The lives of the dead survive only as the memories of others. Those memories, along with the subject’s own reflections, are now preserved in a variety of mechanical forms: in writing, orally on recordings, and visually on film, but the memory of those who lived long ago is available only in the form of the written first-hand, third-hand or eighth-hand recollections of those who came after them. We cannot inspect the actual lives of those who have died; we can only inspect the memory of them, and, in the instance of the ancient world, the memories that have been committed to writing and are preserved.
We understand a good deal about memory, how selective it is; how reliable it can be at times and how very often unreliable; and how memory is not only undermined by forgetfulness but clouded by preconception or transfigured by belief. The Memory Palace is more often than not a House of Mirrors filled with the subject’s self-reflections rather than recollections of the object.
The memories of Jesus of Nazareth are chiefly preserved in quasi-biographical literary works called Gospels. Their title in the Greek originals is euangelion or “Good News,” which, after a sharp Anglo-Saxon turn, emerges in English as God-spel or Gospel. There were a number of Gospels in circulation in the first centuries of the Christian Era, but the common judgment is that the most reliable information about Jesus comes from the four that the Christians included in their New Testament, the Gospels attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
The other Gospels in circulation during the early centuries of Christianity but not included in the New Testament, what a later generation dubbed the “Apocrypha,” were not so much banned or explicitly excluded from the New Testament as they were ignored. The New Testament collection was the result of an anonymous and silent consensus of the Christian congregations of the second century regarding the most authentic literary testimonies to their faith, a judgment that was at the same time historical and theological. The New Testament was not, in any event, an anthology prepared by a committee or an authoritative individual, whether designated or self appointed. Eventually, in the fourth century, the New Testament was officially approved and promulgated as “canonical” by “the Church,” but it was securely and effectively in existence before there was anything resembling the “holy, universal and Apostolic Church” summoned into institutional existence by the Emperor Constantine.
Christians have been respectfully studying those Gospels since their first appearance, but always as works written under divine inspiration. For the last two centuries, however, they have also been subjected to a more critical and more secular analysis, what was once called the “Higher Criticism,” whose conclusions have often differed, and differed radically, from those of the traditional Christian consensus. Almost everyone is agreed that Mark was written sometime around 60-70, Matthew and Luke in 89-90 and John sometime about 100 A.D. But whereas Christian tradition makes Mark a disciple of the Apostle Peter, Matthew and John themselves members of the Twelve Apostles and Luke a follower of Paul, the modern critics are not so sure. Most of them are inclined to put the names of Mark, Mathew and John in the quotation marks that signal skepticism about their actual identity. Only Luke has retained a semblance of his traditional author’s profile; mention of the names of the others is invariably accompanied by the unvoiced subtext: “…whoever he may chance to be.” So too here.
Even if there is uncertainty about the precise identity of their authors, the relatively confident dating of the composition of the four Gospels, as well as that of Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, and the even more precise dating of Paul’s authentic letters to the 50s of the first century, enable both believers and critics to draw certain historical conclusions about both Jesus of Nazareth and the origins of the movement that came to be called Christianity.
The Gospels were included in an anthology that the Christians call the New Testament. This collection of 27 books is an explicitly intended echo, retort, complement and fulfillment of the Jewish Scripture, the 39 books of the Hebrew Bible that the Christians began to call the “Old Testament.” But the Gospels, which lie at the heart of the New Testament, were not written to mimic any other books of the Jewish Bible. They were novel productions, with bloodlines that run, in rather hybridized fashion, through Greek novellae and the ethical biographies that the Hellenes called bioi or “Lives.” But though they share formal similarities with one or other of these latter, the Gospels are in their essence different.
Though they are biographical in form, the Gospels are not genuine biographies, certainly not as we, and perhaps their contemporaries, understand that term. Biographies are written for instruction, edification or even entertainment; the Gospels may have intended those ends, but they had something else very much in mind: persuasion. John’s Gospel states it most boldly and baldly: “These [signs] written here have been recorded in order that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God” (Jn. 20:31). All four were, in fact, “The Good News of Jesus Messiah, the Son of God” (Mk. 1:1). That is the heading in Mark’s Gospel, the prototype of the genre, and that was the program of all four works, to persuade the reader or listener —in that era, works were recited as often as they were read—that Jesus of Nazareth was both the promised Messiah of Israel and, more boldly, the Son of God.
Like all biographical-type works, the Gospels have their share of invention, fancy and wishful thinking that has been stirred into the memory of Jesus, and for two centuries there have been serious, and at times equally wishful and fanciful, efforts separating the chaff of invented memory from the wheat of genuine recollections of what Jesus of Nazareth did and said and, even more ambitiously, what he intended. A large cloud of belief, what has been called “the haze of Easter,” that is, the conviction that Jesus was raised from the dead and all that act implied, still lingers over every word of the Gospels.
Most Jews of Jesus’ day were familiar with the notion of the “Anointed One” (Hebr. Mashiah; Gk. Christos), a Davidic scion and Israel’s heaven-sent savior who is the principal actor in Jewish End-Time scenarios. Messianic speculation was open-ended and imaginative, but the Messiah was sometimes associated with the allegorical figure of the “Son of Man” in Daniel’s visionary recital (Dan. 7:13-14). So he seems to have been in Jesus’ mind, and though he most often refers to the “Son of Man” in the third person (e.g. Mk. 2:10,28), it is reasonably clear that he is speaking of himself. And it is noteworthy that in one passage at least, the “Son of Man” or Messiah is equated with the “Son of God” (Mk. 14:16).
These Messianic claims regarding Jesus are put forward in the Gospels, chiefly, though not unambiguously, from Jesus’ own mouth, but the Gospels embed them in an argument framed as a biographical narrative. Jesus seems to have referred to his own message as “the Good News” or Gospel, but following his death, Paul (1 Cor. 15:1) and others used to term to describe the many and varied oral or preached forms of the message not by Jesus but about Jesus, which was not at all the same thing. With Mark in the 60s or 70s we reach the third stage in the evolution of the term, where “Gospel” is the name given to a formal literary presentation of the message and career of Jesus of Nazareth.
Mark appears to have been the pioneer here; there is no trace of a pre-Markan Gospel in the same literary form. Though Paul, our only witness, makes no mention of such, there may well have been Greek texts in circulation among Christians in the 40s and 50s, collections of Jesus’ sayings, like the “Q” beneath Matthew and Luke, and a passion narrative similar to or identical with the one(s) used by all the evangelists. Whether or not his was the first, it was Mark’s Gospel that both Matthew and Luke used as the template for their own works in the same genre. But if Matthew and Luke redacted Mark with revisions, expansions and the addition of new material –from other previously circulating sources?—John’s Gospel represents a wholesale revision of the genre. The same material is there, and still cast in a biographical form, but John has thoroughly recast it. Mathew and Luke were creative directors; John was an auteur. He is Liszt reimagining “Rigoletto” or Respighi recasting certain “ancient airs and dances.”
If it is legitimate to call John an author –his distinctive voice is audible throughout his Gospel—it is equally fitting to think of Mark as a composer. We have some idea of the materials he had to work with and how he assembled them. When we look closely at the Mark >into> Matthew and Luke complex and set John alongside it, it is in fact possible to disengage the principal schema followed by all four. Each of the evangelists has provided a two-part career sketch of Jesus. The first part is a ministry narrative that begins with his baptism by John the Baptist and ends with his departure for Jerusalem. It is composed of Jesus’ teachings (reported dramatically, verbatim) and the various wonders that he worked, chiefly cures and exorcisms. The second is a passion narrative, a detailed and orderly tracing of Jesus’ last days in Jerusalem that includes his last meal with his inner circle, the Twelve, his arrest and arraignment before the High Priest, his trial by the Roman procurator of Judea and subsequent execution by crucifixion and burial outside the walls of Jerusalem. To this carefully structured narrative there is appended in all four Gospels a somewhat garbled account of the discovery of his empty tomb and his reported appearances to various of his followers.
That is what the Gospels share, which is in effect the structure of Mark’s original work, edited, filled out and revised by the other three, and substantially so by John. Matthew and Luke have prefaced Mark’s “Ministry” narrative with two dramatic and detailed accounts of Jesus’ conception, birth and, in Luke’s case, his early childhood. Both nativity narratives are similar, though quite different, indeed contradictory, in detail and are generally regarded as unhistorical. The same is true of the genealogies of Jesus that each author has also attached to the nativity accounts. Two of the Gospels have prologues. Luke’s is the historian’s formal statement of the accuracy and reliability of the account that follows; John’s prologue (1:1-18), on the other, hand is a theological essay which, if we correctly discern the background of the motifs sounded in it, was unlikely to have a literary source that it was copying, echoing or imitating.
The heart of the Gospels, which are by no means seamless literary garments, is not a single narrative thread but rather two distinct parts that may be labeled “Ministry” and “Passion.” The latter is a highly detailed description of the last days of Jesus in Jerusalem from his arrival to his death and burial. The actors are vividly displayed, the locales graphically described, and the chronology carefully indicated throughout. Minor prophetic chords are struck throughout but the major leitmotif is Isaiah’s meditation (Is. 53) on the Lord’s “Suffering Servant” and its application to Jesus.
The “Ministry,” on the other hand, consists of a series of anecdotes tied together almost haphazardly by the vaguest of chronological indicators: “then,” “after some days,” “on the Sabbath.” Mark, Matthew and John is his Prologue all begin Jesus’ public ministry with the contemporary preacher John the Baptist, the prophetically predicted forerunner of Jesus. John is not essential to the narrative line that unfolds, and so his presence in the story, and that of his followers, suggests a fairly strong connection of the Jesus movement to that of the Baptist, a connection that was still being felt after both John and Jesus had passed from the scene (Acts 19:1-7).
Mark plunges directly into the narrative, “John appeared” (Mk. 1:4), followed, after a brief description of John and his work, with “It was at that time” (1:9). Matthew merely paraphrases Mark. He introduces Jesus’ career with “In those days” (Mt. 31), but the professional historian Luke starts with a fastidiously detailed establishment of the date of this momentous event: “And in the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar…etc.” (Lk. 3:1-2), an exactitude that is dispensed with in what follows.
The content of the anecdotes in the “Ministry,” which in Mark stretches from 1:14 to10:31, with parallel spans in Matthew and Luke, is chiefly Jesus’ ethical sayings or teachings about the coming Kingdom and the wonders worked by him. The setting, often generic and rural, is briefly described: at a lakeside, on a hillside, inside a synagogue or in some unspecified Galilean village. And they are connected, as was said, by the slenderest of chronologies. It is in fact uncertain how long Jesus’ public career lasted; anywhere from one to three years represent plausible guesses.
Though hardly anyone would agree that each and every recorded utterance originated with Jesus himself, the literary origins of both the Jesus sayings and Jesus miracles in the Gospels are now reasonably clear. Before our Gospels were composed , that is, before 60 A.D., there were already in circulation collections of Jesus’ sayings and his miracles, free-standing collections in the form of written texts and, at least in the case of the sayings, in Greek.
We were made aware of the existence of Jesus sayings collections by the extrapolated presence of one such used by both Matthew and Luke in their redaction of Mark: they share some 250 odd nearly identical verses that represent Jesus’ sayings and are not found in Mark’s Gospel. We do not know by whom or why his hypothesized collection, which is now called “Q,” was put together, but it was certainly a written text and certainly in Greek and it was in general circulation earlier than Matthew or Luke. Mark seems not to have used it, but it seems fair to assume that he had something similar available to him, a collection of Jesus’ sayings that he lightly contextualized in his Gospel, just as Matthew and Luke did with “Q” in theirs.
The existence of such a text collection speaks to two crucial elements of the nascent movement that would become Christianity: the prevalence of literacy among Jesus followers and the rapid passage of Jesus’ teachings from his native Aramaic to Greek with its larger audience of listeners and speakers. The literacy is not particularly surprising since the Scripturalist Jews with their well defined class of “scribes” were one of the most literate societies in the ancient world. The Greek is another matter, however, how the message of the Aramaic speaking Jesus, who may have known some Greek but who undoubtedly preached to his largely rural audiences in his native Galilean Aramaic, passed so quickly into Greek at that time and in that place.
The answer appears in the Greek New Testament itself. Early on in Luke’s Acts of the Apostles we are told about a cultural distinction among the early believers, most of whom had had personal experience of Jesus. There were, we discover (Acts 6:1), both “Hellenists” and “Hebrews” among his earliest followers in Jerusalem, not Gentiles and Jews but Greek speakers and Aramaic speakers, all of them Jews. It was a linguistic and cultural divide that ran through the Jewish society in Palestine. The “Hellenists” were found chiefly in the urban centers, their number augmented by Greek-speaking visitors or, like Paul, immigrants from the considerable Jewish Diaspora. Many of them were undoubtedly bilingual in both Greek and Hebrew’s Semitic cousin, Aramaic.
Jesus himself and others of his circle would have been numbered among the “Hebrews” of course, but Jesus’ audiences must have included both Aramaic and Greek speakers. The translation process was not a formal one, like that which marked the passage of Greek science and philosophy into Arabic in the ninth and tenth centuries; rather, it was a “simultaneous” one. The “Hellenists” present in the public and private sessions would have been listening to Jesus speaking in Aramaic but repeating his words to themselves and others in their own more comfortable Greek. It was they, the “Hellenist” followers of Jesus, who remembered and wrote down his sayings in Greek.
According to both Luke (1:1-2) and John (20:30), there was a great deal of Jesus material in circulation by the 80s and later, but the collection and recording of memories we know began much earlier. A sayings collection like “Q” or something similar that Mark might have used must have originated among Jesus’ own Greek-speaking disciples, perhaps one or other of the “Hellenists” mentioned in Acts (6:5). Oddly, there is no trace of a parallel collection in Jesus’ native Aramaic, which further suggests that there was no original Aramaic “text” that was translated to produce “Q” but rather what was heard in Aramaic was remembered and memorized in Greek.
“Q” was, so far as we know, assembled rather than composed in a literary sense. Mark’s Gospel, on the other hand, was a literary artifact. Jesus’ sayings, which rest relatively naked in “Q,” were embedded by Mark in a context. Chronologically that context is, as remarked, rather bare-boned: the individual beads on Mark’s narrative necklace are lightly strung and their sequence could be rearranged without any serious change in meaning. What is more densely contextualized, however, are the local settings. What are in “Q,” and presumably in Mark’s assumed collection, simply disembodied sayings are uttered in the Gospel in concrete, albeit somewhat generic, places to actual audiences, to crowds, to hostile Pharisees, to his inner circle of followers, to individuals.
The other element in the “Ministry” section of Mark’s Gospel, and in the others’ as well, are Jesus’ miracles, which are sometimes connected with a sayings/teaching and sometimes stand alone. They are threaded along the same chronological lines as the sayings and embedded in the same local, concrete albeit generic contexts, though now with some emphasis on the persons for whom or on whom they were worked. We must think that here too Mark had a collection of such wonders.
The evidence for positing the sayings source “Q” comes from Matthew and Luke; that for thinking that there was a similar collection of the miracles worked by Jesus comes from the Gospel of John, who characterizes such acts not as “wonders” or “acts of power” as in the Synoptics but as “signs” which he carefully underlines as probative of Jesus’ divine status (Jn. 2:11, 54; 12:37), and at one point (20:30) he seems to refer to the existence of a number of such collections. If such did in fact exist, it would have been used, as John used it, to bolster the case that Jesus was the Messiah and the Son of God.
The “Ministry,” then, is a loosely structured narrative that begins with Jesus’ baptism and ends with his final visit to Jerusalem. It displays the didactic sayings (ethical guidance, Torah arguments with the Pharisees and above all, instruction on the nature and importance of the coming “Kingdom”) and demonstrative wonders worked by Jesus. The “Passion” is very different. It is a detailed, carefully chronological –day by day, at times hour by hour— account of Jesus’ last days in Jerusalem down to his death and burial. It is laced with underlinings of Jesus’ fulfillment of Messianic prophecies.
The three Synoptics and John all hew closely to the same narrative line –John alters the Passover dates, however—which suggests that here too there was an earlier “Passion” narrative, or a number of similar ones, from which all the Gospel writers drew. The Gospels’ “Ministry” narratives have many signs pointing to oral composition or transmission somewhere earlier in the process of their formation; we can imagine, for example, the sayings source circulating orally before being committed to writing –there can be little doubt that “Q” was a written text when it lay before Matthew and Luke. The proposed “Passion” source, however, announces its textuality from beginning to end.
If we turn away from the Gospels themselves and look instead at the activities of Jesus’ followers immediately after his death as explicitly described in the Acts of the Apostles from ca. 80 A.D. and as implicitly reflected in Paul’s letters from the 50s, we see their almost immediate movement into the public arena. The earliest believers, Peter, Stephen and Paul –most of the Twelve, who are almost always on stage in the Gospels, though not always with a speaking part, are almost invisible here—were eager to convince their fellow Jews that Jesus of Nazareth was both Messiah and Lord. They preached. Preaching (kerygma) was the first product of nascent Christianity, and the frequency of public preaching and the shaping and/or stereotyping of its contents certainly lies behind the production of the Gospels some thirty- or forty-odd years after Jesus’ death.
Early Christian preaching was of course oral, and the transcribed examples that Luke provides in Acts is an act of creative and not at all unusual reconstruction on the part of the author. If the sermons in Acts were Luke’s work and not Peter’s or Stephen’s, their content likely represents, however, what was said on that occasion. And what the content suggests is that, unlike the Gospels, the earliest preaching of the new faith, in its attempt to win new believers, placed little or no emphasis on Jesus’ teaching or the ethical content of his message that was soon to form the moral foundation of Christianity; rather, it heavily underlined the claim that Jesus had perfectly fulfilled the Bible’s prophecies of the expected Messiah, to which was added an explanation, or, more accurately, an announcement of the theological effects of Jesus’ death and resurrection..
Acts also presents, or reconstructs, one of Paul’s sermons (Acts 13:26-41) that echoes that schema, and his authentic letters too, though written from a different perspective –they address problems and queries arising in already existing Christian congregations—show the same emphases: there is little in them about the life and teachings of Jesus, but a great deal about the effects on the believer of Jesus’ redemptive death and resurrection from the dead. And if Paul addresses many moral issues for his Christian audiences, he only rarely has recourse to the actual teachings of Jesus and only once quotes from the body of sayings that the Gospels preserve.
The Gospels were composed in an era when preaching was still the primary instrument of Christian communication. Though some writings like Paul’s letters might have been circulated among the Christian congregations that were spread, like Methodist chapels in a Church of England landscape, around the Jewish Mediterranean Diaspora, the Gospels represent a new literary development. Paul’s letters, though widely copied and read, were directed at specific congregations; the Gospels were intended for Christians everywhere. Though they may have grown out of a preaching tradition, the Gospels had a quite different objective in mind. In the “Ministry” section, it appears to have been the preservation and presentation of Jesus’ teachings and miracles, a matter of no concern to the earliest Apostolic preachers and Paul, whose contemporaries had sayings and miracle collections available to them. And it may have been Mark –there are no other candidates– who in the “Ministry” first combined and converted those collections into a literary narrative by providing them with a sequence and a context, however rudimentary.
The second Gospel element, the “Passion” narrative, which appears to a certain degree “standardized” in all four of the Gospels, even in John who felt free to rewrite Mark’s “Ministry” tradition, must have been more fully shaped as a literary text before Mark took it up and joined it to the “Ministry.” Whatever its exact form, the point of composing such seems to have been chiefly apologetic, to provide an explanation of why it was that Jesus died in such an unseemly and unexpected manner.
The Gospels’ Passion narrative presents a series of events about which there can be little doubt, chiefly Jesus’ arrest, his Roman trial and execution by crucifixion. The historian looks at the events, weighs their historicity and asks why in fact was Jesus executed by the Romans. The answer seems to be that he was thought to be an insurrectionist. The Gospels’ explanation, that he claimed to be “king of the Jews,” appears more than likely and, if so, it supports the contention that Jesus did claim to be the Messiah and that others thought that he was such during his lifetime.
The Gospels’ original audience –and subsequent audiences of believers—accepted the historicity of the events described there, but they asked a quite different question: if Jesus was the expected Messiah and Son of God, why did he suffer a grisly public execution as a convicted criminal, and that is the question that first Mark and then the other evangelists attempted to answer. The key to the answer lay in adducing Isaiah 53 with its portrait of Yahweh’s “suffering servant” and with some similar sentiments in the Psalms. Jesus’ death, the Gospels argued, was also part of God’s plan for the salvation of Israel, as predicted in Scripture, a conclusion that was heavily underlined by a cameo addition to the narrative: at Jesus’ death, one of the Roman soldiers who had witnessed the crucifixion is made to remark, “This man was indeed the Son of God” (Mk. 15:39).
There is, however, much more than a bare bones arrest-trial-execution sequence in the Passion narrative as it now stands in the Gospels. There are incidents like Jesus’ anointing in Bethany (Mk. 14:3-9), Jesus’ clairvoyant choice of a site for his Passover meal (Mk. 14:12-16), that last meal itself (14:17-25), the incidents in Gethsemane (14:32-42), the trial before the High Priest, including Peter’s denial (14:53-72).
Its unmistakable footprint in Matthew and Luke has permitted a fairly certain reconstruction of “Q,” the sayings source they both used. There is no such direct evidence for a putative pre-Markan Passion narrative and so its reconstruction, which a number have attempted, is far more tentative and controverted. But since the principal aim of the Gospels’ account of the Passion appears to have been to record and explain not the death but the execution of Jesus, it seems safe to conclude that both the series of events and their explanation, the latter accomplished chiefly by recourse to Biblical prophecy, were parts of the prototype that served as a template for Mark and then for the other evangelists. And on the same assumption, we conclude that the incidents with no direct bearing on the arrest, trial or execution were introduced from some other source, though before the narrative reached Mark. Thus, the account of Jesus’ Passover meal with the Twelve (Mk, 14:17-25 and parr.), the so-called Last Supper, must have circulated separately, where Paul found it, Originally, it was probably an oral recitation that was part of the early reenactment of that ritual (cf.1 Cor. 11:15-26) and integrated into the Passion narrative.
As already noted, Mark’s Gospel seems to have served as a template or better, perhaps, a jumping off point for the other evangelists, even John, who jumped the farthest. The Markan model apparently served down through the burial of Jesus (Mk, 15:42-47), but what follows in the earliest manuscripts of Mark’s Gospel are eight terse verses (16:1-8) that describe the women’s discovery of the empty tomb and then end awkwardly and abruptly. The end is so awkward and abrupt that most now think that this could not possibly be the original end of the Gospel but that something is missing, possibly the last page of the original manuscript. Others must have thought the same early on since there was very soon added to the Markan manuscripts eleven new verses. This appendix (Mk. 16:9-19 in our Gospels), for such it surely is, picks up from the awkward end of v. 8 and tracks, in parallel with the other Gospels, Jesus’ post-crucifixion appearances. It is not clear whether this new ending to Mark’s Gospel was copied, or based on, a rediscovered copy of the original missing page or represents a re-creation based on what the author found in Matthew and Luke.
To return to the overview, there are three elements that follow the Passion narrative in the Gospels (now including the Markan appendix): a brief account of the burial of Jesus, which may be the finis of the Passion story or may be an inserted bridge to explain and carry us to the far more important second element: the discovery of Jesus’ empty tomb by Mary Magdalena and some other women (Mk. 16:1-8 and parr.). The Gospels close with what may fairly be called a miscellany of eye-witness accounts of the risen Jesus’ encounters with his followers, first to Mary Magdalena, who has an odd prominence in the Gospels’ final act, and then to Peter (and John), in a long conversation with two unnamed followers (Lk. 24:13-35), a number of times to the Twelve in Jerusalem and in Galilee (Mt. 18:16-20; Lk. 24:36-43; Jn. 20:7-23) and, according to Paul (1 Cor. 15: 6), to a large crowd of people.
No one witnessed the actual resurrection claimed for Jesus. That event took place offstage, bracketed fore by the attestation of the Friday burial of the very dead Jesus followed by the Sunday discovery of his empty tomb; and aft, by the testimony of those who claimed to have encountered a very live Jesus. The eye-witnesses are effectively the proof of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, an event that was and remains a crucial element in Christian belief. Without it, Paul told the Corinthians, “our gospel is null and void and so too is your faith” (1 Cor. 15:14). Earlier in that same letter from the 50s Paul seems to suggests there was already current among Christians a list of “Official Witnesses” to the reality of Jesus’ resurrection (1: Cor. 15:3-7). It was chiefly the Twelve who served as such (Acts 1: 22), to whose number James, Jesus’ brother and de facto head of the community of original believers in Jerusalem, was at some point aggregated (I Cor. 15:6) and to which Paul boldly added himself (15:8).
The Jesus appearances begin, at least according to John, early on that same Sunday morning and just outside the tomb, where Mary Magdalena was the first to encountered him (Mk. 16: 9; Jn. 20:14-18). He is then reported as presenting himself to various individuals in various settings, initially in and around Jerusalem and then in Galilee. Where the Gospels agree is that he was first seen by the woman –their names vary somewhat in the different Gospels– who had come to the tomb early Sunday morning for the customary washing and anointing of the corpse. First in all the Gospel accounts is Mary Magdalena, a most unlikely witness, though neither she nor the other women, nor indeed his mother, who is nowhere mentioned here, show up on Paul’s Official Witnesses list. The leadership back in Jerusalem later scoffed at the women’s “vision” (Lk. 24:23), but this reported initial encounter was soon repeated, now to the more credible male members of Jesus’ inner circle.
The resurrection witness ducks were all in an orderly row by the time Paul came to write his first letter to the Corinthians, but the Gospels’ scrappy and ill-according vignettes of Jesus’ post-crucifixion appearances, though they are reported after Paul, may tap into earlier oral reports: the varying accounts have been argued as both crude inventions and , conversely, as primitively authentic. Here we are being given, it is maintained, not an edited and organized evidentiary document but raw and unredacted eye-witness testimony.
Where all agree, and indeed they appear to insist on the point, is that these encounters were not visions but were corporeal. They involved eating and drinking and on one notable occasion Jesus insisted that Thomas, one of the Twelve, put his finger into his still fresh wounds (Jn. 20:27) to verify that it was he in the flesh. Paul maintained that Jesus had a “spiritual body” (1 Cor. 15:44), but Paul’s own reported encounter with Jesus, which took place after the appearances described in the Gospels, was of a visionary sort and clearly different from Thomas’ and the others’, and different too from that of Mary Magdalena, who wanted to embrace Jesus (Jn. 20:17).
The Gospels are highly complex in their intent. We cannot get directly at the motives of the evangelists in composing their Gospels, but it is possible to draw some plausible conclusions from the contents of the works. Superficially the Gospels are biographical narratives, but they are studded with argument, apologetic and instruction. They describe events of a still relatively recent past but with an eye to the present circumstances of their authors and their audience. They want to inform and explain, but they also want to guide their contemporary readers through the growing complexities of life as a Christian.
The central argument of the four Gospels is this: the career of Jesus of Nazareth was the outcome of a plan on the part of the God of Israel, the creator and sustainer of the world (1 Cor. 2:17). It had two elements. The first was the willing self-immolation of God’s Son as an atonement sacrifice for the sins of humankind and to free them from the consequences of their own folly. The second was the resurrection of the dead Jesus as a sign and guarantee of eternal life for all who put their trust in Jesus, the Son of God.
The divine plan, the Gospels argue, was revealed beforehand in the Jewish Scriptures. It appears allegorically throughout the text but it is more openly and precisely declared from the mouths of the Biblical prophets who announced, under the inspiration of God’s Spirit, the future coming of Israel’s savior. He would appear in the form of a Messiah, an “anointed one” (Hebr. Mashiah; Grk. christos), a scion of the royal hose of David who figured in the Jewish eschatological scenarios circulating in Jesus’ day.
All this is remarkable in a number of ways. Unlike Paul’s letters, the Gospels were patently written for a general audience of believers who were both Jews –the “God” of the Gospels is the Biblical Yahweh and the perspective is Jewish throughout—and Gentiles since explanations are supplied for Jewish practices and beliefs. The Gospels were presenting a Jewish sectarian movement to Gentiles whose knowledge of or interest in Judaism, while it was consequential at first, when Gentile “God-fearers” occupied the rear pews of many Mediterranean synagogues, was, in the late first century, growing more tenuous.
The early Christian creeds, the statements of belief required of new converts, tread lightly on the Jewish components of the Christian faith, but non-Jewish believers had implicitly to acknowledge the divine inspiration, and so the inerrancy, of the Jewish Bible, which was relatively accessible in the widely circulated Greek translation called the Septuagint. They had, moreover, to worship the unique God called Yahweh, his identity somewhat masked by the Christian title of “Father,” whose works and ways were described solely in the Jewish Scriptures. And finally, they had to accept that the Israelites, in contemporary parlance, the Jews, were God’s Chosen People, and that the principal function of the Messiah, whose purely Jewish identity grew indistinct behind the Greek Christos, which very early on was transformed from a descriptive title into a personal name, was the vindication of Israel in the face of the Gentiles like themselves. The Gentile convert had, in effect, to adopt a Biblical, a Jewish world view.
Paul and others of Jesus’ Greek speaking followers had taken the first tentative steps into the Gentile world in the late 30s (Acts 11:19-21), almost, it would appear, by default. Many Jews of the Mediterranean Diaspora rejected the new claims of their coreligionists; the “God-fearers,” their Gentile fellow-travelers, were more enthusiastic, and the more adventuresome Christian preachers turned more and more to them and to ever widening circles of Gentiles, a fortuitous development that Paul was soon justifying as part of God’s plan (Acts 13: 46-47).
Paul’s defense of his turn to the Gentiles was that it was the result of a personal charge from the risen Jesus himself (Gal. 1:15-16), and by the time the Gospels came to be written, the Gentile mission was a commission placed by the evangelists in Jesus’ own mouth (Mt. 28: 19-20) even though all the evidence suggests that Jesus had intended his message for Israel alone (Mt. 10:5; 15:24).
Jesus’ contemporary followers had vivid memories of the man they reverenced as the Messiah of Israel, memories they shared among themselves by word of mouth, in Jesus’ own Aramaic and in the Greek that many of them spoke. These memories we know were soon committed to writing, perhaps only in Greek. One form of written recollection was an assemblage of his easily memorized aphoristic sayings and highly individualistic parables and another, this time of what Jesus himself offered as “proofs” of his mission, the wonders he worked, his exorcisms, cures and even resuscitations of the dead.
After his death, Jesus’ followers went forth, impelled by the unshakable conviction that he had been raised by God from the dead, and began to preach the “Good News,” which was, in this context, that by his sacrificial death, the Messiah and Son of God had saved humankind from the toils of sin and even of death: the believers would enjoy eternal life. Paul’s letters of the 50s already reflect a kind of “second generation” Christianity. The Good News had been accepted by growing numbers, many of them non-Jews, and Paul and others were explaining its implication for believers awaiting the imminent “Second Coming” of Jesus.
When the Gospels were written two decades of so after Paul, that “Second Coming” was already beginning to recede into an indefinite future and attention was shifting from the “Coming” Jesus to the past Jesus, the moral content of whose message now began to fill the lives of Christians.
Church tradition, which is in equal degree reliable and unreliable, makes Mark a disciple of the Apostle Peter, from whom he received traditions about Jesus. Possibly so, but Mark was, in any event, the first we know of to extract material from the circulating collections of Jesus’ words and miracles and arrange and contextualize them. To this slenderly organiized narrative line he joined a primitive but rather more carefully crafted Passion story, to which he added, we assume, anecdotes of encounters with a risen Jesus to create something like a Jesus biography, which announced itself as “The Good News of Jesus Messiah, the Son of God” (Mk. 1:1).
We do not know exactly what prompted this new literary initiative. Jewish writers were already exploring biography, of Moses in particular, and this new Jewish sect of “Christers” (Christianoi; Acts 11:26) might well have chosen the same means of illuminating their Messiah. But first and foremost, the Gospels, Mark’s and the other three that built upon his work, are statements of what and why Christians believed. Later statements of belief, the ones called more straightforwardly Credos or “I Believe,” dispensed with the “why” and settled on a bold statement of the “what.” By the fourth century and thereafter the urgent question for Christians was “how,” the how of Trinitarian belief, the how of the God-man Jesus.
The later answers to the “how” of Christian belief were generally cast in terms of the scientific discourse of their day, that is, the language of Greek logic, rhetoric and metaphysics. The Gospels, on the other hand, recorded and to some extent explained Jesus’ teachings, but the first century answer to why Christians believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah and the Son of God rested primarily on the events of his life, how they fulfilled both the implicit foreshadowings and the explicit Messianic prophecies that God had revealed in the Jewish Scriptures. And there was, finally, the proof positive, God’s raising his beloved Son from the shackles of death. As Jews –and that is still the Gospels’ subtext in a rapidly shifting religious landscape—Christians had no choice but to believe in the face of such evidence.