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Christians and Scripture

Christians and Scripture: Chapter 1


Production of the Gospels

I want to examine how, when and why the Gospels were produced. I intend to work these problems from a very down to earth point of view, asking fundamental questions about people's needs in the environment found at the time of Christ and then using these answers to make my «educated» guesses.

1. What was the role of «scribes»?

Any society needs some form of «bookkeeping» : there are financial transactions, deeds, official documents, religious documents, letters, etc. to be written in a neat and orderly fashion. Scribes were people who provided these services. They were secretaries, notaries and accountants.

Someone who required their services was not necessarily unable to read or write; scribes provided texts that were far superior in presentation to what the casual writer could produce.They provided expert handwriting as well as grammatical and spelling accuracy. They also knew how to express the thoughts of others while writing a text easy to understand.

Scribes could have been used as «reporters» : people who took down what was going on and what was being said. Their employers could then be admirers of the speaker or religious and state authorities intent to keep abreast of what was going on in their jurisdiction.

2. What was the language of communication in Palestine in Jesus' time?

In Jesus' time, most inhabitants of Palestine probably spoke the Greek of the time, known as «koine», the «common» language, as well as their own dialect, which varied with their particular area. At the time Hebrew was probably a mostly dead language, still used at the Temple, but not very much elsewhere.

The Hebrew Bible had been translated into Greek in Alexandria by 200 BC. According to tradition, this translation was accomplished in a short time by seventy Jewish scholars, and so it became known as the Septuagint, a term that means seventy. Now, why was this translation necessary, if not because Hebrew was dying as a spoken language among Egyptian Jews?

Jews did not live only in Palestine and Egypt but all over the known World. It follows that their original language, Hebrew, was rather useless nearly everywhere they lived. Furthermore, Palestine and Egypt had been overrun by the Greeks centuries before Christ; so the «official» language there, the one spoken by the courts, army officers, tax collectors, rich people, etc. was certainly Greek. Business transactions were in Greek as were the official records. In fact, some of the Jewish books of the Roman Catholic Bible were written directly in Greek and so lack an Hebrew version. This lack explains why they were removed later by Jewish rabbis from their official Hebrew «Bible».

When in Jesus' time, pilgrims came to Jerusalem to pray at the Temple, the language by which they could communicate with other pilgrims and the locals was Greek. The Roman authorities spoke Greek. If Jesus spoke directly to Pontius Pilate, it would have been in Greek. This was surely the language spoken by the Jewish authorities to the governor and the language by which he communicated with the crowd. The three languages of the Cross were Latin (to signal that the sentence was handed down by the Roman governor), Hebrew (to spite the Temple Priests) and Greek (to be understood by most who could read).

So when it came time to write down what Jesus did or said, and later what His followers did or said, it had to be in Greek. Any other language would have had very limited use. So why it is so improbable to many that the Gospels would have been written in Greek from the beginning? Who knows, the Sermont on the Mount might have been given in Greek also. Is not this as plausible as Aramaic?

Notice that Jesus' followers writting in Greek does not entail their immersion in Greek culture any more than the use of English in India, for instance, entails that its peoples know or accept the English culture. Greek was just their language of communication. Using the Septuagint meant that Jews could keep their identity and religion while using the Greek language. After all, the Gospels' writers could not have been exposed to Greek ideas even if they wrote in Greek as this would have required them to be part of the idle rich.

The Septuagint, have I said, is a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures made by Jewish scholars two hundred years before Christ. Unfortunately, the Greek text they produced is somewhat erroneous and thus does not say exactly the same thing as the original Hebrew. This is one of the reasons the Jewish Scholars later rejected it. On the other hand, it has been shown that the various Gospel writers usually quote the Septuagint version as they quote the bad Greek translations of the original Hebrew. This again seems to reinforce the idea that they would have worshipped in Greek rather than Hebrew, and thus would have used the Septuagint as their «Hebrew» Scriptures.

The fact that the Gospel writers refer to the Jewish Scriptures in their Septuagint version is the first reason why I will from now on refer to the Hebrew Scriptures as the Septuagint. The second is that my Church, the Roman Catholic, recognizes as part of Scripture all the Jewish books that formed the Septuagint in Jesus' time. The third is that I want to avoid the term «Old Testament» to describe these books as I find this term derogatory to the Jewish people: the term «Old» is not meant here as a term of fondness; on the contrary, it implies that that their Scriptures are passé, «history».

3. When and why were the Gospels written?

I do not see how the time of writing of the Gospels can be dissociated from their purpose. Texts cost money, they require «paper» and a scribe. It is thus something that is produced only when there is a real need.

The followers of Jesus were not all poor; and some were educated. Scribes are mentioned constantly in the Gospels. They were there to take down what was said, at least the same day as it was said. Obviously not everything that Jesus said was written down. But what some considered most relevant was taken down during His ministry, just as was done for the Prophets. It follows that the core of Jesus' sayings and actions were written down during His lifetime, in one form or another, but obviously not in the form of our Gospels.

Soon after Jesus's death and resurrection the disciplines started preaching outside Jerusalem and Palestine. And quickly their followers were thrown out of their old synagogues. What were they to do?

They needed their own places to meet for prayer as well as their own prayer services. They kept using the Septuagint which they read not only as predicting Jesus' actions, death and resurrection but also as the basis of Jesus' teaching. But if Jesus was what made them outsiders to the Jews, and if the Septuagint was the Book of the Jews, doesn't it follow that Christians needed a sacred book that would distinguish them from the Jews? The story of Jesus was what convinced them to become Christians. This story caused them to be kicked out of their synagogues, frowned upon by their friends and attacked as trouble-makers. Was it not imperative that this story be written down for use as a written witness to Jesus?

So the Christians' ejections from the Jewish synagogues would have forced the writing of the Gospels in their present form.

It is also the case that Christians preachers needed authoritative texts on why one should be (or become) a Christian as they started to preach far and wide. You try to convince the people of the Book by a book, the one of the Good News.

The way the message was quickly disseminated in different towns and villages, East and West, and in different countries by a lot of different people makes it more likely that the Christian Book would differ according to the region and the «writer»; but I believe that the four Gospels that all the Christian Churches consider authoritative form a coherent whole, without any inherent contradiction as far as the essential points. That the Gospel texts do not agree word for word on lots of sayings of Jesus does not worry me. What would worry me is if they would have to be interpreted in such a fashion that a fundamental contradiction would appear.

As time goes by the more likely it becomes that outside influence, different in each community, would interfere with the final texts, causing ever greater discrepancies. Great variants could mean that the texts would have been a long time evolving before finding their present form. We could thus find fundamental contradictions between the Gospels.

Some important Christian preachers met in Jerusalem around 45 A.D. No disagreement regarding the story and sayings of Jesus is found in the Acts' report of this meeting. Furthermore none is mentionned during the time of the writing of the various Canonical Epistles or of those of the Apostolic Fathers.

The only problem for the proclamation of the Gospel that needed to be addressed at Jerusalem around 45 A.D. had to do with the degree of Judaisation that pagans had to fulfil to become Christians. As this problem is not treated by Jesus in any of the Gospels, the major players in the proclamation of the Gospel needed to meet to decide what to do about something not covered by their sacred books.

Indeed Jesus did not say that one was to do away with circumcision as this is not one of the prescriptions of the Law that He either did away with or changed by something else. Both He and His apostles had been circumcised. On the other end, circumcision applied to Jews only as it differentiated them from goyim. So a debate followed.

No Gospel author invented a story where Jesus solves this problem. Luke, for instance, could have done so instead of having Peter and Paul debate it in the Acts of the Apostles. This he obviously could not have done if he had finished his Gospel years before or, of course, if he was truthful and honest.1

It has been noted that Paul's expectation of the end of the world changes as he gets older. While in his first letters he suggests that it will happen very soon, he admits his ignorance in his last ones. Jesus seems to say that the end will be soon.2 Editorial changes could have been done to correct such passages. This again requires dishonesty as well as late writing.

For all these reasons, I conclude that all the Gospels were in their final form by 38 A.D. at the very latest. But I do acknowledge that this conclusion is totally at odds with all the biblical scholars. So I will try to show that their dates (something like two generations later) are not at all believable.

I consider that all four Gospels had to exist in their final form at the very latest around 65 A.D. as there is no mention of the siege of Jerusalem or the destruction of the Temple, facts that would have been mentioned as they were the proof that the Old Covenant was naught and that Jesus was right.

The author of the Acts of the Apostles, who states that he also wrote the Gospel according to Luke, describes events up to around 62 A.D. Even the Book of Revelation does not mention the destruction of the Temple, something that would have fitted very well in such a book. So it is a fair bet that the whole of the texts of the New Testament were written before 65 A.D.

I know that this is not what is generally accepted by biblical scholars; but I just do not see how people would have waited even 30 years to produce the Gospels : that is a exceedingly long time. By then the Gospel was being preached in probably more than a hundred places. All that without any books?

I consider that the reading of Paul's letters to congregations started after that of the Gospels. These letters would first have been read only to their intended recipients, and certainly not over and over. Copies were then made available to other congregations as they were highly thought of. While this process is described in the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, there is no mention of such a process about the Gospels. Why? Because their introduction was not news as they had been read from the beginning.

This is also why Paul does not mention it as such. He mentions teaching the «Good News» which he himself received. This could refer to the teaching found in a book, though, I must admit, not necessarily. But why is it that it does not matter who preaches, Appolo or Paul? Is it because the same message, the same «Good News», the same book is expanded upon by one or the other? Rabbis taught in their synagogues after prayer with and reflexion on a text of Scripture; would not Christian preachers have done the same? Would they not have reflected on a written passage from the Gospels in whatever shape it was then? The Jews read from the Torah in their services; would not Christians have done the same from their Holy Book, whether we call it Gospels or the Apostles' reminiscences as Julian Martyr did?

It is said that the reflexions found in the Gospel of John require it to be of late date. I do not see why. The later a document like a Gospel appears after the others, the more it would be looked upon with suspicion.

John's main objective is to make crystal clear the fact that Jesus is the embodiment of God, God's Expression, God's Word. He considers that this point was not emphasized enough by his fellow Gospel writers. He assumes that his readers already know the Synoptics as he does not mention the sayings of Jesus already found there as long as he finds them well reported. But, as a first-hand witness,3 he corrects and complements the Synoptics.4

If the Gospels were all written before 40 A.D., there would indeed be some witnesses to the actual events to consult and to vouch for their accuracy on the essential points.5 It certainly makes sense to assume that those who had been part of Jesus' group during His lifetime and believed in Him after His resurrection would have wanted to report what Jesus said and did and what He meant to them. Those people would have wanted their experience of Him put down for others. We are not here talking about a trivial event like the death of a ruler or the fall of a city or even a great event like the destruction of the Temple, but about something they considered crucial to them and others, a matter of life or death for all.

The message Jesus proclaimed is fundamentally different from most of the Septuagint. The claims He made about Himself are either true or false : if they are false, He is mad; if they are true, He is the most important human in history. As His followers were certain that He was that Human, they could not wait to write His sayings down nor could they start inventing them (which means very simply lying about Him). So His claims have to be His.

Of course this argument does not guarantee absolute textual fidelity. I do not go as far as suggesting that we have in the Gospels the actual words of Jesus but rather that the Gospel text is a satisfactory report of what He said and did, written by someone who had had the chance to hear the same message given many times as Jesus preached from community to community as well as having had the chance to ask Him questions privately.

In conclusion, it seems to me that the reporting of Jesus' life, death and resurrection was for His followers a pressing business. They could not wait to cap the Septuagint by the Story that made sense of it all, that revealed God in His infinite Mercy.

4. Do the Gospels make any difference?

Many will say that my analysis so far is flawed. Scholars all seem to agree that my time frame is wrong. If the scholars' time frame is right, the gospels' value as authentic documents is doubtful.

This point has been demonstrated by Crossan's experimental analysis of the process by which a story is passed on orally and how the actual words used each time vary in a quite remarkable way. From that it follows that the last oral version can be considered to represent but only vaguely the original. So between my arguments which would permit me to date the Synoptic Gospels before 35 A.D. and the John Gospel before 37 A.D. while being all based on earlier written documents so that they can all be considered truthful, and those of them who would date them after the 70 A.D. if not well after, there is a choice: either these texts can be truthful, or they are quite doubtful.

Either the gospels are telling us the truth about Jesus' ministry concerning all the essentials or they do not. Countless humans in the span of twenty centuries have lived their lives in accordance with Jesus' ministry as stated in the Gospels; theirs have been lives spent in peace, joy and effective work for their fellow humans; theirs have been lives that have been looked at with awe by many who, though unable to follow suit, sensed their inner value and admired those who could live in such a way.

There must be something in the Gospels that is of great intrinsic value if those who live according to them live more fully than those who do not, if those who follow their sayings are transformed by them and so ready to suffer pain and death to remain faithful to it.

The early Christians did not fight to protect either themselves or their religion, unlike the Jews of about a century before6 or the Muslims of about six centuries later.7 The early Christians espoused complete non-violence, just like Jesus had before. They were persecuted and they flourished under persecution as the witness of their lives brought people to believe in the Gospels' truth.

How can these lives, based as they are on the Gospels, really be based on nothing but lies, fairy tales and inventions of a group of men who, just some time after Jesus' death according to them, were so scared that they were living in hiding? Where did they find this courage to preach what they said was the truth? Were did they find the perseverance to go on in the face of hardship and persecution? Why did they manage to convert people to their message? This message was not an easy one to follow; there was nothing to gain in the short term.

Conversion to the life of the Gospels is simple to understand if they are God's authentic message : in them Jesus says very clearly that He (God Incarnate, the Expression of the Father) gives His followers the strength they need to live like Him.8 These texts say that God Himself supports His followers, fashions them like Him. These identify the Agent for that change in these individuals.

But if the Gospels are all deceit, why are they effective? Where does the strength to change come from? If the Gospels misrepresent Jesus, they very simply tell lies. Can saintly lives be built on lies? Perhaps, but is it very likely?

What I have just said does not imply that the Qur'an is a lie or that a proper reading of the Septuagint, as done by the great rabbis, is unable to provide people with a saintly way of life. I can accept that Muhammad got revelations from God by the intermediary of the Archangel Gabriel. I joyfully acknowledge that a great many Muslims live saintly lives, just like a great many Jews and Atheists for that matter.

Indeed God speaks to all who want to hear Him, each in a different way. God does not demand uniformity but on the contrary loves diversity, as His creation clearly shows. No two people are alike, no two lives are alike and God never acts in the exact same way twice. This said, I am not a Muslim, a Jew or an Atheist but a Roman Catholic Christian, and it is my Christian faith and my Holy Books that concern me here.

Disagreeing with some of the statements made in this Chapter is not of great consequence on the next except for one exceedingly important point. It is based on the premiss that the Greek Gospel texts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are trustworthy as they inform us correctly about what Jesus preached and did inasmuch as these help our understanding of Him and His message. If this is not true, there is no point in being a member of one of the Christian Churches and of following Jesus' «message» as it is simply false.

1 something that many modern scholars find difficult to believe

2 For example: «And then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh. And he spake to them a parable; Behold the fig tree, and all the trees; When they now shoot forth, ye see and know of your own selves that summer is now nigh at hand. So likewise ye, when ye see these things come to pass, know ye that the kingdom of God is nigh at hand. Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass away, till all be fulfilled. Heaven and earth shall pass away: but my words shall not pass away.» (Luke 21:27-33) This texts fits better with the earlier Pauline writings.

3 «And he that saw it bare record, and his record is true: and he knoweth that he saith true, that ye might believe.» (John 19:35)

4 I show in Life, Love and Law that John seemed to have assumed the knowledge of the Gospel of Luke. That Luke and John would have worked together makes a certain sense as Luke mentions events relating to Mary, whom John took on as his mother after Good Friday and as John's Prologue has much in common with Luke's three Gospel Canticles. They also both categorically claim to have been witnesses to the events of Jesus' public life which they describe.

5 much as Luke describes in the opening passage of his Gospel: «Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us, Even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word; It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus, That thou mightest know the certainty of those things, wherein thou hast been instructed.» (Luke 1:1-4)

6 The Macchabees, for instance, fought for their faith, killing their goyim oppressors as well as the Jewish traitors to their faith.

7 Muhammad fought his oppressors and won wars against them.

8 For instance: «At that time Jesus answered and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes. Even so, Father: for so it seemed good in thy sight. All things are delivered unto me of my Father: and no man knoweth the Son, but the Father; neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him. Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.» (Matthew 11:25-30)

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Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, June 6th, 2004

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