The Gospels are usually first and most often encountered in church. In that setting, where they are read out piecemeal, they sound like pastiches, anecdotal collections of Jesus’ miracle stories or parables. The listener is instructed, uplifted. Little wonder: they are being recited in effect to the choir. For someone who reads them through, however, cover to cover, rather than merely listening to selections, the Gospels sound and look like something different, yet familiar. They appear to be biographies, lives of Jesus Christ. The Gospel reader may also be instructed and uplifted, but their authors had other intentions as well.
One thing their readers know but do not often reflect upon is that the four Gospels form part, the most important part, of an official Christian collection called the New Testament or, more revealingly, the New Covenant, and was intended to stand over against the Jewish Bible, which the Christians had taken to calling the “Old Covenant.” We are not sure when or where the new collection was put together; it may in fact have begun to come together gradually and anonymously as various Christian communities around the Mediterranean came to a consensual agreement on their own identity—what they believed and why—and which documents best expressed it.
Though its assembly is obscure, there is no mistaking the intent of the New Testament, which its very title loudly proclaims: here is the documentary evidence, much of it historical, that what is here is the Lord God’s New Covenant for a New Israel and that Jesus of Nazareth was and is the Messiah and the Lord of all. The New Testament is in effect a believers’ brief that was intended in the first instance to demonstrate and to convince Jews of what are essentially Jewish claims. But the collection and the documents in it show clearly that something else was happening, that this Jewish enterprise was turning, to the amazement of all and the delight of some, but to the chagrin and even horror of others, in the direction of the Gentiles. And for those who already believed, the New Testament provided both the matter and the why of their beliefs.
The New Testament as a collection makes its case by what those anonymous congregations chose to include in it; the evidence rests in the documents within it, and chiefly in the four Gospels that stand at its head and are the material foundation of all that follows: the Acts of the Apostles that, like the historical books of the Bible, narrates the working of the Holy Spirit in the New Israel. It is followed by an extended midrash, part theoretical and part clinical, on the Jesus event and is represented by the letters of Paul and others; and, finally, there is a Christian re-imagining of a standard piece of Second Temple theatrics, the Apocalypse or The Unveiling of the End Time.
If the Gospels look like lives of Jesus, it is because they are. All four are compositions in a form that approximates what was called in their day a bios or Life. It was a biographical form that strongly inclined to what we call hagiography, the presentation of an individual with an emphasis on character, and an inevitably remarkable character, rather than on the “events” of the subject’s life. For its author and its readers, the ancient biography was a subcategory not of history but of ethics.
If an emphasis on ethical behavior is a shared tendency of all ancient biography, the Gospels, like the modern campaign biography, have another quite distinct editorial point to make; in short, their “argument.” They are not in fact called a “Life of Jesus,” but rather the “Good News” (euangelion), which is the name that Jesus gave to his own message (Mk. 1:15). That “Good News” was, in the first instance, that Jesus was (he is no longer alive when the Gospels are written) the Messiah of Israel. This is the core argument of the Gospels, directed, as it is, to Jesus’ original constituency, his fellow Jews. “Messiah” (meshiah) would in fact have little significance and so little weight for non-Jews, and in its translated Greek form, Christos, it soon became a name rather than a title or a claim.
The Gospels seek to establish Jesus’ Messianic claim by a variety of means, and one of them is by matching events in his life with what were rather generally accepted Biblical passages of Messianic import. For the argument to be effective, the match-up had obviously to be convincing to contemporaries; it is no matter, however, if they are not very persuasive to a modern audience who read texts in quite a different manner. The procedure is biographically innocuous enough, the equivalent of a supporting footnote or marginal citation. Where it becomes historically problematic is where the citation has led to the invention of the event, or at least some of the circumstances surrounding it. One harmless, if amusing, example is when Jesus seems to be mounted on two donkeys (Mt. 21:5) because of Matthew’s apparent misunderstanding of Zechariah 9:9.
Jesus almost certainly used the argument from his fulfillment of Biblical prophecy in claiming to be the Messiah (Lk. 4:14-21), and contemporary Jewish sectarians like the Essenes at Qumran—the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls–made extensive use of Biblical (and non-Biblical!) texts in support of their ideology. The Gospels do not, however, present themselves as arguments or tracts but as genuine history, “an account of the events that have taken place among us” (Lk. 1:1). Even John’s Gospel, which stands apart from the matter-of-factness of the other three in so many respects, gives the impression that the viewer should have sat through the three black and white versions of Jesus’ life before settling in for John’s Technicolor extravaganza—is obviously a portrait of the same Jesus of Nazareth (though he is here a more considerable theologian!) in the same Palestinian milieu. John too aspires to record rather than invent.
The narrative of Jesus’ crucifixion in particular is filled with examples of prophecies fulfilled, often with startling literalness; indeed, many of the events surrounding Jesus’ death seem in fact dictated by Psalm 22. The incidents, if they were in fact invented to fulfill Biblical prophecy, are not crucial to the narrative. Jesus was undoubtedly crucified, a conviction reinforced precisely by the fact that it was obviously unanticipated. Even though Jesus’ followers later found texts in Isaiah that bolstered their acceptance of a suffering Messiah, the contemporary evidence is that the execution of Jesus came upon his followers as a profound and most unwelcome surprise.
As arguments the Gospels have been remarkably successful of course: countless millions have subscribed to that invincible link between their recorded facts—“Yes, that’s what happened”–and their argued conclusion—“Yes, Jesus is Messiah and Lord.” In the nineteenth century that link was broken, and an attempt was made by some to judge the Gospels as documents, to investigate the facts while averting one’s eyes from the conclusions. The latter task was prodigiously difficult from the outset, so deeply had the conclusion, whether affirmed or denied, been fixed in Western consciousness.
Historians have been at the task of applying their critical methods to the Gospels for nearly two centuries now, at times calmly and soberly but often the Scriptural bath water has been dumped with such a prodigal and gleeful hand to suggest that there is more than history at stake. The believer has different concerns: the bathwater is what sustains the baby or, to take welcome leave of the figure, the narrative, in this instance, the Gospel narrative, is a matter of faith. Its historicity is divinely guaranteed and so the rough places are smoothed, dangerous lacunae filled in; historical anomalies must be explained or, to be more blunt in expression, explained away.
The task of the Christian apologist has become easier over time with the growing understanding that Scripture, for all its inspired origins, is nevertheless historically conditioned: the Holy Spirit may be infallible, but the human instruments of the divine afflatus are somewhat less perfect, that what is operating here is what has been cheerfully called “limited inerrancy.” Thus, there may be slips and slides here and there in Holy Writ, though they will never, it is affirmed, affect anything consequential.
In an institution where authority was highly valued and centralization an unmistakable internal dynamic, it might seem odd at first glance that there should be four Gospels rather than one authorized version of the Good News. The Good News was certainly plural in Paul’s day (Gal. 1:7-9), at least as preaching (kerygma), which was its original form. Mark, on the other hand, the earliest evangelist, who was composing a like-named literary work rather than a preached version of the Good News, shows no awareness that there were other written Gospels in circulation, whether in Greek or Aramaic: he may well have thought that this setting down in writing was the Gospel. If so, he was the last to think so. Matthew and Luke had a copy of Mark’s Gospel before them when they were writing their own palimpsest-like versions. Luke in particular, a conscientious and self-conscious historian, informs his readers that there were many other accounts of the Jesus event in circulation (Lk. 1:1).
So why four Gospels in the New Testament, these four, rather than one or, let us say, fourteen? The early Christians asked themselves the same question. Their answers were largely theological, with frequent and familiar excursions into that maladie ancienne, numerology. On one level, the answer is rather simple. Since the New Testament canon is the result of a consensus among the Christian communities, this is the outcome: in the eyes of second century and subsequent Christians, the Good News was irreducible to one and unexpandable beyond four. Put thus, the process is somewhat easier to understand. The four Gospels represent four irreducible local narrative traditions. Apparently, Christian congregations were already using our Gospels, and no others, as their literary faith foundation/expression—the original preached or kerygma stage had long since passed in these ekklesiai—as early as 120 A.D., not long after the completion of John’s Gospel. What is certain is that these four Gospels, and these alone, were the basis of Tatian’s harmonizing Diatesseron ca. 170 A.D.
If agreement came early, it does not mean that it came easily. The irreducibility of the four shows that there were disagreements, or at least a reluctance to yield by what must have been important communities, particularly those that stood behind Matthew and Luke’s Gospels which are simply revised editions of Mark. What is particularly interesting is what must have been the powerful lobbying power, or a profoundly convincing historical tradition, that got and kept John’s Gospel in the New Testament instead of lying under the Egyptian sand with the Gospel of Thomas. The differences among Mark, Matthew and Luke are slight, if nuanced, and it is no wonder that they are called “Synoptic”—“taken in at a glance.” John, however, presents a very distinct take and a quite different presentation of what can still be identified as the historical Jesus of Nazareth. And yet, there is John’s Gospel in the canon, odd man out, a condition that was, in the end, acceptable to the other Christian communities but one which continues to befuddle the historian.
For long centuries the daunting task of bringing the Gospel narratives into conformity and coherence, in a sense, of attempting to reconstruct the original kerygma, was dealt with by straightforward attempts at harmonizing them, that is, by contriving a kind of master narrative, a meta-Gospel. Attempts at producing a fifth Gospel seemed as if they might gain traction, but even the most successful exemplar, the Diatesseron (One-out-of-Four), the late second century creation of one Tatian, never dislodged the Four or found a place next to them in the canon.
The Gospel harmony found a more natural home in the popular devotional genre of The Life of Christ. It succeeded, often with consummate skill, in combining the Synoptics into a single story, though sometimes by omitting the inassimilable bits like the Jesus genealogies. That harmony was not an altogether unlikely project since both Matthew and Luke were apparently already using Mark as their own master narrative. The problem was fitting John into the mix. John, it was thought, came after the other three and added some incidents that the others had overlooked or chose not to include. There were of course omissions. John’s eccentric chronology of Jesus’ last days was left by the wayside, and Jesus’ long theological discourses were either reduced to manageable sound-bites—“I and the Father are one”—or else simply omitted.
Modern historians are interested in a different kind of harmony, however. The objective is not reducing discord to concord but finding the original tune under the cacophony. Somewhere under the Gospels, most are still convinced, there lies an actual Jesus of Nazareth. No one can get to him, the post-modernist hastens to confess, but we can approach the model who sat for the evangelists’ portrait by seeing through those writers’ intentions and discounting them. It’s pretty clear what they were up to and why. As remarked at the outset, they were trying to convince (or reassure) their readers that Jesus was the Messiah of Israel, the Son of God and the Lord of all. And why they thought that is also reasonably certain: they, the authors among a growing number of others, had become convinced, on the testimony of those who provided eyewitness testimony, that Jesus of Nazareth had been raised by God from the dead.
The authors—no one is quite sure who stands behind those four names of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John –each set out, some 40 to 60 years after Jesus’ death to commit the circulating Jesus traditions to written form, in each instance a bios or “Life.” These were not the earliest Christian writings—Paul’s letters antedate the Gospels by at least 30 years—but they do provide the foundations upon which any understanding of the life of Jesus of Nazareth must rest. There is little debate on that point; where there is debate, prolonged and at times acrimonious, is first and foremost how the Gospel evidence is to be read, and, second, is there any additional evidence or understanding to be gained from works ostensibly later than the Gospels, to wit, all those other Gospels dubbed as “apocryphal,” that is, “separated” from the New Testament canon. That characterization came, as all agree, from the Church whose criteria for canonical inclusion were as much theological as they were historical and for whom “authenticity” meant something quite different from the modern historians’ understanding of that term.
Modern historical analysis has arrived at a plausible and generally agreed upon list of “facts” about Jesus of Nazareth. They turn out to be fairly banal. Jesus was a not unfamiliar contemporary type of itinerant preacher and wonder-worker who went about warning of the approaching Day of the Lord, and his death was as predictable to the historian as it apparently was to Jesus himself–or, as the Christians later discovered, even to Isaiah. It was a dangerous time in a dangerous place, the first century in newly Roman occupied Judea, and a charismatic who went about announcing the arrival of a “kingdom” and challenging an already beleaguered priesthood was playing a very dangerous game indeed.
Where disagreements have arisen is not among Jesus’ followers who seem quickly to have come to an understanding of his message and its significance, but among modern critics who are engaged in a debate on those issues that began in earnest in the Reformation and became virulent in the nineteenth century. The terms and findings of that debate are not the issue here, however, but rather where the Gospels stand in relation to the events that preceded them, both the Jesus events, that are their matter, and the “ecclesiastical” events that are a chief constituent of their form.
The historical investigation of the Gospels has laid bare considerable swathes of the argumentation that courses like a bloodstream through the body of the narratives. Though modern scholarship grants priority to Mark, it is Matthew’s Gospel that stands at the head of the New Testament, and that first statement of the “Jesus case” opens with a genealogy that professes to display Jesus’ direct descent—here through the much side-tracked Joseph!—not only from David but from Abraham himself (Mt. 1:1-17). There never has been a great deal of credence in Matthew’s genealogy nor in the other that is found in Luke (3:23-38). Not only are they not in agreement; each is sieved with difficulties. And as the modern investigation of tribal examples has demonstrated, most such genealogies are wish-lists rather than records; rarely is a traditional genealogy backward trustworthy beyond a grandfather, and in Jesus’ case, not even that far.
The genealogies of Matthew and Luke are embedded in larger and equally problematic contexts. These are so-called “Nativity narratives” that occur at the beginning of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Here two different hands, in addition to supplying two very suspect genealogies (Mt. 1:1-17; Lk. 3:23-38), attempted to confirm Jesus’ Davidic, and so Messianic pedigree, by showing, in contradiction to all the other, and more reliable, evidence, that Jesus was born not in Nazareth, but in David’s home town of Bethlehem (as predicted by Micah 5:2 in Mt. 2:6).
Matthew does not undertake to explain; he simply asserts the fact that Jesus was born in Bethlehem (Mt. 2:1), though neither the fact nor the town is ever adverted to, directly or indirectly, anywhere else in his Gospel. Luke attempts to explain: an empire-wide Roman census (otherwise unknown) forced Joseph and Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem in time for Jesus’ birth there (Lk. 2:1-5). Once that was established, whoever contrived the Nativity narratives added a plethora of supernatural confirmations that the newborn was indeed the Messiah (Mt. 2:1-12; Lk. 2:8-20). Matthew’s account also moves Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus to Egypt to escape an angry Herod’s search for the new Messiah (Mt. 2:13), a frenzy that leads to the slaughter of all the newborn males in Bethlehem and vicinity (Mt. 2: 16, as it is predicted, after a fashion, in Jer. 31:15), a monstrous event unnoticed by the historian Josephus who followed Herod’s career very closely. The two Nativity narratives, which historians almost unanimously reject as later, though different, interpolations in both Matthew and Luke and worthless as evidence for the historical Jesus, though not, obviously, for the Jesus cult, are the foundation of the Christian Christmas.
The historian makes two judgments about the Nativity narratives. First, they are very likely textual interlopers. Not only do they reflect a later point of view, a broader and more theologically developed stance on Mary’s virginity; they must have been added to already fixed texts of Mathew and Luke. So, if the intent were to approach as close as possible to an authorial autograph, the Nativity narratives would be eliminated. Second, as already remarked, the two accounts must be dismissed as documentary evidence for the historical Jesus. This on a number of scores, some already rehearsed above.
The historian arbitrates only history. The Nativity narratives remain serenely untroubled in the literary Gospels, works that are so embedded in the cultural tradition, and buttressed by the ecclesiastical tradition, that it is impossible to dislodge any part of them, even if that were desirable. Vigilant Vatican officials may cast St. Patrick into the junkyard of legend, but his green-clad marchers parade on, oblivious and uncaring of such Bollandist scrupulosity. So too does the Nativity story.
The Nativity narratives also remain firmly in place in the Gospels as Christian statements of belief. Witness the example of the Pauline letters. Historians have judged a number of them, like Ephesians, Colossians, the pastoral epistles addressed to Timothy and Titus and particularly Hebrews, as not from Paul’s own hand. They may in the sequel have disappeared from historians’ discussions of Paul’s life and work, and shrunk quietly to the sidelines of theologians’ assessments of Paul’s theology, but they are still present in the Paul library within the New Testament, and they are still vibrantly functional within the Church’s devotional and liturgical life.
The Gospels and Acts represent a somewhat slipperier terrain, however. They too are statements of belief, but in this instance, a belief that these things actually happened. The Christian argument is, like its Jewish antecedent, inextricably linked to history, and the Christian faith is firmly tethered to the historical content of the Gospels, the story of this extraordinary “Word made flesh” who “tented among us” (Jn. 1:14). And so if that content is questioned, disputed or denied by historians, the Christian has a problem.
The Gospels as a statement of faith and as witnesses to the Jesus event are covered by a blanket inspiration and hence, by generally accepted implication, inerrancy, even if it is, as we have seen, “limited” on occasion. Scripture is true in its entirety, however, every jot and tittle—which is why it can be conclusively cited piecemeal, without regard to the critics’ beloved “context”–and, according to some of the more fastidious rabbis, there is truth even in the spaces between the letters. Christians cannot, then, readily cherry-pick their way through the Gospels the way the secular historian can, affirming here, discarding there, distributing “possible” and “unlikely” yellow warning cards, or a “flagrantly theological” red expulsion card—John is festooned with them—to passages that offend in that particularly reprehensible manner.
Christians are at least as ingenious as secular historians—and have been at Gospel studies a lot longer—and they have learned to cope with the critics, after a fashion. One once popular tactic, born of a very dark historical despair, was to deny that the Gospels, though they are cast in what the authors imagined as history—myth might be a better word for it—are not history or even about history. They are more like holographs, an apparently realistic but an actually virtual presentation of Jesus within which the believer can “encounter” the actual Christ. The approach is obviously somewhat esoteric for the average congregation, and many pastors have doubtless preferred taking the easier route and ignoring or dismissing the historians, whose findings are themselves somewhat esoteric to many believers.
Some Christian ministers, who take the critical work of the historians seriously but are understandably reluctant to surrender their faith, do in fact cherry-pick the Gospels. They reject, generally through silent omission rather than a formal disavowal, what seems historically untenable, while attempting to keep the essential structure of the Christian faith intact on the foundation of verifiable historical fact. The problem with this moderately rationalistic approach is that it puts both the pastor and, if they choose to follow him, his flock at odds with the original believers who in fact fashioned or, if that is too strong a word, first gave voice to the Christian faith precisely on the grounds of all the data recorded in the Gospels.
But even a partial dismantling of the Gospels in the name of history is as dangerous as removing the interior walls of a complex structure. Cherry-picking the Gospels is also cherry-picking the faith. Which of the elements of the Christian faith, what are discerned as its doctrines, are supporting walls and which are simply dividers? The churches have attempted to signal just that by defining certain doctrines as dogma: “Do Not Remove!” is the peremptory warning tacked up on the pillars of the faith. The dismantling of doctrine, for all its dangers and discomforts, is, however, acceptable to many modern Christians because it is preferable to defending the historically indefensible or even, more recently, the socially unacceptable.
For those who prefer to sozein ta dogmata rather than, as Aristotle counseled, ta phainomena, more traditional Christian historians have offered another solution. What most often disturbs the historian is the supernaturalism that clouds so many events in the Gospels. It is not so much Jesus’ miracles, the public wonders he performed, that disturb the historians. The evangelists were simply retelling stories they had heard from others who had witnessed Jesus’ cures and exorcisms. And those witnesses had no doubts about what they were seeing nor were they bowled over by it. They even had an explanation for what they witnessed, though the historian does not: such wondrous deeds were accomplished though God’s power or Beelzebul’s (Lk. 14:20).
The miracle is a species of Jesus event. Other wonders have a more doubtful origin. These are the supernatural interventions: voices, even choruses, from on high confirming Jesus’ divine status; or white clad angels who appear like Sophoclean messengers from Corinth and give a dramatic turn to the action; or, on a rare occasion, Satan himself. Such interventions are pervasive in the Nativity narratives, as we’ve seen. It reappears in the form of a heavenly voice affirming Jesus as the Son of God right after his baptism by John the Baptist (Mk. 1:11), one of the most aggressively historical accounts in all the Gospels. Immediately afterwards Jesus is “driven into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit,” where the Gospels report his temptation by Satan. The wilderness episode is simply noted by Mark (1:12), but with the hint of a legendary backstory. The hint was enough to encourage Matthew (4:1-11) and Luke (4:1-15) to enlarge the episode into a dazzling Scriptural dual between Jesus and his Satanic adversary. The battle of wits is entertaining, it is instructive, and it is reassuring to the believer, but it is assuredly not history.
The withdrawal of the holy man into the wilderness is a familiar religious trope, however, and Jesus may well have gone on some kind of a spiritual retreat after his baptism by John and so provided at least the occasion for the stories of the temptation in the desert. The same is true of some of the incidents in the Nativity narratives. Though they stretch credulity, Jesus might indeed have been born in Bethlehem, the family might conceivably have sojourned in Egypt; even the Herodian massacres in and around Bethlehem have a kind of remote plausibility.
No so with other happenings recorded in the Gospels. It is considerably more difficult to imagine what actual event might lie behind the accounts of Jesus’ “metamorphosis” or “transfiguration” before Peter, James and John on a hilltop in Galilee (Mk. 9:2-8 and parr.): “His face shone like the sun and his garments shone brilliantly white” is the way Mark undertakes to describe the phenomena. The long-dead Moses and Elias appear at his side, chatting with Jesus. And a voice calls down from a cloud that has suddenly appeared: “This is My beloved son. Listen to him.” Abruptly it is over: Jesus stands there alone, as before.
Does the incident reflect a historical event? “Historical event” implies, of course, a natural happening, an act, however implausible or unlikely of occurrence, that unfolds according to what are understood as the laws of nature; in short, not a miracle. None such has been reasonably suggested for this transfiguration. The scene, then, and what it describes has been said to constitute a theolegoumenon.
A theologoumenon has been defined as “a theological insight narrated as a historical event,” or, in a less kindly fashion, as dogma posing as event. It is, quite obviously, a palliating attempt to find an epistemological category between true and false, a literary niche between fact and fiction where certain Gospel events might take shelter. A theolegoumenon is the embodiment of the truth that is not dreamt of in the historian’s philosophy and that might serve as a quasi-historical support for faith. It is a life-saver for the dogmatic baby going down the drain with the bathwater.
Chief among the Christian theologoumena is the virginal conception of Jesus that lies at the heart of the Nativity narratives (Mt. 1:20-23; Lk. 1:26-38). It is, moreover, the Gospels’ clearest example of a Biblical prophecy “creating” a subsequent event. Here the generative text is Isaiah 7:14. “…the Lord of his own accord will give you a sign; it is this; a young girl is with child and she will give birth to a son and call him Emmanuel.” Whether that text refers to a young girl (Isaiah: almah) or a virgin (the Septuagint’s parthenos in Matthew and Luke’s text), the twelve or so year old Mary may well have filled the bill. But that he should have been conceived virginally is the Gospels’ own construction based on their understanding of Isaiah.
Whatever the origins of the tradition, Mary’s non-sexual conception is an unnatural act that, by its nature, was unwitnessed, while its subject, Mary, has left no account or explanation. Mark, the earliest biographer of Jesus, and the earliest Christian documents, Paul’s letters, make no mention of this extraordinary event. It is described, after a fashion, in Luke in the reported words of an angel to Mary–“The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Lk. 1:35)—but simply mentioned by Matthew as part of another angelic message to Joseph (Mt. 1:30).
It is sometimes asserted that the historicity of the virginal conception in supported by its multiple and apparently independent attestations by Matthew and Luke. The claim is senseless. There is no possible attestation for such an event save perhaps a DNA analysis of the fetus, which, if the genetic chain is not recognizably human, might yield “of unknown origin.” In this instance multiple attestation proves only that the story was current no earlier than the time of Mathew and Luke (80-90 A.D.), and likely later since it occurs in narrative interpolations. It was not, however, either known or needed at the time of Mark, some ten years earlier, nor, apparently, in Paul’s day , three decades earlier.
Mary’s virginal conception of Jesus leads directly into another dogmatic thicket. Mark mentions, quite offhandedly, and without any sense that he is stating something unusual or controverted, that Jesus had siblings, and he names them: James, Joses, Judas and Simon; and there were sisters as well (Mk. 6:3). They appear again, and this is somewhat less certain, at Jesus’ crucifixion, and here we are given the name of one of Jesus’ sisters, Salome (Mk. 15:40).
Luke, who had a copy of Mark in front of him, changes these passages. He eliminates any mention of Jesus’ family. Why? The reason becomes perhaps discernible in his Gospel sequel, the Acts of the Apostles. Here the focus is initially on Peter as the head of the Twelve—the Gospels are all in agreement on that point—but then it turns and rests on Paul, where it remains. Peter somewhat mysteriously disappears from the narrative without a forwarding address: “Then he [Peter] left the house and went elsewhere” (Acts 12:17). He returns briefly for an important meeting in Jerusalem (Acts 15), but that’s the last of him; from Acts 15 onward, the work belongs to Paul.
The critical historian of the Gospels, who is intent on unmasking the “tendencies” of each of the evangelists, presents manifold challenges to the believer, but the events described in the Gospel, if one discounts such obviously unhistorical material as the Nativity narratives and ahistorical matter like the theological prologue to John’s Gospels (Jn. 1:1-18), do not in themselves represent an insuperable problem to the historian. It is the words that are the real problem, of fitting the lyrics to the music. The Gospels are scored for a full orchestra and multiple voices, solists and choral ensembles of bystanders, Pharisees, Roman soldiers and even, on occasion, “the Jews.” Ancient authors and their sources had no way of recording living speech. They may have remembered fragments of what was actually said on any occasion or memorized pieces of discourse, particularly if it was in rhythmical or aphoristic form. But these limitations did not prevent authors from reproducing, as direct quotes, if they had had access to such useful punctuation, what might have been said or likely was said on a given occasion. The Gospels are filled not with the sentiments of Jesus but with his very words or, in John, entire sermons of Jesus.
Were they invented or remembered? The skeptic says “transparently invented,” while the believer, who generally, but not necessarily opts for “remembered,” is more invested in “authentic.” Though opinion ranges widely, the historical consensus appears to be both invented and remembered.” At one end of the critical spectrum stand those who, like the members of the much-discussed Jesus Seminar, have weighed and judged each of the sayings recorded in the Gospels, and have discovered only sparse traces of authenticity. At the other, though no critical historian is willing to assert that all the Gospel sayings are Jesus’ own, there is a strong presumption among traditional scholars (usually from the more traditionalist churches) that certain expressions like Abba (“Father”) and “the Kingdom” are Jesus’ own, his very words. But what they are more committed to is the notion that the Gospels, if they do not contain the ipsissima verba of Jesus, they do present the ipsissima vox, the genuine voice of Jesus of Nazareth.
To hear Jesus’ authentic “voice” in the Gospels is a more historically sustainable claim than that his “very words” can be retrieved there. But in some instances the words may be at least as crucial as the “voice.” Such, for example, are the words that Mark, along with Matthew, Luke and Paul, reports Jesus speaking at his last meal with the Twelve, the famous “Last Supper” (Mk. 14:1-26). Jesus takes bread, blesses (eucharizei) it and offers it to those present, saying: “Take this. This is my body.” And similarly with wine: “This is my blood of the Covenant, which has been poured out for many” (Mk. 14:22-24).
Mark is not, however, the earliest reporter of Jesus’ words on this occasion. A decade or so earlier Paul had written to the believers at Corinth that he had these words “from the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:23). They are similar but by no means identical with what is in Mark. With the bread: “This is my body for you. Do this in memory of me.” And with the wine: “This cup is a new Covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink, in memory of me” (1 Cor. 11: 24-25).
The diversity of the versions of Jesus’ words—Luke (22:17-20) has a very hybridized version –makes the conclusion of the Jesus Seminar the most plausible one, that these are not, or better, we cannot extract from them, the exact words of Jesus, but that they genuinely represent what he expressed on that occasion.
It is a satisfactory result for both the historian, who will settle for plausibility, and for the believers who are reassured that they are in possession of Jesus’ genuine message, if not its precise wording. But in this case the words are embedded, liturgically fossilized, so to speak. One or other version of those words appears, in translation in most instances, in the crucial formula that validates the Eucharistic sacrifice—in the West it is commonly known as the Mass—that is the central act of Christian worship. But, as it turns out, “one or other version” was present from the very beginning, hence the divergences between the two basic formulae, the one preserved by Mark and the other by Luke. And there is an emerging agreement that it is not so much that Jesus’ words are fossilized in the liturgy as that two very early and somewhat different Eucharistic liturgies are preserved in the Gospels.
Thus this particular “Last Supper” episode in the Gospels is not inscribed as a record of an event that actually occurred, though some form of its almost certainly had taken place, as it was to explain the origins of a liturgical practice, the Eucharistic meal, that was already established, though not uniformly, in Christian communities before the Gospels were written. That much is testified to in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians where they are presented as part of a liturgical formula. To put it somewhat differently, Jesus’ words and, more importantly, his intentions at his final meal were remembered, and reenacted liturgically, and somewhat differently in Christian communities before they came to be inscribed in story form in the Gospels. The Gospels are not the source of the Eucharist but its explanation.
The memory of Jesus in the Gospels, however various its forms and our levels of confidence in any particular saying, is also a memory of his message. There is a reliable conviction that he actually said, “The Kingdom approaches. Repent and trust in the Good News” (Mk. 1:15); that he regarded Yahweh as his “father” in a particularly, perhaps even peculiarly, familiar sense (Mk. 14:26); that he attempted to reorient contemporary Jewish practice away from mere observance into a more spiritual, perhaps even a more radically spiritual, direction that had repercussions for the two pillar institutions of Torah and Temple, as he himself understood; and that there was an urgency to what he was saying in the light of a rapidly approaching End Time, a time, as all Jews believed, of upheaval and renewal. And finally, Jesus attempted to communicate that he would have a central role in the Day of the Lord and its sequel as the Messiah, the Davidic “Anointed One.” It was a familiar figure of Jewish imagination that Jesus himself characterized, with a phrase borrowed from the Book of Daniel, as the “Son of Man” and fleshed out, as was commonly done in that era, from other, non Scriptural texts, in this case the first century collection of apocalyptic materials now called 1 Enoch.
If that much is reasonably certain, there are other critical issues that are considerably less so, assertions and evangelical conclusions that give the historian, though not always or necessarily the believer, pause. Such, for example, is that in the Gospels Jesus is unmistakably made to direct his message not merely to his fellow Jews but to the goyim or Gentiles, the entire non-Jewish world. This is a critical matter since we know from the sequel, as represented in the first instance by Paul’s letters from the 50’s and Luke’s Acts of the Apostles from the 80s or 90s and thereafter by a succession of authors, that the “mission to the Gentiles” was at the outset a matter of great contention among the earliest followers of Jesus, and then became the crucial issue first in the mutual alienation of the “Christers” and their fellow Jews and then in the growth of the former into an increasingly successful religious enterprise.
The Gospel evidence that Jesus bade his followers to “go and teach all nations” (Mt. 28:19)–and moreover founded a “Church” to care for them (Mt. 16:18)–that and alia similia, like Mark’s assertion that “he [Jesus] thus pronounced all foods clean” (Mk. 7:19), must be rejected as later first century retrojections into the Gospels, and into Jesus’ own mouth, on the part of congregations already committed to a Gentile mission. The reason for its rejection is no more complicated than the fact that mere association with Gentiles, much less inviting them to enter and recline in the Kingdom of Yahweh without benefit of circumcision, was viewed with severe disapproval among Jesus’ original followers, which it would not have been had Jesus spoken so openly and clearly on the subject. Jesus, it appears, was even less interested in Gentiles than his brother James who grudgingly allowed Paul to attempt a modified form of conversion on the goyim (Acts 15: 19-20).
The evidence is unmistakable that very soon after Jesus’ death his followers regarded and venerated him as divine, as, in fact, the Son of God, whom they habitually referred to with the divine title, “Lord” (Kyrios). That much is clear from Paul’s letters which reflect not only Paul’s own convictions but have embedded within them older creedal formulae like Phil. 2:6-11 and Rom. 1:3-4 that indicate that the cult of the divine Jesus antedated Paul and that it was not a Gentile innovation but occurred among exclusively Jewish believers. The very old Aramaic prayer, Marana tha!, “Our Lord, come!,” that Paul cites (1 Cor. 16:22) is testimony to both the antiquity of the Jesus cult and the eschatological expectation that beat at the heart of the very earliest version of what came to be called Christianity.
The authors of our Gospels certainly shared that belief, though it is unclear how they, or any of the early Jewish “Christers,” might have understood Jesus’ divinity: we are a very long way from the 4th century Council of Nicea when a very different set of Christians undertook to explain precisely and scientifically how Jesus could be the Son of God. The basis of the original belief is not very mysterious: it rested on the conviction that some of their number had actually encountered the risen Jesus. That conviction was, as Paul confessed, the very cornerstone of the Christian faith (1 Cor. 15:14).
The evangelists, John excepted, seem reluctant, however, to put the claim to divinity in Jesus’ own mouth. Others confess his divinity—Peter to his face in a very suspect passage (Mt. 16:16), a Roman centurion who witnessed his death (Mt. 27:54) and a voice from heaven on a number of occasions—but Jesus himself does not appear to move beyond the (not terribly assertive) claim to be the Messiah. But if the claim is not there, the evidence certainly is: Jesus’ appearances to his followers after his death and the discovery of the empty tomb.
The Christian harmonizers of the Gospels have always had problems with the oddly heteroclite endings of the four works, where the matter is precisely the crucial appearances of the risen Jesus. The narrative line is no longer the finely detailed one of Jesus’ last days, but an episodic jumble of vignettes, all quite different from one Gospel to the other. And for all their realismo-the players are shown eating, fishing, walking homeward—they are bathed in the bright artificial light of the fairy tale. More, the issue of credibility is further clouded by the fact that in two of the Gospels, some final paragraphs have been tacked on to the original ending.
We do no know how these crude assemblages, with their similarities and their striking differences, were put together. But we seize the point: the dead and entombed Jesus was encountered alive, speaking and eating, in Galilee and Jerusalem, by the Twelve (now eleven with the defection of Judas) as we might expect, and by a number of somewhat less anticipated witnesses, like Mary Magdalene and another Mary who must be Jesus’ mother (Mk. 16:9; Mt. 28:9; Jn. 20: 14-18), by Cleopas (Lk. 24:18) and, though the Gospels fail to mention this, by James, the ”brother of the Lord” (1 Cor. 15: 7).
Unlike the Nativity narratives, the disparate elements of what might be called the “Easter tradition” are not based upon (or spawned from) a series of Prophetic texts, Rather, they are based on personal experiences, though they have been strung together in somewhat the same manner, though with a lot less explanation, as Matthew and Luke did in putting together their individual, though not mutually coherent, Nativity stories.
For those who look upon them, the Gospels are texts, something set down in writing. But for Christians they are something more, “The Writing”; not merely scripture but Scripture. This is God-authorized and God-inspired writing. Sacred books were not a Jewish invention, but it was their collection of sacred books, or simply, “The Books” (Gk. Ta Biblia) that the natural model for the “Christer” Jews own collection, called, as we have seen, the New Testament. When the earliest Jewish followers of Jesus speak of “The Scripture,” they are of course referring to their own Jewish Bible, but within a century Chritians, Jewish and Gentile alike, had taken to thinking and speaking of their own writings as belonging in the same exalted company: the Gospels too were Scripture.
The historian is well aware that the Good News texts that lie before are also widely regarded as Scripture. As a critical historian he attempts to ignore that fact, as unlikely an act as telling a jury to ignore that the defendant’s name is Mother Theresa. What alone is pertinent to the critical task is that the present texts are also documents: the Gospels profess accurately to describe certain events from a privileged perspective. The Gospels claim to describe events of monumental importance, the career of Jesus of Nazareth. What he did and what he said altered not only the lives of his followers but the very course of human history. These are documents with a difference. The authors of the Gospels were already to some degree aware of that, and the burden of that knowledge is shared by the historian who thus sits in judgment over events that have changed the world.
The gap between Scripture and document, the work of God and the work of man, is seemingly immeasurably wide. But not in this instance since these believers are not traffickers in myth, they claim: the Scriptural Gospels are also documents; they are a veridical history of Jesus of Nazareth. The believer thus submits his Scripture to the scrutiny of the historian: if the story of Jesus of Nazareth is not true history, then there is no basis for the Christian faith. But the historian for his part notes that the submitted documents were born of a mixed marriage of the Holy Spirit and first century historians. Historians are not fond of miscengenation, but in this case the parentage is multiply attested.
Are the Gospels a veridical history of Jesus of Nazareth? First, the mis en scène is accurate: the color, tone and environmental effects all prove out. As documents the Synoptic Gospels provide a coherently reliable portrait of the chief events of Jesus life, and if they do not always or even often reproduce his exact words, they have caught both the content and the flavor of his message, and perhaps its ambiguity as well. And John’s Gospel adds authentic data here and there.
Though there is, to be sure, legend in the mix, Jesus did work wondrous cures and exorcisms. There were many public witnesses who had no doubts about what they were seeing, even though, with the evidence at hand, we have no way of explaining such things to ourselves. God’s wonders, on the other hand, the supernatural confirmation of Jesus’ claims, and the raising of Jesus from the dead, are not the matter of history and the historian either ignores them, as generally here, or denies them outright. Did Jesus make Messianic, eschatological claims? It seems so. Did he claim to be the Son of God? It seems not. Was he either? The historian cannot possibly affirm or deny; he declines to answer.