Finding a home (provenance) for the Gospels

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by Neil Godfrey

Aachen Gospels
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What sort of society, social or church groups would have had an interest in producing the narratives we read today in the canonical gospels, and where and when do we find evidence of such peoples in the historical record?

If we do find such a group, would we not have a reasonable case that the gospels were first composed among them?

I list here a few areas where one might consider whether there is a reasonable match between the gospels and corresponding evidence external to the gospels.

Obviously the immediate objection some will raise is that such questions are overlooking the “fact” that the earliest external evidence has long since gone missing. Of course that is always a possibility to be kept in mind and I do not reject it. The point of this exercise is to see what happens when we do work with the evidence that is available. The next step would be to see if the results of this little experiment are more satisfactory than explanations that rely on the assumption of historicity at the heart of the Gospel narrative.

Apostolic authority

The gospel narratives, certainly those of Matthew, Luke and John, establish the authority of key apostolic names. Peter stands out as the most prominent, of course. The Johannine gospel does not place the same stress on the authority of the twelve as a group, but an unnamed apostle, generally thought to be John, is also singled out. The Gospel of Mark is considered by some scholars to be something of a polemic against the twelve, but even if we accept this view it does testify to the presence of an ideology of the twelve as an ecclesiastical authority.

Where do we find such an interest in the authority of the twelve apostles, and Peter in particular, as preachers of the gospel and witnesses to the life and teaching of Jesus? I would normally like to take time to go over as much of the evidence as I can before putting suggestions to a text document, so stand open to correction when I offer as a preliminary suggestion that we find the earliest expression of this interest in Justin Martyr around, say, 140 c.e. (There is a passage in Paul’s epistles referencing the twelve as witnesses to the resurrection, but nothing more is said of them, and they appear to have a function here comparable to Paul himself, to 500 brethren, Paul, etc. This does not support a special evangelistic authority as is implied in the Gospels.)

Justin expresses an interest in being able to trace the origins of the church itself to twelve apostles who went out from Jerusalem to preach the gospel everywhere after having an encounter with the resurrected Jesus. Although there is one passage where we find in Justin’s writings a mention of Jesus changing the names of Peter, James and John, it is not till we come to Irenaeus, a few decades later, that we read of a serious interest in tracing a church genealogy of named authorities back to the twelve.

Irenaeus also explicitly discusses the gospels themselves, but what is of interest in this context is that he also expresses a strong political interest in the function of the twelve as found in the narrative of those gospels: the question of authority being grounded in identifiable individuals or collective body. (Justin speaks of the Memoirs of the Apostles and these may be some early form of our canonical texts.)

The time of Justin and Irenaeus was also a time of genealogical wars among different Christianities. Claims to authority lay in the apostle or apostles one could claim as one’s founder.

But this is not the post to argue a case. I am raising the ideas for consideration here. (There is much more to be discussed in depth on this particular topic.)

Anti-Jewish sentiments

Not all scholars see the gospels as containing anti-semitic sentiments. One reason for this is the prominence given to Jerusalem, the law and the Jewish scriptures in some gospels, particularly Matthew and Luke. One can also argue, however, that what those gospels were doing was appropriating Jewish traditions for their own identity and authority needs, while at the same time dispossessing the Jews of them.

We find again the same interest in Justin Martyr. He argues with his literary Jewish friend Trypho that Jews simply do not understand what were their own scriptures, and that they are only comprehended spiritually by Christians.

We find similar biases in the Epistle of Barnabas and the Epistle to the Hebrews and, of course, in Paul’s writings. So generically this point covers a wide range of decades.

But there is another aspect to the gospel narrative here, and that is in the representation of the Pharisees as severe literalists who tend to miss the spiritual point of their own law. This is an unrealistic portrait of that Jewish sect at almost any time one might consider. But evidence for some hostility between Jewish rabbis and Christian ideas does emerge after the collapse of the Temple and with the emergence of rabbinic Judaism.


One reason Doherty dates the gospel of Mark about two decades later than most scholars do (the year 90 as opposed to 70) is because it is by the 90s that we find the earliest tangible evidence for persecutions of Christians.

The gospels do address audiences for whom the question of persecution was immediately relevant.

There is even stronger evidence for Jewish-Christian hostility and persecution in the decades following, particularly in the Bar-Kochba rebellion of the early 130s.

Jesus was living flesh before and after death

Debates about the nature of Jesus were hot topics in the second century. When these began exactly, however, I would need to do a refresher to be sure. I don’t want to use the traditional dating of the Johannine letters if they are dependent upon the dating of the gospel of John — since it is the gospel of John this post is interested in dating by external contextual evidence.

This question might be related in part to the Son of Man and eschatological questions, too. When and where do we find extra-gospel evidence for these in a form that is consistent with the gospels’ interests.

Jesus is the authority

This one is going to seem the curliest of the lot for some readers. But the gospels are interested in presenting Jesus himself as a personal authority figure. Where do we first see this interest in the external evidence? There is a lot of documentation for respect for the scriptures and God himself, or even the Spirit, as an authority, but at what point in the evidence is there an interest in Jesus being first presented as an authority figure?

How does the authority image of Jesus in the gospels compare with the authority image of Jesus in other writings or other gospels? How might any differences be explained?

Jesus’ teachings

Where do we find the earliest evidence of interest in — and the first direct appeal to — some of the teachings of Jesus: e.g. authority of Caesar, attitude to other Christian sects . . . . ?


One finds the debate about the existence of Nazareth as a settled village in the early first century as visceral and hostile among “orthodox believers” as we find in their attacks on the Christ-myth idea itself. There is no doubt about Nazareth’s existence post 70 ce, however.

There is also the question of synagogues in Galilee pre-70 ce. And the presence of Pharisees in significant numbers in Galilee at the same time. We do know they moved into Galilee in numbers after the destruction of the temple in 70 ce.

Again, the point of this post is not to discuss the details, but to raise the questions that need addressing.


No doubt there are others I have overlooked at the moment. Several came to mind on my way to work this morning, and I am at the end of a long day now and those first thoughts are no longer clear to me.

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17 thoughts on “Finding a home (provenance) for the Gospels”

  1. But there is another aspect to the gospel narrative here, and that is in the representation of the Pharisees as severe literalists who tend to miss the spiritual point of their own law. This is an unrealistic portrait of that Jewish sect at almost any time one might consider.

    Polemics are usually exaggerated. But I don’t think it’s unrealistic necessarily, more a matter of perspective. After the war with Rome, the Sadduccees and the priestly class are gone, or disgraced, the Essenes are likely dispersed, wiped out. The Pharisees in the diaspora have already begun the long argument about the law that ends up being expressed in the Rabbinic literature. This is the Oral Torah, and it is a kind of reinvention of the formerly priestly law for everyone, a Torah-centric universalist Jewish piety. How would a proto-Christian, with an entirely different kind of universalist Jewish piety, respond to that? By belittling the arguments about how to apply the law to everyday life in the diaspora without a temple to even nod in the direction of. I am convinced that this ideological conflict is at the root of the controversy passages featuring Pharisees. They “miss the spiritual point” from a Christian perspective, because it’s all about looking back at the Temple-centric Law and how to apply it in a world without priests or Temple, while nascent Christianity looks forward. Think of the parting of the veil: God is loose in the world, to be found anywhere Christians gather in the Spirit guided by Christ, the logos, Wisdom. No wonder they perceived the endless Pharisaical (rabbinical) arguments about the Law to be hopelessly beside the point.

    But evidence for some hostility between Jewish rabbis and Christian ideas does emerge after the collapse of the Temple and with the emergence of rabbinic Judaism.

    Right. The problem was access to “redemptive media” (the Torah) and the social institution of the synagogue. The gospels are a newly invented redemptive media, a response by proto-Christians to having been excluded from the argument, a repossession and reinvention of the Jewish scripture aimed at a forward-looking, gentile-inclusive universalism.

    Finally, I see no reason to follow Doherty in insisting that texts that reflect an atmosphere of persecution must arise in a context known from external historical evidence to have featured persecutions. The historical record is to coarsely grained in this era to confidently say we know of all the circumstances under which Christians were persecuted. The persecutions behind the passages in Mark may well be the exclusion of Christians from the Pharisee-dominated 1st century synagogue.

    1. We’re on the same page regarding the Christian view of the Pharisees post 70 ce. (That’s a simplistic way to express it — there is evidence the lines were not always clear-cut between them.)

      As for Mark’s persecutions, the idea of taking up the cross and being forced to testify before rulers and the need to hold fast in such circumstances suggests to me something more than excommunication. But I’m interested in first seeing how much can be explained with reference to external evidence first and foremost. By defaulting to other possibilities requires an interpretation of the gospel that presumes the narrative is grounded in history. That has yet to be demonstrated, or be shown to be a superior explanation to one that relies on the external references, I think.

  2. The Myth of the Ascension

    In the earliest layer of the resurrection story (the Philippian Hymn, the speeches of Peter and Stephen preserved in Acts, etc.) Jesus is executed, resurrected, then immediately exalted to the right hand of God. It’s only later that one or more groups in power see the need to create a terrestrial sojourn between the resurrection and the ascension.

    One cannot read Paul carefully and conclude that he ever envisioned a battered, bruised, and pierced Jesus walking around Jerusalem (or Galilee — take your pick), walking, eating, and fishing.

    However, at some point in the evolution of Christianity it became necessary to end the era of personal revelation and characterize all earlier visions of the risen Christ as categorically different — not only different but irreproducible. It became an article of faith that the disciples who first saw Jesus didn’t see some sort of apparition. No, they saw a corporeal Jesus with all the wounds of the Passion still raw and open.

    Further evidence of the late creation of the myth of Ascension (as distinguished from the original story of the direct raising of the dead and exaltation to the right hand of God) is the fact that it’s missing from Mark, Matthew, and John. True, Jesus alludes to the ascension in John (“Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father”), but the Ascension itself is not described.

    It seems probable to me that Mark presumed that Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation had occurred on Easter morning. The young man at the tomb urged the women to tell the disciples to return to go back to Galilee to await the imminent parousia. If this analysis is correct, then Mark is very early, while Matthew and Luke are probably much, much later than is normally supposed.

  3. Exorcism and Healing

    In the early days of the Jesus movement, i.e. with itinerant preachers proclaiming Christ, these charismatic vagabonds would heal the sick and drive out evil spirits using the magic name of Jesus. At some point certain leaders in the movement found it useful to tell stories that made Jesus himself the Great Physician and Chief Exorcist.

    Most likely the evolutionary process started with Christian leaders who used apostolic succession as a basis for their authority. In the first layer, they told stories about an earthly Jesus handing them the power to bind demons, raise the dead, etc. In the next layer, they developed stories in which Jesus himself did these things.

  4. Neil wrote: “But there is another aspect to the gospel narrative here, and that is in the representation of the Pharisees as severe literalists who tend to miss the spiritual point of their own law. This is an unrealistic portrait of that Jewish sect at almost any time one might consider.”

    What about the Dead Sea Scrolls? The Nahum Pesher (and other Scrolls) appears to characterize Pharisees as Seekers of Smooth Things, an obvious pun on halakah. It also appears to refer to Alexander Jannaeus, “the furious young lion [who executes revenge] on those who seek smooth things and hangs men alive…” (cf. Jewish War 1.97: “[H]e had ordered eight hundred [of his Jewish enemies] to be hung upon crosses…”).

    Eisenman points out that the Pharisees were in general supportive of foreign rulers, a pattern repeated again and again in works like the Maccabee books, Josephus, probably the DSS, and even rabbinic literature.

    And look at the attitude and actions of Josephus and Paul, both of whom claimed to have been Pharisees and supported Roman rule. And Rabbi ben Zakkai, the founder of post-70 rabbinic Judaism, also supported Vespasian in the Abot de Rabbi Nathan, and the Pharisees Pollio and Sameas supported Herod (Ant. 15.3). The Mishnah shows how they supported Agrippa, who cried upon reading the law of kings in Deuteronomy because, as a Herodian, he worried he was not Jewish enough and therefore violated the law to not have a king who was not your brother (“You are our brother, you are our brother, you are our brother!” (M. Sota 7:8).

    The point is that these “Seekers of Smooth Things” are likely the Pharisees and their fellow travelers and were enemies of the DSS group, who opposed all foreign rule.

    While the gospels may be critical of post-70 Pharisaic/Rabbinical Judaism, the Scrolls appear to be critical of pre-70 Pharisees. Eisenman refers to the DSS group and their fellow travelers as Messianic Sadducees, which is why so many coins from the reign of Alexander Janneaus were found at Qumran, and why they thought so highly of him (if not crucifixion).

    1. Submitted on 2011/04/01 at 3:10 am | In reply to John.

      The seekers of smooth things were the prophets and the Herodian monarchs associated with them. They welcomed the help of the Romans in opposing the priests who were either kicked out of the temple, or self-exiled from the temple. The writers of the DSS thought that the prophets (the seekers of smooth things) despised the Law, which is why 4QMMT was written to a king.

      Josephus was a prophet. He never practiced as a priest. He was descended from Hasmoneans who were hated by the writers of the DSS.

      You should know that Pharisees did not exist when the DSS were written. They were very obviously retrospectively interpolated into the writings attributed to Josephus, and for that matter the NT.

      Submitted on 2011/04/01 at 3:26 am

      Certainly the Pharisees were interpolated into the writings attributed to Josephus. That was probably at the same time as the Gospels were being created, and by the same Flavian editors.

      1. While I can only cite Josephus, I suspect that the Pharisees existed when Josephus says that they did, because the first time he mentions them is during the time of Alexander Jannaeus and Salome Alexandra (War 1.110), both of whom are referred to in the DSS (the Priestly Courses and Nahum Pesher). The Nahum Pesher appears to refer to Alexander’s crucifixion of his Jewish enemies, something also mentioned in War 1.97. Josephus (in most cases) and rabbinical literature (e.g., ARN 4.5) portray Pharisees as more tolerant of foreign rulers, and Alexander’s enemies were Jews who were more inclined to accept the Seleucids (War 1.96). It is also too coincidental that the DSS refer to Alexander’s enemies as Seekers of Smooth Things (halaqot), which could be a wordplay on rabbinic legal rulings (halakhot).

        1. And though the origin of the Pharisees is admittedly a difficult subject, I overlooked a passage in Josephus’ Antiquities that clearly shows that Alexander’s enemies, called Seekers of Smooth Things in the DSS, were Pharisees: “[T]he Pharisees … desired that she [Queen Alexandra] would kill those who persuaded Alexander to slay the eight hundred men [that he had crucified]” (Ant. 13.410).

    1. Well, we’re all “rebels” here, aren’t we? 😉 Eisenman suggests for the same reason the DSS don’t name names when refering to “current” events (like James and Paul), but only when referring to people that were safely in the past to them, like Salome Alexandra, the Selucid King Demetrius or Aemelius Scaurus.

  5. Baptism

    James D. G. Dunn in The Theology of Paul the Apostle points out that “Paul deliberately deemphasizes baptism.” He reminds us that “Paul even expresses his gratitude that he baptized so few.”

    I think what we’re seeing here is not the waning of baptism’s popularity, but its early intrusion into Christianity, probably borrowed from the John-the-Baptist movement whose adherents were now joining the Jesus movement.

    In the beginning, baptism was probably seen as harmless, then a positive good, and finally a full-fledged requirement. By the time the gospels are written, Christianity has embraced baptism the chief initiation ritual. The gospels, then, imply a state of affairs in which an established church already has well-ordered rituals, presumably with elders or other acting officials to make sure thing are done according to Hoyle. I’m thinking post-Bar-Kochba, like 150 CE.

    To seal the deal, J-the-B is pulled into the Jesus story as the forerunner, and when Christ delivers the Great Commission he commands his disciples to baptize new followers.

    I still think it’s odd that Jesus himself never baptizes anyone. What does this mean?

    1. Baptism and (as per your next comment) the Eucharist — I see these as framing the Gospel of Mark in particular: Baptism opens the first half of the gospel and the second half is structured around the meaning of the eucharist. Your points about the maturity of the gospel portrayal of these is surely very significant.

      As for the meaning of Christ not baptizing anyone, I’m only guessing here of course, but maybe there’s something to the idea of converts being baptised “into Christ” or “in the name of Christ”. Like the eucharist, the baptism is (at least by the gospel times) a ritualistic acting out of the Christ event. If Paul’s Christ is a more primitive view, then the Christ idea might be seen as originating as an exclusively descent-death-resurrection/return event, which the rituals of baptism and eucharist encapsulate. By the time of the gospels the narrative of a life — for purposes of pre-empting the authority claimed by others with a heavenly revealer? — has been fleshed out and the originating myth/ritual has found a new “historical” origin.

  6. Agape Meal to Communion

    Count me as one of the doubters as to the authenticity of 1 Cor. 11:23-26. It shows an evolution in theology that’s more developed and refined than what we find even in the gospels. It seems clear from the evidence in the Didache that what we have is ritual in search of meaning. For the authors of the Didache, the bread referred to the grain that was scattered over the hills while the wine represented the holy vine of David that brought forth God’s son.

    If John’s community kept the Eucharist, they don’t seem to have had the need to create a Jesus story to add meaning to the ritual.

    And if you’ve ever read Metzger’s A Textual Commentary on the New Testament, you know what a hopeless jumble Luke’s account of the “Lord’s Supper” is.

    Clearly, though, Matthew’s account indicates an extremely late date. By the time the author committed the Last Supper story to papyrus, the ritual had been retrojected to a time just before the crucifixion, with Jesus “explaining” what it means. The idea of the shedding of blood for the redemption of sin shows that they’ve moved well beyond the phase wherein Jesus’ resurrection was simply a victory over death and “the first fruits of the resurrection.” Now it plays a part in early Christianity’s soteriology.

    The ritual drinking of blood to remember the atonement by blood sacrifice also implies a non-Jewish, non-Judean community — far removed in time and space from Jerusalem or even Galilee.

    1. 1 Cor.11.22-28 is an interpolation.

      11.21 is: for as you [eat] {pray}, each of you goes ahead without waiting for [anybody else] {the Spirit}. One remains [hungry] {standing}, another gets [drunk] {up}.

      11.29 is: For anyone who [eats and drinks] {prays} without [recognising] {waiting for} the [body] {Spirit} of the Lord [eats and drinks] {brings} judgement on himself.

      The original passage was about waiting for the Spirit in an orderly way to pray.

      Submitted on 2011/04/01 at 6:28 am

      Jesus was not in the picture.

      Submitted on 2011/04/01 at 6:56 am


      Now I want you to realise that the Lord of every man is the Spirit, and the Lord of every woman is the Spirit. Every man who prays or prophesies with in the Spirit honours his Lord. And every woman who prays or prophesies in the Spirit honours her Lord. In the Spirit, woman is independent of man , and man is independent of woman. All Spirits come from God. When you come together, it is not in the Spirit you pray, for as you pray, each of you goes ahead without waiting for the Spirit. One remains standing, another gets up. For anyone who prays without waiting for the Spirit of the Lord brings judgement on himself. That is why many among you are powerless and impure, and a number of you have stumbled. But if we waited the Spirit, we would not come under judgment. When we are waiting for the Spirit, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned. So then, my brothers, when you come together to pray, wait for the spirit.

      Submitted on 2011/04/01 at 7:09 am | In reply to Geoff Hudson.

      Jesus has been superimposed on an older prophetic text.

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