The Gospels Not the Best Place to Look for the Origins of Christianity

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by Neil Godfrey

Finally, it is worth pointing out that the NT as we have it, and especially the gospels, is entirely dependent on that branch of Jesus’ disciples, gathered around Peter (and Paul), which is centered on the kerygma of the resurrection. Acts has preserved a few traces of other groups: Apollos and the disciples at Ephesus, who know only the baptism of John, represent at least one other current, which must have lived on with its own teaching; a similar observation could be made on the subject of James, to whom even Peter gives an account of himself. Little is known about the Jewish-Christians, but their biography of Jesus (the “Gospel of the Hebrews”), which was apparently not published, would have presented a rather different picture from the one we know, even if the facts related were more or less the same. Traces there certainly are in the NT, but they have been almost obliterated by a final redaction which has a different orientation. Similar traces are to be found also in the Eastern Churches, which regard themselves as the heirs of Jude, Thomas, etc., although nothing in the NT would lead us to suspect that. . . . .

. . . .

From what has been seen in the previous section, it is clear that the gospels are not the best place to look for the origins of Christianity, that is to say, for what happened immediately after Jesus left the scene.

Nodet, Étienne, and Justin Taylor. 1998. The Origins of Christianity: An Exploration. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press. (pp. 38, 39)

Nodet and Taylor cite two reasons for that conclusion: 1, the long delay from the time of Jesus until the “publishing” of the gospels; 2, “the almost total silence regarding rites.”

Now the NT, by and large, gives no information about how to perform any rites, despite numerous allusions to them. Even more: in the gospels Jesus institutes nothing.115 In other words, many things to be observed remained unpublished. (p. 39)

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9 thoughts on “The Gospels Not the Best Place to Look for the Origins of Christianity”

  1. But was there a “long delay from the time of Jesus until the “publishing” of the gospels”? The evidence for this is only found in the very documents Nodet and Taylor dismiss (correctly) as unreliable.

  2. My actual area of interest is to find the origins too rather than to focus too much on the inheritors of Christianity.

    So far my searches have brought me to a different time in the same region – Judaea. There seems to have been a precedent for an imminent Christ sometime between 190 to 150 BCE and between about 50 BCE to 25 BCE he was born but was gone possibly as early as 10 AD to about as late as 20 AD.

    A collection of oral traditions developed which took around 30 years to saturate society which is when the NT started to be written down. About 50 AD plus starting first with the sermons/letters of Paul. When they “remembered” the story of Christ they did so by inserting the traditions in historically significant places surrounding the temple destruction and the wars. This effectively resulted in a shift of about 10 to 25 years forward for the later traditions found in the Bible and a shift of about 30 to 35 years of the earlier traditions. The main story between the entering of Jerusalem to the crucifixion could well be somewhat correct sequentially but its culminating as a post-Herodian marker might not be the actual starting point.

    The evangelists might have been using the story of the failure of the Jewish nation in accepting Christ as the reason for the loss of Jewish control in the region and they introduced the successors – Romans. They tried to align these events to make them more as a cause and effect scenario – perhaps.

    If I’m right this means if we want to find the historical Jesus – we need to look about 20 years earlier.

    Disclaimer: This is highly speculative and is currently at the hypothesis stage from an academic point of view.

  3. This is by and large what my new book focuses on. I’m addressing the origins with a focus on the role of prophets and prophecy. The break it down into pre-Gospel origins of Jesus worship, the development of the Gospels and then the post-Gospel adoption and development of Christianity, which I see as all three distinct stages of development.

    1. r.g.price,

      • Have you assigned a genre to Gospel According to Mark, such as “Apocalyptic Drama”?

      Cf. Godfrey, Neil (27 July 2018). “The First Gospel: History or Apocalyptic Drama?”. Vridar.

      • Are the following characters common tropes. or uncommon?

      Per Characters Appearing or Mentioned in Mark by Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D., catholic-resources.org:
      · Satan (1:13; 3:23, 26; 4:15; 8:33)
      · unclean spirits (1:21-28; 3:11; 5:2; 6:7; etc.)
      · demons & demoniacs (1:32-34, 39; 3:15; 6:13; :26; etc.)
      · Beelzebul, the “prince of demons” (3:20-30)
      · “Legion” – inhabiting the Gerasene demoniac (5:1-20)

  4. This is a good article. But I’d like to add this: the best and most logical place to look for the origins of something, is not 1) in what happens after it; 2) or in itself. 3) But what came just BEFORE it.

    This means that the origins of Christianity, could be found not only in the Old Testament, but especially in events from c. 170 BCE – 20 ACE.

    1. Yeah, that’s exactly what my next book looks at. A lot of people have looked at the Dead Sea scrolls as well, but the problem is that so many of the people doing this type of research are Christians looking for things that fit their assumptions, and even if they aren’t Christians they still have many of the same assumptions.

      Earl Doherty laid out a very solid road map with a lot of good analysis of the pre-Gospel epistles, which are, really the most logical place to start, be he was “crucified” over it by the establishment :p

      Right now I’d say my best estimate is that the Jesus group was a splinter group from the Qumran group and developed from prophetic interpretations about Joshua in the style of Qumranic prophetic exegesis.

      There were actually multiple groups in the 1st century claiming that Joshua was going to return imminently to bring an end to the millennium. Joshua and Jesus of course are different translations of the same Hebrew name “Yeshua”.

      So it appears to me that some Jews in the style that we find in the Qumranic writings, had derived prophetic interpretations about “Yeshua” that described him as an eternal heavenly being, who was going to bring about the end of the millennium through the defeat of Belial. A similar such description of Melchizedek is provided in the Qumranic scrolls. The patriarchs of Israel were being re-interpreted as eternal divine beings by various 2nd temple groups, and it seems to me that “Jesus” is just such a reinterpretation of “Yeshua”, who was said in the OT to have confronted Belial.

      There are certainly some differences between what Paul preached and the views of Qumran, but there are more similarities than differences. The biggest difference is that the Qumran group believed that the “Kingdom of God” was going to be established on earth, and that the Messiah was going to lead an army of Jews to defeat against the Gentiles, win which everyone on earth besides the elect would be slaughtered and then a ruler in the live of David would reign eternally. This would happen at the end of the millennium, when the Messiah would be revealed (actually 2 Messiahs, a priestly and a military messiah) and would call down the armies of heaven to aid the Jews in their slaughter of the world. This is all detailed in the War Scroll from Qumran.

      But Paul preached that the “Kingdom of Heaven” would be in heaven itself, not on earth. But other than that, there are few differences between Paul’s message and what we find at Qumran. And both Paul and the Qumran scrolls focus interpretation of on many of the same scriptures as well.

      So, this to me is why I think the Jesus group was some kind of off-shoot of the Qumran group. The Qumran group did praise someone they called the Teacher of Righteousness, who appears to have been a real person, but Paul doesn’t talk about Jesus the way they talked about the Teacher of Righteousness, though the way Jesus is described in the Gospels is a little closer to the Teacher of Righteousness. The Jesus of Paul sounds more like Melchizedek or Enoch.

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