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Christianity from a Bahá'í Perspective

by Robert Stockman

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Chapter 3

Preserving the Jesus Tradition

      Because of the discovery that the first generation of Christians served not as a pure transmitter of the Jesus tradition, but as a filter of the tradition, a study of Christianity must start not with Jesus, but with the earliest Christians. Their interests and needs determined what traditions about Jesus were preserved, and how they were modified.

      It may seem easy to assume, almost twenty centuries after the death of Jesus, that the first generation must have had historical consciousness; in other words, that they knew posterity was depending on them to preserve the precious acts and pronouncements of their Lord. There are many examples, from all around the world, of stories and sayings that have been accurately transmitted orally for centuries; the rabbinic tradition in Judaism itself was a vehicle for this. Usually cultures that transmit a body of tradition, however, organize the material into rhyming form, to ease memorization, and establish a class of professional memorizers. The early Christian community did neither. When scholars examine the New Testament text closely they find little evidence for a systematic effort to record the story of Jesus.

      Furthermore, critical biblical scholarship has shown there were good reasons that a historical consciousness was largely absent from the first generation. As the Gospel of Mark and the genuine letters of Paul indicate, much of the first generation believed that Jesus would return soon, within their own lifetimes; and since the world was about to end, there was no need to preserve their memories of Him.

      Furthermore, the early Christian community believed that Jesus's coming had brought them new gifts. The first generation was very charismatic, and the exercise of the "gifts of the spirit," such as speaking in tongues, were important components of community life. Such gifts were not unique to the early Christians; speaking in tongues occurred in Hellenistic Judaism and probably in pagan religious circles as well. Among the important gifts of the spirit was the power of prophecy. Christian "prophets" spoke ecstatically, giving the words of Christ as He spoke to them. Because the words of the risen Christ in the worship experience were more immediate and were as real as those spoken by the historical Jesus, Christians probably made little or no distinction between them.

      Finally, from its very beginning the early Christian community interpreted Jesus's life and words, and often they did not distinguish between historical materials and their own interpretations. A good example is the parable of the sower and its interpretation (Mark 4:10-12; Matthew 13:10-13; Luke 8:9-10). Biblical scholarship strongly suggests that while the parable is probably genuine, the interpretation was produced by the early church, even though the gospels also place it in the mouth of Jesus.

      As a result, there are many reasons to assume that the gospels contain a mixture of accurate information about Jesus, material attributed to Him that arose in the early Christian community, and interpretations of His life and words. Study of the early Christian community has also revealed that it possessed several understandings of the significance of Jesus. Helmut Koester, a leading biblical scholar, has sketched four: Jesus as an envoy of Wisdom; Jesus as divine human; Jesus raised from the dead; and Jesus as Lord of the Future.[1]

      Jesus and Wisdom

      Many Christians—usually of Jewish background—saw Jesus as the embodiment of Sophia or Wisdom. The wisdom tradition in Judaism envisions God as having produced a being or emanation, Wisdom, who revealed His truth to individuals or to humanity. The Wisdom tradition was mystical and often esoteric; it focused on wise aphorisms and cryptic proverbs. Many early Christians saw Jesus as an emissary of Wisdom, or as Wisdom itself. They assembled lists of His "wisdom sayings": proverbs, parables, and other words that Jesus uttered. Two works of this sort have survived: the Gospel of Thomas and Q.

      The Gospel of Thomas

      Although there are many gospels, acts of the apostles, and letters that were never included in the New Testament, most of them were written after 140 C.E., which is about the time the last works included in the New Testament were composed. One of the significant exceptions is the Gospel of Thomas. It is very old, possibly being composed as early as 60 C.E. (though the text was edited, possibly as late as the early second century). The work is attributed to Thomas, one of Jesus's disciples. The original Greek text, so far, has not been found; the extant version is in Coptic translation (Coptic is the ancient Egyptian language, written in a modification of the Greek alphabet).

      The Gospel of Thomas is not like the gospels in the New Testament, in that it contains no passion narrative (description of Christ's crucifixion) and no resurrection accounts; thus it ignores the most important event around which the canonical gospels were written. It has no mention of Jesus's birth or childhood, no narration of Jesus's life, and only one miracle story. Instead, it consists of one hundred fourteen sayings of Jesus, one after the other, with no context for each and no transition between them. Often the text does not even include the question that Jesus was asked. The arrangement of the sayings is based on similar words in them. In organization, it is a "wisdom" piece.

      The work is significant for several reasons. Many of its sayings are also found in the synoptic gospels, though in different wording. All reference to a future messiah, and to Jesus as the "Son of Man" are absent, even though the work contains sayings that in the canonical gospels includes the term "Son of Man." Careful study suggests that the Gospel of Thomas may preserve the older form of the sayings.

      The Gospel of Thomas also claims to present "secret" sayings; and those that have been included are those that support gnostic interpretations of Jesus's teachings. Liberation of the soul from the body is a common theme; it was a common theme for gnostics. Traditional Jesus sayings appear to have been modified to give them a gnostic interpretation. There also are many admonitions to recognize one's true self.

      The Synoptic Sayings Source (Q)

      Since the 1830s biblical scholars have recognized that Matthew and Luke contain a large amount of common material. Much of it is also found in the gospel of Mark, but a considerable amount is found only in Matthew and Luke. The common material exhibits some important patterns that are clues to its origin: almost all of it consists of sayings; only one miracle is included; there is no common material in the Lukan and Matthean birth stories or passion narratives; and when scholars are fairly certain what the original version of the common material was—for example, when a phrase from the Hebrew Bible was alluded to in the original text—both Matthew's and Luke's versions may differ from the original.[2] This suggests that rather than Matthew using Luke as a source when writing his gospel, or vice versa, they both read another, lost work, and borrowed from it. Scholars call this lost work the Synoptic Sayings Source or Q (from the German word Quelle, source).

      Q consisted mostly of sayings of Jesus, with no narrative and virtually no stories to give the context of the sayings. The Gospel of Thomas lends credence to the idea that a document just listing sayings could have existed. Q, like Thomas, appears to be a work written in the Jewish Wisdom tradition. Matthew and Luke arrange the Q sayings in very similar order, suggesting that the original order has often been preserved, especially by Luke.[3]

      One hundred six units of text (fragments of sentences, sentences, and groups of sentences on the same topic) can be identified in Matthew and Luke that came from Q. The sayings concern various topics: Jesus and John the Baptist; Christian discipleship and mission; controversies with Israel; fearless preaching; and especially apocalyptic concerns. Particularly significant are the subjects missing from Q: Jesus's baptism, passion, and resurrection. While Matthew and Luke often give Q phrasing that is identical (suggesting Q was a written source), sometimes there are significant differences in phrasing (for example, the Sermon on the Mount, which Matthew may have constructed by collecting and rearranging Q sayings, versus the Sermon on the Plain, which Luke took from Q). Research on Q has advanced to the point where scholars think the document underwent at least two redactions (modifications and editings); the later version was more apocalytic, the earlier more interested in wisdom. Q cannot be dated except to say it had to be composed after Jesus's death (about 30 C.E.) and before it was used by Matthew and Luke (about 80 C.E.); most scholars, though, suspect it was composed between 40 and 60. A likely setting for the composition of Q is a Syrian Jewish-Christian community that sought to follow most of the Jewish law but maintained friendly relations with Gentile Christians, and that was bitterly criticized by Pharisaic Jews (such as Paul, before his conversion) as a result.[4]

      Q may have circulated fairly widely, for The Gospel of Thomas, the apostle Paul, and the authors of the epistles of James, I Peter, and I Clement may have been familiar with versions of it.[5] One intriguing possibility is that Q was composed by or based on sayings collected by the apostle Matthew, that the work began to circulate widely, and that the Matthean community continued to develop the Q material, eventually incorporating it into the Gospel of Matthew.[6]

      The Christians who saw Jesus as the envoy of Wisdom preserved many of His sayings that were later used in the writing of the gospels. They may have considered the view that Jesus was Lord of the Future or that he was raised from the dead as unimportant. As already noted, the Gospel of Thomas ignored both views; Q originally ignored both as well, though a concern for Jesus as Lord of the Future apparently was edited into the document later.

      Jesus as Divine Human

      Yet another group of Christians interpreted Jesus primarily as a divine human. This is a concept that existed in Hellenistic culture. Hercules exhibits some of the traits of a divine human, such as his ability to perform remarkable feats. Biographies of Alexander the Great and of an obscure Greek seer, Apollonius of Tyana, offer good examples of the tradition of the divine human: he performed healings, exorcisms, miracles, had ecstatic experiences, and saw visions. Sometimes divine humans were born as a result of a union of their mother with a god. Christians who saw Jesus as a divine human were among those who referred to Him by the title "Son of God." This title probably would have been unacceptable in traditional Judaism because the unknown, transcendent God could never have had a son. These Christians assembled collections of stories of miracles and exorcisms performed by Jesus and apparently wrote them down. They also assembled the stories of Jesus's miraculous birth. It is thought that a "Signs Source" or Semeia—a collection of miracle stories—was used by the writer of the gospel of Mark; the author of John may have used it as well.

      The Signs Source (Semeia)

      Unlike the Q, it is not possible to reconstruct the original text of the Semeia, though it is possible, from the parallel stories found in the gospels of Mark and John, to trace its contents:

      Mark 4:35-6:44:                                     Mark 6:45-8:26:
      4:35-41   Stilling tempest                 6:45-52   Walking on sea
      5:1-20    Gerasene demoniac                5:22-43   Daughter of Jarius
      5:25-34   Woman with issue of blood        7:24-30   Canaanite woman
                                                 7:32-36   Healing of deaf mute
      6:30-44   Feeding 5000                     8:1-10    Feeding 4000
                                                 8:22-26   Healing blind man
                    John 2:1-11:45:
                    2:1-11     Wine miracle at wedding feast at Cana
                    4:46-54    Healing of son of royal official
                    5:2-9      Healing of lame man at Bethzatha pool
                    6:5-14     Feeding 6000
                    6:16-25    Tempest and walking on the sea
                    9:1-7      Healing blind man
                    11:1-45    Raising Lazarus

Mark apparently preserved the cycle of miracle stories twice, as independent collections; John used it once. In both gospels the miracle stories included an account of feeding thousands; stilling a tempest and walking on the sea; and various healings. Both gospels preserved other miracle stories that were not part of these collections.

      The Johannine collection is particularly significant because it appears to imitate the collections of miracles stories, or aretologies, that were told about various Greek gods. It opens with the changing of water to wine, a miracle Greeks attributed to the god Dionysos. The first two miracles also close with "this is the first of the signs which Jesus did in Cana" (John 2:11) and "this is the second sign when he came from Judea into Galilee" (John 4:54), wording that would be expected if the signs had been copied from an existing written source. Possibly the original ending of the Signs Source is preserved in John 20:30-31, "Jesus did many other signs before his disciples which are not written in this book."[7]

      The Signs Source apparently only focused on Jesus as a divine human and ignored the other three ways of viewing Jesus.

      Jesus, Raised from the Dead

      Probably the oldest of the four ways to view Jesus, and perhaps the most decisive for later writing about Jesus, was Jesus raised from the dead. One of the most significant results of modern biblical scholarship has been the recognition that Jesus's death was one of the most important influences on the understanding of Jesus's life. Consider the impact that Jesus had on His disciples. They believed He performed miracles. They experienced His life and were overwhelmed by it. They heard His words and were mesmerized by them, even if they didn't understand them perfectly. He was more than a human being to them; in some sense He was divine.

      Then He was arrested and cruelly murdered. How could Jesus allow such an injustice to be perpetrated against Him? The disciples could not understand; their faith was severely shaken. One can understand why the standard Islamic understanding of the crucifixion is that Jesus Himself was not crucified, but someone who looked like Him; the ideal that a divine messenger could be martyred seems to contradict the idea that He has divine power. The crucifixion shattered the Christian community. The gospels testify that it was Christ's resurrection appearances that revived the dead body of Christianity.

      To understand the seemingly meaningless turn of events, the disciples turned to their Bible—the Hebrew Bible. An apocryphal Christian work, the Kerygma Petrou (The Proclamation of Peter) says that the leading disciples examined the last days of Jesus's life, event by event, and searched the Hebrew Bible for prophecies that had been fulfilled in order to understand the tragedy. The Kerygma Petrou puts the description of the disciples' action in the mouth of Peter:

But we opened the books of the prophets which we had, which partly in parables, partly in enigmas, partly with certainty and in clear words name Christ Jesus, and found his coming, his death, his crucifixion and all the rest of the tortures which the Jews inflicted on him, his resurrection and his assumption to heaven.-.-. how all was written that he had to suffer and what would be after him. Recognizing this, we believed God in consequence of what is written of (in reference to) him.[8]

      The apostles also conducted the process in the reverse direction: They considered the prophecies that the Bible contained and examined the life of Jesus in order to determine which prophecies were fulfilled. Over time stories about Jesus developed that were based on the fulfillment of many biblical prophecies by Him; thus passages in the Old Testament shaped the memory of Jesus's death.

      The result was eventually formed into the passion narrative, the account of Christ's arrest, trial, and crucifixion. It was the first part of Christ's life to be systematically organized, and may have been the first part to be written down. The similarity of the passion accounts in the four canonical gospels strongly suggests that they had access to a written passion account, now lost. One scholar has even given this lost document a name—the Cross Gospel—and has attempted to reconstruct its original text. The prominence of Peter's name in all of the accounts suggests that Peter may have been the ultimate source for much of the Passion narrative. This possibility is reinforced by two apocryphal accounts of the passion, the Gospel of Peter and the Kerygma of Peter, which both bear his name.

      Peter was not the only prominent Christian to focus on Jesus's death; Paul did also. Paul's summary of his basic teaching, presented in I Corinthians 15:3-8, exclusively emphasized Jesus's death and resurrection:

      For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures [Hebrew Bible], that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [Peter], then to the twelve [apostles]. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James [Jesus's brother], then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

      Paul's summary of the message of Christianity is purely the proclamation of the risen Christ; His life is not even mentioned, nor are His words or miracles. Paul's genuine letters contain very few references to the words and deeds of the historical Jesus. Note that Paul, also, refers to the influence of the Hebrew Bible on the community's understanding of Jesus's crucifixion.

      Because Jesus's death came to dominate the understanding of His life, His biography, when it was finally composed, was written backwards, starting from the end. The passion became the shaping event for structuring the gospels. All traditional materials about Jesus, such as sayings, miracle stories, parables, and prophecies—preserved by other Christians—were written into a single story, using the passion as the framework.

      Jesus, Lord of the Future

      Closely related to belief in Jesus as raised from the dead was belief in Jesus Christ as Lord of the Future, as the one who would return as judge and redeemer. Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians is a good example: after he mentions the Christian belief that "Jesus died and rose again" (4:14) he speaks of "we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord" (4:15), which refers to belief in Christ's imminent return. The gospel of Mark reflects a similar belief. Expectation of the imminent return of Christ persisted until 70 C.E., when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple and Jesus did not return to prevent it.

      Important to some of the Christians who focused on Jesus's passion and return was the title "Son of man" (or "Son of humanity," if one wishes to avoid sexist language), which comes from the book of Daniel. Some biblical scholars believe that the sayings where Jesus refers to Himself as the "Son of man" did not originally include that term. A careful study by John Dominic Crossan of the forty "Son of man" sayings that are found in first-generation Christian writings indicates that sixteen of the sayings are independently attested in two or more sources; but the term "Son of man" itself is found more than once in only one saying.[9] (In the other cases the same saying refers to Jesus using words and phrases like "I" or "the Lord.")

      Christians who focused on Jesus as the future redeemer also referred to him as "Lord." They called him "the Anointed One," mashiah (messiah) in Hebrew, a term that was translated into Greek as christos. (Before Christianity, the word christos could have meant "ointment" as well as "anointed.")

      Not all Christians who saw Jesus as the Lord of the Future also focused on him as one raised from the dead. Q contained many sayings about Christ's return, but apparently contained no passion narrative, and no reference to his crucifixion.

      The Distinctiveness of the Four Views of Jesus

      While there were Christians who saw Jesus according to more than one of these four ways, it is striking to note that the earliest documents are often dominated by one or at most two ways of conceptualizing Jesus and completely ignore the other ways. The genuine letters of Paul stress Jesus raised from the dead and emphasize His role as Lord of the future, but contain only three complete sayings attributed to Jesus, and make no mention of His miracles. The ideas of Jesus as divine human or Jesus as envoy of wisdom apparently were not important to Paul. The Gospel of Thomas is a piece in the wisdom tradition, but has few references to miracles, contains no passion narrative, and rarely refers to Jesus as Lord. The Q document used by Matthew and Luke is a piece in the wisdom tradition and contains sayings about the future (possibly added later), but has no passion narrative and no miracle stories. The signs source was dominated by miracles and seems to have contained no reference to the passion or return and contained few if any sayings of Jesus.

      It is interesting to note that the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century American Bahá'í community was divided into groups similar to the early Christians. Some early American Bahá'ís saw the Bahá'í Faith primarily as a fulfillment of biblical prophecy (like the early Christians who emphasized Jesus as raised from the dead and as judge and fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy). Other early American Bahá'ís saw the Bahá'í Faith primarily in terms of esoteric religious truth (such as those Christians who emphasized Jesus as envoy of Wisdom or as a divine human). Bahá'í communities included individuals with both points of view, and some Bahá'ís saw the Faith both ways.

      The Bahá'í community had access to the writings of its Founder and thus the divergent tendencies in the community gradually faded. The different groups did not write works that later were incorporated into Bahá'í scripture. The early Christian community had no definitions of true belief or of heresy, consequently divergent beliefs could exist together in a group or within an individual. All of these groups spoke about Jesus; all of them had "prophets" who received Jesus's words; and all of them wrote accounts of Jesus, probably within a decade or two of His death. From these short works many gospels were later compiled. Since the new gospels had not yet acquired any special status, they were edited, rewritten, and paraphrased in yet later gospels. (This even includes the Gospel of Mark, which was used as a source by the authors of Matthew and Luke, who edited and modified the information they obtained from it.) The earliest documents, having been incorporated into more sophisticated works, were gradually lost.

      The Gospels

      Standing near the end of this literary process are the four gospels in the New Testament. They are among the oldest accounts that are preserved. Three of them are called the synoptic gospels because they see Jesus through the "same eye" (which is what synoptic means in Greek). These three are Mark, Matthew, and Luke; they were composed between 70 and 90 C.E.

      There is no parallel for the genre of the gospel in Hellenistic literature, for they are not biographies or histories, but statements of the theological significance of an individual using examples from that individual's life and words. The works thus proclaim and interpret Jesus, not simply describe Him. This is the principal reason why the historical Jesus is so difficult to reconstruct; the early Christians' understanding of Him dominates the accounts about Him. An examination of the gospels, and works associated with them, reveals this.


      Mark has been described as "a passion story with a long introduction." Fundamentally, the book is an apocalyse; Jesus is expected to return imminently. Most likely the work was composed about 70 C.E., when the Roman siege of Jerusalem raised Christian expectations of His return to a height. The many references to gentiles in Mark suggest its author was very interested in the mission to teach the gentiles. Jesus is equally called "Son of God" (a Hellenistic title for Him) and "Son of Man" (a Jewish title for Him); two Son of Man statements are often followed by two Son of God statements (for example, 1:1, 1:10; 2:10, 2:28; 3:11, 5:7). In Mark, Jesus constantly refuses to disclose His identity until the end; this feature of Mark is called the "Messianic secret" (Bahá'ís, notably Christopher Buck, have seen a similar "messianic secret" theme in the Kitáb-i-Íqán, composed before Bahá'u'lláh's declaration). Jesus even orders demons not to divulge His identity (c.f. 3:12). The gospel gives the reason for Jesus's death on the cross as a "ransom for many" (Mark 10:45).

      The book breaks into five sections, each of which begins with a summary and ends with an allusion to the passion (Christ on the cross). The passion allusions occur in verses 3:6, 6:1-6:6, 8:17-8:21, 10:45, and 12:44. The entire section from 8:27 to 10:45 has the overall theme of interpreting the passion.

      The gospel of Mark must have circulated quickly, for both Matthew and Luke used it. Ninety percent of Mark may be found in reused form in Matthew, and fifty percent of it in Luke. The ways these authors reused Mark (for example, by changing the wording of quotes of Jesus) tells us much about the reasons that Matthew and Luke wrote their gospels.


      The Gospel of Matthew was apparently composed by a Christian of Jewish background. The book is constantly in dialogue with the Jews. Jesus is quoted as describing His mission as "to fulfill the law and the prophets" (Matt 5:17). His genealogy is used to tie Jesus to Abraham and demonstrates His Jewish lineage; each birth story about Him highlights a passage from the Hebrew Bible.

      The gospel is believed to have been composed between 70 and 100 C.E. because it reflects the concerns of that period: It deals with the problem of the delay of Jesus's return; it focuses on the organization of church structure; and it culminates in the "Great Commission," when Jesus tells His disciples to go out and "make disciples of all nations" (Matt. 28:19), thus endorsing the mission to teach the gentiles.

      Matthew does not describe Jesus's life chronologically. He likes to place similar materials together; for example, chapters five, six, and seven are mostly ethical teachings. Chapters eight and nine are mostly healings. Chapter ten is instructions to His disciples. Chapter thirteen consists solely of parables. Chapters twenty-four and twenty-five consist of teachings about the Kingdom.

      The book has five major discourses by Jesus, which end with the formula "when Jesus finished these sayings" or some similar phrase (7:28, 11:1, 13:53, 19:1, and 26:1). The five sections may be an intentional parallel to the five books of the Pentateuch. Jesus's teachings are presented as the new law (an idea that Paul would not have liked!) and the disciples are portrayed as the new rabbis.


      Of the three synoptic gospels, the gospel of Luke most closely resembles a work of history. The book sets Jesus in a "sacred history" at the "midpoint of time." That is, Luke divides all of human history into three periods:

  1. The Jewish dispensation ("the law and the prophets were until John; since then the good news of the Kingdom of God is preached" [Luke 16:16]).
  2. The time of Jesus.
  3. The time of the church.

      The last is described in great detail, for Luke is also the author of the book of Acts, and the two books were originally written as one complementary whole. For Luke, the immediacy of Christ's return has faded; Christianity has a period in history given to it, and the church must recognize the fact and seize the opportunities it offers. The book was probably written about 85 C.E., plus or minus five years.

      The book begins with a prologue in good Greek literary style; clearly, Luke is intentionally writing a polished literary work. His description of the birth of Jesus includes Psalm-like hymns, in imitation of the style of the Septuagint (the Greek edition of the Hebrew Bible); this shows that Jesus's birth is still part of the first period of human history.

      Luke treated John the Baptist very differently than did Matthew. Matthew has Jesus baptized by John the Baptist (3:13-17), and draws many parallels between John and Jesus. In contrast, Luke has John arrested and thrown in prison immediately before Jesus begins His mission, and instead of a baptism, Luke has a dove descend upon Jesus from heaven (3:20-22). (`Abdu'l-Bahá describes the dove as symbolic; see Lights of Guidance, 3d ed., number 1642). Thus Luke see John as the end of the old dispensation and Jesus as the inauguration of the new, and allows no overlap in their missions.

      Half of the gospel of Luke consists of the teachings that Jesus supposedly gave while on His way from Galilee to Jerusalem (the "Lukan travel narrative," 9:51-18:14). None of this material is from Mark; most of it is about the Christian life, a kind of manual for living.

      Luke's concept of salvation is unique; he does not see Christ's death as an expiation, a sacrifice for sins, like Paul and the early church. Rather, Jesus is an example to us how to live our lives, and in the contemplation of His life Luke sees individual salvation.


      Since Luke also composed the Book of Acts, it is best to describe that work and the gospel together. Luke wrote Acts in a fashion parallel to his gospel. The book begins with a description of the early Jerusalem church and is written in an intentionally archaic Greek style, just as the gospel began with an archaic-sounding description of Jesus's birth. The "great commission" that appears at the end of Matthew appears at the beginning of Acts. Stephen's martyrdom is portrayed in a way similar to Christ's death (Acts 7:54-60). Paul, Peter, Stephen, and the other early disciples are portrayed as Hellenistic "divine men" and as examples to follow, as Jesus was portrayed in the gospel. One third of Acts describes Paul's journey to Rome; one half of Luke describes Jesus's journey to Jerusalem.

      Luke supposedly was one of Paul's disciples, though the book of Acts presents no evidence for this. The historical accuracy of Acts has been hotly debated by scholars. The book places many speeches in Paul's mouth—a significant fraction of the text consists of speeches—and when one examines the content of the speeches closely one notes that it is often inconsistent with the teachings of Paul given in his genuine letters. Furthermore, a cursory examination of Greek historical works and romances (the early forerunner of the modern novel) shows that inventing speeches of major characters was extremely common in Greek writing. Acts appears to be written in the style of Greek romance: in addition to many speeches it has travel, adventures, danger, magical escapes, and dramatic dialogue. It even has a shipwreck, which was obligatory in Greek romance. The only thing it lacks is a love story!

      A key piece of evidence in the debate over the historical reliability of Acts are the so-called "we passages," or places where the text of Acts lapses into the first person plural (16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:1-28:16). It has been argued that Luke was utilizing a travel diary or some other personal record of his travels with Paul, and therefore the "we passages" were evidence of the document's historical reliability. However, recent research has shown that Greek romances frequently lapsed into the first person plural whenever sea travel was involved, in order to make the account more vivid. Virtually all of the "we passages" in Acts are connected with sea travel. Thus evidence that at first glance appeared to strengthen the case for the historical reliability of Acts in the long run has weakened the case instead.

      Sources Used by Luke and Matthew

      Scholars have long noted that in many places Matthew, Luke, and Mark overlap in content, which has led to the question whether one of the documents was the oldest and the other two used it as a source. As already noted, examination of the three has brought most biblical scholars to the conclusion that Mark is the oldest of the three, and that Matthew and Luke both used Mark when writing their gospels. Since Mark was not yet seen as a sacred text—just as a source—both Matthew and Luke felt free to paraphrase, edit, and rewrite the text they were borrowing.

      There are also many places where Matthew and Luke contain stories absent from Mark, and scholars have asked whether Matthew borrowed from Luke or vice versa. As already noted, most scholars think a lost work called Q was used by both writers, and this explains the two gospels' overlap.

      In addition to Mark and Q, Luke, at least, probably had access to another written document (called L by scholars). Some say Matthew may also have had a written document (called M by scholars) as a source for his stories. Both Mark and John appear to have used a Signs Source or Semeia that lists miracles of Jesus. None of these works exist today.

      The Gospel of John

      The fourth gospel is very different from the first three, in content, style, and presentation. It has no parables, for example, no proverbs, and has many stories that are absent from the synoptics. The book appears to have been edited considerably by "John" or his school of disciples and the changes are all in the same style as the original, making them very difficult to detect. The editing, however, did not fix all the problems with the original text; chapters 5, 6, and 7 are best read in the order 6, 5, 7. Various individual verses seem out of place, also.

      The attribution of the gospel to John, a disciple of Jesus, is suggested by the reference in John 21:20 to "the disciple whom Jesus loved"; church tradition maintains that John of Zebedee was this man. But many scholars believe chapter 21 is a later addition to the gospel. The text itself does not give the author's name.

      A letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi on 23 January 1944 noted that "as many of the passages in the Gospel of Saint John are quoted we may assume that it is his Gospel and much of it is accurate."[10] This reinforces the consensus of biblical scholarship that the gospel ultimately can be traced to John. This is important, because even ancient writers questioned whether Matthew was the ultimate sources of his gospel (Papias believed Matthew wrote down the gospel according to Peter), and Luke—who is identified as the author in the Gospel that bears his name—converted to Christianity through Paul and never met the historical Jesus. It is not clear whether the statement written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi implies that John himself was the author of the Gospel (a view rejected by most liberal biblical scholarship) or whether his account could have been recorded by others. Biblical scholarship has not yet attained a consensus about the accuracy of the Johannine text relative to the synoptic gospels; but clearly it preserved information about Jesus that was not preserved in other sources.

      The Gospel of John begins with the classic words, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." This section is a hymn in Greek. Theologically, the gospel begins with a preexistent Christ and shows considerable development in its Christology (theology about Jesus).

      The chronological structure of the gospel is quite different from the synoptics. The synoptics have Jesus preach in Galilee, go to Jerusalem, and die. John has Jesus go to Jerusalem several times. The synoptics tell the story of the cleansing of the Temple at the end of the story, just before the passion; John tells it early in his gospel. In John, Jesus never preaches that the Kingdom will come soon; this suggests the book was written considerably after 70 C.E., and when the community had ceased to expect His imminent return. In John, Jesus is constantly describing Himself, which He rarely does in the synoptics. He does this by beginning with the words "I am. . .." which is the usual way Jesus starts to talk about Himself in John, but which is a rare phrase in the synoptics. John is familiar with gnosticism and portrays the world very dualistically, in terms of light and darkness, good and evil, truth and lies, the saved and the condemned.

      John's stories about Jesus follow a standard pattern: first there is an action, then a dialogue, then a monologue (usually by Jesus), then an appendix. The pattern has variations: sometimes there are two dialogues, or the action or appendix may be absent. John also follows the "law of stage duality," a convention in Greek plays where there could only be two actors on stage at one time. Thus, whenever Jesus is in dialogue with several people, He only speaks with one person at a time. The best example is Jesus's trial:

      18:19-24 — Jesus speaks with Annas.

      18:29-32 — Pilate goes out of his palace and speaks with the messengers of the Sanhedrin. Jesus is absent.

      18:33-38 — Pilate goes into his palace and speaks with Jesus. The Jews are absent.

      18:38-40 — Pilate goes out and speaks with the Jews; Jesus is absent.

      This arrangement is in contrast to Mark 15:1-5, Matthew 27:1-2, 27:11-26, and Luke 23:1-25, where Jesus, the high priests, and Pilate are all present together. John's rearranging of the material to match the conventions of Greek drama—in order to make the scene more dramatic, by conventional standards—is clear evidence that he rewrote the material that had been handed down to him by tradition.

      John's passion narrative is distinctively different from the synoptics. Jesus is crucified not on Passover, but the day before. The last supper is not portrayed as a seder, or Passover meal. Jesus's trial is the center of the passion drama.

      John was probably written without a copy of either Mark, Matthew, or Luke available to its author, though some scholars suggest the author may have known about the gospel of Mark or possibly Luke, or that the gospel was later edited to make it consistent with them. The author apparently had available to him a "signs source," a book written in Greek that described Jesus's miracles. Probably the gospel was written about 90 C.E.; it must have been written by 100 or 110 because a fragment of the Gospel has been found in Egypt that was copied before 150 C.E.

      The Johannine School

      In addition to the gospel, John is said to have written the three letters in the New Testament that bear his name. Probably they were written by disciples of his, who are collectively called the "Johannine School" for convenience. The letters show a slight difference in language and theology when compared to the gospel. They are clearly associated with the author of the gospel of John, however, because their theology and language is similar.

      I John is the longest and most important of the letters. It is really a sermon, edited to resemble a letter, which shows how strong the influence of letter writing was in the early Christian community. It focuses on the question of how to interpret the gospel of John, for some members of the local church were interpreting it in a way to deny that Christ ever came in the flesh. John warns against this interpretation.

      II John and III John are by the "presbyter," or elder. No one knows who he was; based on the content of the letters, he seems to have been a supervisor of itinerant missionaries. Second John warns of heresy in the church—apparently gnosticism —and III John urges that Christians give hospitality to each other.

      The Johannine school is also represented by a gnostic work, the Acts of John, perhaps by the group against which I John warns. The work, which is not in the Bible and which is only partially preserved, is an account of "John" written in the form of a romance. Part of the work has survived under the name of The Gospel Preaching of John, which describes Christ in docetic terms (that is, that Jesus Christ never really had a body or suffered on the cross, but only appeared to have a body for the convenience of humans). It portrays Jesus as constantly changing His bodily form; among other things, it says that when He walked on a sandy beach, His feet left no footprints![11]


      The complexity and diversity of the various textual sources about the great manifestation of God, Jesus Christ, make it difficult to reconstruct a single portrait of Him that is detailed and faithful. His message seems to have been one of unconditioned love for God and of radical obedience to the divine will. It was a message delivered in the form of parables, which were simple yet profound enough to survive in oral transmission and to puzzle and inspire persons for two thousand years. Because of the state of human society, a more complete survival of Jesus's message may not have been possible; indeed, it may not have been advisable. Had Jesus's message been accurately written down in complete detail, and had He established a system for interpreting and leading His Faith, the immature state of human society might have perverted that truth and converted that system into a powerful instrument for suppressing human individuality and monopolizing power. Instead, perhaps God intentionally gave humanity a message that would be preserved only imperfectly, because God intended to update and supplement the teaching later with new revelations.

      In order to understand the historical Jesus, the layers of tradition that have accumulated around the original events must be removed. This is extremely difficult to accomplish; but scholars have been able to peel off some of the accretions, to begin to understand the process whereby the gospels were written, and to commence the painting of a portrait of the Founder of Christianity. We now turn to that portrait.


[1]. Helmut Koester, "The Structure and Criteria of Early Christian Beliefs," in James M. Robinson and Helmut Koester, Trajectories Through Early Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971), 205-31. Much of the following discussion on the four understandings of the significance of Jesus comes form this source.
[2].For example, Matthew 7:23 and Luke 13:27 contain common material, but whereas the Matthean text quotes the first half of Psalm 6:9 and paraphrases the second half, the Lucan text paraphrases the first half and quotes the second. See Helmut Koester, Ancient Christian Gospels: Their History and Development (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990) 131, for details of the argument.
[3].In some cases the author of Matthew appears to have skimmed Q and removed sayings related to a particular topic, and then reproduced the sayings in the order he copied them from Q.
[4].Koester, Early Christian Gospels 170-71.
[5].Koester, Early Christian Gospels, 53-107.
[6].This is suggested by Helmut Koester in Ancient Christian Gospels, 166-67. It would explain the statement by Papias of Hierapolis—a second=century bishop—that Matthew "composed the sayings," which does not adequately describe the Gospel of Matthew, with its miracles, birth stories, and other materials other than sayings. It would also explain the ancient Christian tradition that Matthew's gospel is the oldest, for the tradition could then refer to Q. Finally, attribution of Q to Matthew might explain the fact that early Christian documents that preserve stories of apostles asking Jesus questions usually prominently feature Matthew among the questioners, suggesting that there was a tradition of Matthew being interested in the sayings of Jesus (see Koester, 166-67).
[7].The above summary of the Signs Source comes from Koesterm Early Christian Gospels, 201-05.
[8].Wilhelm Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha, volume two: Writings Relating to the Apostles; Apocalypses and Related Subjects, trans. R. McL. Wilson (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1964), 101-02.
[9].Gos. Thom. 44, "Jesus said 'Whoever blasphemes against the Father will be forgiven, and whoever blasphemes against the Son will be forgiven, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven either on earth or in heaven,'" versus Luke 12:10, "and everyone who speaks a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven."
[10].From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual Bahá'í dated 23 January 1944 and quoted in "Extracts from the Bahá'í Writings and From Letters of the Guardian and the Universal House of Justice on the Old and New Testaments," unpublished compilation assembled by the Research Department of the Universal House of Justice.
[11].The Gospel Preaching Of John may be located in Ronald D. Cameron, ed., The Other Gospels: Introductions and Translations (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1982), 87-96.

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