Why Didn’t the Gospel Writers Get Their Resurrection Stories Right? There May Be an Answer!
RESURRECTION, PAUL, JESUS AND EASTER
We are going to chase Jesus down this rabbit hole of history until we discover the Jesus that walked the earth, loved God with all his heart, all his soul, all his mind, and all his might, and taught us to follow him on the journey to ecstasy that he shared with “Abba” (God).
In the last episode, we explored some of the similarities between the teachings of Jesus and Martin Luther King Jr.; both Jesus and MLK were the founders of a great movement, taught social reform, non-violence, and love of God and our fellow man. The singular difference between these two men, who taught in an almost identical way, and had followers that loved them with all their hearts, can be summed up in one word—resurrection! Many of the followers of Jesus believed that they “saw” him after he died; the followers of MLK did not.
But, what does that mean? What did that mean to the original Apostles and disciples? What did that mean to Paul, and what did that mean to later followers? Did it change over the decades?
There were many apocalyptic preachers during the first century in Judea and Israel; some had thousands of followers, some were hailed as the long-awaited Jewish messiah, some were purported to have performed miracles, and some were even killed and crucified by the Romans, but only one teacher became the founder of a new religion that changed the world, and that was the one who was called Jesus. What was the difference between the other “messiahs” and Jesus?
It was the belief of the original followers that Jesus survived the horrible death that he was subjected to. The followers believed that he survived death—but what did that mean to them? Did that mean that they saw him physically (as later Christians believed, and still believe), or was it something else, something far more important to them, and to us today?
Almost immediately after Jesus died, stories began to be told about his appearances to his Apostles and disciples. The stories that were told (and recorded in the Gospels) varied. Was it on the road to Galilee as the despondent disciples headed back to their homes (Mark 28:7; Matt. 26:32 and 28:7)? Perhaps it was in Jerusalem (Luke 24:13), or could it have been both (John 20:19 and 21:1)? Did 500 see him as Paul says (1st Corinthians 15:6), or was it just his intimate followers as mentioned in the Gospels?
No matter, it was Paul’s vision of Jesus that ended up being the game-changer. He plopped himself down right in the middle of history, and interjected himself into the mix. He proclaimed that he had the same authority as Peter, James (Jesus’ brother) and the other Apostles that had known Jesus personally (remember, Paul never met Jesus!). The Apostles and disciples had lived with Jesus for years; traveled the dusty paths with him, watched him minister to those that he encountered, and suffered the slings and arrows from the doubters right along with him. It is understandable that some of them didn’t take kindly to Paul’s assumed authority, nor his non-Jewish teachings. And, more importantly, Paul presumed to tell them that he was not only equal to them, but also superior to them when it came to telling the world what Jesus and God’s wishes were for the world.
Paul’s only contact with the disciples were two weeks with Peter and James (I “met with James, our Lord’s brother”), but this occurred at least three years after having had his vision of Jesus—he says himself that they were the only two disciples that he met with in Jerusalem on his first trip. It was during this initial meeting that he learned all that he was to know about Jesus the man, but he boldly states, “Let me make it clear, friends, the message I announced does not conform to human expectation. I say this because it was not transmitted to me by anyone nor did anyone teach it to me. Rather, it came to me as an insight from God about Jesus as God’s Anointed.” Gal. 1:17-19 Wow! That’s quite a statement. In his mind, it was he, and he alone, that had the “true” connection with Jesus and God. It was he alone that knew what God and Jesus wanted of their followers. It was he alone who knew the heart and mind of not only Jesus, but God himself. He alone was privy to the knowledge of what it took to gain—and lose—salvation. It is hard for us to understand how important this observation is to understanding the Christianity that we all inherited; but more importantly, to our understanding of Jesus, who would become the Messiah to billions.
Paul ripped Jesus out of his homeland, moved him into the Greco-Roman world, and elevated Jesus to a whole new level to match the demands and expectations of that world, where Paul taught and competed daily with the gods of his listeners. His letters and tireless teachings in many countries became the game changing event. Without Paul—who wrote about his vision, his philosophy, and his beliefs about Jesus the Messiah—I seriously doubt if we would have Christianity, as we know it today. The reason is simply that the other Apostles wrote nothing, at least nothing that we know of; and conversely, Paul wrote copiously. His many letters ended up being copied over and over, transmitted from one group of Christians to another, being read then, and for generations that followed. I say again, if we hadn’t had Paul, we wouldn’t have Christianity as we know it today—period.
None of the Gospel Writers Knew Jesus. None of Them Spoke His Language. No Wonder They Differ From One Another.
RESURRECTION, PAUL, JESUS AND EASTER
In Episode 3, that we posted last week, we related a story of how a chronicler of Martin Luther King Jr. (trying to put together a ‘gospel,’ meaning ‘good news’ similar to what Matthew, Mark, Luke and John did 2,000 years earlier), might include the quotes of the great man that the gospel writer most wanted MLK to be remembered by. And, of course, that gospel would most certainly coincide with the gospel writer’s own beliefs or cultural conditioning. We might also imagine that the writer could possibly choose to 'forget' to include those sayings of MLK (in the same way that Jesus’ chroniclers did). I can’t emphasize enough that we remember (according to biblical scholars), Jesus never wrote down a single word, so we have to rely totally on later-day followers and scribes who each lived in different parts of the world and came from diverse backgrounds, and wouldn’t set down the stories (writing only in Greek, not Hebrew or Aramaic, the language that Jesus and his disciples spoke) for decades after he died.
Remember that none of the Gospel writers actually knew Jesus personally—none of them claimed that they did—but they might have known people that knew him (which would give us second-hand information), or people that knew people that knew people that knew him (third-hand information).
Thus, we have to allow some leeway here for the oral tradition to mature or morph over the decades after Jesus died before someone decided to finally write down the traditions about him that they had heard. Thus there are differences and conflicts between the various accounts, which is to be expected.
Add in the fact that just before the first Gospel (Mark) was penned (roughly 40 years after Jesus died), the Romans invaded Israel and Judea and killed huge numbers of the population (including followers of Jesus); and, those that they didn’t kill outright in the Great Jewish War, they hauled off into slavery—20,000 of them!
Thousands of the survivors were marched through the streets of Rome and are pictured in the great Arch of Triumph in Rome, along with the golden Menorah. We are lucky that we have any written documentation at all after that cataclysmic event that affected every Jew (and followers of Jesus) in the empire. In fact, the coliseum was largely built by the Roman emperor, Vespasian, with the money he confiscated from the Temple in Jerusalem, and constructed with the labor of Jewish slaves captured in Judea. As if conquering Jerusalem wasn’t enough, he destroyed the Temple completely, along with most of the city. So great were the riches of the Temple at the time of Jesus that many of the stones were covered with gold to dazzle all who saw this building (it was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world!). The soldiers tossed the stones off the Temple Mount, and even took the gold encased stones of the Temple, heated them, and collected the gold that melted away from them.
If we return to our real-life example of MLK, and we are trying to put together our ‘gospel’ account, then at some point we have to pick and choose the sayings of his to pass on to future generations. If we had come from poverty and lived through the 60’s and participated in, or sympathized with, the black freedom struggle in the South then we would definitely want to include some of these quotes.
If we hadn’t personally lived with, or hadn’t been affected by the segregated schools, the lunch counter sit-ins of the 60’s, the “white only” facilities, or the requirement to sit in the back of the bus; if we hadn’t witnessed the burning crosses and the white sheets, then we might shy away from those quotes in our MLK gospel. After all, over 40 years have passed; evil recedes from our memories, which makes those atrocities not as real, eminent, and scarifying as they once were as they fade from our consciousness. We might decide we want to stick with the sayings that are filled with love, not conflict—not the overturning of the status quo, which no longer exists.
Now, today, if any one of these thoughts from MLK make you a little uncomfortable, recall that it was the same with some of the teachings of Jesus; thus, some of the uncomfortable sayings of Jesus were left out in some of the Gospels, they were modified by others by just a word or two (which often changed the meaning completely), or were placed into alternate scenarios that now seem to sit awkwardly positioned in the stories that survived. Remember, I am not even mentioning the over 30 other Gospels that we now know were being circulated in the early days of Christianity that were not chosen to be included in the New Testament—some as popular and as ancient, and at one time as ‘authentic’, as the four that we ended up with.
These Gospels were declared to be heretical and burned, banned, or mocked into oblivion by the church that we all inherited. I’m referring to the Gospels of Mary, Judas, Thomas, James, Egerton, Oxyrhynchus, the sayings Gospel of ‘Q’, Peter, the Secret Gospel of Mark, Secret Book of James, Dialogue of the Savior, and the Infancy Gospels of Thomas and James, and more. Wow!
Some of these Gospels were as popular and as old as the Gospels that finally made it into the New Testament. How many Christians know that? How many know why there were only four Gospels, or how the ones we now revere even made the final cut and were included in the New Testament? How many of us know that half the letters of Paul weren’t even written by him; they were forgeries and latter-day propaganda pieces. Paul even warns his people against them because some of them were openly being circulated during his lifetime—yet they are still quoted every day from the pulpit as if they were genuine, and the revealed Word of God.
So, who is the real Jesus, the real Paul, and what did they teach? Let’s take a closer look in the next Episode. Have a wondrous day! And, remember…
To be continued with Installment 5
If you had to write the Gospel of Martin Luther King Jr., what would it be like?
SERIES: RESURRECTION, PAUL, JESUS AND EASTER
The four gospels in the New Testament disagree on whom Jesus was. Some of the stories are diametrically opposed to one another. Mark doesn’t even relate a resurrection story. Is there a reason for these different visions of Jesus?
To keep our story of Jesus and his resurrection in perspective, let’s fast forward to Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK). We can use his life as an analogous example to see what that might mean to our understanding of the man, the Messiah, Jesus, if we started writing a gospel today.
King was a great teacher, a man of God. He was virtually 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, 49 years ago. The very first Gospel to be written (Mark) was written in about the year 70 CE—roughly 40 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 (just like Jesus). As with Jesus, let’s also assume that we don’t have any writings from any of MLK’s original followers (because we don’t).
If any of his thoughts and beliefs are now to be remembered 46 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 46 years after MLK died, and in our example, this would 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 or to for another 15 or 20 years, and yet another 10 or 15 years after that before the final stories end up being written.
That’s 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. 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? what it is like to try to reconstruct Jesus’ life from the writings that we have of his existence (the Gospels and the authentic letters of Paul), and I’m positing that we begin to understand our Christian legacy by understanding how and why we inherited what we did. By fast-forwarding to Martin Luther King Jr. and recreating his life without the aid of modern communications, we can hopefully gain a glimpse into the process of what molded the Christianity that we inherited; and my ultimate goal, to show what the Master was really like before the changing commenced.
In our alternate universe—without our modern communications—people would spread the story of MLK to those that they met. They would tell about this wonderful preacher, teacher and social activist, that they knew, or had heard about second or third-hand, whom had changed their world and the world of many others as well. When asked, they would recite a story, or one or two of his saying that they remember this teacher uttering and that made an impression on them. MLK’s sayings would be handed down from person to person as an oral tradition.
Fortunately (like Jesus) MLK was a great storyteller and could encapsulate short pithy observations or truisms (aphorisms) in memorable one-liners, so it would make our effort to create a ‘gospel’ easier than it might be with an average person of average skills and average vision. In our effort to compile this first story of MLK, we probably would find people reciting his remembered saying such as:
“Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.”
“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
“We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
“Let no man pull you so low as to hate him.”
And in his most famous speech delivered on the Mall in Washington DC on August 28, 1963 (now 54 years ago) he said:
“…and so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’
"I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood…
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
"I have a dream today!”
These stories and sayings all point to a man that had overcome hate with love, divine love, but there might also be recitations of stories that could cause some listeners—or the person compiling the gospel—to feel uncomfortable, to pause and take stock, to question. We might find that the compiler starts to pick and choose which stories to tell, and which stories he judged should be left out or ‘tweaked’ just a bit to comport with his own feelings or beliefs as to what should be passed on to others—or not passed on at all. He might include the quotes that he wants to be remembered and he might 'forget' those that are hard upon his ears. And, if we use his “I Have a Dream Speech,” for example to include in our imaginary Gospel of MLK, then which speech do we use? Did you know that he delivered several versions of that speech before it was memorialized in perpetuity on that day in Washington DC? If we were an oral society, as it was in Jesus’ lifetime, which version would the chronicler include in his Gospel? Jesus undoubtedly told the same stories over and over again. Which version is included in our Gospels?
“Truth” is already deforming with MLK. People are already deciding what should be remembered about the great man; what sayings should be preserved and presented to others for the future.
There is a statue that has been erected near the Washington Mall, adjacent to the Potomac River’s Tidal Basin depicting his likeness. On the statue, carved in stone, there are quotes chosen from his life similar to those I have chosen above. One of them, taken from a sermon at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church two months before he was killed, was considered so powerful that it was carved in stone on this statue. The short snippet of a longer speech that was quoted was, “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”
No one thought any the less of MLK from the fragmentary quote until the great poet, Maya Angelou, told the Washington Post that the shortened quote “makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit. He was anything but that. He was far too profound a man for that four-letter word to apply… It makes him seem an egotist.” The result was that the ‘offending’ quote was chiseled away and replaced with a decorative stripe. A saying that millions of people might have seen here on the statue and remembered for life, will never be seen. Someone has made the decision as to what will be remembered, just like they did with Jesus.
We will explore how this phenomenon of selective inclusion—and exclusion—might come about (in our example with this MLK gospel, but also in the New Testament Gospels that we have inherited) in the next
To be continued with Installment 4.
Architect, software CEO, 30-year student of the historical Jesus and early Christianity. Show host of AuthorTalk, interviewing religious and spiritual authors.
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