Episode 77: The Gospels

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are the heart of the New Testament. And today, historians and Biblical scholars know more about them than ever before.

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The Stories and Historical Context Behind Matthew, Mark, Luke and John

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καὶ καθὼς Μωϋσῆς ὕψωσεν τὸν ὄφιν ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ, οὕτως ὑψωθῆναι δεῖ τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου, ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων ἐν αὐτῷ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον. Οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν κόσμον ὥστε τὸν υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν, ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλὰ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον. οὐ γὰρ ἀπέστειλεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν υἱὸν εἰς τὸν κόσμον ἵνα κρίνῃ τὸν κόσμον, ἀλλ’ ἵνα σωθῇ ὁ κόσμος δι’ αὐτοῦ.1

And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.1

Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 77: The Gospels. This program will cover the New Testament books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, thought to have been produced in a specific sequence some time between about 60 and 90 CE. The four Gospels, each with their distinctive styles and slight variations, are the heart of the New Testament, telling us how Jesus Christ came to be, how he gathered followers and performed miracles, how animosity slowly grew toward him among the priestly power blocs of Jerusalem, and how he was crucified and rose once more. The Gospels give us four different versions of the same narrative, their combined 89 chapters overlapping in a sort of surround sound effect to offer a detailed and moving record of how Christianity was born in Judea in roughly the 20s CE. It would be redundant to emphasize how consequential these four books have been. In this program I hope to provide you with a detailed overview of the stories and teachings in these books, in addition to a bit of historical background on the province of Judea during the first century CE.

Our Long Journey to the New Testament

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A very ancient (6th-century) icon of Christ at Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai.

If you’ve listened through the Literature and History podcast up to this point, you have done a colossal amount of prep work for the New Testament. Those of us who crack open the Book of Matthew without knowing the history behind it can feel bewildered by all the questions we have. Who is Herod? Who are the other Herods? What is the difference between the Pharisees and Sadducees? What was the actual leadership structure of Judea during the life of Christ – Pontius Pilate was a prefect, but what exactly does that mean? And how did the power that Pontius Pilate wielded compare to that of the High Priest Caiaphas, and that of the descendants of Herod the Great? Why was the New Testament written in Greek, when Hebrew was the ancestral language of Judaism and Aramaic the language of Jesus and his disciples? Moreover, did Christianity have historical and ideological forerunners in antiquity, or did it really emerge in a blinding flash around 30 CE from the boondocks west of the Sea of Galilee?

Those of you who have listened to this show up to this point know the answers to most of these questions, and by the end of this program on the Gospels, we’ll have covered all of them. In the previous episode, we learned all about the rise and fall of Herod the Great, that half Idumean, half Nabatean king who wrought so much change in Judea just prior to the birth of Christ. In our recent bonus series, Christianity’s Roots, we covered some of the religious history of the greater Mediterranean that may have influenced Christian theology –the Isis Cult, the Mystery Religions, Pythagoreanism and Orphism, the philosophy of Plato, and the divergent ideologies of the Essenes, Sadducees, and Pharisees during and before the Augustan Age. We have read surviving texts about a number of other Ancient Mediterranean deities who were sacrificed for the sake of a bounty granted to humanity – Dumuzi or Tammuz, Baal, Osiris, Persephone, Orpheus, Dionysus Zagreus, Cybele’s son Attis, Adonis, and the bull of Mithras, divine victims whose deaths brought plentitude to humanity, their narratives ultimately rooted in ancient agricultural rites related to seasonal changes – a god disappears in the winter, and comes again in the spring, bringing bounty to his or her worshippers.3 We covered an ocean of literature and culture from ancient Greece and ancient Rome, whose citizens were migrating into Judea more and more as Herod built the port city of Caesarea – the seat of Hellenistic culture in Judea during Jesus’ lifetime. We explored the influence of stoic philosophy on Christian theology’s most important architect and missionary, Saint Paul. And most importantly, we read the Old Testament and the major Apocrypha, learning ancient Jewish history from the Merneptah Stele of 1200 BCE all the way down to the Hasmonean Dynasty, which lasted from 140-37 BCE and ended with Herod the Great. We are now, I believe, ready to tackle the New Testament and the beginnings of Christianity.

The New Testament: Basic Background

So, let’s begin our journey into this book in the simplest way possible – by talking about the superstructure of the New Testament. Most New Testaments have 27 books. These can be divided into a few parts. We will cover the Gospels, the first four books, today. The fifth book, Acts, gets its own show due to its historical and theological importance. The next fourteen books are the Pauline epistles – letters attributed to Saint Paul, written as he travelled relentlessly around the eastern Mediterranean and tried to solidify the sometimes divergent impulses of the first two generations of Christians. Then come what we call the Catholic epistles, a set seven often very short letters attributed in the Bible to the Apostles and Jesus’ other associates who knew him directly. Finally, the Book of Revelation, which foretells the end of the world, wraps up the New Testament, its spectacular prophecies having had a formative influence on European literature – especially Dante and John Milton. The New Testament’s expansive 260 chapters nonetheless look quite modest next to the Old Testament’s 929, the New Testament in its entirety being only about the size of the Old Testament’s Prophetic Books.

So that’s an overview of the structure – the five main parts – of the New Testament: the Gospels, Acts, Pauline Epistles, Catholic Epistles, and the Book of Revelation. Now, since we have the Gospels on our desk for today, let’s zoom into the Gospels directly, and get some history in our heads. We need to quickly discuss three timeframes relevant to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These timeframes include 4 BCE, roughly the year of Christ’s birth according to the Book of Matthew, 26 CE, or roughly the year that his ministry began, and then 70 CE, the year that Jerusalem was conquered by the Emperor Vespasian and its Second Temple destroyed. Let’s start with the earliest of these three timeframes. In about 4 BCE, when Christ was born, Judea was in the twilight of the reign of King Herod the Great. Herod the Great, as we recently learned, had been a mixed bag for Judea – visionary in many things commercial, economic, and architectural and a reliably stable bridge to a chaotic period of Roman rulership, but at the same time absolutely, unhesitatingly merciless at stamping out rebellions with mass killings and torturing his subjects for information. The iron fist of Herod’s leadership gave way in 4 BCE to a series of lesser heirs, and thereafter Judea was not ruled indigenously by a Jew for a long time (and we should recall that Herod, though disliked by his subjects in part because of his Arabic background, was a practicing Jew who completed a massive remodeling of the Second Temple in 19 BCE). Anyway, so that’s the baby Jesus time period – the last days of King Herod’s checkered but occasionally very prosperous reign in Judea. On to the adult Jesus time period – in other words, jumping from 4 BCE to 26 CE.

Around the time that Christ and John the Baptist began their operations as itinerant preachers and workers of miracles, Pontius Pilate, a prefect, was seated as a provincial governor in Judea. Prefects were not Rome’s highest nobles – they were commonly military officers who had risen through the ranks and given control of smaller provinces, unlike Rome’s proconsuls and propraetors, most commonly blue blooded men who had held Rome’s highest offices beneath the Emperor and were thus permitted command of larger provinces. Pontius Pilate, in power between the mid-20s and the mid-30s CE, was only one of three main powers on the ground in Judea during Christ’s adulthood. The second was the Jewish high priest and his counsel, the Sanhedrin, seated in the Jerusalem Temple. In Jesus’ time, the Jewish high priest was Caiaphas, attested to in the Gospels as well as in the historian Josephus. The third power that Jesus, and more consequentially, John the Baptist had to negotiate with were the sons of Herod the Great, Antipater and Philip. Antipater ruled Jesus’ home region of Galilee, and neighboring Samaria and Perea, and Philip ruled over slightly more distant regions to the northeast. Antipater and Philip were what Roman law called Tetrarchs, or rulers of a quarter of a province – essentially middlemen with cultural clout on whom Roman governors could rely. So this trio of powers – Rome, Jewish religious officials, and the heirs of Herod, often a squabbling and turbulent trio, was the unstable and constantly evolving system that governed the adult Jesus Christ’s world – again the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate, the Jerusalem high priest Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin Counsel, and the regional tetrarchs Antipater and Philip, sons of Herod the Great.

The third and final timeframe we need to get in our minds for the Gospels is the years between 60 and 90 CE, the three decades biblical scholars believe produced the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. This as an important point to understand upfront – Biblical scholars widely believe the earliest of the Gospels was composed about 35 years after the life of Jesus, and a whole lot happened in Judea, historically speaking, during this 35 years. The 60s and 70s – the decades that we think produced the earlier Gospels – these were horrific decades for the Jews of Judea. By 64 CE, Judea had suffered a long series of financially predatory Roman administrations. Taught by their scriptures that they were a chosen people, an influential portion the non-diasporic population of Jews in Judea clung to their cultural roots, resisted assimilation with Greco-Romans flooding into their country, and passionately hated the provincial administrations Rome shipped out to rob, disparage, and overtax them for two to four years at a stretch. In 64, an especially greedy and nasty Roman appointee named Gessius Florus came to rule over Judea, and his greed, which involved actually stealing from the sacred Second Temple treasury, pushed a core of Judea’s citizens to begin a bloody insurgency in 66 CE. This insurgency led to the First Jewish-Roman War, which stretched between 66 and 73. Jerusalem was sacked and the Second Temple destroyed in the summer of 70, and a mass suicide at Masada in 73 served as war’s bloody coda.

References to the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, in 70, in the four Gospels are one of the main ways scholars date the Gospels, with the Book of Mark thought to have been composed first, in the mid-60s, Matthew some time after 70, Luke a bit later, perhaps around 85, and John about 90.4 These dates, by the way, are tentatively proposed in the New Oxford Annotated Bible, with the proviso that they are by no means definite. But while the evidence for exact dating of the Gospels is scant, the order in which the Gospels were produced is based on firmer ground. I want to take a minute to introduce you to something called the Q source hypothesis – this is a popular theory in understanding how the New Testament came to be, though like most academic theories it has its problems and its dissidents. This is a bit of a dense topic to throw at you up front, but it is the main textual theory on how the Gospels were authored, and that definitely makes it worth your attention. So let’s talk about the Q source hypothesis. [music]

The Q Source Hypothesis

Synoptic problem two source colored

A diagram concisely explaining the Q Source, or Two-Source Hypothesis. Image by Alecmconroy.

To begin explaining the Q source hypothesis to you, I will start with a question. Jesus died around 30 CE. The earliest of the Gospels most often gets dated a generation later – again in the mid-60s. The first Christians were alive and well and writing prior to the 60s – Saint Paul’s early epistles, Galatians and 1 Thessalonians, are commonly dated to about 50 CE.5 And the question is, how did Paul and the other very early Christians who did not know Christ personally know about his teachings, when the Gospels had not yet been written? One answer is through oral tradition.6 But another answer is Q, from the German word quelle, for “source.” The Q source hypothesis is intended to answer the following question. And listen closely for a minute – again this is just a little bit complicated, but it’s fascinating if you haven’t heard it before. The middle Gospels, Matthew and Luke, both quote from the oldest Gospel – the Gospel of Mark extensively, but Matthew and Luke don’t not seem to be familiar with each other. Matthew and Luke both, however, have long strings of verses – about 250 of them – taken verbatim from somewhere. That somewhere is, so the theory goes, the Q source. The Q source hypothesis, in a sentence, is that a book of Jesus’ sayings was in circulation in the five decades after his death, that the earliest Gospel, Mark, was written independently of this source text, that Matthew and Luke used Mark and the Q source, but not one another, and then that John used different sources altogether. Connectedly then, Matthew, Mark, and Luke are traditionally called the Synoptic Gospels – they are each a synopsis of very identical or similar sayings and episodes.

To go into just a tiny bit more detail about the Q source hypothesis, we now know that sayings collections existed in early Christianity, because a part of the Nag Hammadi library discovered in Egypt in 1945 contained the apocryphal work we call the Gospel of Thomas, a collection of Jesus’ sayings professedly written by the Apostle Thomas and set down some time between 100-150 CE.7 And the Nag Hammadi library contained other sayings collections – the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, and the Gospel of Philip, also thought by scholars to be products of the 100s CE or just a little later.8 These later sayings books, while hardly anyone takes them seriously as genuine records of the life and times of Christ, still show us that sayings books definitely existed as a form of sacred literature in the earliest centuries of Christianity. So that’s the Q source hypothesis – that a mysterious sayings book was the bridge between the immediate world around Christ, and his dispersed followers who wrote the Gospels forty years later and in all likelihood hadn’t met him. I have no idea whether or not it’s correct. There are problems with the Q source hypothesis. Considering the textual parallels between Matthew and Luke, the mysterious Q source would have most likely been written in Greek, itself already being a translation of an Aramaic or Hebrew original. And if this mysterious Greek sayings collection indeed existed – a compilation of sayings put together very close to the lifetime of Jesus himself – then why on earth wasn’t it retained as part of the New Testament, or mentioned anywhere? The Q source hypothesis is just one in a long and evolving line of theories that go back to Augustine, who believed that the Gospels were written in the order that they now appear in the New Testament.9 Many other theories were deployed to explain how the Gospels were written, although the Q source hypothesis is commonly accepted, and one that you’d learn in any college course you’d take on the New Testament.10

So now, that we’ve talked about the timeframes of the New Testament and roughly when we think these books were written, and gone over the Q source hypothesis, let me give you a brief introduction to the shape and contents of each of the four Gospels. The authors of these Gospels, in the Christian tradition, are thought to have been Matthew the Apostle, Mark the Evangelist, founder of the church of Alexandria, Luke the Evangelist, possibly a colleague of Saint Paul, who also wrote Acts, and then John the Apostle.11 None of these attributions of authorship are certain and Apostolic authorship, in other words, the idea that the Gospels were actually written by people who knew Jesus, is not widely believed in biblical scholarship, for reasons we’ll get into a bit later on. Anyway, Mark is the shortest, the simplest, and compositionally speaking, the roughest – a rapid fire series of episodes glued together by tiny grammatical conjunctions. The Book of Matthew, in Christian tradition, is perhaps the most revered, swallowing almost the entirety of Mark and adding its own exposition about Jesus’ childhood. The Book of Luke, the longest of the Gospels, shares much of the central action of Mark and Luke, and includes its own unique elements, one of the most fascinating of which is its initial verses. Luke describes his Gospel as “an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses” (Luke 1:1-2), which indicates that a narrative tradition predated his book. Those are the three Synoptic Gospels – Mark, the oldest, and then Matthew and Luke, which both use Mark. And finally, the Book of John is quite different, omitting mention of Christ’s childhood, introducing the action in Jerusalem, and generally preferring to show a lofty, intellectual, and imperturbable Jesus in the midst of long discourses, rather than a figure who dashes around Judea performing miracles.

So now we’ve talked a bit about the New Testament’s superstructure – the four Gospels, the Book of Acts, the 14 Pauline epistles, the seven Catholic epistles, and then Revelation. And we talked about the three timeframes pertinent to the New Testament – the dusk of Herod the Great’s reign in 4 BCE when Christ was born, the turbulent triple power structure of the Roman prefect, Jewish high priest, and Herodian tetrarchs under which Jesus had the misfortune of beginning his ministry in about 26, and finally the First Jewish-Roman War of 66-73, which is alluded to from time to time in the Gospels. And I introduced you to one of the popular theories of the source material of these books – the Q Source hypothesis. Now, before we go any further, I want to introduce my approach to the New Testament – especially for listeners who might just be jumping in to the podcast at this episode. [music]

Literature and History’s Approach to the New Testament

The Bible is too big for any one podcast – the 50 or 60 or so hours I will spend on it when all is said and done will barely scratch the surface. Many people learn about this book from many different sources which use many different approaches, from reverently religious to cynical and snarky, from dogmatic to gently ecumenical, from academic to personal and casual. In preparing my own programs, in addition to all the reading and research, I listened to specialty shows produced by experts from Catholic backgrounds, and evangelical backgrounds, and various Protestant perspectives, just to get a sense of how other folks teach and discuss this sacred literature. If you’re just jumping into the Literature and History podcast here, I’ll say that our own show generally takes a historicist approach to understanding texts – in other words studying the historical and cultural contexts of works in order to comprehend how and why they came to be. This approach to the Bible – the historicist one – is an old one, dating back to the German Protestant scholar F.C. Bauer, at work during the first half of the 19th century, who kicked off a long line of historicist scholarship. Bauer’s successors William Wrede and Adolf von Harnack published influential works in the decade after 1900. By the time of World War I, what theologians call “Higher Criticism” or the “Historical-Critical Method,” which are unfortunately pretty pretentious sounding names, were alive and well in German scholarship.12

The basic idea of the historicist approach is that texts – even sacred ones – often bear the marks of their historical periods and cultural surroundings. In past episodes of our show, again and again, we’ve used history in order to better understand literature. A throughout our series on the New Testament, though this book is far more than just literature, in addition to simply summarizing the book’s contents, I plan on talking a lot about the Eastern Mediterranean during the Julio-Claudian and Flavian dynasties, and the sectarian movements within first century Judaism so important to the rise of Christianity, within which there were quickly more sectarian movements, and moreover the evolution of Early Christianity. I don’t at all think that the historicist approach is the only or best approach to the Bible – critics of historicism in general argue that it can devitalize texts, reduce the power and agency of acts of authorship, encumber secular and sacred writing alike with baggy and distracting footnotes, and just as dangerously, cause presumptuous and overly simplistic connections to be drawn. But historicism has been our approach thus far in this podcast, and I think it will be the best way for me, personally, with my background, to present a basic introduction to the New Testament.

Historicism is not a faith-oriented approach to the Bible, and so with special respect to the many Christians out there listening, let me read a quote from biblical scholar Markus Bockmuehl. Bockmuehl, emphasizing the shortcomings of academic approaches to the Bible, writes, “there are limits to how much you can usefully say about the stained glass windows of King’s College Chapel without going inside.”13 In other words, an academic and historicist approach to the scriptures leaves out a lot, and if you’re looking for a faith-based program on any part of the Bible, then needless to say, there are professional ministers and theologians at the microphone out there with wonderful approaches to the scriptures who make mine seem as dry as dust, and make me seem a little like someone who’s listening to music and doesn’t understand that he’s supposed to tap his feet.

As I said when I began our series on the Old Testament, no one will be converted, or unconverted to anything by any of our programs on the Bible. I won’t exhort anyone to believe or disbelieve anything, and while I reserve the right to point out internal oddities and idiosyncratic features of even the most sacred portions of these texts, I have a love and respect for the scriptures of Judaism and Christianity that has led to my reading and teaching them year after year. So to get us started, we need to talk very briefly about something that exists in every single Christian bible ever printed. And that something is the blank page between the Old Testament and the New Testament. [music]

The Connection Between the Old and New Testaments


Michelangelo’s frescoe of Isaiah on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Isaiah has always been understood as the prophet who most explicitly references the coming of Christ. However, the considerably lesser known apocryphal book of 1 Enoch has oracles of a Son of Man and Anointed One coming that are at least, if not much more explicit.

There is a term in biblical scholarship called the “Intertestamental Period,” or more wordily, the “Deuterocanonical Period.” Often this period gets called “The Silence Between Malachi and Matthew,” Malachi being the final book of the Protestant Old Testament, and Matthew being the first book of the New Testament. Before modern Biblical scholarship, there was a mistaken notion that that some giant historical gap wedged Jewish ideology away from Christian ideology – that a period of four centuries of Jews between 400 BCE and the life of Christ were doing more or less the same thing that they had been since the beginning – just hanging out in the Second Temple and practicing Mosaic Law. This is inaccurate. The Old Testament was still being written all the way up to the second century BCE, with books in the Catholic canon like Judith, Daniel, and Maccabees being part of a renaissance of theological creativity produced during the centuries of the Hasmonean dynasty – that dynasty of indigenous Jewish leadership in Jerusalem that lasted from about 140-40 BCE. This renaissance also produced theologically consequential but seldom-studied apocryphal books like the Books of 1 Enoch and Jubilees, gigantic texts with distinctly Christian elements that were familiar to the authors of the New Testament, and were discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls, though most of Christian history has ignored them.14 I don’t want to get on a side track here – our main goal is to get Matthew, Mark, Luke and John on our desks and talk about what’s inside of them, but I wanted to say, at the very beginning of this sequence, that that blank page between the Old Testament and New Testament is misleading. Sacred literature, a fair bit of which survives in some form or other, now, was still being written in Judea in the 200s and 100s BCE – and in it, we hear mentions of a coming Messiah called the Anointed and the Son of Man, a demon lord called Mastema or Satan, luring humanity into evil, descriptions of a differentiated afterlife in which the good are rewarded and the guilty are punished, and all of it sounds quite a bit like Christianity soon would.15 Now, this isn’t the time or place to get too deeply into the apocryphal texts of the first and second centuries BCE that very likely influenced the New Testament – it’s simply an invitation, next time you open a Bible, to pause on that blank page between the Testaments and think about the various rejected or lost scriptures that might be printed there had things gone a little differently.

To return to the canonical Gospels, one text that was never rejected or lost from Judaism or Christianity was Isaiah, the 66-chapter behemoth of the Prophetic Books, and one of very high importance to the writers of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The Gospels love Isaiah, and more broadly, they show great erudition in regards to the Hebrew Bible. Isaiah, as you may know, is the most important causeway between the Old Testament and New, and it’s no coincidence that Christian bibles place Isaiah first in the Prophetic Books. In the Old Testament Book of Isaiah, Christianity found verses that seemed to herald the coming of Jesus Christ. In Chapter 9 of Isaiah, the Prophet Isaiah predicts that “[A]ll the boots of the tramping warriors, and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isa 9:5-6). Two chapters later, the Old Testament prophet Isaiah writes, “The wolf shall live with the lamb. . .and a little child shall lead them” (Isa 11:6). And here’s a mishmash of verses from Chapters 52 and 3 of Isaiah that have been of special interest to Christianity – we’ve heard these before but it’s been over fifty episodes. The Book of Isaiah proclaims:
[M]y servant shall prosper; [H]e shall be exalted and lifted up (52:13). . . [K]ings shall shut their mouths because of him. . .that which they have not heard they shall contemplate (52:13). . . [H]e grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account. Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed (53:2-5). By a perversion of justice was he taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. (53:8)16

That translation, by the way was the New Revised Standard Version, printed in the New Oxford Annotated Bible, from which all quotes in this episode will come unless otherwise noted. There are a few other verses like these in the Old Testament, and the authors of the Gospels are often quick to point them out, offering a narrative about Jesus and then citing a portion of the Prophetic Books, all in an effort to corroborate the idea that the coming of Jesus was foretold in the Hebrew Bible. As we learned a number of episodes ago, Jewish commentators have long identified the small catalog of messiah figures in the Prophetic Books variously as Moses, Hezekiah, Josiah, Jeremiah, and others. But to Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and more generally speaking, Christians throughout history, the Prophetic Books offer specific, and detailed visions of the coming of Christ.

Right, now that we’ve talked about the blank page between the Old and New Testaments, and the way Christianity has generally imagined the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, let’s get onto the main course of this program – the content of the Gospels themselves. The four Gospels all together are a bit challenging to teach in podcast form. They are, as I said before, four accounts of the same events with variations, many of the variations minor, and some of them substantial. If we went through them one at a time, you’d know the exact order of events in each book, but the process would take forever and I think the average listener would end up feeling a bit confounded by all the repeated episodes, especially those of us unfamiliar with these texts. So I’m going to try something that’s fairly common in the presentation of the Gospels – I am going to synthesize all the major episodes in every Gospel and tell all four of them to you as a single narrative. The second century Syrian scholar Tatian was the first to do what I’m about to do – in about 160 CE, the year Marcus Aurelius began his reign, Tatian found he could cut 1,011 verses from the Gospels’ total of 3,780 verses without eliminating any unique content, meaning that about 27% of the verses in the Gospels are duplicated verbatim as they’re printed in the Bible. Now, because the Gospels are subdivided between long speeches on the part of Jesus, and then narratives about his biography, I’m going to first tell you the main events of his life, and then, after that, we’ll talk about some of the core tenets of his ministry.

As we’ve already discussed, the four different Gospels offer four varying accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings. One of the most striking differences between them is that while what are believed to be the earliest and latest Gospels, Mark and John, respectively, introduce Jesus to us as an adult, the other two, Matthew and Luke, add details about prophecies of his coming, his birth and infancy, his being threatened by King Herod, and so on. And maybe the other most striking difference of all is the way the story of Christ’s crucifixion is narrated – in the earliest Gospel, the Book of Mark, Christ’s death is agonizing, at its climax Jesus crying out in Aramaic that God has forsaken him. In the latest Gospel, however – the Book of John – Christ is stoic and emotionless in his final moments, saying only, “It is finished” (John 19:30), suggesting that as the decades between 60 and 90 CE wore onward, literate Christians were increasingly writing about their savior more as of a distant, deific figure and less as a flesh and blood man, subject to physical torment. The Gospels are, in essence, like four strands of rope, spread out at each end, but twining together to tell a core narrative of central episodes. As we move forward with this synthetic summary of all four Gospels at once, I’ll occasionally add details about differences between the Gospels, but I hope, for the most part, to just tell you the story told in the first part of the New Testament with as much detail as is realistically possible. Again, unless otherwise noted, quotes in this episode will come from the New Revised Standard Version printed in the New Oxford Annotated Bible, one of the greatest pieces of ensemble scholarship ever produced, in my opinion, and which I highly recommend. So let’s open all four of the Gospels at once, take a deep breath, and learn about the figure whom about two billion of us believe was the son of God. [music]

Christ’s Childhood and Nativity

Of all the Gospels, although the Book of John doesn’t deal with Christ’s miraculous birth or childhood, nonetheless the Book of John still begins Christ’s story at the earliest point. Echoing the opening of Genesis, John writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (John 1:1-4). The important thing about this preface in the last Gospel is that John adds to the earlier Gospels the statement that Jesus was not created – that he was always a part of God, and thus that his birth in Bethlehem was only the physical manifestation of something that had been there all along – as John famously puts it, “the Word became flesh and lived among us” (1:14). While the Book of John then skips over Christ’s nativity, Luke and Matthew offer extensive details about how Jesus came to be on Earth. Here’s the story Luke and Matthew offer about how Jesus came to be on Earth.

Once, there lived a priest called Zechariah, whose wife Elizabeth could not have children. While making a sacred offering, Zechariah was startled when an angel appeared on the right side of an altar where incense was burning. Like many husbands of barren wives in the Bible, Zechariah was informed that his wife would give birth. Zechariah was told by the angel Gabriel that the baby’s name would be John. This John would be a special child – a boy with the power of prophecy, and he needed to abstain from wine and other strong drinks. Zechariah was flummoxed. He was old, he said, and so was his wife. Was this really going to happen? And Gabriel, irritated by Zechariah’s skepticism, caused him to be mute (Luke 1:1-20).

Henry Ossawa Tanner - The Annunciation

Henry Ossawa Tanner’s The Annunciation (1898). This annunciation painting has a strangeness, humbleness and solemnity to it that many more cluttered and glittery Renaissance era paintings of the same scene lack.

Six months later, the angel Gabriel performed a similar errand, this time paying a visit to a woman named Mary, and telling her that she would also become miraculously pregnant. This was good news, Gabriel emphasized, telling Mary that her child “will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:32). Mary wondered how this would be possible – she’d never been with a man before, but Gabriel said that with God, all things were possible. Mary was actually related to Elizabeth, and following the miraculous news from Gabriel, Mary hurried to visit her relative. There, in the presence of Mary, the unborn John the Baptist suddenly sprang to life, and Mary voiced a prayer. When John the Baptist was born, his father Zechariah insisted that the baby be named John, and when he did so, old Zechariah was suddenly able to speak again, and he avowed in a prayer that his newborn son would be a great prophet.

Just as Gabriel had predicted, Mary also became miraculously pregnant. But awkwardly, Mary was engaged at the time to a man named Joseph. Thinking that his fiancé had been unfaithful to him, Joseph planned to break things off. But the angel Gabriel came to Joseph in a dream and told him she’d bear a son conceived by the Holy Spirit, and that that son would save the Jews from their sins (Matt 1:18-25). The pregnancy proceeded normally, and the two went to visit Joseph’s hometown of Bethlehem due to a Roman census taking place that required citizens to register in their hometown. While there in Bethlehem, Mary gave birth in a manger, because all the inns of Bethlehem were already full of guests (Luke 2.1-7). While the surroundings were humble, soon Mary and Joseph were visited by an angel, who told them that their baby was indeed the Messiah, and the son of god, and a host of angels came to offer prayers to god.

At eight days of age, the baby Jesus was circumcised and given his name. Later, he was taken to the Jerusalem temple for a purification ritual, and two turtledoves and two young pigeons were sacrificed on his behalf. While there in Jerusalem, a prophet named Simeon predicted that Christ would bring great tumult to Judea, and another prophet named Anna predicted that Jesus would herald the redemption of Jerusalem. But at this point, in spite of all the predictions that had been made about him, Jesus was still just a baby.

Judea was at this time ruled by a volatile Roman client king called Herod, whom we talked so much about last time. Herod had been told by three Parthian priests that they’d seen astrological signs that the king of the Jews would soon be born in Bethlehem. Herod, by all accounts ruthless in regards to challenges to his power, asked the wise men to go and track down this fateful baby boy, but instead, when the wise men saw that the rising star had halted over where Jesus had been born, they stopped, overwhelmed with sudden happiness. They found Jesus, offered him lavish gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh, and rather than going back to Herod, they went home to Parthia – in other words the Persian Empire to the east (Matt 2:1-12). An angel told Joseph to duck out of Judea for a while and head down to Egypt, and so Joseph took his young family south. Denied his quarry, the vindictive Herod had all the kids were less than two years of age around Bethlehem murdered. When the king died, Joseph headed back to Judea, and settled in a small town in the region of Galilee – a town called Nazareth (Matt 2:13-23).

In the Book of Matthew (13:55), Joseph is a carpenter by trade, although the Greek word which is usually translated as carpenter can additionally be translated as “builder” or “stonemason.”17 In Mark (6:3), Christ himself is described as having the same occupation – being a carpenter. However Jesus and his family earned a living in Nazareth, Christ was eventually the eldest of five brothers – his younger brothers were James, Joseph, or Joses, Simon, and Judas, or Jude, and he had sisters, as well, though their names and numbers are not detailed in the Gospels. Jesus’ family genealogy was impeccably Jewish. Matthew opens with a 42 generation long genealogy list, stretching back to Old Testament heavyweights that include Josiah, Solomon, David, Ruth, Jacob, Isaac, and begin with Abraham. Curiously, this genealogy is Joseph’s, indicating that Jesus has no biological relation to the matriarchs and patriarchs of Judaism. However, Joseph the Carpenter adopted Jesus, and when we consider what we’ve learned about adoption in the Roman world by the first century CE, the genealogy list in Matthew was likely quite good enough for the book’s initial readers.

As a boy, Jesus was strong and wise beyond his years. Once, when he was twelve, his parents had gone to Jerusalem for Passover. They accidentally became separated from him, and eventually, three days later, they found Jesus in the temple sitting with some priests. Jesus seemed to fit right in, discoursing and listening to wise men far older than him. Joseph and Mary admonished Jesus for having disappeared, but, as he had only been in the temple, twelve-year-old Jesus indicated that it should have been obvious he’d gone to the Jerusalem temple – the temple was his father’s house, after all. And we get a sense in this scene, which is only in the Book of Luke, that Jesus’ parents adored him in spite of his unruly precocity – Luke writes that after Christ’s disappearance in Jerusalem, Jesus “went down with them and came [back] to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:51).

And that concludes the Gospel narrative about the nativity and childhood of Jesus – in other words what the Bible as it exists today tells us about Jesus’ early life. There were also other narratives about Jesus’ early life written during Christianity’s formative period. During the second century, a Gospel was written called the Protoevangelium of James, which told a considerably expanded narrative about Mary and Joseph, and the childhood of Jesus.18 The other infancy Gospels, like the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, and the Latin Infancy Gospels soon followed this initial one, all focusing on Christ’s parentage and birth. Interestingly, one of the things at stake in these apocryphal Gospels was Mary’s continued virginity after giving birth to Jesus. Their authors retold the nativity story in such a way that Joseph was an elderly widower who already had the other kids when he married Mary, and that she had taken a vow of chastity, and so she remained a virgin all her life. Interesting stuff, surely, but let’s continue with the story of Jesus’ biography told in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. [music]

The Beginning of Jesus’ Ministry and Recruitment of the Apostles

Years and years passed, and Jesus and John the Baptist grew up, and when each was around the age of 30, John the Baptist began his career as a prophet in earnest (Luke 3:1). John lived out in the dry hinterlands of Judea, and was a sort of ascetic wanderer, and John began telling people, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matt 3:2). His baptisms, which took place in the River Jordan evidently even before the coming of Jesus, were purification rituals designed to help participants repent and have their sins forgiven (Mark 1:4). John the Baptist was acknowledged widely as a holy man, but he was also quirky. He lived off of eating insects and honey, and wore camel hides, and he also had some progressive ideas. For instance, John the Baptist told people that if they owned two cloaks and knew someone who had none, they should give their second cloak away. John the Baptist said tax collectors shouldn’t double dip and steal for themselves, and that soldiers mustn’t threaten innocent people. John the Baptist met some Pharisees and Sadducees one day, and he vituperated them, warning them that history was about to change. Because, as John told them, while John baptized with water, a man was coming who would baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit itself (Matt 3:1-12, Mark 1:7-8, John 1:33).19 Soon, Jesus went to John the Baptist to be baptized. John the Baptist said really Jesus was the one who should be baptizing him, but Jesus shook his head and said it would be fine (Matt 3.13-16).

Following his baptism, Jesus headed out into the desert, guided by a holy light. After Jesus fasted for forty days and nights, Satan came to him, and tried three times to tempt Jesus. Wouldn’t Jesus turn stones to loaves of bread, or throw himself down from a high pinnacle, or kneel down and worship Satan? With each temptation, Jesus replied back with a quote from Deuteronomy, and the devil finally gave up (Mat 4.1-11).20

Having been baptized, and having stood up to Satan, at about the age of 30, Jesus began preaching and gathering up disciples. He met Peter and Andrew, a pair of brothers, who were fishing, and Jesus told Peter and Andrew “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” (Matt 4:19, Mark 1:17). It’s kind of a strange overture if you think about it – “I will make you fish for people” could mean that he wanted to force them to fish, or transform them into fish, or even fish with the intent of catching people. But of course, Jesus had a way about him, and the brothers Peter and Andrew joined him without asking for any clarification. Next, Jesus met James the elder, and James the elder’s brother John, and they joined him, too (Matt 4:18-22, Mark 1:19-20). Eventually, Jesus had twelve apostles – these were Peter, Andrew, James the elder, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, James the younger, Thaddaeus, Simon, and Judas Iscariot. Now, before too long, we’re going to need to talk about Christ’s teachings. Some bibles have the words of Christ printed in red to differentiate them from the rest of the text, and so, figuratively speaking, let’s deal with the black ink for the moment, and bracket the red ink until a bit later.

Caravaggio's The Calling of St Matthew

Caravaggio’s The Calling of Saint Matthew. Light is used wonderfully in this and so many other Caravaggio paintings, the painting perfectly fitting the words, “I have come not to call not the righteous but sinners.”

The next incident common to the Gospels is Jesus’ dinner with the tax collectors and sinners – quite a large dinner, according to Luke (5:29). From what we’ve learned about Roman taxation practices in the provinces – the way that tax farming corporations often hired unscrupulous middle men and leg breakers, and how provincial governors frequently spent their 2-4 year tenures scouring people for taxes at unsustainable levels – we can understand that tax collectors in Jesus’ world must have been regarded as disgusting and immoral people. When some Pharisees observed Jesus keeping company with such reprobates, they asked Jesus about it, and Jesus said, in some of the New Testament’s more resounding verses, “Those who are well have no need of a physician. . .I have come to call not the righteous but sinners” (Matt 9:12-13, Mark 2:17). In other words, Christ told the Pharisees, he was willing to get his hands dirty in order to do good. One of his Apostles, Matthew, was, in fact, a tax collector.

Matthew and the other Apostles were not simply a flock who followed Christ and gawked at everything he did. They were also men of action, working independently on specific directives. At several junctures in the Gospels, the Apostles receive a Commission from Jesus – or an directive – to go forth and announce that the kingdom of heaven was within reach. But with this directive was a warning – Jesus also made it known to his followers the Apostles were stepping into a dangerous world. The worship houses of Judea were risky places – places where religious missionaries could be apprehended and put in great peril. The Apostles were given Jesus’ powers of healing and exorcism. They were told to travel with no possessions on them, and they went forth and began announcing the news of Christ’s divinity and helping people wherever they could. Later, an additional 70 disciples were deployed to visit towns Jesus planned to visit (Luke 10:1).

At this point in the narrative, with a growing community of disciples, Jesus was beginning to make a name for himself. The divine miracles that he performed, the unapologetic and unorthodox style of his public lectures, and more importantly his occasional blatant disregard of Jewish law were all drawing attention. They were drawing the attention of various groups in the Gospels, groups that get called the high priests, sometimes scribes, sometimes Pharisees, and once or twice Sadducees, but in all cases, it seems, men in positions of religious authority skeptical of the fearless carpenter’s son barnstorming his way across Judea and picking up followers along the way. The stories of Jesus’ confrontations with Judea’s religious officials drive the main plot of the Gospels, so let’s hear about how these confrontations began. [music]

Jesus’ Disputations with Priestly Legalists

In all four of the Gospels, Jesus gets into disputations with other religious luminaries on the subject of the Sabbath (Matt 12:1-14).21 First, the Pharisees noticed that Jesus’ followers were gathering corn on the Sabbath. Now, to Mosaic Law (Ex 31:14), working on the Sabbath was technically punishable by death. As we learned in Episode 18: The 613 Commandments, Moses had an Israelite stoned to death for picking up sticks on the Sabbath (Num 15:32-6), which was almost exactly what Jesus’ disciples were up to. When confronted by the Pharisees about this transgression, Jesus essentially told them that the Pharisees were being silly. In a brief chiasmus, Christ said, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27), and then, in order to double down, he went and healed a man with a withered arm in the synagogue of the Pharisees. This episode is slightly different in other books like John, in which Jesus reminds high priests that they perform circumcisions on the Sabbath, and so he ought to be able to heal on the Sabbath (John 7:19-23), but the gist of it is the same – caviling over the rules in Mosaic Law is counterproductive when these rules prevent the commonsense pursuit of a pious, charitable, and productive life. This wouldn’t be the last confrontation between Christ and the rival religious leaders of Judea, and as we’ll see again and again in this season on the New Testament, one of the main concerns of the entire New Testament, and more broadly Early Christianity, was how to deal with the gargantuan legal portions of books like Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.22

Brooklyn Museum - The Pharisees Question Jesus (Les pharisiens questionnent Jésus) - James Tissot

James Tissot’s The Pharisees Question Jesus (c. 1886-94). The central action in the Gospels is made up largely of theological and ethical disputes between Christ and priestly representatives of Second Temple Judaism.

Following the incident on the Sabbath, the Pharisees began watching Jesus closely. Observing Jesus’ miraculous healings, they accused him of conspiring with demons, to which he offered a firm rebuke (Matt 12:22-37). Demons, Christ said, couldn’t cast out demons like he could – or by analogy kingdom divided against itself could not stand (Mark 3:24). Jesus’ discourses drew larger and larger crowds, and on one occasion a sermon near Lake Galilee drew so many that he preached from a boat so that more people could hear him (Matt 13:1-3, Mark 4:1). Once they’d learned about the miraculous healer in Galilee, people began coming to see Jesus from the cities on the coast, from the towns east of the Jordan, and even the distant territory south of the Dead Sea.

On another occasion, the Pharisees and some associated scribes confronted Jesus because his followers didn’t wash their hands prior to eating. Jesus essentially told his critics that for the sake of pedantically pursuing non-Biblical ethical practices like ritual washing, the Pharisees hypocritically disregarded important aspects of the Torah.23 It’s a slightly inconsistent argumentative move, considering Jesus himself has rejected and dismissed the practice of the Sabbath, but at any rate Jesus told all those present that it wasn’t what you ate that defiled you, that your actions – what came out of you – were what made you what you were, and he added that the Pharisees were like blind people leading other blind people (Matt 15:1-20, Mark 7:20-3).

Following the discussion about hand washing, the Pharisees later confronted Jesus, asking him to perform a miracle for them. Jesus said that they’d see nothing of the sort, and that the only sign that they would see would be something he calls “the sign of Jonah” (Matt 16:4) – meaning his own resurrection, as he knew that he would eventually, as Jonah had, disappear into darkness for three days and then reappear once more. In a later dispute with the Pharisees, Jesus was asked if divorce were permissible. When Christ said no, the Pharisees cited Moses’ law in the Book of Deuteronomy (24.1-4) explaining the divorce process. Christ said God had created, and then married Adam and Eve, and that this original act trumped everything else.

In an incident unique to the Book of John, Christ spoke with a Pharisee leader called Nicodemus, who asked him how a divine being can be born when he was already old. Jesus’ response, while it ignored Nicodemus’ question, crescendoed with one of the Bible’s most famous verses – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). Also unique to John, and absent in many major manuscripts, is the story of an adulteress about to be stoned to death due to the mandates of Mosaic Law.24 This story is one of my – and many other people’s – favorite passages in the Bible, and it’s short enough to quote here in its entirety – let’s hear it in the good old King James version.
And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, they said unto him, “Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?” This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not. So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground. And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, “Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee?” She said, “No man, Lord.” And Jesus said unto her, “Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.” (John 8:3-11).

It’s an superb narrative from start to finish, embodying so many aspects of Christ’s presence in the Gospels – his punchy and unassailable one liners, his audacious disregard of the more savage and counterproductive aspects of Mosaic Law, his occasional moments of fearsome self assertion, and at the same time, his almost unexpected compassion and forgiveness. [music]

Christ’s Healings, Miracles, and Exorcisms

While Jesus continued to startle and contradict Judea’s religious leaders in dispute after dispute, and hold audiences captive with eloquent and aphoristic speeches, he also attracted attention due to the supernatural things he could do. These supernatural things can be subdivided into healings, miracles, and exorcisms. Let’s start with the healings. Jesus’ healings occur throughout the Gospels. In Matthew alone, he healed a leper, and then a servant, then Peter’s mother-in-law. He caused a paralyzed man to be able to walk again, brought a girl back to life, cured a woman who suffered from hemorrhages, brought a second girl back to life, cured two men’s blindness, made a mute man able to speak, then made a blind mute man able to see and speak. His healing powers were so great that even by touching the edge of his cloak, the sick were made well again (Matt 14:35-6). Early in Mark, his healings were what most immediately brought him fame, leading crowds of people to mass around his house. Luke adds an episode in which Christ healed a woman who could not stand up straight (13:10-14), and another in which Christ healed ten lepers at once (17:11-19), and was disappointed when only one of them thanked him. The Book of John includes a long episode involving a man called Lazarus, a friend of Jesus and the brother his disciples Mary and Martha. Jesus actually let Lazarus die and lie in his tomb for four days before momentously resurrecting him in front of a crowd, which in the Book of John was a principle reason for the high priest Caiaphas and his followers wishing to execute Jesus (Luke 11:1-55) since Christ, however legitimately divine, might bring about the end of Israel and Judaism as they knew it.

The Jesus of the Gospels is unambiguously a divine being capable of supernatural miracles, but not all of them involve healing. In the midst of a storm, while on a boat with some of his disciples, Jesus rebuked the winds, and the winds stopped (Matt 8:23-7; Mark 4:37-9). In another boat related miracle, Jesus went to pray atop a mountain by a lake. When the boat he’d used to cross the lake drifted away during a windy night, the next morning Jesus walked across the surface of the lake as his disciples looked on in awe (Matt 14:22-36).

Some of Christ’s miracles were for public good. While out in a remote area, mourning the death of John the Baptist, Jesus was flocked by crowds – crowds so excited to see the Messiah that they seemed to have forgotten their lunch boxes. Fortunately for everyone present, Jesus took the five loaves of bread and two fish that his disciples had with them and, through his divine power, fed 5,000 men, and also the women and children who were with them (Matt 14:13-21, Mark 8.1-10, Luke 9:10-17, John 6.1-13). He repeated the process later, feeding 4,000 men and those with them. The episode is reminiscent of Moses feeding the Israelites in the wilderness following the exodus (Ex 16, Num 11). In a variation of it in the Book of Luke, Jesus filled the nets of his disciples with fish after a long day they had spent fruitlessly trying to catch anything. And the famous water into wine episode only takes place in John, at a wedding reception about fifteen miles west of the Sea of Galilee, and it was more of a party trick than an act of welfare for the needy, being curiously, the very first miracle that Christ performs in the Book of John (2:1-11). Incidentally, you’ll never guess which Ancient Greek God was also associated with being able to make wine miraculously appear from water. Yes, of course, Dionysus.25

Mosaic of the exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac from the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo

A mosaic from the Basilica of Sant’Apollinaire Nuovo, done during the early 500s, showing the exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac, complete with quadrupeds on the right obviously intended to be pigs.

Anyway, interspersed between Christ’s healing and other miracles in the Gospels are his exorcisms. Possession by demons was evidently a pretty common thing that went on in Judea in the early first century, because Jesus exorcised a quite a few demons. The Book of Mark, in its first chapter, features a scene of Christ performing an exorcism in a synagogue, and in doing so astounding the religious leaders there (Mark 1:23-7). Generally speaking, stories about the exorcisms range from passing references (Matt 8:16) to colorful short narratives. In one curious story, Christ exorcised a demon called Legion from a man, really a number of demons all in one, and at the demons’ request, Jesus sent their spirits into a herd of pigs, and the pigs dashed off a cliff into the ocean, after which local townspeople asked Jesus to please be on his way (Matt 8:28-34; Mark 5:2-13). Whether these townspeople were freaked out about the unusual exorcism or miffed about their livestock herd, we are not told. It’s an odd story until we remember that the earliest Christians were Jews whose cultural history taught them to associate pigs with Gentile nonbelievers, and so the casting demons into a pig herd may have been a sideways dig against those who eat pork. And in a final scene related to exorcism, on another occasion, after the pig herd scene, a man’s epileptic son, once cured by Christ, proved to have been possessed by a demon (Matt 17:14-10, Mark 9:17-29).

Put simply, Jesus’ healings, miracles, and mass feedings were in step with those of Moses and Elijah in the Old Testament – generally beneficent uses of supernatural capacities designed to benefit and instruct others. But Jesus’ miracles were also divisive. Insofar as they won him followers amidst Judea’s citizens, they also caused Judea’s religious leaders great anxiety. And Caiaphas, the Temple high priest, after observing Jesus bringing a man back to life, summoned the Temple council. The Temple council debated about what to do with Judea’s rabble-rousing miracle worker, and Caiaphas suggested an extreme course of action. He said to the other religious leaders, “[I]t is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:50). With the ire of Judea’s religious elite aroused, then, the action of the Gospels begins in earnest. [music]

Growing Friction Between Christ and the Priestly Caste


Caravaggio’s Salome with the Head of John the Baptist (1607). The murkiness of the painting, while of course Caravaggio is known for light and shade, is appropriate to the story of Salome in the New Testament, itself narrated with such terseness and lack of ornament.

As Jesus’ fame grew, regardless of the increasing danger he was in, he and John the Baptist oversaw and performed baptisms in parallel in different regions of Judea wherever they could find water and converts (Luke 3:22-4). But then, Jesus’ friend John the Baptist ran into some bad luck. The voluble hermit had made the mistake of criticizing one of the sons of the dead King Herod. This son’s name was Antipas. As we heard earlier, Antipas was of the second generation of the Herodian dynasty, having less power than his father had, and serving as a tetrarch in the outlying regions of Judea, rather than ruling the whole thing, as Herod the Great had. Anyway, John the Baptist’s qualm with Antipas was that Antipas had married Herodias, the wife of Antipas’ deceased brother. We should note that Jesus himself is also explicitly anti-divorce at several junctures in the Gospels (Matt 5:32, 19:3-9; Mark 10:10-12), saying that divorce was the same as adultery. Antipas wanted to kill John the Baptist straight away, but he knew John the Baptist was an influential public figure, and in Mark, we are told that Antipas actually also enjoyed listening to John speak after he’d imprisoned John (Mark 6:20). What pushed Antipas over the edge was as follows. Antipas had a half-niece named Salome – she was also his stepdaughter. One evening at Antipas’ estate, with poor John the Baptist locked down in a dungeon somewhere Antipas had a dinner party. And this dinner party, his stepdaughter Salome, at her mother’s behest, danced before the company, most readers presume, in a very sensual manner, although for all we know it was break dancing or Zumba. Whatever the exact nature of Salome’s performance at this fateful party, afterwards Salome asked Antipas for the head of John the Baptist on a platter, as her mother had told her to. And reluctantly, Antipas complied – the hermit was beheaded in prison, his head carried in, and I imagine the party at that point became very awkward. And that wraps up the story of Salome and her mother Heroidas, certainly one of ancient Roman world’s tales of wicked female step family members. Quick side note here – there is actually a non-Biblical account of John the Baptist’s death that survives in the Jewish historian Josephus’ book Antiquities. In the historian Josephus, there’s no salacious dancing at a party, but instead, Josephus tells us, “Herod [Antipas], who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion. . .thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause.”26 From a purely historical perspective it’s an interesting and lamentable tidbit of information on what could happen to popular and unorthodox religious leaders in the region of Galilee, like John the Baptist and Jesus himself, and it also matches what we just heard Caiaphas saying about Jesus himself a moment ago in the Book of John, written right around the same time Josephus wrote his histories.


Titus Flavius Josephus (c. 37-100 CE) mentions both John the Baptist and Jesus in his historical works – an extremely important non-Christian source text on the early history of the religion.

And incidentally, while we’re on the subject of Josephus, this historian, who lived from about 37-100 CE, also mentions Jesus Christ at two points in his book The Antiquities, most definitively when he mentions James as “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ.”27 Titus Flavius Josephus, a Romanized Jew at work under the patronage of the Emperor Domitian in the early 90s CE, was not a Christian and had no reason to invent a historical personage named Jesus, and so these references are strong historical evidence that Christ was indeed a real person. About 25 years after Josephus mentioned Jesus in is historical works, the Roman historian Tacitus described how “Christ. . .had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius [Pilate].”28 Tacitus, also not a Christian and far from it, had no reason to make this story up. So, occasionally you may hear someone telling you that Jesus didn’t exist at all – while neither I nor anyone else can be sure of historical events that happened thousands of years ago, I wanted to make sure at some point in this program to say that there’s very solid evidence outside of Christian writings that Jesus was a real person, and that a broad consensus exists on the subject across the academic and spiritual communities and everyone in between.

Anyway, to return to the Gospels of New Testament, the death of John the Baptist, along with increasingly threatening whispers from the priestly community, may have been what compelled Jesus to reveal to his disciples who he really was. Jesus revealed his divinity to his disciples in different ways throughout the Gospels, but in most cases it occurs midway through each narrative at a juncture when his ministry had gained momentum, and his followers had already, in the wake of witnessing his miracles, begun to understand that their teacher was a very special person. In Matthew, Christ asked his Apostles whom they thought he was, and Simon guessed correctly that Jesus was the son of God, after which he asked them not to reveal his divinity to anyone (Matt 16:13-20). Jesus’ injunctions of secrecy were strongest in the Book of Mark (1:43-5, 8:29-30, 9:9), while in the Book of John (4:26) he was much more willing to declare himself as divine, but there is a tension in all four narratives between Christ’s readiness to perform healings, feedings, exorcisms, and other miracles on one hand, and his unwillingness, even when under trial in Jerusalem, to simply explain and demonstrate his identity. The usual explanation for his reticence about his identity and guardedness about performing miracles on command is that he expected his presence to be self-explanatory, and we’ll talk about this a bit later.

In the Gospels, Christ’s revelation of his divinity was followed by some less positive news – he told his Apostles that he was going to eventually go to Jerusalem to die and be resurrected (Matt 16:21), and even that he would be condemned, tortured, and crucified before his resurrection (Matt 20:18-19). Hearing all of this, the Apostle Peter remonstrated, asking Jesus to reconsider, and to stay with them and guide them. But Jesus refused their petitions, this particular moment of the Gospels calling to mind figures like the imprisoned Platonic Socrates, and earlier, Sophocles’ Antigone. Following the revelation of his true identity, the disciples saw Jesus transfigured into a deific form, dressed in white, conversing with Moses and Elijah (Matt 17:1-3, Luke 9:28-31). [music]

Jesus’ Arrival in Jerusalem and Further Confrontations with Priestly Legalists

After numerous ominous prophecies to the Apostles about his impending destruction at the hands of Jerusalem’s officials, Jesus finally directed his course to the holy city.29 He chose to enter the gates while riding a donkey, symbolizing that unlike, say, a Roman general astride a triumphant warhorse, he was entering in peace. Thronged by followers who had spread their coats on the road to cover his path, Jesus made for an unusual spectacle, and then began to cause quite a stir. Directing his course to the lavish Second Temple that Herod the Great had expanded and remodeled five decades earlier, Jesus chased away the merchants and currency exchangers, and those who sold sacrificial offerings, assaulting sheep and cattle with a whip made of cords to chase them out, telling everyone that the temple was no place for mercantilism (John 2:15-6). Mark adds that “he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple” (11:16), and scholars assume these acts of protest took place in the Court of the Gentiles, an outer area where anyone passing through Jerusalem was allowed to visit, whether they were ardent pilgrims or curious Roman tourists.

Theodoor Rombouts - Christ Driving the Money-changers from the Temple

Theodoor Rombouts Christ Driving the Money-Changers from the Temple (1600s). The scene in the Gospels is a violent one, with Christ physically attacking the Second Temple’s normal mercantile operations.

Side note here. Historians presume that one of the main things that happened in the Court of the Gentiles at the Second Temple in Jerusalem was that pilgrims and pious citizens of the city would show up in order to have an animal sacrifice made on their behalf – animal sacrifice, as we’ve learned throughout our podcast, was ubiquitous in the Ancient Mediterranean, including, of course, Judea. One of the things Jesus physically attacked in the temple courtyard was the tables of “those who sold doves” (Mark 11:15) – in other words the market stalls of merchants who sold doves, or common and inexpensive sacrificial offerings, to people who would then give them to temple priests to sacrifice. One of the main differences between the New Testament and Old is that while the Old Testament vigorously requires and codifies sacrificial practices – especially throughout Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, the New Testament does not, though we should recall that sacrifices are made for baby Jesus at the Jerusalem Temple as part of a purification ritual (Luke 2:22-4). So, not long after Jesus overturned the temple market stalls, one of his converts summarized Christ’s thoughts on the Pentateuch’s legalism. The convert said, “You are right, Teacher. . .‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ – this is much more important than all. . .burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Mark 12:33), one of a number of moments in the Gospels in which the fairly simple dictates of Christ are contrasted with the elaborate rules lists of the Pentateuch.

Anyway, as Jesus’ first day in Jerusalem drew on, handicapped men and women approached him in the temple, Jesus cured them, and the priests and scribes who ran the temple watched him warily. Jesus spent the night in a suburb outside of the city, and headed back the next morning. On the way in, feeling hungry, he went over to a fig tree. Seeing it bereft of figs, Jesus condemned it, saying “May no fruit ever come from you again!” (Matt 21:19), and the fig tree withered. We don’t know why this happens, exactly – Mark tells us that Jesus “found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs” (11:13). As with everything in the New Testament, a whole lot of ink has been spilled over this recurring and puzzling scene. The Gospels are filled with references to Judea and the Jerusalem Temple as things that have borne no fruit, so there’s obviously a metaphorical subtext to the episode, even though Jesus seems to literally just be mad at a tree for not being in season. But I think the scene with the fig tree is actually endearing in its own way – here’s why. In the Old Testament, Yahweh kills uncountable Jews and non-Jews alike, slaying firstborn sons and hurling plagues and drowning an army and demanding impalements, and on and on. In the New Testament, Jesus gets a little bit grumpy and causes a fig tree to wilt, indicating that he deals with frustrations in a bit mellower fashion than his father. I think anyone who’s carrying the weight of the universe on his shoulders and is about to be crucified who just wants a damned fig for breakfast is entitled to a peckish outburst.

To move on, not fearing confrontation, Jesus headed directly back to the temple where conversed with elders and chief priests. Jerusalem’s leaders wanted to know who he was, and on whose authority he acted, but Jesus was elusive in his responses, offering them parables about Jerusalem as akin to a mismanaged vineyard that was failing to produce any fruits. Not entirely dense, the elders and priests intuited that Jesus was talking about them – he was implying that they were the inept vineyard managers (Matt 21:28-40). Wanting to arrest him immediately, but fearing a groundswell of opposition from his supporters, the elders and priests held their tongues, and Jesus hit them with another parable. A king, Jesus said, held a wedding for his son, and none of the royal guests showed up, and later, when formally summoned, the royal guests murdered the king’s messengers. The king retaliated by razing their city and killing them, instead inviting a mishmash of guests from out on the streets. The meaning, obviously was that the elected officials of Jerusalem, like the arrogant royal wedding guests, had disdained the offer to come to the kingdom of god (Matt 22:1-10).

Reeling, the Pharisees tried to trap Christ into saying something incriminating. They asked him if one should pay taxes to the Roman emperor. Looking at a coin with the emperor’s face on it, Jesus said “Give. . .to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt 22:21, Mark 12:17, Luke 20:26). I’ll editorialize for just a moment here and say I think that this is an ingenious little verse, encouraging as it does compromise with certain aspects of Roman rule when necessary, but not being overly specific. Judea’s two full scale insurrections against Rome in the First Jewish-Roman War of 66-73 CE and the Bar Kokhba Revolt of 132-5 resulted in two of antiquity’s great tragedies, with Jerusalem losing catastrophically both times, and so Christ, telling all present to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, offers hardheaded, pragmatic advice about how to sustain a minority religion in the dangerous provinces of the Roman Empire – especially once the theocracy seated in Jerusalem was dissolved by Hadrian.

The Pharisees then asked Christ more stumper questions, and eventually he launched an all-out verbal assault on them. He said they swore on the wrong things. They gave donations to the Temple but failed to act ethically. They practiced cultivating outward appearances of piety but neglected piety in their hearts. The city of Jerusalem, Jesus said, was a sanctimonious murderer of prophets (Matt 23:16-39).

Having spoken his piece, Jesus descended from the temple, gesturing around him as he departed, and saying, in Matthew, “You see all these, do you not? Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (Matt 24:15-22, Mark 13.14-20, Luke 21:20-4). These verses foretelling the Temple’s destruction, as I said earlier, are one of the ways we date the composition of Matthew – the prophecy Jesus speaks here, to biblical scholarship, is generally accepted as proof that Matthew was composed after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE under the early Flavian Dynasty. Jesus had other dark forewarnings for what was coming for Judea, concluding that the temple would crumble and everything else would take place before the end of the current generation. But he also had luminous promises about the beauties of the kingdom of heaven and those willing to take the chance to pursue it, comparing such people to those willing to invest money and earn interest on it, rather than those who just bury their money in the ground, or the so called Parable of the Talents (Matt 25:14-30). [music]

The Trial and Crucifixion

The scribes and high priests of Jerusalem had found Christ a formidable presence – at best a skilled and adroit debater, and at worst a dangerous agitator and threat to their power. The actions of Jesus, as he knew they would not, did not go unpunished. Priests and Elders convened in the quarters of the high priest Caiaphas. They had to be careful, they knew, about plotting to kill the popular religious leader, in order to avoid a riot. Fortunately for them, one of Christ’s Apostles, Judas Iscariot, proved willing to betray his religious leader when the temple officials offered him thirty pieces of silver (Matt 26-5, 14-16). Luke tells us that Satan possessed Judas to take the actions that he did, and Judas promised the temple officials and police that he would lead them to Christ when Christ was alone and not protected by a large crowd (Luke 22:3-6).30

That evening, Jesus washed the feet of some of his followers (John 13:1-11), and then sat down to the Last Supper with his twelve Apostles and told them something awful – one of them would betray him. Judas, along with the others, insisted, “Surely not I, Rabbi?” and Christ replied, we imagine rather coldly and equivocally, “You have said so” (Matt 26:25). Thereafter, in Christianity’s first communion, Jesus pulled a piece of bread apart and gave his Apostles wine, telling them that these were his flesh and his blood, the latter of which “is poured out for many of the forgiveness of sins” (Matt 26:28). He said as for himself, the next time he had wine would be in heaven (Matt 26:29). An earlier discussion – a disputation, really – about the communion ritual occurs in Luke (6:48-59), but the emotionally heavy atmosphere of the Last Supper is where this sacred rite is carried out for the first time.

Later that night, Jesus and the Apostles went to a garden called Gethsemane. And in what is surely one of the most magnificently tragic passages ever written, in the Book of Matthew, Jesus prepared for his awful execution. Here’s the scene in the Book of Matthew, in the World English Bible translation.
Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go there and pray.” He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be sorrowful and severely troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death. Stay here and watch with me.” He went forward a little, fell on his face, and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass away from me; nevertheless, not what I desire, but what you desire.” He came to the disciples and found them sleeping, and said to Peter, “What, couldn’t you watch with me for one hour? Watch and pray, that you don’t enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Again, a second time he went away and prayed, saying, “My Father, if this cup can’t pass away from me unless I drink it, your desire be done.” He came again and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. He left them again, went away, and prayed a third time, saying the same words. Then he came to his disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Behold, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Arise, let’s be going.” (Matt 26:36-46)

To me, the passage’s power comes from the human side of Jesus emerging – the anxiety, the horror, the need for the simple, personal contact from friends in a moment of extreme trauma. Throughout the Gospels, Christ is sometimes frustratingly enigmatic, and at others, a figure like Prospero in Shakespeare’s Tempest, driving events along toward a foretold conclusion with an unrelatably emotionless serenity. Here, though, and particularly in Matthew, Jesus’ very human trepidation toward his fate feel less like a prophecy inevitably fulfilled, and more raw, and horrific, and heartbreaking. In Luke, he is so anguished that his sweat as he prays is portentously compared to drops of blood (22:43). And in contrast to these heartbreaking scenes, in the Book of John, in between the Last Supper and the Gethsemane episode, Christ offers an enormous discourse to the eleven Apostles still with him, calmly foretelling how his impending reunion with his father was all a part of the plan and seeming unperturbed by what he will soon endure (John 14-17), and John does not tell us of any anxiety or sadness on the part of Christ the night before his crucifixion, unlike all three of the earlier Gospels.

L Mazzolin Cristo ante Pilatos 1525 MFA Budapest

Ludovico Mazzolino’s Christ and Pilate (1525). The tragic figure of Christ stands out in the swirl of other personages in this sixteenth-century rendering of the trial scene. Pontius Pilate, while never quite adored in Early Christian history, was given respectful consideration for his attempts at clemency in the Pilate Cycle, a body of literature that unfolded through Late Antiquity.

To continue with the story, very early the next morning Judas arrived with a company of armed officers, and with priests and elders. He told his conspirators that he would kiss the person they were to arrest, and went and greeted and kissed Jesus, who only said, “Friend, do what you are here to do” (Matt 26:50). One the Apostles rushed to defend him, but Jesus told everyone to stand down. He could summon armies of angels if he needed to, he said, but what was going to happen had to happen. There are some differences in Gospels in terms of what leads to Jesus’ actual conviction. The first part of the legal proceedings is a showdown between Christ and the high priest Caiaphas. The scene is slightly, fascinatingly different in Matthew and Mark – in both, the high priest Caiaphas tells Christ “I put you under oath before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the son of God” (Matt 26:63, Mark 14:61). In the Book of Mark, Jesus says breaks a long silence by saying “I am” (14:62), while in Matthew and Luke, he says, “You have said so” (27:64) and “You say that I am” (22:70). In all three cases, Caiaphas felt that he had seen unambiguous evidence of blasphemy, and he condemned Jesus to death. Judas threw away his silver, repented, and hung himself.31

The next step in the legal proceedings was trial before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. Pilate asked Jesus about the charges laid against him, but Jesus was stoic and silent. The trial process is most extensive in the Book of Luke. In the Book of Luke, Pilate finds no reason to charge Jesus of anything – Jesus is from Galilee, and so he’s under the jurisdiction of Antipas, that son of Herod the Great who had John the Baptist’s head chopped off. Herod was happy to see Jesus and wished him to perform a miracle, but Jesus refused to do this, and refused to even speak, and so Antipas sent Jesus back to Pilate (Luke 23:1-12). With Christ back in his custody, at an assembly, Pilate said in the Book of Luke, “You brought me this man as one who was perverting the people; and here I have examined him in your presence and have not found this man guilty of any of your charges against him. Neither has [Antipas], for he sent him back to us. Indeed, he has done nothing to deserve death. I will therefore have him flogged and release him” (Luke 23:14-16).32

At this, the crowd at the trial burst into commotion. Pilate remonstrated with them, but in addition to the sudden and unaccountable desire of the crowd for the crucifixion of Jesus, it was Passover, and the custom for Passover was to release a prisoner. And Pilate ultimately gave the crowd assembled at the court a choice – they could have a criminal called Jesus Barabbas released, or they could have Jesus the Messiah released. The crowd, high priests and other religious officials were emphatic, and Mark makes clear (15:11) that it was high priests who fomented the crowd into a murderous mood. A sudden groundswell of public rage at Christ himself arose from the mob. Jesus, the spectators there said, had to die. Pontius Pilate felt powerless in the abrupt river of rage. He washed his hands in front of the assembly, telling them that he was innocent of what was about to happen, and the crowd proclaimed, “His blood be on us and our children” (Matt 27:26). The execution proceedings then began.

Let me pause for just a moment and say that this juncture of the crucifixion trial scene was of intense interest to later chroniclers and authors of apocryphal scriptures – texts from Late Antiquity like the Report of Pontius Pilate and the Handing Over of Pilate paint an extremely laudatory portrait of the Roman governor, though, regrettably, this same body of literature is bent on vilifying the Jews present at Christ’s trial – for instance the Apocryphal Gospels of Peter and Nicodemus, from the late 100s and the 300s, respectively, emphasize the Jewish role in Christ’s crucifixion even more strongly than the canonical Gospels do.33 By the 700s or 800s CE, when an apocryphal text called the Vengeance of the Savior was written, chroniclers were imagining a full scale Roman massacre of the Jewish population of Judea, and as the story was retold through the Middle Ages, the culpability of the Jews became a standard refrain of tales that circulated about the crucifixion, largely due to a few stray verses in the Gospels.34 To state the obvious, this kind of clannish thinking is hideous and stupid, and people take all kinds of nasty things from all kinds of religious scriptures. To state the slightly less obvious, the historical Jesus was most likely executed for the same reasons that the historian Josephus reports John the Baptist was executed – these were both popular public figures teaching unorthodox creeds in a fragile society in which an entrenched and politically connected clergy very jealously guarded its power and sway with the populace. After Rome formally embraced Nicene Christianity in 380, various Christian authorities, from the fourth century onward, would aim their own crosshairs at competing branches like the Gnostics and Manichaeans, and some of the earliest apocryphal but popular anti-Semitic literature that survives from Christian sources dates from just this same period.35

Anyway, to continue the story of the Gospels, Jesus was put in a scarlet robe, and briars were twisted into a crown of thorns and placed on Christ’s head as a mockery for the fact that he had been called the King of the Jews. He was spat on, and struck with a reed in mockery of a royal scepter, and then the robe was removed. Jesus refused any wine to numb the pain, saying in the Book of Luke, “Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34), and was crucified at nine in the morning, a common criminal on the crosses to his right and left, one mocking him, the other revering him, his clothes taken and divided between guards. At noon, murky clouds fell over Judea, until at three in the afternoon, in Mark, Christ abruptly cried out “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” (Mark 15:34) Aramaic for “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The impassioned and agonized Christ of the Book of Mark at the moment of his death can be contrasted with the comparable stoicism of the Book of John’s Jesus in his last moments, who merely remarks “It is finished” (John 19:30).36

As Jesus took his final breath, a great curtain on the temple suddenly ripped into two pieces, and a Roman centurion blanched, remarking, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Mark 15:39), and that Jesus had been an innocent, righteous person (Luke 23:47). A man named Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the temple council who had not agreed that Christ deserved execution, asked Pontias Pilate for Christ’s body. Joseph of Arimathaea had it wrapped in linen and taken to a rock tomb, which he had sealed with a large stone. Joseph of Arimathaea, by the way, only gets a very brief appearance in the canonical Gospels, but in the fourth century apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, which was extremely popular, he’s a much more central figure with a longer narrative surrounding him.37 In the Book of John, three Marys watched Jesus’ execution – his mother, his maternal Aunt Mary, and his follower Mary Magdalene (19:25-6). And it is with them that the story of the resurrection picks up, and the narrative told comes to its unexpectedly joyous ending. [music]

The Resurrection

Several days had passed. When the Sabbath was over, Jesus’ follower Mary Magdalene, along with his mother Mary went to look for the Messiah at his tomb, in order to anoint him with some spices they had purchased. Another quick note here. In Jesus’ entourage as an itinerant minister, there were evidently women comingled with men – Luke names “Joanna. . .Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources” (8:3), suggesting that some of the earliest Christians were, and were funded by women. Anyway, to move things forward, the two Marys were startled when a white clad angel appeared at the entrance to Jesus’ tomb, (two figures in the Books of Luke and John, by the way), and this angel told them that Christ had risen from the dead, but was located elsewhere – he was in Galilee.38 When the two women left, guards hurried to Jerusalem to tell priests and elders about the angel’s appearance at Christ’s tomb. The priests and elders bribed the guards, telling them to lie and say that they’d fallen asleep, and Jesus’ disciples had carried his body away at night. While the religious officials of Jerusalem proceeded with their nefarious cover-up, Jesus’ followers looked for their resurrected savior.

The reunions between Jesus and his followers are narrated differently from Gospel to Gospel. In Matthew, the two Marys met Jesus on the way to Galilee, and he greeted them warmly. In Luke, the story is a bit different – Christ talked with a group of his female followers in disguise extensively before revealing his identity (Luke 24:1-31). In the Book of John, the Apostle Thomas wouldn’t believe that the returned stranger was Christ until Jesus let Thomas poke his finger through the nail and spear holes in Christ’s hands and side. At Galilee, then, (or in the Book of Luke, Jerusalem), with his eleven remaining Apostles, Jesus gave them a speech much briefer than some of his other orations in the Gospels, telling his followers, in the Book of Matthew,
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matt 28:18-20)

The ending in Matthew is a rousing and famous directive to all subsequent Christianity to proselytize on his behalf, a moment that biblical scholars call the Great Commission. In Luke, Jesus then ascended upward to heaven (24:51). The Book of John tells us in its closing verse – the last verse of all the Gospels, “But there are also so many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25). And while each Gospel ultimately ends on a note of awe and majesty, I’d like to close this summary of the Gospels with an adorable and idiosyncratic moment at that only occurs in Luke and John, near the very end. Reunited with his disciples, Jesus had trouble, for a moment, convincing them that he was real. And eventually, he told them,
“Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as I have.” While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence. (Luke 24:40-3)

Now I’m just editorializing again here, but the moments that have led up to this scene have been so unexpectedly cheerful, embedded as they are in such a largely tragic story, that the verses seem to me to have a discernible tinge of lightheartedness. Here, we have Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, asking his friends if they have a bite to eat. As with the Gesthemane scene, only in a moment of celebration rather than triumph, we meet the human, vulnerable side of Jesus. And he eats neither manna, nor ambrosia, nor honey, nor any of the Roman delicacies we read of in Petronius and Juvenal, but instead some good old fashioned broiled Jewish fish. For a figure who has so ardently championed economic equality and modest living, it seems a distinctly fitting meal, and for a deity who has given so much so recently, it’s heartwarming to see him ask for, and receive something small back in return. [music]

The Ethical Core of Christ’s Words in the Gospels

Now in everything we’ve discussed so far, we’ve paid almost no attention to the words of Christ, which make up over third of the Gospels.39 There are long stretches of Jesus sermonizing in which seemingly every other sentence includes something that has become colloquial in the Anglophone world and beyond. In the Book of Matthew, for instance, Jesus’ ministry begins with a lengthy tract called the Sermon on the Mount, obviously modeled off of Moses’ speech in Exodus, spoken to Jesus’ followers. The five pages of this sermon are a stunning collection of observations and adages ubiquitous in the Christian world – the meek will inherit the earth (Matt 5:5), the salt of the earth (Matt 5:13), looking on someone with lust is committing adultery in one’s heart (Matt 5:28), turn the other cheek (Matt 5:38), judge not lest ye be judged (Matt 7:1), do unto others as you would have them do to you (Matt 7:12), take the narrow path (Matt 7:13), and the long version of the Lord’s Prayer (6:9-15) – “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name,” and so on. Hearing Christ’s opening speech in the Book of Matthew, the crowds listening to him were overwhelmed, but this is only the first of Christ’s great speeches in the Gospels. If there is a comparably famous moment late in Christ’s speeches in the Gospels, it might be in the Book of John, in which generally speaking, Jesus is a bit less ambiguous about his divinity to those who come to see him. Christ tells an assembly in the Book of John, “I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever” (John 6:48-51). From cryptic parables to much clearer assertions of his role as a savior, Christ’s speeches are a wellspring of pervasive expressions and ideas in European cultural history, and beyond. So let’s take a minute to go through some recurring thematic elements and rhetorical devices in the words of Christ as they’re printed in the Gospels.

Raphael, The Miraculous Draught of Fishes. Vatican Museums

Raphael’s The Miraculous Draught of Fishes. In his ethical teachings as well as his miracles, two of the cornerstones of what Jesus communicates in the Gospels are charity and nonviolence.

In contrast to the Old Testament God, who goes through the Israelites, and their enemies, and the various indigenous peoples of Canaan like a meat grinder and sanctions numerous genocidal campaigns, Jesus’ acts of aggression are limited to the aforementioned episode in which he compels a fig tree to wilt. In terms of counseling his disciples to do violence, we find nothing of the sort. In fact, to Jesus, the commandment not to kill is insufficient – he says in the Book of Matthew one shouldn’t even insult others or allow oneself to be angry at them (Matt 5:21-4). To the Pentateuch’s copy and paste from Hammurabi’s Code, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” Jesus emphasizes that violence is never acceptable – that one should turn the other cheek, and surrender to the ravages of thieves (Matt 5:38-40). Forgiving others is a central part of Christ’s ethical teachings – asked by an Apostle how many times one should forgive a brother, and whether seven is too many, Jesus says 77 is not too many (Matt 18:21-2), and Christ tells Peter that every time one prays, Peter must forgive anyone with whom he is angry (Mark 11:25-6). In fact, the only explicit counsel to do violence in Christ’s teachings is a hyperbole telling believers to do violence to themselves if they find themselves transgressing: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell” (Matt 5:29-30, also Mark 9:43-8). The imagery here is extreme, but Christ’s counsel for violence is about the maintenance of personal rectitude rather than purging a foreign nation of an ethnic out group of nonbelievers, as we see so often in the Old Testament.

Intertwined with Christ’s counsel toward nonviolence and forgiveness is his requirement for humbleness. In Luke, he says, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you” (Luke 6:37-8). What’s envisioned here is a community of reciprocal modesty and generosity, based on the collective fallibility of all its members. The judgmental, Christ maintains, criticize others while overlooking their own faults. In Matthew, he asks, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (Matt 7:3), telling an audience that they need to tend to their own deficiencies before concerning themselves with the transgressions of others. Human civilizations, Christ emphasizes, may have existent hierarchies, but his manifestation and ministry requires everyone to be on the same level. “The greatest among you,” he says in Matthew, “will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matt 23:12).

I can’t imagine this is unfamiliar stuff to most of you, but it’s still worth going over. Collectively, Christ’s teachings as they’re printed in the New Testament advocate nonviolence, humility, forbearance, and forgiveness. And to this mixture of tenets, Christ adds one more, and this is, broadly speaking, charity. Jesus tells his followers in the New Testament’s opening sermon that “You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matt 7:24), and throughout his words in the Bible there is a pervasive warning about pursuing money. The familiar metaphor that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich person to get into heaven appears throughout the Gospels (Matt 19:24, Mark 10:23, Luke 18:25). The doctrine of charity had deep roots in Judaism by the time of Christ’s birth, appearing in the Pentateuch’s counsel to leave harvest gleanings for widows and orphans, in the Proverbs (19:17), and closer to Jesus in the Christian mind, Isaiah, who writes, “divide your bread with the hungry / and bring the homeless poor into your house; / when you see them naked. . .cover them” (59:7).40 But Christ lived in a different world – an intercontinental empire riven with staggering income inequality unlike anything humans had seen up to that point. We read together a few episodes ago in Apuleius about the often gruesome privations of the Roman underclass in the cities, and can read in the physician Galen what life was like for the peasantry out in the provinces. Galen, who was born about a hundred years after Christ’s death, writes that in a typical harvest cycle,
[W]hen summer was over, those who lived in the cities, in accordance with their usual practice of collecting a sufficient supply of corn to last a whole year, took from the fields all the wheat, barley, beans and lentils and left to the rustics only. . .some vegetables, for they took away a good portion of these as well. So the people in the countryside, once they had consumed the meager pittance left to them and with still half the winter to get through, were forced to eat all kinds of unhealthy fodder. Spring found them eating twigs, shoots of trees, bulbs and roots or noxious plants and wild vegetables, which they boiled and reboiled to make them taste less like green grass. I myself saw some of them at the end of spring covered with ulcers which ate into their skin, and these ulcers were of many different kinds: some people were suffering from [skin infections], others from inflamed tumors, and others from boils that spread all over their body, while others had a noisome eruption on their trunks that looked like lichen, and the more advance cases had developed scabs and leprosy.41

For the working classes of Rome’s provinces, then, poverty could be entrenched and generational. And Jesus’ family in Nazareth would have had it especially hard in the three decades before he began his ministry. In addition to being subalterns beneath Roman rule, they were also subject to the secondary power structure of the Herodian tetrarchs. And Jesus also has a personal bone to pick with the wealthy priestly caste of Judea.

He writes in Mark, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation” (Mark 12:38-40). In other words, as if the predations of the Roman Empire weren’t enough, the plowmen, homemakers, fishermen, and carpenters of Judea had to deal with their tithes going to a puffed-up, pampered, sanctimonious sect of priests. I want to talk a little more about Jesus and the Pharisees later, because I think the Gospels’ presentation of the Pharisees is a bit negative and simplistic, but for now, in this general discussion of Christ’s ethical teachings, we can conclude that he had a fiercely critical perspective on the wealthy. From what he had seen growing up, he would have had every reason to.

Cropped image of Pythagoras from Raphael's School of Athens

Pythagoras in Raphael’s The School of Athens (1511). Beginning in the sixth century BCE with sects like the Pythagoreans and Orphics, we begin to have a written record about minority cult religions associated with vegetarianism and mindful living – cults who may have themselves been influenced by early Hinduism and Buddhism brought westward during the Achaemenid Period. While the history behind this cross-pollination is probably irrecoverably lost, Christianity’s pacifism and communitarian ethics are were once mirrored in Jewish separatist sects like the Essenes and Therapeutae, active during the life of Christ.

The ethical aspects of Christ’s teachings in the New Testament had ample historical precedents. Stoicism, Cynicism, and before them Platonic philosophy had encouraged living modestly and with a bare minimum of possessions, investing oneself in spiritual pursuits and disdaining earthly pleasures. Zoroastrianism had been counseling righteous conduct and posthumous judgment for a thousand years, Egyptian theology had been doing so for perhaps two thousand years already, and a number of widespread cults and mystery religions were making salvation and the afterlife common notions throughout the Roman world and beyond by reigns of Augustus and Tiberius. Humbleness and modesty are frequently counseled in the proverbs and wisdom literature of the Ancient Mediterranean and Near East, and humbleness and modesty are the ultimate takeaway lesson of many of Ancient Athens’ great tragedies – characters act with conceit and hubris in these Greek plays before gods and other humans, and are cast down as a result, the story of so many plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. The form of Jesus’ debates with Jewish officials – public orational disputations, have a long history in the rhetorical culture of the Ancient Mediterranean, dating back at least back to the very beginnings of democratic Athens, his responses ranging from the enigmatic indeterminacy of sophism to the measured clarity of Cicero’s philosophical works. What is perhaps most novel and striking about Christ’s teachings, considering the gargantuan prehistory of written texts we’ve covered in this podcast, is his unambiguous doctrine of nonviolence. Doctrines of nonviolence existed in the world prior to Christ – the Mahabharata, produced in roughly the same timeframe as the Old Testament, repeatedly emphasizes ahimsa, or non-violence, as the paramount virtue, and this virtue is a central part of the history of Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism, appearing first among Buddhism’s five precepts. These eastern doctrines of nonviolence were likely a part of the ideology of the Orphics and Pythagoreans in the central Mediterranean, whose beliefs in reincarnation, vegetarianism and mindful living may have come westward during the early Achaemenid Period – or 500s BCE. During and a little before Jesus’ time, perhaps another influence on his pacifism may have been the sect of the Essenes, those enclaves of believers who practiced a modest asceticism and ducked out of many of the conflicts that rocked Judea during the Second Temple period.42

Whatever exactly the Essenes practiced, though, in the Mediterranean basin, the Gospels present us with a striking emphasis on the idea that all violence is ethically wrong – that it is better to suffer than to cause suffering in others. Now, admittedly, the sixth of the Ten Commandments in Exodus is “You shall not murder” (Ex 20:13). But this admonition comes only a few verses after Yahweh growls that he is capable of “punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me” (20:5), and the subsequent stories of the Israelites’ wanderings in Numbers and Deuteronomy, and military incursions into Canaan in Joshua, Judges and beyond contain so much divinely sanctioned killing, ethnic cleansings, pregnant women ripped open and infants dashed apart on rocks that the consistency of Christ’s counsel for nonviolence in the Gospels stands out in sharp relief when set next to the Pentateuch, Historical and Prophetic Books of the Old Testament. There is, however, one small exception. While the Book of John’s Jesus Christ is the most stoically divine, the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, and Luke has a bit more vehemence, understandably considering the fate he has to suffer. And in one of the most startling and unexpected verses in Matthew, Christ tells his disciples, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (10:34). Let’s talk about this, and dive a bit deeper into the ethics and mechanics of the Gospels. [music]

The Literary Devices of the Gospels

There are several junctures of Matthew, Mark, and Luke that, speaking only for myself personally, are a bit like listening to a nice folk music record that gets interrupted for a verse or two here or there straight out of death metal. The folk part is the New Testament – inclusive, warm, and familiar. The death metal part is the Old Testament – exclusive, foreboding, and bloody. Let’s hear that sword verse in context. Christ tells his disciples in Matthew, in the King James version:
Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven. Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household. (Matt 10:32-6)

And to continue this speech in Luke, Christ says, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:26). Now, clearly, these verses do not explicitly condone violence. But literally read, Christ here says that he has come to divide people from one another, and that his followers must, contrary to the fifth commandment, hate their parents, and follow only him. These verses are certainly ones liable to make us pause, but I think that just a tiny bit of background helps explain their presence in the New Testament.

The Gospels are many things to many people – a revelation, a valuable historical document, a heresy, a guide on how to live, and so on. One of the many things that the Gospels are are works that use a number of literary figures. These include metaphor (Matt 7:7-8), foreshadowing (Mark 1:7), paradox (Matt 16:25), parallelism (Matt 7:7-7), simile (Matt 28:3), puns (Matt 16:18), allusions (John 8:58), idiomatic expressions (Matt 23:24), dramatic irony (John11:49-50), dozens of parables, and more. But perhaps the most striking aspect of the Gospels’ style is their use of what is called a chiasmus. You know what a chiasmus is, even if you’ve never heard the word before. Here are three examples of chiasmus from the Gospels, all the words of Christ.
Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last. (Luke 13:30)

[A]ll who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted. (Luke 18:14, Matthew 23:12)

For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. (Mark 8:36)

A chiasmus has a mirrored structure, essentially going A – B – B – A, or blue green, green blue. The chiasmi printed in the Gospels have inspired some of the most wonderful sentences in Anglophone literature. John Milton, surely as familiar with the Bible as one can be, has Satan say to his demonic army in hell, “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n.”43 Even more thunderously, toward the end of the tenth chapter in his autobiography, Frederick Douglass tells his reader, “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.”44 The structure of the chiasmus is an exciting reversal, both syntactic and ideological. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians of Jesus that “though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). The Holy Spirit in Revelation is likened a door “who opens and no one will shut, / who shuts and no one opens” (Rev 3:7).

Chiasmi are everywhere in the Bible, and subsequently everywhere in Christian culture, from the early chapters of the Book of Genesis, when God tells Noah, “Whoever sheds the blood of a human, / by a human shall that person’s blood be shed” (Gen 9:6). In the New Testament, the chiasmus is part of a larger rhetoric of revolution and reversal of fortune – some who are last will be first, the meek will inherit the earth, what was spoken in the dark will be proclaimed in the light, those who are hungry will be filled, those who weep will laugh, the poor will inherit the kingdom of heaven, and the merciful will receive mercy. In an elaborate chiasmus in the Book of Luke (6:21-5), we are told that the poor will be rich, the rich will be poor, then the hungry will be full, and the full will be hungry, then the weeping will laugh, and the laughing will weep. These poetic, prognosticative statements are a major part of the way Christ describes his coming, the often simple syntax of the Gospels built atop a complicated substructure of literary devices.

To return to the sword verse, then, Christ’s “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword,” and the subsequent, potentially troubling statement that one must hate one’s father, and mother, and spouses, and children, and even life itself, I think these lines, whatever we make of them, show the rhetorically charged energy of the Gospels at play. The rhetoric of the Gospels is again a rhetoric of revolution and reversal – everything, the Gospel authors emphasize, is going to change. In a moment of hyperbole, perhaps, wanting to say something equally powerful and provocative about what following Christ requires, Matthew and Mark go so far as to say that Christ’s arrival requires the annulment of all prior human connections and total renunciation of the world. It is a severe demand, and unless we live in monkish solitude, an untenable one, but it suits the radical rhetorical style of the Gospels.

To say one final thing about that sword verse, Christ says he brings a sword, rather than peace, he continues, “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” These are, again, uncharacteristically grim verses of the Gospels, and in addition to considering them in the rhetorical context of the Gospels, we should also consider them in the historical context of the decades between 60 and 90 CE. The authors of the Gospels, at work during these decades, lived during years of crisis and catastrophe for the province of Judea. Life for provincial commoners was notoriously bad beneath Rome’s rapacious administrations, but by 73 CE, when the ink on the Book of Mark was still wet and Matthew was being set down, Judea had lost tens of thousands in the recent war with Rome, Jerusalem had been lost and the temple pulverized, and the promise of justice and deliverance Christ makes throughout the Gospels, which writers like Saint Paul earnestly believed was going to happen at any time, showed no sign of being fulfilled any time soon. On the contrary, as the first Christians and their children and grandchildren came of age, they found that they were another node in a divided and dangerous world, and perhaps Christ’s darker prophecies are meant to foretell that this will be the experience of these first generations of believers.

Ambrosius Francken (I) - The Last Supper

Ambrosius Francken’s The Last Supper (1500s).

There’s a lot more to say about Christ’s teachings in the Gospels, not the least of which is some of the major parables – the lost sheep, the birds of heaven and lilies of the field, of the mustard seed and the wedding feast, the vineyard and the wise and foolish builders. I feel as I so often do like I’ve barely scratched the surface, but we’re already deep in this episode and still have a ways to go. To wrap up the strictly theological parts before we move on to discuss textual history and cultural context a bit more, I want to turn to perhaps an unexpected figure – the Roman poet Publius Papinius Statius. We read Statius’ epic, the Thebaid, completed some time around 92 CE, a story about a war that took place in the aftermath of Oedipus’ death at Thebes. As in all Greco-Roman epics, the Olympian gods see it fit to get themselves involved in human affairs, ringing around the humans like gamblers at a cockfight, backing their factions regardless of awful consequences to humanity. Things get gory, the brutality climaxing when one warrior eats his nemesis’ head and skull and brain. And Statius’ gods, almost more than any other pantheon we meet in Greco-Roman literature, are malevolent – a dark cabal of almost Lovecraftian monsters, bloodthirsty to say the least, and in the end, so sickened by what they have done that they abandon humanity.

The Thebaid, along with the last two gospels, Luke and John, were likely produced around the time of the final Flavian emperor, Domitian, who ruled from 81-96. Their theology, obviously, is diametrically different. The Thebaid presents us with the Olympians, timeworn, selfish, always entertaining, but a bit difficult to revere – the subject of every conceivable artwork and speculation for a thousand years of Mediterranean history who were slowly falling out of fashion. The Gospels show us something else – a synthesis of some of the more advanced and appealing ideologies that had emerged into the Hellenistic world after Alexander the Great died in 323 BCE. From a purely theological perspective, all of the core elements of the New Testament had precedents in the pagan movements that preceded them. Nonetheless, there is in the Gospels a boundless energy that crackles off of the pages, an earnest and exalted conviction that the most important thing that will ever happen has just happened, and that everyone on earth needs to know the good news, in marked contrast to the flagging enthusiasm with which Statius and others were writing about the Olympians.

Second Temple Judaism and Early Christianity

Well, now that we’ve been through the story, and you have a sense of Christ’s teachings in the Gospels, and we’ve talked just a bit about their technical architecture, let’s move forward. Like any reader, I have my pet interests in the Bible, and in the case of the Gospels, I have always been captivated by the central conflict of the narrative – the conflict between Christ and the religious authorities seated in Jerusalem. In the Gospels, this conflict is essentially a contest between a brave young hero and a group of wicked and scheming obstructionists, repeatedly called a “brood of vipers,” who ultimately conspire to kill him. While Jesus’ Jewish enemies are variously identified as scribes, priests, and high priests, to these official titles the Book of John, again the final Gospel, adds “Jews,” as though Jesus’ quarrel is with an ethnic group rather than a group of specific religious officials. The Book of John, by the way, seems to have been written with a gentile, or at least Greek-speaking audience in mind – John pauses to translate various Hebrew words like rabbi (20:16), not assuming his audience will be familiar with Hebrew or Aramaic.45 Anyway, in my opinion, the central conflict that drives the plot of the Gospels, however it may have been historically based, exaggerates the schism between Jews and Christians in the first several centuries CE – modern scholarship increasingly sees evidence that various sorts of Jewish Christianity flourished during this period. Scholar Daniel Boyarin writes that Judaism and Christianity, for their first three centuries “were part of one complex religious family, twins in a womb, contending with one another for identity and precedence, but sharing to a large extent the same spiritual food.”46 We should remember that Rabbinic Judaism today, based on the Babylonian Talmud as a tool to interpret the Torah, did not solidify until centuries after the birth of Christ, and that numerous Jewish Christian scriptures allegedly existed – the Gospel of the Ebionites, the Gospel of the Nazareans, and others – that collectively point to a broad percolation between Jews and the earliest Christians.47

Tissot The Pharisee and the publican Brooklyn

James Tissot’s The Pharisee and the Publican (1886-94). The complexity and elastic nature of first century Jewish theology doesn’t often come across in the Gospels, which tend to depict Jesus’ priestly adversaries as stuffy legalists, extremely prejudiced toward new ideas. Late books like 1 Enoch, 2 Enoch, and Jubilees show Judaism moving in radical new directions in the later Second Temple period.

If we just read something like the Book of John, it seems that the Jews of 30 CE or thereabouts were just one thing, crystallized and fully formed by the time Jesus came along. They were not. A wide variety of divergent practices and beliefs existed within Judaism during Jesus’ life. The Dead Sea Scrolls, most of which were produced in the century or two before life of Christ, when they were discovered in the 40s, showed us that all kinds of things were going on in Judaism at just one tiny outpost just west of the Dead Sea. We have long known about the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes, but it’s important to remember that especially the former two were political as well as religious sects, that the broader populace of Judea had lived cheek to cheek with Zoroastrians and Greeks for several centuries, and that the diasporic population of Jews scattered abroad throughout the early Roman Empire would have had different and regionally informed perspectives on their religion and the events happening back home in the fatherland – different perspectives than the perspectives of those who had remained there. Christianity began to emerge into this complex world after the life of Christ as Saint Paul and other Apostles set up base camps around synagogues and other religiously tolerant spots along the Aegean rim, a process we’ll soon read about in Acts and the Epistles. There were theological tiffs between Jews and Christians early on, as the New Testament occasionally tells us, but for generations they were more like family quarrels rather than brawls between groups unfamiliar with one another.

This takes us, then, to the subject of the Pharisees, a group at the axis of ancient Jewish history during the late Second Temple period. I want to talk about the Pharisees for a moment here, because having read a fair number of ancient and modern sources on this group, it’s my opinion that the repeated disparagement of the Pharisees in the Gospels actually misrepresents the extent to which Christ and the Pharisees shared a great deal of common ground.

Let’s return to an earlier quote. Jesus tells a group of listeners to “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation” (Mark 12:38-40). And Luke describes “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money” (Luke 16:14). However they’re derogated, and whatever they’re called – priests, high priests, scribes, Sanhedrin Council members, Pharisees – the religious officials who argue with Jesus are a sort of Socratic foil, their clumsy attempts at criticism and self assertion uniformly crushed beneath Christ’s torrent of parables, castigations, and punchy questions. They are depicted as morally and argumentatively inferior, but also conniving and abominable, a largely faceless group whose stuffy legalism is easily dispatched by Jesus’ verbal assaults. In the face of his visible miracles, rather than being persuaded to believe in his divinity, they only convince one another more and more that he is a threat to their way of life, and in all the Gospels, it is not the Roman provincial administration responsible for Christ’s conviction and death, but instead a mob, fomented into fury by high priests.

For two thousand years, many readers have taken these extremely negative depictions of Jerusalem’s religious leaders under the Emperor Tiberius at face value. The Pharisees and the other conspirators appear powerful, entrenched, entitled, smug, pedantic, jealous, and sadistic. But in depicting the clergy of Jerusalem in this way, the Gospels wildly misrepresent who the Pharisees were in the longer historical timeframe, and what they were up to.

Now this will be familiar material if you listened to my recent full length bonus program on the Essenes, Pharisees and Sadducees, but I hope a review will be tolerable. During the Hasmonean Dynasty in Jerusalem, which began in 140 BCE and concluded in 37 BCE, the Pharisees and Sadducees increasingly concretized into opposing groups. Their differences were as follows, in order of importance – and listen carefully, because this is a little bit tricky. The Sadducees believed that the only source of Jewish law was that which was printed in the Old Testament’s Pentateuch. The Pharisees, on the contrary, believed that a supplementary oral law was necessary to interpret, clarify, and codify some of the more tangled and confusing aspects of the Bible’s 613 Commandments. Next difference – very important. The Sadducees did not believe in the afterlife. The Pharisees did. Next difference. Though both groups were politically active, the Sadducees were wealthy and socially prominent, and the Pharisees’ power came from popularity with the common people. Next difference. The Sadducees were open to Hellenization and the use of the Greek language – some of their wealth came from their willingness to form partnerships with the Greeks and Romans of Judea. And in contrast, the Pharisees were anti-assimilationists who championed the traditional Hebrew and Aramaic of Judea.48

Due to their wealth, their elitism, their disbelief in the afterlife, and their cozying up to Greek and Roman customs, you would think that Jesus would aim his strongest volleys against the Sadducees. But instead, in chapter after chapter of the Gospels, Jesus spars with the Pharisees. And astonishingly, the Pharisees of the Augustan Age and just afterward had a great deal of common ground with the first generation of Christians. They both believed in resurrection after death and the afterlife, unlike the Sadducees and ancient Israelites who wrote Old Testament books like Job and Ecclesiastes. Probably partly as a consequence, the Pharisees, and later, the Christians, were both popular and populist, each sect teaching that the finery and wealth of the corporeal world were nothing next to the treasures of eternity. Both the Christians and the Pharisees believed that what was written in the Torah was not the final word, and that more teachings were needed to show people how to live. The Pharisees championed Hebrew and Aramaic, and Jesus and his disciples would have spoken these languages. Now, the Gospels tend to show the Pharisees as conservative pedants obsessed with Mosaic Law, and elitists out of touch with reality. But in fact, the Pharisees’ theological progressivism, their willingness to interpret and augment the Pentateuch by writing new laws like the hand washing we see in Matthew and Mark, and the growing popularity of their ideas about the afterlife in Jerusalem and beyond may have helped paved the way for Christianity catching on in the long run, even if key Pharisees of Christ’s generation were dead set against him.

The Pharisees were no angels, certainly. They often appear in Josephus’ histories as an unscrupulous lot – puppeteers behind the Hasmonean throne and demagogues with an angry populace at their beck and call. Their sect appears on the historical record around the time of the Maccabean revolt of the 160s, and from this time onward, as populist demagogues tend to, they stoked the nativist prejudices of Judea’s population, firing them up against Greeks and Romans who were immigrating – often, we should acknowledge, for understandable reasons, as these imperial groups threatened the longevity of Judea’s cultural traditions. So while I wouldn’t by any means propose the Pharisees – or any other historical group – as the good guys, I would encourage anyone who really wants to understand the Gospels to learn a bit more about the power blocs and ideological evolutions of Second Temple Judaism.

If we ignore the complexity of this history, and only read the Gospels, I think we’re also liable to underestimate the political vulnerability of Judea’s religious officials during Jesus’ life. The plots of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John show an underdog bandying words with a well-fortified theocracy, but at no point during the Julio-Claudian dynasty did the Sanhedrin of Jerusalem enjoy an untroubled rule. Rattled by sectarian tensions from within, and exposed to the marauding of Roman officials from without, Jesus’ foes in the Gospels were historically part of a colonized underclass, just like him, which the next century would so painfully prove.

The Pharisees would eventually be the architects of Rabbinic Judaism, one of the world’s major religions practiced today. More than the Sadducees, the Pharisees’ willingness to interpret the Torah through debate and commentary helped Judaism survive and flourish after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, when diasporic Jews no longer had a headquarters for their rituals and scholarly operations. While the New Testament depicts the Pharisees as enemies, through their beliefs in the afterlife, their restless ideological energy, and energetic literary culture, they were a much more important contributor to early Christianity than is commonly understood.

In the first century, then, nurtured in part by sectarian movements already happening within Judaism, salvation based monotheism exploded to life in Judea. Salvation based religions and cults had existed for a long time, but in the territories of Jerusalem and the provinces of the eastern Mediterranean, a perfect storm occurred. A magnetic figure, considered by so many today to be the son of God, appeared alongside a brilliant group of followers. An unusually battered province was in dire need of hope. By the 70s and 80s CE, this province had little going for it other than a central location between Rome and Parthia, a long recorded history, and an unusually bookish clergy, having been stomped to the ground so recently by Roman boots. But in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and the earlier epistles, we can see the priestly caste of wartime and postwar Judea blazing into action, and using the considerable power of their literary past to understand their dire present. And the verses they wrote, whether or not you consider them divinely inspired, during these traumatic, disenfranchised decades, became the most pivotal text in the Roman world, and afterward, far beyond. [music]

Moving on to the Book of Acts

Well that, folks was the Gospels of the New Testament and a bit of the history behind them. Honestly, there are people better qualified than me to cover these materials, and certainly others more attuned to the history of Biblical scholarship. The outline I wrote for this episode is only about half crossed out, and yet I do have to cut these programs off somewhere. Long as it is, though, this program has felt short to me as I’ve recorded it, lingering over these immense and poetically rich passages. But maybe that’s appropriate. One at a time, the Gospels are indeed short, considering their incomparable importance – episodic narratives of a rise and a fall and a gentle and sweet coda, martyr tales that end with hope, love, and broiled fish.

In the next show we’re going to move on to the Book of Acts, an action-packed historical narrative that’s easily the most important source text about the history of Christianity in the first century. Acts invites us to remember that at a certain juncture after the death of Jesus Christ, the Apostles and other disciples got together in a room somewhere, spread a map out on a table, talked strategy for a while, and then said “Yeah. Let’s do this,” before going out into a perilous world to give everything they had for the sake of their new religion. One of the most substantial historical documents of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, the second half of Acts is dominated by the gigantic presence of Saint Paul, probably the most important figure in all Christian history behind Christ. Paul, once a Pharisee and prosecutor of Christians, was a nuclear power plant of energy and ideas, not the least of which was that gentiles were more than welcome into the Christian fold – even if they didn’t observe all the laws of the Torah and ritually slice off parts of their penises. So next time, get ready for the greatest missionary adventure story ever, with the long and eventful narrative we call The Acts of the Apostles. I’ve got a long quiz on this episode at literat ureandhistory.com if you want to review what you learned – it’s there in the Episode Notes for you. For you Patreon supporters, another special treat – I recorded and soundtracked the entire Book of Ecclesiastes for you. If there’s one thing I keep thinking as I’ve worked through this season on the New Testament, it’s actually again and again that Second Temple Judaism is the understudied key to understanding some aspects of Early Christianity, and so I thought we could get together after the show, metaphorically speaking, and enjoy this tremendous Persian period wisdom book together – and remember the entire Book of Mark is up there on Patreon, too, from last time, in addition to dozens of hours of bonus recordings. Thanks for listening to Literature and History – got a song coming up if you want to hear it, and if not, I’ll see you next time.

Still listening? Alright, so check this out. If you study the history of the early church, and the ecumenical councils – those councils at which huge assemblies of church fathers met and hammered out doctrine together, you learn that one of their main points of contention was what we call Christology, or, the exact nature of Christ – how the human and the divine parts of him comingled, or did not comingle. Christology was at the heart of the First Council of Nicea in 325, the First Council of Constantinople in 381, the Council of Ephesus in 431, and the Council of Chalcedon in 451, and more still. This isn’t something we hear about much these days, nor something I imagine too many modern Christians are up late worrying about, but as we’ll hear about from time to time in this and the next season, it was of great interest to early Christian theologians, giving us fairly esoteric theological terms like Arianism, Apollinarianism, Monophysitism, Miaphysitism, Dyophysitism. Nestorianism, Eutychianism, Docetism, Adoptionism, Monothelitism, and other isms. As if the words describing these schools of thought aren’t complicated enough, the schools themselves are extremely confusing, having often very subtle differences from one another in their sense of the composition of Jesus Christ. So, anyway, long wind up there, but I decided to write a song about Christology, which will doubtless never make it on any musical sales chart in the known universe, but nonetheless reviews eight important schools of belief on Christology, and should give you a fun introduction to this subject if you’ve never been exposed to it before. Hope you like it, and again thanks for being a listener.

[“The Christology Song” Song]


1.^ My thanks to Lantern Jack of the Ancient Greece Declassified podcast for reading this in roughly period accurate Koine Greek.

2.^ John 3:14-17, KJV.

3.^ Having written entire programs on most of these (some in the bonus catalog), for Dumuzi I recommend The Descent of Inanna in Wolkstein, Diane and Kramer, Samuel Noah. Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth (New York: Harper and Row, 1983). For Baal, the tablets of the Baal cycle in Stories from Ancient Canaan, edited and translated by Michael Cogan and Mark Smith (Westminster John Knox Press, 2012). The longest source on Osiris written close to antiquity is Plutarch’s On Isis and Osiris. See Moralia Volume V. Translated by Frank Cole Babbitt. (Loeb Classical Library, HUP, 1936). Burkert’s work on the Eleusinian Mysteries (Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion: Archaic and Classical. Blackwell Publishing, 1977) remains excellent, and for a broader sense of Ancient Mediterranena mystery religions, Tripolitis, Antonia. Religions of the Hellenistic-Roman Age (William B. Eerdmans, 2002) and Meyer, Marvin, ed. The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook of Sacred Texts (UPenn Press, 1987) are terrific sources on Eleusis and other cults, including those of Mithras, Cybele, and Adonis. Dionysus Zagreus is challenging to pin down, but The Orphic Hymns – Translated and with an Introduction and Notes by Apostolos Athanassakis and Benjamin Wolkow (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013) is a good intro to the surviving Orphic literature from the Christian period, just as Edmonds, Radcliff. Redefining Ancient Orphism (Cambridge University Press, 2013) is a fantastic study covering what we actually know about Orphism. The Old Anatolian Myths (see Hoffner, Harry A. Hittite Myths. SBL, 1998, pp. 9-39) of disappearing gods likely belong to this general tradition, though their state of preservation is quite poor.

4.^ See Coogan, Michael, et. al. The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha: New Revised Standard Version. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 1791, 1746, 1827, 1879.

5.^ See NOAB pp. 2041, 2074.

6.^ See Millard, Alan. Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus. Sheffield Academic Press, 2000, pp. 132-53 for an overview of the literary culture of Judea under Herod.

7.^ For the dating see The Apocryphal Gospels. Ed. Bart D. Ehrman and Zlatko Pleše. Oxford University Press, 2011. Kindle Edition, Location 3877.

8.^ For the dating on Mary see Meyer, Marvin, ed. The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. HarperOne, 2007, p. 739, and on Philip, p. 160.

9.^ The Harmony of the Gospels (1.2).

10.^ Maybe most notably the “Two Gospel” hypothesis of J.J. Griesbach, published in 1789, which argued that Matthew came first, then Luke second, and then Mark, who borrowed from both.

11.^ The early bishop Papias of Hierapolis, quoted in Eusebius, held that Matthew had collected the sayings of Jesus in Hebrew and used these as the foundation of his Greek language Gospel.

12.^ Adolf von Harnack, in The Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries (1904) concludes with an assessment that Christianity was a syncretic fusion of many cultural patterns that had arisen during the Hellenistic period. His successor Rudolf Bultmann takes things several steps further, dismissing the supernatural elements of the Bible and reading the New Testament as a piece of existential philosophy.

13.^ Markus Bockmuehl, “‘To Be or Not To Be’: The Possible Futures of New Testament Scholarship,” SJT 51 (1998): p. 302.

14.^ Excepting the Orthodox Tewahedo Church, whose canon preserved these books.

15.^ 1 En 92:4-5 show a compressed and standard Hasmonean era oracle of a savior, though the book has dozens of similar ones. Jub 10:8-11 is Jubilees’ scene of God and Satan making an agreement. 1 Enoch’s visions of heavenly rewards for the pious are clearest in 40:1 and 104:2.

16.^ Printed in Coogan, Michael, et. al. The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha: New Revised Standard Version. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 1039. Further references to this text will be noted parenthetically with chapter and verse.

17.^ See NOAB, p. 1767n.

18.^ For the dating see Ehrman and Pleše (2011), Location 463.

19.^ In Luke the remark is made to general audiences, rather than Pharisees.

20.^ The episode is short and cryptic in Mark, compressed into a single verse (1:13).

21.^ Mark includes a briefer episode in which Jesus and his disciples are confronted for not fasting (3:18-20).

22.^ At an especially remarkable juncture (Matt 19:16-22), Jesus pares down the commandments list to just six and tells a young man that if he wants to go above and beyond keeping these six, he should sell his stuff, give the cash to the poor, and come and follow Christ directly. Later (Matt 22:37-40), Jesus emphasizes that the just two are the most important – honoring god and loving one’s neighbor. Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho is an early example of a Christian scholar trying to synthesize the legalism of the Old Testament and the revelations of the New.

23.^ Ritual bathing comes up more extensively in Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 840, a fragment of what’s perhaps a lost Gospel harmony. In it, Christ disparages a Pharisee priest for his attention to physical cleanliness (which, in the papyrus, Christ says, prostitutes and courtesans themselves do for the sake of vanity), and neglected his spiritual wellbeing, making a similar argument to the one in this canonical scene. See The Apocryphal Gospels. Ed. Bart D. Ehrman and Zlatko Pleše. Oxford University Press, 2011. Kindle Edition, Location 3578.

24.^ See NOAB, p. 1895n.

25.^ See Pausanias, Description of Greece (6.26.1-2).

26.^ Ant 18.5.116-19. Printed in Delphi Complete Works of Josephus. Delphi Classics, 2014. Kindle Edition, Location 25515.

27.^ This is Ant 18.9. Much more famously is the “Testimonium Flavianum” within Antiquities (18.3.3). The passage has received an immense amount of attention, though most now believe it to be spurious, a fascinating subject but one that was a bit too much to get into in this already enormous program.

28.^ Tacitus. Histories XV.44. Printed in the Delphi Complete Works of Tacitus. Delphi Classics, 2014. Kindle Edition, Location 12438.

29.^ The episode actually occurs near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in John (2:13-23).

30.^ Christ’s agency in Judas’ betrayal is even stronger in John (13:26-7), in which Jesus gives Judas a piece of bread, after which Satan immediately enters Judas’ spirit.

31.^ This suicide occurs only in Matthew (27:5). Curiously, Acts (1:18) contradicts this story, telling us that Judas used his silver to purchase a field, but died there in a mysterious fall that somehow made his guts spill out. The Judas of Acts, then, is a much more remorseless figure than the Judas of Matthew.

32.^ Pilate also explicitly finds Jesus innocent in John, although John omits the episode with Antipas (John 18:28-19:16).

33.^ E.g. Gospel of Peter (1, 23, 25, 48, 50, 52), Gospel of Nicodemus (1:1, 1:2, 2:1, 4:3, 5:2, 9:1, esp 4:1, 9:2, 9:4, 12:1). Amazingly, by the time of Tertullian, there was a legend that Pilate had converted (Apol 21:24), and Pilate was even recognized as a saint in the Coptic church, following the general trend of all the Pilate literature (such as the Report of Pontius Pilate (5-6), and the Handing Over of Pilate (5,10) the baldly anti-Semitic Letter of Pilate to Claudius, and even more murderous Letter of Tiberius to Pilate. The Vengeance of the Savior (17) may mark the climax of the anti-Semitic tradition of the Pilate cycle).

34.^ On the dating of this text see The Apocryphal Gospels. Ed. Bart D. Ehrman and Zlatko Pleše. Oxford University Press, 2011. The story was widely circulated in Jacob of Voragine’s The Golden Legend, one of the most popular miscellanies of the Middle Ages.

35.^ Bart Ehrman and Zlatko Pleše (2011) note 500 surviving copies of Nicodemus A, in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Aramaic, Armenian, Georgian, and Old Slavonic (Location 5090).

36.^ See also John 12:27-8, 14:30-1, 17:1-5. The view of Christ as stoic and unmoved at the moment of his crucifixion is clear in the apocryphal Gospel of Peter (10), in which the text emphasizes that Christ seems to feel no pain upon being nailed to the cross. In a synthesis of John’s consumatum est and Mark’s Eloi, Eloi, the Christ in the apocryphal Gospel of Peter (19) remarks, “My power, O power, you have left me behind!” before ascending. See The Apocryphal Gospels. Ed. Bart D. Ehrman and Zlatko Pleše. Oxford University Press, 2011. Kindle Edition, Location 4717. In the fourth century Gospel of Nicodemus (ibid, Location 5447), it is “Father. . .Into your hands I and over my spirit” (11:1).

37.^ Ehrman and Pleše (2011, Location 5156) note 500 extant manuscripts of Nicodemus, a gospel which exists in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Aramaic, Armenian, Georgian, and Old Slavonic.

38.^ His resurrection in the apocryphal Gospel of Peter (38-41) is more explicitly supernatural – Christ appears as a giant with his head above the clouds!

39.^ With NOAB’s estimate for the percentage of Christ words in Matthew (43%), Mark (20%), Luke (37%) and John (34%) and the length of these four books being Matthew (18,346 words), Mark (11,304 words), Luke (19,482 words) and John (15,635 words), it’s easy enough to calculate that Christ’s words make up about 35% of the Gospels.

40.^ Additionally 1 Enoch (56.7, 94.7-8, 96.4, 97.8-10).

41.^ Galen 6.749-52. Quoted in McLynn, Frank. Marcus Aurelius: A Life. Da Capo Press, 2009, pp. 453-4.

42.^ See Chadwick, Henry. The Early Church. Penguin, 1993, p. 14.

43.^ PLu> 1.254-5.

44.^ Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave. Cosimo Classics, 2008, p. 39.

45.^ The tendency in John to generalize about the Jews as the antagonists of the Gospel narrative (rather than a specific subgroup of priests or temple officials) seems to have been influential in second century Christianity, the Johannine school influencing Gnostic cosmogony’s disparagement of Yahweh as a demiurge, Marcion’s disregard of the Old Testament and epistles other than Paul’s, and similar villainizations in texts like the apocryphal Gospel of Peter (e.g. 1, 23, 25, 48, 50, 52) the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus (e.g. 1:1, 1:2, 2:1, 4:3, 5:2, 9:1, esp 4:1, 9:2, 9:4, 12:1), and the Report of Pontius Pilate (5-6, 10).

46.^ Boyarin, Daniel. Dying for God: Martyrdom and the Making of Christianity and Judaism. Stanford University Press, 1999, p. 6.

47.^ Irenaeus (Against Heresies 3,11,7) mentions the Ebionite gospel, and Epiphanius quotes this text a number of times in his Panarion (30:13-22). Origen quotes the Gospel of the Nazareans at several points in his Commentary on Matthew, as does Jerome in a title of the same work, and Eusebius in his Theophania.

48.^ This is a slippery dichotomy to pin down. My sources include Gelb, Norman. Herod the Great (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013, Locations 274-86); Johnson Iles, Sarah. Religions of the Ancient World: A Guide (Harvard University Press, 2004, pp. 185-7); Saldarini, Anthony J. Pharisees, Scribes and Sadducees in Palestinian Society (William Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001, Locations 241-8); and of course Josephus’ Antiquities (13.10.7, 8.10.6, 16.16.1-2, 17.2.4, 18.1.2-4, 20.9.1) and The Jewish War (1.5.2-3, 8.10.5). The Gospels (Mark 12:18-23 and Luke 20:27-33) confirm the notion that the Sadducees denied the idea of an afterlife.