From Where Does Jesus Emerge? Part 3
For over a century at least three phases of the “quest for the historical Jesus” have dug about as deep as is possible to discover who and what Jesus really was in his time and place, as a Jew in Galilee and eventually Jerusalem. Scholars have thrilled at the search and published many books, created films, etc. that much of the public, Christian or “secular”, has consumed with real interest.
Only in the last couple decades have a more limited number of scholars turned as seriously to understanding how the story of Jesus, as we receive it in the New Testament, developed. Their view, with many others, is that the quest for the historical Jesus has yielded all it is likely to. And that is not very much. As I stated in parts 1 and 2 of this series, which I encourage you to read or re-read here and here, there is little that seems historically verifiable about Jesus beyond his existence, his being an influential teacher and his crucifixion around 28 to 30 C.E.
The limited status of our knowledge of Jesus outside the stories in documents of faith (theology, polemics, etc. embedded) that we have in the New Testament (NT) primarily, is related to our topic of the “emergence” of Jesus…. That is, his emergence in the overlapping stories of him recorded in the late first century, mainly in the four “Gospels”.
I say “mainly” in the Gospels because we do have compelling evidence of at least one document created earlier, which no one has found an actual copy of. (This “Q” document fairly clearly emerges from exact or approximate quotations from some “source” — quelle in German — that are in common in Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels and are not in Mark, though its outline is generally followed by both those Gospels.) We also have a few limited statements about the human Jesus in Paul’s writings of mainly the 50s C.E., pre-dating the Gospels. Then we have the Gospel of Thomas which has proven difficult to date, as are the canonical Gospels, but may have been first century as well, roughly contemporary or possibly even earlier than our NT Gospels. To be complete, there are a few other “church” (or Jewish-Christian) documents from perhaps the first century (dating again disputed) that relate to Jesus but give us little in terms of his life.
What “Q”, called a “sayings” document, seems to be telling us is quite important. When combined with other evidences and the existence of “Thomas” in a similar sayings format and overlapping about 30% in specific sayings, it indicates that Jesus’ earliest followers apparently thought of themselves as a “school” following the teachings of Jesus. They were not dealing in the realm of a new religion.
Such schools were common in the Greco-Roman world, including in areas with heavy Jewish populations. This definitely involved Galilee and perhaps all of Palestine. (Jewish historian of the first century, Josephus, refers to Sadducee, Pharisee and Essene teachings as “philosophies”.) Galilee had long been an ethnically mixed area with many non-Jews (Gentiles) and a strong Roman presence and influence. And Greek was commonly spoken along with Aramaic, Greek being the predominant literary language, including that of the Jewish Scriptures by Jesus’ time (translation called the Septuagint).
A key feature of such “schools” for our purposes was that they would continue to add to teachings of their founders after their deaths. In so doing, they would generally attribute these elaborations directly to the departed teacher. This seems clearly the dynamic at work in both “Q”, much or all of which was incorporated into our Gospels, and “Thomas”.
In Parts 1 and 2 we have seen the broad social unrest during Jesus’ days and leading up to the major revolt of 66 C.E. The war itself, ending with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70, represented the near-total disruption of Jewish society on all levels. The Jesus schools, in probably more than one form, along with the unique Jewish-Gentile blend of emerging Christian faith invented mostly by Paul, were fairly well rooted by now. But they were still only a tiny percentage of the population either inside or outside geographic Israel.
So the stage is set for why and how the Gospel of Mark would emerge when it did and lead to the writing of numerous similar gospels, three of which came to be included in our New Testament. What the Gospel of Mark mainly does is tell the story of Jesus as a man, set in the context of his time and place forty-some (or more) years earlier, prior to the massive upheaval of the war. Whether the war itself prompted the desire for biographical information, or at least a written narrative on Jesus by the various Jesus-follower groups I can’t say. (And there were at least a few such distinct groups, if not several, both supporting and competing with each other and probably with a continuing set of John the Baptist follower groups as well.)
What is clear is that the social-religious situation, particularly in Israel but also more broadly, changed more rapidly because of the war, stimulating further need to elaborate and define new social-religious groupings and ways of living and viewing the world.
What Mark and the other NT Gospels did in their time, among other things, was support the believers of the authors’ specific local (or extended) group(s). Matthew may be the clearest example of this. This author (his actual identity is unknown) pretty clearly is battling the Pharisee “establishment”, as it had emerged predominant in Jewish society at the expense of the Sadducees (who had largely been economic/political collaborators with Rome in ruling prior to the war). While probably influenced by Paul’s teachings and successes, as Mark had been, Matthew records Jesus as teaching more clearly and extensively about keeping the law (Torah), while following Jesus as a vindicated martyr.
Luke, in both his gospel and in Acts, is seriously concerned to present the new “church” as unified and inclusive of both Jews and Gentiles, with more about Jesus supposedly appealing to all of humanity rather than reaching out only to “the house of Israel”. John, significantly beyond the other three “Synoptic Gospels”, presents Jesus as the pre-existent “logos” (or “Word”) of God, who himself clearly claimed deity.
So, rather than merely slightly different angles of perspective on Jesus in the Gospels, as is the traditional Christian view, Jesus emerges, first in Mark, and then in the other Gospels, in the form in which each pertinent community has come to honor and/or worship him.
There is much more to be said about the social/mythological/theological development of Jesus in the NT and other early Christian documents. It is a complex and fascinating subject… one which is not at all easy for most Christians to look seriously into, but one which must be faced and further explored if we ever hope to understand, really, how Christianity emerged as a new form of faith; how it eventually coalesced to relative unity by the time of Constantine and following in the early to late 4th century.