The Gospels Writers Didn’t Care What Jesus Would Do

So, just what were they up to?

Christians turn to the gospels to read the story of Jesus, and they assume that the stories are God’s honest truth—so to speak. Scholars, however—even devout scholars—want to know where the gospel accounts came from; after all, they were written decades after the events described. But it’s good enough for believers that God inspired the authors, so how could they not be accurate? In Caravaggio’s superb depiction of divine inspiration, an angel guides the right hand of Matthew as he writes.

But insistence on “scriptural inspiration” is an example of special pleading, that is: our documents don’t have to meet standards of evidence that are expected of other histories—because, in effect, God wrote them. No scholar would accept that argument to prove the accuracy of, say, David McCullough’s biography of John Adams, i.e., God inspired him. No: especially with someone as important as Jesus, rigorous standards of evidence must be used. Special pleading is cheating.

In the film, The Fugitive, when Tommy Lee Jones’ character came across the massive train wreck, he declared, “My, my, my. What a mess.” That has been the state of Jesus studies for many decades now—yet most of the folks in the pews are unaware of the obstacles scholars face trying to figure out Jesus. Why would priests and pastors encourage them to check out scholarly books on Jesus? Most of these leaders probably don’t do it themselves, and it’s hard to know where to make a start, digging into the mess.

It qualifies as a “mess” because, despite many years of intense effort, even devout scholars have not yet discovered a method for discerning whatever bits and pieces of history might be in the gospels. Look at any chapter: where did this story come from? If you don’t know the source for an account written decades later, you don’t have history, and no special pleading can alter that fact.

Episode 6 in my series of Flash Podcasts, Bible Blunders & Bad Theology is here (under five minutes).

Makes you wonder, doesn’t it: why weren’t the gospels written right away after the death of Jesus? Why put the project off? Maybe because—well, why bother—the early Jesus cult expected him to arrive on the clouds of heaven ‘any day now.’ What would have been the point?

It’s likely that theological agenda prompted the writing of the gospels. But, even so, where did the authors get their material? Had anyone bothered, right away, to document the sayings and deeds of Jesus? Perhaps 95 percent of those who heard Jesus preach were illiterate, and had little access to writing materials anyway. It’s been common to say that we know what Jesus said and did because of oral tradition, people passing on what they’d heard and seen by word of mouth. We’ll consider the weakness of that suggestion later.

So what was the theological agenda, and how did it impact what was written? R. G. Price, in Deciphering the Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed, presents the case that the author of Mark’s gospel created an allegory—never meant to be taken literally—about the First Jewish Roman War (66-73 CE), and that Jesus was a literary device patterned on the apostle Paul.

Can this really be the case? New Testament scholars have usually been preoccupied with another puzzle, i.e., that the sayings and deeds of Jesus are not mentioned in Paul’s letters, the earliest Christian documents we have. Never mind that Paul avoided contact with the original disciples, if there was so much oral tradition in circulation about Jesus, how had Paul failed to pick up on it? And, of course, the gospels hadn’t been written yet. Paul was convinced that his hallucinations of Jesus were enough.

But what if the author of Mark’s gospel was using Paul as his model? That he was in sympathy with Paul’s mission to the Gentiles, and was guided by his ideas in the epistles? This idea is presented in detail in Tom Dykstra’s 2012 book, Mark, Canonizer of Paul.

The implications are momentous—and, unavoidably, it seems to me, a threat to fundamental Christian claims.

It’s not hard to figure out from Paul’s letters that he didn’t get along with the original Jesus followers (forget propaganda to the contrary in the Book of Acts); in fact, he seems to have had a lot of opponents. He was the ultimate outsider, after all. And it would seem that the gospel of Mark emerged in that context. It wasn’t written to answer historical questions, to fill in details about ‘what Jesus was really like.’ The theological agenda might have been to bolster the Pauline understanding of the faith.

Dykstra notes that this idea represents a paradigm shift in the thinking of New Testament scholars. The assumption all along has been that Mark wanted to ‘tell the story of the Christ,’ and would have done his best to stick to the facts. But that idea is blasted, among other things, by the high quotient of fantasy and folklore in the gospel, and it is hard to imagine how Mark would have collected the facts so late in the game.

“What,” Dykstra asks, “could have prompted someone to undertake the composition of Mark at the specific time it was written so long after the history it recounts? One hypothesis that makes sense of the known facts is that the same groups involved in creating the epistles simply added a new tactic—that of narrative—to their literary repertoire. The change in tactics may have been occasioned by the death of Paul and the realization that the effectiveness of his personal authority in the ongoing battle was diminishing.

“The primary intended audience would then be the same as for the epistles: established Christian communities in which the battle between the competing gospels [in the sense of the message] continued to rage. The primary purpose of the gospel narrative would then be to assert that Paul’s gospel was correct, that Paul’s interpretation of the significance of the person of Christ and his crucifixion and resurrection was the correct one, and that Paul’s opponents were wrong even though they could boast of close personal connections to Jesus while Paul could not.” (pp. 37-38)

A major chunk of the book, Part II – Paul Themes in Mark, consists of five chapters, in which he sets out his case.

It’s a minor miracle itself that the church has gotten away with making the disciples seem better than they appear in Mark. Dykstra states the problem: “One of the particularly ironic aspects of the Markan story is that those closest to Jesus, both his relatives and his handpicked associates, misunderstand and even oppose him. Not just once, but repeatedly, constantly, throughout the story from beginning to end. His family thinks he’s gone mad.” (p. 105)

“Many scholars have recognized that Mark’s attempt to discredit all these people makes sense in the context of Paul’s ongoing conflict with those who were ‘apostles before him’ (Gal 1:17), especially the Jerusalem leadership of the ‘so-called pillars,’ Peter, James the brother of Jesus, and John.” (p.105)

“Paul’s conflict was with ‘apostles before me’ as well as with the brother of Jesus, and so Mark’s representation of the twelve as missing the point of the gospel and even opposing Jesus could only strengthen Paul’s position.” (p. 109) “Mark uses many means both subtle and not so subtle to call into question the disciples’ credentials as leaders. The disciples stubbornly misunderstand and lack faith in Jesus, even after he carefully explains things to them.” (p. 110)

“Mark was written after a conflict had developed between Paul and the Jerusalem Christian leadership under the leadership of the ‘pillars’ Peter, James, and John. For the Gospel’s original readers, the picture of obtuse, glory-seeking, slothful disciples couldn’t help but bolster the authority of the one Apostle who was not so characterized.” (p. 116)

One of the curiosities in Mark’s gospel is the two miraculous feedings, 5,000 in chapter six, and 4,000 in chapter eight. The first one would have been enough to impress anybody, yet we see Mark’s portrayal of the obtuse disciples in the second story. The fondness of folklore for exaggeration is present in the Jesus-script (vv. 2-3):

“I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat. If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way—and some of them have come from a great distance.”

To which the disciples—who had earlier witnessed the miraculous feeding of 5,000—reply: “How can one feed these people with bread here in the desert?”

Dykstra’s analysis of these two stories illustrates that it was Mark’s agenda to defend Paul’s mission to the Gentiles. The first feeding miracle is set in Jesus’ home country, but afterwards he travelled to other territories and healed the daughter of a Gentile woman. He refused to do so at first, not wanting to “throw bread to the dogs.” Dykstra comments: “Although this sounds like initial reluctance, in fact the story is quintessentially Pauline, for it is the Gentile’s faith that saves her child insofar as it induces her to seek Jesus out and make her humble reply to his first response.” (p. 78)

“…the second feeding comes after the encounter with the Gentile Syro-Phoenician woman (7:25-30), which in turn is followed by a long journey through Gentile territory (7:31).” (p. 80) Dykstra notes that, at the first feeding, “The numbers five and twelve are prominent: five loaves (6:38, 43), five thousand men (6:44) and twelve baskets of broken pieces (6:34). The number five calls to mind the number of books of the Torah and the number twelve symbolizes the twelve tribes of Israel.” (p. 80)

But, in the second feeding, “The number symbolism is also quite different. Here the salient numbers are four and seven: four thousand people (8:9); seven loaves (8:5, 6), and seven baskets taken up at the end (8:8). The number four alludes to the ends of the earth, symbolism which is confirmed even within the text of Mark, for in 13:27 Jesus says, ‘And then he will…gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.’ The number seven represents divine completeness, calling to mind scriptural texts such as the Genesis story of seven days of creation.” (pp. 80-81)

See also, especially, Dykstra’s Chapter 8, Appropriating Paul’s Language and Example.

Mark was writing theology weighted with number symbolism—code that would have resonated with the early cult—and this can be missed by the casual readers who want to understand the stories literally. Moreover, Christians get trapped by their own theology if they insist that these miraculous feedings really happened and demonstrate the power of God. We are entitled to ask why God hasn’t acted countless times in history to alleviate hunger and starvation. God can really pull foodstuffs out of thin air? No. This is fantasy. How does it differ from Professor McGonagall waving her wand to replenish a tray of sandwiches for Harry Potter and Ron Weasley?

Dykstra states near the end of the book, “There is no dearth of evidence that whatever Mark’s literary purposes were, reporting on what the actual historical Jesus said and did was not very high on the list.” (p. 231) Which seems to me to be an understatement, especially in light of Dykstra’s Chapter 3, The Chimera of Oral Tradition. He cites the work of scholar Thomas Brodie, who has exposed the weaknesses of oral tradition-theory, which devout scholars cling to. There is no way to verify that oral tradition happened as supposed: “Besides the lack of evidence, the problem here is the allowance for ‘reflection and interpretations’: add those up over 30 years and what you have at the end may have little to do with what you started with.” (p. 56) “…how can anyone reasonable suppose that ‘oral tradition’ remained reliable after 30 years?” (p. 57)

The scholarship has been done to show that Mark modeled much of his story on the Elijah-Elisha stories in I Kings 17 through 2 Kings 13, and that Mark’s knowledge of Greek literature came into play as well. Dykstra’s notes the important contribution of scholar Dennis MacDonald, especially his work, The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark. The author of Mark wanted as well to advocate for Paul’s theology and mission. And the other gospel writers who copied Mark absorbed so much of what he created, although Matthew especially exercised a dissenting voice.

But the bottom line is this, as stated by Dykstra:

“…the evangelists had little need for ‘biographical reminiscences.’ Their primary aim was to influence a religious community by telling a story; the story had to tie in to the community’s perception of its own history but once the tie was established the structure and details of the story depended more on its rhetorical purpose than on a perceived need for what we would today call historical accuracy.” (pp. 218-219)

“…their primary aim was to influence a religious community by telling a story.” Which means, in reality, that the gospel writers were cult propagandists. They were addressing the needs of the first century Jesus mystery cult.

The last sentence of Dykstra’s book brings us back to my comment earlier that his arguments are dangerous for Christianity: “The appropriate reaction to Mark for us is not to condemn what Mark did but to take to heart his intended message and to read the Pauline epistles to learn what the Christian gospel is all about.” (p. 245)

Dykstra has made the case pretty well that we don’t have a true story of Jesus in Mark. We have a theological concoction based on several streams of non-historical materials. That should be alarming for devout folks who open their Bibles to find out what Jesus really said and did. And then what a grim conclusion that ‘what the Christian gospel is all about’ can be discovered in the Pauline epistles! Paul thrived in his world of hallucination and delusion; he was a master of magical thinking who obsessed about Jesus soon descending though the clouds to gather his remnant who will “be with the Lord forever.” (I Thessalonians 4:17)

Can’t their religion be much better than that? I’ll leave it to Christians, navigating around their cherished human sacrifice and so many negatives about Jesus in the gospels, to figure it out.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was reissued last year by Tellectual Press with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

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