Friday, March 26, 2010

The Four Legends of Jesus: Part II

In part one of The Four Legends of Jesus, I stopped with the Jewish revolt of 70 A.D. ending in massacre by the hands of the Romans. Shortly after the failed revolt, the gospel of Mark emerges as the first written gospel. Recall the possibility that Jewish Christians and mainstream Jews alike were expecting a Messiah to rise up and secure the new kingdom during the revolt against Rome. While Jewish Christians were possibly looking for Jesus to return and establish the kingdom, the mainstream Jews were probably looking for a different Messiah to rise up from among their ranks.

Either way, the revolt failed and Jerusalem was sacked; the Temple--so precious to the Jews of Jerusalem--was desecrated and laid to waste.


The "new Jews" probably needed new encouragement to help them endure the deep disappointment of an absent Messiah. But what could facilitate healing after such a brutal pounding from the Romans? The survivors lost loved ones in a bloody massacre as well as their central symbol of God's presence-- the Temple.

Many scholars of textual criticism point out that the gospel of Mark is short and abrupt relative to the other canonized gospel writings. Consider the original ending of Mark before it was edited. The women who want to anoint the body of Jesus with spices are last seen frightened and fleeing the tomb, telling no one what they saw. Also, we find that Jesus is absent from the tomb, said to be away in Gallilee.

Jesus was absent from the revolt, too. He didn't make his way back down from Heaven.

The traditional ending of Mark found in the typical bible was added on later. Mark actually ends in chapter 16 verse eight. Someone apparently didn't like how Mark originally ended and needed to smooth over Mark's bewildering ending. But in doing so, the editor of Mark may have covered up an intentional literary device by the original author.

The goal of Mark seems to be consolation towards the followers of Jesus after the failed revolt. Again, someone needs to smooth over the disappointment caused by failed expectations of prophesy. The gospel of Mark seems to depict Jesus as a reflection of the people who suffered through the horrors in Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans. Also, Mark seems to reach out to the diasporic Jews who saw the outcome of the failed revolt from afar. Mark attempts to help the followers of Jesus feel as though he identifies with and knows their sorrows. For instance, Jesus falls prostrate in the garden before he is crucified, begging God to take the cup of suffering from him. He exclaims to his disciples that he is overwhelmed with sorrow, to the point of death before he is arrested. Likewise, many of the people who endured the punishment of the Roman army no doubt fell prostrate, begging not to be slaughtered by the sword.

The women leave the tomb during the resurrection scene not knowing what to think and terribly afraid--wondering where Jesus could be. In like manner, those who endured the failed revolt were probably thinking the exact same thing. Those who were "new Jews" were probably afraid and wondered where Jesus could be. Why hasn't he returned like he said? Yet, the mysterious man standing at the tomb insists Jesus is alive somewhere. Perhaps Mark also attempts to leave a subtle glimmer of hope concerning Jesus. Maybe he's challenging the reader. Will you continue to look for and hope for Jesus? Will you go to Gallilee and find him? Or will you run away in fear, never reaching past his empty tomb?

On a side note: the prophesy of the demolished Jewish Temple was added in hindsight in my opinion. If the disappointed early Christians can be persuaded that Jesus predicted this, they may very well accept that he has a higher purposes and meaning to his words than they could have possibly understood. But if none of this was divine to begin with, the only way the "prediction" of the Temple could appear in Mark is for if the revolt happened first.


Matthew seems to work towards depicting a new kind of Jesus-- Jesus, the King of the Jews. The dating of Matthew is debated (as well as Mark), but many think Matthew was written next. In this gospel, Jesus often speaks of fulfilling the law and acts as a literary type of Moses by going up into the mountains and coming back down to the people with a message or miracle from God. Jesus has a pedigree that links him directly back to Abraham. The actions and words of Jesus are quite often a fulfillment of an alleged Old Testament prophesies (many of which Jews contest or claim to be gross misinterpretations by Christians). The author of Matthew is attempting to attract mainstream Jews into accepting Jesus as the real Messiah. I suppose the first failed revolt left a bitter taste in their mouths and Jesus' promise needs to be fulfilled soon. In the meanwhile, an appeal needed to be made to the rest of Israel to rally behind their soon to return Messiah.


Later comes Luke. Again, the dating is debatable. But since so much of Mark is contained in the other three Gospels, Mark is considered a literary source. Unlike Matthew, Luke is written largely to a pagan audience. Luke takes time to explain Jewish laws to his audience, which wouldn't be necessary with a largely Jewish readership. Luke also traces the genealogy of Jesus all the way to Adam-- who is the son of God. Luke alludes to the divinity of Jesus in somewhat of a pagan manner-- reminiscent of mystery religions in my view. Jesus is the son of God, much like Caesar was probably seen as the son of God. Human, yet divine.

Luke also tried to stress to the Greeks that one could still be safe under Roman rule while converting to Christianity.

Honest. The Romans won't become suspicious of you if you openly became a Christian.


According to many scholars of textual criticism, the gospel of Luke is written with pristine Greek-- the finest of the whole New Testament canon. Luke is said to write on the level of a Classical Greek novelist. I'm sure this helped to hold the attention of his sophisticated, Greek audience. Also, many people forget that the book of Acts was part of the gospel of Luke. And with Paul often depicted as a missionary to the Gentiles, he appears in Acts. Paul's "Roman" citizenship is played up a few times in Acts. His citizenship even prevents Paul from getting flogged or mistreated by Roman guards when he's arrested. The Book of Acts even ends with a "happily ever after" feel as Paul preaches the gospel in Rome unhindered.

But secular history tells us that Paul returned to Jerusalem just before his arrest-- years before Luke and Acts were even written. The Romans arrested Paul as a rebel rouser and executed him. Likewise, the Romans went after Peter and the other leaders as well because they suspected this fringe movement of Judaism was creating dissension towards the Roman government.

Yeah, being an early Christian in Rome was really safe.


In the gospel of John, Jesus is sometimes depicted as a superman. Jesus embodies the full divinity and majesty of God. Contrasted with Mark-- Jesus delivers a beautiful prayer in the presence of his disciples before he is arrested (John 17). When the Roman guards finally come to arrest Jesus, they inquire of his whereabouts. When Jesus responds, all the Roman guards fall back onto the ground! To me, this expresses that Jesus willingly goes away with his captors. These guards clearly didn't have the power to apprehend Jesus; he is only letting them take him away and nail him to the cross. Jesus is the sacrificial lamb. Compare the story of Jesus' arrest with all the other gospels within the context I've presented so far. Do you still see four people telling different angles of the same event? Or do you see four different "Jesuses" pitched to four different audiences, written by four different authors who have four different religious or political agendas?

Another fascinating feature of John (and perhaps found in the other gospels) is the constant rivalry between Jesus and the Pharisees. They argue with Jesus constantly when he claims authentic Judaism. But . . . if Pharisees were truly Abraham's children, they would love Jesus-- not hate him. But the Pharisees don't love Jesus at all. So then, the Pharisees cannot be the real Children of God-- but rather only the Children of the Devil.

But according to some historians, Pharisees weren't prominent until years after the Temple fell and synagogues became more important than ever. Interestingly, this phenomena seems to match the time that John was probably written-- decades after the fall of the Temple. So then, Pharisees seem to become some sort of anachronism within the gospels.

Hmmmm . . . .

As the synagogue and Pharisees became more important in Judaism, the mainstream Jews were finally making a full split with Christians as John was being written. The gospel of John was the final cry of an outcast group demanding to still be called Jewish as they were being thrown out of the synagogues. By now, the mainstream Jews had a new Messiah by the name of Bar Kokhba and strong tensions for a new revolt were forming again.

Eventually, Bar Kokhba was believed to be the true Messiah and lead a second Jewish rebellion that was also smashed by the Roman government.

The "new Jews" sat out on this failed revolt. By now, they were too Christian to be Jews and were too smart to be creamed a second time by the Romans. Christians now have their eternal, divine Jesus as their Messiah. His return is still soon, but he is otherworldly now and can flutter down from the Heavens to establish the kingdom whenever he sees fit. At this point, many first generation Christians were passing on. So then, the return of Jesus and the establishment of God's kingdom finally needed to transcend time and place so that Christ's followers could still maintain hope in rising above any political situation that kept them oppressed.

If it had not been for Constantine, Christianity would perhaps be regarded as nothing more than a myth or legend by now. Probably not too different from the ancient mystery religions or the ancient religions of Greece and Rome that finally fizzled out from that time period. And if Christianity did hang on without Constantine, I have a feeling the believers would only make up a very small religious order.

With this new perspective, I don't see Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as the four gospels any longer. I now see them as the Four Legends of Jesus.

I don't think I could ever bring myself to become a fundamentalist Christian again.

Just so you know I didn't make all of this up on my own, you can see the documentary that inspired this post:

From Jesus to Christ


I also want to stress that I'm mainly stating my opinions based on what I've understood from the documentary, some extra reading, and a few suspicions I've held in the back of my mind since my deconversion. I don't make any claims at being a biblical scholar and I understand that my analysis could be wrong in many places. But, I personally feel like my presentation is a rough idea of how Jesus evolved from a Jewish political rebel, to the Messiah, and then into the very person of God in the flesh.

I believe the followers of Jesus changed who he was over time-- from a fringe group's Messiah to the Christian's Jesus Christ.
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