Real Bible Studies: The Gospels

While most are familiar with the four canonical gospels found in the Bible, early Christianity produced many gospels, one for just about every notable follower of Jesus. The Gnostics were some of the most prolific in this endeavor, issuing gospels for Peter, Thomas, Mary Magdalene, and even Judas Iscariot. There are surviving relicts of the Gospel of Nicodemus — named for the well-to-do follower who offered his tomb for Jesus to be buried — which has many points in common with Matthew. There’s an Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which depicts the young Jesus as a precocious child able to resurrect a friend who died accidentally and give life to clay figurines of birds he crafted from mud.

Scholars have known of the existence of these alternate gospels for centuries, having found fragments of them throughout history. Church commentary from the second and third centuries mentions a number of early Christian texts, and offers judgment on their authenticity. The now lost Secret Gospel of Mark was cited in a letter attributed to Clement of Alexandria, an early church father, who said it was authoritative, but dangerous for average followers to read. He suggested it should be suppressed by the Church.

Early congregations seem to have derived their authority from association with one of the apostles. The gospels they produced reflect this, as most are attributed to a disciple. The author of John, for instance, claims to be the “beloved disciple” described in the gospel. Each narrative gives clues to that congregations’ interpretation of Jesus’s character, message, and mission. Several of the canonical gospels have points in common with other writing that was rejected for inclusion in the official canon. Thomas shares many similarities with Mark, Matthew and Luke. The Gospel of John has many characteristics in common with Gnostic texts in how Jesus is depicted and how his message imparts secret knowledge on his followers. The Internet site gnosis.org has preserved a number of these offerings, including the Gospel of Mary and fragments of the Gospels of Thomas and Judas.

Christian authors from the second and third centuries produced a wide variety of writing: travelogues, apocalypses, acts, and letters from apostles, most of which were deemed non-canonical or heretical by the early church. One series of tales, The Acts of Paul and Thecla, is said to have involved a young woman who accompanied Paul in his travels and preached to followers, which seems unlikely, given Paul’s stated disdain for women in leadership positions in the congregation. Sources suggest these tales were very popular among early believers nonetheless.

Discovery of the library of scrolls near Nag Hammadi, Egypt in 1945 yielded a treasure trove of non-canonical early Christian texts, including a nearly intact version of the Gospel of Thomas. Other collections of works, believed to have been preserved by the Essenes, including the Dead Sea Scrolls, have been discovered throughout the Middle East over the years. These give us insight about the development of Christianity and its precursors and the many divergent viewpoints about it that existed in the ancient world, before the establishment of an official Christian canon in the fourth century led to the suppression or destruction of any document that disagreed with it.

The Christian New Testament is organized to feature the four Gospels, starting with Matthew, followed by Acts, then the Epistles of Paul and other notable letters, ending with John’s Apocalypse or Revelation. Scholars agree that the earliest known Christian writings are Paul’s letters to the churches he founded, dated to around 50 CE. The acknowledged first gospel, that of Mark, is believed to have been written in Rome at least twenty years after Paul’s epistles, and following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans. The authors of Matthew and Luke had access to Mark, and copied most of it in crafting their gospels. These three are referred to as the Synoptic Gospels, since they have a high degree of narrative similarity. The Gospel of John is believed to have been produced by an isolated sect, and has many differences to those based on Mark.

The authors of Matthew and Luke also had access to differing supplemental materials, which accounts for differences between these narratives. The author of Luke appears also to have been responsible for Acts of the Apostles, owing to similarities in the writing style. Matthew and Luke include infancy narratives, which differ on a number of points, notably the genealogy of Jesus. Matthew’s genealogy matches the style found throughout the so-called Old Testament, of showing the line of descent from a patriarch, while Luke works backward from Joseph and includes different ancestors. Mark and John begin at the start of Jesus’s ministry and provide scant details about his early life.

One thing that can be gleaned from the canonical and many of the non-canonical gospels is that John the Baptist must have been considered a towering figure in first century Palestine. All the canonical Gospels pay homage to him. This suggests remnants of John’s movement were still active when the earliest Gospels were written and that the writers believed Jesus’s movement gained some of its authority by being an outgrowth of John’s. Mark, in fact, states that Jesus did not begin his ministry until after John had been taken into custody and has John’s followers question Jesus on whether he’s the person John spoke of in his sermons. When questioned by the Pharisees about his authority, Jesus invokes John’s baptism ministry, asking if it was of God or of man. Luke even goes so far as to make John Jesus’s first cousin, a characterization not supported by the other Gospels.

Matthew apparently did not regard Mark as the inerrant word of God, since there are several points in Matthew where the author corrects errors Mark made in locations, proximities, place names, or phrases. The most notable point is during the crucifixion, in relating Jesus’s last words on the cross. Both note that Jesus quoted the words of Psalms 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” but Mark renders them as, “E′lo-i, E′lo-i, la′ma sabach-tha′ni?” (Mark 15:34 RSV) while Matthew states they were, “Eli, Eli, la′ma sabach-tha′ni?” (Matthew 27:46 RSV). Scholars believe Mark was written by an early Christian follower in Rome who had very little first-hand knowledge of Palestine and that Matthew was written by an educated Jewish scribe in Alexandria, Egypt who was acquainted with Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside.

The Gospels give us many subtle clues about Jesus. For instance, the authorities couldn’t recognize him. The reason Judas had to identify Jesus with a kiss is because the people going to arrest him didn’t know what he looked like. Also, Jesus engineers his own capture, telling the disciples how he will reveal who his betrayer will be when they ask, and telling Judas as he dismisses him after supper, “That which you must do, do it quickly.” The Gnostics, in their Gospel of Judas, have Jesus encourage Judas to turn him in so he can be crucified and return to his heavenly state, thus completing his earthly mission. Accordingly, the Gnostics revered Judas almost as much as Jesus.

There’s evidence that the authors of the Gospels, or later editors, wanted to downplay Rome’s role in what happened to Jesus. While Mark gives a quick retelling of Jesus’s interaction with Pontius Pilate, in Matthew, Luke, and John, Pilate is depicted as a humble civil servant, caught between a rock and a hard place when faced with the difficult task of condemning a man he believes to be innocent to the worst punishment Rome meted out against criminals. History paints a much different picture of Pilate, that of a corrupt politician who antagonized the people he was sent to govern and who made such a mess of his time as Procurator in Jerusalem that only his friendship with Emperor Tiberius saved him. Many of the uprisings in Jerusalem came about because of the harsh policies enacted by Pilate. The notion of Pilate being intimidated into crucifying Jesus because of the hostile reaction of the mob stands in stark contrast to a brutal Roman official with legions of soldiers at his beck and call, who would have made short work of the rowdy crowd of mostly unarmed civilians.

The very nature of Jesus’s punishment speaks to the crime he was accused of committing. Crucifixion was an agonizing sentence, where the individual was hung up on a crossbeam, making it difficult to breathe, until the pressure on his chest asphyxiated him. Sometimes it could take days. The victim had a beam or perch on which he could place his feet to relieve the pressure on his chest, and the practice of breaking the victim’s legs, as described in the Gospels, was to prevent the victim from doing this, thereby hastening death. This sentence was reserved for people who had committed the worst offense against Rome, open rebellion. Spartacus and his co-conspirators suffered a similar fate.

The representations of crucifixion known to modern believers are probably not accurate. The cross as we know it appears to be an attempt to reconcile religious iconography with the story of Jesus. The symbol of the cross predates this Roman method of capital punishment by thousands of years, as do many other traditions, such as observing the times of the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox as holy days. Looking at a zodiac, which is rendered as a circle, drawing a line between the equinoxes and another between the solstices produces a cross. The Egyptian ankh is an example of a cross that appeared a thousand or more years before Jesus walked the Earth.

Instead, the Romans probably used a scaffolding system that could accommodate many individuals at once. The Romans were some of the greatest engineers the world has ever known, and many of their building materials and techniques have been lost to history. We know, for instance, that the concrete they used was much more robust than what we use today. Structures made with it are still standing after thousands of years, and Roman concrete could apparently set under water. They would have brought the same innovation to capital punishment, and they crucified a lot of people. The rebellion Spartacus instigated led to hundreds of insurrectionists being crucified in retaliation. The Romans would have employed a platform that could be reused rather than the single use structure depicted in Christian iconography. This explains how Jesus was crucified between two insurrectionists; he was hoisted up on the scaffolding between them.

One of the earliest debates in the emerging Christian church involved the divinity of Jesus, namely, was Jesus a man who became a god or a god who assumed human form. The Gnostics clearly favored the latter characterization. The canonical Gospels, on the other hand, do not give a clear answer to this question. In Mark, Jesus always speaks of the Son of Man in third person and is shown growing frustrated with his followers when they fail to grasp the subtleties of his message. He’s angered to the point of violence by the money changers in the temple. Matthew and Luke make Jesus’s conception a divine occurrence, while John depicts Jesus as a God manifest on Earth, who, from the beginning, knows who he is and what he’s there to accomplish, which has a similar tone to Gnostic writing.

As important as what’s in the gospels, what’s left out is of equal import. In the episodes in the temple there’s a definite sense that more is happening than is being related by the author. Most of Jesus’s pronouncements are about the messiah or the kingdom of heaven. The Temple officials question Jesus and are very cautious in what they say to him and how they answer his inquiries to them. In several of his interactions with individuals and crowds while making his way around Palestine, people ask him to leave the area when they learn of his presence, or are counseled to tell no one about what they’ve witnessed Jesus do.

What I find most striking about the canonical Gospels is that none of them provide an eye witness account of Jesus’s resurrection, the single, defining event in all of Christianity. They all state the tomb was empty when Jesus’s followers arrived. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul says that if Christ is not risen Christian faith is meaningless, and yet, no one in the gospels sees Jesus rise from the dead and walk away from the tomb.

The gospels also can’t agree on who went to the tomb and what happened when they arrived. Mark states that the women went first thing in the morning on the day following the Sabbath, and found the stone already rolled away from the entrance. Matthew tells us the stone was rolled away after the women arrived and they witnessed it. Mark says that a mysterious man wearing white tells the women Jesus has risen and for them to inform the apostles and they respond by running away, afraid. Matthew, on the other hand, states it was an angel who told them, after rolling away the stone, and they did as the angel instructed them. John says Mary Magdalene went alone and encountered a man she didn’t recognize but who turns out to be Jesus, thus making her the first person Jesus reveals himself to after rising from the grave. This is another theme in common with the Gnostics, who regarded Mary as the chief apostle instead of Peter. These are not alternate gospels, these are the works that the Church deemed worthy of inclusion in their official canon and are intended as the authoritative documents of the Church.

The trial before Pilate is another area of disagreement. Mark simply states that Pilate asked who Jesus was and Jesus was silent. John says Jesus and Pilate had a lengthy discussion about the nature of truth. Matthew and Luke provide accounts somewhere in between. Matthew, perhaps unwittingly, sets in motion centuries of anti-Semitism by having the crowd — identified as “the Jews” in many translations — take upon themselves responsibly for Jesus’s death when Pilate washes his hands. Readers should be aware, however, that Matthew was a Jew writing for other Jews, so his criticism would have been directed toward an opposing faction, such as the Sadducees or Pharisees, and not intended as condemnation of an entire population.

There’s strong textual evidence that Mark was originally meant as an allegory warning against Messianic movements. The Jesus of Mark may have been a composite of several individuals whose movements were similar. The historian, Josephus, describes several insurrections against Rome, including one led by an individual called “the Egyptian” who performed miracles. Matthew has Jesus’s family flee to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath.

It’s also possible that some of the stories about Jesus were originally about John. The name “Yeshua” which the Greeks Hellenized as “Jesus” is the Hebrew equivalent of Joshua, the hero who led the conquest of Canaan. The name could have been a title: Yeshua, Bar Abbas or Joshua, Son of God. In places, Matthew reads like a satire commenting on how Yeshua Bar Abbas, a failed Messianic contender, became the dying and resurrected savior king at the center of a Pagan mystery religion. Matthew, in fact, gives away the whole game by letting readers know that the “Barabbas” released by Pilate in his gospel was also named Jesus. So, Matthew is saying that Pilate gave the crowd the choice of releasing “Joshua, son of God” or “Joshua, son of God”. Matthew seems to be hiding, in plain sight, that the charismatic religious figure and the violent insurrectionist were, in fact, the same person.

Matthew also uses mention of the rumors surrounding Jesus’s resurrection to inform readers of the doubts caused by it. The writer states that the guards at the tomb were paid to say Jesus’s followers stole his body, even though this had not been implied in the Gospel. In other words, Matthew is using the satirical device of trumpeting the rumor by refuting it. One can assume the intended audience knew of these rumors, so the author is giving a wink to his readers.

Oscar Wilde states that “All art is at once surface and symbol” and that those who ignore the symbol “do so at their own peril”. Jesus states in the gospels that he speaks in parables to the masses and reveals the true meaning only to his closest followers. Much of the Bible is allegorical, meaning the audience should read between the lines. Those for whom the Gospels were written knew this, and probably analyzed each passage for hidden meaning. Since reading and writing were specialized skills — the equivalent of modern “word processing” — those capable of reading would have been relatively few and among the elite. In this age of near-universal literacy, we find it hard to fathom that at one time, being able to read was the exception, not the rule. Surviving Gnostic texts are a testament to this, as they are full of allegorical and contradictory passages.

The authors of the gospels had specific messages they intended to convey to a specific group of people, who would have understood what the author was trying to say; we don’t. We only have the surface, not the underlying symbol, nor the cultural background necessary to decode the hidden meaning. Much of language is unspoken, such as cultural norms and generalized knowledge, which would have been taken for granted by early readers. Emojis and acronyms common to Internet users, such as “LOL” are examples of references known to a specific group of people, namely those who communicate via text or email. To people unfamiliar with this method of communication, the meaning will be lost. The same could be said about the Gospels.

Those who wrote the Gospels would have been among the better educated members of society and appear to have had access to a wide variety of sources. It is highly unlikely such knowledge would have been possessed by a working class group of fishermen or craftsmen from Galilee. The fact that Matthew and Luke used Mark’s gospel in forming theirs, suggests it was well known and widely distributed. It’s possible both utilized material in the Library at Alexandria. The earliest versions of the Gospels were written in Greek, which poorly educated fishermen or craftsmen in Galilee would have been unable to speak or write.

The static words on the page do not contain the inflections of a speaker, and how a person reads a text is as important, if not more important, than what’s written. Most early Christian writing, such as the Epistles of Paul, was in the form of letters that would have been read to a congregation. How the speaker read it would have made a huge difference in how it was perceived by the audience. We don’t have that. All we have are the static words on the page, and given how many translations of the Gospels are out there, we don’t even have total agreement on what the words themselves say, only what a given scholar says is stated.

This is not intended to diminish the impact of these works, just to remind everyone that the Gospels were different interpretations of a given set of facts, the details of which have largely been lost to modern readers, and tailored for a specific audience. It is up to each individual to determine the meaning these works have for that person, knowing that someone else will most likely have a different interpretation.

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