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Gospel Fictions


Who Wrote the Gospels?

Randel Helms (1988 and 1997)


When the author of Mark set about writing his Gospel, circa 70 A.D., he did not have to work in an intellectual or literary vacuum. The concept of mythical biography was basic to the thought-processes of his world, both Jewish and Graeco-Roman, with an outline and a vocabulary already universally accepted: a heavenly figure becomes incarnate as a man and the son of a deity, enters the world to perform saving acts, and then returns to heaven. In Greek, the lingua franca of the Mediterranean world, such a figure was called a "savior" (soter), and the statement of his coming was called "gospel" or "good news" (euangelion). For example, a few years before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the Provincial Assembly of Asia Minor passed a resolution in honor of Caesar Augustus:

Whereas the Providence which has guided our whole existence and which has shown such care and liberality, has brought our life to the peak of perfection in giving to us Augustus Caesar, whom it [Providence] filled with virtue [arete] for the welfare of mankind, and who, being sent to us and to our descendants as a savior [soter], has put an end to war and has set all things in order; and whereas, having become visible [phaneis, i.e., now that a God has become visible] . . . ; and whereas, finally that the birthday of the God (viz., Caesar Augustus) has been for the whole world the beginning of the gospel [euangelion] concerning him, (therefore, let all reckon a new era beginning from the date of his birth).

A few years earlier, Horace wrote an ode in honor of the same Caesar Augustus which presents him as an incarnation of the god Mercury and outlines the typical pattern of mythical biography:

Which of the Gods now shall the people summon
To prop Rome's reeling sovereignty? . . . .
Whom shall Jupiter appoint
As instrument of our atonement? . . .
thou, (Mercury), winged boy of gentle Maia.
Put on the mortal shape of a young Roman;
Descend, and well contented to be known
As Caesar's avenger,
Stay gladly and long with Romulus's people,
Delay thy homeward, skybound journey.

Descent as son of a god appointed by the chief deity to become incarnate as a man, atonement, restoration of a sovereignty, ascension to heaven—a gospel indeed, and so like the pattern of the Christian Gospels! (24-5)

We can see this in the way Mark began his Gospel:

In the prophet Isaiah it stands written: "Here is my herald whom I send on ahead of you, and he will prepare your way. A voice crying aloud in the wilderness, `Prepare a way for the Lord; clear a straight path for him.'" (Mark 1:2-3)

Mark uncritically used an already-composed account of John the Baptist (whether written or oral is unclear), which was, in a remarkably free fashion, based on the Old Testament. Typically, Mark did not consult directly the text of Isaiah, for he is clearly unaware that half his quotation, supposedly from Isa. 40:3, is not from Isaiah at all, but is a misquotation of Malachi 3:1, which actually reads, "I am sending my messenger who will clear a path before me." Mark's source has used Malachi as the basis for an interpretation of John the Baptist, changed Malachi to suit his needs, and composed in the process a piece of theological fiction. The ascription to Malachi probably dropped out during oral transmission (or through scribal carelessness), and Mark uncritically repeated the error. (28-9)

Mark had used his source uncritically, not bothering to check its scriptural accuracy; but Matthew used his source—the Gospel of Mark—with a close critical eye, almost always checking its references to the Old Testament and changing them when necessary, in this case dropping the verse from Malachi wrongly attributed to Isaiah and keeping only what was truly Isaianic. (35)

But interestingly, Luke also used Psalm 2:7 in a speech composed for Paul. In Paul's theology, Jesus "was declared Son of God by a mighty act in that he rose from the dead" (Rom. 1:4). Luke apparently knew of this Pauline teaching for he has Paul quoting Psalm 2:7 as a speech uttered to Jesus at his resurrection, not at his baptism. . . . For Luke and Paul, Psalm 2:7 is a resurrection prophecy, not a baptism prophecy. Thus, unlike Matthew, Luke has no qualms about reproducing the divine speech at the baptism exactly as he found it in Mark. (38)

In his Dialogue with the Jew Trypho, Justin Martyr concedes that some of his co-religionists reject the divine fathering and Virgin Birth of Jesus because they sound too much like pagan myth (Justin mentions the myth of Danae, impregnated by Zeus). (48)

As Pharaoh wants to kill Moses, who then flees the country, so Herod wants to kill Jesus, who is then carried away by his parents. After a period of hiding for the hero in both stories, the wicked king dies:

And the Lord said unto Moses in Midian, "Go, depart into Egypt, for all that sought thy life are dead" (tethnekasi gar pantes hoi zetountes sou ten psychen—Ex. 4:19 LXX).

When Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, "Rise, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child's life are dead" (tethnekasin gar hoi zetountes ten psychen tou paidiou)—Matt. 2:20). (57)

Still, to Nazareth he must go, for "This was to fulfill the words spoken through the prophets: `He shall be called a Nazarene'" (Matt. 2:23). There is, however, no such passage in all the Old Testament. (58)

The opening of the pericope [Luke 17:11] is clearly Luke's own invention; there is no such place as the "midst of Samaria and Galilee" (meson Samarias kai Galilaias). (68)

Matthew enriches his account with a fascinating addition about Peter's effort to copy his Lord. After the disciples recognize the figure on the water as Jesus, the impetuous

Peter called to him: "Lord, if it is you, tell me to come to you over the water." "Come," said Jesus. Peter stepped down from the boat, and walked over the water to Jesus. But when he saw the strength of the gale he was seized with fear; and beginning to sink, he cried, "Save me, Lord." Jesus at once reached out and caught hold of him and said, "Why did you hesitate? How little faith you have!" They then climbed into the boat; and the wind dropped. And the men in the boat fell at his feet, exclaiming, "Truly you are the Son of God." (Matt. 14:28-33)

Matthew's embellishment was probably borrowed from a Buddhist legend which appears to have made its way into the Christian oral tradition. One of the stories told by Buddhist missionaries, who were in Syria and Egypt as early as the second century B.C., similarly concerns the power of faith granted to a disciple of Buddha:

A disciple who wanted

to visit Buddha one evening . . . found that the ferry boat was missing from the bank of the river Aciravati. In faithful trust in Buddha he stepped into the water and went as if on dry land to the very middle of the stream. Then he came out of his contented meditation on Buddha in which he had lost himself, and saw the waves and was frightened, and his feet began to sink. But he forced himself to become wrapt in his meditation again and by its power he reached the far bank safely and reached his master. (80-1)

One of the most puzzling aspects of this first miracle in the Fourth Gospel is Jesus' rudeness to his mother: "Woman, what have I to do with you? [Ti emoi kai soi, gunai]." As has been seen before, the statement is here not a historical report but an antitype of Elijah: for the women (gune) in need of food says to the prophet, "What have I to do with thee? [ti emoi kai soi]" (III [I] Kings 17:18 LXX). (86)

A Lazarus who dies, two sisters, and the village of Bethany—all unrelated, all to be joined together in the writer's mind; there must have been a catalyst. The answer is to be found not in the Gospels, but in the Egyptian myth of Osiris. In the Egyptian myth, Osiris, who dies, has two sisters, Isis and Nepthys. Osiris lies dead at Annu, the Egyptian necropolis, known in Greek as Heliopolis and in the Old Testament as Beth-shemesh (Jer. 43:13)—"City of the Sun" and "House of the Sun," respectively. This necropolis had a variety of formulaic names in Egypt: "the mansion of the Prince in On," "the House of the Aged Prince who dwelleth in An," the "great house of Anu." Just as Heliopolis was readily semitized as Beth-shemesh, the House of Anu is readily semitized as Beth-anu. Likewise, "Lazarus" (the Greek form of the Hebrew name "Eleazar") readily associates itself with the name of the god Osiris (semitized as El-Osiris). Some of John's story begins to emerge. (98)

Matthew's words agree more closely with the Hebrew text of Zechariah than with the Septuagint, but his understanding of the passage follows the Greek version, implying two animals: "riding on an ass, and a young foal." Matthew wants so much for Jesus to fulfill Zech. 9:9 (as the evangelist understands the verse) that he invents a second donkey. (104)

We cannot, in other words, know when Jesus died—the afternoon before Passover or the afternoon after—because the accounts are theological fiction rather than the kind of history for which chronology is basic. Nor would we know, even if the Cup Word and the Bread Word were actual statements rather than theological fiction created from Old Testament passages, what Jesus actually said—whether "Take this; this is my body," or "This is my body, which is for you; do this as a memorial of me"; whether "This is my blood, the blood of the covenant," or "This cup is the new covenant sealed by my blood. Whenever you drink it, do this as a memorial of me." (108-9)

The account is obviously fictional, since there could have been no witnesses to Jesus' agony in the garden after he left his followers; they were all, according to the story, asleep. (110)

The principal source of the story of Jesus' arrest, beginning with the cowardice of his disciples, is the book of Zechariah. (112)

Mark's reference to Zech. 13:7 is from the Aramaic or Hebrew text rather than the Septuagint, usually a sign that Mark has inherited a traditional reference rather than having composed his own in Greek. (113)

[Re: Matt. 27:3-10:] As it happens, the passage Matthew quotes is not from Jeremiah at all, but is a muddled paraphrase of Zechariah 11:12-13. (115)

That Matthew thinks the passage he is quoting comes from Jeremiah shows that he has departed from his usual practice—especially when using Mark—of checking the accuracy of his source's Old Testament reference. (116)

Mark's account of the trial must be speculative, since there were no followers of Jesus present to report on it later: "the disciples all deserted him and ran away" at his arrest (Mark 14:50). Early Christians, in composing an account of the trial, followed the usual method of gathering information about Jesus in the absence of real evidence: they went to the Old Testament. (118)

How did Matthew feel justified in making such a major change in Mark, a source he obviously regarded, for the most part, as authoratative? The answer is that Matthew was a conscious literary artist who sincerely believed in the resurrection; moreover, he believed he had the authority, granted him by his church and by its interpretation of the Old Testament, to "correct" Mark's Gospel and theology. Indeed, he had already corrected Mark many times before, often doing so on the basis of what he regarded as his superior understanding of the oracles in the Old Testament. For since Jesus' life happened "according to the Scriptures," early Christians were confident that in order to find out about him, they did not need to engage in historical research or consult witnesses (in our understanding of these two approaches); they found detailed history in the ancient oracles of the Hebrew Bible, read as a book about Jesus. (133-4)

Jesus' command to "make all nations my disciples" is Matthew's rendering of Daniel's "All nations, tribes, and languages shall serve him." Since Matthew regarded the risen Jesus as the soon-to-return Son of Man, it seemed appropriate to him to construct this speech on Daniel's description there of the coming of the Son of Man to assume the everlasting kingdom. (141)

The resurrection narratives in the last chapters of the four Gospels are effective stories that have given solace and hope to millions of believers who have not read them carefully. Anyone who does read them carefully finds multiple reasons to change them. This is what happened when each Gospel writer read an earlier narrative. (149)



The opening verses of Mark show clearly their origin in a pre-Markan account rather than in Peter's memory:
In the prophet Isaiah it stands written: "Here is my herald whom I send on ahead of you, and he will prepare your way. A voice crying aloud in the wilderness, 'Prepare a way for the Lord; clear a straight path for him:" (Mark 1 :2- 3)
Mark is writing from an already-composed source rather than with a copy of Isaiah open in front of him; for he is apparently unaware that much of what he is quoting is not from Isaiah at all, but is in fact a merging of the first nine words of the Septuagint Greek version of Exodus 23:20 with a paraphrase of Hebrew Malachi 3:1, that is in turn joined with a paraphrase of Septuagint Isaiah 40:3:
Here is my herald whom I send on ahead of you. (Mark 1:2)
Idou, apostello ton aggelon mou pro prosopou sou.

This comes directly from Septuagint Exodus 23:20:
idou, ego apostello ton aggelon mou pro prosopou sou.
But then Mark's source shifts to a paraphrase of Hebrew Malachi 3:1: "Look, I am sending my messenger who will clear a path before me." The "you" of Exodus is substituted for the "me" of Malachi, so that Mark's source can say that the messenger will "prepare your way." The Septuagint Greek version of Malachi 3:1 has "survey the way" (epiblepsetai hodon), so Mark's Greek is closer to the Hebrew "clear a path." Indeed, "clear a path" is the link in Mark's source to Isaiah 40:3, the origin, Mark thought, of the entire biblical passage he was citing:
A voice crying aloud in the wilderness, "Prepare a way for the Lord; clear a straight path for him."
(Mark 1:3) Here Mark's Greek exactly reproduces the first thirteen words of Septuagint Isaiah 40:3 before becoming paraphrase at the end (Isaiah has "make straight the paths of our God," while Mark's source changes "our God" to "him.")
Clearly there was a long history behind this merging of various biblical texts and versions. (3-4)

Most of the references to the Old Testament in the Gospel of Mark come from within Mark's sources rather than from the hand of Mark himself, and he treats such references uncritically. In the story of the Rich Young Ruler, for example, Mark's source has Jesus misquote the Decalogue:
You know the commandments: "Do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not give false evidence; do not defraud; honor your father and mother." (Mark 10:19)
Mark's source invents a new commandment ("defraud"). Both Matthew (16:18) and Luke (18:20) silently drop "defraud," assuming that Jesus would certainly know the Ten Commandments.
Mark's failure to check his sources sometimes involves him in genuine historical error, as in the Sabbath controversy in chapter two. When the Pharisees object that Jesus' followers, by plucking grain on the Sabbath, do what is forbidden;' Jesus replies:
Have you never read what David did when he and his men were hungry and had nothing to eat? He went into the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the High Priest, and ate the sacred bread, though no one but a priest is allowed to eat it. (Mark 2:25-26)
Actually; Ahimelech was high priest at the time (I Sam. 21:1-6); Abiathar was his son. No scholar of the Bible, Mark let this piece of misinformation slip into his gospel unchecked. Both Matthew (12:3) and Luke (6:4) silently correct Mark's error. (10-11)

The Book of Daniel presents itself as having been written in the sixth century B.C.E., during the reigns of the Babylonian rulers Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar and the Persians Cyrus and Darius. From that point in time it presents itself as predicting events in the ancient Near East during the fifth, fourth, third, and second centuries B.C.E. But strangely, whenever Daniel talks about the sixth century it is vague and inaccurate, and when it talks about the second century it is quite detailed and exact. This gives us a clue as to its actual time of writing. With regard to the sixth century B.C.E., the book opens by declaring:
In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and laid siege to it. The Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into his power, together with all that was left of the vessels of the house of God; and he carried them off to the land of Shinar. (1: 1- 2)
But in fact Jehoiakim reigned for eleven years; it was only in the first year of his son and successor Jehoiachin that Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Jerusalem, captured it, and "carried off all the treasures of the house of the LORD" (see II Kings 28:8-13). The author of Daniel is quite weak on his facts about the sixth century B.C.E., and continues to be so in his account of the fall of Babylon to Persia in the year 539. He writes that "Belshazzar king of the Chaldaeans was slain, and Darius the Mede took the kingdom" (Dan. 5:30). But of course it was Cyrus the Persian who conquered Babylon (see Ezra 1:1); there never was a King Darius the Mede. The author of Daniel confusedly imagines him in place of Darius the Persian, who succeeded Cyrus' son Cambyses in 521 B.C.E. The author of Daniel also confusedly imagines that Cyrus succeeded Darius (though Darius in fact succeeded Cyrus' son), and imagines that Belshazzar was the son of Nebuchadnezzar (5:11), though he was in fact the son of Nabonidus (see ABD IV, 973). Nabonidus, in turn, was "not related to any of his predecessors" (ABD, IV, 973), including Nebuchadnezzar; so the author of the Book of Daniel was ignorant even of the lineage of the ruler, Belshazzar, in whose court Daniel was said to be "chief of the magicians" (5: 11). Thus it ought not surprise the attentive reader of the Book of Daniel that modern critical scholars of the Bible are unanimous in their conviction that Daniel "actually comes from the 2nd century B.C.E." (ABD II, 33) and that its pretense of coming from the sixth century is a literary fiction intended to impress its readers with the supposed accuracy of its foreknowledge of the next several hundred years. Mark, of course, did not have the advantage of knowing this, and fell for Daniel's pretense of genuinely predicting its own—and, Mark thought, his own—future. To read Mark aright, we must first read Daniel. (20-1)

Not only does Mark employ the apocalyptic device of the fictive seer "foretelling" the immediate past of the author, he uses the very words of the Book of Daniel in its Septuagint Greek version as the basis for Jesus' "prediction" of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. Mark is the first Christian writer to do so, the first to perceive that Daniel was "really" about the Jewish war with Rome rather than the Maccabean war with Syria, and the first to see the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 as the prelude to what Daniel called the coming of the son of man on the clouds of heaven to establish the kingdom of God.
The thirteenth chapter of Mark is the center of this effort; here Jesus is represented as predicting that "Not one stone will be left upon another," that Jerusalem's temple would be razed to the ground (Mark 13:2), as did indeed happen at the order of Titus in September, 70 (Josephus, 361). It may well be that Mark had heard that one "Jesus" had foretold the destruction of Jerusalem, and he took this figure to be Jesus of Nazareth. According to Josephus, Jesus the son of Ananias had gone about Jerusalem for "seven years and five months," starting about the year 62, crying "woe to the City, the people and the Sanctuary." When arrested by the Procurator Albinus to be scourged and interrogated, "he made no reply whatever to the questions but endlessly repeated his lament over the city"(Josephus, 350). This sounds strangely like events in the Gospel of Mark: prediction of the city's woe, arrest by the Procurator Pontius Pilate, scourging, silence under questioning. Believing that Jesus had predicted the temple's destruction, knowing it had been destroyed, Mark set about understanding this in the light of his reading of the Book of Daniel. (37)

Apocalyptic predictions of "the end of this age" (Dan. 2:28) are necessarily self-disconfirming, and always have to be re-interpreted by the next generation that was not supposed to appear. As we shall see, this was the case with the gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John, all three written in the next generation in part as responses to Mark. They may be described as unsuccessful efforts to outgrow Mark's failed eschatology. (39)

That there is a literary relationship between the Gospels of Mark and Matthew has been recognized since at least the time of St. Augustine of Hippo in the fifth century, but his notion—that Mark is a condensed version of Matthew (as opposed to Matthew's being an expanded Mark)—has been abandoned by all responsible scholars except the fundamentalists who cling to the wishful notion that the First Gospel comes from the hand of the Apostle Matthew himself. Robert Gundry concludes that since it "is supposed that no apostle [like Matthew] would have used the work of a non-apostle [like Mark]" (1982, 49), these wishful thinkers reject the Two-Source Theory and point to Papias, as reported by Eusebius:
Matthew composed the Logia (ta logia) in the Hebrew tongue and everyone interpreted them as he was able. (Eusebius iii,39,16)
But the Gospel of Matthew is written in Greek; it uses Greek sources (Mark, Q, and the Septuagint Bible) and could not have been written in Hebrew (or Aramaic either). Nor is Matthew just "Logia" (sayings). Whatever Papias means, it is not the Gospel of Matthew. (41)

But Matthew read Mark carefully, grasped the error, checked Septuagint Isaiah to make sure, and then corrected Mark's mistake by quoting only the words from Isaiah 40:3. Strangely, however, he kept Mark's paraphrase of the last part of the Isaiah passage, an action that is quite revealing of Matthew's mind:
It is of him that the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, "A voice crying aloud in the wilderness, 'Prepare a way for the Lord; dear a straight path for him:" (Matt. 3:3)
Septuagint Isaiah has instead "Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight the paths of our God" (40:3); both Mark and Matthew were comfortable with calling Jesus "Lord," but neither felt at ease calling him "God." So even though Matthew seems to have checked Mark's citation and corrected it by dropping the passages not from Isaiah, he did not correct the end of the citation, leaving it in Mark's form; although it was scripturally inaccurate, it was more theologically correct than precise use of Isaiah would allow. (46-7)

For Matthew, like all of the gospel writers, was much less interested in reporting events than in presenting theology; Matthew was not averse to creating theological fiction in order to tell his truth about Jesus. (49)

For Matthew had grasped Mark's apparent ignorance that his source for the account of the Triumphal Entry was based on an oracular reading of Zechariah 9:9, so Matthew quotes that passage to make the "fulfillment" explicit—indeed absurdly so. Zechariah had written poetically, in the Hebrew literary form known as "parallelism;' a rhetorical pattern in which a statement is first made and then its idea repeated in different words. Matthew reads the parallelism literally, as if two animals are involved, and doubles Mark's one colt into a colt plus its mother, giving us the absurdity of Jesus mounting them both at once, like a trick rodeo-rider. (55)

The opening of this story is clearly Luke's own invention, since there is no such place as the "midst of Samaria and Galilee" (meson Samarias kai Galilaias); Luke needs to indicate that the ten lepers are some of them Galilean, some Samaritan. Since there is no such area, the village must also be unnamed, being as imaginary as the province. (84)

But now comes the next most surprising literary fact about the Book of Acts: Peter's and Paul's miraculous escapes from prison are Luke's borrowings from a scene in the Bacchae of Euripides.
All along in this book I have argued that authors of the New Testament read the Septuagint as a book about Jesus, as a collection of oracles understandable only in the light of the career of Jesus and (in Acts) of the early church. But it seems a bit much to say that Luke read Euripides as a prophet. If it can be shown that she did so, then we must enlarge our view of Luke's literary art.
Readers of both Luke and Euripides might already have had reason to suspect literary borrowing from The Bacchae in Luke's account of Paul's conversion in Acts 26. There a familiar sentence is added after "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" The voice of the resurrected Jesus continues, "It is hard for you, this kicking against the goads" [pros kentra laktizein] (Acts 26:15). In The Bacchae, a persecuted god, Dionysus, cries out to his persecutor, Pentheus, that "you disregard my words of warning ... and kick against the goads." Euripides' Greek in the last phrase is "pros kentra laktizoimi (line 794); interestingly, Luke's term for "goads" is also in the plural [kentra]. Now one might object that Paul—or rather the risen Jesus!—is merely quoting a Greek proverb (though Paul has just declared that Jesus spoke to him in the "Jewish language" [Acts 26:14]), were it not that Luke borrows from this same play of Euripides in three other scenes in the Book of Acts. When Gamaliel warns the Jewish council in Jerusalem that in continuing to persecute the Christians they risked finding themselves "at war with God" [theomachoi] (Acts 5:39), Luke uses what E. R. Dodds calls a "rather rare verb" that appears also in The Bacchae (line 45) an allusion that leads Dodds to suggest that Luke "had probably read the play" (Dodds, 1960,68), especially when it is added to Luke's third striking allusion to Euripides' work in her scenes of Peter's and Paul's miraculous escapes from prison. When Peter is imprisoned in Jerusalem, an angel appears to him in the night, saying, "Quick! Get up." "And the chains fell away from his wrists." When they approach the iron gate of the prison, it "opened for them of its own accord" (Acts 12:8, 10). Likewise when Paul is imprisoned in Philippi, in the night there is an earthquake, and "all the doors burst open and all the prisoners found their fetters unfastened" (Acts 16:26). Such events are, says Dodds, "a traditional Dionysiac miracle" (1960, 132) and figure prominently in The Bacchae (lines 447-8), where the imprisoned followers of Dionysus find that "The chains on their legs snapped apart by themselves. Untouched by any human hand, the doors swung wide, opening of their own accord" (Grene and Lattimore, 1960, 560).
It really is not surprising that this play should have had such a lasting impact on Luke's imagination; for it concerns a young, persecuted and misunderstood deity, the son of Zeus and a mortal woman (Semele), who grants to his female followers redeeming release into religious ecstasy. Jesus, who was fathered by God on a woman as was Dionysus, grants the same to his followers. Male unbelievers in Dionysus imagine that the ecstasy is in fact drunkenness: "Religious ecstasy they call it. Dancing in honor of some new-fangled god, Some Dionysus—whoever he may be! They seem to need a couple of skins of wine for it too" (Curry, 1981, 126). Remember that in Jerusalem, too, unbelievers said of the Christians who were speaking in tongues of ecstasy, "They have been drinking" (Acts 2:13). (90-1)

As it happens, the books of the Maccabees in the Septuagint control Luke's story to an even greater extent, for as Arthur Drews has written, "the whole account of Paul's conversion is modeled on that of Heliodorus, in II Macc. 3" (quoted in Haenchen, 1971,326). (94)

Some think complacently, and wrongly, that while contemporary Christianity may lack doctrinal unity, the early church was at one; but in fact the reverse is true: there is more Christian theological unity in the twentieth century than there was in the first two. Most Christians today could recite without much apparent qualm the Apostles' Creed, but that was not the case nineteen hundred years ago, when several profoundly different understandings of Jesus were competing for primacy. As the author of the First Letter of John argued, some in his area who regarded themselves as Christians were in fact "antichrists," since they did not believe that "Jesus Christ came in the flesh" (I John 4:2). Or as Paul wrote to the Christians at Corinth, while some there call themselves "Paul's," some are for "Apollos," some "follow Cephas," only some others are "Christ's" (I Cor. 1:12). Paul knew about four different sects at Corinth already in the fifties—in just one city! (100)

Gospels became "lost" in the ancient world when people stopped making copies of them, and rare manuscripts crumbled or were destroyed. Books and scrolls were precious few as it was, since every one had to be laboriously hand-copied, letter by letter; and the fact, for example, that not a single copy of the Gospel of Mark survives from the first two centuries, and only one from the third (Manuscript P45), shows how very close even so important a work as this gospel could come to being lost through lack of a felt need to make multiple copies of it. Now Mark nearly became lost because that was what Matthew and Luke intended should become of it; once they had, independently of each other, produced revised and expanded versions of Mark by combining it with Q and other material, they certainly did not expect or desire that some day their books would flank Mark, cheek by jowl, in a larger work we now call the New Testament. Rather, they both expected that their work would render Mark superfluous, and that Mark would simply wither away—as very nearly happened. (101)

Q is now accepted as what Burton Mack calls a "lost gospel." It may be said that the re-discovery of that other great lost Gospel, Thomas, provided the final blow to conservative opposition to the idea that Q once existed as an actual Christian document. Since hypothetical Q is said to be a work consisting almost entirely of sayings of Jesus, with no narrative context, no "gospel story" at all, and since no other such early Christian "sayings gospel" was known to exist, it was not difficult for some to argue that Q exists only in the minds of critical scholars. But then the Gospel of Thomas was discovered in Egypt in 1945, and by the 1970s was widely published, translated into various modern languages from its Coptic text: and Thomas is exactly what Q was said to be, a collection of sayings of Jesus with no narrative context, no "gospel story" at all. (102)

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