The four canonical gospels were written, as we saw, as part of the process by which the Church of Rome sought to legitimize its authority through placing the life, suffering and death of Jesus in the first century A.D. This process, in its turn, provided the basis for a Creed—what it was necessary to believe in order to be an orthodox Christian. Although these four gospels bear the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the evidence makes it clear that considerable editing took place between the time they were first written and the time they received final acceptance by the Church.
Mark, who is named in the Book of Acts and II Timothy as a companion of Barnabas and Paul, is thought by biblical scholars to have been the author of the earliest of these four canonical gospels. The exact date is not known, but scholars place it generally in the last quarter of the first century A.D. As there is evidence that both Matthew and Luke relied on Mark, plus other sources, it has come to be accepted that they should be dated after him. Matthew has been dated to the first half of the second century A.D. Lucan references, especially those relating to the birth of Jesus, did not feature in the writings of the Church Fathers until the second half of that century, followed in the same period by John, the least historically minded of the four evangelists.
Enoch Powell, the British politician and Greek scholar, who translated the Greek text of Matthew's gospel, noted that it had been subjected to substantial "doctoring" even before the end of the first century A.D. He comments in his book The Evolution of the Gospel, published in 1994 by Yale University Press: "Matthew discloses that an underlying text was severely re-edited, with theological and polemical intent, and that the resulting edition was afterwards recombined with the underlying text to produce the gospel as it exists . . . The trial before Pilate is a second-rate duplicate, re-using material from the trial before the high priest, out of which it was manufactured."
The New Catholic Encyclopaedia, produced by the Catholic University of America at Washington in 1967, concedes that most "of the biblical writings underwent considerable re-editing and interpolation before final publication. Thus the authorship was much more of a group activity than was once thought." It will make matters simpler to concentrate on the versions that emerged at the end of the second century A.D., and would be accepted a century later as "orthodox," than trying to establish which bits of them were written by whom.
Ironically, the first known New Testament canon (list of biblical works normally looked upon as "orthodox" and acceptable) was actually compiled by one of the principal opponents of the Roman Church, a Gnostic named Marcion—and nothing gives a clearer picture of the clash between Gnostic beliefs and the teaching of the emergent, authoritarian "orthodox" Church than the contents of Marcion's canon and the personal consequences for him.
Marcion was the most active and influential Christian teacher in the first half of the second century A.D. Our main—almost only—source of information about him comes from the writings of his enemies, among them Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian and Epiphaneus, "orthodox" churchmen of his time or later. They are also the source of what we know about Marcion's canon, the first version of a New Testament to be put down in writing.
It appears that Marcion, who came originally from Pontus in Asia Minor, arrived in Rome, as a Christian, in the late 130s A.D. Within a matter of a few years—about A.D. 140—his views had so outraged the Roman Church that he was excommunicated. This was hardly surprising. He did not accept the Old Testament, which formed an important element of the scriptures of the early Roman Church, as part of Christian belief. He recognized Paul, not Peter, as the only true apostle, to whom Christ committed his gospel, and dismissed the Jerusalem apostles as false apostles. In addition, he considered that the "orthodox" Church had falsified and corrupted the true gospel, which the Gnostics alone preserved in its pure form.
The canon of Marcion consisted of two parts: a gospel of Christ, identical in many respects to Luke's gospel; and a gospel of the Apostle, 10 of the 14 letters of Paul that are to be found in today's New Testament. Four letters of Paul are excluded that deal with a pastor's work, Timothy I and II, Titus and Hebrews, and the last two chapters of Romans. He also rearranged the order of those letters he used, with Galatians, including the account of Paul's conversion, initiation in Sinai and two visits to Jerusalem, placed first. As a result he was not only excommunicated but was later accused of having "doctored" Luke's gospel by excising from it any details that did not accord with his Gnostic beliefs.
We do not find in Marcion's gospel any reference to Jesus having lived, suffered and died at the time of Pontius Pilate. Some of the principal details missing include: the Annunciation; Mary and Joseph's journey to Bethlehem; the date and place of the birth of Jesus; the family visiting Jerusalem on their way to Nazareth; the return to Jerusalem when Jesus was 12 and preached in the Temple; the mission of John the Baptist and his baptism of Jesus; Satan's temptation of Jesus in the wilderness; Jesus's mother and brothers coming to see him while he was preaching; the importance of Peter as the "rock" on which the Church would be built; the warning by one of the Pharisees that Herod wished to kill Jesus; Jesus telling the twelve apostles that they were going to Jerusalem; the journey to Jerusalem via the Mount of Olives; the Last Supper; Jesus praying alone on the Mount of Olives; the arrest of Jesus; Peter's threefold denial of him; the Jews insisting on his condemnation when Pilate wished to free him; the Crucifixion; and the physical resurrection of Jesus. All of these, and other details, are also absent from Paul's writings as well as absent from the Gnostic gospels found at Nag Hammadi.
Despite excommunication, Marcion continued his evangelical work. Justin Martyr, the early Church Father, was the first to mention him. Writing c. A.D. 150 he conceded that Marcion had made disciples among men of many nations and was still teaching. More than 1,700 years, however, were to elapse before Marcion was cleared of the charge of having falsified Luke's gospel to conform with his own beliefs. At the end of the eighteenth century scholars challenged this theory, on the grounds that Marcion's work was not only substantially shorter, but had appeared before any example of Luke's gospel. They therefore came to the conclusion that it was the Lucan authors who had added to Marcion's canon in order to make it conform to what had become the "orthodox" view of the life of Jesus in the first century A.D.
The second element in Marcion's canon—the Pauline letters, and his teaching that Paul was the only true apostle—proved a more difficult problem. Paul, still remembered as an early Christian leader, was a popular figure with many branches of the Church, and his epistles enjoyed wide circulation, even in Rome itself. In the circumstances it was not possible to repudiate Paul simply because of his Gnostic views. His epistles were therefore included in the "orthodox" New Testament canon of the Church, established by degrees in the second half of the second century A.D. However, at the same time, the Book of Acts appeared, dedicated in part, as we saw in a previous chapter, to stressing that the role of Paul in the life of the early Church was minor compared with that of Peter.
The first "orthodox" list, which introduced non-Pauline material, was produced in the second half of the second century A.D. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon, writing about A.D. 180 in his book Against Heresies, lists 22 writings that were looked upon as canonical in Rome from that date. They included the four gospels, the Book of Acts and 13 of Paul's letters (not including the one to the Hebrews). Irenaeus also cites a book called Shepherd of Hermas with the formula "scripture says," indicating that Christian writings absent from today's canon were accepted as scripture at that time.
Origen, the brilliant third-century theologian briefly discussed earlier in this book, made a slightly different list. This was followed by yet another list, compiled by Eusebius (c. A.D. 260-340), the great Church historian, which had minor differences from Origen's. Eusebius divided the books into three categories: acknowledged (the four gospels, Book of Acts, the 13 Pauline letters excluding Hebrews, I Peter, I John, Revelation); disputed (II Peter, II and III John, Hebrews, James and Jude); and false (a number of books, including Shepherd of Hermas, that were still in circulation).
The present "orthodox" canon, to which nothing may be added and from which nothing may be taken away, is made up of the 27 books in the acknowledged and disputed lists compiled by Eusebius and, as we saw, was given formal recognition by the third Council of Carthage in North Africa, held in A.D. 397. In more recent times even the Gospel of Thomas, discovered in the hidden Gnostic library at Nag Hammadi in 1945, has been rejected by the Vatican as heretical.
The four gospels need to be examined on two levels, as pseudo-historical works and as evangelical works, designed to preach the basic Christian message—Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.
It is in the gospel of Mark that we find the first account of Simon's change of name by Jesus: "And Simon he surnamed Peter" (Mark 3:16). Peter (Greek petros) is derived from petra meaning "rock." This reported change of name is used by Matthew in his account of the founding of the Roman Church: "thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven . . ." (16:18, 19). In passing it is worth making the point that nobody has been able to explain why, if Jesus lived in Palestine and spoke Aramaic, he should have given his principal disciple a Greek name.
Some of the historical inaccuracies we examined in the second section of this book—the era of King Herod and the priest Caiaphas, and the claim that Jesus "suffered under Pontius Pilate"—are consequences of establishing Jesus and Peter as contemporaries. The curious account of the betrayal of Jesus by Judas Iscariot also appears to have its roots in political events in Galilee in the early years of the Christian era. The narrative tells us that Christ had been in Jerusalem for days prior to his arrest, teaching in the Temple. The Jewish authorities could therefore have laid hands upon him whenever they wanted to. It is not possible to justify their failure to do so by arguing that they feared the anger of the people: only a day later, after Jesus had been arrested and imprisoned, these same people are said to have refused to have him set free, demanding instead that he be crucified. No mention of Judas as the betrayer is to be found in any of the Epistles, indicating that the attribution of this act to him was a later interpretation of events.
On the evidence available it would seem that Judas, who is never mentioned by Paul in his epistles, is based upon the character of a Jewish leader, a Galilean named Judas who led a political rebellion over taxation against the Romans and the Jerusalem authorities in A.D. 6, the year in which, according to the Gospel of Luke, Mary and Joseph made their way to register in Bethlehem where Jesus was born. From the time of Judas's rebellion Galilee had remained notorious for its opposition to both Roman and Jerusalem authorities. It is thought that Mark placed the mission of Jesus in Galilee—he does not appear in Judaea until he went there to meet his end—because it would make it easier to accept the conflict between him and the authorities as a political reality of the time. However, Mark does not appear to have been acquainted with the geographical scene: no mention is found of the main towns of Galilee, there is no con vincing topographical background, and the scholar G. A. Wells has made the point in his book Did Jesus Exist? that "the link with Galilee, because it is invention, remained thin; just as the conflict with the Jerusalem authorities remained implausible."
Furthermore, Iscariot has been taken as indicating the location to which Judas belonged. This is not the correct meaning. As the corresponding Greek verb means "to deliver up," the word can only have been used in the betrayal story as an epithet, "Judas the Deliverer." This meaning is reinforced by the fact that the Syrian skariot is an epithet equivalent to the Hebrew sikkarti, "I shall deliver up."
As to the evangelical aspects of their gospels, it is evident that all of the authors involved, who cannot have been eye witnesses of the events they were describing, relied on an earlier common source and a variety of traditions for their accounts: Israelite and Egyptian traditions; references to the Messiah in the prophetic books of the Old Testament; the practices of the Essenes and their beliefs; Paul's references to a Judaeo-Christian community at Jerusalem; the life and death of John the Baptist (never mentioned, incidentally, in any of the New Testament epistles), who preached that the end of days was near; Q (as we saw earlier, from Quelle, the German for "source"), a collection of sources attributed to Jesus; the claim by John the Baptist's followers that they had seen the risen Christ; the Judas rebellion; an account of a prophet who came out of Egypt, gathered his disciples at the Mount of Olives, threatened to destroy Jerusalem and rebelled against the Temple priests; and an established Gnostic theology, preached by Paul, regarding salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, represented by the Egyptian cross, the ankh, the symbol of life (this will be discussed in greater detail later).
The naming of Bethlehem as the birthplace of Jesus was simply the result of a desire to demonstrate fulfillment of one of the Old Testament prophecies. There was a strong Jewish tradition that the Christ would be born as a descendant of King David, who was believed by the Jews to have been born at Bethlehem in Judaea. Therefore, both Matthew and Luke, who provide accounts of the nativity of Jesus, give his place of birth as Bethlehem; and Matthew (2:5) cites the account in Micah (5:2) in support of his statement.
In his book The Enigma of Jesus the French scholar P. L. Couchoud traced the Old Testament roots of many of the chief events found in gospel accounts of the life and death of Jesus, with the tense changed when it suited the author's purpose:
The Virgin Birth. "Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel" (Isaiah 7:14).
The Birth of Jesus at Bethlehem. "But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel . . ." (Micah 5:2). The Star in the East. "there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel . . ." (Numbers 24:17). The Magi. "all they from Sheba shall come: they shall bring gold and incense; and they shall shew forth the praises of the Lord" (Isaiah 60:6). The Flight into Egypt. "When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt" (Hosea 11:1).
The Passion. "But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities . . ." (Isaiah 53:5).
The Crucifixion between Two Thieves. "he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors" (Isaiah 53:12).
The Scourging. "I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: I hid not my face from shame and spitting" (Isaiah 50:6).
Jesus's Last Cry. "My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me . . . ?" (Psalms
The Crucifixion. "they pierced my hands and my feet" (Psalms 22:16). The Casting of Lots for His Garments. "They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture" (Psalms 22:18). The Scene at the Cross. "All they that see me laugh me to scorn: they shoot out the lip, they shake the head, saying, He trusted in the Lord that he would deliver him: let him deliver him, seeing he delighted in him" (Psalms 22:7-8).
Even in the story of the birth of Jesus we find another example of the extent to which the gospels rely on the Old Testament for their content. The Old Testament does not provide any details of the birth of Jesus; Matthew therefore adapted the Old Testament account of events surrounding the birth of Moses, with Herod instead of Pharaoh ordering the death "of all children from two years old and under," and Jesus laid in a manger where Moses was found among the bulrushes at the edge of the Nile.
The nature of Jesus's mission is also reflected in the Songs of Isaiah, which the Qumran Essenes interpreted as referring to their Teacher of Righteousness. In the Hymn Scroll, one of the Dead Sea manuscripts con taining Psalms in the first person, "the Psalmist (the Teacher) repeatedly applies Isaiah's Servant Songs to himself, as Christian writers were to apply them to Jesus a century later." For instance, both the Psalmist and Jesus declare themselves to be the person whom Isaiah says (61:1-2) was "sent to bring good tidings to the humble ... to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour ... to console the afflicted" (repeated in Luke 4:16, 22). In the Hymn Scroll the Psalmist repeatedly appears as "the man of sorrows, overwhelmed by blows and sickness, despised and rejected." The Qumran Essenes, like John the Baptist, were talking of the anointed Christ, a Savior who would return on the Day of Judgment when the world came to an end. The extent to which the New Testament draws upon the Old Testament was the subject of a whole chapter of the first volume of The Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries, a monumental work by Adolf von Harnack, the German scholar, published in New York as long ago as 1904. He wrote: "The Old Testament did exert an influence which brought it (Christianity) to the verge of becoming the religion of a book ... the New Testament as a whole did not generally play the same role as the Old Testament in the mission and practice of the Church . . . From the Old Testament it could be proved that the appearance and the entire history of Jesus had been previously predicted"—I say "recorded"—"hundreds and even thousands of years ago, and further, that the founding of the New People, which was to be fashioned out of all nations upon earth, had from the very beginning been prophesied and prepared for."
It is now becoming accepted that not one of the four evangelists who wrote the canonical gospels was himself an actual witness of the events he describes. However, they had access to, and used, a variety of sources, including the Greek translation of the Old Testament, produced in Alexandria in the third century B.C. Moreover, many aspects of their gospels were not meant to be taken literally, but rather symbolically or alle-gorically. Their prime concern was proclamation of the hidden truth about Christ. For this reason the gospel texts, in their original form, did not contain historical data or geographical locations. It was only later that such details were added by Church editors to provide a historical setting. This can be seen clearly from the Gnostic gospels found at Nag Hammadi that contain none of the historical characters or geographical locations found in the canonical gospels.
Today, thousands of copies of the New Testament, including the four gospels, exist—about 5,000 in Greek alone—and date from the second to
218 The Keys of the Kingdom the sixteenth century A.D. No two are exactly alike in all particulars. The state of flux in the Christian Church in its earliest years is reflected in the fact that most of the variations date from the second or third centuries a.d. Scribes sometimes changed their manuscripts to accord with what was becoming looked upon increasingly as "orthodox" belief, either by inserting their Christology into a text that lacked it or modifying a text that could be taken to support contrary views. The present "orthodox" canon, consisting of 27 books of the Old and New Testament, to which nothing may be added and nothing taken away, did not receive formal recognition until the third Council of Carthage in North Africa, held in a.d. 397.
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