The Evolving Jesus Story

Christian apologetics - does God exist?If the gospel story were true, it wouldn’t change with time. God’s personality wouldn’t change, God’s plan of salvation wouldn’t change, and the details of the Jesus story wouldn’t change. But the New Testament books themselves document the evolution of the Jesus story. Sort them chronologically to see.

Paul’s epistles precede Mark, the earliest gospel, by almost 20 years. The only miracle that Paul mentions is the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:4). Were the miracle stories so well known within his different churches that he didn’t need to mention them? It doesn’t look like it.

Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (1 Cor. 1:22–3).

The Jews demand signs? That’s not a problem. Paul had loads of Jesus miracles to pick from. But wait a minute—if the Jesus story is a stumbling block to miracle-seeking Jews, then Paul must not know of any miracles.

Miracles come later, with the gospels. Looking at them chronologically, notice how the divinity of Jesus evolves. He becomes divine with the baptism in Mark; then in Matthew and Luke, he’s divine at birth; and in John, he’s been divine since the beginning of time.

The four gospels were snapshots of the Jesus story as told in four different communities at four different times. Because the synoptic (“looking in the same direction”) gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke share so much source material, their similarity is not surprising. Nevertheless, 35% of Luke comes uniquely from its community (such as the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son), and 20% of Matthew is unique (such as Jesus and his family fleeing to Egypt after his birth and the zombies that walked after Jesus’s death). And, of course, John is quite different from these three, having Gnostic and (arguably) Marcionite elements.

This synoptic similarity undercuts the argument that the gospels are eyewitness accounts. If the authors of Matthew and Luke were eyewitnesses, why would they copy so heavily from Mark? The authorship question (that Mark really wrote Mark, etc.) that grounds the claims that the gospels record eyewitness history is another tenuous element of the evolving story, as I’ve written before.

The gospels don’t even claim to be eyewitnesses (with the exception of a vague reference in John 21:24, in a chapter that appears to have been added by a later author). And even if they had, would that make a difference? Would tacking on “I Bartholomew was a witness to all that follows” to a gospel story make it more believable?

Would it make the story of Merlin the wizard more believable?

Consider some of the noncanonical gospels that include attributions. “I Simon Peter and Andrew my brother took our nets and went to the sea” is from the Gospel of Peter, and “I Thomas, an Israelite, write you this account” is from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. These gospels are rejected both by the church and by scholars despite these claims of eyewitness testimony. Why then imagine that the vague “This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down; we know that his testimony is true” (John 21:24) adds anything to John?

There are dozens of noncanonical gospels. Christian churches reject these in part because they were written late. But if we agree that the probable second-century authorship for (say) the gospels of Thomas, Judas, and James is a problem because stories change with time, then why do the four canonical gospels get a pass? If the gospel of John, written 60 years after the resurrection, is reliable despite being a preposterous story, why reject Thomas, written just a few decades later?

The answer, it seems, is simply that Thomas doesn’t fit the mold of the version of Christianity that happened to win. History, even the imagined history of religion, is written by the victors.

Read the first post in this series: What Did the Original Books of the Bible Say?

God made everything out of nothing,
but the nothingness shows through
— Paul Valery

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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9 thoughts on “The Evolving Jesus Story

  1. To Bob S,

    Actually, Paul thought of Jesus as divine, as you can read in Philippians 2:6-7.

    Another point is that miracles stories are not necessarily meant to be historical records. Just as talking animals in Aesop’s tales are not literally true, but are literary devices for the author to make a point.

    It’s funny how atheists read the Bible in the same way fundamentalists do, yet claim to be more sophisticated than they.

    Maybe what you need is acquaintance with liberal theology?

    • Another point is that miracles stories are not necessarily meant to be historical records.

      Convince all of Christianity of that and we’ll both be happier.

      It’s funny how atheists read the Bible in the same way fundamentalists do, yet claim to be more sophisticated than they.

      If the positions really were identical, that would be quite puzzling. But I think there are important differences between fundamentalist Christians and atheists.

      Maybe what you need is acquaintance with liberal theology?

      If liberal theologians don’t take the Bible literally, then I guess I don’t have as much of a beef with them.

      If you imagine that there are liberal interpretations of the Bible that I’ll find compelling, feel free to summarize them.

      • I would even go farther and hold that the corpse of Jesus need not have been revived by a miraculous intervention and endowed with paranormal powers (as Neo was at the end of Matrix). We may have other conceptions of the meaning of resurrection in store. But of course, the Gospel writers wanted to make it clear that Jesus did rise from the dead, so they wrote about an empty tomb. I don’t want to deny the life-transforming event witnessed by the apostles. They DID experience something powerful. But we need not be committed to either naturalism or literalism.

        I will never convince all of Christendom of that. How to convince 2,2 billions people of something pertaining to theology?

        I don’t say atheists and fundamentalists believe the same things. They cannot be further apart from one another. But they use the same reading methods (or lack thereof). For instance, both would agree that a single contradiction in the Bible would be fatal to Christianity. That’s why we find lists of contradictions in the Bible in skeptics’ websites and we find fundamentalists writing whole books to explain away those inconsistencies.

        • I would even go farther and hold that the corpse of Jesus need not have been revived by a miraculous intervention and endowed with paranormal powers …

          For what to happen? For you to believe that God exists?

          I don’t want to deny the life-transforming event witnessed by the apostles. They DID experience something powerful.

          How do you know?! That’s like saying that Dorothy really killed the Wicked Witch.

          The gospel story is a story. Why imagine that it’s true?

          How to convince 2,2 billions people of something pertaining to theology?

          I hear you. In the category of religion, open-minded reasoning is in short supply.

          But they use the same reading methods (or lack thereof).

          Some Christians say that the Bible is literally true. No atheist says that the Bible is literally true–big difference. The atheist simply says, “Let’s suppose that you’re right and see what happens.”

          Saying, “Hey–do you atheists know how much like Christian fundamentalists you sound?” doesn’t do much for me.

    • Teapot:

      I just came across this discussion that seemed to mirror your thinking. I haven’t watched the video yet and so don’t know if it’s worth anything. But until I do, FYI.

      • Just watched the video. It nicely rejects the literal reading, but I don’t see what supernaturalism remains (though these theologians apparently see some).

  2. You’ve written previously of your fictional timeline and have been challenged on it. Just because you assert it doesn’t make it so. Just because you cite a knowledgeable source doesn’t mean he holds the consensus position among historic theologians. And since consensus is your god, you ought to go with more if it in the area of historic understanding of Christianity.

    This is your blog, and you will always have the last word because you don’t have another job besides promoting your view and your book. So frequently you will be challenged and will still provide an answer, adequate or not. Don’t confuse having the last word, or with following someone else’s comments with a response of your own which they don’t answer, with having the right answer. It just may indicate they see no point in continuing to argue with someone who always considers himself the final arbiter and seldom acknowledges their points thoughtfully.

    In this case, your made up timeline may not be original with you, but you have been challenged on it before and your position is not the consensus among experts in textual evidence and Biblical studies. You will likely respond with some degree of vigor and I won’t likely respond, but that doesn’t mean you are correct. It just means you are unwilling to consider the consensus when it doesn’t suit your purpose.

    You can’t prove that your version of the evolution of the story is more reasonable than the historically accepted timeline. Paul didn’t need to rehash everything that was in the public record, he built on it. He was writing to Christians in churches where the narrative about Jesus was already well established. Unlike the situation today, words were precious and restating such existing well established histories wasted precious ink and papyrus.

    The writings of the New Testament were accepted because they were known to have been accepted as inspired by the apostles. That is one reason the gospels you cite such as Thomas and others weren’t accepted.

    Just because you can imagine some other possibility doesn’t amount to proof that the consensus view is wrong. You need more than imagination for that. You need to actually counter the evidence. I see no such evidence in this post. Just your diatribe against what you don’t like. Not very convincing, I’m afraid.

  3. I’m trolling the net drumming up interest for my novel in progress, The Acts of Simon Magus, and you looked like someone who may find it of interest. It’s an epic historical fantasy which explores the roots of the original Gnosticism through the eyes of its notorious founder. Here is a draft for my upcoming Indiegogo campaign, including video and link to some readings. All comments welcome! http://simonmagus.com/indiegogo http://simonmagus.com/readings-2

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