For all my life, I understood the gospels to be four harmonious accounts of the same events. Even after becoming an atheist, that idea remained uncontested in the back of my mind.
First, let's apply the context that has shaped my new opinion.
The earliest of Christians (You know, Peter . . . Paul-- those guys) probably saw themselves more so as enlightened Jews rather than "Christians". And like most mainstream Jews in the first century, these "new Jews" were eager for the re-establishment of their former Davidic kingdom which was to be accomplished by the Messiah. Thus, the kingdom of God was initially an exclusive desire of the Jews. The first Christians, then, are best viewed as newly enlightened Jews who would follow along with their newly realized Messiah (Jesus) who will bring about the establishment of the Davidic kingdom of God. The establishment of God's kingdom would require the overthrowing of Roman rule. A defining quality of the Messiah is to accomplish the resurrection of the kingdom; mainstream Jews reject Messianic claims from anyone who accomplishes less than that.
So, these "newly enlightened Jews" believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the real Messiah. They trusted him and expected him to fulfill the required work of the Messiah by saving Israel from Rome.
But before anything significant happened against Rome, Jesus was executed.
No revolution. No Davidic kingdom. No overthrowing of Roman rule.
So, now what?
I suspect that the words of Jesus suddenly needed new interpretation as his followers struggled to understand why he died without even sparking a revolution. They eventually rationalized that Jesus must rise from the dead; after which, he will return to Earth from Heaven and establish the new kingdom of God.
But, this peculiar fringe group of Jews were probably dwindling fast after the death of Jesus. And the truest followers who invested the most into Jesus were probably dealing with cognitive dissonance. Once they saw that Jesus did not immediately fulfill the required role of the Messiah, the key followers of Jesus rationalized that he would return to fulfill his Messianic requirements after making certain preparations in Heaven. In the meanwhile, the "new Jews" needed to recruit new followers. However, the Jesus-movement couldn't seem to bring in very many mainstream Jews.
Because mainstream Jews were looking for a living Messiah who would establish the kingdom presently. Right then. Jesus did not fit that description. The mainstream Jews were not going to follow a "failed" Messiah. And as the decades turned into centuries, this "new Judaism" evolved into the familiar Christianity of today. And this Christianity is quite opposed to Judaism concerning the nature of God. Not only do Jews reject Christianity because of the failure of Jesus as Messiah, but Jews also reject Christianity because most (not all) Christians understand Jesus to be more than just the Messiah; Jesus is divine. Jesus is God. For many Jews, the Godhead has no room for Yahweh and Jesus, too.
Hear O Israel, the LORD your God is one LORD.
So then, the new Jews had little choice. Go ye therefore and teach those pagans!
Er, I mean . . . teach all nations . . .
The "new Jews" invited Gentiles into this new flavor of non-exclusive Judaism. Paul seemed to be the greatest champion of this cause. And as the Gentile base grew within the "new Judaism", it slowly became less Jewish and more Christian.
Keep in mind that at this point in history only the letters of Paul where being circulated. No gospels seem to have been written at this point. Perhaps a general document containing the sayings of Jesus was floating around, but the gospels as a literary work do not seem to be in circulation just yet.
While the "new Jews" were growing, tensions grew between the Romans and Jews of all flavors. This tension built up over decades until it finally exploded in Jerusalem in the year 70 A.D. The Jews in Jerusalem staged a revolt against Rome.
And the Romans responded with hot and heavy-handed anger. They brutally crushed the attempted rebellion of the Jews.
Many of the "new Jews" were probably expecting Jesus to return during the revolt to finally establish the kingdom. But instead, the "new Jews" and mainstream Jews alike were burned, maimed and killed in the streets. Those fortunate enough (unfortunate, maybe?) to survive these horrors fled out of Jerusalem for their lives.
Shortly after the revolt, the gospel of Mark appears-- the earliest of the four main gospel writings.
In my opinion, the historical context that I just presented sheds light on the true purpose behind each canonized gospel writing. I think this context also provides a better understanding of who Jesus and the earliest Christians truly were.
And with that, I will conclude part I of this post.
In the meanwhile, you can see where I'm coming from and where I'm going with this post by visiting the link below:
From Jesus to Christ