Jesus Christ Remains the Greatest Enigma in History to Believers and Skeptics Alike
In just three years or less, the mysterious figure we now know (or think we know) as Jesus of Nazareth somehow changed the face of the world.
His real name was almost certainly Yeshu’a bar Yosef. From all the available evidence, he was a semi-skilled Jewish journeyman from a tiny village in northern Palestine who became, very briefly, an itinerant prophet, miracle worker and social revolutionary, one who challenged the religious and social institutions of his day so radically that he was put to death for it.
Of course, for two billion people on the planet today, he was also something much more: The Word of God… the wisdom and mercy and justice of God … incarnate.
What is undeniable to the honest historian is that this one man’s life, teaching and symbolic acts eventually created a social and cultural revolution that reverberated far beyond Palestine and altered almost every institution on earth — and is still felt today.
In short, Jesus changed everything: politics, art, science, law, the rules of warfare, philosophy, sexual life, the family. Even Napoleon was amazed: “Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and myself founded empires; but upon what foundation did we rest the creations of our genius? Upon force. Jesus Christ founded an empire upon love; and at this hour millions of men would die for Him.”
But the question is: how?
Beyond the piety of believers and the doubts of modern skeptics lies an enduring mystery:
What did Jesus do and say, in as little as one year and a maximum of three years, that could possibly have had such an impact?
How could his rag tag band of illiterate fishermen, reformed prostitutes and tax collectors create the philosophical and social revolution that we have described in this book – one that made possible such diverse realities as experimental science, the abolition of slavery, the recognition of universal human rights, even authentic feminism?
In short: How do we explain the fact of Christianity?
One answer, given by scholars from a wide variety of perspectives – including that of so-called liberation theology – is that Jesus’ movement was neither small nor “rag tag.”
Instead, it was just as portions of the New Testament describe it as being, a massive popular outpouring of messianic enthusiasm, especially among the poor and marginalized, that alarmed the Jewish religious leaders of the time and made Roman military officials very nervous.
Many modern people think of Jesus as something like the befuddled hippy Christ in the 1970 play and 1973 film Godspell, teaching his message of peace and love to small groups of dazed flower children.
But what if Jesus was actually more like the figure depicted in the film and stage play Jesus Christ Superstar: A fiery, charismatic, rugged populist who drew crowds by the thousands, even tens of thousands — and whose caustic, subversive, often very funny parables about the “reign of God” and the arrogant elites who try to stand in its way electrified an entire country already seething with rebellion?
What if Jesus wasn’t the meek and mild pacifist of Christian iconography but actually something far more dangerous – a genuinely courageous iconoclast who had the sheer guts to stare down a crowd about to stone a woman to death and who stormed right into the holiest place on earth (a place with every bit of polished awe and grandeur as St. Peter’s in Rome) and began attacking the sales people and moneychangers with a whip?
Such a man could very well have put the fear of God (quite literally) into almost everyone in power — the moneyed aristocracy who controlled the Jerusalem Temple (the Sadduccees); the pious frauds who lay unjust burdens upon people’s shoulders; certainly the small band of Roman military officials charged with keeping the peace.
The truth that both religious believers and modern skeptics have forgotten is this: Jesus proclaimed his message of divine reconciliation and universal peace in a time of ferocious violence and red-hot religious hatred. It was a time eerily like our own: an age of empire and brutal terrorism, of ethnic hatred and spiritual yearning.
The reign of God that Jesus inaugurated and proclaimed with his own blood was born in fire, in the social tumult preceding of one of the most violent civil and religious wars in the history of mankind. It was a war that would turn out to be a thousand times more deadly than the current Israeli-Palestinian stand-off and at least two to four times more deadly than the “ethnic cleansing” in Kosovo in the late 1990s. Historians estimate that fully forty percent of the Jewish population in Judea may have been wiped out in the Jewish War of 66-7- A.D., when the Roman army besieged Jerusalem, tore the famous Temple down and slaughtered hundreds of thousands.
Jesus and the Zealots
One of the few attempts to look seriously at the military context out of which the Jesus Movement arose is S.G.F. Brandon’s classic, albeit controversial work, Jesus and the Zealots: A Study of the Political Factor in Primitive Christianity (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1967).
Brandon was a professor of comparative religion at the University of Manchester from 1951 until his death and not a professional biblical scholar as such; nevertheless, his work was enormously influential. He was a spokesman for the traditional view that saw the Zealots as an organized movement, founded perhaps by the Jewish robber-baron Hezekiah but hearkening back to the Maccabees, that existed throughout the New Testament period and had many important ties to, and affinities and minor disagreements with, the movement inaugurated by Jesus.
Brandon’s work is 384 pages of dense, detailed, extensively quoted arguments that, in essence, make the claim that the evangelists radically misrepresented who Jesus was and what he was all about. For Brandon, Jesus was a radical Jewish nationalist fully in harmony with the primary goals and attitudes of the Zealots… including with the use of violence to achieve his means. Unlike the Zealots, however, the object of Jesus’s reformist zeal was not the Roman occupiers but rather the corrupt sarcedotal aristocracy in Jerusalem which controlled the Temple. Jesus, like the Zealots, sought to establish the Reign of God on earth… but Jesus believed the way to do that was through a radical reform of Jewish religion, particularly in the Temple.
For Brandon, Jesus’s brazenly messianic and triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday was immediately followed, if not on the very day, by a virtual assault on the Temple precincts… not merely by himself alone, but by thousands of his followers, all clamoring that he be made King of Israel. This violent, albeit primarily religious mission may have occurred simultaneous with a far more violent uprising by Zealot forces against the Romans or Roman sympathizers, and two of these men, possibly led by Barabbas, were executed side by side with Jesus on Calvary.
For Brandon, in other words, the Gospels are a complete white-wash of what really happened… an attempt to make Jesus and his movement palatable to a Roman world after the Jewish Revolt of A.D. 66-70 had been crushed. His critical reading of Mark points out a number of apparent inconsistencies in the narrative that are not, for Brandon, easily reconciled. For one thing, Mark portrays Jesus as a innocent victim of scheming on the part of Jewish leaders, falsely accused of sedition and executed by the Romans… yet the evangelist also admits that Jesus’s popularity with the crowds was so great that Jewish leaders “feared to arrest him publicly” and had to send an armed party to do so, and at night. The fears of the Jewish leaders were apparently somewhat justified, Brandon says, because their attempts to arrest Jesus were met, at first, by armed resistance (when one of the “bystanders” cut off the ear of the High Priest’s servant).
Yet there are important differences between the Zealots, as Brandon describes them, and Jesus and his followers. For one thing, the Zealots, like the Pharisees, were shomrei ha-mitzvot, Torah rigorists. Josephus describes them as being unwilling to even touch a coin that bears the image of a pagan king. Indeed, the paying of tribute to a foreign king was a casus belli of the entire Zealot movement. That is the politically-charged context, then, of the question posed to Jesus about paying tribute: Is it lawful, then, to pay the census tax to Caesar? Jesus’s brilliant answer, “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God,” upholds the principle of divine sovereignty without conceding the Zealot ideal of tax resistance. For Brandon, however, this authentic saying of Jesus was meant to say, and was taken by his audience to mean, that pious Jews should not pay the Roman tribute: In other words, that Jesus agreed with the Zealots! Indeed, says Brandon, had Jesus taught anything other than that – given the universal hatred of the Romans by ordinary Jews – he could not have had any support whatsoever among the people, and the historical evidence indicates that he had a substantial following.
However, as much as Brandon wishes to make Jesus and James out to be conservative, traditional Jews, and thus in sympathy with the Zealot cause – as opposed to Paul, the Gentile-loving innovator – it is difficult to build that case from what the Synoptic Gospels say about Jesus’s many run-ins with the Pharisees. Throughout the Synoptics, Jesus is shown to be at odds with conservative Jewish (Pharisaical and Zealot) ideas of what it means to serve God. Jesus’s somewhat defiant attitude towards Sabbath-keeping… his willingness to openly challenge accepted Jewish practice in the Temple… his table fellowship with tax-collectors (considered nothing less than collaborators with the hated Romans)… his own willingness to speak with Roman officials and even Samaritan women… his sayings about ritual hand-washing and unclean food… all of these things in the Gospels present a Jesus who would not have been in sympathy with the violent xenophobia of the Zealots.
The Quest for the Historical Jesus
Brandon is typical of much of the scholarly work done on Jesus over the past two centuries. This work often raises fascinating, tantalizing questions that religious people often never thought of before – and therefore is quite valuable – but it often operates out of one overriding, often unquestioned assumption: that the “real” Jesus was something quite other than what his followers have always said that he was or as he is depicted as being in the New Testament.
This modern quest for the “real” or the “historical” Jesus began with a German Deist named Hermann Samuel Reimarus (c. 1694-1798), wound its way through works by the German theologian David Strauss (1808-1874), the French philosopher Ernest Renan (1823-1892) and the Alsatian physician and humanitarian Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965), and then hit a dead-end with the radical historical skepticism of the Lutheran New Testament scholars Martin Dibelius (1883-1947) and Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976).
In recent decades, however, there have been a second and then a third “quest” to identify who the “real” Jesus was – with the portraits as varied as the scholars who fashioned them. Recent efforts have sought, often successfully, to more fully recover the “Jewishness” of Jesus and his first followers. These respected, often quite “conservative” historical Jesus scholars include Joachim Jeremias (1900-1979); the Jewish scholars Hyam Maccoby (1924-2004) , Jacob Neusner (1934-), and Geza Vermes; E.P. Sanders; the Catholic priests Raymond Brown and John P. Meier; the Anglican bishop N.T. Wright; and the evangelical scholar Ben Witherington III.
However, the most notorious and controversial of “historical Jesus” scholars are those associated with what was called the Jesus Seminar – an ad hoc committee of liberal intellectuals and writers, organized under the auspices of the Westar Institute in 1985, by Robert Funk and the former Irish priest and bestselling author John Dominic Crossan. The seminar included dozens of liberal scholars and just ordinary liberals, including the Dutch film maker Paul Verhoeven (who has a Ph.D. in mathematics but is best known for directing such epic religious films as “RoboCop, “Total Recall,” “Basic Instinct,” and, of course, “Showgirls”), Episcopal bishop John Shelby Strong, and ex-nun and author Karen Armstrong.
The Jesus Seminar was best known for its practice of meeting in groups and voting, according to a pre-determined system of colored beads, on which words and deeds of Jesus were “authentic” and what were likely invented by the early Church. Unfortunately, the Seminar participants found most of the New Testament to be fall into the latter category. They voted only 11% of the words of Jesus in Mark to be authentic, 17% in Matthew, 20% in Luke and pretty much none in the Gospel of John. Jesus’s deeds didn’t fare much better: The seminar participants found that only 16% of 176 distinct “acts” recorded in 387 “reports” to be authentic or probably authentic (meaning they actually occurred) . The Jesus Seminar liberals were pretty sure that there was a Jesus from Galilee who was born of Mary with the “assistance” of Joseph, that he was baptized by and was a disciple of John the Baptist, that he cured sick people, that he was crucified by the Romans , that his body decayed as all corpses do, and that the resurrection didn’t literally happen. Beyond that, they can’t say much.
Although the Jesus Seminar participants tried to present themselves as cutting-edge scholars in the “mainstream” of New Testament research, they immediately had many critics from within the scholarly community. One common criticism was that very few members of the Seminar were actually professional Bible scholars; the majority were, instead, public intellectuals and educated persons but without any formal training in Biblical studies. One critic, the Catholic New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson of Emory University in Atlanta, even went so far as to call the Seminar a “self-indulgent charade.” That’s because the Seminar’s conclusions were pre-determined before a single vote was cast by the selection of the seminar participants and the methodology they used to evaluate the Biblical evidence. Whatever else they may have been, co-founders Funk and Crossan were certainly not what you would call an orthodox believers. “The plot early Christians invented for a divine redeemer figure is as archaic as the mythology in which it is framed,” Funk explained on the Jesus Seminar website. “A Jesus who drops down out of heaven, performs some magical act that frees human beings from the power of sin, rises from the dead, and returns to heaven is simply no longer credible. The notion that he will return at the end of time and sit in cosmic judgment is equally incredible. We must find a new plot for a more credible Jesus.”
Other critics pointed out that at least some of the criteria that the Jesus Seminar used to judge whether the New Testament passage was “authentic” or not were logically consistent. These criteria included…
The criterion of dissimilarity: This is the notion, common outside of the Seminar, that if a saying or act of Jesus is unlike something the early Church would say or do… it is probably authentic. But this is a crazy notion, when you think about it: It requires you to believe that Jesus’ early followers had nothing in common with the Teacher whose memory and message they were risking their lives to preach to the entire world.
The criterion of embarrassment: As noted earlier in this book, this is the belief that if something is inherently embarrassing, such as the apostles being a bit cowardly or stupid, it is probably authentic because people don’t usually make up things that make them look bad.
The criterion of self-reference: This is the assumption that Jesus would never refer to himself in grandiose terms or to his having an important mission. This is why the Seminar rejects most of the sayings in the Gospel of John, such as “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:1).
The criterion of diverse settings. As we’ll discuss below, the synoptic gospels often quote the same saying of Jesus but have it in varying contexts. As a result, the Seminar participants believed most of the “framing” material around a saying was made up by the evangelists.
The criterion of community needs. If a saying of Jesus has anything to do with the early Christian community, such as instructions for missionaries or references to Peter as “the rock” upon which the church is built, it is almost certainly inauthentic.
The criterion of theological agendas: The Seminar participants believed that any saying that is in harmony with the identified theological “agenda” of a given evangelist is almost certainly inauthentic. For example, the prophecy of the sheep and the goats was voted almost certain inauthentic because it allegedly fits in with Matthew’s intent to distinguish between true and false followers of Christ.
Of course, some of these criteria are used by mainstream biblical scholars, although in different ways. As we will see below, it is widely accepted by virtually all reputable New Testament scholars that the evangelists, in writing their own gospels, arranged their material and selected from their sources those parts of the story that emphasized the points they, the evangelists, were trying to make. But mainstream scholars don’t draw from this commonsense observation the radical skepticism exhibited by the Jesus seminar. For example, the fact that a given evangelist includes a saying of Jesus that makes one of the evangelist’s key theological points, or puts it into a particular place in his narrative, doesn’t necessarily mean that he made it up. We know, because we can see for ourselves in the Gospel texts, that one evangelist will use a saying of Jesus and another one won’t. All this means is that the evangelists, like modern journalists choosing which quotations to use in an article, selected those sayings of Jesus, and arranged them in a particular way, to support the points they were trying to make – and not that they made them up.
Contemporary Biblical Scholarship
It goes without saying that the Jesus Seminar at least engaged Biblical scholarship. Some of its leaders were real scholars trained in some of the best universities in the world. To that degree, it’s possible to debate the Jesus Seminar’s conclusions.
But there is a whole other “school” of New Testament bashing that is beyond the reach of reason or of critical comment. That would include those who, like Christopher Hitchens, still insist that Jesus Christ was likely a mythical figure who never even existed in the first place . It also includes the millions of people who believe The Da Vinci Code was based on real events – that Jesus survived the crucifixion, married Mary Magdalene (the real “holy grail”) and fathered descendents who became the kings and queens of France. In a similar way, most faithful Christians and Jews don’t really have ready answers for those who insist that the Old Testament was based on aliens docking the Mother Ship on Mt. Sinai (after all, Exodus describes a mountain of “fire and smoke”) – a view popularized by a series of books (e.g., Chariots of the Gods) in the 1960s by Swiss author Erich von Däniken.
The truth is, recent attacks on the New Testament by atheist crusaders, such as Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens, are closer to the Chariots of the Gods or Da Vinci Code school of Biblical scholarship than to that of the Jesus Seminar.
Christopher Hitchens, for example, in Why God is Not Great, titles his chapter on Jesus “The ‘New’ Testament Exceeds the Evil of the ‘Old’ One.” He asserts that the Gospels’ “multiple authors – none of whom published anything until many decades after the Crucifixion – cannot agree on anything of importance.” He finds any differences at all in the Gospels to be ipso facto proof that they are all complete frauds and contain nothing worth thinking about.
“They flatly contradict each other on the ‘Flight into Egypt,’ Matthew saying that Joseph was ‘warned in a dream’ to make an immediate escape and Luke saying that all three stayed in Bethlehem until Mary’s ‘purification according to the laws of Moses,’ which would make it forty days, and then went back to Nazareth via Jerusalem,” he says. Elsewhere, Hitchens explains that the “contradictions and illiteracies of the New Testament have filled up many books by eminent scholars, and have never been explained by any Christian authority except in the feeblest terms of ‘metaphor’ and ‘a Christ of faith.’”
But the reality is that the discrepancies and “inconsistences” in the four canonical Gospels, far from being an argument against their authenticity, are actually arguments for their genuine testimony. In the earliest days of the Church, the Christian community had the opportunity to publish a harmonized “one volume” account of Jesus’ life and teaching with all the inconsistencies and disagreements of fact ironed out. In fact, many of these harmonizations were actually written and were quite popular. The most famous and influential was called The Diatessaron, probably written in Syriac around A.D. 175 by an Assyrian (Syriac) Christian named Tatian and used in the Syriac Church for two centuries.
But when it came time for the Christian Church to officially approve those books that most accurately portray the Christian faith as it has been handed down, from teacher to disciple, over the generations, the early Christian leaders deliberately chose the four canonical Gospels (with all their “inconsistencies”) rather than a neatly harmonized account. They did so because they believed the truth of who Jesus was and what he taught and did was better served by these varying accounts, with all their discrepancies, than by any attempt to try to fit them all together in a neat package.
As Brandon and others have argued, thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of people heard Jesus teach and saw his deeds. Decades after his death, there were undoubtedly thousands of “hearers of the Lord” still living. They naturally traded stories about things Jesus had done and said. Eventually, these sayings of Jesus were translated from their original Aramaic into koine Greek and gathered together into a collection or collections which modern scholars call “Q” (from the German word Quelle for source). Later, when the evangelists began their task of writing about Jesus’ life and teaching, they almost certainly had access to this basic “sayings source” as well as to other, independent sources and to the various eye-witness testimonies of apostles and disciples still alive. The evangelist Luke says this explicitly:
“Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us,” he says in the opening words of the Gospel – and note the words “many” and “compile” – “just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word have handed them down to us, I, too, have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings that you have received” (Like 1:1-4)
In other words: Luke, at least, claims that he investigated “everything accurately anew” and drew upon the testimony of “those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning.”
Most (but not all) modern scholars believe that the Gospel of Mark was likely written first, in Rome in the late 60s A.D., followed by Luke in the early 70s and Matthew in the late 70s – who both used the same Q sayings source — and then by John sometime after 80 A.D. Most liberal scholars tend to push the dates back later but virtually all still believe Mark was written first. They believe this because Luke and Matthew follow the basic order of events in Mark almost exactly, although they appear to make minor changes (such as cleaning up poor Greek grammar) found in the Markan account; and there are big chunks of texts that are not in Mark but are found, word for word, in both Matthew and Luke.
What’s more, in piecing together the facts of Jesus’ life, and drawing upon the same or similiar “sayings source” (Q), the evangelists sometimes differed as to where a particular “saying” should be put in the narrative (its setting) and sometimes modified the saying itself. The evangelists were each individuals, writing from different locations, perhaps in different languages, and each had their own “agenda” or particular points they wanted to make. Of course, Christian apologists have long pointed out that Jesus traveled from town to town all over Palestine, preaching his message and telling his parables, and it is likely that he would have repeated himself often. Thus, it’s natural that some eyewitnesses would remember his saying something in one context and another witness might remember him saying it in another.
Anyone interested in the details of all this can see for themselves by consulting what’s called a “synopsis” of the Gospels (such as the one published by the United Bible Societies and edited by Kurt Aland) that shows the accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds arranged in parallel columns by Gospel. A humorous example of how the concerns of the individual evangelists can determine what they do and do not put into their version of events – and which demonstrates how so-called “critical” scholarship often strengthens the case for the authenticity of the Gospels – is the account of the woman with a hemorrhage.
According to all three of the synoptic gospels, when Jesus was on his way to cure the daughter of a synagogue official named Jarius, a woman who suffered from hemorrhages for years came up to him and touched him, seeking to be cured. Keeping in mind the idea that Mark probably wrote his gospel first, notice how the three versions differ slightly – and remember that, according to tradition, the evangelist Luke was a physician by trade:
Mark 5:25 Matthew 9:20 Luke: 8:43
And there was a woman who had had a flow of blood for twelve years, and who had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was no better but rather grew worse. She had heard the reports about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his garment.
And behold, a woman who had suffered from a hemorrhage for twelve years
came up behind him and touched the fringe of his garment.
And a woman who had had a flow of blood for twelve years
And could not be healed by any one,
Came up behind him, and touched the fringe of his garment.
Minor differences, of course. But notice that the version by the alleged physician Luke removes the biting comments about how the woman had suffered under “many physicians” and had spent all she had on them but only grew worse. Also, notice how Mark, probably writing from Rome for at least some Gentiles, refers merely to Jesus’ “garment” while Matthew, whose concern above all else is to show how Jesus is the fulfillment of Jewish prophecies and teaching, adds the detail about the “fringe” (Hebrew: tzitzit) of his garment, a reference to the traditional tallit or “prayer shawl” commanded in Numbers 15. It is through this kind of careful, “critical” reading of the New Testament that scholars attempt to discern the theological assumptions and emphases of the Biblical writers and, through them, to discover more about who Jesus really was and what he did. In other words, we learn more looking through the eyes of four evangelists – each with his own agenda and purposes – than we would from a “harmonized” account that tried to remove the apparent contradictions and inconsistencies that skeptics so dislike.
Interestingly enough, modern scholarship is not as original, or as shocking, as modern skeptics would have people believe. Faithful Christians have always known the basic facts of how the New Testament came to be written. We have numerous (again, conflicting accounts) of how the New Testament came to be written in the writings of early Christian theologians, such as Papias (c. 120) and Eusebius (c. 270-339). Papias, a bishop in what is now central Turkey, wrote a lost book called Interpretations of the Sayings of the Lord that obliquely testifies to the existence of a Q source. We no longer have his works, but the Church historian Eusebius quotes Papias’s account of how the New Testament books came to be written:
“Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered. It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him. But afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who accommodated his instructions to the necessities [of his hearers], but with no intention of giving a regular narrative of the Lord’s sayings. Wherefore Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them. For of one thing he took especial care, not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into the statements. Matthew put together the oracles [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could.”
This account actually jives quite neatly with what many modern scholars believe. Due to the many semiticisms and Aramaic words in the Greek text of Matthew, for example, many scholars believe it was originally written in Aramaic and later translated into Greek.
The Lost Gospels
A final issue when it comes to New Testament studies: The so-called “lost” Gospels. As skeptics tell it, reflecting the worldview captured in The Da Vinci Code, the Christian church systematically suppressed the truth about Jesus and his early disciples, “censoring” alternative accounts of Jesus’ life and teaching because these texts didn’t reflect the “dogma” (primarily the alleged “sexism” and “homophobia”) of the institutional Church. Examples of these “alternative” Gospels include the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of James. More recently, a Gospel of Judas was discovered and published.
The Da Vinci Code was hardly original in taking this line: In 1972, novelist Irving Wallace wrote a thriller called The Word that described, interspersed with lots of sex, the alleged discovery of an alternative gospel (the Gospel of James) that would “blow the lid” off of institutional Christianity and reveal the truth that the evil Church had kept hidden for millennia. There’s even a secret society that has suppressed the truth that Jesus survived the crucifixion – and a man who, “if he can survive long enough,” struggles to tell the whole world what really happened.
So, is there truth to the charge? Did the Christian church “suppress” lost facts about and sayings of Jesus?
The answer of mainstream biblical scholars would be: If only! That’s because, for two centuries now, scholars have been poring over every word of every “apocryphal” (non-canonical) gospel available, desperately searching for a lost saying or an authentic new fact. Far from being “lost,” every single apocryphal gospel extant can be easily read in translation in such collections as The Nag Hammadi Library (edited by James Robinson), or in more popular anthologies such as The Complete Gospels (edited by Robert J. Miller) or The Other Gospels: Non-Canonical Gospel Texts (edited by Ron Cameron).
Alas, the results have been disappointing.
The researches of such scholars as Elaine Pagels and Bart Erhman have taught us a lot about early Gnosticism but precious little new about Jesus. The primary reason for this is because these lost, “apocryphal” gospels were written, by and large, decades, sometimes even centuries after the canonical Gospels. They were the creation of Gnostic sects (sort of second- and third-century New Agers) that usually just followed the outlines of the canonical Gospels and simply put into the mouth of Jesus various philosophical ramblings of a particular Gnostic sect. Most of them strike modern readers as deadly dull and quite bizarre… and nothing like the canonical Gospels in vivid, real-life detail.
Here is a typical passage from The Gospel of Mary (Magdalene), a favorite with New Agers and conspiracy theorists:
The Savior said, “All natures, all formations, all creatures exist in and with one another, and they will be resolved again into their own roots. For the nature of matter is resolved into the [roots] of its nature alone. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
As you might guess, if the church “suppressed” these texts it was probably more for bad writing than for heresy. The simple truth is that, when the early Christian leaders looked over the various works purporting to be about the life and teaching of Jesus, they found that most had little if anything to do with the Jesus proclaimed by the Church and instead were full of bizarre Greek philosophical ideas (about various deities and emanations from the godhead) that Jesus would have had nothing to say about. That’s why the church historian Eusebius, writing around A.D. 324, spoke of the books that are “adduced by the heretics under the name of the apostles, such as the Gospels of Peter, Thomas, Matthew, and others beside them or such as the Acts of the Apostles by Andrew John, and others.” He added the common sense observation that “indeed the character of the style itself is very different from that of the apostles, and the sentiment and purport of those things that are advanced in them, deviating as far as possible form sound orthodoxy, evidently proves they are fictions of heretical men.” These “other” gospels, Eusebius concludes, are “spurious writings [that] are to be rejected as altogether absurd and impious.”
What Do the Earliest Texts Say?
So: If the “real” Jesus can’t be found in the New Age ramblings of third-century Gnostic Gospels… or in the radical revisionism of Jesus Seminar intellectuals and pundits… or in the violent revolution planned by the forerunners of the Zealots… where can he be found?
Perhaps in the last place many people appear to want to look, in the New Testament itself.
Modern New Testament scholars have actually done a pretty good job of identifying which parts of the New Testament were written first – by correlating passages with known historical events. When they did this, however, they made a discovery that undermined two centuries worth of “certainties” about Jesus and Christianity. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, liberal theologians (such as Adolf von Harnack) believed that the first followers of Jesus were pious Jews for whom Jesus was a rabbi, perhaps a prophet, but nothing more… and it was only after the Jesus Movement spread out into the Gentile world that his followers began using grandiose language that described Jesus as having divine or quasi-divine status. The idea was that the early Greek followers of Jesus (pagans all!) simply adapted Greek “divine man” myths to speak about Jesus. These liberals theologians believed, therefore, that the earliest Christian tradition would speak of Jesus as a simple teacher, the later writings as an exalted quasi-divine figure.
But after scholars successfully identified the lowest “strata” in the New Testament, the earliest pieces of tradition, they made a shocking, very disturbing discovery: The very earliest traditions, not just the latest, speak of Jesus as sharing in God’s unique sovereignty over all things. In fact, a fairly “high” christology of Jesus permeates virtually the entire New Testament.
The British New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham names this strange, unexpected phenomenon “Christological monotheism,” meaning the earliest traditions about Jesus see him sharing in the very life and wisdom and even the power of God . This can be seen, Bauckham says, in a number of ways.
First, the earliest New Testament texts speak of Jesus’ lordship over “all things,” which is a status in Jewish thought previously allocated to God alone. Writing to the Corinthians in A.D. 55 or thereabouts, Paul says that Christ will destroy death itself (1 Corinthians 15:26).
Second, Bauckham says, Jesus shares God’s exaltation above the angels. In Ephesians 1:21-22, perhaps written in A.D. 62, Paul (or his scribes) say that “[God] raised [Jesus] from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet…”
Third, Jesus is given the Divine Name, the Tetragrammaton (YHWH) – the name, says Bauckham, “which names the unique identity of the one God, the name which is exclusive to the one God…” According to Philippians 2:9…
Christ Jesus… Who, though he was in the form of God
Did not regard equality with God
Something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself
Taking the form of a slave…
Because of this,
God greatly exalted him
And bestowed on him the name
That is above every name,
That at the name of Jesus
Every knee should bend,
Of those in heaven and on earth and under the hearth
Fourth, Jesus participation in the divine sovereignty extends even to worship. The central, unalterable truth of Israelite religion is the Shema: Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. Or as the First Commandment puts it: “You shall have no other gods beside me.” Yet in the Gospel of Mark, which scholars almost unanimously believe to be the first gospel written, Jesus is asked by the High Priest, “Are you the Messiah, the son of the Blessed One?” And Jesus answers…
“I am, and you will se the Son of Man
Seated at the right hand of the Power
And coming with the clouds of heaven.
At this, Mark says, the high priest “tore his garments” and said, “Have we further need of witnesses? You have heard the blasphemy.”
The word that the New Testament uses to express this unique incorporation of the man Jesus into the very life of God is “sonship.” The way the New Testament scholar Burton Mack describes what this means is:
“In Paul’s mind, the Christ was now a historic person, now a son of God, a ‘corporate personality’ representing a collective humanity, a cosmic king, a spiritual power pervading the cosmos, the hidden meaning behind the significant events of Israel’s history, and the incarnation of the very mind, promise, and intention of God for humankind… The Christ had become an overwhelming, all-encompassing symbol of the agency of a Jewish God in a Greek world.”
The important point to remember, however, is that these unusual, mind-boggling modifications to traditional Jewish monotheism were made, not by Greek-speaking Gentiles in far away Rome or Athens, but by the earliest Jewish followers of the very Jewish Jesus.
The same man who quotes the early Christological hymn in Phillipians (quoted above), the Pharisee convert Paul, brags in the very same letter that he was “circumcised on the eighth day, of the race of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews, in observance of the law a Pharisee” and claims he was a Jewish zealot who studied under the great Torah scholar Gamaliel and persecuted the early followers of Jesus.
Some scholars have pointed to Semitic characteristics behind the Greek text and argue that this hymn originated from the early Jewish-Christian community at Jerusalem. This means that perhaps the earliest extent stratum in the New Testament, from a distinctly Jewish provenance, perhaps learned by Paul within the first five or ten years after Jesus’ death in A.D. 30, displays the same elevated understanding of Christ that liberal theologians used to believe came only very late, in the second century, among pagans.
The bottom line for faith
What this means is this: You don’t have to go as far as evangelical apologists like C.S. Lewis or Josh McDowell and say that either Jesus was a madman or the Son of God… because that begs the question as to whether the Gospels accurately report what Jesus really said or merely put words into his mouth, as modern skeptics claim and as later Gnostic writers actually did.
But any fair evaluation of the historical evidence has to at least admit this: The earliest, most authentic documents we have – which are, to the chagrin of Gnostic fans everywhere, the canonical books of the New Testament – clearly claim that Jesus was something much more than merely a prophet or even the long-awaited Jewish messiah.
Of course, many faithful Jews then and since could not accept that… and many modern people can no longer accept it as well. But that is precisely what the New Testament says, at the very earliest strata of the tradition: The man Jesus of Nazareth… the carpenter of Nazareth who electrified all of Galilee and Judea with his fiery denunciations of religious hypocrisy and calls for true repentance… somehow shares in the very mind and mercy and even power of God himself.
Far from refuting that fact, the best Biblical scholarship of the past century actually confirms it.
Of course, that doesn’t answer the most important question of all: Whether it’s true. In this, the great New Testament scholar and theologian Rudolph Bultmann was correct: from a strictly historical perspective, we can never really know what Jesus actually did and said but only what the Gospels say he said and did. The New Testament is virtually the only historical document we have. As a result, whether Jesus really is the Son of God is not a question that can be answered by “critical” Biblical scholarship or archaeology. It can be illuminated through such scholarship, explored and debated and expanded, but not, ultimately, answered.
That is why people rarely come to faith in Christ based on a critical study of textual variants in the Gospel of Luke. Instead, they come to faith in Christ as the ultimate revelation of God primarily because they are born into, or encounter, communities of faith (which we call “churches” or “assemblies”) that have preserved his memory for nearly 2,000 years.
For two millennia, the tribe that calls itself Christians has gathered together in groups – some large, some small – to hear Jesus’ words, meditate upon his deeds and obey his last request that he be remembered in the breaking of the bread.
Across the ages, this international community has continued to pass on the memory and the testimony of who Jesus Christ was and is – from father to son, mother to daughter, catechist to student, in an unbroken chain of “apostolic succession,” for generations. This faith is often communicated orally and visually, depicted in the stain glass windows of Gothic cathedrals and celebrated in songs in “rock operas.” That’s why you don’t have to be an historian or a Biblical scholar to believe in Jesus – and why the great saints and mystics of Christendom, from St. Francis of Assisi to John Wesley, Corrie ten Bloom to Mother Teresa of Calcutta, knew more about who Jesus was than the hundreds of supposed experts in the Jesus Seminar.
Thus, on a practical level, deciding whether to believe the Christian testimony is less about history, archaeology and Greek paleography than it is about our own understanding of people, the world and our eternal destinies.
People usually decide to remain or become Christians because the story of who Jesus was and did, and the words he said, seem to “fit” their experience of the world. Put simply, it rings true. The Gospel stories of Jesus’s encounters with sinners and sycophants, the powerful and the impoverished, seem believable… often far more believable than the elaborate conspiracies and dubious reconstructions postulated by scholarly skeptics. Jesus’s words of mercy and forgiveness… his challenge to live a life of integrity far beyond the minimum required by religious law… his humor and courage and simple decency… strike ordinary believers as too authentic and “real” to have been made up. That is not, as undergraduate philosophizers like Sam Harris like to say, blind faith, but rather a judgment that attends to data other than those produced by scientific instruments or the random facts we can cull from archaeology.
The simple truth is that the New Testament claims that Jesus of Nazareth is Lord of heaven and earth… the ultimate revelation of who God is and what he wants from his creates… and about one third of the planet’s population finds it credible. The snide put-downs, sophomoric arguments and thinly veiled threats of people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Penn and Teller do not impress them. Forced to choose between what the cynical media say is plausible and “scientific,” and what the Bible says about Jesus, billions prefer the Bible. They know Jesus, and trust him – more than all the scholars in the Jesus Seminar.
- Lost Gospels Revealed
- Rob Bell Asks the Big Questions Ignored by Many Churches
- A Comparison of Catholic and Reformed Views on the Salvation of Non-Christians
- The Biblical Roots of Thanksgiving
- The Medium is the Message