Most contemporary scholars agree that Jesus began his public ministry when he was about thirty years old; and they place the date of his death at Passover time around the year 30 CE. What did Jesus do before his public ministry? We don’t know. We can can only speculate. Some believe he was like a first century “blue collar” worker outside Nazareth. Some theorize that Jesus was a monk and spent years in study and prayer, before entering public ministerial life. Frankly, I have no pet theory. I am more interested in what Jesus said and did. He revealed Divinity and authentic Humanity. In his Spirit we find our life and security.

Some opening observations: If we turn our attention to the New Testament books, the earliest “scriptures” we have are the letters written by Paul and composed in the decade of the 50s CE. Today we know as well that not all letters attributed to Paul were authored by him. There is general scholarly agreement that Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon are genuinely Pauline.

Other letters bearing Paul’s name are disputed among scholars, namely Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus. Most contemporary biblical scholars agree that Hebrews was certainly not written by Paul. In fact, the emphasis on Melchizedek and priesthood in Hebrews seems really out of sync with Pauline theology.

When we look at the history and biblical testimony about the post-Resurrection apostolic community of Christians in Jerusalem, clearly the leader was James, the “brother of the Lord.” Peter played a role in the Council of Jerusalem, around 50 CE; but James was in charge and James issued the definitive judgment that converts to Christianity did not have to be circumcized. Then, according to the epistle to the Galatians, Peter went to Antioch.

There is a tradition that Peter and Paul went to Rome and were put to death at the hands of Nero probably between 64 and 68 CE. According to an old legend, Peter was crucified upside down. But that was a legend launched by Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea in the fourth century. Eusebius, however, was a notoriously unreliable historian. Already in the second and third centuries, stories about Peter were springing-up based on historical suppositions, legends, and much creative imagination by people like Irenaeus of Lyon (died 202 CE).

Contrary to what some think, neither Peter nor Paul brought Christianity to Rome. Before Peter and Paul would have arrived, there were already Christian elders and house churches in Rome; but there was no central administrator. No bishop. At some point Peter may have been one of these elders, but contemporary Catholic and Protestant historians would stress that Peter was never a bishop of Rome. One can say, only very symbolically, that Peter was “the first pope.”

As I mentioned last week, the average life expectancy in the days of Jesus was between 30 and 40. After the deaths of James, Peter, and Paul, as well as others who had known Jesus face-to-face, it became essential for the survival of the way of Jesus that his words and deeds be recollected and written down. This led to the birth of the four Gospels.

Today biblical scholars believe that Mark was the first Gospel to be written, sometime around the year 70 CE. The scholarly consensus holds that the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke were composed, independently of one another, sometime in the 80s or 90s. Both used a written form of the Gospel of Mark as source material for their own narratives. In addition, because both Matthew and Luke contain a large amount of material in common that is not found in Mark, most scholars hold that the authors of Matthew and Luke also drew from a collection of Jesus’ sayings that they incorporated into their works. This understanding of the origins of the “synoptic” Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke explains why they are similar yet different in details, descriptions, and focus. The Gospel of John, which dates from between 90 and 110 CE, emerges from an independent literary tradition that is not directly connected to the Synoptic tradition.

All four Gospels evolved from oral traditions, passed on from person to person and from place to place. More than one single person (i.e. Mark, Matthew, Luke, John) composed the final versions of the four Gospels as we have them today. Each time the narrators adapted their accounts to the needs, understanding, and cultural / religious backgrounds of their listeners.

The Gospels were not written therefore to give us strict “history.” They contain bits of history, parables, metaphor, symbol, re-interpreted passages from the Greek (Septuagint) Hebrew Scriptures, and imagined scenarios for key events in the life of Jesus. The Gospels were written to give the meaning of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, whom God raised from the dead. We see in Matthew and Luke, for instance, two quite different accounts about Jesus’ infancy. They present creative theological images rather than strict historical facts. Once again perspective is important….

The Gospels’ focus was not primarily to present an historical narrative, but to affirm and proclaim Christian theological belief about Jesus the Christ. In whom we find Divinity, Life, and Hope

Anchored in Christian faith, the authors of the Gospels – using a variety of literary forms — wanted to pass on to future generations their understanding and belief in and about Jesus Christ. As the scripture scholar John Dominic Crossan has often said: “My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.”

The Gospels inform, stimulate, and encourage us to grow in our own Christian faith.Thanks to the life, message, and witness of Jesus of Nazareth crucified and raised from the dead, we have faith, hope, and confidence to move forward today.

Living that faith is our contemporary Christian challenge….


8 thoughts on “Reflection for the Second Weekend in Lent: The Gospels – More Theological Reflections Than Biographies

  1. Thank you, Jack, for clarifying and re-emphasizing that the facts of Jesus are less important than the FACT of Jesus. His life and the model he gives us are the message. What a liberating way to think about how we are to live—not easier but, certainly, less complicated in the understanding. You have, again, given us much food for thought.

  2. I’m smiling as I remember the late Prof. Boudewijn Dehandschutter presenting, with a sly half-smile, a lecture entitled “Was St. Peter ever in Rome?”

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