As Miriam A. Ferguson, governor of Texas, is reputed to have declared in the 1920s, “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it ought to be good enough for the children of Texas.” Jesus clearly spoke Elizabethan English… it’s in the Bible, after all. There are some things we just take for granted.
Interpretation is a powerful tool (often misused as a hammer). To revisit a previous post, there are some 5800 manuscripts of the New Testament, hand-written between the 2nd and 16th Centuries, and no two among the 5800 are identical. Assumption is a consequence of not knowing what you don’t — some 80 generations of transcriptions and interpretations, translations and re-interpretations (and sometimes mistranscriptions of those mistranslations) has left us with the collateral effect that people think they know what they don’t, and don’t know what they thought. There is an argument to be made — and I think it’s a good one — that if one does not understand the context of something, one can never hope to truly understand the thing in question. And there is perhaps no influence in the history of mankind that is cited out of context more than the Bible. The Bible is like a supermarket tabloid headline seen for a moment and hours later vaguely remembered as fact without any consideration of sources behind such a claim. A few bullet points challenging old assumptions…
- What was the first New Testament book written? It was not any of the Gospels (which came late in the tradition), but the letter we know today as First Thessalonians (though there is a valid argument for Galatians, which had to have come very early or very late in Paul’s career).
- Who says the Resurrection lasted 40 days? One single unknown author writing some 60 years after the fact mentioned it once (Acts 1:3), and that alone is where the notion came from.
- Who said Jesus was 33 at the time of death? No one; it was simply an assumption which persists today. The only suggestion of his age in the entirety of the New Testament was a line in Luke (3:23) suggesting “that Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his public ministry.”
- Who ever said Jesus was a carpenter? No one; this assumption seems to have derived from a single transcription error in Mark.
- Was Jesus even his name? Not really; at least he wouldn’t have recognized it.
- When did Jesus first appear in any surviving written record, including New Testament texts? Not before 49 or 50 AD, some 20 years after his lifetime.
- What was the only gospel to not feature any demons? John.
- In which gospel does one find the Star of Bethlehem? Only in Matthew.
- Where does one find the birth in a manger? Only in Luke.
- Are two of the gospels simply plagiarisms of a third? Yes… but there were no lawsuits for such things in the 1st Century.
I began my career as the resident “in-house” fact-checker at a state archives; separating facts from anecdotes was what I did on a daily basis. The first step in this process is to discard anything and everything previously assumed and to consult the primary sources. If there are no primary sources — which happens — one then must resort to the earliest secondary sources and attempt to rebuild a narrative from there. By this method one may construct a better understanding of how and when certain elements of embellishment were introduced and better differentiate fact from storytelling. And make no mistake, all stories are subject and victim to embellishment. Honestly, it was a rude awakening to this then-naive 23 year-old to see how inaccurate 19th Century history books were about the 18th Century — and that’s a gap of less than a single lifetime; so what about a gulf of 80 generations? The history-of-old relied more on anecdote than documentation; colored further with biases and spin, the result is mythology. It is probably fair to say that many people learned their Bible stories not from the Bible, but from children’s storybooks about the Bible, which just adds another level of embellishment from the source. (Even when consulting the source it’s worth noting that when one reads the New Testament in order, one is decidedly NOT reading the New Testament in order.) Here then, are just a few examples of better understanding context and separating facts:
10. Image Not Found. There is no picture or description of Jesus. One of the obvious problems with finding His image in a grilled cheese sandwich is that there is nothing to suggest he looked like that to begin with. Today’s image of Jesus was adopted through convention, based entirely on tradition, and much like the idea that he died at age 33 it is a tradition based on thin air. This same issue arises with the Shroud of Turin; one of the problems with it — other than the fact that carbon dating suggests it was created between 1260 and 1390… AND the fact that the face in question is inappropriately European — is that there is nothing in the record to suggest that Jesus looked like this. What one finds on the Shroud is an iconic depiction of Jesus as he would have been imagined to look by late-Medieval European conventions, and this convenience must not be overlooked. In short, who says Jesus looked like… Jesus? There is no physical description of Jesus in the New Testament; not in the Gospels or Epistles, nor were there any known depictions of him in art for the next two hundred years. Whether tall or short, hair color/length, no comment was made of physical characteristics, and indeed an argument can be made that had he stuck out in any way (… or looked as distinctly European as the Shroud might suggest) why would it have been necessary for Judas to point him out to the Jewish authorities?
The earliest depictions of Jesus in art arose out of the 3rd and 4th Centuries, more than two hundred years after his death. As demonstrated in the image above that opens this post, he was typically depicted as a beardless youth; the Jesus in art did not obtain a beard until the period between the 4th and 6th Centuries, as first demonstrated in the “Christ in Majesty” and “Pantocrator” motifs of Byzantine and Eastern art; thereafter, as his beard grew so did his hair. By the 8th Century some Eastern depictions had the flowing locks that are still associated with him today, while European art took another couple of centuries to fall into line. In short, the bearded, flowing-hair Jesus that we see in tradition today ultimately traces its origins to the Byzantine “Pantocrator” depictions of the 6th to 8th Centuries. It took several hundred years for Jesus to look like “Jesus” (…which, knowing what we do now of 1st Century Palestine, probably looked nothing like Jesus).
In regards to long hair, it is worth noting that in the 1st Century Paul dismissed long hair on men as “disgraceful” (First Corinthians 11:14), which does not necessarily mean Jesus did not have long hair but might suggest it was unlikely.
9. About the authors. There were three leaders of the early Jesus Movement — Peter (the Apostle described as “Cephas,” or “the Rock”); James, the “brother of the Lord” (according to Mark and Matthew, one of Jesus’ four brothers); and Saul/Paul, a relatively late convert to the Jesus Movement, in the mid-to-late 30s AD. Even a casual reader of Paul knows that he did not quite see eye to eye with Peter and James. “When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face,” Paul wrote in Galatians 2:11, angry at what he viewed as Peter’s hypocrisy. Paul spent much of the 50s in Asia Minor establishing congregations and collecting monies, during which time perhaps Peter and James might have imagined they were marginalizing him and his influence. But it was Paul’s successful marketing-of-message and letter-writing campaign that would go on to form the basis of the faith. The letters of Paul form the backbone of the New Testament.
As to the other two leaders of the movement: there are only two letters attributed to Peter within the New Testament, whether or not they were actually penned by him is subject to debate — First Peter is generally regarded as potentially authentic, Second Peter is not — but in Acts 4:13, Peter is described as illiterate. Similarly, there is only one letter in the New Testament attributed to James, but its date and authorship (“the” James versus a random James), is very much in question. It is interesting and ironic that of the three leaders, it was neither Peter nor James who provided the framework for the Christian faith as it exists today, but Paul… the outsider, and the only one of the three who — by his own admission — never personally knew any living Jesus.
8. Any second now. We may not think often today of its apocalyptic beginnings, but the Jesus Movement was just one of countless apocalyptic cults arising in the Judean wilderness of 1st Century Palestine, and as such the early Jesus Movement’s founders fully expected a literal end of the world within their lifetime. Its apocalyptic nature can still be found throughout Paul’s letters. One example is in First Corinthians, as Paul responds to a question of whether or not young people should be permitted to marry with a lengthy refrain that there simply wasn’t much time before the end came. “The appointed time has grown very short,” he warned (7:25 – 29). “Let us not neglect our church meetings,” he exhorted in Hebrews 10:25, “especially now that the day of his coming back again is drawing near.” Peter, too, sounded a little like a man on today’s street corner holding a sign. “The end of all things is near. Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray.“ (First Peter 4:7)
Of course, the most cited example of Paul’s insistence of the end of days is what we call today the Rapture. People confuse the Rapture with something in Revelations, but the Rapture is a brief passage contained within Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians:
“15 According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.“ (First Thessalonians 4:15 – 17)
First Thessalonians is possibly the oldest surviving writing by Paul, generally regarded as written between 49 and 52 AD. It must be understood that Paul was writing to a community that had believed that Jesus would return within their lifetime, only to see members start dying off in the meantime. His letter was intended to assure his congregation that even those who had just recently passed away would be taken too, in addition to the “we who are still alive.” Taken out of this context today, the Rapture, conflated with Revelations, now strikes one as some dark and twisted, bizarre worldwide zombie awakening.
7. What did Paul know and when did he know it? The letters of Paul do emerge as a crucial tool for understanding pre-Gospel Christianity in that they represent the closest written source to the time of Jesus and provide, really, an unparalleled access into the “think-tank” of the early Jesus Movement. Anyone who hopes to put early Christianity in context has to pore through the letters of Paul before even considering picking up a gospel… Paul is the “patient zero” of the New Testament.
Paul’s Epistles comprise essentially one-third of the New Testament. There are 13 letters attributed to Paul; it should be understood that scholarly consensus today contends that 7 of the 13 are authentic — which is to say that seven of these letters were indeed written by Paul — while 6 are regarded as “less authentic” and whose authorship is subject to debate. But whether 7 or 13, our author Paul — the architect of one-third of the New Testament — actually says very little about Jesus or his life. In none of these letters does Paul ever quote any proverb of his Jesus’ lifetime, nor does he ever cite a single miracle of his living ministry; indeed, Paul makes no specific reference to Jesus’ life at all prior to the events of the Last Supper. The three-plus decades before Jesus’ last 24 hours do not factor into Paul’s writing; and quite frankly, in Paul’s time many of these details and traditions that would later be associated with Jesus simply were not yet in place. The sacrifice and salvation of Jesus is what interested Paul, and that was the message he wanted to spread. Even the Resurrection is referred to as an abstraction, which to be fair, is not unlike the gospels. The gospels will dedicate full pages — in fact, entire chapters — to a single sermon of Jesus but gloss over the Resurrection — if true, the most miraculous event in the history of the world — with a few broad strokes or a solitary chapter. In reading the letters of Paul, one might be tempted to dismiss any resurrection as a complete abstraction but for the fact that Paul does make one specific reference (First Corinthians 15:1 – 8) which is interesting:
“Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. 3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas [Peter], and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”
This marks Paul’s only specific remark in his letters regarding the Resurrection, and it is curious that the “more than five hundred” episode to which he refers above is an account that is not found in any of the gospels. In addition, one might also observe that Paul includes his encounter on the Road to Damascus a few years later as one of Jesus’ appearances; our modern-day interpretation of the Resurrection lasting “forty days” is a later tradition that derives solely from one lone line of text in Acts 1:3… there is NO other source making this claim in the New Testament. Paul knew nothing of a Resurrection confined to forty days.
6. Emergence of the Gospels. So the earliest and oldest surviving Christian writings in the Bible are the letters of Paul, written in the 50s AD… but Paul doesn’t have much to offer in terms of a Jesus biography. The first stories ABOUT Jesus don’t find their way to print until four decades after Jesus’ death. Since the 19th Century scholarly consensus has maintained that Mark’s was the first gospel penned, sometime around 70 AD, with the other three following over the next three decades, give or take. This means that more than a generation passed between the death of Jesus and the authorship of the earliest narrative gospel, and the better part of a century before John’s Gospel. The gospels emerged out of the decades between the two Jewish revolts against Rome (66-70 AD and 132-136 AD) and arose from the vacuum left by the deaths of the founding generation of Peter, Paul, etc.. (Despite stories that would later arise around Peter’s martyrdom, we do not know exactly when or how Paul or Peter died.) The modern scholarly consensus is that the four gospels of the New Testament were not first-hand accounts, nor were they necessarily penned by the men for whom they are named. It is entirely possible that earlier proto-gospels may have been just “sayings” gospels; the Gospel of Thomas (rediscovered in the 1890s and at Nag Hammadi in 1945) and the theoretical (but lost) “Q” Gospel — which provided many of the sayings found in Matthew and Luke — suggest such a possibility. The narrative template (Jesus’ “life story”) however, seems to have first arisen with Mark.
- Paul’s letters — oldest Jesus-related writings — written in the 50s AD
- The Gospel of Mark — post-1st Jewish Revolt period, about or after 70 AD
- The Gospels of Matthew and Luke — between 85 and 95 AD
- The Gospel of John — around 100 AD, additional material added later (?)
The Gospels were romance tales, to what degree any of them are historically accurate would hinge almost entirely on Mark. The Gospel of Mark was the “first draft” of the story. Mark is the first, shortest, simplest and most crudely written of the gospels, but Mark provided the model and the template — directly or indirectly — for the other three. A dark story, it is very much in keeping with Pauline thought, emphasizing sacrifice and struggle. In Mark, Jesus is a healer and exorcist; the author of the gospel was either unaware or uninterested in the “Q” source material, so Jesus is not the gifted orator that would characterize the later gospels; his longest single passage/sermon lasts 40 sentences. Mark’s Jesus is a man overtaken by events; he’s eccentric, moody, cryptic and inflammatory; early in his ministry (Mark 3) his family is convinced he’s lost his senses. His mother and his brothers come to drag him away, but he ignores their efforts. Jesus is on a mission, it’s poignant that in Mark no one — not his family nor even his disciples — ever “get” what he’s talking about.
The life narratives used in Matthew and Luke were not separate witness accounts but were simply transcriptions from Mark, slightly modified, and supplemented with dialogue from the “Q” source. They were essentially “second-draft Mark,” smoothing over the tonal inconsistencies and “fixing” some of Mark’s narrative shortcomings along the way. The Gospel of Matthew was written for a Jewish community, this is the gospel of the Jewish Jesus; anyone familiar with the Old Testament would have had an easier time relating to it; Matthew’s Gospel was focused on fulfilling Scripture, and Jesus is cast in the role of a New Moses. A good example of how Matthew tries to “fix” a narrative shortcoming in Mark: in Mark, Jesus finds himself unable to perform miracles when he returns to Nazareth; he falls victim to a kind of stage fright. Matthew’s author makes it clear that he chooses not to perform miracles at Nazareth because of all the unbelievers in his hometown.
Matthew wastes little time in putting the “Q” sayings to use; the Sermon on the Mount occupies three early chapters (5-7) as Jesus dispatches wisdom and the Law in a setting not unlike Moses from the mountaintop. These early chapters in Matthew offer a more accessible introduction to Jesus than Mark, which begins with an inscrutable and slightly oddball protagonist exorcising demons up and down the Judaean countryside.
The sources for Matthew and Luke:
These “Q” sayings become the Sermon on the Plain in Luke. The author of the Gospel of Luke was probably a physician, his gospel was written for a non-Jewish, Grecco-Roman audience. He also wrote Acts; though broken up in the New Testament today, Luke/Acts was intended as a seamless two-act literary work. The Jesus that Luke presents is the Serene Jesus; in Mark Jesus is erratic and often irritated or downright angry, but the Jesus of Luke is mild and unflappable. Another example of how a subsequent gospel “fixes” Mark can be found in Luke’s Passion: in Mark, Jesus is silent after conviction, silent during crucifixion, silent as he is mocked by the adjacent criminals (BOTH of them); the only line he speaks in the ENTIRETY of the crucifixion sequence in Mark is the impassioned “Eloi eloi, lama sabachthani?” This dramatizes the despair and dark quality of Mark. In contrast, Luke’s narrative has Jesus stopping by the side of the road to implore the women not to weep for him, asking God to forgive those who are nailing him to the cross, making friends with one of the criminals beside him and never does he cry out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me,” but instead he gracefully exits with “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” This is a different narrative Jesus and presents a fascinating contrast. In Mark, he’s out of control. In Luke, he’s not only in control, he’s friendly, sympathetic and even oddly conversational.
Matthew and Luke also introduce a reader to those more exotic elements of the story that are iconic today, i.e., the Nativity and Resurrection narratives. The original version of Mark had no Resurrection per se, but ended ambiguously (more on this in #4 below). Seen as extensions of Mark, Matthew and Luke flesh out its threadbare story and book-end the narrative with decisive, clear-cut beginnings and endings while also abandoning Mark’s ambiguity. Mark’s gospel suggests what Matthew and Luke state bluntly.
Unlike Matthew and Luke, the Gospel of John is not a rewrite of Mark, but a thorough re-imagining, with a clearly Eastern influence. Certainly to the modern reader Mark — with its never-ending gallery of demons and possessed people — is difficult to view seriously; John’s narrative is a bit more sophisticated, and never does a demon rear its head in John. John introduces a few different disciples (Nathanael, Jude, etc.) and reorganizes some of the old Synoptic narratives. For example: The “Cleansing of the Temple” in Jerusalem (the episode also known as “Jesus and the money changers”) is one of the few episodes to appear in all four gospels — in Mark, Matthew and Luke it occurs in the final week of Jesus’ life and is what brings him to the attention of the authorities; in no small way it is ultimately one of the reasons he is put to death. The author of John, however, shifts it to the first act of his ministry (John 2:13 – 16), and the affair passes without consequence.
John also introduces the reader to a handful of decidedly different narratives and stories, some of which were demonstrably later inventions, like the “Pericope Adulterae” (see #4) and the interview with Nicodemus, which takes up all of John 3 and hinges on a clever double entendre (“born again/born from above”) that only works in the Greek in which these manuscripts were written… when tellingly, both would have been speaking Aramaic. John may have been the most “open-source” version of the four gospels, in that this gospel does show glaring evidence of marked insertions by later contributors (7:53 – 8:11, all of 21). Even as late as the 5th Century it appears that stories were still being added to the canon of John.
By the writing of this fourth gospel, Jesus is self-assured and incredibly eloquent; his longest soliloquy runs three entire chapters (14-17, more than 150 sentences). This is the gospel of the Divine Jesus; here he is no longer man but God on earth. It is probably safe to say that when one thinks of Jesus today it is this meditative and all-knowing Jesus found in John or Luke that one pictures, and not the capricious and brusque Jesus of Mark. (After all, in Mark 1:29 – 31, Jesus is invited to Peter’s house and heals his mother-in-law of a fever, she then gets up and fixes them all dinner… though this is later found in Matthew and Luke, the ambiguity in Mark suggests that he heals her SO that she can feed them… a darkly humorous inference that one could only find in Mark) As anyone who has read Mark and John back-to-back might attest, it’s hard to reconcile the Jesus of Mark with the Jesus of John (and remember, 30 to 40 years separate the writing of the two). But two themes that do reoccur from Mark: Jesus’ family is once again portrayed as antagonistic toward his ministry (he’s taunted by his brothers in John 7), and the author of John does not make any use of the “Q” source. In lieu of the “Q” sayings, John introduces Jesus’ seven “I am…” declarations (“I am the Bread of Life,” “I am the Light of the World,” “I am the Gate,” “I am the Good Shepherd,” “I am the Resurrection and the Life,” “I am the Way, the Truth and the Light” and “I am the Vine”). The idea that Jesus says far more in the gospel that is furthest removed from his lifetime could be seen as emblematic of myth-building… after all, it seems unlikely that dialogue would survive verbatim for 70-80 years, by the time of the writing of John.
The narrative of Jesus, then, may be seen like a game of Telephone, in which each author added their own particular slant or spin, each owing a debt to the less-developed tradition that preceded it, before which the trail disappears into the abstraction of Paul’s letters, possible oral traditions and lost sayings gospels; no writing of Jesus during his lifetime exists.
It’s worth noting that in the past two centuries additional non-canonical gospels have been rediscovered, though with the exception of the aforementioned Gospel of Thomas, all are incomplete. These gnostic gospels tend to be less counterpart and more counterpoint to their canonical brethren, anti-establishment reactions challenging the interpretations offered by Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. In many ways they are like the opposing opinion offered against the Editorial on the Editorial Page. The Gospel of Philip emerged with Thomas at Nag Hammadi, the Gospel of Judas in the 1970s, the Gospel of Mary [Magdalene] in the late 19th Century, the same period which saw the discovery of the Gospel of Peter. Only the last portion of the Gospel of Peter survives; in it Herod, not Pilate, orders the crucifixion, and the narrative ends with two giant angels and a fantastic walking, talking cross emerging from the empty tomb. Transcriptions for these gospels can be found online and demonstrate that in the early centuries after Jesus there were many different interpretations of Jesus, though most of these Christologies (Gnosticism, Montanism, Docetism, Manichaeism and Arianism) were suppressed in the 4th Century as the Christianity of the Trinity (“Orthodox Christianity”) was created.
On the subject of the Trinity, this was interesting to me: The only reference to the “Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost” in the entire New Testament occurs in Matthew 28:19, spoken by a Resurrected Jesus. The origins, the meaning and any further explanation of any Trinity simply does not appear in the New Testament; the “Comma Johanneum” passage within First John 5:7 – 8 is a later fraudulent addition. This suggests that the concept of the Trinity arose entirely outside of the pages of the Bible.
5. Richer or Poorer. The tradition of Jesus as a carpenter emerges solely from one line in the Gospel of Mark, 6:3 — “‘Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon?'” This is similar to the text in Matthew, the gospel that was simply a more Jewish transcription of Mark — “‘Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas?'” (Matthew, 13:55, emphasis added) One will note that in Mark, Jesus is a “carpenter,” in Matthew Jesus is just the “carpenter’s son.”
Here’s where the matter gets confusing. As a passionate defender of the faith, the famous Christian Apologist Origen (c.184 – 253) insisted in the 3rd Century “that in none of the Gospels current in the Churches is Jesus himself ever described as being a carpenter.” (Against Celsus 6:36). Huh? To anyone who has read Mark, this blanket assertion might seem absurd. But he is not incorrect. Many of the earliest versions of Mark — including Papyri 45 (c. 250), which is the earliest fragment of Mark 4 – 9 — do NOT feature any reference to Jesus as being a carpenter, just as being a “carpenter’s son,” exactly as found in Matthew. So clearly even in the time of Origen there were already two different versions of Mark in circulation, one in which Jesus was a carpenter (and which made it into the current King James Bible) and another, asserted by Origen to be authentic, in which he was not. One of these was incorrect 18 centuries ago, but which one is not possible to determine… though the earlier provenance of “carpenter’s son” and harmony with Matthew’s text (not to mention Origen’s rebuff) certainly leads to the suggestion that “carpenter” is the scribal error.
Moreover, the original Greek “tekton” does not necessarily mean “carpenter” in any sense we think of today anyway, this is just another instance in which context has been lost.
If Paul’s letters are to be given any more credibility, given their closer chronological proximity to the life of Jesus and the fact that Paul offers us so little information about Jesus the man, one throwaway line from Paul’s letter in Second Corinthians leaves an odd inference that Jesus came from a wealthy family. Speaking on the subject of financial donations he remarked: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.“ (8:9) Certainly, the line represents some allegory, but it seems that if there were no basis in literal truth there would seem to be little reason for choosing the wording. The idea that Jesus may have walked away from a wealthy family adds pathos to the encounter with the wealthy young man who could not bring himself to walk away from his own wealth (Mark, 10:17 – 25, Matthew, 19:16 – 24, Luke, 18:18 – 25).
4. Fraudulent alterations to the text in the 5th Century: Mark’s Resurrection and John’s “cast the first stone.” This might be surprising, but the first gospel had no Resurrection. Mark ended with the ultimate cliffhanger: “The women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” And THIS was the original ending of the Gospel of Mark. So Mark, the first of the four gospels written, originally ended at 16:8 with an empty tomb; we refer to it today as “Short Mark,” as found in the two oldest complete copies of Mark (Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus), both from the 4th Century. The first gospels to feature post-Resurrection narratives were Matthew and Luke, and much as Mark had initially inspired their composition, so it appears that Mark was later altered to more closely correspond with them. The earliest surviving versions of Mark to feature the Resurrection — the “Long Mark” that we see today, featuring 12 additional verses — emerge from the 5th Century, not just decades but centuries after the original writing. In fact, 5th Century Mark is quite variegated — like its predecessors, the Codex Syriacus has no Resurrection, but the Codex Alexandrinus and the Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus (all 5th Century transcriptions) do, while their contemporary Codex Washingtonianus goes further and features an entire additional passage not found even in today’s version of Mark, the Freer Logion (“Satan’s time is done…” proclamation), inserted between 16:14 and 16:15. And while on the subject, it’s worth noting that one of John’s two chapters detailing the Resurrection (21) is also regarded as inauthentic.
Similarly, the “Pericope Adulterae,” despite being one of the most recognizable stories today about Jesus, is recognized a medieval insertion. In this episode, found only in John (7:53 – 8:11), a woman accused of adultery is brought before Jesus as a trap by the Pharisees:
“53 Then each of them went home, 1 while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. 3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, 4 they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. 5 Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ 6 They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ 8 And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9 When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ 11 She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’”
The above passage is one of the most famous episodes of Jesus’ ministry, and his response to his challengers perhaps his best known saying, and yet this entire episode is simply not found in any copy of John before the 5th Century. This is a medieval interpolation, even written in a different style. It is not extant in the 3rd Century copies of John (Papyri 66 or 75), not found in the 4th Century (Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Vaticanus), nor in the majority of the 5th Century texts (Codex Syriacus, Codex Washingtonianus, Codex Borgianus, and regarded as likely not present in the Codex Alexandrinus or Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus… though the latter two are missing pages here, people smarter and more dedicated than I have measured the lines-per-page ratio). Not until the Codex Bezae and Codex Fuldensis (early-to-mid-5th Century) does the narrative first conclusively appear, and even as late as the 10th Century it was still excluded from many versions for the reason that it was recognized as inauthentic.
3. What child is this? For centuries, one unintended consequence of the birth narratives was that it left a problem of explaining Jesus’ “lost years” between infancy and ministry. But most scholars today regard the Nativity as “tradition” (an elegant way of saying fiction), which would render any years in-between as a complete non-issue. In antiquity, miraculous birth stories often arose around figures of prominence, notably after they were famous. Considered objectively, of all the events that occur in the Narrative of Jesus the Nativity is the easiest to challenge; it was a relatively late addition to the canon and appears in only two of the four gospels — Matthew and Luke — both penned well after Mark and dating to between 85 and 95 AD. If Jesus is understood to have lived between roughly 4 BC and 30 AD, that places their compositions between 55 and 65 years after his death and nearly an entire century after his birth, which begs the obvious question that if all of the principles involved in the story were long dead, who could possibly be the source? If the two narratives shared more in common it might argue for the existence of some now-long-lost previous text that inspired them, à la the “Q” Gospel, but this is not the case. Matthew and Luke tell two entirely different narratives.
It is the story of Luke that presents the idea that Jesus and John the Baptist are cousins, a Roman census, no room at the inn, a birth in a manger and the annunciation to the shepherds. Matthew’s story seems to feature an ordinary birth (no manger), but introduces the star of Bethlehem and wise men from the east, Herod’s slaughter of the innocents and the family’s flight into Egypt. The Nativity that is observed every Christmas season today simply merges these two rather disparate narratives into one. In fact, many of the ideas and instances that people today believe are in the Bible are actually later Christian traditions, assumptions and amalgamations; the Nativity is just one of the clearest examples of this.
There is no record of any census involving non-Roman citizens and no record anywhere of an errant star in the sky or Herod’s slaughter, both of which likely would have attracted attention in other sources. Herod’s slaughter seems a narrative analog of the one Pharaoh ordered in Exodus and the story of Moses; the fact that this episode is confined to the gospel which most tried to tie itself to Judaic themes (Matthew) is probably not a coincidence. And the use of Bethlehem as the birth location is likely a construct to conform with the prophesy of Micah 5:2. Interestingly, in the gospels of both Mark and John, there is no Bethlehem pretense; Jesus is fully from Nazareth. In John 1:46, when told that Jesus was from Nazareth, Nathanael wryly remarks — “‘Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?’” And in John 7:41 – 42, one of the arguments presented against Jesus by the crowd was that he was not from Bethlehem.
Another attempt to conform to Scripture is the depiction of Jesus as born of a virgin, fulfilling the text of Isaiah 7:14. But tellingly the authors of Matthew and Luke would have been reading the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Bible, in which “parthenos” means virgin. In the original Hebrew text of Isaiah an “almah” means young woman, which does not necessarily carry any connotation of sexual status. In a likely example of overreach, it seems possible that in forming their stories the authors of Matthew and Luke were framing their narratives to match the mis-translation of the Scripture they would have had at hand.
It is important to note that a “Virgin” Mary is never mentioned in the gospels of Mark or John (on the contrary, John 7 certainly leaves the impression his brothers are older), and Mary is never mentioned at all in the writings of Peter or the many letters of Paul… and certainly, had such a “virgin birth” tradition existed in Paul’s time, it seems hard to believe that he — the master of early Christian spin — would not have exploited that to the fullest in every letter he wrote. In short, if Jesus was the product of a virgin birth, it seems that no one told Peter or Paul.
2. 404 Not Found. There is no evidence of any historical Jesus outside of the Bible stories and no mention of him by any surviving contemporary sources. This is important and bears repeating: anyone looking for any extra-Biblical evidence of a Jesus of Nazareth will come away disappointed. He is mentioned in the New Testament and the New Testament alone, and no writing within the New Testament even dates to within twenty years of his lifetime. He goes unmentioned in any surviving records of the day — no appearances in court records, census data, notes or letters or official documents, Roman or Jewish, of any kind. Nothing was written by him — or of him — in his lifetime.
To be technical, his name wasn’t even Jesus. “Jesus” is a derivation from the Greek in which the New Testament books were written, but make no mistake — no one was speaking Greek in 1st Century Palestine. His name would have been Yeshua or Yehoshua, which would come down from the Hebrew today more accurately as “Joshua.” Despite the intervening two millennia of prayers to someone named Jesus, no one in his lifetime would have ever called him that.
1. In the Name Of... Given the fact that Christian doctrine was shaped by Paul, the life story of Jesus written by anonymous Gospel authors two generations later and the Church organized and politicized by oligarchs three centuries after his death, one disturbing fact does seems clear: Even presuming there was a genuine historical Jesus/Yeshua at the center of centuries of myth-creation and political appropriation, Christianity is a faith that was founded and shaped by NO ONE who actually knew the man.
Some Conclusions and Questions
As a historian trained by practice and profession to confirm facts and provenance, the above represents an interesting study, but a challenge to fact or scrutiny. To be blunt: There is no primary source here. In the end one cannot substantiate a single lesson or any word ever said by Jesus, as every word that comes to us today is third-person hearsay written down no earlier than four decades after his death. In the first gospel he speaks the least, while Matthew and Luke introduce dialogues from the “Q” source. So where did the “Q” source come from and were these actually the words of Jesus? And if they were, then why are they not found anywhere in the gospels of Mark and John? Similarly, why are Jesus’ distinctive dialogues in John found nowhere else?
In an absence of primary sources, the next logical step is to consider the earliest possible secondary sources; in this case the earliest secondary source comes an entire generation after his death with the writings of Paul, which returns us to point #7 and the fact that Paul says very little about Jesus. Did Paul exist? Almost unquestionably; we know because Paul left behind a trail. Paul… wrote. And Paul wrote extensively. We have numerous writings of Paul; we have no writings of Jesus. A logical objective argument is that if Jesus (or any god) wanted/intended/imagined a message to be spread then why did he or that deity not make sure that Jesus himself could write and pass the message along, instead of relying on later third-party sycophants who never knew him to transcribe (or as we’ve already seen, clearly mis-transcribe) the agenda over the following generations? It’s the strange case of a God who created the heavens and the earth but needed random dudes to help him write a book.
The Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Ghost) is a cornerstone of Church doctrine, but any reading of the gospels finds this idea only once, shoehorned into Jesus’ mouth (& never further elaborated upon) in a questionable post-Resurrection passage in Matthew. And the Resurrection stories — leaving aside the fact that the first gospel didn’t even have one — are a plethora of conflicting narratives… Paul, Matthew, Luke and John all tell different tales, only John offers us any specific incident or more than a single chapter. John presents two chapters, and one of those two (John 21), like Mark 16:9 – 20, is generally regarded as an inauthentic later addition. The Resurrection seems like a lost opportunity… we have five sources (and two of them regarded as forgeries [Mark & John]), 40 days (maybe? Again, see #7) and yet, almost nothing specific is recorded in the Resurrection, it’s just glossed over. It’s a stage encore played with all the mics off or a Super Bowl touchdown with all the cameras pointed at the stadium floor. If the Resurrection was planned by a deity it does seem somewhat poorly orchestrated.
The earliest surviving reference to Jesus does not appear before the year 50, which itself presents a logical hurdle to anyone who wants to believe that he was popular or controversial in his lifetime, and the absence of a Yeshua/Jesus in Philo is hard to ignore…. Philo of Alexandria (c.25 BC-c.50 AD) was a lifelong student of liberal Jewish thought who documented several wandering Jewish mystics of the time period, but despite this being his speciality and the entirety of Jesus’ ministry, life, death & aftermath all taking place within his life he seems to have been unaware of any Yeshua/Jesus. At the same time, the notion of modern “mythicists,” who believe Jesus was a figure entirely made up seems flawed as well. After all, the one tradition that is found from the earliest source onward — really, the most defensible element of the narrative — is that the man was crucified; this is decidedly NOT the way one would want to start the story, if given a choice. Another strong suggestion of his existence is the tortured logic by which Matthew and Luke place Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. If starting from a clean slate, he would be from Bethlehem to begin with, no hoops to jump through. That he was from Nazareth is an inconvenient detail that fiction would not invent. If you cross Ockam’s Razor with the analogy that “where there’s smoke there’s fire,” it argues against probability to suggest there was NO Jesus.
I often say there is always some grain of truth in the sandbox of embellishment. The Mayflower landed, but there was no Plymouth Rock… the first reference to any “Plymouth Rock” came some 121 years after the event. Paul Revere’s “Midnight Ride” really happened, but never once did he shout, “the British are coming,” as he and the colonists were British. The entire Paul Revere narrative that comes down to us today was framed 85 years after the event by Longfellow, who effectively reshaped history into mythology-in-rhyme. Many of these shared stories that one learns from childhood are a result of embellishment and half-truths writ generations later. Everyone thinks of an apparently non-existent rock at New England’s founding, and only Samuel Prescott finished the Midnight Ride; Revere was caught and detained… but these facts detract from an intentional story. Stories snowball, myths gain traction; it’s just what they do. As the old saying goes, our love of stories outweighs our love of facts.
I suspect that any genuine and historical Yeshua probably would have about as much in common with today’s “Jesus Christ” as Saint Nicholas would with his more famous alter-ego. Saint Nicholas was a real person (who lived from 270-343), but our “Santa Claus” emerged over the centuries as a mythological and marketable variant built upon his legacy. It’s not much of a stretch to suggest that “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night,” are words that were never uttered by the genuine Saint Nicholas, and yet these words are “gospel” we cannot disassociate from him. At what point does a real person become mythology? The first writings about Jesus began some two decades after his death and reached a crescendo in the centuries that followed, with more gospels and interpretations than we can reconstruct today. But not unlike the secular examples of King Arthur or Robin Hood — similar composite characters written and re-imagined by different authors over centuries — history and fact fall short of finding him. Like an Impressionist painting, the well-defined picture of Jesus that we see by the fourth century loses focus the closer one looks toward his lifetime, and ultimately dissipates altogether a full two decades before even reaching his lifetime. Also not unlike an Impressionist picture… one may see what one wants to see.