from jesus to christ - the first christians

What Are the Gospels?

Neither biographies nor objective historical accounts, the gospels resembled religious advertisements.


L. Michael White:

Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin


The gospels are not biographies in the modern sense of the word. Rather, they are stories told in such a way as to evoke a certain image of Jesus for a particular audience. They're trying to convey a message about Jesus, about his significance to the audience and thus we we have to think of them as a kind of preaching, as well as story telling. That's what the gospel, The Good News, is really all about.

The four gospels that we find in the New Testament, are of course, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The first three of these are usually referred to as the "synoptic gospels," because they look at things in a similar way, or they are similar in the way that they tell the story. Of these then, Mark is the earliest, probably written between 70 and 75. Matthew is next - written somewhere between 75 and about 85, maybe even a little later than that. Luke is a little later still, being written between 80 and maybe 90 or 95. And, John's gospel is the latest, usually dated around 95, although it may have been completed slightly later than that, as well.

Paula Fredriksen:

William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture, Boston University


The gospels are very peculiar types of literature. They're not biographies. I mean, there are all sorts of details about Jesus that they're simply not interested in giving us. They are a kind of religious advertisement. What they do is proclaim their individual author's interpretation of the Christian message through the device of using Jesus of Nazareth as a spokesperson for the evangelist's position. The evangelist is not an author of fiction. The evangelist has traditions that go back through the Greek to the spoken language of Jesus, which was probably Aramaic. In other words, I think there's some kind of continuity between what Jesus would have been saying to other Jews in 27 to 30 and what the Evangelists in Greek are saying to their own communities, that Jesus said. But, as historians, we have to sift, and go through and try to figure out what corresponds mostly to the period of the composition in Greek and what corresponds to the lifetime of the historical Jesus.


Did the gospels present sort of the same image of Jesus?

The gospel tradition divides into two streams. There's Mark and there's John. Mark is the earliest gospel written, probably, shortly after the war that destroyed the Temple, the war between Rome and Judea. And Mark presents one type of Jesus with a particular narrative where Jesus begins in the Galilee and he ends his life in Jerusalem. John, a gospel that we can't date at all, has Jesus really with the Jerusalem ministry. He's scarcely in Galilee at all. And he's really talking and preaching and doing in Jerusalem. It's a quite different story and a quite different personality. Matthew and Luke depend on Mark. Which is why those three gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, are called the synoptic gospels. Because they can be understood together. But in terms of literary dependency, Matthew and Luke construct their story around the plot provided by Mark.

Allen D. Callahan:

Associate Professor of New Testament, Harvard Divinity School


If you take the gospels as a factual account of the life of Jesus, they're not all in sync...

Well, there are what we might identify as contradictions in the account. Some of this has to do with our methodology. If we want to read the gospels as eye witness accounts, historical records and so on, then not only are we in for some tough going, I think there's evidence within the material itself that it's not intended to be read that way. I mean that there are certain concerns that are being addressed in this literature. And we become theologically and even historically tone deaf to those concerns, if we don't give them due consideration. It's now consensus in the New Testament scholarship to some extent [that]... in the gospels we're dealing with theologians, people who are reflecting theologically on Jesus already. And there's all indication that what we now refer to as theological reflection was there at the very beginning of things....

Are you saying that the gospels are of little value as eye witness accounts of his life?

Well, they don't claim to be eye witness accounts of his life. I don't think that the people who are responsible for those documents were staying up at night worried about those kinds of things. They're making certain arguments and they have concerns..., and they are articulating those arguments and they're forwarding those concerns based on what they know and what other people know about what Jesus said and did.


I think the historic story provides certain controls on our project of reconstruction. We just can't make Jesus anything that we want him to because we have certain historical constraints. Now, I also think that we're not the first people who have had these problems. I think these problems are very old. I think you start with the gospel writers, themselves.In other words, even though we're concerned about the gospel literature as being shot through with allkinds of tendencies and all kinds of biases and exaggerations and however we want to characterize these things, those guys who were responsible for that literature couldn't sit down and write anything that they wanted to about Jesus.... Among other things, they were writing for an audience, or audiences, who already knew something about Jesus; there was a market out there for their literature, and in order to engage that market, they really had to write about somebody that people knew about. They wanted to tell more about a figure about whom people already knew. And so they couldn't say any old thing.

And furthermore -- and other scholars wiser and smarter than I kind of smoked these places out -- [there are points in] the text that indicate that the gospel writers themselves were dealing with certain traditions about which they may be ambivalent, but nevertheless had to do something with them. [In] a classic example, Luke tells us about the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. Now, if we read elsewhere in the Gospel of Luke [in]... the Acts of the Apostles, we see that Luke knows about the sect of John the Baptist. He knows that they preceded the Jesus movement and he also knows that there are some people in the Baptist Sect who insist on following the teachings of John the Baptist, even after Jesus has come on the scene, even after John is dead. And Luke doesn't like this....They were supposed to kind of get with the new franchise but they didn't.... He's concerned to show that even [though] John is a great guy, he's not greater than Jesus. But he knows that John baptized Jesus and that John was preaching of baptism of the repentance [of] sins. So, what does he do? ...In the third chapter of his gospel, he presents Jesus as coming to John the Baptist and then he says, "later John was put into prison." ... So, we get a notice that John was put in prison, and immediately following that notice, Jesus is baptized, it's in the passive, the verb's in the passive, with no mention of who baptized him. Now, we all know who baptized Jesus, and the smart money is that Luke knew who baptized Jesus but he didn't want to come right out and say, "John baptized him" because he doesn't like what that suggests, in the terms of the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus....

Harold W. Attridge:

The Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament Yale Divinity School


At the time when the gospels were written, how did people read those documents? Did they read them the way we read a newspaper or a piece of history, at least with the hope, that is the factual rendition or are they reading it at a different level?

Most of the people in the early Christian movement couldn't read so they wouldn't have been reading the gospels.... Probably the greatest contact they would have had is hearing these read or preached in connection with church services. Certainly what we think of today as literal interpretation of the scripture would not really have been available in quite the same way to people in the ancient world. I think it's important to understand that what contemporary Americans, for example, think of as a literal reading of scripture is really a product of the late 19th and early 20th century, as development or part of fundamentalism's reaction to Biblical scholarship and Biblical criticism as it had developed in the 19th century.

Early Christians certainly read scripture allegorically, understanding it to refer to some kind of so-called higher realities that weren't really present in the text itself. They could interpret it morally, as giving advice for life. Very often in the 2nd and 3rd century, you find a kind of scriptural interpretation which we call "typological", and what that means is that events and details that are found in the Hebrew Bible are seen as types pointing ahead to the coming of Jesus. So that, for example, the scapegoat of the Book of Leviticus who bears off the sins of the Israelites is a type pointing ahead to Jesus and his bearing the sins of the world, according to Christian teaching....

Since the Christians wanted to retain the Hebrew Bible as their scripture... it was necessary for them to make certain interpretive gestures to try to rein in the meaning of the Hebrew Bible text. Since clearly most early Christians, at least by the 2nd century, were not keeping details of the Jewish law they had a lot of correction to do, you might say, in terms of trying to say why this scripture was theirs and [why] they had the right to interpret it, but, on the other hand, why they weren't following the Jewish law, in the way that the Hebrew Bible detailed. That was quite an interpretive problem for the early Christians....

Most of the early Christians certainly would think that the gospel stories happened. They did have problems because there are so many discrepancies among and between the gospel stories which they themselves could notice, but they had a hard time perhaps putting them all together in what we would consider a literal kind of way. Basically, early Christians wanted to use these stories for moral edification. For a general message about salvation. Jesus lived. He died. He saved us from our sins. There's going to be an end to the world on judgment. A few basic phrases like that...

John Dominic Crossan:

Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies DePaul University


Did oral tradition play a part in preserving the traditions of the early movement?

Oral tradition is something that we have rather abused, I think, in scholarship. If you take, for example, the common material behind the Q gospel and the Gospel of Thomas, there's 37 sayings without any order so this is not a document of any type. Who is preserving it? The people who are living like Jesus, the itinerants who are trying to follow the life of Jesus. They are interested in these stories, not just because of oral tradition, but because it justifies their lifestyle. So whenever somebody says oral tradition, I want to say, "Could you show it to me? I know you can't show me oral tradition, but can you show it to me some way in the text, or at least, in the lifestyle of somebody who would have cared about it?" Otherwise we have a free-floating oral tradition that is becoming kind of meaningless.

Well, how do you think the Jesus traditions were preserved then?

I think the Jesus traditions were preserved by those who were trying to live them. Whence, for example, those who preserved, "Blessed are the destitute." They preserved it because they were destitute and they thought they were blessed. They had a vested interest in remembering that saying because it described them.

How do the four gospels evolve then?

The first gospel, Mark, is around the year 70. So within 70 and, say, 95, we have the four gospels. 25 years. But that leaves 70 to 30. 40 years before that. If you watch the creativity within that 25 year span, from Mark being copied into Matthew and Luke, possibly also by John, then you have to face the creativity of that 40 years, even when you don't have written gospels. And that may be equally intense.

And so you're making it sound as if the gospels are extremely unreliable as evidence.

The gospels are, first of all, extremely reliable historical documents for their own time and place. Mark tells us very much about, say, a community writing in the 70's. John, a community writing in the mid-90's. But, since we have four of them, we get four vectors, then, on the basic tradition that they're working with. What is common, we might be able to then work, by going back very carefully through those deliberate... what scholars call "redactional" elements in there. If Mark just made it up any old way, and Matthew did the same, we could not do anything historically with them.


What do the gospels have in common? Is it possible to say what they do share?

What the gospels do share, of course, is Jesus. But that is almost trivial to say that. Because they are interested in not simply repeating Jesus. They are interested in interpreting Jesus. Matthew, even when he has Mark in front of him, will change what Jesus says. And that's what's most important for me, to understand the mind of an evangelist. It is that Matthew is saying, "I will change Mark so that Mark's Jesus speaks to my people." Now, there's a logic to his change. He's not just changing it to be difficult. He will change Mark, but what Jesus says in Mark does not make sense to Matthew's people.... What is consistent about the gospels is that they change consistent with their own theology, with their own communities' needs. They do not change at random. If you begin to understand how Matthew changes Mark, you see it worked again and again and again. You don't have to make up a different reason for every change. Once you understand Matthew's theology, you can almost predict how he will change.

How significant and discrediting to belief are the differences between the four gospels?

For somebody who thinks the four gospels are like four witnesses in a court trying to tell exactly how the accident happened, as it were, this is extremely troubling. It is not at all troubling to me because they told me, quite honestly, that they were gospels. And a gospel is good news ... "good" and "news" ... updated interpretation. So when I went into Matthew, I did not expect journalism. I expected gospel. That's what I found. I have no problem with that.

So, in other words, they're doing what they set out to do, but it's not what we think they're setting out to do.

We have the problem, not Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. They do a superb job, or Christianity would not be still around, of doing what they had to do. We want them to be journalists and we're very unhappy with them.

Can you characterize the way Mark portrays Jesus and what kind of audience he's trying to play to?

Let me compare Mark with John to explain how two gospels do it differently in an episode we call "the agony in the garden". Now, there is no agony in John and there is no garden in Mark, but we call it the agony in the garden because we put them together. Mark tells the story in which Jesus, the night before he dies, is prostrate on the ground, begging God, "If this all could pass, but I will do what you want." And the disciples all flee. Now that's an awful picture. That makes sense to me because Mark is writing to a persecuted community who know what it's like to die. That's how you die, feeling abandoned by God.

Over to John. Jesus is not on the ground in John. The whole cohort of the Jerusalem forces come out - 600 troops come out to capture Jesus, and they end up with their faces on the ground in John. And Jesus says, "Of course I will do what the Father wants." And Jesus tells them to "Let my disciples go." He's in command of the whole operation. You have a Jesus out of control almost in Mark, a Jesus totally in control in John. Both gospel. Neither of them are historical. I don't think either of them know exactly what happened. Mark is writing to a persecuted church, "Here is how to die ... like Jesus." John is writing, I think, to a community that's hanging on by its fingernails. It's getting more and more marginalized. Its Jesus is getting more and more in control, in control of the passion, in control of Pilate. The more John's community is out of control, the more Jesus is in control. Both of that makes absolute sense to me. But both are gospel.

What's the significant difference between Matthew and Luke and Mark? What kind of differences do they bring in?

If you look at Luke 4, for example, the opening, almost paradigmatic, scene in Luke. Jesus goes into the synagogue. He takes the scroll of Isaiah. He is literate of course, he can read. And he's a scholar. He can find his way around an unpointed Hebrew scroll and find exactly the place he wants and reads it and comments on it. Jesus is a scholar. Jesus is rather like Luke, actually....

Luke gives us his big scene up front. Matthew does the same with the Sermon on the Mount. It's on a mountain, where else? Moses is on a mountain ... Sinai. Jesus is on a mountain saying, "You've heard what was said to them of old, what I say to you." I couldn't imagine Matthew starting off with something else. Jesus is a new Moses. All of that is coherent within the theology of each evangelist....

There is no Sermon on the Mount and there is no mountain to have a sermon on in Mark, and there is no scene in the synagogue at Nazareth where Jesus reads Isaiah and is almost killed. None of that is in Mark. One is in Matthew. The other is in Luke.

As we read John, what does it tell us about the direction the other church is taking?

As I read John, I come to two conclusions. One is that this is a Jewish group. If you want to call them Christians, they're Jewish Christians. They're one group within Judaism. The second conclusion is that they are being more and more marginalized. That is, their appeal to lead all of Judaism is becoming less and less likely. They're becoming smaller and smaller and smaller. And they can refer to their fellow Jews as "the Jews". They are feeling profoundly alienated from their own Judaism. In plain language, they're losing. And that means the language of invective gets nastier and nastier. It's the loser in political campaigns that calls names. So, Matthew is losing when he calls the Pharisees hypocrites and says "war to them." That warns me that he is losing out to the Pharisees as he sees it. John, he talks about "the Jews did this" or that awful statement about the Jews are born of the Devil. That tells me that this community is desperate. It's hanging on by its fingernails.

Harold W. Attridge:


In all of the gospels there are statements that reflect the growing polemical situation or situation of controversy between the Christian movement toward the end of the first century and Jewish communities of that time. In Matthew for instance, there are the "Woes on the Pharisees," whereas at the same time we have statements about Jesus coming to fulfill the law. So there seems to be a debate between Matthew and some observant Jews or Jewish Christians about the law.

In Luke and in John, that kind of polemic is intensified in various ways. Particularly in John, we have statements about the Jews put on the lips of Jesus which distinguish them as a group alien to Jesus and his followers, which is the farthest thing possible from the historical reality, and demonize [them]. So, for instance, in John 8, we have the statement that the Jews are children of Satan, and Satan is the murderer from all time. Those kinds of statements indicated there was an intense polemical relationship between Jews and Christians at that point. The basis for that relationship seems to have been a separation between the Johannite community and the group of Jews from which they came.

Is this also the roots of Christian anti-Semitism?

The kind of polemic and the sorts of things that were said by Christians about Jews in the gospels certainly... played a role in Christian anti-Semitism, and it's certainly something that the Christian churches need to grapple with as they appropriate the gospel tradition.

John Dominic Crossan:


To what degree were the Jews involved in the execution of Jesus?

In terms of the execution of Jesus, we know from the Roman historian Tacitus, and the Jewish historian Josephus, that there was a movement, that the founder was executed, and that the movement continued ... three very important things. So, the brute facts, as it were, are as certain as historical things can be. When you turn, however, to the details, to the blow by blow, moment by moment, word by word accounts that you find in Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, that's a very different thing because what's interesting there is that it looks like it's a single stream of tradition, not four independent witnesses. Mark is copied into Matthew and Luke and may well be copied into John, so it's only a single source for all of this. What you find throughout that source, is that as this group ... the Christian Jews, we're talking about ... a group of Jews similar to the Essene Jews or the Pharisaic Jews or the Sadducean Jews, or the Zealot Jews ... as the Christian Jews become more and more marginalized and alienated from the majority ... of their own people, the enemies of Jesus in this story similarly get increased. So Mark talks about the crowd being against Jesus, but by Matthew, 15 years later, say in the year 85, it's all the people. And by the time you get to John in the 90's, it is the Jews who are against Jesus in the passion.

The difficulty for us is to take the term "gospel" seriously. It means "good news." "Good" is from somebody's point of view, not the Roman point of view, for example. "News" means "updated" so the story had to be updated. Any gospel writer, when they're writing the passion of Jesus, asks themselves, as it were, "Who are my enemies here, today, now? They are the enemies of Jesus way back in the 20's." That becomes terribly dangerous as you watch the Christian gospels..., even John talking about the Jews, means all those other Jews, except us "good" Jews. And he's admitting, sort of, that the majority is going steadily against him. When that is read in the fourth century by pagans with the Roman Empire behind them, that becomes the lethal seedbed out of which, eventually, genocide and anti-Semitism, in our own days, would eventually come. Because after all, we're now reading that the Jews did this. And that means that those people over there who are not us.

Read more on the gospels in this essay by Marilyn Mellowes.

symposium . jesus' many faces . a portrait of jesus' world . storytellers . first christians . why did christianity succeed?
maps, archaeology & sources . discussion . bible history quiz . behind the scenes
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published april 1998

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