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.
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.)
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?
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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