Did Jesus exist? Are the origins of Christianity best explained without a founder Jesus of Nazareth? Before the Gospels do we find an historical Jesus or a Jesus myth?
The five Main Articles following the Preamble present the basic case for the non-existence of an historical Jesus. Part One, "A Conspiracy of Silence," surveys the silence on the Gospel Jesus and Gospel events in the early epistolary record. Part Two, "Who Was Christ Jesus?" examines that early record for a more realistic picture of the original faith and the context of its period. Part Three, "The Evolution of Jesus of Nazareth," presents the development of the Gospels (including Q) and their new Jesus figure as the founder of Christianity. The "Postscript" surveys the non-Christian record of the time and considers some general problems in current New Testament research. Finally, "The Second Century Apologists" examines the post-Gospel situation and the wider, non-canonical record of the second century. Discussions and arguments put forward in the Main Articles are developed in greater depth, with additional references and sources, in the Supplementary Articles (see Home Page), as well as in many Reader Feedback responses (see Reader Feedback Index).
The author reserves all re-publication rights. Personal copies may be made as long as author identification is preserved.
To move from the New Testament epistles to the Gospels is to enter a completely different world. In Parts One and Two, I pointed out that virtually every element of the Gospel biography of Jesus of Nazareth is missing from the epistles, and that Paul and other early writers present us only with a divine, spiritual Christ in heaven, one revealed by God through inspiration and scripture. Their Jesus is never identified with a recent historical man. Like the savior gods of the Greek mystery cults, Paul's Christ had performed his redeeming act in a mythical arena. Thus, when we open the Gospels we are unprepared for the flesh and blood figure who lives and speaks on their pages, one who walked the sands of Palestine and died on Calvary in the days of Herod and Pontius Pilate.
Scholars are inching ever closer to understanding how and when the Gospels were written. The names Mark, Matthew, Luke and John are accepted as later ascriptions; the real authors are unknown. That "Mark" wrote first and was reworked by "Matthew" and "Luke," with other material added, is now an accepted principle by a majority of scholars. Some of the problems which called Markan priority into question, such as those passages in which Matthew and Luke agree in wording but differ from that of similar passages in Mark, have been solved by another telling realization: that each of the canonical Gospels is the end result of an early history of writing and re-writing, including additions and excisions. The Gospel of "John" is thought to have passed through several stages of construction. Thus, Matthew and Luke, writing independently and probably unknown to each other, used an earlier edition (or editions) of Mark which would have conformed to their agreements. The concept of a unified Gospel, let alone one produced by inspiration, is no longer tenable.
This picture of Gospel relationships is really quite astonishing. Even John, in its narrative structure and passion story, is now considered by many scholars (see Robert Funk, Honest to Jesus, p.239) to be based on Mark or some other Synoptic stage. Gone is the old pious view that the four Gospels are independent and corroborating accounts. Instead, their strong similarities are the result of copying. This means that for the basic story of Jesus' life and death we are dependent on a single source: whoever produced the first version of Mark. By rights, our sources should be numerous. Christian missionaries, supposedly led by the Twelve Apostles, fanned out across the empire; oral transmission, we are told, kept alive and constantly revitalized the story of Jesus' words and deeds. Written versions of that story should have sprung up in many centres, truly independent and notably divergent. Yet when Matthew comes to write his own version of Jesus' trial and crucifixion, all he can do is slavishly copy some document he has inherited, adding a few minor details of his own, such as the guard at the tomb. Luke does little more.
We face the same question with Acts. Why did only one writer, and that probably well into the second century (see Part One), decide to compose a history of the origin and growth of the early church? No other writer so much as mentions Pentecost, that collective visitation of the Spirit to the apostles which, according to Acts, started the whole missionary movement. But if instead this movement was a widespread diverse one, something uncoordinated and competitive (as Paul's letters suggest), expressing a variety of doctrine within the broad religious inspiration of the time, it is easier to understand how one group, seeking to impose the missing unity and give itself authority, could create its own unique picture of Christianity's beginnings.
When were the Gospels—or their earliest versions—written? Mark is usually dated by its "Little Apocalypse" in Chapter 13, which tells of great upheavals and the destruction of the Temple, spoken as a prophecy by Jesus. This must, it is claimed, refer to the first Jewish War (66-70); thus Mark wrote in its midst or shortly after. But even Mark is presumed to have drawn on source elements, and some think this Little Apocalypse could originally have been a Jewish composition (with no reference to Jesus), one that Mark later borrowed and adapted. Or, if Chapter 13 is by Mark, it could well have grown out of a later period, for other documents, like Revelation and some Jewish apocalypses, show that vivid apocalyptic expectations persisted until at least the end of the century. In fact, 13:7 has Jesus warning his listeners not to regard the End as imminent even when the winds of war arrive. Nothing in Mark should force us to date him before the 90s.
The dates assigned to Matthew and Luke (and even John) are influenced by the picture they present of "the parting of the ways" between Christianity and the wider Jewish establishment. This is recognized as a later development following the Jewish War, one which the Gospels read back anachronistically into the supposed time of Jesus. Luke has also abandoned the expectation of an imminent end of the world, placing him even later. None of these factors are inconsistent with dates around the turn of the second century or somewhat later.
But equally important is attestation. When do the Gospels start to show up in the wider record of Christian writings? If Mark is as early as 70, and all four had been written by 100, why do none of the early Fathers—the author of 1 Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, the author of the Epistle of Barnabas— writing between 90 and 130, quote or refer to any of them? How could Ignatius (around 107), so eager to convince his readers that Jesus had indeed been born of Mary and died under Pilate, that he had truly been a human man who suffered, how could he have failed to appeal to some Gospel account as verification of all this if he had known one?
Eusebius reports that in a now-lost work written around 125, bishop Papias mentioned two pieces of writing by "Matthew" and "Mark." But even these cannot be equated with the canonical Gospels, for Papias called the former "sayings of the Lord in Hebrew," and the description of the latter also sounds as if it was not a narrative work. Moreover, it would seem that Papias had not possessed these documents himself, for he simply relays information about them that was given to him by "the elder." He makes no comment of his own on such documents (in fact, he continues to disparage written sources about the Lord), while Eusebius and other later commentators who quote from his writings are silent about him discussing anything from the "Mark" and "Matthew" he mentions. All that Papias can tell us (relayed through Eusebius) is that certain collections of sayings and anecdotes (probably miracle stories) were circulating in his time, a not uncommon thing; the ones he speaks of were being attributed to a Jesus figure and reputed to be compiled by legendary followers of him. What is most telling, on the other hand, is that even a quarter of the way into the second century, a bishop of Asia Minor writing a book called The Sayings of the Lord Interpreted did not possess a copy of a single written Gospel, nor included sayings of Jesus which are identified with those Gospels.
Only in Justin Martyr, writing in the 150s, do we find the first identifiable quotations from some of the Gospels, though he calls them simply "memoirs of the Apostles," with no names. And those quotations usually do not agree with the texts of the canonical versions we now have, showing that such documents were still undergoing evolution and revision. Scholars such as Helmut Koester have concluded that earlier "allusions" to Gospel-like material are likely floating traditions which themselves found their way into the written Gospels. (See Koester's Ancient Christian Gospels and his earlier Synoptische Uberlieferung bei den apostolischen Vatern.) Is it conceivable that the earliest account of Jesus' life and death could have been committed to writing as early as 70 (or even earlier, as some would like to have it), and yet the broader Christian world took almost a century to receive copies of it?
If, on the other hand, the "biography" of Jesus of Nazareth was something unusual which went against the grain of current knowledge and belief, one can understand how early versions of the Gospels, written around the turn of the century, would have enjoyed only limited use and isolated reworking for at least a generation. And especially if such compositions were originally intended as largely allegorical and instructive, symbolic of the faith communities that produced them. It is also beginning to look as though Mark, Matthew and Luke originally came from one group of linked communities in the area of Syria and northern Palestine.
As for Acts, written by the same author who wrote the final version of Luke, there is no reference to it before the year 170—more than a century after the date often assigned to it. Some, such as John Knox (Marcion and the New Testament, 77-106, 124), view Acts as a response by the church of Rome in the mid-second century to the gnostic Marcion's view of things. The author of Acts drew on kernels of tradition about the primitive Palestinian church, but these have been recast to fit the new plot line. There are huge discrepancies between Acts and what Paul tells us in his letters. Scholarship has been forced to admit that much of Acts is sheer fabrication, from the speeches to the great sea voyage, the latter modeled on similar features in Hellenistic romances. With its discrediting as history, the true beginnings of Christianity fall into a murky shadow.
* * * *
The core of the historical Jesus precedes the Gospels and was born in the community or circles which produced the document now called "Q" (for the German "Quelle," meaning "source"). No copy of Q has survived, but while a minority disagree, the majority of New Testament scholars today are convinced that Q did exist, and that it can be reconstructed from the common material found in Matthew and Luke which they did not get from Mark.
Q was not a narrative Gospel, but an organized collection of sayings which included moral teachings, prophetic admonitions and controversy stories, plus a few miracles and other anecdotes. It was the product of a Jewish (or Jewish imitating) sectarian movement located in Galilee which preached a coming Kingdom of God. Scholars have concluded that Q was put together over time and in distinct stages. They have identified the earliest stratum (calling it Q1) as a set of sayings on ethics and discipleship; these contained notably unconventional ideas. Many are found in Matthew's Sermon on the Mount: the Beatitudes, turn the other cheek, love your enemies. A close similarity has been noted (see F. Gerald Downing, "Cynics and Christians," NTS 1984, p.584-93; Burton Mack, A Myth of Innocence, p.67-9, 73-4) between these maxims and those of the Greek philosophical school known as Cynicism, a counterculture movement of the time spread by wandering Cynic preachers. (Mack has declared that Jesus was a Cynic-style sage, whose connection with things Jewish was rather tenuous.) Perhaps the Q sect at its beginnings adopted a Greek source, with some recasting, one they saw as a suitable ethic for the kingdom they were preaching. In any case, there is no need to impute such sayings to a Jesus; they seem more the product of a school or lifestyle, formulated over time and hardly the sudden invention of a single mind.
This formative stage of Q scholars call "sapiential," for it is essentially an instructional collection of the same genre as traditional "wisdom" books like Proverbs, though in this case with a radical, counterculture content. Later indications (as in Luke 11:49) suggest that the words may have been regarded as spoken by the personified Wisdom of God (see Part Two), and that the Q preachers saw themselves as her spokespersons.
The next stratum of Q (labeled Q2) has been styled "prophetic," apocalyptic. In these sayings the community is lashing out against the hostility and rejection it has received from the wider establishment. In contrast to the mild, tolerant tone of Q1, Q2 contains vitriolic railings against the Pharisees, a calling of heaven's judgment down on whole towns. The figure of the Son of Man enters, one who will arrive at the End-time to judge the world in fire; he is probably the result of reflection on the figure in Daniel 7. Here we first find John the Baptist, a kind of mentor or forerunner to the Q preachers. Dating the strata of Q is difficult, but I would suggest that this second stage falls a little before the Jewish War.
There is good reason to conclude that even at this stage there was no Jesus in the Q community's thinking. That is, the wisdom and prophetic sayings in their original form would have contained no mention of a Jesus as speaker or source. They were pronouncements of the community itself and its traditional teachings, seen as inspired by the Wisdom of God. For while Matthew and Luke often show a common wording or idea in a given saying core, when they surround this with set-up lines and contexts involving Jesus, each evangelist offers something very different. (Compare Luke 17:5-6 with Matthew 17:19-20). This indicates that Q had preserved nothing which associated the sayings with a ministry of Jesus, a lack of interest in the source of the teaching which would be unusual and perplexing.
Nor are the apocalyptic Son of Man sayings (about his future coming) identified with Jesus, which is why, when they were later placed in his mouth, Jesus sounds as though he is talking about someone else. When one examine's John the Baptist's prophecy at the opening of Q (Luke 3:16-17), about one who will come "who is mightier than I," who will baptize with fire and separate the wheat from the chaff, we find no reference to a Jesus or an enlightened teacher or prophet who is contemporary to John. Rather, this sounds like a prophecy of the coming Son of Man, the apocalyptic judge, a prophecy put into John's mouth by the Q community.
Especially revealing is the saying now found in Luke 16:16: "Until John (the Baptist) there was the law and the prophets (i.e., scripture); since then, there is the good news of the Kingdom of God." This, like so much of Q, is acknowledged to be a product of the community's own experience and time (i.e., not going back to Jesus), and yet no reference to Jesus himself has been worked into this picture of the change from the old to the new. Luke 11:49 also leaves out the Son of God when speaking of those whom Wisdom promised to send.
Leading specialists on Q, such as John Kloppenborg (The Formation of Q), recognize that Q in its various stages has undergone considerable redaction (editing, adding and rearranging material to create a unified whole with identifiable themes and theology). But their analysis of Q3, the stratum they call the "final recension," does not go far enough. For only at this stage, I would argue, was an historical founder introduced, a figure who was now perceived to have established the community. Certain past material would have been reworked and everything attributed to this founder, including healing "miracles" which had been part of the activity of the Q preachers themselves. For the teachings, possibly no more than a simple "Jesus said" was provided, which is why Matthew and Luke had to invent their own settings. (This kind of skeletal addition is what we find in the gnostic Gospel of Thomas which is thought to have begun, in its own early stratum of sayings, as an offshoot of an early stage of Q. For more on the Gospel of Thomas, see my book review of J. D. Crossan's The Birth of Christianity.) This new Jesus is positioned as superior to John, who now serves as his herald. At a slightly later stage he is identified with the expected Son of Man. In the very latest layer of Q we find the stirrings of biography and a tendency to divinize this Jesus. The Temptation story (Luke 4:1-13) belongs here.
How did such a founder formulate itself in the Q mind if he had no historical antecedent? All sectarian societies tend to read the present back into the past; they personify their own activities in great founding events and heroic progenitors. The very existence of the sayings collection, the product of the evolving community, would have invited attribution to a specific originating and authoritative figure. Such a record set in a glorified past is known as a "foundation document," a universal phenomenon of sectarian expression. (Figures such as Confucius, Lao-Tsu, Lycurgus of Sparta, the medieval Swiss William Tell, as well as other obscure sectarian figures of the ancient world, are examples of founder figures who have come to be regarded as likely non-existent.)
I also suspect that the existence of a rival sect claiming John the Baptist as its founder may have induced the Q community to develop one of its own, one touted as superior to John. It is certainly curious, in view of the picture presented by the Gospels, that there could ever have been a question in anyone's mind as to who was the greater, Jesus or John, but Q3 has to address this very point, in the so-called Dialogue between Jesus and John (Luke 7:18-35). This whole scene seems to have been constructed at a later stage of Q's development out of earlier discrete units. One of its component sayings, about going out into the wilderness to see something, is found alone in the Gospel of Thomas (No. 78), with no association to the setting or characters of Q's Dialogue. Other bare sayings in Thomas are found in more complex, reworked form in Q. All of it speaks to the artificial development of Q's founding Jesus figure.
An additional explanation for the development of this founder is suggested by Q itself. The figure of heavenly Wisdom (Sophia), once seen as working through the community, seems to have evolved into the figure of her envoy, one who had begun the movement and spoken her sayings. Myths about Wisdom coming to the world were longstanding in Jewish thought and would have played a role here. Luke 7:35 (the concluding line of the Dialogue) calls Jesus a child of Wisdom, and Matthew in his use of Q reflects an evolving attitude toward Jesus as the very incarnation of Wisdom herself. Several of Jesus' sayings in Q are recognized as recast Wisdom sayings.
Whether the Q community gave to this perceived founder the name "Jesus" cannot be certain. At a late stage of Q, there may even have been some crossover influences from earliest Gospel circles (of "Mark"). Uncovering such things is a conjectural business, as actual historical developments tend to be more subtle and complex than any academic presentation of them on paper, especially 20 centuries after the fact. It is significant that Q never uses the term Christ, for such a founder would not at this stage have been regarded as the Messiah. That role was introduced by Mark.
The wise and subtle teaching of Q1, the apocalyptic thunderings of doom of Q2, the End-time Son of Man, the "Son" who surfaces far on in Q's development, all constitute a bizarre mix, not the least because they come in sequential layers. (If supposedly authentic, in what limbo were the Q2 sayings stored until the community was ready for them? They surface nowhere else.) Only a later subsuming of all these disparate elements under one artificial figure, at a stage when the community's past was sufficiently blurred (partly by the intervening upheavals of the Jewish War), can explain the process.
But the most telling feature of the Q Jesus has proven to be the most perplexing, for he seems to bear no relationship to Paul's. Scholars continue to puzzle over the fact that Q contains no concept of a suffering Jesus, a divinity who has undergone death and resurrection as a redeeming act. Q can make the killing of the prophets a central theme (e.g., Luke 11:49-51) and yet never refer to Jesus' own crucifixion! Its parables contain no hint of the murder of the Son of God. About the resurrection, Q breathes not a whisper. Jesus makes no prophecies of his own death and rising, as he does in other parts of the Gospels. Note that in a Q passage in Luke 17, the evangelist has to insert into Jesus' mouth a prophecy of his own death (verse 25); it is not in Matthew's use of the same passage (24:23f). Most startling of all, the Jesus of Q has no obvious significance for salvation. Apart from the benefits accruing from the teachings themselves, scholars admit that there is no soteriology in Q, certainly nothing about an atoning death for sin. The "Son who knows the Father" (Luke 10:22, a late saying recast from an earlier Wisdom saying) functions as a mediator of God's revelation—simply personifying what the Q community itself does. The Gospel of Thomas is similarly devoid of any reference to Jesus' death and resurrection.
If the founder of the sect had been murdered by the Jewish leaders, if the whole Christian movement had begun out of his death and perceived rising from the grave, it is inconceivable that Q would not have said so. In Luke 13:34-5, for example, Jesus is prophesying. Having just written that Jerusalem is the city that murders the prophets sent to her, how could the Q compiler have resisted putting in a reference to the greatest murder of all? As for the saying in Luke 14:27 about disciples "taking up their cross" and following Jesus, this is recognized as a Cynic-Stoic expression, possibly of the Jewish Zealots as well, not a reference to Jesus' own cross. (See R. Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition, p.161; Burton Mack, The Lost Gospel, p.138-9; Robert Funk, Honest to Jesus, p.235.) David Seeley ("Jesus' Death in Q," NTS 38, p.223f) summarizes the situation: "[N]ot one of the passages in which prophets are mentioned refers to Jesus' death. Such a reference must be assumed." Seeley goes on to construct an argument based on this assumption, which is a classic illustration of how too much of New Testament research has traditionally proceeded.
How is this radical divergence between Paul and Q explained? It shows, say the scholars, the differing responses by different circles to the man Jesus of Nazareth. But they founder when they try to rationalize how such a strange phenomenon could have been possible. Besides, the documents reveal many more "responses" than just two. We are to believe that early Christianity was wildly schizophrenic. First Paul and other epistle writers abandoned all interest in the earthly life and identity of Jesus, turning him into a cosmic Christ who created the world and redeemed it by his death and resurrection. The Q community, along with that of the Gospel of Thomas, on the other hand, decided to ignore that death and resurrection and preserve the earthly teaching Jesus, a preacher of the coming end of the world. Between these two poles lie other incongruent conceptions. In the earliest layer of the Gospel of John, Jesus is the mythical Descending-Ascending Redeemer from heaven who saves by being God's Revealer; later he is equated with the Greek Logos. Jesus is the heavenly High Priest of the Epistle to the Hebrews, the non-suffering intermediary servant of the Didache, the mystical Wisdom-Messiah of the Odes of Solomon. Paul hints at divergent groups in places like Corinth who "preach another Jesus." In the diverse strands of Gnosticism Jesus (or Christ) is a mythical part of the heavenly pleroma of Godhead, sometimes a revealer akin to John's, sometimes surfacing under other names like Derdekeas or the Third Illuminator. (The gnostic Jesus eventually interacted with more orthodox ideas and absorbed the new historical figure into itself.) But all this out of a crucified criminal? Out of any human man?
A more sensible solution would be that all these expressions of the idea of "Jesus" and "Christ" were separate distillations out of the concepts that were flowing in the religious currents of the day (as outlined in Part Two). Scholars now admit that "the beginnings of Christianity were exceptionally diverse, varied dramatically from region to region, and were dominated by individuals and groups whose practice and theology would be denounced as 'heretical'. " (Ron Cameron summarizing Walter Bauer, The Future of Early Christianity, p.381.) It is no longer possible to maintain that such diversity—so much of it uncoordinated and competitive—exploded overnight out of one humble Jewish preacher and a single missionary movement.
* * * *
It was inevitable that these varying expressions would gravitate toward each other. Some time in the late first century, within a predominantly gentile milieu probably in Syria, some Christian scholar or circle combined the community and founder of Q with the mythical suffering Jesus of the Pauline type of Christ cult. Perhaps his community had a foot in both camps, an expression of classic syncretism. The result was the Gospel of Mark. Its author seems to have worked from oral or incomplete Q traditions, for his Gospel fails to include the great teachings of Jesus and prophetic pronouncements which Matthew and Luke have inherited.
What did Mark do? He crafted a ministry which moved from Galilee to Jerusalem, now the site of Jesus' death. He virtually re-invented the Apostles out of early, now-legendary figures in the Christ movement; they served mostly instructional purposes. He brought into the Jesus orbit all the figures and concepts floating about in the Christian air, like Son of God, Messiah, Son of David, the apocalyptic Son of Man.
Most important of all, he had to craft the story of Jesus' passion. Some suggest that Mark used an earlier, more primitive fashioning of Jesus' trial and execution, one John later used as well. Others think that all the famous elements of our passion story are purely Markan inventions: the scene in Gethsemane, Judas the betrayer, the denial by Peter, the actual details of Jesus' trial and crucifixion, the story of the empty tomb. Considering that no concrete evidence surfaces in the record of any pre-Markan passion story, the second option is the most likely. We owe the most enduring tale Western culture has produced to the literary genius of Mark.
Perhaps some "historicizing" of the spiritual Christ had already taken place in Christian study and preaching activities, before Mark and unrelated to Q. A similar sectarian tendency to create an idealized founding past as seen in Q may have operated in the circles of the cultic Christ. The Proclaimed was evolving into the Proclaimer. Jesus the one being preached became Jesus doing the preaching, and the Gospels ultimately functioned as the "foundation document" of Christianity as a whole. Some initial ideas in this direction, such as the name of Paul's "woman" and the period of Jesus' life, found their way to Ignatius, even without a written Gospel, although this information may have come to him as 'echoes' of the recently written Gospel of Mark. Ignatius and 1 John (probably written in the 90s) show that many were objecting to the new, radical idea that "Jesus Christ has come in the flesh" (1 John 4:1f). And what was the engine of this impulse, the source of the information about the new 'historical' Jesus? We can see it in the Gospels themselves: the Jewish scriptures.
First, some general observations. Scholars have long recognized that the Gospels are made up of smaller units of the type found in Q: individual sayings or clusters of sayings, miracle anecdotes, controversy stories. They have been strung together like "beads on a string" with filler material added, narrative bits to convey some kind of sequential impression: Jesus went here, then he went there. Someone comes into the picture and asks a question so that Jesus can give the answer. It used to be thought that the separate units were reliable pieces of tradition which had passed through oral transmission, many going back to Jesus himself, others formulated within the early church in response to him. But gradually it was perceived that the evangelists had altered or fleshed out these units in ways which served their own editorial and theological purposes; many they had simply written themselves. There can be no guarantee that anything goes back to a Jesus.
As we saw in Q, many of the sayings were Hellenistic and Jewish moral maxims and popular parables; some came from Jewish wisdom teaching. The controversy stories and discipleship instructions reflected the situation of the later Christian communities. Paul's "words of the Lord" (see Part One) represent a type of preaching common to early Christian prophets: inspired communications from the spiritual Christ in heaven. These would have been preserved and eventually entered the Gospels as spoken by a historical Jesus. Collections of miracle stories were common in the ancient world, attributed to famous philosophers and wonder workers, even to deities like the healing god Asclepius and Isis. Christian prophets were often healers and wonder workers themselves, whose exploits would later be turned into those of Jesus.
It is now recognized that the Gospels are thoroughly sectarian writings. They were a response to the "life situation" of the groups which produced them, serving their needs. They created a sacred past for the faith, one going back to divine establishment. They offered a bulwark against outside attack. They legitimated the community's beliefs and sanctioned its practices. The burning issue, for example, of association and table fellowship, whether Jew could mix with gentile, whether the ritually pure could eat meals with the impure, was solved by having Jesus portrayed as condemning the Pharisees for their obsession over purity, as one who had consorted with outcasts and gentiles. The issue of whether the Jewish Law still applied was addressed by having Jesus make rulings on it. And so on. It is easy to see how such sectarian interests, when several different communities and times were involved, would lead to the many contradictions we find in Jesus' actions and pronouncements between one Gospel and another.
Did the evangelists see themselves as writing history? Their wholesale practice of altering earlier accounts, rearranging the details of Jesus' ministry, changing the very words of the Lord himself, would suggest otherwise. It is now a maxim that the Gospels are faith documents; the evangelists had no concern for historical research as we know it.
Rather, they were engaged in a type of "midrash." Midrash was an ancient Jewish practice of interpreting and enlarging on individual or combinations of passages from the Bible to draw out new meanings and relevance, to get beyond the surface words. One way to do this was to embody them in new stories with present-day contexts. In the minds of the evangelists, the Gospels expounded new spiritual truths through a retelling of scripture. So many New Testament elements are simply a reworking of stories recorded in the Old Testament. Jesus was cast in tales like those of Moses, for example, presenting him as a new Moses for contemporary times. At the same time, in view of Q, it is quite possible that writers like Mark regarded their work as something pointing to actual history, to a figure announced in scriptural precedent. In any event, before long, such Gospels came to be looked upon as purely factual records, by gentiles who did not understand their Jewish roots, and scripture came to be seen as the prophecy of such real "events" rather than their source.
Just as scripture had earlier provided a picture of the mythical Christ of Paul, the same writings (using passages taken out of context and with no regard to their original meaning) now supplied the setting and details of a recent earthly life of Jesus. Mark brought to a head an already fledgling process and added those "biographical" elements he found in the Q traditions. Out of such components, with the Bible open before him, he fashioned his story of Jesus' ministry and passion.
Jesus had to have performed miracles because this was expected to happen in the days leading to the kingdom. Isaiah 35:5-6 said: "Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy."
Thus, Jesus made the lame walk and the blind see. The Messiah was even expected to raise the dead. The details of many of Jesus' miracle stories are modeled on the miracles performed by Elijah and Elisha in 1 and 2 Kings.
Both Matthew and Luke place Jesus' birth at Bethlehem because the prophet Micah (5:2) had declared that this would be the birthplace of the future ruler of Israel. After that, the two evangelists' Nativity stories agree on virtually nothing. Scriptural midrash can be a very haphazard thing.
The Gospel account of Jesus' trial and death shows the heaviest dependence on scripture. Virtually every element of Mark's passion story, beginning with Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, is based on a biblical passage. Here are a few examples:
The prophet Hosea (9:15): "For their evil deeds I will drive
them from my house." Plus Zechariah (14:21): "No trader
will be seen in the house of the Lord." Jesus drives the money
changers from the Temple.
Psalm 42:5: "How deep I am sunk in misery, groaning in my distress." Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Psalm 41:9:"Even the friend whom I trusted, who ate at my table, exults in my misfortune." The betrayal by Judas. Conflict with the Jewish establishment would have provided strong motivation for coming up with the figure of Judas to represent all hostile and unbelieving Jewry.
Isaiah 53:12: "And he was numbered with the transgressors." Jesus is crucified between two thieves.
Psalm 22:18: "They divided my garments among them, and for my raiments they cast lots." The soldiers gamble for Jesus' clothes at the foot of the cross.
The desertion of the Apostles, the false accusations at Jesus' trial, the crown of thorns, the drink of vinegar and gall, the darkness at noon: these and other details have their counterparts in the sacred writings. The very idea that Jesus was crucified (including in the mythical phase of belief) would have come from passages like Isaiah 53:5: "He was pierced for our transgressions," and Psalm 22:16: "They have pierced my hands and my feet." The placing of Jesus' death at the time of Herod and Pilate was partly a response to the opening verses of Psalm 2. (See J. D. Crossan, The Cross That Spoke.)
But the story of Jesus resides in scripture more than in an assortment of isolated passages. The overall concept of the Passion, Death and Resurrection has emerged out of a theme embodied repeatedly in tales throughout the Hebrew Bible and related writings. This is the story modern scholars have characterized as The Suffering and Vindication of the Innocent Righteous One. We find it in the story of Joseph in Genesis; in Isaiah 53 with its Suffering Servant; in Tobit, Esther, Daniel, 2 and 3 Maccabees, Susanna, the story of Ahiqar, the Wisdom of Solomon. All tell a tale of a righteous man or woman falsely accused, who suffers, is convicted and condemned to death, rescued at the last moment and raised to a high position; or, in the later literature, exalted after death. It is the tale of how the Jews saw themselves: the pious persecuted by the powerful, the people of God subjugated by the godless. It was an image readily absorbed by the Christian sect.
The story of Jesus follows this very pattern: bearing the true message of God, he suffered in faithful silence, was convicted though innocent, ultimately to be vindicated and exalted to glory and God's presence. Jesus' redemptive role was a paradigm for Jewish motifs of suffering and atonement and destined exaltation, brought into a potent mix with Hellenistic Son (Logos) and savior god philosophies. Christianity emerged as a genuine synthesis of the leading religious ideas of the ancient world, and it set the course of Western faith for the next two millennia.
Next Part: Postscript