Most contemporary scholars agree that Jesus (Yeshua in Hebrew) 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. We know Jesus lived in Nazareth and had brothers and sisters. His mother’s name was Miriam (Mary) and traditionally his father’s name was Joseph. But Joseph, the husband of Mary, is never mentioned by Paul or by Mark the earliest gospel. He is never quoted. He is only mentioned by name in the Nativity of Jesus narratives in Matthew and Luke, and only mentioned in passing in John 1:45 and 6:42 where Jesus is called the “ son of Joseph.”
Some scholars believe that Jesus, like his father, was a first century craftsman. The Greek word so often translated as “carpenter” is tekton, and is more accurately rendered as a craftsman or handyman working with wood and stone. Other scholars theorize that Jesus was a monk and spent years in study and prayer, before entering his public ministerial life. Frankly, I have no pet theory. I am more interested in what Jesus said and did, as reflected in New Testament literature.
If we turn our attention to the New Testament books, the earliest “scriptures” we have are the letters written by Paul the Apostle (c. 5 – c. 64/65 CE) composed in the decade of the 50s CE. Paul’s Hebrew name was “Saul” perhaps after the biblical King Saul, the first king of Israel and like Paul a member of the Tribe of Benjamin. The Latin name Paulus “Paul,” meaning small, was not a result of his Christian conversion, as it is commonly believed, but was a second name for use in communicating with a Greco-Roman audience.
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 out of sync with Pauline theology. (Pope John Paul II, by the way, was very fond of Hebrews.)
And Peter? When we look at the history and biblical testimony about the apostolic community of Christians in Jerusalem, clearly the leader was James, the “brother of the Lord.” Peter played a role at the Council of Jerusalem (c.50 CE). But James was in charge and James issued the definitive judgment that converts to Christianity did not have to be circumcised. Then, according to the Epistle to the Galatians, Peter went to Antioch. There he tangled with Paul, who rebuked him for treating Gentile converts as inferior to Hebraic Christians.
There is a later 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. Other folklore fills out the details of Peter’s life and death in Rome: his struggles with the magician Simon Magus, his miracles, his attempted escape from persecution in Rome, and a flight from which he was turned back by a vision of Christ, the “Quo Vadis” legend. Well, history is based on actual events. Legends may or may not be.
By the second and third centuries, however, we see stories about Peter springing from historical suppositions, legends, and much creative imagination by people like Irenaeus of Lyons (died 202 CE) the influential early bishop in the south of France.
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. We really do not know for certain.
Most contemporary Catholic and Protestant historians, however, would stress that Peter was NEVER a bishop of Rome. The Roman Catholic theologian priests Raymond Brown and John P. Meier were quite emphatic about this in their book Antioch and Rome: New Testament Cradles of Christianity, (Paulist Press 1983): “There is no serious proof that he (Peter) was the bishop, or local ecclesiastical officer, of the Roman church: a claim not made till the third century. Most likely he did not spend any major time at Rome before 58 CE when Paul wrote to the Romans; and so it may have been only in the 60s and relatively shortly before his martyrdom that Peter came to the capital.”
But then what about Peter as “the first pope”? Thanks to Constantine (272 – 337 CE) and the influence of his relics-collecting mother Helena (246/248 – c. 330 CE). In her final years, Helena made a religious tour of the Palestine region and Jerusalem, during which she discovered what her tour guide said was “the True Cross.” Thanks to her as well, legends about Peter were held in high regard in third and fourth century Rome.
The first great acclamation of “Peter as a pope,” however, came from Pope Leo I, also known as Saint Leo the Great. Leo was pope from 440 CE until his death in 461 CE. Leo greatly contributed to the development of the doctrine of a papal Petrine succession, based on his personal religious imagination and pious devotion to St. Peter. Interestingly, Pope Benedict XVI said that Leo’s papacy “was undoubtedly one of the most important in the Church’s history.” Like minds?
Today, perhaps, one can understand the popes as successors of Peter in faith, witness, and ministry. It is only with a bit of creative historical imagination, however, that one can really call Peter “the first pope.” Sometimes we need to adjust old understandings based on updated historical research and information.
Four Gospels: 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.
The clear majority of contemporary biblical scholars believe that Mark was the first Gospel to be written, sometime around the year 70 CE. This 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. These sayings of Jesus, known as “Q” were most likely assembled in the 40s or 50s. (The “Q” comes from the first letter of “Quelle” the German word for “source”.) 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 emerges from an independent literary tradition that is not directly connected to the Synoptic tradition. This accounts for the major differences between John and the Synoptics. The Gospel of John reached its final form around 90 –110 CE.
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 and religious backgrounds of their listeners. The Gospels were not written therefore to give us strict “history.” They are about faith and living in the Spirit of Christ.
The Gospels 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. We see for instance, in Matthew and Luke, two quite different accounts about Jesus’ infancy. Their focus was not primarily to present an historical narrative, but to affirm and proclaim their theological belief about Jesus the Christ.
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. Their words inform, stimulate, and encourage us to grow in our own Christian faith.
During Lent 2023, I would like to share my own reflections on the Gospels, based on my lived experience, ongoing study, and Gospel-reading. I welcome your own reactions and reflections. I subscribe to an historical/critical understanding of Sacred Scripture, because I find it not only helpful but biblically correct and responsible. I am not a literal-interpretation fundamentalist. I am also keenly aware that correct translations of biblical texts are essential for a correct understanding of what the biblical authors were saying. One small example: the Latin word ecclesia or ekklesia in Greek is often translated as “church.” The original biblical meaning of the word however is an “assembly” or a “gathering of people.”
Between now and Easter I would like to revisit the four Gospels and invite you to travel with me – with your New Testament in hand. Yes I realize that I did this about three years ago but many readers, and many new readers, have asked me to do it again. And of course each visit brings new perspectives. We live. We study. We grow in our understandings. (Or we should.)