Who on Earth was Jesus?: The Scholarship and Research (David Boulton)

  (11 November 09)


The Scholarship and the Research


Queensland SoF conference address, 11 September 2009

by David Boulton



Ten reasons for believing beer is better for your health than religion:



1.   No-one will kill you for not drinking beer


2.   No-one ever went to war on behalf of their favourite beer 


3.   No-one has been burnt at the stake for abstaining from beer


4.   They don’t force beer on children who can’t think for themselves


5.   When you have a beer you don’t knock on doors to try and give it away


6.   There are laws saying beer labels can’t lie to you


7.   Beer doesn’t tell you how to have sex


8.   Beer doesn’t tell you how not to have sex


9.   You can prove you have a beer


10.  You don’t have to wait 2000 years for a second beer


You may wonder what that’s got to do with historical Jesus scholarship. Well, I got it from that great, internationally renowned historical Jesus scholar Marcus Borg. He was asked at a Jesus Seminar meeting where was the best place for a non-specialist student of the historical Jesus to start, and he kindly mentioned my book. Very flattering, except that he got the title slightly wrong:  Who the Hell was Jesus?.  Anyway, by passing on his ten reasons why beer might be better for your health than religion I hope I can persuade you that even Biblical scholars occasionally step outside the academy and demonstrate that they too are human!


I want to begin with a story. Another Biblical scholar, Bart Ehrman, describes this story as “a tale of serendipity, ineptitude, secrecy, ignorance, scholarly brilliance, murder, and blood revenge”.


It is December 1945. A small group of Egyptian peasants are at work with their spades in a cave on a cliff-face by the banks of the Nile. They are digging for a natural nitrate fertiliser which they can bag up and sell to farmers in the local market at a village called Nag Hammadi, about forty miles north of Luxor. One of them gives a shout. His spade has hit what turns out to be a large red earthenware jar about two feet high and eighteen inches in circumference. Together the men dig it out and start arguing among themselves about whether to break it open. “No” says one, “it might contain an evil genie”. “Ah” says another, “but it may contain gold”. Greed or curiosity eventually get the better of fear and they break it open, to find nothing but bundles of old and crumbling leather-bound books.

Old books were not gold, but the peasants knew there were strange men in far-away Cairo who might be persuaded to part with a coin or two for such finds. So the books were divided among the group, which involved ripping some of them apart to ensure that everyone got an equal share. As the books disintegrated, most of the men decided they were worthless and left them littering the cave floor. But the leader - graced with the name Mohammed Ali - gathered most of the scattered remains in his turban and took them home. After his mother had used a few brittle leaves to light the fire, the rest were piled up in a corner of the goat shed.

There they might have rotted away unrecognised and unread except for the fortuitous circumstance of a blood feud and a triple murder. Six months earlier Ali’s father, employed as a night guard in a local storehouse, had shot and killed an intruder. A few days later the dead man’s family murdered Ali’s father in revenge. About a month after the discovery of the jar of old books Ali and his brothers found the opportunity to exact revenge on their father’s killer. Finding him asleep at the roadside, and probably drunk, they hacked him to death. This being an honour killing, they then cut out his heart and ate it. Aware that he’d be a prime suspect and that his home was likely to be searched, Ali gathered up some of the old documents from the goat shed and asked a local priest to look after them until the trouble blew over.

The priest had a brother-in-law who offered to take the documents to a Cairo dealer for sale on the black market, but when the Egyptian authorities got wind of the find they confiscated the lot. Eventually, after much haggling, the authorities licensed a sale to the Coptic Museum, where the leaves were finally recognized as ancient Christian documents. Most of the rest of the pile, which had been dispersed by Mohammed Ali, was tracked down, and an international team of experts under an American scholar, James Robinson, was assembled to photograph, translate and publish them.

What Ali and his friends had unearthed turned out to be by far the most important collection of early Christian writings to be discovered in modern times. Reassembled, in so far as that was still possible, the papyrus leaves made up twelve leather-bound volumes. The experts disentangled 46 different works - gospels and other treatises, some of which were duplications. Some were already known from fragments found elsewhere or from brief quotations in the writings of early church fathers, but some were wholly new to scholars. All were in the ancient Coptic language but appeared to be translations of Greek originals. They were unusually easy to date, since some of the leaves had been written on the back of merchants’ receipts conveniently dated to the years AD 341, 346 and 348. The Greek originals from which they had been translated were obviously earlier, some apparently dating back to the early second century.

Why were these copies stuffed into a jar and buried under a cliff  in the second half of the fourth century?  It is no coincidence that they were hidden away just as the notoriously authoritarian Bishop Athanasius of the Egyptian province of Alexandria (which included Nag Hammadi) was demanding that the churches under his jurisdiction  adopt his 27-book canon – what we now know as the New Testament – declaring  other early Christian literature unscriptural or heretical, and forbidding its use. Athanasius produced his canon in AD 367, the Pope endorsed it in 382, and the Synod of Carthage followed suit in 397.  Bart Ehrman speculates that monks at a nearby monastery “felt the pressure from on high and cleaned out their library to conform with the dictates of the powerful bishop of Alexandria”. But instead of destroying them, the monks sealed the books in a jar and buried them in the wilderness for safe-keeping against the day when bishops and popes would see the light and authorise a return to the use of a wider range of Christian literature.

That day never came, and there they remained for 1600 years till Mohammed Ali and his gang dug them up, passed them to a local priest to avoid their being confiscated as potential evidence in a police murder hunt, so beginning the strange sequence of events that ended with the tattered pages landing on James Robinson’s desk.

Once scholars got wind of these finds there was great excitement. Among the newly discovered books  were several hitherto unknown gospels: a Secret Book of James, a Gospel of Philip, a book called The Dialogue of the Saviour, and a collection of Jesus sayings called The Gospel of Thomas. But even as scholars began to assess the worth of this discovery, another astonishing find was made in 1947 in another set of caves overlooking the Dead Sea near Jericho.  Together, the Dead Sea Scrolls, dating from the period immediately before the birth of Jesus, and the Nag Hammadi gospels, dating from the early Christian era, were to revolutionise the study of Christian origins – and Christian origins had to begin with Jesus. Half a century after the quest for the historical Jesus had seemed to run into the ground, it was back on the agenda, with a vengeance.

At first, scholars held out the hope that the Nag Hammadi texts would help them fill in the gaps in their knowledge of the life of Jesus. Would they throw light on his childhood, his early ministry with John the Baptist, the meaning of his “kingdom” parables? Would they help resolve some of the contradictions in the canonical narratives, such as the conflicting passion stories in the synoptic gospels and John? Would they provide new, plausibly authentic Jesus sayings?

I shall try to say this without a trace of envy: A number of writers and commentators have made small fortunes by sensationalising the Nag Hammadi finds, serving up a married Jesus, a gay Jesus, a Gnostic-mystery Jesus, a coded Jesus. Few of these commentators have any knowledge of the languages in which these texts are written, or of the social matrix in which they were produced.  The overwhelming majority of mainstream critical scholars and experts whose life’s work is the analysis and interpretation of early Christian documents would come to a less sensational conclusion. As the books were painstakingly reassembled and translated it became clear that, while they certainly threw new light on the diversity of the Christian church in the second and third centuries, when it came to the life and teachings of the early first century Jesus they simply added new layers of myth, legend, and pious fable, patently constructed to fit a variety of divergent theologies. The one possible exception was the so-called Gospel of Thomas, which I’ll come back to later.

What other sources were there if the Dead Sea Scrolls were too early to offer anything but context, and the Nag Hammadi hoard too late to give  historically reliable information on the life and teaching of the historical Jesus. What about secular sources?

Intensive research turned up nothing of substance. The earliest is a reference in the so-called Mara letter to the execution of an unnamed “wise king of the Jews”, which appears to date from the mid-70s. There’s a much disputed reference in Josephus from the 90s which shows clear signs of having been interpolated by Christian editors many years, perhaps centuries, later. And there are enigmatic references by Pliny the Younger, Tacitus and Seutonius from the first quarter of the second century. At most, these references, where they are authentic, confirm that Roman sources were aware of a religious movement named after someone long dead called Christ. That’s hardly surprising, given the number of Christian communities spread across the Roman empire by the turn of the century.  What about rabbinic Jewish references? There are none of any significance that can be reliably dated till even later.

So historical Jesus scholars found themselves driven back to critical Bible study, focused on the four Biblical gospels authorised by Athanasius: Mark from the 70s, Matthew from the 80s, Luke from the 90s, and John from the turn of the century. (The dating is disputed, of course, but these round figures lie within a mainstream of scholarly consensus). These late first century books began to be subjected to a new round of  intense critical enquiry involving literary analysis, modern textual and form criticism, and scientific investigation drawing on a complex tool-kit developed for cross-cultural studies in historiography, anthropology and sociology. In other words, they began to be analysed as human artifacts, the literary products of particular human communities which were themselves the product of a particular time, place and culture.

What did the gospel narratives of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John look like when viewed, not as holy scripture mystically and magically conveying God’s word and divine truth, but as wholly human products?

Well, they looked very different! First, if they were human they were fallible. If they were fallible, there was work to be done to sort out the history from the mystery, the plausible from the implausible, the hard fact from the soft spin.  And where was an authentic Jesus buried in all this? And if we could find him, would he be a Jesus remembered, or a Jesus reconstructed?: a Jesus remembered as he really was, and for what he really said, or a Jesus reconstructed to meet the needs of the communities that had first followed him as a teacher, then venerated him as a prophet, then worshipped him as a god in heaven?

Let’s return for a moment to those long-lost, long hidden gospels that were dug up in a cave, wound into Mohammed Ali’s spacious turban, and survived old Mrs Ali’s taste for cheap kindling. The scholars who examined them had identified them as theological treatises: not histories, not biographies, but collections of stories and sayings, sermons and songs, poems and prophecies, dire threats and glorious promises wrapped in mythological, soteriological and gnostic imagery. Few of the texts appeared to be the work of a single author, even when they carried an apostolic name. Rather, they were understood as compilations put together by teams of editors, scribes, and copyists. They were communal scriptures, each the work of a distinct Christian community doing what communities do: telling stories and weaving words to try and make sense of their world, their faith, their hope of salvation.

So, if that’s what second and third century gospels were, why, scholars began to ask, should we expect first century gospels to be any different?  Is the so-called Gospel According to St Mark the work of an historian or biographer named Mark, sitting in his study and organising his oral history research into a good read? Probably not. Most likely it was put together by a Christian community in the mid 70s, perhaps one that revered Mark as its founder or leader. The community that produced it was evidently one of the Jesus-movement communities that followed Paul’s theology. Ten years later, another Christian community, now engaged in fierce controversy with the emerging rabbinic Judaism movement, put together a different narrative, emphasising the divine messiahship of Jesus as signalled by a miraculous birth story concocted from a mix of Jewish scriptures and Greek and Roman mythology. This gospel came to be attributed to one Matthew. Ten years on, another writer who may or may not have been called Luke offered a different slant (and a no less creative but quite different miraculous birth story) aimed primarily at a gentile constituency. And at the end of the century yet another Christian community produced a fourth gospel about a very different Jesus who addresses his followers like a Greek orator, in long literary discourses, as befits a being who is presented as nothing less than the incarnation of the one true God. Four gospels from four different Christian communities in four different decades, all looking at an early first century Jesus from the radically changing social and religious perspectives of the late first or early second century. Where on earth in this complex tangle of tales and polemics are we to find the real Jesus? Will the real Jesus please stand up!

The only known Christian literature bridging the gap between Jesus’ ministry in the very early AD 30s and the gospels of the end of the century were Paul’s letters, written in the 50s. Paul gives us the earliest known written reference to Jesus, his entrance into the historical record, as it were, in the first verse of his first letter to the Christian community at Thessalonica, written in late 50 or early 51: “Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ”. For Paul, the human Jesus has already been transformed into the Lord and the Christ. In this and all Paul’s letters over the next ten or twelve years, Jesus is a spirit in Heaven. If Paul knew anything of Jesus’ life on Earth, or anything of his teaching, he says virtually nothing of it any of his epistles to the churches he has founded. Nothing of Jesus’ kingdom teaching, nothing of his parables, nothing of what he said or did. Paul’s concern was Jesus’ death and resurrection, not his life and teaching; his divinity, not his humanity. Indeed, it may fairly be said that Paul’s concern was his own teaching rather than that of Jesus. That first letter to the Thessalonians is addressed to “followers of us and the Lord”: in that order, perhaps.

With the late first century gospels, then, as the best available source material, the task was to sort out what the historical Jesus really said in the early AD 30s from what the evangelists at the end of the century said he’d said. This is where different schools of scholarship come into play. Some said it couldn’t be done: we are stuck with the Jesus of the gospel literature, with all its inconsistencies and contradictions. He’s the only Jesus we can ever hope to know, just as the only King Arthur we can know is the Arthur of the sum total of Arthurian legends. Others proposed that the key was Jesus’ identity as a Jewish teacher: those of his sayings that reflected the orthodox Jewish teachings of his day are likely to be authentic, whereas those that challenged received wisdom are likely to reflect the views of later Christians who were distancing themselves from traditional orthodox Judaism. Another school took exactly the opposite view:  a Jesus who preached conventional Jewish wisdom, they said, would soon have been forgotten like all the other conventional rabbis of his day. It was precisely where Jesus breaks the rules, defies the conventions and challenges the authorities that his authentic voice is likely to be found.

Much of this controversy in the 1960s and 70s was centred in the European academies. But by the 1980s a distinctive American scholarship began to make an impact. This too had its roots in Europe, with the discoveries of three German scholars. Way back in 1835 Karl Lachmann had drawn attention to the fact that Matthew and Luke agreed in the order of their material only when they followed Mark. In 1838 Christian Wilke drew the obvious conclusion that Mark must have preceded the other two: not the traditional Matthew/Mark/Luke sequence but Mark first, then, Matthew, then Luke. In the same year, Christian Weisse put the pieces together and proposed that Matthew and Luke had written independently of each other, each drawing on two sources, one being Mark and the other an older but now lost collection of sayings of Jesus, which Weisse called Quelle, German for “source” – or Q for short.

It was this Q hypothesis that American scholars began to re-examine and explore more than a century later in the late 1970s and 80s, led by James Robinson, fresh from his work on the Nag Hammadi texts, and colleagues John Kloppenborg, Stephen J Patterson and others as founders of the International Q Project at the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity, Claremont, California.  The Q theorists picked out all the material that was common to Matthew and Luke and reassembled it to reveal the text of what they claimed was the hypothetical “lost gospel”. In 1988 Kloppenborg published Q Parallels in Greek, with an English translation, discussion of variant readings, parallels from other sayings literature, and a Greek concordance. Burton Mack followed five years later in 1993 with his own more colloquial translation, published as The Lost Gospel.

Q, they argued, had begun with small collections of Jesus sayings made by his followers as early as the 50s or late 40s. The trail was now picked up by European scholars.  Lutheran sociologist and theologian Gerd Theissen at Heidelberg and his colleague Annete Merz, detected material which they dated as early as AD 39 or 40, relating it to what they recognised as “clear allusions to the surmounting of the Caligula crisis” of those years. They also argued that “the image of the Pharisees as persecutors of  Christians is to be located historically in the 40s and early 50s”. Moreover, the fact that the only place names in Q are towns and villages in northern Galilee (Chorazin, Bethsaida, Capernaum) or neighbouring western Syria (Tyre, Sidon), they saw as evidence that the text originated with Jesus communities in or near his home territory of Galilee.

This was reinforced by linguistic evidence. Theissen and Merz noted that some of the wisdom sayings “clearly go back to Aramaic logia [or sayings collections] and thus to the beginnings of the tradition... Form-critically the logia source is to be described as a collection of sayings in which the teaching of Jesus has been preserved”. They concluded: “The sayings were probably collected and disseminated by the earliest Christian itinerant charismatics, who continued  the lifestyle and preaching of Jesus”.  

By the mid 1990s Q could no longer be regarded as a crazy Californian confection. It was recognised by a growing number of scholars in America and Europe as the earliest of all historical Jesus sources: the book of the Jesus movement before the Jesus movement went Christian. Q has no narrative structure. It consists almost entirely of sayings attributed to Jesus. It is also almost entirely free of high Christological titles. These are the sayings of a beloved and revered wisdom teacher, a sage, a prophet, a role model, understood to be a messenger from God. But he has yet to be elevated – perhaps we should say trivialised – as a god incarnate. All that comes later.

Noticeably absent from Q, and therefore from the theology of the earliest Jesus communities which produced it, is any biographical framework. There are no extended stories of miracles, healings or exorcisms. No miraculous birth, no passion, no cross, no resurrection, no ascension, no atoning sacrifice. Jesus is called both son of God and son of Man, but it seems that these terms have yet to acquire the high Christological meanings attached to them by the later church. The community responsible for creating Q did not seek to define the status of Jesus but to revere him and live his way.

Of course, the Q hypothesis didn’t and doesn’t convince everyone. You won’t find it preached from many pulpits, since it suggests a stark distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of the Church, a distinction traditional theologians vigorously deny.  I don’t have time, within the compass of a single lecture, to spell out their arguments here, but I hope I accord them proper consideration, and represent their views fairly and accurately, in Who on Earth was Jesus?. More to my immediate point is the fact that a number of scholars outside the churches have also remained sceptical. Some argue that material common to Matthew and Luke can be explained by Luke copying it straight from Matthew. This is countered by the International Q Project team’s assertion that “the high degree of verbal identity in the Q sayings of Matthew and Luke makes it apparent they were working from a shared Greek text. Each could not have translated from Aramaic to Greek, independently of the other, into such highly similar, often identical, Greek language”.  

Another argument against Q was that there was no known genre of  “sayings gospel” into which Q could plausibly be fitted, but this argument collapsed on translation and publication of the full text of the Gospel of Thomas from the Nag Hammadi hoard, which turned out to be just that: a sayings gospel. The Jesus Seminar included Thomas in their colour-coded collection of “the Five Gospels”, describing it as “an entirely independent sayings gospel, parts of which may be as old as Q... [Its discovery] demonstrated that a form of gospel literature consisting of sayings actually existed and was in use among some early Christian group”. Some scholars place Q and Thomas together as witnesses to the pre-Christian Jesus: Jesus BC. Others reject both, denying Q altogether and dating Thomas, or at least parts of it, to the mid second century. We laymen can only take up ringside seats and make the best we can of these scholarly spats. One of my aims with Who on Earth was Jesus? has been to offer the interested general reader just such a ringside seat.

Even among scholars committed to the Q hypothesis there are arguments. (Well, what else would you expect from an academic community?). If Q is reconstructed from everything common to Matthew and Luke we have a complex document which seems to consist of several distinct parts. Wisdom sayings and aphorisms divorced from any narrative context form by far the greatest part, but there are also stories with a punch-line saying, and, confusingly, sayings which both support and subvert apocalyptic interpretations of Jesus’ kingdom teaching. Q, then, is not entirely free of the puzzles that plague the narrative gospels. Burton Mack, a key Q scholar who has worked on the texts independently of the International Q Project, argues that on the key question whether Jesus belonged to the apocalyptic school of prophesy which was rampant in his day, or subverted contemporary end-time kingdom preaching to conjure up an alternative way of living based on his own ethical and wisdom teachings, Q seems powerless to adjudicate because it contains sayings that support both views of Jesus. This is one of the primary themes discussed at length in Who on Earth was Jesus? which I don’t have time to develop in this talk, but which you may want to discuss at further sessions of this conference.

John Kloppenborg explains the puzzles and apparent inconsistencies by proposing that Q was never a stable collection of Jesus sayings. Like Topsy, and indeed like all ancient texts, it grew. Copyists and redactors made additions and amendments. Kloppenborg suggests that the Galilee-linked sayings belong to the earliest layer or edition of Q, a Q1, with the punchline stories and end-time prophesies representing later additions, Q2 and Q3 respectively.

Most of Q1 may date from the 40s or 50s, when followers of Jesus in and around Galilee began to commit the remembered sayings of the master to writing for the first time. This involved translating them from the local Aramaic dialect, the spoken language of Jesus and his immediate disciples, to the literary language of Greek. But we are still left with an old question in a new form. The old question was, What fills the gap between Jesus’ death and the writing of the narrative gospels 40 to 70 years later? The new question is, What fills the gap between Jesus’ death and the writing of Q1 some 20 years later? Twenty years is a shorter gap than 40, but it’s still a gap?  How were Jesus’ sayings remembered, recorded and spread in those 20 years? And crucially, can we rely on twenty-year-old memories to provide us with a reliable and authentic account of what Jesus really said?

Yes, says James Dunn, a British scholar with conservative theological views in general and a scathing critic of the Jesus Seminar in particular. He usefully reminds us that in early first century Galilee, Judea and Syria the literacy rate was something between two and ten percent of the population. This was an oral, not a literary culture, in which stories and sayings were committed to memory by repetition. Dunn proposes that shortly after Jesus’ death, and perhaps even before it, during his ministry, his followers began to commit to memory his sayings, and stories of his deeds, by fashioning them into a kind of litany. A sequence of sayings, such as what came to be called “the sermon on the mount”, is just such a litany, it is claimed, and the so-called “Lord’s prayer” another. Dunn envisages small groups of Jewish Jesus-followers meeting in each other’s homes, and perhaps even in the local synagogue, to recite, chant, or even sing the sayings of their master. In the absence of the written word, or at least its unavailability to any but a small elite, recitation and repetition reinforced the memory, if not of Jesus’ exact words, of the core and gist of his message.

For Dunn, however, this does away with the need of a Q hypothesis. He appears to envisage these early litanies being orally repeated all the way from Jesus’ lips to the writing of the four Biblical gospels many decades later. Conservative churchmen like this idea, as it offers a respectable rationale for accepting the Biblical gospels in their entirety as miraculously accurate accounts of Jesus’ life, words and deeds.

A more critical scholarship, on the other hand, is open to the idea that the sayings were remembered in something like the way Dunn suggests, but finds it more likely that both oral repetition and written copies will have suffered the ideological and editorial corruption in the long transmission process.

I am not qualified to adjudicate between these different scholarly opinions. Moreover, in the Quakerly spirit of conflict resolution, I suggest we don’t need to do so!  I’m going to invoke both an oral and a written tradition in support of the following sequence of events: seven stages in the birth, life and death of Q.

  • Stage 1.  AD early 30s: Jesus preaches the good news of the coming kingdom in parables and wisdom sayings. His followers begin to collect them, memorising them in Aramaic litanies patterned on those familiar to them in regular synagogue worship.
  • Stage 2.  AD 30s and 40s: As the Jesus movement spreads among the Galilean Jewish communities, these litanies become formalised as the orally transmitted gospel of the new Jesus sect.
  • Stage 3.  In the late 40s or early 50s, more or less parallel with the rise of Pauline Christianity around the Mediterranean, the increasingly isolated Galilean Jesus movement begins to commit its oral litanies to writing. This involves translating the sayings from spoken Aramaic to written Greek. The earliest written gospel takes shape. We call it Q1.
  • Stage 4.  AD 60s and early 70s: As a written document, Q1 is now copied and circulated, copied and circulated, copied and circulated... Copying often results in changes as the scribe, perhaps the leader of a particular community, reformulates one saying to conform to his own theological understanding, adds another, drops another. So Q1 grows, and becomes Q1, 2 and 3, probably in variant editions.
  • Stage 5.  Meanwhile, beyond the boundaries of Galilee, the Jesus movement is attracting a mix of Hellenised Jews and “God-fearing” Gentiles. A new Christian literature is coming into being, focused not on the sayings of Jesus but on the claim of his divine status, on the meaning of his death as a sacrifice for human sin, and on his resurrection as a promise of eternal life to all believers. This is Pauline Christianity, and its earliest scriptures are Paul’s letters. The Galilean Q community knows little or nothing of this; and the Pauline communities know little or nothing of Q.
  • Stage 6.  After the catastrophe of the sacking of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, Jews, including Jesus-movement Jews, are scattered. Christian communities of Jews and gentiles now look to Greek models of heroic story-telling to construct new narrative gospels, aiming to marry the human Jesus to Paul’s divine saviour. Mark seems unaware of Q, but Matthew and Luke make use of it, interpreting and elaborating the text to fit their own agendas.
  • Stage 7.  Henceforth it is the new narrative gospels that are endlessly copied and circulated.  Q is no longer copied. “Out of print” and “remaindered”, it lingers for a while among isolated groups of Christians resisting Pauline theology before disappearing from sight, until it exists only as a ghost embedded in Matthew and Luke, to be disinterred nearly two thousand years later by historical Jesus detectives..


Is that going too far? After all, Q remains a hypothesis. No-one has found an original, or a copy of an original. But remember, no-one has found an original, or a copy of an original, of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Thomas, or Paul’s letters – or, for that matter, of the works of Socrates and Aristotle!  At best we have copies of copies of copies, made years after their composition. Once Q had been copied into Matthew and Luke, there was no point in continuing to copy and circulate it in its now redundant form. The Galilean Jesus movement was now effectively absorbed within the dominant Pauline tendency that was to solidify into catholic orthodoxy over the next two centuries.

I suggest that the seven-stage process I have tried to summarise offers the best explanation of how the sayings of Jesus were remembered and recorded over that half-century between his death and the writing of the Biblical gospels. And I further suggest that the work of the Q Project team and the Jesus Seminar scholars who worked with them offers our best hope of hearing again, across the centuries, if not the precise words of the historical Jesus, at least the core and gist of his vision. Or, as the late Bob Funk put it, “Together those fragments provide us with glimpses of the historical figure. Since his vision was neither more nor less than a glimpse, the best we can hope for is a glimpse of his glimpse”.

After all, the Jesus of Q is the Jesus of the sermon on the mount: the Jesus who challenged the religious, political and social power-structures of his day. What on Earth has this Jesus in common with the cultic, celestial, enthroned Christ of Faith constructed by popes, priests and presbyters? “Sadly,” writes Don Cupitt in his latest book, Jesus and Philosophy, “the cult of Jesus’ person has diminished him, and in the long run seems to have made him into a curiously embarrassing figure, weak, reproachful and androgynous. As for the Jesus of St John’s Gospel who delivers lengthy and awkward speeches about himself, saying ‘I am’ this or that, he reminds us of the feminist Christmas card on which one sister observes to another: ‘After all, the birth of a man who thinks he’s God in not exactly an unusual event’.”

This, then, is the gift of historical Jesus scholarship: a human Jesus rescued from the misty-mystical, mythological and theological overlays that turned him into the cultic Christ of Faith.




Fascinating! See my book BE DONE ON EARTH. www.howardofathens.com/

Posted by Howard E. Cook

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