me.
The families lost contact with each other soon after. Apart from some early sporadic contact, there has been no contact with our family since the 1960s, about 50 years.
Until a couple of weeks ago.
I had been contacted by a distant cousin on a genealogical website who was trying to trace some of her family roots. With her help, I started to track down family records online. We found some historical records, and then with a bit of luck, managed to find the burial record for Tom Andrews. With a little bit more digging we found his family!
Here is where it gets relevant to Internet Monk readers.
Both my family and Tom Andrews family had created historical albums. They were based off of some historical documents, but were in large part dependent on oral tradition. On our side of the family, much of the connection had been lost in 1947 when the family moved to Africa, and was disconnected even more when my Grandfather, Thomas Bell died in 1979. On Tom Andrews side, his one uncle had moved in 1947, his other uncle had died in 1948, his mom had died in 1949, and his grandmother in 1952. In a span of 6 years he lost just about everyone who could connect him to the Bell side of the family. In these historical albums we had two sets of family oral traditions. One provided by father, James Ernest Bell, and one provided by Thomas Andrews before he died in 2009. That is why I called this post the gospels of James and Thomas, because they set out to record as best they could the details of William Robert Bell, Sarah Jane Gordon Bell, and their descendants.
While they were both very similar in some respects, they were both very different, and both very inaccurate! You see, I have been doing some further digging over the last few weeks, and so have found many of the original birth, marriage, and death certificates.
In the heritage albums, names were wrong, pictures were assigned to the wrong people, birth years were wrong, birth places were wrong, naval records were incorrect, ages at death were wrong, a birth order was wrong, the number of children was wrong, and some of the stories were wrong.
For example in the case of Ria, one album had her as the oldest child, born in 1900, the other had her as second child, born in 1910. In fact she was the 2nd child born in 1904. On album told the story of her having to go work in a Linen Mill at age 8. In fact, she was 12 or 13. An album misidentified a picture of her as being her aunt. (Both had the same name.)
Remember these historical details were coming from two people who both knew Ria directly. She was James Gordon Bell’s aunt, and Tom Andrews’s mother!
Here is my point.
We should expect about the same level of accuracy (at best) when it comes to the Biblical Gospel accounts. When Luke says that Jesus was “about 30” when he began his ministry (Luke 3:23), we can expect that to be about as accurate as James account of Ria dying about age 39 or Tom’s account of Ria dying at age 49. In fact if you compare the possible dates of Jesus’ birth, we get a similar 10 year discrepancy, from before the death or Herod the Great in 4 B.C., or during the census of Quirinius in 6 A.D. The fact that Luke uses the word “about” conveys the idea that this is information about which he is not at all certain.
What we read in the Gospels, is representative of how all oral traditions work. Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John took the stories and events that they had either heard or witnessed directly, or had passed on to them, and recorded them as faithfully as they could. Their knowledge wasn’t perfect. Their sources were different. The stories have inconsistencies. Trying to synchronize them can create more problems than it solves.
Had I not found the original documents, It would have been very difficult to figure out which details were correct in the historical albums. James or Thomas, who had it right? For future generations it would be even more difficult. We don’t have the original documents in the case of Jesus. What we do have is four different accounts of what happened in the life of Jesus, and just like in my family, the major stories line up pretty well, but some of the details are sketchy.
Some people want perfection out of their Bibles. For me, Jesus was perfect, and having imperfect human beings involved in the writing down of his story doesn’t bother me one bit.
Your thoughts and comments are welcome.