Who is telling us what, and why, about Jesus?

What we must think about before we think about Jesus

When we try to glimpse figures from the past, even the most recent past, we are constrained to view them through one or more filters. These filters, our informants, whether eye-witnesses or the subject him or herself, are all tinted with reflection, forgetfulness, a disheartening range of ideologies and either an overdose of good will or far too much ill. Innocent informers and unclouded filters are few and far between. These truisms, which are magnified almost beyond the calculation when it is a matter of a (still) highly controverted figure from the remote past like Jesus Nazareth, are repeated here by way of introduction to the necessary task of closely interrogating our witnesses before we turn to their subject. Before we can construct a descriptive or analytic narrative about this figure from the past, we must take a long look under the hood.

What the historian is searching for here is, first, independent sources on Jesus, which, second, have some claim to bear authentic witness to him. Here the independent sources appear to be the four Gospels “according to” Matthew, Mark, Luke and John that constitute part, the principal part, of the Christian collection called the “New Testament.” The four works are quasi-biographies of Jesus: though not called a “Life” in the manner of some ancient works, they in fact trace Jesus’ life from birth to death in chronological order and often in concrete detail. No other surviving works on Jesus can match those four in proximity to the subject – Jesus likely died in 30 A.D. and the Gospels were probably written between 60 or 70 and 100 A.D. – and most other works professedly about Jesus, all of them, like the Gospels, by Christians, appear to have been composed with full prior knowledge of the canonical Gospels.

But matters are somewhat more complex than that. On the well-founded assumption that Mark is the earliest Gospel, a judgment based on its brief, direct and simple style, Mark and Luke seem to have used Mark as their principal source – they quote nearly verbatim 200+ verses right out of Mark – which each edited and to which each added original, and thus independent, material. And John, again by general consent the latest of the four, may well have had all three of the others before him during the composition of his Gospel. But John too modified his sources, dramatically in places, and included a good deal of original independent material in his Gospel. Thus in the four canonical Gospels we have both the hierarchy of sources and an extraordinarily interesting and unexpected glimpse into the evolving editorial process among them. In one instance, Luke, we are given a privileged look at the perspective from which his Gospel was written in the form of a second, follow-up volume to the Gospel.

If the New Testament Gospels are the preserved documents that carry us closest in time to him, are they authentic records or, perhaps more accurately, reliable recollections of Jesus of Nazareth? Do they reflect, and in what measure, the man who lived in Galilee in what is now called the first century A.D.? The works in question were never claimed to be records or even reminiscences of Jesus; rather, they were described as announcements or proclamations of what the earliest of them characterized as “good news” (euangelion) from Jesus but was, . in fact, principally about Jesus. The reported “good news” from Jesus, his sayings and teachings, constitutes at least part of the contents of the Gospels as documentary, while the transparent biographical shape of the four—Jesus initiates his career at the beginning and dies and is buried at the end—renders them “history” in something close to our understanding of that term. But if it is history, it is history with a clearly announced “spin”: this is, after all, the “good news,” and as Mark guilelessly adds, “of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mk. 1:1).

If Mark is clearly not inviting us to a dispassionate view of the evidence about Jesus, the evangelist named Luke seems to have something somewhat different and reassuring in mind. He has, he claims, closely reviewed “the traditions handed down to us by the original eyewitnesses” and has chosen to write “an orderly narrative” to provide his patron and others with “authentic knowledge” of what transpired in Galilee and Jerusalem beginning in that “fifteenth year of the emperor Tiberius.” The account may be accurate according to Luke’s lights, but his Gospel is still the Good News: Jesus is Messiah and Lord.

The best evidence on Jesus transmits, then, mixed signals. The four Gospels which, formally at least, qualify as biographies of Jesus, make no attempt to conceal the fact that they were composed with a distinct, and a distinctly radical, point of view—a life of the Son of God!—and at the same time ask, or, in Luke’s case, demand, to be taken seriously as factual accounts of what truly happened in Galilee and Jerusalem in the second and third decades of the first century. They must in fact be taken seriously. By all accounts the canonical Gospels were all written from 40, or perhaps 30, to at the latest 70 years, a single human lifetime, after the events they purport to describe, which is far better than what we make do with for most works from antiquity. More, almost all the individual details, the mis en scène of each of the Gospels, display a convincing familiarity with that time and that place. Nor do they seem much studied in the making. Mark in particular, the earliest of them, whose composition has been argued as few as ten years after Jesus’ death, is written in a plain and homely diction that suggests that the work more strongly reflects transmission rather than composition. But we should not be seduced by Mark’s diction and narrative naiveté: his Gospel was as surely “composed” as the more professedly “authored” work of Luke: Mark had his intentions, as did the other three, and they were not entirely historical.

The four accounts of Jesus’ life that the Christian Church preserved and regarded as authoritative have their puzzlements to be sure. The four differ among themselves on various details of Jesus’ life, but the Christian approach, since it regarded the Gospels as not only foundational but authoritative—the Gospels were thought to have been inspired from on high and so inerrant—devoted its chief efforts to harmonizing the discrepancies rather than digging into the problems that lay behind them. By the nineteenth century European attitudes, all of them Christian, all of them Protestant and most of them German, were very different. Ancient documents, once protected by their own antiquity, prestige or the mantle of ecclesiastical authority, began to be looked at with newly skeptical eyes: Homer, the Western world’s cultural totem, Livy’s account of Roman origins, even the Genesis version of the beginnings of the universe were subjected to critical scrutiny, and, of course, the four Gospels of the New Testament.

Today the Gospels survive more or less intact in the hands of their Christian readers, but in the ateliers of the professional historians they lie strewn in pieces upon workshop tables, each piece dissected, scrutinized and labeled like so many fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls. At first the focus was on composition. There was a fairly strong conviction that the Gospels were indeed made up, and not merely as regards their form but also in their content. Whatever and whoever the historical Jesus might have been—and the most skeptical went so far as to say we would never know the answer to that question—the Jesus of the Gospels was already a mythic figure, a born-again god figure not too subtly cribbed from the Greco-Roman collection of such by his own increasingly Gentile followers.

That view has not entirely disappeared, but closer attention to the brushstrokes of the Gospel portrait of Jesus suggests something different. The Gospels do not disguise the fact that Jesus was Jewish–his identity is not exactly underlined there since it could not be otherwise—but that fact, and the corollary that so too were all his earliest followers, and so too was the environment in which he and they lived and worked, was all submerged under the more consequential conviction that Christianity, and so too, by fatal implication, Jesus himself, represented a break with Judaism, a paradigm shift of cosmic proportion. Jews too bought into that proposition, though they were not perhaps so keen on the consequences. As Jesus became a “Christian,” the Jewish color drained precipitously out of the Gospels.

What the nineteenth century removed or ignored in the Gospels, the late twentieth undertook to restore, and with an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the Second Temple Judaism of Jesus’ day and how precisely it differed from what become normative in the Jewish tradition and the benchmark in the earlier attempts to locate Jesus in—or against—his environment, namely Rabbinic Judaism. Once those latter Rabbinic era filters were removed and the more variegated version of what is now called Early Judaism, the nexus of beliefs and practices current among Jews between the return from the Exile down to the years following the destruction of Herod’s Temple in 70 A.D., was used as a religious, cultural and political template, the life of Jesus, the actual Jesus, unfolded, the Gospels came into considerably sharper focus. Jesus was, without argument, a man of his times; it was important to get the times right.

But if adjusting the filter gave new focus to the Gospel portraits of Jesus, it did not eo ipso render the portrait itself more reliable. As already noted, all four of the Gospels come down to us embedded in the Christian collection called the New Testament. The historian understands perfectly well that the New Testament as such is not a source for Jesus of Nazareth. Even its Gospels, which are the original portraits of Jesus, are themselves interpretive frames around earlier material. Interpretation that began with the very first witnesses to Jesus, the individuals who had encountered the man himself and who passed on memories of him and his words, memories that were framed in our Gospels no more than 30 to 50 years after his death. The Gospel framing is somewhat less apparent than the interpretation that follows in the New Testament since in those four works the matter is presented as a species of historical report, four narratives that purport to record what befell and what was said by Jesus Nazareth during his brief career. But these sayings and deeds were presented with a distinct purpose, not simply to record but, rather more urgently, to explain or, in the case of Jesus’ rather disgraceful arrest, trial and execution, to explain away. And not merely explain. Some at least of the claims made for Jesus in the Gospels strain credulity to the breaking point. The past is a foreign country, it was once famously remarked; if so, the chief citizen of this particular country is an alien: a miracle-worker, a clairvoyant, a Jewish super-hero (“Messiah”), the Son of God and, it would appear, both creator and redeemer of the universe
The historian is loathe to make public judgments—privately he is often not so circumspect–about such transcendental titles as creator, redeemer and “Son of God,” while identification of “the Messiah” is something best left up to the Jews themselves. But the Gospels present more than enough material that the historian can inspect, weigh and judge: human acts said to have been performed by and on Jesus at quite specific, and quite identifiable, times and places, contemporary utterances reported from him and about him. The four canonical Gospels pretend to be history; are they really such?

Critics have devised a variety of sophisticated tests to attempt to answer that question, some of them convincing, none infallible; and the answer, as might be expected, turns out to be both “yes” and “no.” Yes, the Gospels contain verifiably reliable reports about Jewish life and beliefs in first century Palestine; about the circle that surrounded Jesus of Nazareth; and about Jesus’ own life and death. And no, not everything that Jesus is reported there to have said or done can be trusted as authentic.

The modern historian then approaches those well-known sources on Jesus with considerable skepticism, much of it both appropriate and well-merited. There is the universally acknowledged fact that the Gospel authors, whoever they were, were biased and so as true believers they could not possibly provide an objective view of their subject. The perception of bias is undoubtedly true and the conclusion is arguably true as well. But it is equally true that all authors have some degree of bias, favorable or unfavorable, toward their subjects. Next, the modern historian approaches the Gospels with the rather firm conviction that the supernatural is not the stuff of history nor–and this is less often made explicit—is it the stuff of life. Some, perhaps many, may regard all religions as at best charlatanism and at worst dangerously deceitful. Or the animus may be against Christianity itself. Or the Christian Church. Some or all of these tendencies are visible among the now considerable number of those who have engaged with the critical European enterprise called “the quest for the historical Jesus” and with its equally taxing sequel, the investigation of Christian origins.

The question of the authors of the Gospels is an open one. The extant manuscripts and the Church tradition both identify a specific author or, perhaps more accurately, a specific authority for each Gospel: they are “according to” the Apostles Matthew and John, Mark, who was believed to be a follower of the Apostle Peter, and Luke, who the evidence at least suggests—in Acts he uses the pronoun “we” in describing some of Paul’s travels (e.g. Acts 16:11)—was a companion of Paul. Those identifications are not terribly secure, however, particularly if author is understood in our sense of that word, the writer/creator of the work. If we leave that interpretation aside and read the “according to” of the evangelical titles as “on the authority of,” we may seem to be on firmer ground, but that was not the earliest understanding of the matter. The Christian authorities who addressed the authorship issue insisted that Mark’s Gospel was on the authority of Peter and that Mark was merely the “interpreter.” What may be meant by that is that it was Mark who turned Peter’s somewhat jumbled Aramaic (?) recollections into a Greek narrative. But Mark’s identity was important not because he was the translator but because he was the guarantor of the faithful transmission of the distant Peter’s—Mark may have taken down Peter’s memories of Jesus at Rome—recollections of Jesus.

And similarly Luke with Paul, as the Christian tradition would have it? Here, if anywhere, however, we appear to be dealing with a genuine author and the designation of his Gospel as “…according to…” takes on a quite different significance from that of the other three Gospels. Here we can hear a distinct authorial voice and read the author’s intentions. As for the Pauline connection, though Luke may have been personally connected to Paul, the internal evidence of the Gospel does not much support Luke’s reliance on Paul since there are no signs there of any of Paul’s very characteristic thinking about Jesus. Paul was not, in any event, an eye-witness to Jesus and what he knew of both Jesus and the movement came originally from a visit to Peter and James in Jerusalem some three years after Jesus’ death (Gal. 1:18), though Paul likewise claimed that his original source on Jesus was the risen Jesus himself (Gal. 1: 11-12).

As for Matthew and John, the Apostles who are thought to stand behind the Gospels bearing their names, their Gospels display very different takes on Jesus, these presumably from two men who followed him under identical circumstances and at very close quarters. The difference is perhaps explicable. The John Gospel comes much later than the Matthew version and so it is understandable that it should be a more evolved and developed work, “Johannine” rather than “John.” John’s Gospel, with its numerous “asides” about problems with the “Jews,” is the clearest evidence the Gospel, whatever its evidentiary origins, was in its finished form a community project. Matthew’s Gospel, on the other hand, which the Christian tradition insisted was originally in Jesus’ own vernacular Aramaic, though it obviously used Mark as one of its sources, is, with its frequent invocation of Biblical arguments to support the Messianic case for Jesus, the clearest example of a single Jewish eye-witness sensibility behind a Gospel. Who was responsible for “interpreting” the Aramaic into Greek was unremarked by the early Christians, probably because the Christian assembly was bilingual in Greek and Aramaic and because a local Matthew, unlike the distant Peter, needed no guarantor for the transmission of his memories of Jesus.

The Gospels lie before us in the Koine, the somewhat vernacular, but still literary “Common” Greek of the post-Classical age. As such they are the documents of an assimilated Jewish society, assimilated not to the degree of apostasy from Judaism but rather as drawn, in some instances reluctantly, in others enthusiastically, into the hybridized Hellenic culture that prevailed all around the eastern Mediterranean, Palestine included. The backwater, semi-rural community in which Jesus was raised was not much drawn into it, but just down the road, in larger urban centers like Galilean Sepphoris and Tiberias, its influence was strongly felt, and to an even greater degree in Jerusalem, as the contemporary historian Josephus attests. The authors of the Gospels, whether individuals, as the Christian tradition insists, or the anonymous work of a community of believers, as many modern critics would prefer to think, were all products of that culture: Jews who read contemporary events in Biblical terms and in the context of divine justice and divine providence. None of this commends itself to the modern critic who prefers his facts unvarnished by eschatological expectation or apocalyptic dread. Well schooled in natural causes, economics and psychology, we now know better why things happen and why people behave as they do.

The idea, then, is to extract the “raw data,” the “facts,” from the Gospels and read them in our own, more objective terms. The “facts” are elusive of course. Events may be mis-remembered, mis-recorded or simply invented to suit the author’s worldview, his theology or his expectations. The same is true of Jesus’ words which are set down so confidently and abundantly in the Gospels. Critics have combed through both with filters of varying fineness. Out of their efforts has emerged a rough but broad consensus on the events recorded in the Gospels; on Jesus’ words, that is, his message and his claims, the results are dishearteningly mixed, however. The problem of authenticity remains.

If the data of the Gospels have been squeezed dry, there are other avenues that remain to be explored. One is the attempt to look behind the Gospels, to investigate the passage of Jesus traditions from their alleged source, Jesus himself, to their final resting place in the four preserved literary works in Greek. And another is to start at the other end: to begin with the earliest verifiable beliefs about Jesus and attempt to move from them to the core of the Gospel evidence. And it is here, in both these tactical moves, the new evidence comes into play.

The direct evidence for Jesus has long been in place. The four Gospels have been known from the beginning, and if they have been textually improved here and there, they are fundamentally unchanged. Nor is there any great expectation of an astonishing discovery that will add anything substantial to the literary dossier. What has changed, however, is the view of Jesus’ Jewish milieu and the exciting possibility of looking behind the Gospels, the first thanks to the discovery in the late 40s of the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran, and the latter in the wake of the almost simultaneous unearthing of a text called the Gospel of Thomas from the sands of Egypt.

To ask what came before the Gospels or what followed upon Jesus’ death is to direct attention to the same few years, those between Jesus’ execution in 30 A.D. and the writing down of Mark’s Gospel sometime, let us say, between 60 and 70 A.D. We have one set of writings from that period, namely the letters of Paul, written, as all agree, during the 50s of the first century. And another work, the Acts of the Apostles, whose author, Luke, was the same man who wrote the third of the canonical Gospels and which purports to provide a narrative account of the events of precisely that period. Acts begins with Jesus’ reported post-execution appearances and ends with Paul en route to a trial in Rome in about 60 A.D.

Paul’s letters offer guidance, correction and exhortation to various communities of Jesus’ followers around the Eastern Mediterranean and at Rome. Though they were written no more than 25 years after Jesus’ death, they show little direct interest in either Jesus’ own words or the events of his life. These were not the issue: apparently the addressees were fully instructed in both. But they do tell us a great deal about what Paul made of Jesus and, what is of more interest here, they preserve some of the traditions about Jesus that were already in circulation among the earliest members of the Jesus Movement.

If Paul ignores the ambient and day-to-day conduct of the new “assemblies” (ekklesiai) of Jesus’ followers in favor of setting things aright among them, we are much better informed on such matters in Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, another work that Christians later included, along with the four Gospels and Paul’s letters, in their New Testament.

Acts is an odd work. It is concerned at the outset with Jesus’ eleven surviving Apostles, but in fact it tells us very little of the “acts” of any of them save Peter and, once it catches Paul in its lens, Acts keeps its focus unremittingly on him from then on. As already noted, Luke was thought by later Christians to be one of Paul’s companions and, whether true or not, Acts turns out to be neither an account of the “Acts of the Apostles” nor even a history of the early Christian churches but something rather closer to “In the Steps of St. Paul.”

The earliest chapters of Acts (1-15:35) do, however, give us a glimpse of the new Jewish sect as it unfolded in Jerusalem in the immediate aftermath of Jesus’ death and into the 30s and 40s of the first century. The presentation is graphic rather than systematic and, like the Gospels, it is filled with reported speech. Acts raises some of the same historical issues as the Gospels. Is there a theological agenda driving the narrative – the answer is patently yes – and are all the speeches in dialogue invented? Again, the response is yes. It is a notorious fact of ancient historiography that authors put words in their subjects’ mouths, whether that subject was Achilles, Socrates, Alexander the Great or Jesus of Nazareth. The Danish Hamlet is as unlikely to have said “To be or not to be” as Peter was to have delivered the impassioned sermon reported in Acts 2:14-36. The issue is: does it represent what might have been said on that occasion? Was this the original Christian pronouncement (kerygma), the way the message about Jesus was first framed for the benefit of those other Jews collected in Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of Weeks or Pentecost?

There is no reason to think that, taken all in all, the early sermons in Acts do not represent the beliefs of his earliest followers regarding Jesus and the way he was presented to Jewish audiences when his execution was still fresh—hardly two months past–in memory. The earliest Jesus traditions embedded in Paul’s letters speak to the same end, namely, that shortly after his death in Jerusalem, Jesus of Nazareth was not only recognized by some Jews as the Messiah but, more startlingly, was worshiped as divine. This sets down a firm historical marker: those who had followed this man in the course of his brief career and who were witnesses to his public execution as a criminal outside the walls of Jerusalem began to regard him as the son of the deity that the Jews knew as Yahweh and whom Jesus called merely Abba or “Father.” And more, they managed to convince others of their fellow Jews to think the same thing.

This seems like an extraordinary turn of events. First that as Jews those first followers of Jesus should believe such, and second, that they could persuade other Jews to likewise compromise the monotheism that was so important a part of their identity. The success of the Jesus Movement belongs to a later chapter of the story; what is the principal issue here is what lay behind the first believers’ convictions, those same individuals who are responsible for the Gospels and so the primary source of our own information on Jesus of Nazareth. Those first believers had undergone a “conversion,” in this instance from their regard of Jesus as a teacher and a charismatic holy man, perhaps a prophet, or even the Messiah, to the conviction that he was divine. But that conversion had not been effected others, like that of later generations of Christians, but by events, happenings.

Luke describes two such events. The first is recorded by all four of the Gospels and referred to by Paul, namely the appearances of Jesus, alive albeit transformed, after his death by crucifixion (Lk. 24: 13-49). No one claimed to have been present at Jesus’ resurrection from the dead or to know how or when precisely it occurred; rather, it was his recorded appearances, concrete and personal – “Touch me and look,” Jesus says (Luke 24:39)–to the same men and women who had witnessed his death that changed their minds and their lives. The second event, of a somewhat different quality, is the “descent of the Holy Spirit…like tongues of fire” (Acts 2: 3-4) upon Jesus’ followers seven weeks after his death and shortly after his final disappearance. This latter scene is not so much a description of his followers’ conversion as its graphic validation from on high, in the same manner that the Holy Spirit would later descend, though with considerably less theatricality, upon those who believed and were initiated into the Movement by the ritual of baptism

In writing Acts as a professed follow-up to his Gospel, Luke reveals the religious landscape in which his Gospel was composed. He knew that, perhaps thirty, perhaps fifty years after Jesus, the Jesus Movement, newly dubbed the Christos Movement (Acts 11:26), had not only survived but was spreading among the Jewish communities around the Mediterranean. He knew that the Jesus message was finding some widespread, if not massive, acceptance in the Jewish Diaspora, among dissidents like the Samaritans and, perhaps most remarkably and, thanks to Paul’s persistent efforts, even among the Gentiles. For the others, we know very little about them. We cannot be sure how much the individuals described in the Gospels as the Apostles Matthew and John had to do with the Gospels bearing their names, or whether, as most Christians came to think, the John who wrote the Gospel was the same as the John who wrote the Book of Revelation and the John whose letters are included in the New Testament, and whether all or any of them was the Apostle John. Their works have to be constrained to reveal their own context.

Matters are no clearer with regard to the “Gospel According to Mark,” whose author was early on identified with the “Mark” mentioned a number of times in the New Testament in connection now with Peter (e.g. Acts 12:12; 1 Peter 5:13) and now with Paul (Acts 12:25 etc.), though it is by no means certain that they all refer to the same person. If there is no help from the perspective of the author, it is still possible to search in the other direction and attempt to look backward from the Gospel. If we attempt to look behind Matthew and Luke, we find, as already noted, Mark. What then lies behind Mark, the earliest of our sources? That question too was answered early on. Writing in the fourth century, the pioneer Church historian Eusebius, when he comes to discuss the Gospels in his monumental Church History, the source of much of what we know about early Christianity, turns to the work of Papias, a native of the area of western Anatolia where Paul had once worked and a man only one or two generations removed from the Apostles.

According to Eusebius, Papias preferred oral traditions to the written accounts of Jesus circulating in his day and he recorded them from travelers who might well have heard them from the lips of Jesus’ own Apostolic circle (Church History 3.39,3-4). Papias said that he collected the stories to validate what he called his “interpretations” of the sayings (logia) of the Lord. Indeed, in Papias’ account of his investigations into the Jesus traditions, there is such a pronounced emphasis on Jesus’ “sayings” without a single reference to the term “gospel,” that we are led to think that what were still chiefly in circulation in the early second century were collections of Jesus logia, some oral and some written; some, we guess, in Jesus own Aramaic, and more, we are certain, in Koine Greek. Neither version seems to have survived the new and more satisfying presentation of Jesus and his message in the form of the written narrative called “The Good News,” now packaged in the radical new format called a codex or “book.”

Our first and best example of the new narrative genre, whether extant or simply mentioned, is the “Gospel According to Mark,” and Papias explains, rather defensively—perhaps someone was questioning its authenticity—how it came to be composed. Mark was the companion, and the “interpreter,” of Peter, the chief of Jesus’ followers, and he wrote down what Peter remembered of Jesus’ teachings and actions, not as a formal narrative since Peter “accommodated his instruction to the needs (of his audience).” Thus Mark recorded not Peter’s oral history of Jesus but took notes on Peter’s public preaching. In Papias view, Mark was a reliable reporter of Peter’s kerygma-shaped recollections of Jesus and “introduced nothing fictitious.”

Was Papias referring to Mark’s Gospel as it now exists or perhaps merely to some form of preliminary notes made by Mark and later shaped into our Gospel? It is difficult to say, just as it is uncertain whether he is talking about Matthew’s extant Gospel when he says that he had ”put together the sayings of the Lord in the Hebrew (Aramaic) language and each translated it as best he could.” If Papias is saying that there was an Aramaic collection based on the recollections of the Apostle Matthew, of which our Matthew would be one of the surviving translations into Greek, that putative Aramaic original has left no trace, direct or indirect, in any of the available evidence.

Our Matthew does, however, reveal something about its origins. His Gospel and that of Luke both repeat some 200-odd verses right out of Mark. So, it is concluded, the authors of Matthew and Luke had the Greek text of our Mark before them. And if that is so, we can see where and how they edited that earlier source by enlargement, deletion and modification, whether by reason of their having another, preferable version of events or because they understood matters differently.

But a synoptic view of Matthew and Luke against the earlier Mark reveals something else even more interesting. Just as they took verses verbatim from Mark, Matthew and Luke show a near-verbatim agreement of an almost identical number of verses that do not come from Mark. Matthew and Luke seem to have shared a second source, one we cannot identify. But if we cannot identify it, we can describe it. What they were borrowing from was not some oral tradition but, as with the case of Mark, another Greek textual source. But unlike Mark, this second source was not about Jesus’ deeds or the events of his life but included only his sayings. Thus Matthew and Luke seem to have had access to an otherwise unknown collection of Jesus’ sayings, the logia that loom so large in Papias’ account of Gospel origins.

There is no trace of such a source in any of the evidence available to us; its existence is inferred from what we can see in Matthew and Luke. Notwithstanding its hypothetical nature, this putative sayings source, which is reconstructed solely on its remains in Matthew and Luke and which nineteenth century scholarship dubbed “Q” from German Quelle, “source,” has taken on a quite vigorous life of its own. It is now postulated to have been a free-standing, independent work, indeed a “Gospel,” and complete in its present reconstituted form, even though we have no way of knowing whether it existed to begin with. There is no independent evidence for the existence of anything remotely resembling Q; or if it did exist, what it was like in its original form since we have no way of knowing how much Matthew and Luke took from it and what they omitted. Nonetheless, many now regard Mark and the reconstituted Q as our oldest sources on Jesus; some go further and claim that Q, since it is more primitive in form, must be older than Mark’s Gospel, even though the only firm evidence is that it is older than Matthew and Luke.

This rather arcane debate about sources, and a hypothetical one at that, has broad consequences for our understanding of Jesus. If the “Q” reconstructed from the 200 plus verses in Matthew and Luke really was a “Gospel,” that is, a consciously fashioned presentation of Jesus, then it presents him in a radically different way from that of the canonical Gospels and, it if is older and more “primitive” than Mark, then a case can be made that it is a more authentic portrait of Jesus, perhaps the original take on Jesus of Nazareth which the later Gospels substantially transformed. And it of course constrains the historian to attempt to explain why that transformation took place.

The Jesus of Q is not a different person from the Jesus of the Gospels so much as he had a different career. The Jesus displayed in Q was, like his canonical counterpart, an itinerant Galilean preacher with the same eschatological bent as his mentor John the Baptist. He also worked wondrous cures and exorcisms, though these are mentioned merely in passing and never described. And though this Jesus may have had a presentiment of his death, Q does not describe his life and, more significantly, has no account, or even a mention, of Jesus’ trial and death, on which the Gospels lavish considerable and detailed attention. Nor are there any references to his empty tomb or the multiple witnesses’ testimony that he had been raised from the dead.

By now the ghostly Q has penetrated deeply into the discourse regarding the “historical Jesus.” Its arguably early appearance and its seemingly primitive, unstudied quality both argue for its authenticity, just as those same characteristics once commended Mark over the other Gospels. And what is not argued, but undoubtedly lies latent in that discourse, is the attraction for many of the portrait of Jesus that emerges from Q. For moderns bothered by the Scriptural scaffolding that the Gospels have built into their narratives in support of their claims for Jesus—“and thus he fulfilled what is written in the Scripture…”— or for those dismayed by the supernaturalism that runs throughout the Gospel story—“This is My beloved Son in whom I am well pleased…”—and are unwilling to accept the enormous choke-down miracle of Jesus’ resurrection upon which the entire Christian enterprise seems to turn, Q’s modest Galilean social moralist is a most attractive alternative. Here Jesus speaks simply as a country preacher, a trifle over-eschatological for some modern tastes perhaps, and still working the occasional curative miracle, but still far more palatable to the pronounced humanistic and socially aware tastes of many historians.

That there actually existed something like Q seems highly likely. It would not be surprising that Jesus’ followers were collecting, either during his lifetime or soon afterwards, some of his memorable sayings, much as somewhat later rabbis had recollected the moral aphorisms of their esteemed predecessors in the Mishna treatise “Sayings of the Fathers.” While that latter collection is an anthology by subject rather than by source, Q commemorates the characteristic teachings of a single individual; it anthologizes Jesus alone and, if we accept it as now reconstituted, the intent of Q seems to be: “These are the basic/central teachings of Jesus of Nazareth,” though without the Gospels’ own codicil of “the Messiah and Son of God.”

If Q is regarded as an independent source on Jesus, contemporary with or perhaps even earlier than Mark, what does it add to the portrait of Jesus? As integrated into Matthew and Luke, obviously nothing: those sayings of Jesus have been in the Gospel from the beginning. But if Q was a free-standing work and its shape and contents were precisely what and as much as can be retrieved from the two Gospels, that is, that the matching Greek verses in Matthew and Luke repeat the entirety of a earlier, deliberately designed collection of Jesus’ teachings in Greek, then we are in the presence of a significant piece of evidence. Like the Gospels overall, the Q verses portray Jesus as a Galilean eschatological preacher/teacher in the mold of John the Baptist, but, unlike the Gospels, they include no description or even mention of the trial and execution of Jesus, his empty tomb and what various of his followers described as his post-resurrection appearances to them. There is no talk of the Messiah, no suggestion that “this man was indeed the Son of God” (Mt. 27: 54).

Who would make such a collection and why? It was the resurrection of Jesus, it is clear, that anchored the faith of the new movement, and the accounts of his trial and execution are the most historically detailed passages in all of the Gospels. One possible explanation is, of course, that Q is inadvertent testimony that the resurrection never in fact occurred and that without that deus ex sepulchro event the trial and shameful public execution of Jesus, for which there is very strong evidence, would have been simply inexplicable embarrassments that were best unmentioned. Indeed, the Gospels as we have them are all trying very hard to make the final days of Jesus explicable by a steady invocation of a Scriptural argument derived wholesale from Isaiah 53: a close reading of Scripture shows that this terrible fate was exactly what God planned for His Messiah.

There are other possibilities. The Q saying collection may have been made during Jesus’ lifetime when he was regarded by many, perhaps by most, or even all, as in fact a teacher, an End-Time preacher or even a prophet, and that it survived in that form, perhaps as a homiletic instrument for spreading Jesus’ message, until the larger significance of Jesus and his life took hold among his followers. Which must have been fairly quickly. Paul’s letters, which were certifiably written in the mid-50s, already assume a knowledge of Jesus’ execution—and a Scriptural explanation why it had occurred (1 Cor. 15:3)—as well as a firm conviction, based on the testimony of many, some of whom Paul knew personally, that Jesus had been raised from the dead (1 Cor. 15: 4-6). Further, both Matthew and Luke, who knew and accepted the resurrection reports, have incorporated Q into their Gospels, something highly unlikely had Q a fundamentally different view of Jesus and his work of salvation.

Q in any event disappears from sight as soon as its contents are integrated—word for word, as we have seen—into the narrative Gospel tradition: no one speaks of such a collection and there is no physical trace of it in the considerable papyri debris from antiquity. We do not even know what it was called. It seems apparent that the sayings collection method of either preserving or spreading Jesus’ message yielded quickly to the more fleshed out, more dramatic and overtly more apologetic narrative Gospel.

If Q offers little new direct evidence for the life of Jesus, it does say something about the earliest phase of what would come to be called Christianity. It testifies to a natural interest in preserving the master’s teachings, with a distinct emphasis on the coming End Time; to an early attempt at devising some kind of catechetical tool for spreading those teachings and instructing others; and to the unmistakable bi-lingual context of the movement from the outset. What was surely being heard from Jesus’ own lips in Aramaic was being understood and preserved in Greek and, it should be noted, in written form: Matthew and Luke had before them a Greek text of what we are calling, haplessly, Q.

The same is true of Paul’s letters. Though written earlier than the extant Gospels—and also earlier than Q? We cannot say—the letters simply confirm the earlier circulation of certain information and beliefs laid out in greater detail in the Gospels, like Jesus’ execution and his post-resurrection appearances. The letters quite naturally, though to our dismay, show little interest in repeating details of Jesus’ life and teachings since these must have been already known to the addressees to whom the “Good News” had already been preached and embraced in the late 40s and early 50s when Paul was first working among them. We do not know in what form the Antiochenes, Galatians and Pisidians received the “Good News” of Jesus, though it was most likely in a narrative form akin to our Gospels rather than in a bare-bones logia collection like Q. Those new converts seem to have raised no historical questions with Paul; their problems were with interpretation and with behavior.

Though they quite obviously refer to the same person, the Jesus of Nazareth of the Gospels and the Jesus Christ, or sometimes merely Christ, discussed in Paul’s letters are, on the face of it, quite different, or better, are viewed quite differently. Paul may have known all about the Jesus (later) described in the Gospels, and he may in fact have preached that full portrait Jesus in his initial version of the Good News in Syria, Anatolia and Greece. The examples we are given of Paul’s initial preaching, albeit by Luke and albeit ten or more years after the fact (Acts , do not, however, suggest it, He must surely have known more about him than he reveals in the letters, where neither hear the voice or Jesus nor witness his acts. It is only Christ crucified and Christ risen that Paul offers to his correspondents. Paul seems transfixed by the idea of Christ rather than by the man who is still discernible even in the post-Easter Gospels. There is little wonder that some have thought that the Gospels were written by Christian “realists” precisely to correct Paul’s virtual Christ

The letters do, however, tell us a great deal about the way Jesus was regarded by Christians not long after his death, whether on the part of the addressees or from Paul’s own reflections or, most interesting of all, beliefs about Jesus in general circulation in Christian circles. We can see Gospel material behind those early statements of belief in Paul’s letters and in Acts, but we cannot see direct evidence of the Gospels themselves and so we can only speculate how they, or more particularly Mark, the first of them, came to be composed and passed into general circulation. We are reduced to putting the question to the extant Mark. Is it a faithful replica of the original work or do we now possess an edited, more orderly version of Mark’s notes, as Papias’ somewhat ambiguous remarks seem to suggest? Mark is in Greek and for the same reasons, we suppose, that Q was written down in the Koine. As Acts 6:1 makes clear, Jesus’ followers were in varying degrees “Hellenized” or Greek-speaking, from barely to profoundly, from the very beginning and thus there was no need for translations: what was heard in Aramaic could easily be remembered, and passed on to others, in Greek.

The questions continue. Did Mark invent the Good News-as-biography genre? There were plentiful models for that treatment, Greek lives of statesmen, generals, poets, philosophers and even holy men and Jewish lives of Biblical figures and rabbis. Some peculiar Gospel emphases, the pervasive invocation of Scriptural validation, the disproportionately detailed narrative of Jesus’ last days and the parade of post-resurrection witnesses, seem specifically tailored to Christian exigencies, that is, to make the case that Jesus of Nazareth was the promised Jewish Messiah and, counter-intuitively, that the Messiah had, in the divine plan, to take on the shame of the “Suffering Servant” described by Isaiah.

It is difficult to locate Mark vis à vis Paul. Paul is generally thought to have written his letters earlier, and though he and others had carried the Good News to the new believers in Syria and western Anatolia, there is no sign that there was a Gospel book or anything resembling our Gospels in their hands. The latter are very different in their treatment of Jesus; indeed, Paul’s is not a treatment at all. The letters are after-thoughts, follow-ups to congregations who had already received the Good News and were believers. In his Q & A exchange Paul is not concerned that the new Christians have the whole story; he worries that they do not understand aright what Jesus was about, the true significance of his life and death on the cross, the consequences of his resurrection from the dead. Mark’s and the other evangelists’ is a more programmatic and utilitarian presentation of the case for Jesus in the form of a highly editorialized biography

At an interval we cannot measure, both Matthew and Luke produced new editions of the Markan Life, including reworkings of what must have been Mark’s original treatment of the post-resurrection appearances, with additional sayings material from Q and with a more exalted view of Jesus’ status. Matthew has reinforced the Messianic arguments from Jesus’ fulfillment of Scripture, probably with a skeptical Jewish audience in mind, while Luke, in both his Gospel and Acts, bears witness to the receding hope of Jesus’ imminent return, so vivid in Paul, to complete the work of the End Time, all those vindictive and vindicating events, many of them on a cosmic scale, promised in apocalyptic scenarios and none of which had apparently come about.

Of all the additions to Mark’s pioneering work, the most striking are the two independent, and at times quite contradictory, accounts in Matthew and Luke of Jesus’ conception, birth and childhood (Mt. 1:18-2:23; Lk. 1:5-2:52), with appended (non-identical) genealogies that trace Jesus’ lineage forward from Abraham (Mt. 1: 1-17) or backward through Abraham to Adam (Lk. 3:23-38). But each account is filled with contradictions and implausibilities: the extraordinary supernatural machinery required to fulfill a text of Isaiah that was read as a prophecy that the Messiah would be born of a virgin, and history so manipulated and common sense so violated to get the Nazarene Jesus born in Bethlehem because that town was associated with David, the Messianic prototype. As a result, it is difficult for the historian to accept any or all of it as even approximately factual. The verifiable life of Jesus in fact begins where we might expect it to, the moment he steps out of the shadow of the John the Baptist circle into the public limelight.

John’s Gospel does the so-called Infancy Narratives of Matthew and Luke one better: It opens with a theological prologue in heaven laying out the claim that Jesus was not only the Messiah but the eternally pre-existent Son of God who “became flesh and dwelled among us” (Jn. 1:14). For John, the history of the fleshly Jesus begins, however, exactly where it does for the others, with his separation from John the Baptist. It is, among other things, its exalted view of Jesus that has persuaded most critics that John’s Gospel was composed last of all, perhaps as late at 100 A.D., and with the other Gospels open before its author. And yet John’s regard of Jesus is not appreciably higher than in Paul’s letters written no more than 20 years after Jesus’ death or than the even earlier views of Jesus passed on by Paul, in Philippians 2: 6-11, for example.

Though there is no doubt that it is speaking of the same man as the other three, John’s Gospel differs from them in gross and in detail. It is patently more sectarian than the others, filled with clear evidence of problems within the community and growing tensions between the followers of Jesus and their fellow Jews. Here Jesus speaks not in the tersely aphoristic and homely detailed logia of Mark and Q but in long, involved and theologically charged discourses. Again, John’s chronology of Jesus’ last days differs from that presented by the other three, and Jesus’ reported miracles are also quite different here. We have no idea why the matter and spirit of John should be so different. If it is the product of a different time and place, as is often claimed, it still displays an accurate knowledge of people and places in Jesus’ Galilee and Judea: John’s Gospel is highly convincing in many of its details.

John, the author of the Fourth Gospel, is substantially responsible for the difficulties encountered by the Christians who attempted to explain and defend why they believed in a triune God. It was not his opinions so much as the way they were presented and the way they were received. The three so-called Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke present a biography of Jesus under the rubric of “The Good News.” Each author had his own point of view, of course, but they shared the common aim of demonstrating that Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah of Israel was in fact true. They did this in the first instance by pointing out how the events of Jesus’ life explicitly fulfilled the Messianic prophecies of the Bible, including the most startlingly unlikely one of them all, Isaiah’s warning that the Chosen One would have to suffer and die. Hence too their emphasis on the miracles, Jesus’ “deeds of power,” or, as John preferred, “the signs.” John says it quite directly: “My deeds done in my Father’s name are my credentials” (Jn. 10:25).

The Synoptic Gospels are tendentious, but they are not theological. John, on the other hand, who wrote a decade or two after the others, was, if not a theologian, then a considerable theological thinker. He did not express his views in a tract, however; he wrote his own version of the “Good News” with some highly convincing historical details, but he chose to put his theology in the mouth of Jesus himself. In John’s Gospel Jesus goes on at great length about the relationship of himself to his “Father,” but those pronouncements –it seems highly unlikely that they were actually Jesus’ own—were not part of the theological dossier of Trinitarianism, like the tracts of Justin or Tertullian, but as part of the New Testament, the collection of documents that had become, by the time the Trinity was under discussion, a Christian Scripture, that is, the revealed word of God, as authoritative as the Law and the Prophets.

The pronouncements of Scripture, like those found in John’s Gospel, were not mere explanations but theologoumena, “theological facts.” It was not Origen or Athanasius who opined that Jesus must be thought of as the Word of God, but the Holy Spirit himself who inspired John to record the very words of Jesus that “I and the Father are one.” Since all of Scripture was equally true no less for the Christian than for the Jew, its pronouncements on the relationship of Father and the Son, most notably those in John’s Gospel, became axiomatic in Trinitarian discussions, whether they were expressed literally, metaphorically or, in the case of John, theologically. John 14 was not an opinion but dogma. And since the Scriptural evidence was often contradictory, it required of the Fathers not merely interpretation, but also reconciliation, making sense of “I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (Jn. 14:14) and “The Father is greater than I am” (Jn. 14:25).

For the present purpose, we may disencumber John from being a vehicle for the inerrant Word of God and return him to the more modest rank of author, in this instance an author with an interesting theological point of view.

The Gospels were written not as records of Jesus but as instruments of spreading the Good News about Jesus, but they were treasured by their readers and hearers as authentic testimony to Jesus. They rested on accounts that were both eye-witness—that notion appears often in the Gospels—and Apostolic. The Apostles were, almost from the outset, the guarantors not merely of the accuracy of the various accounts about Jesus but also of their orthodoxy: what came to be thought of as “correct belief,” getting it right, was an early, pervasive and ongoing concern among Christians.

But not here. History not orthodoxy is our filter. Nor is the question here whether the New Testament Gospels are historical witnesses to Jesus—the internaland external criteria all argue that they are indeed based on some form of eye-witness testimony to the career of Jesus—but only to what extent. Which data must be ruled out as invention, special pleading or simple credulity? What do we reliably know—“reliably” as understood within the normal parameters of ancient history–about Jesus of Nazareth?

How then should we read the Gospels? The New Testament is filled with evidence on Christian origins. Some of it is easy to take into account. Paul’s letters, for example, are bona fide representations of Paul’s take on Jesus of Nazareth and, almost as securely, a reflection on what was being thought about Jesus by some, perhaps most, of his followers 25 years after his death (30 A.D.> 55 A.D.). Luke in Acts describes, and editorializes upon, events in the earliest Christian community and the career of Paul. The editorializing is relatively easy to discern; the descriptions must be read perspicaciously, however. At their worst, the descriptive narratives reflect what was circulating in Christian congregations from anywhere to immediately to 20 years after the events described (30-60 A.D.> 60-80 A.D.).

The Gospels too have their editorializing, and again it is easily discernible in most cases. But they are also dense with descriptive narrative and rich in dialogue all of which purport to report what was said and done during the lifetime of Jesus, again, some 30 to 50 years before their composition (28-30 A.D.> 60-80 A.D.). A great deal happened in that interval: the Temple was destroyed; the priesthood shorn of its function and apparently of its authority; the effective disappearance of the Sadducees and the Essenes and the rise of the Pharisees to power and prominence. All save the last seem to have left little mark on the Gospels—Mark may in fact have been written before any of them occurred–but the critical element in reading the Gospels, and what makes them different from Acts, is that there was a major shift in the perception of Jesus following his death, and the Gospels, which were written in the radically new climate after his death, purport chiefly to describe the events that occurred before that change of perception.

The change was not, however, triggered by Jesus’ death, which seems quite naturally to have frightened and discouraged his followers, but rather by his extraordinary resurrection from the dead, an event that convinced them that he was not merely the Messiah but now more precisely Daniel’s eschatological hero, the “Son of Man,” and, indeed, the Son of God: this man, their teacher, their master, “the rabbi,” was divine!

The Gospels show no signs that his Jewish followers regarded the Jewish Jesus as anything other than human during his lifetime. They followed him, they revered him, but they were also puzzled by him. They understood that he was making some sort of eschatological claims for himself, but they were uncertain what they meant and uncertain what they were to make of him. A prophet perhaps? They witnessed his cures and his exorcisms, powers that others seem to have possessed, and also his power to apparently resurrect, or resuscitate, people from the dead, as Elijah and Elisha had done in their day.

If it was indeed the case that belief in Jesus’ divinity was a direct and very immediate consequence of his resurrection from the dead, then we are justified in discarding or disregarding all Gospel intimations, claims and professions of such during his lifetime as hindsight pure and simple. There were no celestial voices proclaiming Jesus’ divinity, no incandescently transfigured appearance on Mount Tabor. To which there should probably be added, or rather subtracted, all supernatural foresight on Jesus’ part, as well as stories of the so-called “nature miracles,” the walking on water, the calming of storms, as well perhaps as the notorious party trick of turning water into wine. Such a reading allows his followers’, even his closest followers’, total lack of conviction about Jesus’ divinity during his lifetime, a skeptical attitude that those same followers would have been unlikely to invent, to prevail against all evangelical protestations that Jesus by word and deed claimed to be, or was demonstrated to be, divine from the outset. There are, of course, elements of uncertainty here. Jesus may in fact have said that he and the Father were one (John 10:30; cf. 10:36); if he did, no matter what he meant, his followers did not understand it as a claim to his own divinity.

Do we extend this “washing” of the evidence to attestations of Jesus’s foreknowledge or predictions of his own death? Even if foreknowledge as such be eliminated, is not unreasonable that Jesus, and indeed his followers, might have foreseen his death in those political and social circumstances, that the fate of John the Baptist and other movement figures would be visited upon Jesus by the authorities. The death of prophets seems to been a well-worn Jewish trope; why would Jesus not have availed himself of it?

The Gospels were unmistakably written through the golden mist of Easter Sunday, but the New Testament provides enough evidence of what it was like on that Monday, and all the other Mondays following, to allow us to reconstruct what were the atmospherics in Galilee in Jerusalem before that Easter sunrise. So the Gospels must be read carefully, with particular attention to what the sequel tells us. That reading, subjective but discriminating, can partially lift the haze – for many, the fog –of Easter and reveal the darker, more changing weather in Jesus’ lifetime.

How Then Do We Proceed?

At first view we appear to have two sets of sources for Jesus, his movement and the sect he grounded–what later came to be called Christianity. The first consists in the letters of Paul, which, on the basis of datable internal referents, were written in the mid-50s of the first century and so no more than twenty-five years after the death of Jesus of Nazareth. The other is made up of the four New Testament Gospels whose composition is placed, tenuously but almost unanimously between 60-70 for Mark, the earliest, and 100 A.D. for John, the latest; all of them, at any rate, after Paul’s letters. Paul letters say little of the person and the teaching of Jesus, however, and the Gospels seem unaware of Paul.

That view soon dissolves into something far more complex, however. Paul’s letters, it turns out, are not all from Paul himself and so part of the New Testament packet of letters with Paul’s name on it (2 Thess., Colossians, Ephesians and the so-called Pastorals, Titus and 1 and 2 Timothy) must be pushed forward and out of the brightest chronological spotlight. John’s Gospel quickly and assertively distinguishes itself in both style and substance from the other lock-step three called, from their harmony, the “Synoptics.” John is the despair of the Jesus historian: the other evangelists composed their Gospels out of available material; John looked at the same kind of material and then created his Gospel out of it. But the theological filter through which he viewed Jesus and the historical circumstances that determined his vision are pure gold for the historian of Christian origins.

But even the Synoptics betray important distinctions: Matthew and Luke both followed Mark. Indeed, they had the Greek text of Mark before them and modified it in interesting and illuminating ways: if Mark “spun” Jesus to begin with, Matthew and Luke put their own backward or forward spin on Mark’s Jesus. And not only Mark. Matthew and Luke each had available a textual collection, again in Greek, of Jesus’ sayings which they reproduce piecemeal in their Gospels. This sayings source is a modern discovery and it is dubbed “Q.” And in a final look under the hood, Paul seems to have incorporated into his letters textual, or at least formulaic, versions of Jesus doctrine—material from Jesus and about Jesus–that both he and his addressees had inherited from earlier believers, that is, those of the 30s and 40s.

Our “sources” thus look far more complex and stratified, whether we are inquiring about the Jesus movement, the words and actions of Jesus and his circle during his lifetime, or the Christos sect, the loosely organized group of believers that came into existence after Jesus’ death. We have, in chronological and, arguably, in priority order, what can be extracted as Jesus’ authentic words and deeds from Paul, Q and Mark, then Matthew and Luke and finally John. This evidence can then be weighed against what his first followers, who were also witnesses to his life, made of it on the assumption that there is some veridical connection between them. What those early believers thought about Jesus can be adduced from the “primitive” material embedded in Paul, the “shaping” of Q, the editorial additions in the Synoptics, the earliest kerygma or formal presentation of Jesus in both Acts and Paul and the theological meditations of John.

If all this seems to reveal, after the closest and most careful scrutiny, something additive or supportive of the more direct evangelical evidence on the historical Jesus, it also unfolds, more immediately and convincingly, the thinking of his earliest followers. The anonymous fashioners of the pre-Pauline Christological formulae in Paul’s letters, the collector(s) of Q, the authors of the Gospels and Acts were all shaping their material in the light of both what they had either witnessed or “received” as part of an ongoing tradition and what they themselves now believed in the light of present circumstances, present, that is, to the composition of their works.

We know, generally, if not in detail, what prompted Paul’s letters because he tells us, just as he tries to tell us how he came to be a follower of Jesus. The circumstances of the collection of Q, on the other hand, is the subject of the wildest surmise since its reconstruction, which is achieved through the collection of its fragments from Matthew and Luke and their arrangement in the order they occur in Luke, which the basis of all speculation about the original intent of the sayings-collection, does not establish anything about its original form, which may have been quite different from what the two evangelists chose to preserve. The composition of the Gospels is moored, not always and not entirely convincingly, to early Church traditions, generally preserved in the fourth century Church historian Eusebius, about the identity and circumstances of their authorship. Modern scholarship has to a considerable extent declined Eusebius’ help and has preferred to identify a circumstantially as possible the believer “community” that stands behind each of the Gospels.

We proceed, then, from what can confidently be judged, on the Gospel evidence, Jesus’ authentic teachings/claims regarding himself, to whatever seems genuine in the Apostolic preaching about Jesus in opening chapters of Acts, and thence to what can be identified as pre-Pauline Christological formulae in Paul’s letters. The next step is represented by the Synoptic Gospel’s’ own Christological formulae and finally to John’s Christologically saturated Fourth Gospel.

Jesus, The Life

After a critical inspection of the Gospels and the other available evidence, historians have attempted to marshal what appear to be the verifiable events of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. No one seriously doubts that he existed, that he was an itinerant Jewish preacher in Galilee during the formal Roman occupation of Judea after […]

What Do I Think Happened? A Jesus and After Scenario

Barring some extraordinary find, all the evidence on Jesus of Nazareth is now in. It is almost uniquely literary –archeology does little more than corroborate— and consists in letters written about him a mere twenty years after his death and a number of full scale biographies that begin to be composed a decade or so […]

The Messengers

Far above the visible heavens with their cold wandering planets and fixed stars lies a great void, or so it seems to human eyes that can detect neither life nor movement there. This is what many call the Seventh Heaven and others, somewhat less colorfully, Eternity. It is, however, the domicile of the most vibrant […]

The Soprano Who Caught Fire

Glockhaus bei Gniesenhöhl is an Alpine village so tiny that it has to be identified by its proximity (12 km when the roads are clear) to Gniesenhöhl, a village of 168 souls and a baptismal font. Glockhaus is not in fact a village at all, except by Swiss courtesy: it is nothing more or less […]

“Sold to the gentleman farmer”

Marcus Tinctius Glaber lived in a modest vineyard homestead 35 miles southeast of Rome and 3 miles off the Via Appia, far enough in any event to be freed of the clanking, screeching and baying rising from that chief of all roads that led to Rome. He enjoyed there a frugal but comfortable life, its […]

Sodom and Gomorrah: A Midrash

Editorial Note The story of Sodom and Gomorrah, the famous “Cities of the Plain,” occurs early on in the Book of Genesis. The priestly redactors of the Bible rewrote the story to make their own moral points and pushed the events back into the primordial past of Israel, when God’s presence was pervasive, as it […]

The Mother in Law

The New Testament Gospels are themselves surprises writ large, but they also contain within their pages traces of other surprising stories. These were anecdotes that were obviously known to the evangelists but were either familiar enough to the earliest audiences of the Gospels or so inconsequential to the master narrative that they required no elaboration. […]

The Limbo of the Theologians

By the Middle Ages the theologians of the Catholic Church had constructed an elegantly coherent model of the universe: it explained the nature and existence of our world, the church and the individual believer’s place in it. It was a beautifully crafted cathedral of logic, each element neatly dovetailed with the next. The foundations were […]

Curtain Up! Act III

No one can really imagine the future. Jesus tried it. His version of the final act of the world is reported in the thirteenth chapter of the Gospel of Mark. Jesus’ “Little Apocalypse” unfolds in a modest black and white; Mark by and large eschewed special effects. But a wide screen technicolor blockbuster of the […]