“As for the story of Jesus, there were at least 50 gospels written in the first and second century CE… All of the original copies of the gospels were lost… What we have now are handwritten copies, which are an unknown number of replications removed from the originals.”
“We can now know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus, since the early Christian sources show no interest in either, are moreover fragmentary and often legendary; and other sources about Jesus do not exist.”
The earliest gospel included in Christian scripture was “Mark” appearing around 70 C.E. after the fall of Jerusalem. The last of the four canonicals, “John,” appeared about fifty years after “Mark”. The four gospels familiar today “Mark,” Matthew,” “Luke” and “John” (the gospels real authors are unknown so I refer to them in “quotation marks”) only became “official” in the fourth century and were selected from among more than fifty believed in existence at the time describing Jesus life and ministry. The rejected gospels were declared “heretical” and destroyed when found, their adherents similarly eliminated.
More than twenty years elapsed between Jesus’ assumed death and Paul’s first epistle. Another twenty years separate Paul’s first epistle, First Thessalonians, 52 CE and the earliest of the four canonicals, “Mark”. Which raises the question whether the gospels represent, were even intended as a “historical” record of Jesus’ life and mission assumed by most Christians today.
In 1998 PBS, America’s public radio network, ran a series of programs, From Jesus to Christ. One segment, What are the Gospels? hosted a panel of four experts, including Paula Frederiksen and John Dominick Crossan, both Catholic theologians and prolific writers. Paula Frederiksen provided a definition for “gospel”:
“The gospels are very peculiar types of literature. They''re not biographies. I mean, there are all sorts of details about Jesus that they''re simply not interested in giving us. They are a kind of religious advertisement. What they do is proclaim their individual author''s interpretation of the Christian message through the device of using Jesus of Nazareth as a spokesperson for the evangelist''s position.”
In other words the gospels are a literary form describing Jesus’ ministry in terms consistent with the community from which it emerged. It is not considered “historical” as an accurate depiction of the events of Jesus’ life and ministry. As Crossan describes,
“The gospels are, first of all, extremely reliable historical documents for their own time and place. Mark tells us very much about, say, a community writing in the 70''s. John, a community writing in the mid-90''s… Matthew, even when he has Mark in front of him, will change what Jesus says. And that''s what''s most important for me, to understand the mind of an evangelist. It is that Matthew is saying, "I will change Mark so that Mark''s Jesus speaks to my people." Now, there''s a logic to his change. He''s not just changing it to be difficult. He will change Mark, but what Jesus says in Mark does not make sense to Matthew''s people.... What is consistent about the gospels is that they change consistent with their own theology, with their own communities'' needs.” (emphasis added)
II. Gospel “inerrancy”
I discussed the problem of scriptural “inerrancy” in Chapter One. For a believing Christian such issues as time lapse and internal gospel disagreements present little obstacle to faith. The question of “inerrancy” is actually a fairly modern issue which only grew out of a theological debate of the eighteenth/nineteenth century: “only in the last two centuries can we legitimately speak of a formal doctrine of inerrancy,” was the conclusion of an article that appeared in the periodical Theology Today in 1975. And in 1978 the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy released its Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy the preamble of which begins:
“The authority of Scripture is a key issue for the Christian Church in this and every age. Those who profess faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior are called to show the reality of their discipleship by humbly and faithfully obeying God''s written Word. To stray from Scripture in faith or conduct is disloyalty to our Master. Recognition of the total truth and trustworthiness of Holy Scripture is essential to a full grasp and adequate confession of its authority.”
III. Anti-Judaism in the gospels
“The anti-Judaic tradition in Christianity grew as a negative and alienated expression of a need… to legitimate its [interpretation] of Jewish Scriptures... As long as “the Jews” continue to reject this interpretation, the validity of the Christian view is in question,” (Reuther, 1974, p. 94)
In her 1974 book, Faith and Fratricide, Rosemary Ruether describes antisemitism as “the left hand of Christology;” that Christian scripture is, whatever its inspiration, profoundly anti-Jewish. And while the “John” gospel introduces another issue that would prove fateful to Jews throughout history, the single most damning charge appearing in scripture is Jews as Christ-killers. First introduced in Paul’s 1 Thessalonians 2:14-15, the theme was picked up and developed by each of the four canonical gospels. Rather than combing the gospels for all and varied anti-Jewish expressions I will limit my discussion to the deicide charge and its development within and between the gospels. I will show that from earliest, “Mark,” to last, “John,” the deicide charge grows increasingly damning of “the Jews” while increasingly protective of Rome. Of the four “Matthew” provides perhaps the most literary and dramatic in its description of the trial and death of Jesus. “Matthew” also has the distinction of introducing another literary flourish that inspired generations of theologians from Augustine to Luther and to the present: “the Jews” not only demand’ Jesus’ be crucified, but demanded also that they and all Jews forever be responsible for his death: “His blood be upon us and our children.”
What is described above is the scriptural basis for anti-Judaism/antisemitism: “the Jews” killed Jesus; end of story. Less obvious and all but invisible to the community of faith is that Jewish survival itself provides the reason, the energy driving the Jewish Problem. As early as the second century Christianity declared itself as replacing Judaism. Had not “the Jews” first rejected then murdered Jesus? Had not Christianity not taken Judaism place in God’s eyes? Was not Christianity the New Israel?
“The Jews represent that which Christianity must repress in itself, namely the recognition of history and Christian existence as unredeemed…there is no possibility of talking about the Messiah having already come, much less having come two thousand years ago, with all the evil history that has reigned from that time to this (much of it having been done in Christ’s name!)… For Israel, the coming of the Messiah and the coming of the Messianic Age are inseparable. They are, in fact, one and the same thing,” (Reuther, 1974, p. 245, 247)
Yet “the Jews” not only did not disappear according to expectation but survived both as people and religion! It is Jewish survival itself that strikes at the heart of Christian claims:
"[The] very presence of the Jewish people in the world, continuing to believe in the faithfulness of God to the original covenant ... puts a great question against Christian belief in a new covenant made through Christ. The presence of this question, often buried deep in the Christian mind, could not fail to cause profound and gnawing anxiety.” (Nicholls, 1999)
For Christianity Jewish survival throws into question the very foundation of that religion’s most basic claims. And if Jewish survival challenges Christianity claims to having replaced Judaism what else by way of its claims is thrown into doubt?