- The Monograph
- Table of Contents
- Chapter 1: St. Paul's Letters and Jewish Christians
- Chapter 2: What and when was "Parting of the Ways"?
- Chapter 3: Jews, Christians, and Roman Legitimacy
- Chapter 4: Jesus the Jew
- Chapter 5: Recruiting Gentiles and Effect of the name "Christian"
- Chapter 6: Christian Anti-Jewish Rhetoric
- Chapter 7: Christian Reinterpretation of the Jewish Bible
- Chapter 8: Labeling Jews as "Christ Killers"
- Chapter 9: Jewish Rebellion and Roman Destruction
- Chapter 10: Myths Used to Justify Christian Anti-Jewishness
- Chapter 11: Why did Jews find Christianity unacceptable
- Chapter 12: Gospel History
- Chapter 13: Christian Jew Hatred and Antisemitism
- Chapter 14: St. Paul and "Parting of the Ways"
- Chapter 15: The Jewish Messiah and the Role of Jesus
- Chapter 16: Religious Differences Among Jews
- Chapter 17: Christian Rants against Jews and Judaizers
- Chapter 18: Christian Opposition to Biblical "Law" Denouncing Jews who Observe It
- Chapter 19: The "Holy", "Unholy", and "True Israelites"
- Chapter 20: Do Christians Need to Demean Jews? What if Jesus had not been a Jew?
- Chapter 21: Currying Favor with the Romans; Roman Oppression and Jesus' Crucifixion
- Chapter 22: Christian Missionary Success and Accommodation to Roman Society
- Chapter 23: Christian Anti-Jewishness Before and After Gaining Power
- Chapter 24: The Psychology of Antisemitism
- Chapter 25: Christian Literature and Perpetuation of Anti-Semitism
- Chapter 26: Can New Testament Antisemitism be Deleted?
Scholarly interest in Gospel history has endured for centuries (see, for example, Metzger). Among general findings:
- We know of no writings by Jesus himself, or by any of his immediate disciples. Although Aramaic was the language of the Galilean countryside in which Jesus lived and preached, we have no Aramaic letters or documents from the Galilean Jesus movement. Because of Jesus’ opposition to establishment scribes, some scholars claim it doubtful that Jesus himself was literate and capable of writing (Keith).
- The 70 C.E. Roman destruction of Jerusalem and most of its population caused the disappearance of the original Jesus-believing community in Israel, “and with it perished all its records” (Brandon 1968, p. 17).
- It has been proposed that early Jesus movement writings were in a lost collection of sayings called the “Q Gospel” (Kloppenborg, pp. 59–64). “Q” was supposedly formulated in Greek sometime after Jesus’ death, and versions of “Q” can apparently be found in New Testament Greek Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke.
- Some scholars do not accept “Q” (Adamczewski); and of those who accept it, there is debate as to which of the “Q” sayings are authentically Jesus’ or drawn secondarily from a Jesus-believing group after his death. (See, for example, Gregg.)
- Whatever their source, there is common agreement that sayings attributed to “Q” must have originated in the Jewish Christian movement, before the Roman destruction of the Jerusalem Temple.
- Koester (2007, p. 241) suggests: “The people who began the collection of these words may or may not have been personally acquainted with Jesus’ ministry during the time of his life. What they preserved were not extensive records of Jesus’ teaching, but reformulated summaries of what they had learned. … What is preserved … is mostly prophetic sayings and instructions for the community, its organization, and its missionary activity. There is no recourse to Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection.”
- In contrast to St. Paul’s teachings, none of the “Q” sayings oppose Jewish Scriptural laws (Crossley 2006, pp. 102–116). Similarly, “The Q speeches know nothing of a mission to other peoples (‘Gentiles’) beyond Jesus’ mission to the people of Israel” (Horsley 2012, p. 113).
- The six or seven “authentic” letters of St. Paul, and seven others that claim his authorship, comprise more than half the “books” of the New Testament (14/27; Vermes 2012, p. 106). In Galatians 1.11 he introduced the term “Gospel” as the message he privately received from the resurrected Jesus (Note #2). St. Paul insisted the “Gospel” ordaining him to preach a new non-Jewish religious doctrine to Gentiles was his exclusive “Gospel of Christ” (1 Corinthians 9.12) or “Gospel of God” (Romans 1.1), as opposed to non-divine “Gospels” offered by Jesus’ Jewish disciples. Note that “Gospel,” or “Evangel” in Greek, means “Good News,” and was also the term used for birthdays of Roman Emperors (Young 2006, p. 15), and for celebrating their ascension to imperial status (Byrskog, p. 2).
- Dozens of Gospels or Gospel-like documents succeeded St. Paul in the first few centuries, carrying varying histories of Jesus and his disciples with varying theological messages. According to Gamble (p. 24): “Gospel writers not only used existing written sources but also exercised editorial freedom in adapting them. This makes it plain that the Gospel writers did not attach any special sanctity or even adequacy to their sources and that each meant to provide something better.”
- Decision as to which of these Gospels were “true” and which “untrue” were made by third and fourth century assemblies of Bishops from “orthodox” churches.
- Excluded from “orthodox” ranks were churches whose beliefs were considered “heresies.”
- The four Gospels considered “true” first appeared in the interval between 70 C.E. and about 110 C.E. Towards end of the second century they were grouped together by St. Irenaeus (ca. 180) into his “fourfold” Gospel (Adversus Haeresis, ANF vol. 1, p. 426). Along with St. Paul’s letters and other documents, these later became part of a 27-document New Testament “canon”; where “canon” is commonly understood as the anthology of Christian documents authorized as trustworthy by third and fourth century “Church Fathers.”
- Eusebius, Church historian and Bishop of Caesarea, formulated the canonization procedure at the time of the Council of Nicaea (ca. 325 C.E.). He claimed “orthodox” churches inherited their authority for each Gospel’s “truth” from Jesus’ own apostles who presumably founded these churches three hundred years earlier. These apostles then presumably passed on their “apostolic authority” to succeeding Bishops in a continuous line of “apostolic succession.”
- Essentially, what became “authorized,” then became “canonized,” then became “sacred,” and so it remained. The New Testament, according to L. T. Johnson (2007, p. 63) “draws its authority from the decision of the Christian community to canonize these ancient writings as its sacred texts.”
Notwithstanding Eusebius’ claims, we know that concepts of “apostolic origin” and “apostolic succession” were conjectural: neither Gospel authors, nor Gospel editors (“redactors”) had been recorded. “[T]he concept of ‘apostolic’ was very much broader and could connote, beyond direct apostolic authorship, authorship by followers of apostles, derivation from the general time of the apostles, or even simply an agreement of content with what the church took to be apostolic teaching. … no N[ew] T[estament] writing secured canonical standing on the basis of apostolicity alone” (Gamble, p. 68).
Appearing generations after Jesus, at times when even his disciples were probably long dead, in a language he never preached, by writers and “redactors” who were most probably Gentiles, the New Testament Gospels were hardly the product of Galilean eyewitnesses who expected an imminent Kingdom of God. “Jesus’ disciples were lower-class, illiterate peasants from remote rural areas of Galilee, where very few people could read, let alone write, and let alone create full-scale compositions. We don’t know of a single author from that time and place, Jewish or Christian, who was capable of producing a Gospel even had she or he thought of doing so. … They, like Jesus, anticipated that the end of the age was imminent … These people had no thought of recording the events of Jesus’ life for posterity because in a very real sense, there was not going to be a posterity” (Ehrman 2014, p. 244).
Quoting an array of writers on literacy in Roman Palestine, Hezser offers the following:
- “[N]obody has so far been able to demonstrate that a school system which aimed at educating the broad public in reading and writing existed in ancient Israel, or even that the knowledge of reading and writing was important by the populace” (p. 32).
- “[A]lmost all ancient education ‘was purely vocational’” (p. 33).
- “We cannot assume that anyone except professional scribes was able to read and write unless the evidence points strongly to the literacy of another group, which … it does not” (p. 33).
- “[I]n some rural town and settlements the literacy rate will have been below one percent, and some villages may not even have had one single individual who could read” (p. 35).
Gospel authenticity hangs on very little hard information. We do not know who among Jesus’ audiences heard and transmitted Jesus’ sayings; nor who observed or reported his actions and associated events; nor how accurate the communication from person to person; nor for how long a period oral transmission prevailed; nor where, when, and by whom scribal literacy entered into the sequence of transmission. Nor do we know of any original Aramaic reports; nor how faithful the transcription from Aramaic, oral or written, to New Testament Greek; nor how many manuscripts were written and revised before the final “canonical” selection process in the fourth century.
That different Gospels use similar sayings or describe similar events, can derive from copying from a common source such as the first Greek Gospel (St. Mark); or from St. Matthew and St. Luke sharing Greek “Q” sayings or other sources whose dates are unknown; or from nameless Gospel writers, editors, and transcribers copying one from another. Throughout this process, we should keep in mind that some or many changes were made during transcriptions to suit the recorders’ specific concepts and shaped to form their audiences’ beliefs. In St. John’s Gospel, many of Jesus’ sayings and events are quite different from other Gospels, reflecting the author’s agenda to enhance Jesus’ divinity and undo Jesus from his Jewish heritage.
Since the identity of all those involved in Gospel writing were unknown, the need to present an “apostolic” source was fulfilled by giving each Gospel a single “apostolic” name: St. Mark, St. Matthew, St. Luke, and St. John. Other than six or seven of St. Paul’s letters, authorship of the remaining New Testament books also had no recorded information; nor were there founding records of the many “orthodox” churches; nor reliable registries of past Bishops for each such church. To fill gaps of “apostolic succession,” lists of Jesus” apostles and “orthodox” Bishops had to be augmented to the point where the meaning of “apostle” became ambiguous. Jesus’ presumed original twelve “disciples” were expanded in St. Luke’s Gospel into 70 unnamed presumed “apostles” (10.1), and by fourth century Eusebius into even more unknowns.
Eusebius admits “I confess that it is beyond my power to produce a perfect and complete history” (Ecclesiastical History, Dungan 1999, p. 102). Gospels to be canonized were therefore selected by churches who “in the present time are held in honor” (Ibid. p. 103). Gospels of churches not “held in honor” were eliminated, and Gospels disputed by “orthodox” churches were not considered canonical but “apocryphal.” A single vote by one of the orthodox churches could place a document into the disputed apocryphal class or reject it entirely; such as the ill-fated Gospel of Peter, rejected because of the negative vote by Bishop Serapion of the Antioch “orthodox” Church (Maier, p. 216). In Eusebius’ terms, “orthodoxy,” variously understood as “right belief” or “true faith,” served as a loose criterion to reject writings “whose opinions and thrusts of their contents are so dissonant from true orthodoxy” (Ibid. p. 115).
According to Gamble: “scripture helped to mold the tradition of faith, and the tradition of faith helped to shape the canon of scripture. In practice, therefore, the criterion of orthodoxy resulted in a circular argument: writings were accepted as authoritative if they conformed to the rule of faith, and the rule of faith was validated by appealing, among other things, to the authority of some of the same writings” (pp. 69–70). “Historical criticism has shown that the ancient church was most often mistaken in its claims that the canonical writings were written by apostles, while the history of the canon makes it doubtful that the theoretical criteria (apostolicity, catholicity, etc.) were effective means for canonization” (Ibid. p. 83).
Among many Christian documents circulating at the time were “Infancy Gospels,” “Ministry Gospels,” “Sayings Gospels,” “Passion Gospels,” “Resurrection Gospels,” Gospels attributed to different “Holy Women,” as well as “Acts” and “Letters” ascribed to different apostles. (See Schneemelcher; Ehrman and Pleŝe; J. K. Elliot; Miller 1992.) The fictitious ascription of such documents to presumed apostles and even to Jesus are traditionally called “pseudonymous” — a scholarly euphemism for “forgeries” — intentional deceptions meant to gain attention and establish “apostolic truths” by counterfeit authority. According to Ehrman (2011b, p. 19), “At present we know of over a hundred writings from the first centuries that were claimed by one Christian author or another to have been forged by fellow Christians.” “Even apostles of Jesus who, in real life, could not have written a paragraph in Greek had their souls depended on it — Simon Peter, James the brother of Jesus, and John the son of Zebedee, for example — had writings attributed to them” (Ehrman 2013, p. 532). About half the New Testament (13 of its 27 items) has counterfeit ascriptions (Ibid. p. 529). Ironically, a posture of “truth” and prohibition against “lies” can be professed by forgers themselves, as one finds in New Testament letters that many scholars believe were falsely ascribed to St. Paul, such as letters to the Ephesians and Colossians (Ibid. p. 541).
As mentioned in Note #4, the four Greek language New Testament Gospels appeared in periods after the 70 C.E. destruction of the Jewish Jerusalem Temple. Until about 150 C.E. most Christian communities used only a single Gospel (Schneemelcher Vol. 1, pp. 20–21), anonymously authored and revised by their individual churches and copyists. For example, the original ending of St. Mark, the earliest of the four New Testament Gospels, ignored or showed no awareness of Jesus’ resurrection, a serious omission of later Christian belief. By the second century we know this defect was corrected by material added from St. Matthew, St. Luke, and St. John (Trobisch, pp. 134–136).
What the original Gospel authors actually wrote remains therefore conjectural since we have no Gospel manuscripts that can be examined earlier than the year 200 C.E. According to Koester (2007, p. 53), the illusion that the New Testament Gospels accepted by the Christian Fathers in the third and fourth centuries “are almost identical with the [original] autographs cannot be confirmed by any external evidence. On the contrary, whatever evidence there is indicates that not only minor, but also substantial revisions of the original texts have occurred during the first hundred years of the transmission.”
In many details each Gospel was unique, modified to fit religious views and needs of its individual community, or as Rousseau states (p. 58), “designed to steer its audience through a labyrinth of choices” — to establish what is to be believed. None of the Gospel texts were “considered inviolable. On the contrary, their texts could be reused freely in new forms of writing, be expanded by new materials, and be shaped otherwise according to the demands of the community. All these gospels were primarily produced not as ‘literature’ but as writings destined for oral performance; memory of texts heard and interpreted could also find its way into the copying of texts” (Koester 2005, p. 43).
Removed from Jesus’ Aramaic-speaking followers in Israel-Palestine by language, time, and distance, transmission of Jesus” sayings and acts into “Gospels” thus became quite detached from their original environs. Condemned as “Judaizers” (Note #17), Jesus’ immediate Galilean followers had little influence on St. Paul’s Gentile Greek-speaking Christian congregations with their different backgrounds and concerns. Other than in their imaginations, neither St. Paul, nor the Gentiles he converted, nor the Gentiles whom they converted, nor those who wrote the Gospels, ever saw or heard the Galilean Jesus. The stories that St. Paul, Gentile Christian converts, and Gospel writers told about Jesus “in virtually every case were not people who accompanied Jesus during his public ministry” (Ehrman 2016, p. 83). For example, the oldest Gospel, St. Mark’s, whose many elements were later incorporated into St. Matthew’s and St. Luke’s Gospels, “shows unfamiliarity with the geography of Palestine (e.g. 5.1; 6.45; 7,31; 8.22; 10.1; 11.1), Jewish customs (7.2–4; 10.2; 14.1; 14.64) and even the Jewish leadership groups (e.g. 3.6; 6.17; 8.15; 12.13). … The Gospel is a product of a long process of [non-Israel] community tradition and not of direct eyewitness testimony.” (Telford, pp. 11–12).
As many studies have shown, conversations and events passed on orally from one to another, even over short periods of time — let alone over long periods — are not faithful to their origin (Ehrman 2016). Not only are details distorted but even their “gist” can be notably modified. Oral cultures can not only invent imagined events and sayings, but can restate and modify actual events or sayings in entirely new ways relevant to their new context. “Whoever performs the [oral] tradition alters it in light of his own context” (Ibid. p. 186). “Memories” of the past easily change to fit needs of the present.
In Allison’s study (pp. 2-7): “Remembering is not like reading a book but rather like writing a book. If there are blanks, we fill them in. If the plot thins, we fill it out. … [W]e may well recollect what we assume was the case rather than what was in fact the case. … We are apt to project present circumstances and biases onto our past experiences. … Output does not match input. … [I]ndividuals transmute memories into meaningful patterns that advance their agendas. Collectives do likewise. … Just as we take on different roles for different occasions, so too do we shape our memories according to the varied settings in which we find ourselves. … Utilizing the past to promote current interests — the classical form critics saw this in every page of the canonical Gospels — leads to alterations. … When, as in the canonical Gospels, memory becomes story, narrative conventions inescapingly sculpt the result.”
Telford (p. 22) points out that detailed analyses of St. Mark’s Gospel “uncovered the extent to which the evangelist selected, arranged, linked altered, modified, reshaped, expanded and in some cases even created the material of which his Gospel is composed. Where the traditions needed to be woven together into a connected presentation, for example, it was he who provided the seams which link the individual sayings or stories together or the summary passages linking sections of the narrative. … Where individual traditions lacked indications of time or place, it was he who frequently supplied them with a chronological, topographical or geographical setting. … Where such traditions required comment or explanation, he introduced parenthetical statements. … [T]he evangelist was motivated by literary and theological concerns than by purely historical ones.”
In Schröter’s words (pp. 18–19), “the Gospels are witnesses that narratively rework and theologically interpret the events of Jesus’ activity and fate.” Luz, in a review of St. Matthew’s Gospel (p. 57), describes a sampling of Jesus stories as “narrative fiction”: instances of “created versions of orally transmitted texts,” as well as (pp. 59–60) “fictional devices to present his readers with the definitive separation of the community from the Jews. In this way, the narrative is subservient to the theological message.”
Müller (p. 33) sums up the four Gospels in the following way: “Because it is not history writing, what is related does not necessarily refer to real events, but stories as well as speeches and parables may well have been created as narrative expressions of proclamation. Thus the speeches in Matthew and John clearly are Matthean and Johannine respectively, and the same pertains to the parables unique to the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke: they are wholly in accordance with the theology of each gospel respectively. The assumption that each gospel author has been highly creative in their presentation of the earthly Jesus is strengthened by the acknowledgement that they are written for internal use, that is, for use in congregational worship.”
Given their different origins in time and place, and the succession of “redactors” and copyists that transmitted them, it is no surprise that by the time the four Gospels began appearing (40 to 70 years after Jesus’ death) and by the time their contents were fixed as “canonical” (more than two and a half centuries after his death), there were many narrative and prescriptive differences between them. These included varied accounts of Jesus’ supposed genealogical descent from King David, (as fictional as King Herod’s supposed Davidic descent); when Jesus cleansed the Temple; when he died; events in his professed resurrection; and whether he permitted exception to remarriage after divorce. Such differences “could be multiplied several hundred-fold” (Petersen 2004, p. 53). Focusing on proclaiming their religious message, Gospel writers and redactors were unable, or felt little need, to distinguish between actual and imagined events. (See also Ehrman 2003, pp. 169–170.)
In addition to editorial differences and inventions, many obvious copying errors in Gospel manuscript transcriptions also raise questions about textual reliability. Ehrman (2003, p. 219): “We find that no two copies (except for the smallest fragments) agree in all their wording. There can only be one reason for this. The scribes who copied the texts changed them. Nobody knows for certain how often they changed them, because no one has been able yet to count all of the differences among the manuscripts. Some estimates put the number at around 200,000, others at around 300,000 or more. Perhaps it is simplest to express the figure in comparative terms: There are more differences among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.” According to Curry (p. 113), there are “about 500,000” textual variants among the more than 5,600 archaic Greek New Testament manuscripts now available, none of which are yet established as non-error originals.
For example, a fourth century New Testament manuscript, the Codex Sinaiticus, discovered in Mount Sinai’s St. Catherine’s Monastery, is estimated to bear over 24,000 changes. “There are insertions and deletions of single words or letters, minor substitutions, corrections and alterations to spelling, changes to accentuation and the modification of marks used to denote words which have been abbreviated. Substantial changes involving the substitution, deletion or addition of large changes of text are fewer. But there are still several hundreds of these, the count depending on where the cut-off point is chosen for the number of characters involved” (Cresswell, p. 60).
How then can one be sure of what one reads? “Is the text of the New Testament reliable? The reality is there is no way to know. If we had the originals, we could tell you. If we had the first copies, we could tell you. If we had copies of the copies, we could tell you. We don’t have copies in many instances for hundreds of years after the originals. There are places where scholars continue to debate what the original text said, and there are places where we will never know” (Ehrman 2011c, p. 27).
Since so many historical, editing, and transcriptional differences characterize the canonical books, the issue plaguing theologians (see, for example, Chapman) is how can secular language and transmission, with all their many limitations, preserve divine inspiration? That is, since canonization did not prevent a history of “revisions of revisions of revisions,” how can one discern that the Biblical editors, redactors, and error-prone copyists were so “divinely inspired” that every (or even any) word in the Bible, inconsistencies and contradictions notwithstanding, comes directly from God? Other than assumed “faith,” no theologian has ever shown that inspiration more “divine” than the “fleshly human” accounts for what we read in the Bible.
Nevertheless, questionable differences and origins were ignored, and the four New Testament Gospels were given the special status of “Apostolic Scriptures” in the third and fourth centuries. St. Augustine (ca. 400) rationalized they could not possibly contain any false or contradictory statements since they were divinely inspired by apostolic authors. “The confirmation of the universal and unquestionable truth of the Divine Scriptures have been delivered to us … by the apostles and have on this account been received as the authoritative canonical standard” (Letters LXXXII.7, NPNF Series 1, vol. 1, p. 351). “What is held by the whole Church, is rightly held to have been handed down by apostolic authority” (Ibid. On Baptism, Against the Donatists IV.24, NPNF Series 1, vol. 4, p. 461). That none of these “Apostolic Scriptures” were written by a Jesus disciple was a lack conveniently amended, as noted above, by providing apostolic names to each of them.
C. S. Evans (p. 155), a modern theologian, suggests that official clerical approval was sufficient to confer divine origin: “the fact that the Church recognized the books of the New Testament as canonical [apostolic] is itself a powerful reason to believe that these books are indeed the revelation God intended humans to have.” According to other theologians (e.g., Kruger), canonization of books in the New Testament were not determined by clerical choice but by their intrinsic “Holy Spirit,” recognized by those possessing “Holy Spirit.” However, which Holy-Spirited claimants were “orthodox” and which were not, was a contentious issue that required decision by conferences of the Christian Fathers. The criterion of divine inspiration thus really became a matter of clerical judgment and expediency. As Gamble put it (p. 72), New Testament writings “were judged to be inspired because they had previously commended themselves to the church for other, more particular and practical reasons.”
As to their content, Charlesworth points out (1988, p. 59) there is a “vast difference between the edited documents in the New Testament and the earlier traditions that lie behind them.” Some of these differences have been mentioned in Note #4, and others, along with their effects, have been taken up throughout this monograph. Although a persistent quest of many historians has been to find the “Historical Jesus,” reliable information obtained so far seems minimal and problematical (Zindler). As might be expected of writers unfamiliar with past unrecorded events, the New Testament reports little of who Jesus actually was: there is guesswork but no record of the years of his birth and death, and little, if anything, reliable about his development and personal history. Since we can so little depend upon historical accuracy in “Acts of the Apostles” (Smith and Tyson, and also discussed previously above), we can only be sure of the existence of St. James the Just (Yakov) and St. Peter (Shimon), evidenced in St. Paul’s letters. In general, we have negligible information about Jesus’ other male disciples in terms of names, numbers, backgrounds, and histories — and even less information about his female followers.
Very little is given of the relationship between the Jesus movement and that of John the Baptist who baptized Jesus. Water immersion (the “Mikvah”), a rite used by Jews to expunge outer impurity, was employed by John the Baptist to achieve repentance and forgiveness of sin (St. Mark 1.4). That supposedly sinless Jesus would have sought forgiveness of sin was an uncomfortable embarrassment to Christians that Gospel writers tried to explain away (e.g., St. Matthew 3.13–15), and St. John’s Gospel eliminated Jesus’ baptism entirely. St. Paul used baptism to transcend mere “repentance,” converting it into a mystical sacrament of being “baptized into Christ Jesus … so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6.3–5). Emulating magically dying and being reborn in contemporary “mystery” religions, Pauline baptism became the heart of Gentile Christian initiation.
Although there is no evidence that Jesus ever instituted baptism for his followers, we do know that Jesus’ theme of an imminent “Kingdom of God,” rewarding the righteous and condemning the wicked (St. Mark 1.15), was influenced by John the Baptist and most probably earlier Jewish prophets such as Isaiah (Note #15). As time went on, and the anticipated Kingdom failed to appear, it was turned into a future expectation (St. Matthew 24.44, St. Luke 12.40) which St. John’s Gospel (18.36) lengthened into something heavenly — “not from this world.”
In sum, the New Testament Gospels scaled down the twisted scramble of complex interacting events in first century Israel into a short tale about a man who lived in Israel’s Galilee and preached a coming “Kingdom of God” to his fellow Jews. Other than a religious agenda, New Testament stories offer only bare hints of the social, economic, and political influences affecting Jesus and motivating his actions (Note #15). We learn little of the oppressive role Imperial Rome played in Israel, nor of the corruptions of Israel’s aristocrats and leaders, nor of the stressful lives of Jesus’ Galilean audience. When Jesus’ ministry began and how long it lasted is also a mystery. Three of the New Testament Gospels shortened Jesus’ public appearances to only a single year and St. John’s to two years. What is mostly given in the Gospels is therefore what Christians were expected to believe about Jesus, framed in dutiful religious stories that lack credible evidence. “The canonical gospels of the New Testament shifted Jesus’ focus from social relations to relations between human beings and God. In this sense, the New Testament made an early contribution to obscuring the meaning of Jesus’ resistance” (Oakman 2008, p. 297).
Despite such failures, interspersed throughout these stories are bits of the historical Jesus that can be connected to the dynamic environment of the time — a prelude to the imminent Great Jewish Revolt of 66–72 C.E. (See Notes #4, #9, #15 and extensive reviews in Crossan 1991; Fredriksen 1999; Meier; Thiessen and Merz; Vermes 1973.) Theological myths about Jesus may obscure but do not completely hide “his first century context as both an apocalyptic prophet and a champion of social and economic justice for an oppressed people” (Gowler, p. 80).
As mentioned earlier (Note #4) contrary to what we might expect, St. Paul’s letters, earliest of New Testament writings, say little of historical Jesus, and according to Lüdemann’s analysis (2010, p. 212) “cannot be considered a reliable witness to either the teachings, the life, or the historical existence of Jesus.” St. Paul records almost nothing of Jesus’ sayings; nor anything of his earthly life; nor makes any mention of his trial, only that he was crucified; nor offers any hint that Jesus would have supported St. Paul in disputing Jewish notions of God, Mosaic Law, and Temple observances. To St. Paul, crucifixion transformed Jesus into a mystical occult figure “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live but it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2.19–20). According to Scroggs, (p. 111), St. Paul’s “lack of interest in the earthly Jesus’ comes from the view that Jesus’ primary importance to Christianity derives not from his life but from his believed resurrection, in which “Jesus has become Lord of the Cosmos.” (See also Notes #14, #22.)
It is clear that “canonization” of the New Testament completely ignored synagogues of Jewish Christians whose “traditions” were certainly more closely derived from Jesus and his immediate Jewish disciples than the “apostolic” traditions of “orthodox” Gentile Christian Churches. Sadly, within less than a century of Jesus’ death, Gospel writers attempted to turn the Jewishness of Jesus and his disciples into an unsanctified religion practiced by a demonical people (Notes #6, #8, #13).
In essence, New Testament writers transformed religious advocacy into biased dramatized history; in which Gospel “truth” became a distillation of Christian “faith” that far overshadowed historical “fact.” To modern Christian theologians, such stories of “faith” are euphemized as “traditional” or “collective memory,” and the “Divine Spirit” claimed to have guided the Gospels, is more important than Gospel reliability (Stewart, pp. 6–7). In the words of a notable Christian theologian: “Not the historical Jesus, but Jesus Christ, the preached Christ, is the Lord” (Bultmann, p. 208).
From all discussed so far, I believe it difficult to accept:
- Jesus’ illiterate Galilean Aramaic-speaking followers memorized — supposedly without fault or change — the events, interactions, and sayings ascribed to Jesus.
- Notwithstanding evidence that information is easily modified between hearers and speakers in chains of transmission, these “memories” were passed on orally for four or more decades after Jesus died— again supposedly without fault or change.
- Transmitted oral “memories” were then translated into the Greek language — again supposedly without fault or change —by later non-Galilean writers and editors who never saw or heard Aramaic-speaking Jesus.
- The Greek writings about Jesus were then copied and recopied — again supposedly without fault or change —by different copyists and editors, until four “Gospels” (those of Saints Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John) were given a combined “orthodox” status in the last quarter of the second century (182–188 C.E.) by St. Irenaeus, and subsequent copies of these Gospels “canonized” as divinely inspired by clerical Councils from the fourth century onward.
- The four “Gospels”, with all their many variations and erraticisms, must therefore represent unquestionably faithful accounts of exactly what was said by Jesus, exactly what Jesus experienced, exactly how Jesus acted, and exactly why and how he died.
As egregious as these factors are in accepting overt anti-Jewishness in Synoptic Gospel accounts (St. Mark, St. Matthew, and St. Luke), it is certainly even more egregious in accepting blatant Jew-hatred in St. John’s Gospel, which uses the term “Jew” 70 times — more than four times their combined usage in the other three Gospels.
St. John 5.10: “So the Jews said to the man who had been cured, ‘It is the Sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.’” 5.15–16: “The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. Therefore the Jews started persecuting Jesus because he was doing such things on the Sabbath.” 10.19–20: “Again the Jews were divided because of these words. Many of them were saying: ‘He has a demon and is out of his mind. Why listen to him?’” 10.24: “So the Jews gathered around him and said to him,…‘If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’” 10.31–33: “The Jews took up stones again to stone him…The Jews answered, ‘It is not for a good work we are going to stone you, but for blasphemy.’”
In all of St. John, Jesus is not a “Jew” but an “Israelite.” Only once — and that by a Samaritan woman used to characterize Jewish-Samaritan hostility— is Jesus called a “Jew” (4.9). Casey points out (2010, p. 28) that St. John divides Jesus’ audience into two ethnic groups (2.6): “‘the Jews’ and ‘his disciples’ even though all Jesus’ disciples were Jewish.” Some scholars claim that St. John’s use of the Greek name Ioudaioi meant local inhabitants of Judea in southern Israel (as opposed to Galileans?). But Judeans were Jews, and such circumlocution does little to diminish its pejorative usage. In St. John, Jesus’ sympathizers “fear Jews” from Galilee to Judea (17.13, 19.38, 20.19) including Israel’s synagogues (12.42). Similarly, St. John’s terms “King of the Jews” (18.33, 39; 19.3, 14, 15, 19, 21) and “Passover of the Jews” (2.13; 6.4, 11.35) obviously means all Jews, not just Jews in the Judean province (Tanzer, p. 113). Freyne (2014, p. 109) reports that “Judeans” was a literary term for all Jews by a second century B.C.E. author that refers to “the twelve tribes of the Judeans.” For Gospel readers and translators Ioudaioi remains “Jews” and, according to St. John, “Jews” are not merely ignorant but contemptible.
Reinhartz (p. 342): “…the Fourth Evangelist was less concerned to present a historical conflict between Jesus and the Jews than to set them up as two opposing poles of his Christology [Jesus’ divine attributes], his Soteriology [salvation through Jesus] and his narrative. That is, while the evangelist may have believed that a conflict between Jesus and the Jews had occurred, his concerns were more literary and theological than historical.” In St. John, not only is Jewish ancestry claimed to be of “the Devil,” and “Jews” are unrelenting enemies who seek to kill Jesus, but Jewish ritual observances are also rejected by Jesus. Since parables were a common Jewish teaching method, Jesus’ role as a Jewish teacher (Rabbi) is also denied by picturing him never uttering a single parable. It is also hard to imagine that St. John’s Gospel’s complex theological claims (e.g., 1.1-18) were supposedly written by one of Jesus’ countrified Galilean Jewish disciples (“the disciple whom Jesus loved” (21.20-24)), all of whom may have expected an imminent “Kingdom of God,” but none of whom displayed St. John’s Gospel’s theological sophistication, such as placing Jesus in Genesis.
“In the Gospel of John, the philosophical incorporation of anti-Judaic midrash [commentary] reaches the highest development in the New Testament. … we have two worlds: the spiritual world of light ‘above’ [non-Jewish Gentile Christianity] and the dark alienation from the divine ‘below’ [Jews and Judaism]” (Ruether 1974, p. 111). “By mythologizing the theological division between ‘man in God’ and ‘man alienated from God’ … John gives the ultimate theological form to that diabolizing of ‘the Jews’ which is the root of anti-Semitism in the Christian tradition” (Ibid., p. 116).
To Casey (1996, p. 228): “The history of Christian anti-Semitism is not only horrifyingly wicked: it is also centrally deceitful. The fourth Gospel is at the centre of this deceit. Here Jesus is wrongfully represented as condemning ‘the Jews.’ Here grounds such as his deity are put forward which were never put forward by him, and which safely ensured that Jews who maintained their identity, the same identities as that of Jesus and the first apostles, would turn down the Gospel and therefore suffer persecution. … This Gospel is a standing contradiction of the Jewish identity of Jesus and the first apostles. It is not a source of truth.”
Summarizing studies by a large number of Biblical scholars, Miller (1999, p. 143) points out: “The evangelists are interested in faith more than in facts. We also know that they felt free to invent facts by creating stories out of whole cloth if this would enhance their proclamation of faith.”
“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Letter to the Hebrews 11.1).