Jesus the Little Known
|Icon of Jesus|
Jesus of Nazareth will undoubtedly be considered by many people has one of them most influential if not most influential person who ever lived. It is sad that this extraordinary influential person is one we know very little about. In real terms.
Aside from the school of thought that maintains that Jesus is entirely mythological1, which flies in the face of both common sense and the evidence. One of the most annoying tactics of this school of thought is to maintain that there is no evidence that Jesus existed. This is an absurd position if only for one simple reason. If there was no evidence Jesus existed then there would be no evidence for Jesus period. We would have no idea that anyone had ever thought Jesus had existed ever. Since we have the Gospel accounts and some various writings that refer to Jesus, (All after his death), we most certainly do have evidence that Jesus existed. What they mean to say is that, in their opinion, we have no convincing evidence that Jesus existed. That is a different kettle of fish and whether or not Jesus existed is not what I’m going to discuss today but put that off to another time. But of course asserting that there is no evidence that Jesus existed is a good polemical device although it is also misleading and simply false.
Given that, by far, the major sources about Jesus are the four Gospel accounts, although the Acts of the Apostles and the various letters provide some additional information it must be sadly noted that the accounts are by modern standards seriously deficient.
To go through the problems with the Gospel accounts in point form.
1. They are brief and as such actually provide very little information about Jesus.
2. Despite the fact that the four accounts are together brief; they are also repetitious and obviously copy each other. Thus Mark the earliest is clearly copied by Matthew and Luke and in effect Matthew and Luke are two different expanded versions of Mark. Even John clearly shows a strong dependence on Mark, Matthew and Luke.
3. John the most clearly independent of the four Gospels clearly shows in its very structure and content that where it is independent of the other three Gospels it is not giving a different tradition about Jesus but a revealed tradition, in other words a theological, philosophical Jesus, revealed Jesus. In other words anything in this Gospel independent of the other three cannot be taken seriously has dealing with the historical Jesus, even the teachings but into Jesus’ mouth in this Gospel cannot be used to understand what the “real” Jesus taught or thought because they are of the revealed Jesus created by the writer of the Gospel. Thus except where the Jesus of John agrees with the other three Gospels John cannot be taken seriously as history.
4. Even Mark, Matthew and Luke must be understood not as “objective” biography but as “good news”, designed to promote belief in Jesus and thus have a religious, theological purpose even these three Gospels must not be considered historical sources on par with say Tacitus, Suetonius and other ancient historians but theological, spiritual works designed to impart a “truth”.2
5. Thus it must be understood that the Gospels are quite obviously and overtly propaganda. Now propaganda is not the presentation of lies but the presentation of a point of view without the pretence of objectivity. This is most assuredly what we have with the Gospels.
So in the end what we have as the base historical source concerning Jesus is simply Mark.
Now several things must be said concerning the Gospel accounts.
1. Despite the one sided, propagandistic nature of what they were doing the Gospel writers, even including John, were not deliberately lying or creating a myth. Their basic honesty is simply not to be questioned.
2. The three Gospel accounts of Mark, Matthew and Luke were despite their theological, propagandistic purpose were attempts to give an account of the life of Jesus, despite their one sided nature.
For example in Mark we have Jesus responding to a question with the comment “Call me not good, for only God is good”3. That is a clear statement by Jesus denying his Godhood and even being the Messiah. The fact that it is in Mark’s Gospel, a true believer, indicates a certain honesty in putting the material together. Further the simple fact that Mark has Jesus repeatedly tell his disciples to keep the fact he is the Messiah a secret indicates that perhaps Jesus never publicly told anyone he was the Messiah, but since Mark thought Jesus was the Messiah he assumes it was secret knowledge.
It is of interest to note that Jesus keeping his Messiahship a secret doesn’t exist in the other three Gospels.
However there is a considerable overlap between the Gospels concerning what Jesus taught, (With the exception of John, whose teaching of Jesus cannot be taken seriously as anything like the real teachings of Jesus, however interesting, even brilliant they are as theology.), so we can say something about Jesus’ teachings. However a few problems arise.
1. Jesus’ teachings as preserved in the three Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke are very brief and as mentioned above there is massive repetition between the Gospels.
2. There is a certain degree of contradiction in the teaching. For example there is the Jesus meek and mild of some passages and then the wrathful prophet of the end times.
3. The three Gospel accounts (Matthew, Mark, Luke) of Jesus’ teachings in some respects provide contradictory versions and interpretations of his teachings.
For example Matthew has Jesus saying “Blessed are the poor in Spirit”, whereas Luke as “Blessed are the poor”, that is not a minor difference it is in fact a major one. We have also things like “Blessed are the peacemakers” and then “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the world. No, I did not come to bring peace, but a sword!”.4
It is generally accepted that before the Gospel accounts were written there was a sayings or “Q” Gospel. This was a collection of Jesus’ sayings, and parables. Since it appears that Jesus was fond of saying things in parablic form which had multiple possible meanings and that the “Q” being a collection of sayings without context or explanation it is not surprising that explanations of what Jesus “really” meant would emerge.5
Regarding Jesus’ birth and life and especially his death little can be said, except that prophecy became his life and so did legend. The most substantial record of his actual doings is his death and frankly aside from his crucifixion under Pontius Pilate little substantial or historical can be said about his trial and death. Much can be said, the great majority positive, of the solace and hope that people have found in the life, teachings and death / resurrection of Jesus.
In the end Jesus remains an enigma.
1. See for example Ellegard, Alvar, Jesus One Hundred Years Before Christ, A Study in Creative Mythology, Century, London, 1999.
2. See for example Boulton, David, Who on Earth was Jesus?, O Books, Winchester UK, 2008, pp. 40-80, Crossan, John Dominic, The Historical Jesus, HarperCollins, New York, 1991, pp. 227-264, Crossan, John Dominic, Who Killed Jesus?, HarperCollins, New York, 1995, pp. 1-38, 82-117, 211-221, Vermes, Geza, Jesus the Jew, Fontana/Collins, London, 1973, pp. 18-82, Pelikan, Jaroslav, Jesus through the Centuries, Perennial, New York, 1985, pp. 1-20.
3. Mark, ch. 10 v. 18.
4.Sources in order, Matthew, ch. 5 v. 3, Luke, ch. 6 v. 20, Matthew, ch. 5. v. 9, Matthew, ch. 10 v.34.
5. Regarding “Q” see Boulton, pp. 81-87, 89, 245, Crossan, 1995, pp. 25-27, 1991, pp. 255-256, 326-367.