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Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Quest for the Historical Jesus, Part IV: Sources

Biblical scholars involved in the quest for the historical Jesus try to follow a number of criteria in determining whether a particular saying or act of Jesus is true. Briefly, these are:
  1. The Earlier the Better: Sayings and events found in texts dated earlier (e.g., 30-50 CE) are considered more likely to have originated with the historical Jesus than are sayings found in texts dated later
  2. Dissimilarity: Words and deeds of Jesus that cannot be derived from either the Judaism of Jesus’ day or the teaching and beliefs of the early Church are more likely to have originated with the historical Jesus 
  3. Multiple Sources: Sayings and acts that are found in two or more independent sources are more likely to have originated with the historical Jesus 
  4. Embarrassment: Sayings and acts that would have caused the early Church embarrassment are more likely to have originated with the historical Jesus 
  5. Rejection and Execution: This criterion differs from the first four because it focuses on those deeds and sayings that may have contributed to Jesus’ death. According to this criterion those sayings and deeds of Jesus that infuriated, disturbed or agitated people may have originated with the historical Jesus 
  6. Coherence: This final criterion holds that other sayings and deeds of Jesus that fit well (e.g., in terms of theology) with the other sayings that have already been determined to be authentic using the other criteria are likely to have originated with the historical Jesus
I'll return to these criteria (or rules of evidence) in more detail in my next post on the historical Jesus. In this one I focus on the sources (see #3 above) that scholars draw on in order to tease out the outlines of Jesus' life, ministry, death and resurrection.  Scholars consider some writings outside of the New Testament to be potential sources for what Jesus said and did. Also, as I detail below, the don't consider the New Testament gospels to be entirely independent of one another (note that criterion #3 gives more weight to a saying or event from two or more independent sources).  I begin with a discussion of the New Testament Gospels and their relationship to one another. I then briefly consider a few extra-canonical Gospels before concluding with a reflection on the controversial and hypothetical "Q" Gospel.

The Synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of John

Among moderate and liberal biblical scholars, the Gospel of John generally takes a back seat to the other three Gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke, which are commonly referred to as the synoptic gospels. Scholars refer to Matthew, Mark and Luke as the synoptic gospels because they narrate Jesus’ life similarly and present a common view of who Jesus was. John’s Gospel, on the other hand, presents a very different picture of Jesus from the Synoptic Gospels. Some scholars argue that John's Gospel was written as a rebuttal to the Gospel of Thomas (e.g., see Elaine Pagels "Beyond Belief"), which suggests, as my good friend and frequent interlocutor Dave notes, that John's understanding of what it meant to be a Christian was not the only game in town. Others, however, believe that Thomas was written after John (e.g., Bart Ehrman, "Lost Christianities"), which if they are correct means that John couldn't have been written as a rebuttal to Thomas although I suppose that one could entertain the hypothesis that Thomas was written as a rebuttal to John.

Most mainline Protestant (and Roman Catholic scholars), such as the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar, dismiss the Gospel of John as contributing anything valuable regarding the historical Jesus. For instance, they concluded that they could trace none of the sayings in the Gospel of John back to the historical Jesus. Instead, they believe that the Gospel of John reflects the voice of the early Christian community, not the historical Jesus.

Why would the author of John’s Gospel create such a Gospel? Why would he put words into Jesus’ mouth?  Marcus Borg argues that the community in which the author of John lived experienced risen Jesus in all of the ways the Gospel of John portrays him. So, the Jesus of John’s Gospel claims he is the Light of the world.  Borg argues that the community of John experienced the risen Christ as someone who is a light in the midst of the darkness. John’s Jesus also claims that he is the bread of life, which Borg interprets to mean that the early Christians experienced the risen Christ as someone who can nourish his followers with spiritual food. And John’s Jesus announces that he is the way and the truth and the life, which means, according to Borg, that the early Christians experienced the risen Christ as someone who can set us free, lead us to eternal life, and help us discover true wisdom in the midst of the world’s foolishness. In many ways, this sounds like a sermon, and in fact, that is essentially what Borg is arguing.  He believes that the Gospel of John is an extended sermon on what it means to encounter the risen and living Christ. In other words, he Borg believes that while the Gospel of John is not historically true, it is theologically and spiritually true.

Not every contemporary biblical scholar believes that John’s Gospel has nothing to contribute to our understanding of the historical Jesus, however. Paula Fredriksen, for example, contends that John tells us quite a bit about Jesus' last days (why he was arrested, tried and executed) and most scholars appear to believe that John's three year time-frame for Jesus' ministry is more accurate than Matthew, Mark and Luke's one-year time frame.

The Two-Source Hypothesis

Nevertheless, when it comes to reconstructing the historical Jesus, most biblical scholars focus on Matthew, Mark and Luke.  One of the first theories that New Testament scholars developed argues that Mark is the earliest Gospel and Matthew and Luke used the Mark as the narrative basis for their own Gospels. They marshaled considerable amount of evidence in support of this theory:
  • Sometimes the same wording & sequence of material is found in Matthew, Luke & Mark
  • Sometimes Matthew & Mark agree in sequence and/or wording of passages, while Luke differs
  • Sometimes Luke & Mark have the same sequence and/or wording of passages, while Matthew differs
  • But the texts of Matthew & Luke almost never agree in both wording & sequence except for material found also in Mark
  • In passage after passage Mark is demonstrably the middle term in any narrative agreement between the synoptic gospels. Thus, the first premise of the two source hypothesis is that Matthew & Luke each followed the text of Mark as their primary narrative source
A Gospel synopsis, in which all three synoptic Gospels are printed in parallel columns, permits scholars and students to observe how Matthew and Luke used (and changed) Mark to create their own Gospels.

New Testament critics also note that there appears to be a second source on which Matthew and Luke draw. In some places in the Gospels there is considerable verbal agreement between Matthew and Luke where there is no parallel passage in Mark. Although scholars have yet to find this mysterious source, they have given it a name: “Q,” from the German word “Quelle,” which means, “source.” Together, this led scholars to argue for what they call the “two-source” hypothesis, which is simply a fancy way of saying that Matthew and Luke made use of two written sources – Mark and Q -- in constructing their Gospels. This relationship between the three Gospels and Q can be pictured as follows:

The Four-source hypothesis

While this was a good start, scholars couldn’t help notice that Matthew had material that was not in either Mark or Luke, and Luke contained material that was not in either Mark or Matthew. This led later scholars to expand the two-source hypothesis to a four-source hypothesis, which, as the figure below illustrates, argues that the author of Matthew used Mark, Q and his own special source (“M”), while Luke used Mark, Q and his own special source (“L”). It is likely that "M" and "L" are drawn from multiple sources, possibly even the same sources, including Q, but for convenience scholars treat "M" and "L" as single independent sources:

In other words, the sayings and events that we find in the Gospels come from one of four separate sources: Mark, "Q," "M" or "L." By definition, no saying or event can come from more than one of these sources because what is found "Q" are those verses that appear in both Matthew and Luke but don't appear Mark. And the verses that appear in "M" are those that appear only in Matthew, and "L" are those verses that only appear in Luke. 

What this means is that if scholars are adhere to the multiple sources criterion, they have to look beyond these four sources to find a second independent source in order for a saying that appears in Matthew, Mark or Luke to be deemed authentic. In other words, because any saying or event that appears in Matthew, Mark or Luke can only be traced back to either M, Mark, Q or L, scholars need to look to other sources for additional independent attestations of the event or saying. 

Take, for example, the beatitude, "Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God" (Luke 6:20). A parallel saying occurs in Matthew (5:3), and scholars trace this saying back to Q (because it appears in Luke and Matthew but not in Mark). In other words, while the saying occurs twice in the Gospels, it is only seen as having one independent source. Scholars do believe that there is a second independent source for this saying, however, and that is the Gospel of Thomas (Thomas 54). Thus, because this saying is seen as having two independent sources, most scholars believe that the saying goes back to the historical Jesus.

Other Sources

If biblical scholars have to look beyond the synoptic Gospels, where do they turn? As we saw above, the Gospel of Thomas is one source, and of course the Gospel of John is another. As I mentioned above, thought, biblical scholars don't believe that John has a lot of historical material, at least when it comes to Jesus' sayings.  However, there are a number of non-canonical sources (i.e., Gospels that don't appear in the New Testament (NT)) that scholars turn to in their quest uncover the historical Jesus. Here is a brief synopsis of some of these:
  • Gospel of Thomas – This gospel contains 114 sayings and parables of Jesus, but it lacks a narrative framework (much like what scholars believe the hypothetical Q must have been like), and is believed to be an independent witness (source) to the sayings of Jesus. Members of the Jesus Seminar date the earliest version of this Gospel around 50-60 C. E. but believe that the version we have probably was completed somewhere between 100-150 C. E. Most scholars don’t date it so early, however. They believe that it is actually based on the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) and, as such, was composed after the Synoptics were completed (90 C. E.) and, thus, is not an independent source for the sayings of Jesus.
  • Egerton Gospel – We know very little about this gospel apart from the five fragments of it that have been found. These fragments contain a few stories and sayings of Jesus, and members of the Jesus Seminar generally treat the gospel as an independent source for the historical Jesus. Like the Gospel of Thomas, members of the Jesus Seminar date the earliest version of this gospel around 50-60 C. E. but believe that the final version probably was not completed until between 100-150 C. E. Most scholars date it a much later, arguing that it is also based on the New Testament Gospels. If that is so, it cannot be regarded as independent sources of the historical Jesus.
  • Gospel of Peter – According to at least one member of the Jesus Seminar (John Dominic Crossan), this Gospel contains within it a “Cross Gospel” that lies behind the accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion that we find in all of the Gospels. Crossan does not believe that the “Cross Gospel” is a historically accurate account of Jesus’ crucifixion but rather a theological interpretation of Jesus’ death. He believes that the disciples and the early Christian community had no idea what happened to Jesus’ body after he was crucified, and that what we read about in the New Testament Gospels is a creation of someone’s theological imagination that first appeared in the Cross Gospel. Furthermore, he is relatively certain that Jesus’ body was not placed in a tomb but was abandoned and probably eaten by dogs. Crossan’s position is a minority one, however. Most scholars believe that all of the Gospel of Peter was written in the 2nd century and based on the New Testament Gospels.
  • Secret Gospel of Mark – According to members of the Jesus Seminar, this is a fragment of an early edition of Mark’s Gospel that they regard as an earlier source of stories about and sayings of Jesus. Here again, though, most scholars believe that the Secret Gospel of Mark was actually written after the New Testament Gospels, so it cannot be regarded as an independent source for the sayings and doings of Jesus. Moreover, there is increasing belief among scholars that the Gospel was forged by Morton Smith (a former professor of ancient history at Columbia University) who claimed to have found it in in Mar Saba monastery in 1958 (see Bart Ehrman, "Lost Christianities," Chapter 4).
  • Gospels of Philip and Mary -- These two gospels received a lot of press when the Da Vinci Code was released, primarily because the book argues that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and had a child. It is true that both gospels say that Jesus kissed Mary and loved her more than all the disciples, but it is unlikely that these gospels intended for the kiss to have any sexual overtones. That is because both of these gospels are Gnostic gospels, and Gnostics considered the material world a corpse and were uninterested in doing anything to perpetuate it like having children (see my earlier post, "The Da Vinci Code, the Gnostic Gospels and Wishful Thinking about Jesus and Sex"). Instead, the kiss is probably better understood symbolically in the sense that with the kiss Jesus passed a secret revelation to Mary that he didn't give to his other disciples. Moreover, both Gospels were written quite late -- the Gospel of Mary probably dates to somewhere in the 2nd century CE, while the Gospel of Philip probably dates to the 3rd century but it could be as late at the 4th (see Bart Ehrman, "Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code," pp. 175-179) -- which seriously calls into question whether they provide any historical details of Jesus' life and ministry.
What About Q?

As I noted above, in developing the two-source hypothesis, New Testament scholars noted that there appeared to be a second source on which Matthew and Luke drew in constructing their Gospels.  In some places in the Gospels there is considerable verbal agreement between Matthew and Luke where there is no parallel passage in Mark, which suggests that a second source was available to them. And while scholars have yet to locate this source, they named it, “Q,” from the German word “Quelle,” which means, “source.”

A key belief held by most scholars of Q (yes, there are NT scholars who devote most of their career to studying Q) is that it contains no birth, death or resurrection narratives.  Consequently, they conclude that since the earliest collection about Jesus (i.e., Q) show no knowledge or interest in stories about Jesus’ Resurrection, the stories about the Resurrection were creations of the Gospel writers and do not reflect the beliefs of the earliest Christians. However, Q was written around 50-60 CE, which is the same time the apostle Paul wrote his letters, and unless I'm misreading Paul, Paul clearly believed in the Resurrection. Almost all his letters mention it, and he claims that the Resurrected Christ appeared to him personally. Moreover, he repeats the tradition about Jesus first appearing to Peter, then to the 12 (disciples), and then to more than 500 followers before finally appearing to him.

I intend to return to the topic of the Resurrection around Easter, but for now I think it is worth pointing out that version of Q that scholars work with is what they are able to reconstruct from Matthew and Luke. Thus, what they have in hand is the minimum of what we know was in Q. It is possible that those verses in Matthew that are only found in Matthew ("M") could have come from Q, but Luke chose not to use them. And it is possible that those verses in Luke that are only found in Luke ("L") could have come from Q, but Matthew chose not to use them. And it is very likely that there are portions of Q that neither Matthew nor Luke used and have been lost to history.
"Despite the exuberant claims of some scholars, we cannot fully know what Q contained because the document has been lost. We have access to it only through the materials that Matthew and Luke both decided to include in their accounts, and it would be foolish to think that one or both of them included the entire document. Indeed, if only one of them included a passage from Q, then we would have no solid grounds for knowing that it came from Q rather than, say, M or L. It is entirely possible, for example, that Q had a Passion narrative, and that neither Matthew nor Luke chose to use it., or that only one of them chose not to do so (so that some of the verses of Matthew's or Luke's Passion narrative not found in Mark actually derive from Q). At the same time, it is equally possible that Q was almost entirely sayings, without a Passion narrative (or nearly any other narrative). Regrettably, we will never know, unless, of course, Q itself should serendipitously turn up" (Bart Ehrman, "The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings," p. 88)!
One way to think about this is imagine that the situation was reversed. We have Q but not Mark. Then all we would know about Mark is what is contained in both Matthew and Luke. The common material in Matthew and Luke would tell us a lot about Mark, but certainly not all. Indeed, it would leave out some very important parts.

Thus, it strikes me that many of the claims and conclusions that scholars make about Q are unwarranted because they are premised on the belief that we have access to the entire Gospel, which we almost certainly do not (sometimes I think a basic course in logic would do some New Testament scholars well).

Nevertheless, it seems likely that there was a common source of sayings that both Matthew and Luke used in composing their Gospels (Luke essentially admits as much in the opening to his Gospel). Indeed, Q's likely existence suggest that about 20 years after Jesus's death, a list of his sayings was compiled in order to serve the needs of wandering preachers and others who were curious what Jesus taught (Catherine Murphy, "The Historical Jesus for Dummies," p. 46). What we (and scholars) need to be careful of is not to make more of Q (or rather what we have of Q) than we can.

Next Time: A closer look at the criteria that scholars use to better distinguish the authentic from inauthentic sayings and deeds of Jesus.

1 comment:

  1. From David, who was unable to post directly:

    A fine and balanced summary of the sources used by the Jesus Seminar. I would only add that some scholars seem to think the Gospel of John was written as a rebuttal to Thomas, indicating that, as Bart Ehrman and others have observed, John's understanding, which eventually triumphed as the reigning orthodoxy, was not always the only game in town.

    But I am especially taken by your closing admonition for us not to make more out of Q than we can. In a way, this seems to be the very point that most of the historical Jesus scholars are trying to make. They lament the fact that the narrative material about Jesus that was added by the Evangelists has caused us to lose sight of his message, and urge us to pay more attention to what he tried to teach. James Robinson, in particular, seems to be saying we should not try to make more out of the Q material than it offers; that we should accept its lack of information about the birth, death and alleged resurrection of Jesus and focus on what it (and Mark) can tell us about his vision for the Kingdom of God on earth.