The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Jesus in the gospels

Jesus the Christ by Richard Hook

Jesus the Christ, by Richard Hook

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Thus begins the first-ever “gospel,” the one according to Mark, who created a new literary form to tell the story of Jesus. Note well: It is not “history” but the story of Jesus written with the intention of persuading readers that the story is true. There is nothing objective or fair about this account. It is the author’s passionate conviction that Jesus was divine and that his coming into the world was good news for all humanity, because he came to save us from our sins. There may be some historical facts in it, but they are largely unverifiable in any scientific way; and, in any case, this gospel was not written to be a collection of facts but an account with an agenda – to convert Roman doubters and non-believers. It was written in a type of Greek called Koine, the original language of all Christian scripture, which was the universal language of trade in the Roman Empire.

It is clear to scholars that Mark’s gospel was written at a critical time in the history of Christianity as the first generation of apostles was dying and the second generation struggled with a new theological problem: The end of the world wasn’t just over the horizon, which was a fervent belief of the first generation (including Paul and Jesus himself). Scholars have speculated that Mark’s gospel is perhaps based on the reminiscences of Peter. It was probably written between 65 and 70 B.C.E., or no fewer than three decades after Jesus’ public ministry. Mark’s gospel also may have been based in part on a written collection of the sayings of Jesus, but that document, if it existed at all, has been lost. Scholars do not agree on who wrote Mark’s gospel, although traditionally the work has been attributed to John Mark, a young disciple of Jesus and later a traveling companion of Paul, Barnabas and Luke. What really matters, though, is that Mark’s gospel had a great deal of authority in the early church, because later gospel writers Matthew and Luke depended almost entirely upon Mark’s narrative outline, which is why these gospels are called “synoptic.” Moreover, most of Mark is quoted directly, with some modifications, in Matthew and Luke.

The gospels of Matthew and Luke are actually reinterpretations of Mark written 10 to 20 years later. Both have unique traditions regarding Jesus’ genealogy, birth and early childhood, and both have unique material exclusive of Mark’s narrative; for example, the parable of the prodigal son appears only in Luke, and the calming of the storm appears only in Matthew. Matthew and Luke also seemed to have shared a source unknown to Mark, which scholars call “Q.” Jesus’ teaching to “love your enemies” is shared by Matthew and Luke but is not found in Mark. This “four-source theory” of the synoptic gospels is a lens through which to understand the nature of Christian scripture; i.e., it may have been inspired, but it wasn’t divinely dictated. The words on the page were compiled by human beings, and in some cases they were lifted directly from previous sources. The later gospels often changed Mark to accommodate later insights and difficulties. One notable example is Jesus’ teaching on divorce. In Mark and Luke, the prohibition is absolute, as Jesus enunciates a new theology of marriage, quoting Genesis (which Luke omits, for some reason). In Matthew, however – and we don’t know why – there is a new provision allowing divorce in cases of “unchastity.” (See Mark 10.1, Matthew 5.31 and Luke 16.18.)

It is clear, then, that just as Christian scripture developed over decades, so has Christian theology developed over the centuries. It’s not as though “anything goes,” but it does indicate that our awareness of and understanding of right and wrong constantly shifts as history works itself out. Contemporary Christian attitudes about divorce, for example, cover a broad range of beliefs, and it is clear that most Christians have an understanding of divorce that is very different from Jesus. What we do with that is a constant conversation in all Christian traditions, especially Anglicanism, because we do have a theological method – tradition, scripture and reason – that allows us to hold these questions open as we trust God’s mercy upon our honest though often misguided moral choices. (For the record, Episcopalians are not “excommunicated” for being divorced but are admonished to express “continuing concern” for former spouses and children.)

The portraits of Jesus do vary among the synoptic gospels, but generally speaking, Jesus appears as a man who seems driven, whose sense of urgency grows as opposition and adversity, such as the beheading of his cousin John the Baptist, increase. Theologically, Matthew’s gospel presents Jesus as fulfiller of the law; and in Luke, Jesus is bringer of light to the nations. (Luke was not a Jew and represents Paul’s view that the gospel is universal, for gentiles as well as Jews.) Perhaps the oddest of gospel themes is Mark’s “secret Messiah,” which answers what must have been a compelling question in his day: If the son of God appeared on earth, why didn’t everyone recognize him? Well, as Mark’s gospel says again and again, Jesus kept telling his disciples not to tell anyone else what he had said or done. Mark’s theology seems to be that only in light of the resurrection of do Jesus’ life, ministry and crucifixion make any sense. In any case, the synoptic “take” on Jesus is very different from what we find in the gospel according to John.

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