We ended our last blog by saying that it is through the reading of Paul’s letters that we find out what was being transmitted and believed about Jesus in and around 50-55 CE (Common Era—the same as AD)—roughly 20 years after Jesus had died. We won’t have any other written records about Jesus until roughly 70 CE, when the first gospel, Mark, was written. [Check the timeline in the last blog post]
Fast-forward with me to Martin Luther King Jr.
To put this problem of having no written records of or about Jesus for at least 40 years after Jesus’ death in perspective, let’s fast forward to Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) as an example to see what that might mean to our understanding of the man today.
King was a great teacher, a man of God. He was worshiped by many of his followers as an example to live by, a teacher, a visionary, a “savior” of and for his people; but more than that, he was considered by many in our nation as a savior of all peoples whom would travel his path of love—and he was killed. He was murdered for trying to change the consciousness of a nation. Years later we also find out that he was being tracked and reported on by the government, in this case at least, the FBI, and perhaps other agencies as well as a potential subversive. Sound vaguely familiar to a story we all know?
King was killed in 1968, 48 years ago. The very first Gospel to be written (Mark) was written in about the year 70 CE, and the last (John) in the 90’s CE; a time span of roughly 40-70 years after Jesus died. So it is almost exactly analogous of our situation with MLK. If we were to try to sit down and compose the story of MLK’s life in our fast-forward scenario, it will be a “Gospel” (which means, Good News) account of MLK’s life.
Let’s continue with our journey into the here and now; let’s imagine that there has been no radio or television transcriptions or recordings, no newspaper accounts, no written documentation at all of what MLK said or did—just memories of those that were close to him. As with Jesus, let’s also assume that we don’t have any writings from any of MLK’s original followers.
If any of his thoughts and beliefs are now to be remembered 48 years later, it will have to be by later day followers of his—none of which knew MLK personally—because none of the Gospels were written by any of Jesus’ disciples; they were written by followers of followers.
So our later-day chronicler of MLK’s life has to go out and try to record people’s memories of him and then try to make sense of the wildly divergent memories and weave a story that ties his life together and makes sense to those that would read and later follow this special man with his unique teaching of love.
It is now 48 years after MLK died, and ours will be the first story to be recorded (similar to the Gospel of Mark). There won’t be another story written to compare our story with for another 15 or 20 years, and yet another 10 or 15 years after that before the final stories end up being written.
If we make this analogous to the gospels, 4 different people trying to write down the salient parts of MLk’s life and teaching, and these 4 different people are not only writing decades apart, but each of them are writing in different countries and different cultures. In addition, none of the writers will speak English (all the gospels were composed in Greek, not Aramaic, the language of Jesus and all of the original disciples). It’s getting problematical to come up with a single cogent vision of the man, isn’t it? That is exactly what we find in the case of Jesus.
What would be the result of our first chronicler’s efforts? How accurate would the stories turn out to be to the historical man?
Paul’s account of his encounter with the resurrected Jesus is very important to the story of Christianity, because the account of his experience with the “resurrected” Jesus in his letters are by far the earliest written account that we have of what and how people believed about the resurrected Jesus at the time, yet his telling of his story is still roughly 20 years after Jesus died. There are no earlier written records before that date that survived.
It is through the reading of his letters that we find out what was being transmitted and believed about Jesus around 50-55 CE (Common Era—the same as AD). We also have to remember that although his letters are included at the end of and after the Gospels of the New Testament, he is actually writing his letters to the Christian communities perhaps 15 to 20 years before the first Gospel (Mark) was written. Then another 15 or so years will pass before we get the next two Gospels (Mathew and Luke), and the last Gospel (John), and the second half of Luke’s Gospel (called Acts), comes yet another 10 or 20 years further beyond that (at the end of the first or the beginning of the second century).