Gospels

January 20, 2010 at 9:00 pm (Christianity)

I’m currently reading “The Historical Figure of Jesus” by prominent New Testament scholar E. P. Sanders. I am loving it! The first 7 chapters have all been introductory, so I am only now about to get into learning about the historical Jesus. This is a reflection of how thoroughly transparent the book is about its sources and their issues, and the methodology. It is brilliantly well-written and a pleasure to read because of how clear it is.

Here are some interesting things I learnt about the gospels, from chapter 6.

  • Gospel material started out as oral traditions pretty much like hadiths – very small stories called “pericopes”. They were not used to tell the biography of Jesus, but to make various points to various people – so the stories were all removed from their original context.
  • After some decades (probably in years 70-90), the gospels were written from these small stories. There may have been stages in-between the “isolated sayings” stage and the full gospels, such as collections of sayings grouped by topic.
  • Expressions such as “at that time…” and “then…” and “immediately…” were used to string the stories together in the synoptic gospels. These are narrative devices and do not represent true knowledge of the order in which events occurred (this even differs from one gospel to another). Beacuse they are constructed from pericopes, the gospels are “stark” and do not read like biographies.
  • New material crept in – particularly into John’s gospel – because the lines got blurred between the historical Jesus and the spiritual Jesus that the believers experienced as speaking to them through prayer. “John represents an advanced theological development, in which meditations on the person and work of Christ are presented in the first person, as if Jesus said them. The author of the Gospel of John would be the first to point out that this does not mean the discourses that he attributed to Jesus are ‘untrue’; he would not have agreed that historical accuracy and truth are synonymous…”
  • The gospels were written anonymously: names were not attributed to them in any literature until the year 180. Author names were assigned at that point through detective work on the texts, which was “shrewd” but ultimately the identity of the real authors is uncertain.
  • The apocryphal gospels – those that didn’t make it into the New Testament – probably contain very very little authentic material. (That’s a relief – I won’t bother reading them all!) Only the infancy gospel of James and the gospel of Thomas were written early and contain interesting material. The rest is pretty much just legends. The four canonical gospels also contain some legendary elements, but they are the main sources for historical truth.

Much of this was deduced through textual “detective work”. I find that quite fascinating. I must admit it would be interesting to see scholars analyse the Quran in this way. My impression when reading it was that it was constructed in part from something like these pericopes – historical oral traditions, such as Lot leaving Sodom and Gomorrah – there are even several versions of that story in the Quran with slight variations; for example sometimes it says Lot’s wife was left behind, sometimes it says an old woman was left behind. It’s not a contradiction but it does seem like it came from two different traditional accounts.

It’s interesting as well to realise that the gospels are more like hadith collections than a “divine writ given to Jesus”. Knowing that that’s how they are constructed, somehow answers questions I never knew I had… to me, the gospels never read as if someone had sat down to write the story of Jesus’ life, but I didn’t know why until now. Amazing!

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36 Comments

  1. LK said,

    I want this book! You may also like “Jesus Prophet of Islam” its a really interesting look into the history of Gospel and the man named Jesus. I find how religions were put together to be so fascinating.

    You definitely need to pick up “No god but God” I think you will be fascinated by Reza Aslan and his interpretation of hadith and the Qur’an

    • Wrestling With Religion said,

      LK – I find it fascinating too. This is a really good book and not too long either, definitely worth picking up.
      I shall certainly get Aslan’s book, have heard so much now that makes me want to read it!

  2. susanne430 said,

    Interesting! Thanks so much for sharing. I look forward to reading more of what you learn from this book!

  3. Achelois said,

    I have always thought and believed that the Gospels were written by men by collecting stories about Jesus’ life and teaching. They may be seen as ‘inspired’ in that they tell us about the life of Jesus who was the Word of God so whatever he did or say was pre-approved by God. Whereas other prophets had to be ‘talked to’ by God and waited for revelations, Jesus being the extraordinary man with divine qualities didn’t need to wait for an angel to bring him the word of God, not wait for God to talk to him directly. In that way he was different from Moses and any other prophet.

    What I never understood is why the Gospels as the “Book” is considered to have been revealed to Jesus in Islam. That is why Christians are called People of the Book. Surely the Gospel is inspired in the way I mention, but it wasn’t ‘revealed’ to Jesus.

    I also don’t understand the Christian argument that Quran quotes from apocryphal texts. So what? What if the stories in the apocryphal texts are true? We can’t say the events never happened just because we can’t identify the author. Maybe Jesus did speak in the cradle and did blow life into clay birds. And that would make it even harder to disprove his divinity!

    • Wrestling With Religion said,

      Achelois – it’s been interesting talking to you about Jesus in Islam, because it does seem as if your first paragraph here could be arrived at via the Quran too. I always just believed Muslims who said “Jesus was just a prophet” and “all prophets are the same”. Then I tried to shoehorn the Christian doctrines found in the Quran into this view. With limited success. 🙂

      I too always found it strange that the Quran describes Jesus bringing a holy book. I find it quite offensive when Muslims say “there must have been a holy book which has been lost”. As if his disciples would just destroy it and pretend it never existed. That’s why I’m reading this scholarly history book now, to understand what we can really be sure of, and what we don’t know about what happened in Jesus’ life. I will trust New Testament scholars/historians over Muslim speculation any day.

      I used to think like that about the apocryphal texts, too. And I’m sure it’s not the case that everything in the canonical gospels is accurate and everything in the apocryphal ones isn’t. But this book insists that most of the apocryphal gospels were written considerably later and are mostly inauthentic. It sounds like there’s some pretty weird stuff in some of them.

      • LK said,

        Oooo actually they taught us Jesus is slightly different from the other prophets at the school. Not “better” or “greater” but different. That he is a bit more perfect than the rest and was not nearly as human as the rest, just not God. And there is a chance that revealing the Gospel may not be literal. Maybe what it actually is, is Jesus himself and what he said. He was inspired by God and he had a mission, his words inspired the Gospel. So maybe it is his words (whatever they were), his inspiration, and his self that are the “revealed” Gospel. I really just don’t think its literal because David wasn’t literally given the Psalms either and I can’t remember how Moses got the Torah (but I really don’t think it was literal either).

        People want everything to be so literal. I have actually found Muslims to be the worst about this which is funny since most verses of the Qur’an can have both a literal and metaphorical/symbolic meaning. You are only getting half the book if you look at it literally which is a shame because often times its the symbolic/metaphorical meaning that makes way more sense.

        • Wrestling With Religion said,

          LK – yes, what you are taught is pretty much warranted by the Quran. I just didn’t want to see it. I guess I couldn’t understand why Jesus had this special place if his crucifixion had no special meaning (and may not even have happened)… if all he achieved in his life was the imparting of a divine book that was lost, or at the least, teachings that were passed on but later corrupted and no longer trustworthy. What would be the point of Jesus having a special place then? That weakened my faith in the Quran because it seemed like it had just imported some of the Christian doctrines, which didn’t make sense without the rest of the Christian doctrines. But maybe someone else would see it differently.

          And I agree with you, perhaps the word “book” meant so much more than what we think of. Perhaps it just meant that his teachings resulted in a scripture, not necessarily in the same way Muhammad’s scripture came about.

          • LK said,

            Oh I have to find this lecture I watched. There are a lot of muslims who believe the crucifixion verse in the Qur’an is not literal. There are actually 4 common interpretations of the verse, the one that seems to stick out is the literal. You also have to look at the verses that corespond to it. My favorite interpretation was that God was saying “You were unsuccessful in killing Jesus because he still lives in his message and shall always live through his message.” The scholar explained it MUCH BETTER than I have. I will try to post it today. Its an amazing lecture. I was just happy to see that muslims have an issue with this verse too and a lot of them are unwilling to accept the literal meaning.

            • LK said,

              And you may be right. I probably see things differently because I really want to. And even though the Gospel was written hundreds of years later I still think it has a Divine presence and should be read by muslims as well as Christians. After all, without Christianity Islam would not exist. Its suppose to be the end that ties up all three into one, so how can you ignore the other books? I sure can’t. And I won’t.

            • Wrestling With Religion said,

              I would like to know what the 4 interpretations are – let me know if you come across it again! It’s a really interesting verse, when you think about it. I don’t know if there was any oral tradition that it could have come from… it seems to come out of the blue, and it’s hard to see the reason for it… unless it’s just to stop the Jews being smug about killing him or something. It comes across very bold to me, like a very bold assertion. Maybe it’s just that in the Islamic world view, a sinless prophet dying on a cross is too scandalous and God would never let it happen. I have to admit, part of me is definitely attracted to that view.

              • LK said,

                That is one interpretation yes. I found it, I’m posting it to my blog now 🙂 Its a REALLY good lecture. Warning, its also a Muharam lecture so it will get really emotional at the end.

  4. Achelois said,

    It is interesting that Islam is so much like the orthodoxy of Judaism and so different from the orthopraxy of Christianity, for if all three religions were to be bound by a common thread, it would be natural to see a progression – Judaism to Christianity to Islam, yet Islam lays so much emphasis on rituals like Judaism and rejects the most basic Christians notions. It seems like Christianity is the odd man out, as if it was never understood and what was understood was what was closely followed and revered as the correct religion.

    It is easy to look for metaphorical meanings about Jesus’ death in the Quran. And this is where I feel hadith is important to understand the Quran. If you read the account of Muhammad arguing with the Christians of Najran it is very, very clear that he neither believed in Jesus virgin birth nor believed that Jesus died at the Cross. And he said that in other ahadith as well.

    However, this was not what he thought initially. When he sent his men to Ethiopia from Mecca to seek asylum, the ideas about Jesus were much different. In his letter Muhammad acknowledged that Jesus was born to a virgin and that he was the Word of God and that God blew His spirit into Christ’s body. This is what the Meccan verses teach too.

    • Wrestling With Religion said,

      That has often struck me too – the comparative absence of rituals and rules in Christianity. I guess Jesus wasn’t a letter of the law kind of person, and early Christianity was mystical and dynamic. I think though, a lot of people gravitate to rules – they create them even where they don’t exist. I’ve seen Christians attempting to construct rules from the NT. I loved the story of the cow in the Quran, which seems to be making a point *against* asking for detailed rules. But yet the hadiths are chock-full of rules. So presumably people did ask for detailed rules, and got them. Rules are just easier – no thinking involved!

      That is really interesting that the hadiths paint a picture of Muhammad changing his mind about Jesus somewhere along the way!

      • tanya said,

        Actually, related to ritual, there is a quite interesting historical reason which modern christians tend to forget. modern christians see jesus as the fulfillment of the law, saying the law doesn’t matter, love is the greatest law. I do believe this is true. However, Jesus also said, not a drop of the law is to be abolished until the end of times.

        So….why are Christians so much less about the law than Jews and Muslims? Answer: St. Paul. Paul, who didn’t ever even meet Jesus, and was a persecuter of the original Christians, ultimately saw the light and became Christian himself. Well, how do you think the apostles really liked that? It was probably really really hard to believe him. Also, you can see from his letters, he was a real zealot. So, Paul is sort of on the edge of the apostles and goes to start coverting the gentiles. Paul is the one who had to do away with the law (circumsision) in order to let gentiles in. Once all of the Roman empire was converted and so on and so forth, you can imagine how hard it would be to impose such strick laws on new people. So the law ended up going by the wayside, and Jews, the original converts to Christianity, continued to be persecuted!! It’s quite fascinating and there is a great new historical book written about early christianity where I read all this. Written by a jew, but very historical and very respoectful.

        • Wrestling With Religion said,

          Tanya – welcome to my blog!
          If I remember right, a very limited set of rules was imposed on the gentile converts to Christianity. Some Christians do then seem to construct further rules from the New Testament. For example they take Jesus’ words about divorce very literally and assume it to be prohibited.
          Richard Holloway in “How To Read The Bible” says that for Paul, the ritual part of the law had been “fulfilled” by Jesus and no longer applies, whereas the moral part remains in operation. That seems to be what I see Christians doing in practice, although it usually isn’t expressed that way.
          That book sounds interesting! What is it called?

        • LK said,

          Can you give us the title of this book? I’d like to read it.

          • tanya said,

            Hi

            Very interesting blog you have here. The book is “A new history of early christianity” by Charles Freeman. It’s very good. I keep stopping in the bookstore to read a few pages whenever I can…

  5. LK said,

    *shrugs* My thought always has been just let it be. I can disprove Christianity till the cows come home but that doesn’t mean I’m going to. I see no point in trying to prove a religion is false. Why rain on someone else’s parade you know? Just because it doesn’t work for one person doesn’t mean it isn’t perfect for another.

    People will always see what they want to see. If they want to see the Meccan version, that is what they will see. If they want to see the later hadith version, that is what they will see. Religion is largely based on personal perception.

    This makes me think of how with movies the second movie in the trilogy always seems to be the odd man out. It didn’t start the story, nor did it finish it. Its a connecting tool for the first and the third….except for Empire Strikes Back as it is the best of the 3 LOL jk 🙂

    • Wrestling With Religion said,

      Jasmine made the comparison with trilogies a while back in a comment. I think it’s a cute analogy! She also said she didn’t want to throw out parts 1 and 2. So, you wouldn’t be the only Muslim to think like that. 😉

      • LK said,

        WOOOO You throw out parts one and two you miss a whole lot 🙂 Think if you threw Out New Hope and Empire Strikes Back and just went to Return of the Jedi. You could watch it, you might pick up whats going on, but it sure wouldn’t mean much to you 🙂

    • tanya said,

      Actually, again related to trilogies, this is also why I always thought in fact Islam and a few other evolutions were the odd man out. If the religions are a progression, Islam returning to such a law bound way of life would be seen as a regression – back to the law rather than the love. Same with Mormonism.

      Both the Quran and the book of Mormon renew law in opposition to the development of the more flexible Christianity. But ithen why do they have a totally new set of strict laws when such a set already existed in copious detail in the Torah? Why would we not just say, hey, time to start following the laws again? I am speaking theologically of course, not historically… just interesting.

      • Wrestling With Religion said,

        I always wondered that too… if it’s a continuation with the past, then why change the rules? Muhammad Asad (Quran translator) believes the Jews were subjected to extra-strict rules because of their disobedience, but that the “softer” rules in the Quran are universal.

  6. Amber said,

    I think it’s interesting that even though we tend to refer to them as, say, the Gospel of Mark, the books are actually, ‘The Gospel According to Mark’ (leaving aside the ability to actually prove authorship at this extremely late date…) The ‘Gospel’ is not the books themselves, but Jesus’ message reflected through the books, and transmitted down through the ages to us. Our deacon is fond of saying, ‘Jesus didn’t leave us a book, He left us a Church’ – which I think works just as well as, ‘Jesus didn’t leave us a book, He left us a Message’ – the Gospel of our salvation through him.

    I actually own a fair number of the apocryphal gospels, just because I find them interesting. Even though they’re heretical and, as the author says, from a much later date and so clearly fabricated, it’s interesting to see the documents and see the different heresies that had to be ‘put down’, and see the reflection of many of the Gnostic concepts in todays Protestant churches.

    • Wrestling With Religion said,

      Amber – true, I always understood “the gospel” as meaning the good news about salvation. Sometimes I forget that and think of the books themselves as gospels, because of how we refer to them, but you’re right – the gospel is the message in the books, not the books themselves.

      This book mentioned Gnostic gospels. I don’t know much about Gnosticism. How did it get into the Protestant churches?

  7. Amber said,

    I know it’s a wiki, but it’s a fairly decent overview of the concept:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gnosticism

    As far as how it got into Protestantism? People have put forth different theories. (The devil did it is popular in some circles, just like it is for everything else.)

    Most people say, though, that when the Protestants stepped further and further away from the Church and the Tradition (and, of course, having the Church Fathers’ works to refer back to for the earliest understandings of the Scripture), as they read the Bible and interpreted it on their own, they began to come up with ideas that were similar to ancient gnostic teachings. And then, as more of the apocryphal works came to light, they found echoes of what they were thinking, and embraced those as ‘true’.

    • Wrestling With Religion said,

      Wow, that’s interesting! So maybe my thinking is coloured by it since I grew up Protestant. I used to think I understood Christianity… I am starting to realise there is not just one Christianity, like there is not just one Islam.

      Some of the Gnostic concepts do ring a bell… it was probably mentioned in Karen Armstrong’s book, but the information overload obviously made me forget. 😳

      • tanya said,

        The most famous book is “the gnostic gospels” by elaine pagels. it’s a very good book, but I should warn you through all her research, she has eventually stopped believing in God at all. She said she used to keep going to church because it was comforting to her, but now she’s even stopped that….it’s like adam and eve…ignorance is bliss…

  8. hennamenna said,

    I am learning so much! SO SO SO MUCH!

    Once I was a Baptist growing up trying to make sense of the world and God growing up to eventually find a place where I thought I had found all my answers only to find a million more-leaving more confused as ever.

    Shortly before finding your blog I found myself becoming slighly obsessed with religion-all religions-and the more I learn, the more obsessed I become with wanting to learn more. I often find myself bouncing back between your blog, Susannes, Ambers, Jasmines, Achelois’ blog then back again to yours leaving me with so much to think about. So many ahha moments. So many wow moments. So many “I had no idea” moments. I am learning and gaining so much and I feel that with each little bit of knowledge I get about each is increasing my relationship with God on almost an hourly basis-because even after I leave-the thoughts stay with me throughout my days and nights.

    I am finding more and more that I am totally ignorant where religions as a whole are concerned and am enjoying having this whole new world opened up to me. It is helping me beyond what I ever could have imagined. It is showing me-rather slowly-that my belief/relationship with God and how I am as a “follower”(for lack of a better word) cannot be confined to one “organized” belief system with a set list of rules but can be defined-found rather- on a more intimate level from within.

    I am not sure where this road is taking me but I do know that by learning all these little things that I am picking up each day-each blog-from each of you concerning the significant and not so significant…the personal opinions and the outright facts….is taking me in a direction that I am starting to feel very comfortable taking. Just recently-as usual-I was overcome with guilt over something so insignifacant in the grand scheme of things, I let myself become consumed and distracted-focused only on that for hours on end that I lost sight of what was really important and after a few comments here and there…and after a little bit of reading on things not even related to it…I realized that it’s not about that at all and my spending so much time and energy on that was feeding some underlying purpose-not the actual topic at hand. Basically it wasn’t about the topic at all-it never really is if I look deep within.

    My husband is born Muslim…hislam is so laced with his culture that it’s hard for me to even recognize Islam sometimes, BUT I must say that for the most part, despite how he follows it, his views and advice are really ones I should listen too more often because as I am slowly coming to all this-his words are popping back up in my mind and had I listened from the beginning, I doubt I would be this torn up about it all.

    He has said numerous times that Islam is simple. Loving God is simple. God doesn’t need us. He doesn’t need anything from us. The sunnah is just that…a recommendation/example that is best but NOT mandatory. You try if you want, but you won’t go to hell if you don’t do it. You just have to believe in God. Be a good person. Make sure that you’re good to others. Make sure that you live a morally correct life and make sure that you pray…Each religion has the same basic teachings…each religion is the same at the core..that’s it. It’s that simple. We make it hard. People make it hard. People corrupt it. People question too much and the more we question, the more questions we have when it’s not that complicated.

    So simple huh? If only I could erase all my thoughts. But InshaAllah I am getting there

    • Wrestling With Religion said,

      Hennamenna,

      Man, do I know what you’re talking about with the obsession about religion!! And I also learn a tremendous amount from those awesome bloggers you mentioned and others besides. I’m flattered you included me in the list. The internet is such a wonderful thing. How would we all find each other and learn from each other without it?

      I’m really happy to hear that your relationship with God is growing stronger. That is inspiring. I wish I could say the same after all my researching and thinking.

      “It is showing me-rather slowly-that my belief/relationship with God and how I am as a “follower”(for lack of a better word) cannot be confined to one “organized” belief system with a set list of rules but can be defined-found rather- on a more intimate level from within.”

      I think I am going the same way. I certainly agree with the first part of your statement – that relationship with God cannot be confined to one organised belief system. It’s the part about finding it on an intimate level within that I always have difficulty with. I think it is true, and I like the idea, but I am just lost in that department! I have learnt to use my head, not my heart, and I don’t know how to learn something different. Or even if it’s worth it. But what you’re saying here makes me feel it probably is worth it. Especially your last paragraph – that is really beautiful. So thank you! 🙂

  9. hennamenna said,

    Sorry for the typos…I was in a rush…just got the computer up and running again and don’t have much time but wanted to comment.

    Be back soon -hope all is well with all of you

    ~shell

  10. hennamenna said,

    “It’s the part about finding it on an intimate level within that I always have difficulty with. I think it is true, and I like the idea, but I am just lost in that department! I have learnt to use my head, not my heart, and I don’t know how to learn something different.”

    Well, in keeping with my natural self-the self that is always contradicting :D-I have to say that I too am this way also. So I should explain…

    I do find myself SLOWLY coming around and realizing it comes from within-on a more intimate level-BUT there is still that big ole thing that sits atop my shoulders that contains inside it the root of my insanity..the playground for all my thoughts-healthy and unhealthy…rational and irrational :/ Like you, it’s very very VERRRRRY difficult re-train my brain to think any differently- especially when my natural self automatically wants to analyze and theorize something to death. And when it comes to God-this is one of those areas that I THINK I am starting to see that doesn’t need to be broken down like some math formula-to come to a definitive answer in order to understand.

    Perhaps believing and how you believe or what you believe simply must be based on just that-a belief?Hard for those of us who require facts laid out before us?! YES! BUT… in order for us to find some sort of comfort-serenity-there has to be some point where we must submit to the fact that some things just can’t be formulated to death to come to some sort of an answer that will satisfy us because the truth of the matter is, there may never be one.

    So in this case, the only thing left to do is to look within. Seek the knowledge and answers our minds crave while at the same time, removing the barriers that prevent us from allowing ourselves to be okay with believing in something that we may not fully understand-or have all the answers too. Allow ourselves to find serenity where people like us would least expect to find it- in unproven, unseen, up in the air uncertainty. Take away all the bs around it…take away everything and focus on what it is inside that you are really seeking to find-what purpose you’re really wanting to find. Hint* you most likely won’t find what you’re wanting to find. And allow yourself to be okay with believing in something that you cannot explain. Allow yourself to be okay with not wanting to follow the majority of this group or that group because one or both or all may not be going in the direction you’re wanting to go in…it’s ok! Don’t go with them. One or both or all may not be making a lick of sense to you…one or both or all may be totally contradicting anything you’ve learned thus far about “their” way of living…”their” path to “salvation”-God…so we just venture out on our own. Simple as that. We believe in ourselves enough to know that we’re intelligent enough to know right from wrong. We allow ourselves to have that intimacy with God that only we can on a personal level-and though we may not be able to explain it-see clearly for ourselves everything contained in it-we just have to believe that if there is a divine guidance from above-or below-or to the right or left of us-then surely we will be guided as such. It can be simple. It can be.

    Now tomorrow my feelings may change-but of course you already know that-because you’re the same 😛

    P.S. Husband ran out at 10 last night to buy me There is No God But God-so far so GOOD! Go get it!!!! 😉

    • Wrestling With Religion said,

      Wow, this is excellent advice. Thank you.

      You know, sometimes I see God everywhere. Sometimes in surprising places. And sometimes I try to see God and I can’t. Perhaps religions are just too confining for me.

      And yet, going it alone is too hard. I feel I need guidance, and ritual, and support, and outside inspiration in terms of scriptures or doctrines. I still want to find all of that. I still want a foundation. Even though experience tells me I can’t submit to religions.

      Perhaps the answer is a bit of everything: a bit of wrestling on my own, a bit of this religion and a bit of that religion. And perhaps the support we all need is right here – with each other on these blogs. That sounded a bit “cheesy” but d’you know what I mean?!

      I feel like I should really buy that book now and read it next! Everyone seems to be talking about it. Right – off to Amazon to order it!

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