From Where Does Jesus Emerge? Part 1
As I look back over my several decades of interest in following Jesus, studying Jesus, seeking to become like Jesus, I see something curious. Until recent years, I was looking past a key question: “From where does Jesus emerge?”
Here’s a related question we also tend to give little thought to: “Why do we read of him as we do?” (That is, in the only first century–or so–books that say much about his biography and active life, the Gospels of our New Testament).
In other words, where, how and why does the story of Jesus emerge? I’ve spent a lot of hours (and enjoyable ones) pursuing the “historical Jesus” via the works of many more obsessed than I am to sort out the historical from the storied in relation to Jesus. As many others have noted, this is mostly intellectual gymnastics… it doesn’t result in many definitive answers. This is not to say it is worthless, by the way… just not able to satisfy the kind of curiosity many of us have had in the last 2-3 centuries in terms of “what really happened.”
Now, an important footnote on what is real history in the Gospels (and Acts, just following it in our New Testament): the traditional view that still guides a majority of American and world Christians is that it is all real history. Put in dramatic form sometimes, varying in details, but still dependably reflecting only things that really happened. Many Evangelicals focus particularly on the contention that the bodily resurrection of Jesus can be shown to be historical… that there is stronger evidence for it than for most ancient events that we take as historical.
If this is not your own view, you’ve probably heard about it: the “empty tomb”, the purported “eyewitness reports” and related points, mainly in the Gospels. There is a small bit of overlap in the writings of Paul, but with significant differences that the “historical” folks tend to pass by or make fit within their view. A great many scholars also find significance in the fact that Paul, despite writing at least several years, if not a few decades or more before the writing of the Gospels, nowhere says much about the human Jesus…. He gives no more than passing reference to just a couple aspects of Jesus’ life aside from his crucifixion and subsequent “appearances” Paul places under the concept of resurrection.
This “historicity” issue is important to the lives of many people, perhaps all of us, if traditional Christians are right… not just whether or not the bodily resurrection of Jesus is historical, but whether the entire picture and interpretation of Jesus in the New Testament are historically sound, accurate in substance if not in every detail (of course, many have it that every detail is accurate). It’s important because their view of God and how to find salvation revolves around it, not to mention guidance of their daily lives. Expected future events are also directly tied in… taking it into the realm of politics and international affairs.
The traditional answer as to where Jesus emerges from is that his story, as we get it, is what actually happened — the written form of what was reliably passed on by his direct followers and others “converted” soon after, such as Paul. Almost all historians, up to the present day, have concluded that Jesus did exist, that he was a teacher and perhaps more, and was crucified by the Romans. But not much is widely agreed on beyond that. So we get quickly into the realm of faith, of the development of religion and theology in the ancient near east, and of the nature and role of literature in that.
Most Christians and many other biblically literate people know that the four NT Gospels largely cover the same time period of Jesus’ life and relate many of the same events, sermons, miracles, etc. Some also realize that Matthew, Mark and Luke are often called the “synoptic” Gospels, in that they “see the same” basic things in Jesus’ life. That is, they cover much of the same material with seemingly similar interpretations. The Gospel of John, these people realize, presents Jesus in a significantly different light, with overlapping areas but many things not covered or presented in a different order than in the other three Gospels. Maybe most significantly, John presents Jesus as claiming deity quite directly, unlike the others. It is more philosophical, introducing Jesus under the commonly-known Greek concept of logos (generally translated “word” in John).
Fewer people are aware (or are willing to accept) that the case is quite strong that Mark was the earliest written Gospel… the other two “synoptics”, Matthew and Luke, almost certainly borrowing (without attribution) from it directly in many places, often using the very same Greek wording (the apparent language of composition). However, Matthew and Luke seem to also be inserting material and precise wording from another source we no longer have any copies of… something scholars long ago began calling the “Q” source, after the German word for source. So that is where I will leave Part 1 of “From Where Does Jesus Emerge?”…. That he emerges from apparently more than just oral traditions passed along and spread for a few decades after Jesus’ death, directly into our Gospels.
Since Mark is very likely the earliest (and shortest, by a good bit) of the Gospels, and may well have been preceded by a source we call Q, we want to look in Part 2 at its flavor and distinctives a little, and at the nature of literature it and the other Gospels represents…. What might such writings have been “up to”, as it were, and how were they likely to have been received by their original audiences?