The Search for a No-Frills Jesus

Paper Trail

It should bring an end to the myth, the history, the mentality, of the Gospels. But nobody's going to want to read it!" Burton L. Mack, until his recent retirement a professor of New Testament at the School of Theology at Claremont, in southern California, and the author of a best-selling book about the origins of Christianity, was drumming his palms on a table in his living room not long ago and talking about the publication of a scholarly document that he believes radically undercuts Christianity's claim to be the religion of Jesus of Nazareth. Mack, although he taught future ministers, would not be displeased. He blames Christianity for contributing to centuries of U.S. wrongdoing, from wars against Native Americans to interventionism abroad. "They'll have to read it!" he declaimed.


The document he was discussing is a reconstructed Greek text (with an immense scholarly apparatus) of "Q," as biblical scholars have named a hypothetical first-century work composed mostly of sayings of Jesus. The first installment was published last spring by the Belgian firm Peeters under the series title Documenta Q. Many scholars believe that Q served as a literary source ("Q" is short for Quelle, the German word for "source") for the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, which contain numerous parallel passages. Other scholars believe it never existed -- there are no manuscripts of Q or references to it in ancient literature. Contained in Q, or at least in the parallel passages of Matthew and Luke for which Q is the hypothetical source, are many of the teachings of Jesus that Christians placed near the heart of their faith: the Lord's Prayer, the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, the Golden Rule, and the famous admonition "You cannot serve God and Mammon." It would therefore seem at first glance as though Q were a thoroughly Christian text, not the threat to Christianity that Mack describes. Believing that something like Q might have existed does not in itself entail a rejection of Christianity. Indeed, many scholars who are Christian believers endorse the Q hypothesis.


Walking on Paper

However, according to a largely North American cadre of biblical scholars that includes Mack, who in 1993 published a book called containing his own Q rendition, and James M. Robinson, the founder of the International Q Project and a colleague of Mack's at Claremont, the teachings of Jesus in Q hold the key to an understanding of Jesus that is fundamentally non-Christian. According to these scholars, the authors of Q did not view Jesus as "the Christ" (that is, as "the anointed one," the promised Messiah), or as the redeemer who had atoned for their sins by his crucifixion, or as the son of God who rose from the dead. Instead, they say, Q's authors esteemed Jesus as simply a roving sage who preached a life of possessionless wandering and full acceptance of one's fellow human beings, no matter how disreputable or marginal. In that respect, they say, he was a Jesus for the America of the third millennium, a Jesus with little supernatural baggage but much respect for cultural diversity.

The roughly 235 parallel verses in Luke and Matthew that scholars have identified as Q material (their techniques and their reasoning will be discussed in greater detail below) do not include the Gospel narratives of Jesus' passion and resurrection, which seem to have come from other sources, written or oral. Therefore Q partisans contend that the authors of Q knew nothing about the way Jesus died or about the stories of an empty tomb -- or if they knew, they did not care. Hence there was no atonement doctrine in Q theology. And because belief in Jesus' resurrection is the core belief of Christianity (even very liberal Christians profess faith in the Easter event, if only as a metaphor for renewal), the people who wrote Q must have been adherents of Jesus' in Palestine who were not "Christians" -- unless, as Robinson and others observe, one stretches the word to include anyone who admires Jesus. Scholars used to refer to members of the Q community as "Jewish Christians," a term that can sometimes lead to confusion. The preferred designation nowadays for the group of which they were a part is the "Jesus movement." It took decades, Q partisans believe, before the movement was subsumed into a "cult of Christ," largely gentile and centered on the cross and the resurrection -- a cult that became known as Christianity.

Examining Jesus

ROBINSON and Mack are hardly the first to try to discern a non-Christian Jesus hidden inside the Christian Gospels. Ever since the Enlightenment, intellectuals and liberal clergymen have been on a quest for a "historical Jesus," an inspirational but purely human figure who might have intended something different from the dogmatic -- and in the view of many, oppressive -- faith that grew up in his name. In the nineteenth century liberal scholars looked to the Gospel of Mark for their clues to the historical Jesus. Mark is the shortest of the four canonical Gospels. It contains few references to Jesus' divine status and none to the virgin birth. In its earliest version it apparently mentioned none of Jesus' post-resurrection appearances, merely relating a brief story of the empty tomb. Mark is essentially a collection of reports of events: accounts of Jesus' early ministry and of many of his miracles and parables, and a passion narrative. The various authors of the famous nineteenth-century "liberal lives" of Jesus tended to follow Mark's outline, but eliminated (or rationalized) the miracles in order to present Jesus as a preacher of moral and social progress who met a tragic end at the hands of people who did not understand him.

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