Part 3: Why does Paul write so few details
about Jesus' life. The need for the Gospels.
Gospel writers' info. on Jesus.
Non-biblical records of
Rationalizations for why Paul mentions so few biographical details about Jesus (Cont'd):
And why did Mark have to mine the Old Testament for details to construct his Gospel’s story of Jesus (see below), if his life was so well known through oral traditions? Why also did Matthew and Luke have to copy Mark’s material (in terms of order, themes and content: over 90% for Matthew and 60% for Luke, and both copy Mark word for word for over half of their Gospels)? Each synoptic Gospel therefore is not an independent witness to the life of Jesus on earth. John’s Gospel, used the synoptic Gospels as sources, but freely adapted them to promote his own interpretation of an historical Jesus (e.g. in John there is no birth account or baptism of Jesus, most of his miracles are different, there is no transfiguration, no Eucharist at the last supper, and he places the crucifixion of Jesus on Thursday, not Friday). John’s theology is much more sophisticated too – his Jesus is the pre-existent cosmic Logos (Word) made flesh, the giver of spiritual gifts and “I am” wisdom sayings. In reality, there was no uniform oral tradition or memoires of an historical Jesus for the gospel writers to draw on, including those of the early congregations to whom Paul preached.
Whether preaching the good news of salvation through faith in Jesus to people for the first time, or stamping out heresies and divisions among early believers, it would have been remarkable that Paul did not draw on the oral sayings and teachings of an historical Jesus (as found later in the Gospels) to bolster his arguments – remarkable, unless of course most of the words and events of Jesus’ life were unheard of. For example, how could Paul write about Christian behavior (e.g. Romans, chapters 13 &14) and not once use the life or parables of Jesus to make his points? How could he argue that converts did not have to follow Jewish dietary laws, but not quote Jesus’ own words that they were no longer valid (Mark 7:15) to cement his point? Likewise, other epistle writers (e.g. Ephesians 3; Colossians 1: 23-28; Hebrews 9) do not appeal to the teachings and authority of an historical Jesus when writing about the mysteries and love of Christ.
Despite apologists’ attempts to prove Jesus was real person, the evidence is that we have virtually no information about an historical Jesus prior to the writing of the Gospels near the end of the first century. It appears that the first knowledge about Christianity began with visions that a select group of apostles had about a supernatural Christ, not an historical Jesus.
The need for the Gospels and a new orthodoxy:
The Gospel writers saw the advantage that a concrete historical Jesus would be for their times. Believers could relate to him better than the ephemeral, spiritual Christ of the Epistles known only through revelations to the first apostles. It was more efficacious for the promulgation of the faith to write a history of a Jesus who must have lived on earth. His life and teachings now could provide a model that Christians could try to emulate.
The Gospel authors also felt compelled to deal with the growth of competing Christian theologies emerging in the late first century. By this time, conflicting religious visions were giving rise to competing dogmas and uncontrollable nascent sects such as Docetism and Gnosticism. Even Paul in his day had to rail against what he considered heretical preaching (e.g. 2 Corinthians 11:3-6; 12-15; Romans 16:17-18). A tangible, human Jesus of the Gospels, a Messiah based on the heroes and prophecies of the Old Testament would be more credible and advantageous for upholding uniformity of belief and stamping out heresies. This new written history of an earthly god-man resurrected from the dead, whose ministry was witnessed by twelve disciples who attested to the “truth”, would become the new orthodoxy of the one catholic and apostolic Church. As shown by the growth of the Church, this faith was easier to control and found more resonance with commoners than the vaguer gospel of the other-worldly, spiritual Christ based on variant apostolic revelations or the often conflicting ecstatic personal visions of believers.
Where did the Gospel writers get their information about Jesus?
What biblical scholars have discovered is that most of the details of Jesus’ life as recounted in the Gospels are “according to the Scriptures”, “their testimonies point to me” (John 5:39). In other words, believing that he was the Messiah, God’s chosen agent (or “Christ” in the Greek language), the Gospel writers searched the Old Testament and other sacred writings to discover what the life and actions of an historical Jesus should be like (e.g. Isaiah chapters 52 & 53; Daniel 9; Wisdom of Solomon 2 & 5). This explanation makes more sense than fundamentalists’ claim that the details of Jesus’ life were ancient prophecies come true. These ideas/prophecies usually were general enough that they could be applied to any holy man or any circumstance in the future, or taken out of context so they could be reinterpreted to suit the needs of the Gospel writers. Often these Scriptures were not prophesies at all as can be seen by how Psalm 22, a lament of an ancient Jew, was used as a template to describe Jesus’ crucifixion. (For problems associated with biblical prophecy, please see my article at: http://www.religioustolerance.org/symes05.htm ).
The Gospels often describe diverse portraits of Jesus to match their authors’ theological agendas. However, all of the Gospels differ significantly from Paul writings by their humanizing of the celestial Jesus and placing him in an earthly setting.
The biographies of Jesus appear to be fiction:
A careful examination of the Gospels’ biographies of Jesus shows that they are basically religious myths – stories that are historically improbable and factually suspect, but as allegory are designed to represent a deeper religious meaning. I have already shown that the Gospels’ sources of Jesus’ miracles were replications on a larger scale of those of holy men in the Old Testament (see my article on Miracles referenced above). There are dozens of other examples showing that the Old Testament was used as a source for inspiration and information to construct a fictional life of an “historical” Jesus to help promulgate the faith. For example:
The new Moses: The Gospel stories of Jesus’ transfiguration (i.e. revelation as God’s Son) in Mark, Matthew and Luke were built on comparing him to Moses, but on a much grander scale and confirming that Jesus is instituting a new and better covenant. Jesus like Moses climbs a mountain and both are under a glory cloud, and whereas Moses receives the en Commandments from God, those present with Jesus receive God’s new commandment that “this is my beloved Son; listen to him”. Just as Moses face shone because he had been talking to God, so did Jesus’ face, and Jesus’ garments became whiter than white. Both Moses and Elijah who were presumably transported directly into heaven during their times, now have miraculously returned to earth to appear on the mountain with Jesus. It should be remembered that Elijah was there because he was supposed to witness the coming of the Messiah (Malachi 4:5). After talking to Jesus, the two holy men magically disappear again. (Compare Mark 9:2-8, Matthew 17:1-8, Luke 9:28-36, with Exodus 24:15-16 and 34:29.)
The mythical revolt in the Temple: Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple in Jerusalem is another example of mining the Old Testament for details for the life of Jesus. Mark describes how Jesus entered the Temple grounds and threw out the money changers and disrupted the animal blood sacrifices by the priests as propitiations for sins (Mark 11:15-18). The Temple precinct was huge (about the size of 20 football fields) and very well policed, so it would have taken a large armed revolt rather than one man and his few followers to do as the Gospels describe. Writing some four decades after the supposed event, Mark was less concerned about historicity and more about making the theological point that the Temple’s sacrificial cult was being overturned and soon to be replaced with a new covenant established by the sacrificial blood of Christ Jesus. Mark’s sources were Malachi 3:1-3 about the Lord suddenly coming to his Temple to purify the sons of Levi (the Temple priests were Levites) and also Zechariah 14:21, Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11 who refer to no more traders in the house of the Lord, and that it should be a house of prayer rather than a den of thieves. Note also that the Gospels disagree whether the scourging in the Temple occurred at the end of Jesus’ career (as in the Synoptic Gospels) or at the beginning (as in John). Which Gospel account is true if this really happened.
The disappearing act: With respect to the ascension of Jesus to heaven after his resurrection and brief 40 day sojourn on earth as described in Acts 1:1-11, this event is not referenced in Paul’s authentic writings or any of the other early Epistles. The Epistles’ authors believed that Christ was crucified and buried in the lower heaven (firmament) and after his resurrection there was immediately exalted (ascended) to the highest heaven. The ascension to heaven from earth reference in Mark 16:19 is part of a forged addition to Mark (biblical scholars have determined that the original Mark ended at 16:8). The brief reference to the ascension in Luke 24:51 occurs on Easter evening, while in Acts it does not happen until 40 days later and in a different place! Luke’s Gospel verse is most likely a forged insertion because the phrase “and was carried up to heaven” does not appear in the earliest complete copy of Luke, in the Codex Bezae and the original Codex Sinaiticus which both state only that “Jesus parted from them”. The narrative in Acts is inspired by the Scriptures’ account of Elijah’s ascent into heaven (2 Kings 2:11). Moreover, neither original Mark, nor Matthew nor John mention the ascension miracle either. Do these contradictory accounts sound credible? Was the ascension really a made up afterthought in Luke/Acts to clean up loose ends?
If Jesus really was an historical person, why are there so few original details about him rather than just those dependent on the ancient Scriptures? And why are there contradictory accounts of many key events in his life? In light of the evidence, it would appear that the Jesus of the Gospels and Acts is more religious fiction than historical reality.
Where, outside the New Testament, are the records of the Jesus of history?
If Jesus was such a famous historical person, why then did no Jewish nor secular writer of the era take notice and comment on this god-man? After all, he supposedly drew great crowds throughout Galilee, the Ten Towns (Decapolis), Jerusalem, Judea, Transjordan and his fame even reached the whole of Syria (Matthew 4:23-25) because of his preaching and miracles (healing the sick, walking on water, raising the dead, etc.).
Moreover, according to the Gospels, Jesus was the cause of fantastic astronomical events at his birth (the moving star that led the wise men to him and the appearance of heavenly choirs of angels) and the remarkable darkness over the whole land from noon to 3 p.m. during his crucifixion; and most stupendous of all, Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the tomb and then graves opening, causing many of the once-dead to rise and walk zombie-like about Jerusalem (Matthew 27:50-53); and finally the bodily ascension of Jesus into the sky and thence to outer space. Why then did no one among the two dozen non-Christian historians and writers in the first eight decades of the first century even make a passing remark about this famous preacher, miracle worker and the extraordinary events surrounding his life?
Originally posted: 2014-NOV-12
Last updated 2014-NOV-12
Author: R.C. Symes