Step Five: Writing the Tradition Down (Monday Mini-Class on Historical Jesus)

(This is the eleventh in a series of “mini-classes” on the historical Jesus. Together the pieces are intended to assist those who wish to “dig deeper” into the scholarly foundations of postmodern faith and to understand the methodology behind the postings on the blog site.)

Only in the fifth step of its development was the Christian tradition written down. The other four steps were (1) the actual life of Jesus, (2) the resurrection experience of Jesus’ first followers, (3) their kerygma or basic proclamation of belief in Jesus as God’s self-revelation, and (4) a nearly half-century oral tradition about what Jesus said and did.

The earliest written records we have of Christian faith come from Paul of Tarsus, who claimed to be an apostle even though he never met the historical Jesus. The basis of his claim was the fact that he, like the apostles who had lived with Jesus, had met the risen Lord. As we saw earlier, the form of Paul’s meeting was completely visionary; he saw a bright light and heard a voice. According to contradictory accounts attributed to him, the voice and light may or may not have been heard or seen by Paul’s companions. (Compare Acts 9:3-9 and 22: 6-21.)

Paul’s entries into the Christian testament all take the form of letters to home churches he had founded. The earliest of the letters dates from about the year 50 CE – approximately 15 years after Jesus’ crucifixion. None of Paul’s letters attempt to report what Jesus actually said or did before his death. Instead Paul presents a Jesus who was crucified, rose from the dead, and sent his Spirit. In other words, Paul completely ignores the historical Jesus. Consequently his letters are of no help to those interested in the topic at hand.

It was only about the year 70, as eyewitnesses of Jesus life were dying off that the Jesus tradition began to take written form. The Gospel of Mark came first. Mark’s work is usually dated between 65 and 70 – either shortly before or immediately after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and its temple in the culmination of the Jewish War (64-70).

As the inventor of the literary genre “gospel,” Mark was not attempting to write a life of Jesus. Neither were any of those who subsequently adopted Mark’s literary form. They all leave too much out for that to be their purpose. For instance, none of them tell us what Jesus looked like. In fact, Mark says nothing about Jesus till the Nazarene appears for baptism on the banks of the River Jordan. In that appearance, Jesus is a fully grown adult apparently about the age of 30. This means that Mark has no birth story about Jesus. Surprisingly, neither does he include any appearances of the risen Jesus. (Scholars agree that the appearance accounts in Chapter 16 of Mark are later additions.) This signifies that Mark either didn’t know of these events, or he didn’t think them important enough to include in his account!

Rather than lives of Jesus, “gospels” are faith documents. They are “propaganda” in the strict sense of the word – accounts to be propagated or spread abroad to convince readers of the transcendent significance of Jesus. In other words, the gospels are not objective accounts of what Jesus said and did. Instead they are faith testimonials. Their chapters might describe events perceived as miraculous and wonderful to the authors. However, those same events would not necessarily have been perceived as such by observers not sharing the faith of the gospel writers.

Mark’s gospel provided a basis for the gospels of Matthew and Luke. [These 3 gospels are often called “synoptic” (from the Greek meaning to share a viewpoint) since they are so similar.] Matthew wrote about 10 or 15 years after Mark. Luke’s gospel was published five or ten years after Matthew. Matthew was writing for a Jewish audience; Luke for one that was largely non-Jewish, i.e. gentile.

Since both Matthew and Luke include Greek translations of Jesus’ Aramaic words identical with Mark’s, scholars conclude Matthew and Luke directly copied much of Mark’s gospel. (Otherwise, as any translator knows, the Greek translations would not be identical.) Here and there both Matthew and Luke made changes in Mark’s accounts of Jesus’ words to adjust to their audiences and contexts. They also supplemented Mark’s account with their own material. For instance, both added birth and infancy stories along with genealogies (both of which greatly differ from one another). In addition, scholars posit that Matthew and Luke must have had access to a lost collection of Jesus’ sayings [called Quelle (the German word for source)]. Thus Matthew and Luke were working from Mark, from the Quelle, and from other material peculiar to each of them.

Besides the variations just noted, understandings of Jesus himself also differ greatly between Mark, Matthew and Luke. The differences between the three reveal a deepening understanding of Jesus’ identity as years went on. This is evident for instance if we compare the synoptics’ account of Jesus curing Peter’s mother-in-law. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus helps the woman from her bed and she is cured (1:29-31). In Matthew’s account, he merely touches her to effect the cure (8:14-15). In Luke’s version, a mere word from Jesus suffices; there is no physical contact (4:38-41).

The Gospel of John written between the years 90 and 100 CE, contains the most highly developed “Christology” (understanding of Jesus’ identity) of the four gospels in the Christian Testament. In John, time after time, Jesus is referred to as “I Am” – the very name of the Jewish God revealed to Moses. For instance, John has Jesus say, “Before Abraham was, I am” (Jn.8:58).  This means that unlike the synoptics John’s gospel describes a 3 stage Christology. He pictures a Jesus pre-existent in heaven, descending to earth, and then returning to heaven. Mark, Matthew and Luke understand Jesus as a 2 stage savior who lives as a human being and then ascends to heaven where he is established as Lord.

The problem is that over the centuries, John’s 3 stage [Logos (or Word of God) Christology] has swallowed up the other understandings. In the popular mind, this has created huge barriers for those wishing to contact the historical Jesus. That is, John’s writing provides the basis for understanding Jesus as a pre-existent God who merely pretended to be a human being. Of course, this approach makes pointless any quest of a human, historical Jesus.

Next Week: the Council of Nicaea erases the historical Jesus for good.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

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