Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Who was Jesus?

Many Christians would answer that Jesus Christ was God made flesh who died a sacrificial death to redeem humanity. Is it possible to ascertain who the historical Jesus was from the New Testament writings that have come down to us? This essay will compare the Gospel of John with the Gospel of Mark. Most scholars believe that of the four New Testament gospels; Mark was the first to be written, while John is generally believed to be the last. It stands to reason that if John's Gospel was written after Mark's & if John contradicts what is found in Mark; it is likely that Mark represents an older & possibly more reliable source for the teachings of the historical Jesus. The Gospel of John is of fundamental importance to mainstream Christianity; its theology has had a huge impact on the way Jesus & Christianity are understood by both Christians & non-believers. John's Gospel is famous for containing many sayings & deeds of Jesus not found in the other New Testament Gospels. It is from the Gospel of John (& only the Gospel of John) that we get most of the honorific titles that are applied to Jesus such as "the light of the world", "the door of the sheepfold", "the way & the truth", "the bread of life", "the good Shepard" & "the lamb of God". In fact Jesus speaks more about himself in John than he does in any of the other New Testament Gospels. So why does Jesus speak about himself so differently in John's Gospel?

Let us start by examining characteristics of the Gospel of Mark & of John to see how they fare in comparison with each another.

The Messianic Secret

In the Gospel of Mark Jesus seems to want to confine the knowledge of his messiahship & miraculous power to the inner circle of his closest disciples. A clear example is the conversation between Jesus & his disciples at Mark 8:

Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, "Who do people say I am?" They replied, "Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets." "But what about you?" he asked. "Who do you say I am?" Peter answered, "You are the Christ." Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.

Mark 8:27-30 (NIV)

When Jesus' disciples ask him to elucidate on the parables he gives, Jesus explains that "The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables (Mark 4:11, Luke 8:10). When Jesus exorcises unclean spirits he orders them not to divulge his identify: "he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was" (Mark 1:34, Mark 1:23-26 & Luke 4:41). In Mark's Gospel; when Jesus heals not only does he usually perform the miracle in private, he also warns the recipient not to tell anyone.

There some people brought to him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged him to place his hand on the man. After he took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers into the man's ears. Then he spit and touched the man's tongue. He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, "Ephphatha!" (which means, "Be opened!" ). At this, the man's ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly. Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone.

Mark 7:32-39 (NIV)

(See also Mark 1:40-44 & Mark 8:22-26)

Yet the most striking example of Jesus' discretion is found in Mark's account of the resurrection of Jairus' daughter. Jairus, a leader of the local synagogue asks Jesus to come & heal his daughter, yet while on his way Jesus is inadvertently delayed & the girl dies, despite the news Jesus continues on his way to the girl's home:

He did not let anyone follow him except Peter, James and John the brother of James. When they came to the home of the synagogue ruler, Jesus saw a commotion, with people crying and wailing loudly. He went in and said to them, "Why all this commotion and wailing? The child is not dead but asleep." But they laughed at him. After he put them all out, he took the child's father and mother and the disciples who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, "Talitha koum!" (which means, "Little girl, I say to you, get up!" ). Immediately the girl stood up and walked around. At this they were completely astonished. He gave strict orders not to let anyone know about this, and told them to give her something to eat.

Mark 5:37-43 (NIV)

In the above account; after Jesus has dismissed the mourners he allows only Peter, James, John & the girls parents to witness the miracle, after the child is resurrected Jesus gives the witnesses "strict orders not to let anyone know", why the secrecy in this account? Notice how Jesus doesn't want the mourners to think that the girl is already dead but instead sleeping, is this because Jesus doesn't want others to know he has the power to resurrect the dead?

The dramatic resurrection of Lazarus found only in the Gospel of John is better known then the resurrection of Jarius' daughter. According to John 11 when Jesus "heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days." Why does Jesus wait to heal Lazarus?

So then he told them plainly, "Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him."

John 11:14-15 (NIV)

So according to John's Gospel Jesus intentionally lets his friend die so he can resurrect him, remember that when the daughter of Jarius died it was because Jesus was inadvertently delayed whereas in John Jesus deliberately procrastinates resulting in the death of Lazarus. When Jesus finally arrives rather then downplaying the situation he makes the startling proclamation that: "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die." (John 11: 25-26). Jesus does not dismiss the onlookers as he does when resurrecting the daughter of Jarius, but instead performs the miracle in front of numerous onlookers:

Then Jesus said, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?" So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, "Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me." When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!" The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, "Take off the grave clothes and let him go." Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in him.

John 11:40-45 (NIV)

Why does the Gospel of John depict Jesus garnering publicity whilst Mark's Gospel has Jesus doing exactly the opposite? As we have seen; the miracles that Jesus performs for people in Mark's Gospel seem to be a result of the recipient's faith, whereas John depicts Jesus performing miracles to inspire people to have faith in him. Comparing the resurrection accounts of Jarius' daughter with that of Lazarus further widens the tremendous gap between the discreet Jesus depicted by Mark & the dramatic miracle worker of John's Gospel. Moreover: in chapter 3 of the Gospel of Mark Jesus' mother & brothers think that Jesus has gone crazy (Mark 3:20-21, 31-32), they appear not to believe Jesus is the Messiah. In John however Jesus' mother is presented as knowing very well that Jesus is the Messiah, even knowing that her son is capable of miraculous feats such as when she asks her son to remedy the wine shortage at John 2:1-5:

On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus' mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine was gone, Jesus' mother said to him, "They have no more wine." "Dear woman, why do you involve me?" Jesus replied, "My time has not yet come." His mother said to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you."

John 2:1-5 (NIV)

The Lamb of God

The Gospel of Mark depicts Jesus eating his last meal on the night of Nisan 14, the night before the Passover night (Mark 14:12-17). After eating Jesus is arrested in the garden of Gesemene & the next day (Nisan 15) he is handed over to Pilate (Mark 15:1). Jesus is lead away to be crucified & dies at the Ninth hour (3pm) on Nisan 15 that same day (Mark 15:34-37). Yet John's Gospel places Jesus crucifixion on the afternoon of Nisan 14 (The Day of Preparation) when the Passover lambs were being sacrificed for the Passover meal (John 18:28-29, John 19:14, 16). Why then does the Gospel of John describe Jesus crucifixion as taking place on Nisan 14? Is it because John applies the title "Lamb of God" to Jesus & therefore wants to connect the death of Jesus with the sacrifice of the Passover lambs?

The Word/Logos

Mainstream Christianity teaches that before Jesus was born as a man he existed in heaven as a part of God, this teaching is found in the opening prologue to the Gospel of John:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

John 1:1-2, 14 (NIV)

The expression: the Word used here in the first chapter of John is logos in Koine Greek, logos means "words" or "sayings", the only instances of the New Testament using logos to refer to Jesus are John 1 & Revelation 19:13, elsewhere the New Testament uses logos in its regular sense of "words" or "sayings". While the Gospel of John does not use the Word/logos to refer to Jesus after its first chapter the startling claim made by John 1 that Jesus pre-existed in heaven is found elsewhere in John's Gospel:

"You are not yet fifty years old," the Jews said to him, "and you have seen Abraham!" "I tell you the truth," Jesus answered, "before Abraham was born, I am!"

John 8:57-58 (NIV)

Philip said, "Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us." Jesus answered: "Don't you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father'? Don't you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.

John 14:8-10 (NIV)

The idea that Jesus was God is not found in the Gospel of Mark, neither is the idea that Jesus pre-existed as a spirit before being born a man, so if Mark is an earlier work then the Gospel of John is it not reasonable to assume that Mark's Gospel is closer to what the historical Jesus taught about himself then the complex theology exposed by John's Gospel? There are some references in the New Testament letters to Jesus existing as a spirit but they conspicuous. The first is found in Colossians 1:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

Colossians 1:15-20 (NIV)

The Letter to the Colossians is considered by the majority of scholars to be a pseudonymous work (a forgery written by someone other then the claimed author). Colossians is composed in a completely different writing style to the authentic letters of Paul & features teachings regarding the resurrection that seem to contradict what Paul may have actually taught, for example; compare Colossians 2:12 with Romans 6:4.

If the theology exposed by Colossians 1:15-20 is something that the historical Jesus taught about himself why is it not found in the Gospel of Mark? If Jesus did teach that he was the image of the invisible God & the firstborn over all creation why is it that when called "good teacher" Jesus responds by saying:

"Why do you call me good? No one is good—except God alone"?

Mark 10:17-18 (NIV)

The same logic applies to Philippians 2:5-8, a passage that has long been suspected of being an interpolation (a later addition to the text) due to the un-Pauline language it employs & that fact that with the exception of Colossians, it presents a version of Jesus that we do not find elsewhere in the New Testament Letters:

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross!

Philippians 2:5-8 (NIV)

For those who deny the possibility that the New Testament letters could have been interpolated 1 John 5:7-8 provides additional proof. This is how the passage reads in most modern Bible translations:

For there are three that testify: the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement.

1 John 5:7-8 (NIV)

New Testament Manuscripts before the sixteenth century render this passage quite differently. Here is how the verse appears in most modern Bible translations:

"For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one."

1 John 5:7-8 (KJV)

Scribes during the middle-ages interpolated the above passage to support the dogma of the Trinity. 1 John 5:7-8 demonstrates that the New Testament books were not exempt from corruption, especially with regard to the nature of Jesus.

The teaching expoused by the first chapter of the Gospel of John that Jesus was a co-worker god is not explicitly mentioned in the Old Testament, in fact many passages indicate the opposite:

For this is what the LORD says— he who created the heavens, he is God; he who fashioned and made the earth, he founded it; he did not create it to be empty, but formed it to be inhabited— he says: "I am the LORD, and there is no other.

Isaiah 45:18 (NIV)

So where did the concept of the Word/logos come from? Stoicism was a branch of Greek philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium (334 -2622 B.C). To the Stoics; the Word/logos was a force that animated all creation, the fact that the Stoics believed this is something that even the Church Father Tertullian acknowledged:

We have already said that God devised the whole universe by Word, by Reason, by Power. Among your own philosophers, too, it is argued that Logos, that is Word and Reason, would seem to be the Artificer of the universe. This Logos Zeno defines as the maker who has formed and ordered all; he will have it that this Logos is also called fate and God

Tertullian. Apology 21

The Jewish philosopher & mystic Philo (20 B.C - 50 C.E) understood the Word/logos to be an aeon (emanation of God) & mediator between man & the divine. Philo called the Word/logos an image of God & described the Word/logos as the means by which the world was created.

But the divine word which is above these does not come into any visible appearance, inasmuch as it is not like to any of the things that come under the external senses, but is itself an image of God, the most ancient of all the objects of intellect in the whole world, and that which is placed in the closest proximity to the only truly existing God, without any partition or distance being interposed between them

Philo. On Flight & Finding 19:101

for the word of the living God being the bond of every thing, as has been said before, holds all things together, and binds all the parts, and prevents them from being loosened or separated.

Philo. On Flight & Finding 20:112

Now the image of God is the Word, by which all the world was made.

Philo. The Special Laws 1 16:81

Do the above quotations sound familiar? Let us compare Colossians 1:15-20 with Philo's comments on the Word/logos from his own writings:

"He is the image of the invisible God"

Colossians 1

"Now the image of God is the Word"

Philo. The Special Laws

"For by him all things were created"

Colossians 1

"by which all the world was made"

Philo. The Special Laws

"in him all things hold together"

Colossians 1

"the Word of the living God...holds all things together"

Philo. On Flight & finding

It is clear that Philo's dogma of the Word/logos had a fundamental impact on the writers of both the Gospel of John & the Letter to the Colossians. The discrepancies between the Gospel of John & Mark regarding the nature & origins of Jesus were the basis of numerous theological controversies during the 2nd & 3rd centuries, these controversies lead to the Council of Nicaea in 325 C.E, an assembly of Church leaders convened at the behest of emperor Constantine to create a formal creed of belief. The council concluded that Jesus Christ was:

the Son of God, begotten of the Father, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; By whom all things were made, who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man

Original Nicene Creed of 325


As we have seen Jesus speaks very little about himself in the Gospel of Mark but instead emphasizes the importance of the coming Kingdom of God, in Mark Jesus refers to himself as "The son of God", "The Son of Man" & "The Christ" but never uses any of the 6 additional titles used by John. Only in John's Gospel does Jesus claim that he had a pre-human existence "before Abraham I am/was", only in John is Jesus called the Word/logos, only John's Gospel claims that "in the beginning the word was with God & was god", only John narrates that Jesus was killed on Nisan 15 as opposed to Nisan 14, only in John's Gospel does Jesus cleanse the temple at the beginning of his ministry, only in John does Jesus turn water into wine, only in John's Gospel does Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead. So what do we learn about Jesus from the Gospel of Mark? Among many things we learn that:

Jesus appears to be adopted as God's son at his baptism

(Mark 1:9-13)

Jesus is rejected as the Messiah by his family

(Mark 3:20-21, 31-33, Mark 6:3-4)

Jesus speaks about the Kingdom of God rather then himself

(Mark 1:14-15, Mark 4:1-9)

Jesus keeps his role as the messiah & his miraculous power a secret

(Mark 8:27-30, Mark 5:37-43)

Jesus is afraid to die

(Mark 14: 32-36)

Nobody is reported seeing the resurrected Jesus

(Mark 16-6-8)

The Jesus presented by the Gospel of John bears little resemblance to the discreet, humble & very much human Jesus found in Mark's Gospel. Matthew & Luke's Gospels are not without their own problems either, the pre-baptism material, namely the Nativity & boyhood accounts seem at odds with the human Jesus presented in Mark, the accounts of Jesus resurrection depicted in Matthew & Luke also. This is not to say that all the material absent from Mark but found in Matthew & Luke is spurious, but if we want to get closer to the real Jesus we ought to be suspicious of the deeds & sayings that are not found in Mark's Gospel, especially those deeds & sayings that are theologically significant. We need to at least isolate & study the earliest existing sources regarding the life of Jesus: the Gospel of Mark & the Q Source (the hypothetical source text for the material shared by both Matthew & Luke). Reevaluating our beliefs regarding the nature & role of Jesus can be a hard & lonely road for the believer, however it is a far easier road then trying to reconcile the disparate truths of Christian tradition. As we are ultimately responsible for what we choose to believe; the question of why we believe something is a vital & responsible one.

Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.

Matthew 11:6 (NIV)

Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, "Who do people say I am?" They replied, "Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets." "But what about you?" he asked. "Who do you say I am?" Peter answered, "You are the Christ." Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.

Mark 8:27-30 (NIV)