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November 29, 2011

How Reliable are the Gospels in Describing X?

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None of the early Christian gospels are primary sources for Jesus of Nazareth; they are all secondary! I am using primary in the sense of “contemporary with the events described” and secondary in the sense of “a later composition using oral tradition and some written sources.” The truth is we have no early Christian artifacts from the first century. Virtually all the early manuscripts of the gospels consist of third-century fragments; a very few fragments (three) are second-century (one of which is a fragment of a non-canonical gospel). A first-century dating for the canonical gospels is an informed hypothesis by scholars.

     The earliest complete text of the Gospel of Mark (which is the earliest gospel) is a fourth-century artifact (Codex Vaticanus) dating some 230+ years after the events it describes. But even if we had a complete manuscript of Mark dating around 70, it still turns out that Mark was based on oral tradition—that is on hearsay, and represents what a later author thought likely pertained to Jesus’ situation a generation or so earlier.

     Taking this information seriously we might well describe the situation of Jesus this way. The Jewish man Jesus is an X, a person unknown through sources and artifacts contemporary with his time. This X, however, had an amazing ability to fire the human imagination. X was very adaptable and easily blended in various ways with diverse religious views. In short, X provided an impetus, or stimulus, that produced an extensive heterogeneous literary tradition, which continues even today.

     None of the gospels, when first composed, enjoyed a position of special prominence as the exclusive interpreter of X, but each took its place as competitor in the X tradition. True, to judge by the large number of text fragments preserved in the third century, there seems to have been a preference for reading the gospel texts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. But physical fragments from other gospels also survived in the first three centuries: the Egerton Gospel (mid-second century), Gospel of Mary (third century), Gospel of Thomas (@200), Gospel Oxyrhynchus 1224 (late 3rd/early 4th).

     Even the later preferred four (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) were in competition with one another, which is easily seen by a close comparative reading. The first three while very similar are nevertheless quite different in both the portraits they paint of X and in the things they attribute to X. In fact, personal data about X was not really important, to judge from Paul who cites only five sayings of X and gives the barest bits of information about the career of X. The Gospel of Thomas only quotes sayings of X. In Thomas no significance is attached to what X did or to what was done to X.

     In the early period all texts competed for readers without any special status being attached to a given text. That preferred status happened much later. The exclusive idea of “preferred canonical” text as opposed to “not preferred non-canonical” text was slow to take effect, and did not exist at all in the early period, if we judge from the manuscript evidence left by those who produced Bibles. As late as the 4th century, Codex Sinaiticus numbered the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas among its contents; Codex Alexandrinus (5th century) included parts of 1st and 2nd Clement; and as late as the 5th/6th century Codex Claromantanus included the Epistle of Barnabas, Shepherd of Hermas, Acts of Paul, and the Revelation of Peter. Thus religious texts that later did not have canonical status were included in our oldest Bibles along with texts later given preferred status—even as late as 500 years after X.

     Here is one practical historical problem created by all this data. The final thing Jesus says upon the cross is quite different in three canonical gospels. In Matthew (27:46) and Mark (15:34) the author has Jesus say, in words from Psalm 22:1: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In Luke (23:46) the author has Jesus say, in words from Psalm 31:5 “Father into your hands I commit my spirit.” In John (19:30) the author has Jesus speak last words fitting the author’s understanding of Jesus’ purpose in the world (5:37, 12:27): “It is finished.” In the Gospel of Peter the author has Jesus say: “My power, <my> power, you have abandoned me.” In a recently published Coptic Codex the final saying of Jesus is to the thief (<13>: 15-16): “You will eat with me at the dining table in my kingdom.” The earliest surviving artifact of Jesus’ last saying in Luke is 3rd century (P75); in Matthew, Mark and John it is 4th century (Sinaiticus); in the Gospel of Peter it is 8th century; in the Coptic codex it is 9th/10th century.

     Which of these sayings shines with the patina of history? That is: which of these last sayings more accurately represents a historical memory, and which would you label as pious religious fiction? Or is it the case that each of them represents a later creative reenactment of what the author supposed should have been the case?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 1:37pm

Hi, Charlie. I am in total agreement with you on the big issues in your most recent posting. That leaves me only minor matters to ask about or comment on. One, you would date Codex Vaticanus earlier than Codex Sinaiticus? I am not expert enough in such matters to have an opinion one way or the other, but I would be interested to hear on what basis you would draw a conclusion on this. Two, I assume the experts are correct in judging both codices to be from the 4th century, which I believe would make them closer to 330 than 230 years years later than the crucifixion of Jesus.
Bob Fowler
Posted by Bob Fowler on 12/2/2011 at 2:28pm
Good Morning Bob,
I tend to rely on the conventional dating for papyrus and vellum manuscripts, without thinking twice about it. But your comment suggests that all of us ought to be more reflective about what we rely on—especially in matters of dating manuscripts (which is usually an “about” date). I should have cited Codex Sinaiticus in addition to Codex Vaticanus as each being earliest complete manuscripts of Mark. And I probably should have described them both as only “virtually” complete, since each is lacking a few phrases that our text critics have come to regard as being included in what we think is the original composition. Both Vaticanus and Sinaiticus are regarded as “about” mid-fourth century.

In calculating the number of years from Mark’s description of Jesus to Codex Vaticanus (or Sinaticus) here is how I reasoned: I allowed a date of 70CE for the composition of the Gospel of Mark, even though I have come to think of that as the earliest possible date for its composition (given its reference to the destruction of the temple). And I took 300 (the beginning of the 4th century) for Vaticanus (as an earliest possible date for its inscription) which left me with 270+ years from the earliest possible date for Mark’s composition to the earliest possible date for the first (virtually) complete manuscript of the Gospel. If I add to that the 50 years to the middle of the 4th century (to accommodate the “about” dating of both texts) the lapse of time would be 320+/- years to the first complete copy of the Gospel of Mark.

For those of my readers who do not know Professor Fowler: Bob is the author of a landmark study on the Gospel of Mark: Let the Reader Understand. Reader Response Criticism and the Gospel of Mark (2001).
Posted by Charles Hedrick on 12/3/2011 at 10:42am

There is one utterance from your catalog of last words omitted. Perhaps the most authentic one, albeit in articulate. Matthew has it. No verb, no noun, no adjective, no preposition to parse. Just a cry. Would you argue that Jesus. or anyone, would not cry out on the cross? I have never seen it in any listing of last words. Perhaps because you can’t make theology of it? But you can find humanity in it.
Paul Larsen
Posted by Paul Larsen on 12/1/2011 at 7:43pm
Hi Paul,
I hope that you guys had a wonderful Thanksgiving and are enjoying good health—and staying busy!

You are not the first to call my attention to the loud cry, which is the last “utterance” of Jesus in two of the canonical gospels. Matthew (27:56) got this very human description from Mark (15:37)—under the current theoretical solution to the synoptic problem (i. e., how are the synoptic gospels related?). It appears that Luke (23:46) coupled Mark’s “loud and cry” from Mark’s last “utterance” with the last saying in his/her gospel. I always maintain that an utterance like a groan or a loud cry is not the same thing as articulate speech (as you indicate as well).

Mark regularly paints Jesus as more human than Matthew and Luke do. If the synoptic gospels are read using a gospel synopsis, which places the parallel texts side by side, even a casual reader will be struck by how Luke and Matthew tend to tone down these “humanisms” making Jesus appear more divine. Of the two gospels dependent on Mark, Matthew tends to follow Mark more slavishly (if I can put it that way) than does Luke.

So then, to extend the question from the original blog to the issue you raise: is this very human description of Jesus in a death spasm as depicted in Mark 15:37 a historical memory or Mark’s novelistic spin? What do you think?
Posted by Charles Hedrick on 12/2/2011 at 10:37am