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October 31, 2012
A QUESTION OF IDENTITY
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
Posted by Charles Hedrick at 10:39pm
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).