Gospel truth

In my copy of the gospels (The Five Gospels, translated by the Jesus Seminar, Macmillan, New York 1993) the translators make the curious admission that the story of Jesus does not seem to derive from sources in Judea and Galilee, where the events of Jesus’ life are said to have taken place.

1 crucifixion

The Jesus Seminar is a group of 74 biblical scholars of several denominations who are mainly academic teachers and researchers at universities and colleges across America. The fifth gospel is that of Thomas. The Seminar met to search for the authentic words of Jesus, realising there could have been many interpolations in the Gospels over the centuries.

The Seminar found authentic a collection of sayings found in the gospels which, they thought, could have survived the period of 40-100 years before material about Jesus was written down. That seemed to leave the actual narrative of what happened to Jesus unaccounted for. Where did it come from, if it wasn’t written down at the time it happened, and couldn’t have survived oral transmission?

I looked in the Gospel of Mark for an explanation. ‘Mark’ was once thought to be Mark the associate of Peter, who followed him to Antioch and became Bishop of Alexandria in 43 AD. This identification though only dates from the second century AD. There are several Marks mentioned in Acts and in Eusebius (an early Church historian). Assuming that people of the same name are the same person was once common practice, as was asserting the truth of a document by ascribing it to a famous name. Now scholars prefer to note the author of the Gospel of Mark as anonymous.

I chose Mark to examine because his is considered the earliest gospel to be written down, about the year 70 AD, forty years after the supposed death of Jesus. Both Matthew and Luke quote him extensively. He wrote in koine Greek (a common language for many people in the eastern Mediterranean region). This was an informal, everyday language, not at all like the more literary Attic Greek from Athens. The gospel gives signs it may have been dictated, as it is written in conversational, colloquial style. The writer or transcriber was probably poorly educated, and whoever dictated it to them may have been illiterate. It was written for a group of Christians from an unknown city who spoke Greek but were not familiar with Jewish customs or politics, and they would have heard it read aloud, not read a written copy themselves. Perhaps they lived in Antioch or Alexandria, where the Mark of Acts was said to have travelled. I think it likely it was somewhere in northern Greece, some place where Paul had founded a church. It presents in a vivid form a narrative outline of the religion Paul had founded by giving more information about the rites practised by that early church.

2 Thessalonica Map


The essentials of that religion is the Passion narrative and the resurrection, Mark chapters 14-16. (Quotes are followed with citations so others can find them in their editions of the gospel). Mark has no story of Jesus’ birth, and only implies there has been a resurrection, which places the emphasis of his account on Jesus’ suffering and death. If this is the original form of the doctrine, as it seems to have been for Paul, then we can date additional material appearing in the other gospels to the period 70-120 AD as the theology of Christianity was elaborated. Mark was not writing history nor biography. He was explaining the dogma of his church and the origin of its practices.

“Now it was two days until Passover and the feast of Unleavened Bread. And the ranking priests and the scholars were looking for some way to arrest him by trickery and kill him. For their slogan was: ‘Not during the festival, otherwise the people will riot’”. (Mk. 14, 1-3).

The theme is, Jesus is attacked by the Jewish authorities who desire his death. There is a conflict in the above passage between their stated desire to avoid the Passover period for their attack, and the fact they choose the Passover period to carry it out. At this time Jerusalem was under a kind of martial law, and the priests’ council, the Sanhedrin, had no authority to try cases and certainly had no authority to kill. The point is not historical, but one in a ritual, Jesus is betrayed by his own people, whom he had come to save. This is not anti Semitic, but a statement of Paul’s position, that Jesus was a saviour for all peoples, because he was rejected by the Jews.

The story of the woman from Bethany follows, who anoints Jesus with precious perfume as for a king who has died. Jesus is identified as the king who dies so that we may be saved. Then Judas Iscariot enters.

“And Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve, went off to the ranking priests to turn him over to them. When they heard they were delighted, and promised to pay him in silver. And he started to look for some way to turn him in at the right moment”. (Mk. 14, 10-11).

The theme continues. Jesus is betrayed by “one of the twelve”. What is not explained is why the priests need Judas to do this, why he did it, and what was the right moment. The ritual simply states the betrayal and its fulfilment of a scriptural prophecy. One could as well ask why Set betrays Osiris.

The story of the man with a water pot follows, who knows of a room in Jerusalem where the disciples can celebrate the Passover. Who is he, why does he expect Jesus? This is left unexplained.

3 The Last Supper

At the Passover meal Jesus repeats the account of the betrayal, and mentions it is in fulfilment of the Jewish scriptures. This was important corroboration of the ritual of Jesus’ suffering and death to the early Christians.

“And as they were eating, he took a loaf, gave a blessing, broke it into pieces and offered it to them. And he said, ‘Have some, this is my body!’ And he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, and they all drank from it. And he said to them: ‘This is my blood…’”. (Mk. 14, 22-24).

After betrayal and death comes the meaning of that death. Jesus has died so that others can live. This is an old Near and Middle Eastern ritual, and extends from Inanna to John Barleycorn. Simply by juxtaposing the Passover supper and crucifixion with resurrection the church could transform Jewish festival and criminal execution to god mediated salvation. At the time Mark wrote the religion of Osiris was widely practised. Osiris met a shameful death, betrayed and murdered by his brother Set and cut into 14 pieces. In the underworld he became the judge of the dead. He was resurrected for a time by his wife Isis, and had the power to confer immortality on his worshippers.

These are magical transference rites. God is immortal, yet comes to earth and experiences death. This is an apocalyptic event, something against the natural order. But if god can die as mortals do, then human beings can be immortal as gods are. The god who died was widely worshipped. In Greece he was Adonis.

Jesus then tells how his followers, even Peter, will abandon him. This is one of the dominant aspects of early Christianity. Forgiveness is possible, no matter what the sin. This aspect is emphasised by repetition, in the story of the Garden of Gethsemane, when the disciples abandon Jesus again by sleeping. Judas arrives with an armed mob, identifies Jesus by kissing him, and he is taken away. This is said to be in fulfilment (of an unknown passage) of scripture. The story of the young man dressed only in a burial shroud follows, but is left unexplained.

There follows the interrogation of Jesus by the Sanhedrin. After arresting him, they found they had no evidence of wrong doing against him. Some people testified with false evidence, but this did not satisfy the priests, who were now reluctant to proceed.

4 Jesús en casa de AnásJosé de Madrazo

“Once again the High Priest questioned him and says to him, ‘Are you the Anointed, the son of the Blessed One?’ Jesus replied, ‘I am!…’ The High Priest tore his vestments and says, ‘Why do we still need witnesses? You have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?’ And they all concurred in the death penalty.” (Mk. 14, 62-64).

Mark reiterates the ritual point. Jesus is betrayed by those he comes to save. The attempt to add detail however only leads to confusion. There is no evidence except a false one against Jesus, so the priests ask Jesus to convict himself, by asking him if he was the Messiah. He admits it. Not explained is why being the Messiah is blasphemous (the Messiah was to save the Jewish people), nor why the claim merits the death penalty. None of this is accurate. Not stated is the political situation of that time. The Romans were trying to put down constant Jewish rebellions. The priests were attempting to save Jewish independence by mollifying and co-operating with the Romans. The Zealots were freedom fighters who wanted an armed clash with the Romans. And Jesus was encouraging religious reform because the end of the world and the final judgment was about to happen. Mark clearly knew nothing about the situation in Jerusalem. He knows that in the ritual Jesus is betrayed by those he comes to save, and makes a story of it.

The priests sent Jesus to the Roman Procurator Pontius Pilate. The charge against him is his claim to be the Messiah, the King of the Jews. Not mentioned is that only Pilate can give the death penalty. The charge is therefore politicised. Not blasphemy, but sedition.

Yet again Mark makes the ritual point: Jesus is betrayed by those he comes to save. Mark interposes the story of Barabbas, a prisoner who was likely a Zealot (freedom fighter). He had a false name, ‘son of his father’ that the Romans hadn’t picked up on. Mark apparently invented a custom whereby the Romans released a prisoner each time the Jews had a festival. Pilate offers to release Jesus, accused of rebelling against Rome, but the Jews want Barabbas released, and Jesus crucified. Mark says Pilate was “always looking to satisfy the crowd” and concurs. We known from Roman records that in fact Pilate was investigated for the harshness of his rule. He apparently held a reign of terror in Jerusalem trying to keep the Jews quiet. All this shows that Mark had no knowledge of events in Jerusalem. But his point is to explain and emphasis the ritual: Jesus is betrayed by those he came to save.

5 Grave-with-Stone

Then comes the story of the crucifixion. The details are compiled almost wholly from quotations from the Jewish scriptures which the events Mark tells of are meant to fulfil. This is more evidence Mark knew little about the situation of Jesus in Jerusalem. Mark says Jesus died in an hour’s time, but most deaths took longer, sometimes days. The story of the burial is improbable; given that Pilate’s rule was tyrannical it seems unlikely he would commute the punishment of a rebel. Part of that punishment was that the crucified were denied burial. Yet a wealthy Jew is said to have given up his own burial place for Jesus and Pilate to have allowed it.

The ritual point is made that Jesus was buried, then arose from the dead. Some women come to embalm the body, which seems unlikely. They are worried about the stone which seals the tomb, said to be large, though the actual stones for tombs were quite small. The women met a young man dressed in white, reminiscent of the man who runs away at Jesus’ arrest.

“He says to them, ‘Don’t be alarmed! You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene who was crucified. He is raised, he is not here! Look at the spot where they put him. But go and tell the disciples including ‘Rock’ -[Peter] he is going ahead of you to Galilee’”. (Mk. 16, 6-7).

This is a heroic tale. It embodies and tries to explain ritual. It is not history, nor biography, both of which hadn’t been invented yet. God comes to earth to prepare his people for the last judgement and the end of the world. His people, who claimed to be the Chosen People of God, reject him, so his message then becomes one for everyone, no matter where they come from. This was particularly the message of Paul. It is a message of forgiveness of sins, and participation in holy life through the sacrament of the last supper, and eternal life gained by Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion. The story explains why Jesus could speak to the Greeks, and what his shameful death really meant, a death as ignoble as that of Osiris. The rituals of Paul’s church, and Mark’s, were similar to existing ones of Osiris and Adonis, which made it easier for them to assimilate Greek converts.

6 Osiris and Isis Abydos


It was not possible at that time for information about an itinerant preacher from the hill country of Galilee who spoke Aramaic to be transmitted, orally, to believers in Greece who spoke koine Greek and who were unfamiliar with events in Jerusalem 40 years earlier and with Jewish ritual. What happened was that a converted Jew, Paul of Tarsus, saw the death of Jesus in a new and revolutionary light, and preached the death and resurrection to people throughout the Greek world. His message was to the Greeks, and earned him expulsion from the group around James the brother of Jesus. Paul believed Jesus was Osiris, Adonis, who came for all peoples, not just the Jews. After his churches were founded, gospels were written and recited to explain the significance of the rituals that had evolved from various sources.

The gospels, including Mark, combine a number of types of material.

  a record of Jesus’ sayings. The Jesus Seminar thought these (there were probably more than one) might go back to Jesus or at least rabbis of his time, as it was possible to transmit these often memorable sayings orally. This is a supposition.

  the Jewish Bible. Jesus was a Jew living in Galilee and Jerusalem and would naturally refer to scripture. For believers from churches in Greece passages of scripture were turned into prophecies about Jesus that gave his teachings and his life and death added authenticity.

  all the gospels tell of a wonder working prophet and teacher, one who healed the sick, bought the dead to life and performed other miracle. Such stories were told of Jesus’ contemporary Apollonius of Tyana, and there is mention of several impostors performing apparent wonders in Lucian of Samosata’s Dialogues and in Acts. There was obviously an audience then for this kind of display.

• an account of death and resurrection of a saviour god: this was the foundation of Paul’s religion and of his churches, for whom the gospels were written.

The first and second of these elements came from Jewish sources, perhaps in Alexandria, perhaps in Jerusalem or Tarsus; the third and fourth types of material were everywhere in Greece. It was Paul’s inspiration to bring them all together.

These types of source material were drawn on by the evangelists when they wrote their gospels. What they had was an audience expecting the Apocalypse; a number of churches founded by Paul with members who believed Jesus had died to bring mankind eternal life; and the need to demonstrate that Jesus was god. The churches had evolved rituals such as the sharing of a meal which in some way joined believers to Jesus. The gospels explained those rituals, and how they originated in the life and death of Jesus.

7 manuscript of mark

The gospels try to unite a story of a Jewish holy man with matter familiar to residents in Greece. These were people who believed in demi gods, prophecies and oracles, miracles. They were familiar with the faith in a saviour god such as Osiris or Orpheus, and rites that included a communal meal and baptism as found in the religion of Mithras. The gospels retail truth, not fact.

It’s like Homer’s story of Achilles. Homer probably had no facts about Achilles to go on, yet his story of the bravest of the Greek warriors who could only be wounded in his heel contains quite a lot of truth about not only Achilles, but all human beings.

It should be remembered that the writing of the gospels was preceded by a period of oral transmission. This would most likely consist of, not a narrative, but a short description of an enactment or rite of adoration: the raising of Lazarus; the loaves and fishes; the trial before the high priest; the last supper; the resurrection; and so on. What Mark is doing is writing down a description of these scenes, which he must have seen, and connecting them to make sense of them for converts. Those interested in how these ideas evolved might find the Canadian film Jesus of Montreal interesting (directed by Denys Arcand in 1989).

Jesus seemed to be a follower of John the Baptist, who may have preached the need for repentance because of the coming end of the world and final judgement. It is interesting to speculate that Jesus seemed to have an opposite view to his followers over this. For Jesus, reform bought the kingdom of god to the soul and made one ready for the last judgement. For his followers, the last judgement made it necessary to repent and gain the kingdom of god. It’s the difference between a truly spiritual man and those doing the best they can.

I hope Jesus would not have liked aberrations such as the rather materialistic view that Christianity is in some sense an historical faith; nor that Christianity is the only faith, disbelief in which is punished with torture and death. Neither of these seem consistent with the kingdom of god within.

©2015 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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