Some amazing things about the New Testament often escape notice. It has clues written in it telling us that Jesus was not born in a miraculous way and did not work miracles, raise the dead, or feed multitudes with a few loaves and fishes. Furthermore, he was not resurrected. The most amazing thing is that those who copied and recopied the texts over the centuries could have revised them to reconcile any contradictions, but the scribes were generally so reverent of the sacred documents they were working with that they duplicated them and sent them on their way, warts and all.
In truth, the New Testament can tell us much about the growth of the Christ myth (for it is a myth). It is a myth about an itinerant Jewish Galilean peasant preacher who, after being crucified for some crime against the state, was felt to be present even after his death by some groups who knew him in life and would, more than a half century later, make him into a god, while other groups who also knew him in life simply kept on thinking of him as a wisdom teacher of a high order but nothing more.
The Jesus-as-god groups, a very diverse lot, over a long period of time were finally divorced from their parent group, Judaism, and many years later their beliefs became the civil religion of the Roman Empire. Along the way, disparate groups wrote their own faith stories, what we now call “Gospels,” and four of these were brought together to become the core of the emerging Christian faith.
To a rational-minded person, it would seem that carefully reading the New Testament would give rise to enough red flags to alert anyone to the fact that the Christian myths that run rampant in American churches today are, without exception, totally irrational. The assertion that the four Gospels were written by eyewitnesses to Jesus’s life alone is unbelievable. But believers accept the Christian Scriptures as true before they are even read. That’s the only way the many outright contradictions can be overlooked or denied.
This article takes a different approach to studying the Christian Scriptures. First, I will consider them in the order in which they were written. Second, I will attempt to acquaint readers with what the writers (and the general population of the Mediterranean world of the first and second centuries) would have held as common knowledge, observed, and experienced—which would have had a tremendous impact on what they wrote.
Sometime in the fourth century CE, the New Testament was culled from a variety of documents, including letters, approximately thirty-four Gospels, and other short works. After much infighting and deliberation, it was canonized in the form that we find it in today. Some of the books not included were proclaimed heretical and condemned.
Mark’s Gospel, actually the oldest, was put second, after Matthew, then followed by Luke and John. After that came Acts of the Apostles, an early church history that was actually the second part of Luke’s Gospel; Luke and Acts were originally meant to be a two-book set. The remainder comprises letters, a large number attributed to Paul and others attributed to various apostles, and finally the Book of Revelation, an account of Jesus’s death rendered in apocalyptic style that Christians have misunderstood and misused for centuries.
John’s Gospel is less a story of Jesus and his life and times than it is a picture of what the church’s practices and belief system looked like in the early second century.
Each book and letter was written by a different person or group, except for Luke/Acts, which had the same author(s), and Paul’s seven authentic letters—1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Phillipians, Philemon, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, and Romans—all written by Paul in the 50s and 60s.
Letters attributed to Paul but written by others in order to alter some radical notions in Paul’s original letters are 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus, all written around 100 CE. Three other letters written by followers of Paul in the 70s—Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians—are more conservative than the authentic Paul but do not try to overturn his egalitarian notions, such as women being church leaders and preaching in church.
The canonical order of the books of the New Testament itself gives rise to misconceptions. If one were to read the books and letters in the order in which they were written, one would see a very definite sequence of development in church doctrine. Who Jesus is and who he becomes changes as time goes by and as document after document is created. For example, some of the earliest writings are Paul’s letters from the 50s and 60s, only some twenty to thirty years after Jesus’s death. Paul joined a group of followers of Jesus after having initially been their persecutor. These were followers of Jesus who continued meeting in synagogues after Jesus’s death and claimed that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, the Christ, the anointed one of God. Paul initially felt that his mission was to drive them out of the synagogues, but after some time and reflection he came to accept their basic premise and joined them. In Paul’s letters, it is clear that this group saw nothing exceptional about Jesus’s birth. They did not refer to Jesus’s teachings or to his performing miracles and healings or bringing dead people back to life. Paul refers to Jesus’s resurrection as a nonphysical event: there was no body involved.
In the 70s, forty-plus years after Jesus’s death, Mark’s Gospel was written. It was the first of the four Gospels to be written down, and it was used by Matthew and Luke as an outline of Jesus’s life upon which they based their own Gospels.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the “synoptic Gospels” because their basic outlines are very similar. John’s Gospel is very different. Both the structure and the way Jesus speaks are very different. Jesus proclaims himself to have extraordinary status in John’s Gospel. In the synoptics, with a few exceptions, Jesus does not refer to himself as having an exalted position. Mainline scholars have therefore had to choose between the Jesus of the synoptics and the Jesus of John, because the differences between the two cannot be harmonized into one figure. They have generally chosen the Jesus found in the synoptic Gospels. The Gospel of John is a spiritual Gospel that does not reflect who Jesus was when he was alive but represents the advancing Christology of one group of followers that was written down around the year 100 CE.
But back to the synoptic Gospels: Almost 90 percent of Mark’s Gospel appears in Matthew, and almost 70 percent of Mark appears in Luke. About two hundred verses not found in Mark appear in both Matthew and Luke. Then there is unique material that is found only in each of the two later Gospels. The overlapping material is the key to understanding the origin of the synoptic Gospels. The authors of Matthew and Luke evidently had a copy of Mark in front of them when they wrote their Gospels, making Mark the oldest Gospel. For the two hundred verses they share that Mark does not have, the assumption is that there was another source document.
Over one hundred and fifty years ago, German biblical scholars came to the conclusion that there was a written document that was utilized by the authors of both Matthew and Luke and was later lost, never to be seen again. They named the document Quelle, or source, and it is known today as the Sayings Gospel Q. In 1945, an ancient copy of the Gospel of Thomas was found in the desert in Egypt that strengthened the case for the existence of the Q document. Almost one-third of the sayings in the Gospel of Thomas were nearly identical to the overlapping verses in Matthew and Luke—just what the Q document was supposed to have contained. The
majority of those nearly identical sayings were from the Q1 layer, the very earliest strand of Q material. The Q2 and Q3 layers were generally felt to date from the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE and afterward. It was known that followers of Thomas were members of a group that was part of Jesus’s followers before and after his crucifixion. The similarity between the sayings of the two documents meant that both groups must have been descended from actual followers of Jesus and had heard and seen him in action. There is no doubt that some of both Q and Thomas are the result of additions made by followers after Jesus’s death. But there are certainly some actual words of Jesus contained in both documents.
The most striking thing about the Sayings Gospel Q is that there is no attention paid to Jesus’s birth. It is obviously not believed to be miraculous. There is no mention of him performing miracles during his ministry. He does not raise people after their deaths or feed multitudes. Finally, there is no mention of Jesus being raised after his own death, either with or without a physical body.
Thus we have a record even older than Paul’s, traceable to people who walked and talked with Jesus and who transmitted accounts of those events as oral history until they began putting them into writing in the 50s.
A second way of viewing Mark as the first of the three synoptic Gospels is to look at the length of the Gospel itself. It is the shortest Gospel, and in almost all cases each story that is taken from Mark and retold by Matthew and/or Luke gets longer and longer with more and more details added in the retelling. This practice occurs in almost all ancient literature, religious or otherwise: the original, simple story is embellished to make sure that readers understood what the later writers wanted them to know.
An important point to keep in mind is that the average life span of a peasant in Galilee in the first century was thirty-five years; thus, the number of people who would have been eyewitnesses to events described in the New Testament would have been limited. If Jesus was thirty-three or thirty-four years old when he was crucified, he was, by the standards of his time and place, an older man. When Mark’s Gospel was written in the 70s, that was a good forty years after Jesus’s death. Thus, at that time there were probably no eyewitnesses to his birth or youth and very possibly few who had been around at the time of his death. A young adult (age eighteen to twenty-five at that time) who was a follower of Jesus would have probably died ten to twenty years after Jesus’s death.
Mark’s Gospel begins with Jesus’s baptism by John the Baptist and God proclaiming Jesus to be his son at that time. No miracle birth in this, the oldest Gospel! Mark then goes on to relate stories of Jesus curing sick people, raising the dead, feeding multitudes, and doing things that would take him out of the simple peasant preacher class and elevate him to the “great man” class.
So the oldest information we have about Jesus tells us that he was a wise teacher, neither a god nor a son of a god but a teacher of wisdom who inspired many of his followers to remember him and to expand on his work after his death. Thus the miracle-working Jesus who appears in Mark’s Gospel and reappears in Matthew, Luke, and John is a new figure who came into view for the first time in the 70s, forty years after his death.
The followers for whom the synoptics were written were immersed in a culture in which many great men were considered to be gods—sometimes while they were alive but mostly after their deaths. The claim that a great man had been born of a woman who was fertilized by a god was not without precedent. Claims of dying and rising to heaven after death also were not without precedent. Caesar Augustus was worshipped as a god; after his death it was claimed that he was taken up into heaven to be with the gods. Alexander the Great’s mother was said to be impregnated by a god who had taken the form of a serpent, so Alexander was a god from birth. That explained why he was such a successful warrior. These were common cultural beliefs throughout the Mediterranean world in the first century CE.
What was different in Jesus’s case was that he was a nobody. He was a peasant preacher who had achieved no great accomplishments in his lifetime. Is that why the writer/writers of Mark’s Gospel, the first of the four Gospels, added miracles to his story? Now Jesus did accomplish great things in Galilee. Maybe he didn’t conquer foreign countries like Alexander or Augustus, but he conquered death and disease and overcame hunger when he fed thousands with nothing more than a few loaves and fishes. Remember that death, disease, and hunger were the everyday backdrop to the lives of the peasants in the first- and second-century Roman Empire.
A careful reading of Mark’s Gospel indicates that neither Mark nor his intended readers believed that Jesus experienced a physical resurrection. The original Gospel ends at 16:8, with the three women fleeing the empty sepulcher. A second ending (verses 9–20, in which a resurrected Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene and the eleven disciples) was obviously tacked on later to make it coincide with Matthew and Luke. Most Bibles contain a notation to that effect. Even if they don’t, the ending, which begins at 16:9, is so jarring that it is obvious that another writer added it at another time.
Several other things merit notice in Mark’s Gospel. It is very anti-Jewish and very critical of the disciples. Mark makes the Jews responsible for Jesus’s death; the Romans carry out the sentence of death, but the Jews are responsible for the death sentence. In Paul’s authentic letters he mentions the Jews killing Jesus just once (1 Thess. 2:14). Because Paul was a practicing Jew working in synagogues, he would not be in a position to call his hosts, his own people, killers of the Christ. Because it only appears once in his seven original letters, some scholars feel that Paul’s claim of Jewish guilt is an interpolation. Paul’s main concern is that Jesus was obedient to God the Father and was raised from death; who killed him was not important. Only for Mark did it become so: it was the Jews who killed one of their own, the Messiah whom they did not and would not recognize. Thus the downward spiral of anti-Semitism became part and parcel of the foundation of Christianity.
Mark’s Gospel was written after the fall of the Temple in 70 CE, at a time when the Jews were not allowed in Jerusalem and most likely had thrown the followers of Jesus out of their synagogues in the aftermath of their troubles. Mark’s Gospel is very harsh toward the disciples of Jesus, saying that even though they had been with him all the time, they still didn’t understand him or his program. The original disciples were Jews, as was Jesus, and they fought with Paul over allowing Gentiles into the movement without first converting to Judaism. While the original disciples were no doubt all dead, their followers would still be Jewish and would want to remain within the Jewish fold, while Mark’s people were most likely Gentiles and were the ones who were kicked out of the synagogues after the fall of the Temple.
By the time Matthew was written (by an individual or group in the 90s), the bad feelings toward the Jews and the disciples had abated somewhat. The Jews were still blamed for Jesus’s death. But Matthew added a miracle birth sequence that was very much Hebrew scripture-oriented. It has Joseph taking Mary and the baby to Egypt so that Jesus can be seen as the “new Moses.” Comparing Matthew’s account with Luke’s shows that both are pure fiction, devised to fit their groups’ own needs at the time and certainly not written for people two thousand years later. Matthew’s Gospel is regarded as more of a
“Jewish Gospel” than the three others.
Luke’s Gospel adds a completely different miracle birth account, while still utilizing Mark’s basic plot outline, as Matthew did. Luke’s Gospel is more Gentile-oriented and stresses charity more than the others. Luke’s Gospel is actually a two-book series that concludes with the Acts of the Apostles, a highly fictionalized history of the early church written in the 120s to show how firmly the church was built upon the apostles and their actions after Jesus’s death and ascension into heaven. The late dating of Luke/Acts makes its historical usefulness very questionable. It has been used traditionally as the history of the early church, even when in some cases it disagreed with Paul’s own original letters. The fact that the author of Luke/Acts used some material by Flavius Josephus (who wrote in the 90s) in Acts makes any claim that Luke participated with Paul in the activities of the early church completely out of the question.
John’s Gospel is a theological treatise describing the church’s position in the early second century rather than a life story of Jesus. John has no miracle-birth narrative; instead he has Jesus being a part of prehistory—a part of God and God’s plan from the beginning of time. The words put into Jesus’s mouth by the author/authors are not those of a simple Jewish peasant preacher in Galilee but rather a highly polished, Greek-thinking orator speaking in otherworldly, spiritual terms.
Thus, what we need to take away from a literal reading of the Christian Scriptures—if read along with the noncanonical gospels in the actual order of the date that they were written—and if we force ourselves to put on the mantle of first- and second-century common knowledge (not a twenty-first century, scientific level of knowledge)—is that each Gospel was written by a different group of followers of Jesus and each of those groups had a different concept of who Jesus was and what was required to be a member of their group. Additionally, the groups that created the records that are read today may have been long extinct before their writings were taken over by a more powerful group of Jesus’s followers, who simply absorbed them and adapted them to their own use.
When the order of the canon was produced, it was done with an intent to produce a certain result, which it did. Paul, whose original letters were the oldest, was put after the four Gospels. Mark, the oldest Gospel, was put after Matthew. All of this creates a clear picture. Jesus’s birth is a miraculous occurrence, his death and resurrection are miraculous, and his body is raised from the dead. That is not what the oldest documents of Christian Scripture actually say, but that is the impression given by the placement of the books and letters in the canon.
Claims of a miracle birth in which a woman bore a son who was the spawn of a god were not all that unusual in the first- and second-century Mediterranean world. The idea that some great men of the time became gods upon their deaths and were taken up into heaven to be with their fellow gods was relatively common. Physical resurrection claims, too, were certainly not unheard of, although that idea was abhorrent to the Greeks, who thought the body inferior to the spiritual part of the human person—for them, getting rid of the body was a good thing.
The words that second- and third-century Christians applied to Jesus Christ, such as: savior, son of god, god incarnate, divine, god from god, lord, liberator, redeemer, and savior of the world were words that first- and second-century people were accustomed to seeing attached to the names of the leaders of the Roman Empire, from Julius Caesar to Caesar Augustus and others. They were inscribed on every monument in every major city in the Roman Empire.
The Western world was being led by a church that refused to leave the first and second centuries behind. The church viewed everything through the lens of the first century, and because the literacy rate was so low, few people were able to read the newly canonized Christian Scriptures for themselves and think differently. Thus, the church could spoon-feed the Scriptures to the faithful for centuries and keep alive that first-century viewpoint that is still shackling a good many of the faithful inside and outside of Catholicism today. When Protestants rid themselves of obedience to the pope and replaced that with blind obedience to the Bible, they shackled themselves to the past as well; many are still unable to shake free of those restraints today.
Barr, David L. Tales of the End, A Narrative Commentary on the Book of Revelation. Salem, OR: Polebridge Press, 2012.
Borg, Marcus, ed. Jesus at 2000. Boulder: Westview Press, 1997.
Miller, Robert J., ed. The Complete Gospels. Sonoma, CA: Polebridge Press, 1994.
Pervo, Richard. The Mystery of Acts. Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 2008.