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October 31, 2012


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We know of over 34 Gospels in the early Christian period. Some are complete, for others only a few pages survive; fragments of others survive; some are attested only in quotes by other ancient authors, and some we only know by title or name. The complete gospels are all late exemplars (4th century and later). The earliest “versions” of the canonical gospels exist merely as scattered fragments. But the striking thing is that these texts do not present a uniform description of Jesus of Nazareth in the details of his public career, his teaching, and his deeds. It is impossible to harmonize them. For example the Markan Jesus refuses to give a sign; the Jesus of Matthew and Luke, however, offer a single sign, the sign of Jonah, while the Gospel of John has two numbered signs and neither of them is the sign of Jonah.

     That dissonance is not a problem for those of us who grew up in church; we have a learned image of Jesus that exists alongside the gospels as yet another understanding of Jesus. This learned image does not derive from the contradictory portraits of the early gospels, but rather from the faith of the church in which we learned the Christian basics—we were taught about Jesus from selected texts in the canonical gospels. And we continually reinforce that learned image of Jesus by the selective way we read the canonical gospels. Naturally, we ignore the other gospels, even though there are reliable inexpensive translations available.

     But every now and then we stumble across a saying attributed to Jesus in the canonical gospels that brings us up short—the saying simply does not fit our learned image of Jesus, but there the saying is in one or more of the canonical gospels, and unambiguously attributed to Jesus! Such sayings are usually referred to as “hard sayings” precisely because they do not fit our learned image of Jesus.

     One of the more problematical is Mark 4:11-12: “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables; so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again, and be forgiven.” The saying asserts that Jesus used parables to keep outsiders from understanding about the kingdom of God, lest they should repent and be forgiven—at least so Mark thought (Matthew and Luke drop the offensive phrase: “lest they should turn again and be forgiven”). If Jesus said this, then he is not announcing the good news of God’s kingdom, and calling on all to repent, as Mark portrays him doing in Mark 1:14-15.

     There are a number of such hard sayings that run counter to the traditional view of who Jesus was in the gospels, and raise the question: whose words are these mistakenly attributed to Jesus? For example, the callous saying attributed to Jesus in response to the Syrophoenician woman. When she implored him to cast an unclean spirit out of her little daughter, he said, “Let the children first be fed, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (Mark 7:27). Surely there has been some mistake here! Whose words are these that run counter to everything we have been taught about Jesus?

     On the other hand, we also find a number of extremely radical statements attributed to Jesus in the gospels, which make unrealistic demands. These statements are dangerous. One of the best known is Matt 5:39 “Do not resist the evil (one)” (or one who is evil). and another is “Love your enemies” (Matt 5:44; Luke 6:27). If you followed either saying literally, your life, the lives of your loved ones, and the lives of your friends would likely be endangered.

     Here is another remarkably imprecise and demanding saying: “Blessed are those who go hungry to feed the starving belly of another” (Gospel of Thomas 69B). This saying expresses a very high ethical sentiment—it calls for the feeding of the starving to the point where your own sustenance is exhausted. You continue feeding the starving till your own belly begins to growl! And what then? Must I continue feeding every hungry person I meet until I am forced to join the ranks of the starving? Is there no reasonable compromise, no middle ground? But the saying is unequivocal—feed the starving till you reach the point of starving!

     Such hard sayings force the question of the speaker’s identity upon us—whose words are these? Do they originate with Jesus of Nazareth? Considering the origins of the gospels, it should not be surprising that other voices are erroneously attributed to Jesus. The authors of the gospels drew upon oral traditions passed along for a generation or more, and also used the works of earlier writers. And of course they themselves were authors, and their own creative ideas gave their narratives a focus, a plan, and they shaped the character of their hero according to their own views. So statements and ideas attributed to Jesus in the gospels may not have originated with Jesus. For example, Luke 4:23 “Physician heal yourself,” a saying attributed to Jesus, was composed much earlier than Jesus; it appears in a fragment of a lost play by the 5th century BC Greek writer of tragedies, Euripides (“doctor to others; full of sores yourself”). How should followers of Jesus handle these remarkably difficult sayings that Jesus may or may not have spoken?

     People who like to think of themselves as followers of Jesus are faced with a bewildering array of Jesus figures who say contradictory things in the gospels. Here are the options: a person can choose between the contradictory faith portraits of the 1st century gospels, or accept the 4th century orthodox ecclesiastical understanding, or return to the Jesus that they learned in Sunday School, or embrace the Jesus of TV evangelists, or they can analyze the raw historical data made available by the Jesus Seminar report (The Five Gospels), which sorts out the multiple voices in the gospels in terms of voice-prints, and develop their own understanding of Jesus. So how do you handle these problems, gentle reader?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 10:39pm

Dr. Hedrick,
I see Jesus (of the gospels) as a pastiche, a medley influenced by characters of literature like Jesus son of Ananus, Elijah, Elisha, Jeremiah, Moses, Jesus son of Sirach, the DSS, Daniel, various Cynic and other sources. It’s even possible there was a historical Jesus hanging out in the literature. If the original languages are essential to understanding the sayings of these literary characters, especially the nuances found in them, there isn’t much hope in recovering a historical Jesus, unless he was a Greek speaker, since the original documents appear to have been written in Greek. It is even more difficult to recover older mythologized thinkers. Even so, the sayings, stories of oral tradition (according to a couple of spring 2006 Seminar Papers by J. Dewey) transmitted about Jesus would have been the “big picture,” not a precise transmission. Oral transmission doesn’t seem to be an “exact science.”

Looking at differences in culture, there are also problems in reconstruction. In a high context culture of the Galilean hills the emotional quality would have probably been more important than the meanings of words, with the meaning only coming from the context (setting, people and emotions involved). How did this change the literature and how does this affect our low culture understanding of the passages? Can one even apply linear logic to writings which exhibit a comprehensive sense of logic? There are two different understandings of the world at odds – What is more important to us would have been less important to the authors.

Then, even in the “originals,” there would have been the competition with prior authors and the enormous effect of the audience, which affects content, organization and style. In turn, this creates the audience’s picture of the protagonist. So, even as handed down, if this happened, it (the performance, the words) would have mutated to fit the audience. And, as moderns, we are also an audience looking for yet different things, from our lenses, our various filters. Seems to me.
Posted by Dennis on 11/12/2012 at 10:08am

Good Morning Dennis,
You did a wonderful job of stating the difficulties. For my part, however, since I have become aware of the difficulties of sorting a more or less historical voice of Jesus from the cacophony of voices attributed to him in the tradition, I have felt a personal responsibility to develop a historical profile of Jesus. My reason is this: if I don’t do that, how can I have some quantifiable degree of confidence that the historical figure can bear the weight of his very generous interpretations in early Christian literature? To put it another way: anyone who quotes a saying of Jesus is responsible to state why they think that saying originates with the historical man rather than one of his interpreters. This insistence on my part constitutes my attempt to give Jesus back his humanity.
Posted by Charles Hedrick on 11/13/2012 at 8:48am

I don’t look at any one figure of literature to follow. I enjoy the “life” found in the simplicity of Hui Neng, as well as the common sense sayings attributed to Lao Tzu, the genius of the wacky Sufi mystics, and many others. Leaving Christianity and theism doesn’t close the door on many brilliant teachings attributed to Jesus, but it sure has the potential to unlock many other doors of perception (to misuse the Aldous Huxley phrase).
Posted by Dennis Dean Carpenter on 11/9/2012 at 2:21pm
Good afternoon Dennis,
I agree with you that we should read widely in religious and ethical writings! But to be candid most do not do that and if we did we do not have the requisite language skills to read in the original languages and must depend on a translation—and we know that translations are interpretations. Another problem is that we have not read widely enough in these areas to sort out unbiased from overly interpreted works (except in the most egregious cases), so we do it, of course, by hit or miss, or by listening to recommendations from someone in whom we have confidence. But after that is said, it seems to me that you still have the same problem with the Jesus tradition that I addressed in the blog: assuming you still find Jesus an interesting enough figure from late antiquity to read: how do you personally sort out Jesus from his many early Christian interpreters?
Posted by Charles Hedrick on 11/11/2012 at 2:29pm