|Intro||Bibliography||Chapter 1||Chapter 2||Chapter 3||Chapter 4||Chapter 5|
|Chapter 6||Chapter 7||Chapter 8||Chapter 9||Chapter 10||Appendix||Glossary|
Books on the Gospels (of which this is the latest and best!) have been produced in huge numbers by all sorts of writers with agendas of their own. (My agenda is spelt out in the introduction). They range from the absurd, such as Erich von Däniken, who alleged that Jesus was a spaceman, to one by a famous writer who, I was taught at theological college, was extremely partial to young women and probably a paedophile. He would have liked to disprove God, for his own purposes. The idea that the Gospels evolved was put forward by a group, desiring to be seen as scientific scholars, who presented the rather simplistic idea that the Gospels emerged very late from a mass of oral tradition, much of which was dying out. The reason for recording the Gospels was thus in their view “ to write down what little we can still remember before it all gets lost forever”. This of course runs counter to the clear reference in John 21:25 to the vast amount of material available to John as he set out to write his Gospel. I was astonished to find von Däniken's drivel being used as part of the Religious Education curriculum in secondary schools in Bristol, where we live! It seems that even educators are attracted to the ridiculous.
There is a lot of good evidence forming a strong case for Mark and John having written the first two of the four Gospel accounts. Mark should perhaps more accurately be called Peter's Gospel, the name by which it was known for around the first 350 years of its life. John, with its different thought forms and ideas, has continued to baffle many scholars. Rev. Dr. Tom Wright has drawn our attention to the massive body of evidence which shows pretty conclusively that John's Gospel does not appear to contain Greek philosophical influences, as most writers have previously thought. It was not therefore intended for Greek Gentiles. Wright is clear that John's style is intensely Jewish, Palestinian, and written by an individual with comprehensive knowledge of pre AD 70 Jerusalem.5Matthew and Luke follow the sequence of events outlining a single visit to Jerusalem by Jesus, following the structure of Mark. I shall discuss this structure in detail, later in the chapter. John, however, seems to contain more of an outline of Jesus' itinerary through his ministry, recording five separate visits to Jerusalem.
It is fairly certain that Luke's was the last Gospel to be written because Luke does not appear as a follower of Jesus until later on in Acts, as one of Paul's companions. Scholars have recently suggested Luke was one of Paul's Gentile converts, but his profound understanding of Jewish culture and law (which will become clear in later chapters of this book) to my mind make it very likely that he was Jewish. More than 50% of the material in his Gospel is unique to Luke, including the very detailed accounts of the birth narrative, which require a date of composition well within the lifetime of Mary, the mother of Jesus.
The Gospels present themselves as factual accounts by eye witnesses to the ministry of Jesus. (1 John 1:1-3) They are quite unlike any other written record that comes down to us from the ancient world. The vast amount of oral material so evidently available to the Gospel writers is the outcome of the tumultuous day-to-day ministry of Jesus and his disciples. There seems to have been so much material that a number of Jesus' “Sayings” are found in documents produced by other groups such as the “Gnostics”. They were religious groups found throughout the ancient world with strange beliefs – we could probably fairly describe them as the “New Age” thinkers of their time. Such a group in Egypt produced the Gospel of Thomas, during the 2nd or 3rd Century. They sought to authenticate their beliefs by attaching the name of Jesus to them. One or two of Jesus' “Sayings” in the Gospel of Thomas have been identified and are otherwise unknown to us – so the study of these documents has great value for Christians today. J. A. T. Robinson wrote a particularly helpful commentary on the Gospel of Thomas.
Paul draws our attention to the fact that when he refers to the life and resurrection of Jesus (1 Cor. 15) most of those who had witnessed these events were still alive. These people would have formed a very numerous control group, who would have considered that they, too, were custodians of these records. They would have been keen to correct the Gospel writers' accounts were this to prove necessary. There is no evidence whatever that such corrections took place.
Kenneth Bailey6 has conducted in-depth research on the transmission of stories throughout the Near East. He writes very illuminating material not only on the use of stories, but the way stories were passed on. Bailey visited remote villages in Syria, Iran and elsewhere, where in many cases the original Aramaic language used by Jesus was still current. These visits took place over a period of some twenty years. He has demonstrated how, in a village or small town out in the country, the stories were passed down from generation to generation: historical events would be told and re-told at village meetings, century after century. These stories enshrined local culture and even the identity of that particular village group – every word was jealously guarded, and anyone who told a story wrongly would be immediately corrected. Story-telling seems to have been a big industry in a world which was illiterate and had no other means of preserving its past.7
Homer's accounts of the Trojan Wars from the Mycaenae period around 1200 BC indicate that there were probably a considerable number of professional travelling storytellers who would be paid to recount exciting stories from the ancient past, over several evenings (as with “The Arabian Nights”)... it was an important tradition. Word for word accuracy was of paramount importance.
I have wonderful memories as a very small boy of being put to bed by my father: the deal was that I was perfectly happy to go to bed at what I considered to be a ridiculously early hour, provided I was read a Beatrix Potter story. I knew each of them by heart, but it was entertaining, reassuring and lovely to have them read over and over again. The trouble was, my father got bored with them and so he would make them “more interesting” with additions of his own. I remember feeling angry, frustrated and let down because I wanted them read properly. In a similar way, anyone telling Jesus stories around Jerusalem or Antioch in the earliest years of the Christian church would be required to get them right. Far from being fiction (Bultmann – see later in this Chapter) or the product of an evolutionary process (many writers), in fact the written accounts are not only early but existed alongside the much greater body of oral tradition.
We are dealing with issues where absolute certainty is not possible – but the very strong evidence presented in this book amounts to far more than is necessary to be able to say our conclusions have a strong probability of being correct. Unfortunately, most of the great scholars who wrote on these matters are continental Europeans with a different legal system to the much more civilised one in England. In England, the law is based on Christian principles, and a man is considered innocent until proved guilty. In continental Europe, Napoleonic law prevails: the accused is guilty unless he can prove beyond all shadow of doubt that he is innocent, so the accuracy of the Gospels is suspect unless they can be proved otherwise. The attack on the Gospels made by scholars anxious to look “scientific” over the last 250 years has very much a Napoleonic flavour. Scholars like Burnett Streeter, Charles Dodd, John Robinson and others here in England, have treated the Gospels with a great deal more respect than those from other nations appear to have done.
The crunch point for Bultmann8 in all his books has been the Resurrection. He really doesn't know what to make of this at all, and says as much in the final chapter of his “New Testament Theology”. It is an event absolutely unprecedented in the ancient world – or at any other time. There are 19 named individuals who met with Jesus after his resurrection, most of them on more than one occasion. Paul refers to “more than 500” who met him on one occasion alone. (See Chapter 10 of this book). The vehement determination of the early church to present the message of Jesus' life, death and resurrection was incredibly powerful. We see a little bit of this in Acts 2. This extraordinary message, coupled with the obvious emotion and sincerity of Peter's preaching, has an astonishing impact on the crowds in Jerusalem. Within a few days Peter has 8,000 converts, many of whom will shortly leave for remote parts of the Diaspora(see Glossary) having come to Jerusalem especially to celebrate Passover and Pentecost. Teaching material on Jesus and his message in written form was urgently required for groups of these converts to take back home with them. Peter has never produced teaching material before, and according to Papias, the first Church historian, he dictated to his young secretary, Mark, stories of Jesus based on the framework of the message he had just been preaching on the street.
None of the theologians who have written about the New Testament have been involved in regular preaching on the streets. As such they have been ignorant of the situation it generates, and unaware of the vital necessity of providing teaching material immediately for the resulting converts, as recorded in Acts 2. This is the one occasion when the production of a written Gospel becomes crucial. In similar situations in places like Albania today, or sub-Saharan Africa, where converts have emerged from Gospel preaching, clearly and energetically presented, the need for either a Gospel or a New Testament in the language of the convert is absolutely essential.
It is not generally understood by writers on the New Testament that in situations like this, a deep bond develops in a very short time between the preacher and the hearers. The preacher feels a strong sense of responsibility for his new flock. The production of Peter's Gospel (Mark) would have taken several days, a laborious process. We are told Mark was possibly the son of one of the Marys who followed Jesus (New Bible Dictionary: IVP 1962 p 785) but was probably not one of the followers of Jesus during his ministry. Peter's Gospel could have been copied in the market by professional copiers fairly quickly and could have been given to groups of converts travelling back to Babylon, Damascus, Antioch, Rome, as well as the great centres along the coast of North Africa where these great Graeco-Roman settlements contained substantial Jewish communities. These converts would have been the beginnings of the Christian church in those places.
Papias was the first known historian of the Christian Church. He recorded events beginning with the apostolic ministry in Jerusalem, writing around AD 110 to AD 115. It is most unfortunate that his material has only come down to us in fragmentary form. Some scholars have discounted much of his evidence concerning the origins of Mark's Gospel, principally because what he says does not fit in with theories fashionable to liberal theologians. He asserted that Mark wrote his Gospel to Peter's dictation in Rome: this should not be seen as a contradiction of the Gospel being first written in Jerusalem. One should understand that the production of Gospels would be needed to meet a considerable demand and that Mark would have found it necessary to produce his Gospel again and again. It is entirely likely that the version we have in our Bibles today could well be the one produced in Rome.
Years after the deaths of Peter and Paul, Mark lived on in Rome to a great old age and was known as “old stubby fingers” (New Bible Dictionary, IVP 1962, page 785). A picture of a young man, almost certainly Mark, holding his Gospel in the form of a codex, or book, can be seen in the catacombs of Peter and Marcellinus in Rome. It was usual for Palestinians to have a Jewish name and a Latin name, due to the Roman occupation. We know that Peter's Jewish name was Simon, and Jesus gave him his Latin name of Petrus. John became John Mark (Marcus). Marcellinus seems to be derived from Marcellus, a pet form of Marcus, i.e. “Little Mark”. It is quite likely that Marcellinus may well have been the name under which Mark was known in Rome – so the catacombs of Peter and Marcellinus may well be named after Peter and Mark, whose names were inseparably linked in early church tradition there.
Detailed original research by C. H. Roberts into the origins of the Codex (book) form of document gives us a remarkable insight into the origins of Mark's Gospel (Proceedings of the British Academy 1954).
Roberts' work indicates that the book, as a form of record-keeping, came into use in Palestine during the lifetime of Jesus. At this period of history all documents – particularly formal ones – were written on one side of a scroll made of expensively prepared vellum (goatskin). A scroll was only written on one side, rolled up, being unrolled as the reading took place. Contracts were written in this way, and of course religious documents. The scrolls of the Old Testament were treated with great reverence and when they were worn out and needing to be replaced, could not be burnt or destroyed because they were the Word of God. They were therefore given a formal burial in clay pots, each clay pot marked with the date and content of the scroll inside. The “Dead Sea Scrolls” (found in 1947) were interred in caves in this way: many of them can be dated to 300 BC.
Roberts suggests that the first books were made of offcuts of vellum pinned together down one side in sheets: these could be written on both sides, making more economical and efficient use of the material, and of course the information they contained was easier to access. Roberts also thinks the very early tradition linking the first books to the village of Byblos, on the coast just north of Beirut, could well be correct, the name of the town becoming associated with their particular form of document. He thinks that as Christianity took over as the State religion in the Roman Empire after AD 320, the fact that the original Gospel of Mark was in book form led to books becoming the official type of document for record keeping, official documents etc.
In 1992 a German scholar, Carsten Peter Thiede, published the results of his research into the calligraphy of Qumran Fragment 7Q5, in the form of a short book entitled “The Earliest Gospel Manuscript?”9 This tiny papyrus fragment had been identified by a researcher, Jose O'Callaghan, as a small section of Mark 6:52-53. Thiede's study of developing writing styles in 1st Century Palestine indicated that this document could not have been written after about AD 50. This would therefore confirm the strong likelihood that Mark's Gospel could have been produced in AD 33, the most likely date for the Easter events. This being so, 7Q5 may well be a piece of one of the earliest copies of Mark's Gospel ever produced. The onset of hostilities with the Romans in AD 66 would imply burial of important documents well before that date; this was done to ensure their survival.
Papias tells us that Peter dictated his Gospel to Mark along the lines of his street message – the way he presented Jesus on the streets to crowds of people. It was a perfectly natural method for him to adopt as presumably he had never before produced teaching material in written form. This concept is completely foreign to exponents of State-run religious institutions and the thousands of scholars who have written about the New Testament; to understand Peter and his message, you need to know how street messages are put together. The principle is this:
Jesus was the great master of the street message: with his parables, he told stories about issues that interested and concerned his listeners, in order to teach them all they needed to know to become members of God's Kingdom. His stories were about spiritual truths that moved people forward in their understanding of God and who He is. Peter's message presented Jesus himself as the central issue and drew his audience into becoming part of the message themselves. The street preacher always preaches for a “Yes” response from his hearers. He seeks to build bridges into their minds by saying things that they understand and agree with. He hopes and expects that by doing this, they will accept him, like him, and thus receive the more challenging aspects of his message as he proceeds. Peter obviously understood this and knew that preaching is a 2-way channel – the audience react, and participate in the presentation. Judging by the message he presents in his Gospel, Peter was a brilliant communicator. He comes across as a choleric character who could grasp the moment, someone through whom the Holy Spirit could impact lives with words.
How does he begin? As described in Acts 2, on that Pentecost morning when the Holy Spirit descended, that whole group of disciples – and they were a large group – burst out on to the streets, galvanised into action and “people from distant lands heard them speaking in their own languages”. Tongues are an issue often misunderstood by the modern Church, because it has largely ignored the Great Commission: interventions of this kind by the Holy Spirit are generally evident where the Gospel is being preached to the lost in front-line situations on the mission field. God is making the break-through in people's lives. Understand that the disciples were probably not miraculously suddenly able to speak foreign languages. People who spoke other languages were hearing and understanding words which were spoken in Aramaic or possibly Greek. I shall explain this in Chapter Two of this book, with remarkable modern experiences of this phenomenon.
The astonishment and excitement of what was happening generated great local interest and within a short time – maybe twenty minutes – quite a large crowd had gathered in the confines of the Old City of Jerusalem. An explanation was needed and Peter leapt into action. He called the crowd to order and would have started preaching about the local hero, John the Baptist. As Luke records the scene in Acts 2, he does not record the whole message that Peter preached – as everyone would then have known, the whole message was outlined in Peter's Gospel. Acts 2 merely refers to the appeal that Peter made on that particular day to the people of Jerusalem. He urged them then to dissociate themselves from the actions of their rulers, who would be under God's judgement and wrath for their criminal act in condemning Jesus. Papias' very clear statement on this issue must now be taken seriously.
We are told in the Gospels that multitudes had gone down to the Jordan to be baptised by John (Mark 1:5). A local man, John had become a folk hero regarded by most people as a great prophet; his murder during a drunken orgy by their hated Dictator, Herod Antipas, had generated bitterness and resentment. (Mark 6:14-29). For Peter to stand up and start talking about John the Baptist would have been a bridge to the listening crowd, who would have reacted very positively to what Peter said. He goes straight on to tell of how Jesus had been baptised by John, and was therefore “one of John's men”... so Jesus becomes “one of us, too” in the minds of the audience, particularly as Peter is able to say that Jesus' call, through the arrival of the Holy Spirit during his baptism, made him John's successor.
I shall be saying a lot about Jesus and his call in a later chapter, because, to the person called, a call from God is remarkably clear and specific. This again is misunderstood by institutionalised religion, and I was shocked by an article written in an Anglican newspaper recently by a fat-headed Archdeacon, who said that whether someone has a call or not can only be determined by some Church dignitary or other!
Peter tells how Jesus' call and its practical outworking in his day-to-day ministry was severely tested during a period of 40 days, fasting and praying, out in the Judaean wilderness. He was tempted to use the great powers invested in him as the Promised One of Israel, tempted to go for fame and fortune, when in fact his call was to be the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 52:13 to 53:12).
The next section of Peter's message is about how he and his brother Andrew were called and became part of Jesus' ministry – they saw everything Jesus did – and how Peter himself and the two other brothers, James and John, became the innermost group of the disciples. He talks about the healing of so many people without hope, in short stories, and how even a hated tax collector was compelled to become one of the disciples by a call from Jesus. Peter then talks about various great religious issues such as fasting, the Sabbath, the keeping of the Law, and what Jesus said about all these things. He says how many responded, and many were not prepared to follow, in the story of the sower. He talks about the casting out of evil spirits, and the extraordinary story of Jairus' daughter – how even the deeply religious Ruler of the Synagogue was compelled to ask for Jesus' help in the crisis of her death, and how Jesus raised her to life.
He tells these very inspiring stories in which the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law are often shown to be in error regarding the Mosaic Law, which would have caused considerable delight to the listening crowd. Wright points out evidence that there were not actually that many Pharisees around, who, as representatives of inter-Testamental Hasidic tradition, were extremists who regarded the ordinary people as religious failures.10 Even today, in modern Israel, religious fanatics will spit on you and throw stones at you if you challenge them with Jesus and His message. In Jesus' day the ordinary people were not particularly religious and resented Pharisees and their like. Anyone who stood up in public and was prepared to put down the Pharisees would be a popular speaker.
We don't know how much of Peter's Gospel, as we read it in our Bibles today, would have been included in his street message. A modern street preacher will preach for up to an hour – I have done so to a crowd of around 3,000 to 3,500 in Thessaloniki, but I was translated into Greek by Eva, a brilliant young Greek lady who was herself excited to be preaching... so my bit lasted about half an hour. I only told one story, that of the Maniac at Gadara. The number of stories in which Pharisees bite the dust, that Peter might have included, was probably not more than a few – but he had the crowd really listening now. They liked him and they liked what he was saying. The issues he was addressing, and that Jesus taught on, spoke of spiritual matters that were really important to them and which Pharisaic Judaism simply did not address – that is, the needs of the majority of the population who saw themselves as failures in their walk with God, and had no real hope of a relationship with him. The sacrificial system in the Temple did not satisfy their spiritual needs, and to make matters worse they were financially abused by the priests for personal gain.
Peter's message includes Jesus' original caricatures of religious characters doing stupid things – like the wonderful story of the Pharisee and the Publican standing outside the Temple, one experiencing pompous self-satisfaction, and the other feeling totally unworthy. This would have caused great amusement and you can imagine the crowd's laughter over these ridiculous religious types! Then there is the lovely story of the Arab lady near Tyre, who wanted her sick daughter healed, and, teasing her, Jesus says “Well, of course, this is really all just for God's people you know, not for Arabs...” When the woman demonstrates her total confidence in him, saying that even the dogs are allowed to eat what falls from the children's table, her daughter is healed. Religion must never be allowed to deny love.
In the story of the Transfiguration (Mark 9: 2-13) Peter, James and John witnessed Jesus in his Glory on the mountaintop and Peter honestly explains how slow they had been to understand that Jesus wanted them to do the same things that he did. This lack of understanding is encapsulated in the story where the disciples were unable to cast an evil spirit out of a small boy. They all found miracles a problem, just as we do today. We need to understand that for God miracles are a small thing which can flow through the ministry of a believer on a daily basis.
What is Peter going to say next? He has told them all about his own realisation that the one he had been following was the Promised Messiah of Israel. He told them how Jesus himself spoke not about a huge national victory over the Romans that so many of them sought, but about the new Kingdom, the Kingdom of God, which was to exist within us all, not just in Israel. Even more amazing, that Jehovah is not just the God of Israel – he is the God of the whole world. He certainly is not the god of either Mecca or Mammon (the West).
Peter talks of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem and how the nation of Israel was offered the way of peace rather than the way of war, which was ultimately to destroy them in AD 70. He talks of how, in the middle of the night, their hated rulers Herod Antipas the murderer, and the Chief Priests, (whose position in Israel was secured by a deal with the Roman occupiers to hand over religious zealots) handed Jesus over to the Romans for the most terrible death that could be imagined. “They did this in your name, people!” Peter presents the Easter story in the worst possible light for all the officials that the ordinary folk loathed. “But the wonderful thing is that a whole lot of us have seen Jesus alive, because God has raised him from the dead, and through us his work is going to go on... He is in fact a final sacrifice, the final sacrifice, and because of his death, the Temple has become irrelevant. Great heroes of the faith in the past, like David, died... but Jesus has risen, and sits on the right-hand side of God, his Father, and sent us the Holy Spirit. This Jesus then is Lord and Messiah.”
Peter's audience, we are told, were deeply upset and moved by what they heard. They asked what on earth they should do about all this. Peter said “Each of you must turn away from your sins and be baptised in the name of Jesus, so that your sins are forgiven, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit”. We are told that Peter continued his appeal with many words, urging them, saying “Save yourselves from the punishment coming to these wicked people” (i.e. who rejected Jesus) (Acts 2:40). We read that from this first group something like 3,000 people trusted Jesus. We are told that many miracles and wonders were done through the Apostles and people were in awe of what was happening. We are told they met daily in the Temple courtyard and became a group – around 8,000 becoming converts within a few days. Peter is saying over the next several days that “Know for sure that this Jesus whom you crucified is the one that God has made Lord and Messiah”(Acts 2:36) rubbing in the fact that this totally holy and good man was rejected in favour of a notorious murderer, Barabbas. It's not surprising that large numbers of people in Jerusalem came under tremendous conviction and earnestly desired to distance themselves from the Judaism which rejected Jesus.
This message was not of course a “one-off”. It was a message Peter would have repeated often throughout his life. He became recognised as the Evangelist of the early Church, and his Gospel as the Evangelist's message, and was well known as such (Papias). The message is talking about Jesus' actions and complies with Jewish customary law, in that each of the events that Peter referred to could be proved to be true by competent witnesses, who had to include two or three men11 The finding of the tomb by the women was not sufficient evidence to prove that the tomb was found empty, and it was necessary for Peter and John to go and verify the fact – so that point was covered – but not to the satisfaction of Paul, who as a trained lawyer was never able to bring himself to refer to the empty tomb in any of his writings. So we need to remember that Mark's Gospel satisfies all the requirements as a legal document which could be proved to be true in a Court of Law. So many people were there and saw these things. These are not the fantastic stories happening in far away countries which a friend of someone tells us happened, as so often happens in church today, these are things which happened in Jerusalem, some of them only a month ago, and were known by practically everybody. Peter's Gospel is simply not, as most theologians and scholars have imagined, a collection of remote rumours, but a recent record of provable facts.
In our Bible colleges today we are taught by some excellent scholars who are generally themselves teachers, not preachers. Preaching is an art which is not taught today. A street preacher must arrest the attention of passers-by to the extent that they will stop and listen. Speaking about things of concern to them, he must teach them spiritual truths that ultimately lead to their understanding that the death and resurrection of Jesus are the answer to the problems they face today. Street preaching is immediate and personal. It has a tremendous impact, and is the framework within which the Holy Spirit acts to change people's hearts and minds.
For full information on this vital ministry, central to the practical outworking of the Great Commission, study my book “Biblical Patterns of Evangelism – Today” (available on the Internet, www.korky.info) In my experience Open Air Campaigners is the only organisation to follow successfully the pattern of the ministry of Jesus the preacher par excellence, able to relate deep spiritual truths in terms of everyday life for ordinary people. In the Gospels, for every 9 occasions where Jesus is recorded as preaching, on 7 of those occasions he was preaching to people who were not his followers, with the use of parables, in the open air. It is in their excellent training programme available around the world that OAC offers Christians the opportunity to follow Jesus (and the apostles) in this most effective ministry.
The Church simply does not do this today: it is essentially the ministry of the evangelist. Paul's ability in Athens to address the religious enthusiasts with their 30,000 gods represented by little monuments all over Mars Hill, demonstrates what preaching is – the ability to relate the Living God to the here and now situation. I have a lovely memory, which I treasure, of a cheerful businessman blurting out after a sermon I had preached at a celebration meeting in Shepton Mallet, England: “Your message wasn't a proper sermon, Korky – it was really interesting!”.
In dictating his Gospel Peter almost certainly included more stories than he would normally use in his usual street message. He left off the particular appeal he made to his listeners that Pentecost day when he urged them to disown the wicked men who had done their Messiah to death, and escape God's judgement through baptism into faith in Jesus. Peter was the pre-eminent figure in the early Church, who first produced a Gospel message which was clearly effective. Matthew and Luke then produced their own versions and chose to follow the same general lay-out as Peter, probably because Peter's format had been particularly effective in winning converts. This was one of the main objectives for writing a Gospel – the writers of the Gospels were generally known as “The Four Evangelists”. They are less likely to have taken this course for political reasons because of Peter's position as the acknowledged leader of the Church at that time. It is nevertheless odd that these three Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, are known as “the synoptic Gospels” because they do not contain a synopsis (that is, a general summary) either of Jesus' life or of his ministry.
As one of the three top men in the early Church, John was free to devise his own account of the life of Christ in his own philosophical terms. The description of Jesus' ministry contained in John's Gospel has Jesus visiting Jerusalem on five separate occasions, with detailed accounts of events in and around Jerusalem which only someone very familiar with the city would know. His individual stories of events and sayings during the Jesus ministry contain extraordinarily detailed understanding of local customs out in the villages and also of the intricacies of first century Judaism and its rules. It has to be directed towards a local readership. All this will become clear in subsequent chapters of this book. John refers to Jerusalem as still standing and often mentions specific times when events took place!
Whereas the synoptic Gospels do not appear to have attracted additions from the oral tradition in later stages, we know that John's did... for example, around 250 AD the story of the woman taken in adultery in John 8 began to be added to copies of his Gospel then being produced.12). John's Gospel is written in superb Greek and uses language contemporary with Philo, the Jewish philosopher of Alexandria, who was writing about a few years earlier than John. Right at the beginning John introduces the idea of the deity of Jesus, “The Word of God”. In John 1:1 he describes Jesus as God – very much as though “The Son of God” has already become “God the Son” in Christian understanding. The textual scholar Colwell established the rule of Greek grammar (known as Colwell's rule!) in 1935, which establishes that John 1:1 can only be read in this way. A. W. Tozer, an American theologian, got this completely wrong in the 1940's by translating John 1:1 as “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god.” This gave comfort to the cults, who are by definition highly subordinationist and do not accept the deity of Christ. However, Colwell proved conclusively that the correct translation is as follows: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” This is how that particular Greek sentence construction is translated elsewhere in the Gospel.
None of the Gospels, and in fact nowhere in the New Testament, are there any references to the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. Many of Jesus' sayings would not make sense to Jews after AD 70 because of the massive destruction by the Roman armies and the appalling genocide committed on the population, which virtually brought the nation of Israel to an end. There was a further minor revolt under a leader called Bar Cochba in AD 132, when the Romans eliminated the last vestiges of the Jewish rebellion. The fact that such a catastrophic event is not even hinted at in the New Testament indicates that all the documents which form the New Testament must have been written before AD 66 when the rebellion started. Robinson, in his ground-breaking book13 considered that the Epistle of James was most likely written by the Lord's brother very early, around AD 45. He thought that the book of Revelation was the last New Testament document to be written, and might well have been written during AD 68-70 when various references could well refer to the political situation in the Roman Empire at that time. Robinson agrees with the great 19th Century scholars Westcott, Lightfoot and Hort (op.cit. p. 224).
Jesus and his disciples conducted their work mainly in the open air, in largely unstructured situations – “by the lake” or “on the mountain” – the Lord's great popularity and spectacular ministry attracted large numbers of people from far and wide, wherever he went. There were many events each day – tumultuous situations with many happenings, which gave rise to the vast oral tradition. It is unfortunate that none of the eminent scholars who have written on the Gospels seem to have had a realistic comprehension of how this extraordinary ministry worked. The Lord would have used a lot of teaching material on each occasion. It is characteristic of this sort of open air ministry that material gets used and re-used. Individual parables would be used in different ways to adapt them to the needs of particular groups of listeners. Thus the story of “The Good Shepherd” in John's Gospel is quite different to that in the synoptic Gospels, which themselves have variations in detail (see Chapter Three of this book.) In Luke 9 and 10 the Apostles and a further group of 72 are sent out “to preach the Gospel and heal the sick”. These groups of village preachers would have used the same material they had learned from Jesus, so on many occasions the crowds would have heard his parables from people other than Jesus himself.
The whole point of having disciples was to model them on the Master's ministry and equip them to go out and do the same. I think that there are all sorts of points where small variations in the telling of the parables could arise, but I think that the larger variations such as, for example, John's version as opposed to the synoptic version of “The Good Shepherd”, are more likely to arise from Jesus himself making different applications of the story. In my view it is much more likely to be after the Resurrection that it became really important to remember Jesus' teaching word for word. The picture so many scholars have drawn from the differences between the accounts of the same parables was that they were faint memories from long ago, which writers had some difficulty recovering. In fact nothing could be further from the truth.
Streeter and others recognised the “Sayings of Jesus” as an additional strand of the oral tradition dealing specifically with his sayings such as “The Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 5). The individual stories of events in Mark appear in Matthew and Luke in a shortened form, presumably to make additional space in the manuscript for the “sayings” to be included, and still fit the number of pages available in a single Codex. The collected “Sayings of Jesus” have always been thought of by scholars to have been contained in a hypothetical document which they labelled “Q” because they have not understood the nature of the oral tradition. (“Q” is an abbreviation of the German word “Quelle” meaning “source”). Documents are of limited value in an illiterate society where those able to read and write are few and far between. The ability to sustain a detailed oral tradition is highly developed in an oral society, as Israel was in those days. The “stratification of Q” is a debate going on now, where scholars are suggesting that there are different hypothetical documentary strands which make up the sayings of Jesus, such as the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew and Luke. This is generally in line with the concept of an evolutionary process taking place in the formation of the Gospels, which in my view is highly unlikely.
The devious and unpleasant Josephus, self-appointed apologist for the Roman atrocities inflicted on the Jews, has misled scholars for years by downplaying the appalling crimes of genocide carried out in AD 70. The destruction is now known to have been much greater than had been appreciated. It can be seen as a direct consequence of the rejection by the Jews of their Messiah that they then ceased to be the people of God. The violent and oppressive legalism of Hasidic Judaism continues to affect the Middle East today. In Mark 13 the destruction of Jerusalem is clearly foretold, and the anguish of Jesus as he foresaw these events. Tom Wright14 sees the vocation of the Suffering Servant as a realisation that slowly unfolds before him as Jesus continues with his ministry. I don't agree. I think during that time of his temptation in the wilderness, both the ministry and its outcome were perfectly clear to him: although they did not at the time understand him, he clearly explained to the disciples what would happen.
By the time Mark came to make his final copies of Peter's Gospel in Rome, probably in the 80's, he had written out these stories many times. The stories themselves had been used and re-used in messages by the Apostles and were very familiar in the early Church community. They became like rounded pebbles that have been washed up and down the beach by the waves, over millions of years. They had taken on a form and character unique in literature. It does not mean they were not accurate and true accounts, good descriptions of real events, which the writers saw and in fact took part in – as described by John in l John 1. However, the form they thus naturally assumed caused suspicion over the last 200 years in the minds of scholars who had no background in preaching. They arrived at the conclusion that the form indicated rather unprofessional fictional constructions rather than often-told oral accounts.
One of the main problems these early researchers faced was that they came to Biblical studies through a study of the Latin and Greek Classics. These have little or no relation to the very Jewish documents they were studying. Furthermore, they were working at a time when philosophy could not accept the supernatural and therefore they approached the Gospel accounts with the intention of showing that the supernatural elements, the birth narratives, the miracles etc., were later additions. This assumption meant that the Gospels had to be regarded as created by people who were not witnesses describing historical events, but religious leaders seeking to authenticate their particular beliefs and practices. Many of the scholars felt that it would be almost impossible for us ever to know the real historical Jesus. One of the originators of this approach was Wrede; Bultmann gives an excellent account of these people and their very different though usually complementary points of view in the introduction to his book “The History of the Synoptic Tradition”.
The great difficulty these early liberal scholars faced was their lack of knowledge of 1st Century Jewish culture and law, which it seems to me has only really become a focus for New Testament scholarship over the last 30-40 years. In studying the accounts they simply were not seeing society as it was then. This enabled Bultmann to write of Matthew 17:24-27 (the Temple tax story) “This section, on account of its legendary character, could be classified as a legend.”15Classifying different accounts in this way was a legacy of the way the Greek and Roman Classics were studied. Obviously Bultmann and his colleagues were under the huge disadvantage that they simply did not realise what was going on in this remarkable record of everyday life in Palestine (see our up to date account in Chapter 8 of this book). In fact, scholars have been so convinced by the idea that miracle stories developed over a long period, that one referred to this passage as “a story on its way to becoming a miracle story but arrested in its development.”16This is a good illustration of the direction their researches were taking.
One of Bultmann's main problems was with the Resurrection accounts, as he deals with the stories of the empty tomb: Mark 16:1-8, Matthew 28:1-10, Luke 24:1-11, John 20:11-18. He says “Since Matthew 28 is an apologetic legend..., and John 20 is a late formulation, and since the accounts in Matthew and Luke derive from Mark, the material reduces itself to the one story in Mark 16. The purpose of the story is without doubt to prove the reality of the Resurrection of Jesus by the empty tomb.”17Bultmann seems to be unaware that the finding of the tomb by a bunch of women didn't prove anything in their culture at all, as women's evidence was inadmissable in law. If this account had been fabricated by the Gospel writers, at a date late in the 1st Century, anyone with that objective would certainly have stated that the tomb was found by men. The fact that it was found by women not only weakens the evidence but points to the total honesty of the Gospel writers, who in fact were there and writing about things that they themselves saw only weeks earlier. One has to say that the early scholars were struggling with considerable disadvantages and one must conclude that a very great scholar such as Bultmann would probably have written a very different set of theological books if he were writing today in the light of the recent discoveries.
The outcome of this approach was that for them very little could be known of Jesus and his message. Consequently, Paul came to be regarded as the founder of Christianity. Paul's letters were intended for converts in the Gentile world: his brilliance as a thinker and communicator certainly did lead him to write in such a way as to make his letters understandable to those immersed in pagan mythology. This is not at all the same as saying (as many liberal scholars do) that Paul's theology included a lot of pagan ideas – that is quite simply wrong. A wonderfully clear explanation of how Paul communicated Jesus and his message in the pagan world is contained in Dr. Tom Wright's excellent short book “What St. Paul Really Said”18.
Liberal theology in the late 1980's and early 1990's has taken on even more extreme forms in the work of Dominic Crossan and Burton Mack. These are very interesting and original writers and Burton Mack in particular makes a number of claims with great apparent certainty, none of which appear to have any basis in firm evidence!19 They suggest that the Gospels are very late indeed, the originals being some of the Gnostic documents (such as the Gospel of Thomas) which contain exceedingly odd and undeveloped ideas which Mack attributes to Jesus himself. For example, Thomas contains the idea that salvation for women is only achievable if they become men! Such ideas are clearly not of Jesus. Church history demonstrates that heresy does not precede the development of ultimate truth, but heresy is an attack on truths already given. It is always a late development.
The internal evidence of the Four Gospels themselves is that they were born out of a contemporary oral tradition of a very great many witness statements by those who personally took part in the events. Papias clearly describes Mark's Gospel as based on Peter's original message. By definition this means that this Gospel must be the earliest written Christian document. Furthermore, it was a document provable in a Court of Law at the time, and therefore of considerable legal force.
5 Wright, Nicholas Thomas (1992): The New Testament And The People Of God. London: S.P.C.K. pp. 410-417
6 Bailey, Kenneth. E. (1990): Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes. Eerdmans
7 Guthrie, Donald (1965): Introduction to the New Testament. InterVarsity. pp. 15-16
8 Bultmann, Rudolf (1952): Theology Of The New Testament. SCM. p. 305 c
9 Thiede, Carsten Peter (1992): The Earliest Gospel Manuscript? Paternoster
10 Wright, Nicholas Thomas (1992): The New Testament And The People Of God. London: S.P.C.K. p. 213
11 Derrett, J. Duncan. M. (1970): Law In The New Testament. London: Darton, Longman & Todd. pp 160-161
12 Derrett, J. Duncan. M. (1970): Law In The New Testament. London: Darton, Longman & Todd. p. 156
13 Robinson, John A.T. (1976): Re-dating The New Testament. London: S.C.M. Press. p. 138
14 Wright, Nicholas Thomas (1996): Jesus And The Victory Of God. London: S.P.C.K. p. 645-653
15 Bultmann, Rudolf (1972): History Of The Synoptic Tradition. Oxford: Blackwell. p. 34
16 Derrett, J. Duncan. M. (1970): Law In The New Testament. London: Darton, Longman & Todd. p. 247
17 Bultmann, Rudolf (1972): History Of The Synoptic Tradition. Oxford: Blackwell. p. 287
18 Wright, Nicholas Thomas (1997): What St. Paul Really Said. Oxford: Lion
19 Wright, Nicholas Thomas (1996): Jesus And The Victory Of God. London: S.P.C.K. p 40