The false flow of the Biblical Jesus stories

by Michael Nugent on September 16, 2009

Imagine you have never heard of the Bible, and you are given the 27 books of the New Testament and asked to put them in order.

You would probably come close to the order they appear in today: the four Gospels that tell the story of Jesus, then the Book of Acts that tells how the early church developed, then various letters by Paul and others, then the Book of Revelation that tells how the world will end.

If you did this, you would have created a continuous narrative, each book being a chapter, each building on the previous one, to create one grand story. You would also have created a false impression of how and why these books were written. And you would have obscured the sequence in which different writers gradually introduced the various elements of the Jesus legend.

Written in a Different Sequence

Firstly, these books were written in a very different sequence. Paul wrote his letters first, about 48-62 CE, and he wrote almost nothing about the earthly life of Jesus. Starting maybe in the 50s CE, someone compiled sayings attributed to Jesus into a text called Q, which probably became one source of two of the later Gospels. The book of Revelation, with its violent avenging Jesus, was written in stages between about 60-95 CE.

The Gospel called Mark was written about 65-70 CE, and it has no virgin birth and no detail of the resurrection. These stories first appear in the Gospels called Matthew and Luke, which were written about 80-85 CE, as was the Book of Acts, some of which contradicts what Paul earlier wrote about himself.

The Gospel called John was written about 90-95 CE, and it is the first book that suggests that Jesus was actually God, as distinct from a human being who had a special relationship with God.

Written as Standalone Books

Secondly, these books were not written as part of a grand meta-story. They were never intended to be read as continuous chapters of the same book. Their writers wrote them as standalone books, at different places and times, to convey different political and theological beliefs, for different audiences and reasons. This is one reason for the many contradictions in the New Testament.

And so, over a period of fifty or more years, these different individual writers separately created the apocalyptic apparitions of Paul, the eloquent quotations of Q, the raging ruler of Revelation, the marginalized messiah of Mark, the Moses-like messiah of Matthew, the all-inclusive leader of Luke, and the Jehovah-like Jesus of John.

The writers of those contradictory stories did not foresee that their texts would become part of a book centuries later. Indeed, many of them believed that the earthly world would have ended within their own lifetimes.

Written Alongside Rival Books

Thirdly, these books were only some among many rival Gospels that early Christians wrote and read. As well as political and practical differences, there were many theological arguments among early Christians about the nature of Jesus.

The Ebionites believed Jesus was totally human and not divine, and that the Jewish God had adopted him at his baptism. The Marcionites believed Jesus was totally divine and not human, and had come to save people from the Jewish God. The Gnostics believed that one of many Gods had used Jesus to convey special knowledge to save human souls from the material world. And the faction that eventually won out argued that Jesus was both totally human and totally divine.

This policy of Jesus being “both totally human and totally divine” enabled this faction (which evolved into today’s Christianity) to include contradictory versions of Jesus into what has become the New Testament.

How Jesus Gradually Became God

To help understand the New Testament stories better, read them in the sequence in which they were written, instead of the sequence in which they appear in the Bible. Doing this may change your beliefs about not only the Jesus of history, but also the Jesus of theology.

You will see how a human Jewish preacher gradually evolved into being part of a newly-invented Christian God, and how his relationship with this God gradually started earlier and earlier as time went on: from his resurrection in the letters of Paul, to his baptism in the Gospel called Mark, to his conception in the Gospels called Matthew and Luke, to the start of time in the Gospel called John.

For a comprehensive analysis of these and similar themes, read the work of Bart Ehrman and other academic textual critics of the New Testament.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Adam September 16, 2009 at 2:01 pm

Nice job with this, Michael. A lot of times NT criticism is emotional and vague, but this is well researched and accurate; simple and articulate.

After taking a hermaneutics class in college, I was convinced Paul was the founder of Xtianity, and everyone else followed suit. This is a good argument for that. Though I wouldn’t say it was for devious intentions; but rather a desperation, from being under Roman law for so long. What if Jews were really convinced Jesus would save them from the Romans? And then he dies, leaving Israel heartbroken. It’d take a legend to resurrect their nationalism; albeit it succeeded in dividing them further.

2 Kevin Hargaden September 16, 2009 at 3:57 pm

Is Bart Ehrman the only "academic" textual critic that you are familiar with Michael?

3 Nathan September 16, 2009 at 4:46 pm

"The Gospel called Mark was written about 65-70 CE, and it has no virgin birth and no detail of the resurrection. "

Mark 16 is all about the Resurrection of Jesus.

4 Michael Nugent September 16, 2009 at 10:32 pm

The first part of Mark 16 (from 16:1-8) describes Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome going to the tomb of Jesus in order to anoint his body, finding the tomb empty, and being told by a young man that Jesus has risen and has gone to Galilee. The three women leave, flee from the tomb, and tell nobody about this because they are afraid.

In the earliest versions of the Gospel later called Mark, the story ends there. The allegedly risen Jesus does not appear to anybody.

The rest of Mark 16 (from 16:9-20) was added later by another writer or writers.

This extra piece starts by contradicting the preceding part, saying that Jesus appeared first to Mary Magdelene, who told his disciples but they did not believe her. He then appeared again to two of the disciples, and yet again to the eleven. Jesus then told them to preach the good news to all of creation, and that those who believed them would be able to handle snakes and drink poison without being harmed, and would be able to heal people with their hands. He then ascended into heaven, they went out and preached, and these signs came true.

Not only is this (Mark 16:9-20) demonstrably untrue, but it is not in the earliest versions of the Gospel that was later called Mark.

5 Michael Nugent September 16, 2009 at 10:01 pm

Thanks, Adam. I think it is fair to say that Paul, more than Jesus, founded what evolved into modern Christianity. But it was not inevitable. Given different circumstances, one of the other factions could have emerged as mainstream Christianity.

6 Michael Nugent September 16, 2009 at 10:11 pm

Ehrman is the one I am most familiar with. I also have a general overview of the various attempts to identify the historical Jesus, many of which are outlined in David Boulton's book 'Who on Earth was Jesus?'

Obviously I am approaching this from a perspective of not believing in the existence of gods, so I want to also familiarise myself with Christian perspectives on the Bible. To help me with this, I have purchased or ordered:

Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict XVI
Evidence that Demands a Verdict by Josh McDowell
Unlocking the Bible by David Pawson
The Bible by Karen Armstrong
IVP Bible Background Commentary
Adam Clarke's Commentary on the Bible
John MacArthur Study Notes
Thru the Bible – Complete Bible Commentary by J. Vernon McGee
Treasury of Scriptural Knowledge by Canne, Browne, Blayney, Scott, and others.
Zodhiates' Complete Word Study Bible
King James Version with Strongs Numbers
King James Version with Apocrypha
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
Easton's Bible Dictionary
Hitchcock's Bible Names
Smith's Bible Atlas
Brown-Driver-Briggs' Hebrew Definitions
Thayer's Greek Definitions

If you have any suggestions to add to this list, I would be grateful to hear them.

7 Michael Nugent September 16, 2009 at 10:32 pm

The first part of Mark 16 (from 16:1-8) describes Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome going to the tomb of Jesus in order to anoint his body, finding the tomb empty, and being told by a young man that Jesus has risen and has gone to Galilee. The three women leave, flee from the tomb, and tell nobody about this because they are afraid.

In the earliest versions of the Gospel later called Mark, the story ends there. The risen Jesus does not appear to anybody.

The rest of Mark 16 (from 16:9-20) was added later by another writer or writers.

This extra piece starts by contradicting the preceding part, saying that Jesus appeared first to Mary Magdelene, who told his disciples but they did not believe her. He then appeared again to two of the disciples, and yet again to the eleven. Jesus then told them to preach the good news to all of creation, and that those who believed them would be able to handle snakes and drink poison without being harmed, and would be able to heal people with their hands. He then ascended into heaven, they went out and preached, and these signs came true.

Not only is this (Mark 16:9-20) demonstrably untrue, but it is not in the earliest versions of the Gospel that was later called Mark.

8 Adam September 17, 2009 at 12:04 am

This is true and even the staunchest Fundamentalists acknowledge this (ironically, some Appalachian denominations here in the States have based their doctrines on the viper and poison part in Mark 16).

I’ve heard an interesting theory, Michael, that the four Gospels each present Jesus differently, showing a different side of his mission, and this aligns with verses early in Revelation (Rev. 4:7) about an angel with the face of a Lion (King, Matthew focuses on his kingship- hence the lineage), Ox (Servant, Mark focuses on Jesus’ ministry), Man (Humanity, Luke focuses in Jesus being fully man, and an Eagle (Divinity, John focuses on Jesus being fully God).

I too am an atheist as a consequence of my understanding of the world, so this argument to me seems like petty hindsight poetry. 

But it is creative, and may not be mentioned in the books you listed. (I’ve only heard two Fundamentalist preachers make reference to it)

9 Michael Nugent September 17, 2009 at 12:05 am

I agree that it is hindsight, and pretty clumsy hindsight. The problem is that these supposed "different sides of Jesus" are not complementary, they are often contradictory.

10 Kevin Hargaden September 17, 2009 at 8:36 pm

Michael, I think you have a fine (if quite populist/conservative) range of books there to get eating into and you will find much to continue to criticise. In further reading beyond Ehrman, you will also find that Biblical studies is not the hotbed of fundamentalism one (not you I presume!) might think it is. I'd also advise losing the KJV translation for something closer to the original intent like the NRSV or TNIV.

But nor is it at all settled that the Gospel narratives are composed in a patchwork quilt generations after the fact. In fact, that is a view I have never found in modern scholarship (outside Ehrman).

If you were open to suggestions then I would strongly encourage you to read two Anglican New Testament scholars who are widely respected: Richard Bauckham and NT Wright. In fact, Wright is probably the pre-eminent New Testament scholar in the world today. His work is engaged with by both "conservative" and "liberal" scholars. His 7 volume God and Christian Origins Series is 3 books in.

Vol I "New Testament and the People of God" is an excellent introduction with 200 beautifully written pages on the philosophy undergirding contemporary Biblical scholarship. Vol II is called "Jesus and the Victory of God" and that locates Jesus in the context of the Judaism of his day. Vol III is called "The Resurrection of the Son of God" and in terms of the business your in it might be most relevant since it becomes quite apologetic in the end. Volume IV is coming and its on Paul.

Anyway, I have no doubt you are aware of the scepticism that serious scholars of all persuasions hold for Ehrman's polemics and am delighted to see you are reading more widely. If nothing else, you'll keep us God-botherers on our toes!

11 Rodney September 22, 2009 at 12:17 am

Michael, you should try reading Geza Vermes: he's a very competent scholar, and has an interesting perspective: a former Catholic priest who returned to his Jewish roots. I am just reading "The Changing Faces of Jesus". He is very readable, enormously knowledgeable, and with his background he has fascinating insights into the Jewish background of early Christianity. Another good writer (who tends to produce big books) is Larry Hurtado (Lord Jesus Christ, One God One Lord). E P Sanders 'The Historical Figure of Jesus" and Paula Fredriksen's "From Jesus to Christ" are also good.

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