The gospels

The story of how the four Gospels of the New Testament came into being is a fascinating one.

According to the best estimates, Jesus died around 30 AD. Apparently the first written document describing Jesus is something called "Q" by scholars (after a German word meaning "source").

No copy of "Q" has ever been found. But scholars are sure that it existed (we'll get to how they know that a little bit later), and they've been able to reconstruct it from evidence in the other gospels.

"Q" was apparently written down somewhere between 5 to 20 years after Jesus' death, which would place it around 35 AD to 50 AD.

The interesting thing about "Q" is that it says nothing about Jesus' death and resurrection. It only talks about what Jesus said—his message, his wisdom, his teaching, his sayings. That is apparently what was most important.

Fast forward to the gospel of Mark. Mark was written about 70 AD, approximately 40 years after Jesus' death, and shortly after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem. The original and most reliable manuscripts of Mark simply end with the discovery of an empty tomb where Jesus' corpse is supposed to be.

Later commentators would not let this stand. Mathew, Luke and John, all writing later, would add to the story by telling how Jesus re-appeared to his followers. Even the original manuscript of Mark was later altered by scribes to add the story of the resurrection.

In 1945 at Nagamati, Egypt, one of the most important archealogical finds of all time was made accidentally by a local villager. In a cave above the river Nile he found a six-foot clay jar which contained 52 different texts of early Christianity in 13 volumes written on papyrus. (What he found was considered so unimportant at first that his mother put some of the texts in the fire as firewood.)

Among the texts were a number of different gospels, including the gospels of Thomas, Phillip, Andrew, Mary Magdelene and others. The most significant one is a complete text of the gospel of Thomas.

In these gospels, the familiar earthy, poetic and heartful tone of Jesus appears but in slightly different form. Sometimes the sayings are nearly the same, but a line or two will be added or subtracted. Then there are other sayings that don't appear in the four canonical gospels (Mark, Mathew, Luke, John) at all.

One of the significant things about the gospels found at Nagamati is that none of them mention the resurrection. They simply talk about Jesus' life and remarkable teachings.

Apparently, what set Jesus apart for his contemporaries was not that he did miracles—miracle-workers were actually a dime a dozen in those days—but his presence, and what he said, and how he said it, and the love with which he said it. That's what was first written down.

Mathew and Luke both wrote their gospels around 15 to 20 years after Mark, placing them about 85 to 90 AD. According to all textual evidence, they clearly had Mark's gospel in front of them when they wrote. According to scholars, the 16 chapters of Mark formed the core for the gospels of Mathew and Luke.

But those gospel writers had something else in front of them too. Jesus spoke in Aramaic, but Mathew and Luke were writing in Greek. And many of the sayings in their texts are exactly alike. If they were translating from the Aramaic, the sayings would have come out slightly differently, but they didn't.

Clearly, they had something else in front of them besides Mark—and that is what scholars call "Q". As reconstructed by scholars, "Q" talks only about the sayings and teachings of Jesus; it says nothing about the resurrection.

Neither does the original gospel of Mark, or the gospels of Thomas, Phillip, or any of the others discovered at Nagamati. But now, in Mathew and Luke, the story of the resurrection is added.

The gospel writers were not historians. There are many biographical details about Jesus' life that they weren't interested in telling us. What they were writing was more like what we would call an "infomercial" today. They were trying to advertise this new Jesus movement.

In fact, the writer of Luke, who also wrote the Book of Acts—scholars now refer to it as Luke-Acts, a two-part document—was writing what many see as an early Christian romance novel. It has shipwrecks, exotic animals, cannibalistic natives and other stylistic flourishes. The wider Greek literary community of that time—to which the gospel of Luke was perhaps aimed—would have felt right at home with it.

After the brutal Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 AD, the writers of the gospels were trying to make the story of Jesus as attractive as possible—not only to promulgate the movement, but to console the extreme anxiety and helplessness felt in the Jewish community at that time. A messiah was needed who was not only a healer, but capable of "coming back" and setting things straight.

John, writing his gospel somewhere between 100 AD and 115 AD, or approximately 70 to 85 years after Jesus' death, also adds a story of the resurrection.

In the gospel of John, Jesus takes on a whole new tone in which he says things like, "I'm the light of the world and you can only get to God through me," and so on, a type of statement which is entirely missing from the other gospels, where Jesus seems much more down-to-earth.

Impartial scholars are pretty much agreed that Jesus almost certainly didn't say those kinds of statements, and that John put his own philosophical views in Jesus' mouth. Why? Because he knew they would be taken much more seriously that way.

It's worth noting that the various gospels of Jesus, both canonical and non-canonical, tell a number of different accounts of his life and teachings. By the second century AD, there were all sorts of sects of Christians, each with a different emphasis on Jesus' life and teachings.

Fast forward to the 3rd century AD. Now the influential Bishop Irenaeus determined that there should be four and only four gospels. After all, four was the perfect number. There were four winds, four seasons, four beasts in the Apocalypse, and so on. Shouldn't there just be four gospels?

The four gospels selected—Mark (the later version that had another ending tacked on), Mathew, Luke and John—just happened to be the ones that talked about Jesus' resurrection. Because Irenaeus, a couple of centuries after Jesus' death, believed in the resurrection, that was the main criterion he used for selecting his gospels.

He called these the "orthodox" gospels, meaning "straight thinking," just as "orthodontia" means "straight teeth." And the other gospels he called "heretical," meaning "other than straight."

A few decades later, in the early decades of the fourth century AD, the emperor Constantine converted to "orthodox" Christianity, and immediately set about ruthlessly suppressing all "heretical" versions of the new religion.

We can judge how serious he was about this by looking at what happened to anyone teaching "heretical" Christianity at that time—they had molten lead poured down their throats. Think about it.

The result was that all other versions of Christianity disappeared except for the "orthodox" version—the gospels of Mathew, Mark, Luke and John—which were made the official canon. All other Christian gospels and sects were systematically destroyed in the 320's AD.

On the positive side, Constantine caused many Christian churches to be built and many bibles (official ones, of course) to be copied and distributed. This version of Christianity, then, with its "orthodox" version of Jesus, now joined together with the Roman Empire to become the official religion.

And that is the partial story, in my limited understanding at least, of the first few centuries of Jesus—the healing teacher from Nazareth, the man with the remarkable heart and wisdom and depth, the being whose teachings are poetry itself—after his early departure.

—jim sloman, for 1/21/02

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