ReThink everything you thought you Knew

Finding an Alternative Jesus

The “Newly Discovered” Jesus
One of the most common, and most disturbing, refrains heard in the media’s coverage of contemporary radical views of Christ is that New Testament scholars have recently “discovered” new sources of information about Jesus that contradict the Bible’s own view of Jesus. It is claimed that works such as the Gospel of Thomas, Secret Mark, the Gospel of Peter, and especially “Q,” contain material about Jesus that was lost, or intentionally suppressed, when the Gospels were accepted by the early church. Now that these works have been discovered, however, we can, as one liberal scholar put it, finally free ourselves from the “tyranny of the canonical Jesus” and come up with an alternative Jesus along the lines of these other non-biblical sources.

At first glance, the average reader can be taken back by these spectacular claims. The very idea that there are ancient books outside the Bible that speak about Jesus—let alone books that speak about him more accurately than does the Bible!—is confusing to believers and nonbelievers alike who have never heard such things before. In the interest of improving your “Bible literacy,” many liberal scholars have gone out of their way to inform you of their discoveries. But, also in the interest of improving your Bible literacy, you need to know that there is another side to this story. Many scholars, you should know, think that all of this amounts to little more than hot air! In what follows, I’ll tell you why.

How “New” Are the “New Discoveries”?
In the light of all the media talk about “new” discoveries, it may come as something of a surprise to learn that there are, in fact, no “new” documents that have been discovered. Indeed, two of the four so-called “discoveries” now being most heavily used by liberal scholars in their attempts at reinventing the historical Jesus have never been discovered (“Q” and Secret Mark). They are hypothetical “documents” these scholars think once existed. Another (Gospel of Thomas) was discovered fifty years ago, while the fourth (Gospel of Peter) was discovered over a hundred years ago.

The existence of these supposed sources, therefore, is not new. What is new, however, is what certain scholars are now trying to do with these sources. Thus, while speculation about “Q” has been going on for over a hundred and fifty years, only recently have certain scholars dreamed of completely revamping our view of who Jesus was and what his earliest followers were like on the basis of this hypothetical document.

So too, while the Gospel of Thomas has been in our hands for fifty years, only recently have certain influential scholars tried to argue that this document provides information about Jesus that pre-dates the Gospels. So also with the Gospel of Peter and Secret Mark. Only recently have certain liberal scholars attempted to make these works a significant part of their project of reinventing the historical Jesus.

Rest assured, then, that despite the sometimes sensational popular media presentation, there are no new discoveries that shake the foundation of the biblical view of Christ. There are simply new theories about old discoveries and old hypotheses. And these new theories, we shall now see, are themselves hardly “foundation shaking.”

So, what are we to make of these extra-canonical sources? Of the four mentioned above that receive the most attention today, “Q” is by far and away the most important. And so I shall treat it separately below. But a few words must first be said about Secret Mark, the Gospel of Peter, and the Gospel of Thomas.

Secret Mark
In a letter written by Clement of Alexandria in the late second century, a “secret Gospel” that purportedly came from Mark is quoted at some length. This work, Clement says, was composed by the disciple Mark, shortly after he wrote the canonical Gospel bearing his name. And it was intended to communicate “secret” matters for “those who are being perfected.” Clement of Alexandria quotes this work in the process of refuting the licentious interpretations which a certain radical gnostic group (the Carpocratians) were giving it.

A number of liberal New Testament scholars have given this citation an incredible amount of weight, even going so far as to argue, as John Dominic Crossan says, that “canonical Mark is a censored version of Secret Mark.”(1) We need not go into the actual contents of Clement’s citation here, but suffice it to say that from this premise, this citation has been used by certain scholars to substantiate some fairly controversial views. Morton Smith, the one who discovered Clement’s letter, has used it as the foundation for several books which argue that the historical Jesus was a magician. Others, such as Crossan, have used it as evidence that a number of “the first early Christians” practiced homosexuality and understood Christian baptism as a homosexual rite! (2)

In any event, there are a number of problems with taking Secret Mark this seriously. First, as mentioned above, no one has ever seen any copy of Secret Mark. What is worse, no one except Morton Smith has ever seen the actual copy of Clement’s second century letter that makes reference to Secret Mark. It somehow mysteriously disappeared from the monastery Smith discovered it in! To the thinking of many scholars, this is enough to disqualify it as a serious source of information relevant to the historical Jesus or the earliest disciples.

But even if Smith’s report about this reference to this work is accepted, there is no good reason to think that it pre-dates canonical Mark. The fact that Clement himself tells us it was written after canonical Mark is significant. The fact that we have no reference to this work until the late second or early third century further suggests that it is late. Moreover, its contents, like that of so many other Apocryphal Gospels, can be shown to be a conflation and adaptation of the canonical Mark, again rendering the hypothesis that this work pre-dates Mark impossible.

Finally, the fact that Clement of Alexandria, in distinction from most other church fathers in the second and third centuries, was generally quite gullible in accepting spurious “secret” writings undermines his credibility as a witness to Secret Mark. He also accepted such works as the Apocalypse of Peter, the Gospel According to the Hebrews, the Gospel of the Egyptians, and the Gospel of Thomas as authentic even though other church fathers (rightly) rejected them as forgeries.

Secret Mark, then, is a non-existent work cited in a now non-existent text by a late second century author who is known for his gullibility. And thus, the reasonableness of giving this hypothetical work more credibility than the canonical Gospels, whose reliability can be demonstrated, is dubious to say the least.

The Gospel of Peter
We find several references to the Gospel of Peter among early church fathers, though it is never quoted and is usually portrayed as a heretical work. A ninth century copy of it was discovered in upper Egypt in 1886. Several scholars, most notably John Dominic Crossan, have tried to argue that its passion narrative (which Crossan calls “the Cross Gospel”) is older than that of the canonical Gospels. Indeed, Crossan argues that the author of Mark used the Cross Gospel in composing his own narrative.

Most scholars, however, have not accepted Crossan’s theory, and for good reason. For one thing, we simply have no evidence that the Gospel of Peter, or any section of the Gospel of Peter, pre-dates the second or third century. The basic reason Crossan postulates an early date for “the Cross Gospel” is that some of this material fits well with his particular conjectural scheme for how the “mythological” passion narratives of the Gospels evolved.

What is more, the work as a whole can be shown to be dependent on the canonical Gospel material. And the work is full of outlandish legendary material such as we have come to expect from late second and third century apocryphal works. The Jesus of this work, for example, feels no pain on the cross. And when Christ comes out of the tomb, he is accompanied by two men whose heads extend up to the sky, while Christ himself extends up beyond the sky! And to top it all off, these three are followed out of the tomb by a cross that talks!!

Compare this with the Bible’s own realistic accounts of the crucifixion and resurrection and you can see why we refer to the Gospel accounts as being “sober.” The fact that some yet want to give preference to works like the fanciful Gospel of Peter over these sober accounts simply reveals the depth of prejudice against the biblical material held by these scholars.

The Gospel of Thomas
The Gospel of Thomas was part of a large collection of gnostic works discovered at Nag Hammadi in 1945. Until recently, it was, along with many other of these works, universally dated in the mid-second century, and most scholars still hold to this date. But a number of scholars who are now getting a good deal of press argue that a good portion of its material pre-dates the Gospel material. Crossan, for example, argues that some of this material goes back to the earliest stage of Christianity (30–60 A.D.), a status not granted by him to most of the Gospels’ material. In agreement with him, the Jesus Seminar decided to place the Gospel of Thomas right next to the four canonical Gospels in their publication, The Five Gospels

What these scholars find most appealing about the Gospel of Thomas is that it is simply a collection of sayings of Jesus, many of which are identical to, or at least similar to, some sayings found in the Gospels. This work, therefore, does not portray Jesus as a miracle worker or as a resurrected Lord. And this, of course, fits well with the view that the historical Jesus was simply a teacher and that most of the narratives about him in the Gospels were created later.

Four things can be in said in response to this view. First, while we cannot rule out the possibility that the Gospel of Thomas does contain some authentic sayings of Jesus, and perhaps even some that were not recorded by the biblical authors, no convincing case has been made that any given saying of Jesus in the Gospels depends on a saying of this work. To say that the Gospel of Thomas contains authentic sayings of Jesus is one thing. To say that these sayings are more authentic than the Gospels’ own material is quite another.

Secondly, the Gospel of Thomas is clearly influenced by the kind of gnosticism we know was prevalent in the second and third centuries, but not in the first. For example, we find the Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas saying that “every woman who will make herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” This demeaning view of women was common within gnosticism, but utterly foreign to the historical Jesus.

Moreover, a number of other sayings of Jesus in this Gospel which parallel sayings in the four canonical Gospels are given a distinctly gnostic twist. Sayings about “the kingdom of God,” for example, have been hyper-spiritualized in a gnostic direction and have lost most of their original Semitic meaning. This clearly demonstrates that the Gospel of Thomas is largely dependent on the canonical Gospels, not the other way around.

Third, the fact that this work doesn’t contain any narratives about Jesus doesn’t mean that the person, or the community, that lies behind this work was unaware of the deeds of Jesus’ ministry. The work seems clearly designed to be a collection of sayings. And if this was indeed its purpose, we cannot infer anything about what the person or group behind it did not believe on the basis of what this work does not say.

And, finally, the use made of this Gospel by these scholars is weak, if for no other reason than because it depends on their particular (and very tenuous) views of “Q.” To put it in a word, material in the Gospel of Thomas that agrees with what these scholars judge to be the “earliest layer” of “Q” is, for this reason, judged to be early, while material that doesn’t agree with this “earliest layer” of “Q” is admitted to be late. But, as we shall see, the method by which these scholars decide what constitutes the “earliest layer” of “Q” is completely arbitrary. Indeed, sometimes sayings in “Q” are argued to be early precisely because they agree with the Gospel of Thomas!

For these reasons (none of which are even discussed in the Jesus Seminar’s The Five Gospels) there seems to be no good reason to regard the Gospel of Thomas as anything more than a second century distillation of somewhat twisted material about Jesus, some of which may reflect authentic traditions stemming from Jesus, and some of which simply reflects gnostic-tending creativity. Hence, the attempt on the part of certain scholars to give it priority over the canonical material is simply ill founded.

The “Discovery” of “Q”
As significant as the Gospel of Thomas and other extra-canonical sources are to the liberal attempt to reinvent the historical Jesus, they do not compare to the importance of “Q.” The bulk of the material out of which modern liberal views of Jesus and the early Church are being carved and then fed to the media is taken from this document.

The existence of “Q” (for the German word Quelle, meaning “source”) was first postulated in the last century as a way of explaining the close parallels between Matthew and Luke when they are expressing material not found in Mark. If Matthew and Luke both possessed a single document that contained (mostly) sayings of Jesus, then their close similarities in the way they quote sayings of Jesus can be accounted for.

Now there are, of course, a number of other ways one could account for their similarities that don’t require postulating a hypothetical document. From what we know about Jewish oral tradition and memorization, for example, one could convincingly argue that the commonalties between Luke and Matthew are simply indicative of the reliability of the oral traditions that lie behind both. A number of reputable scholars espouse this position. Or, some have argued, Luke may have used Matthew as one of his sources when he composed his Gospel (cf. Luke 1:1–4). Hence the similarities in wording are to be expected.

Whatever we make of these alternative theories, they serve as reminders that whenever anyone talks about “Q,” they are talking about a tentative hypothesis, not an actual document. Not one shred of anything like this document has ever been found. This is not to say that there’s anything particularly wrong with this hypothesis. It may in fact be correct. But it is to say that any theories based on this hypothesis can never be more certain than the hypothesis itself. As we shall see, however, this seems to have been largely forgotten by some of those scholars who are now trying to erect incredible theoretical fortresses upon it.

Dissecting “Q”
Many liberal scholars are now arguing that the Jesus we find in “Q” is a radically different Jesus than the one we find in the Gospels. Like the Gospel of Thomas, the Jesus of “Q” is more of a teacher than he is a miracle working savior. His claims, it is argued, are less pretentious, he does no miracles, he does not die for sins, and he most certainly does not come back from the dead. And since “Q” is (according to this hypothesis) earlier than the Gospels, its material, they argue, should be judged as being more reliable than that of the Gospels. It’s difficult to overestimate the influence this line of reasoning has on many of those scholars getting the most media attention today.

Indeed, the scholars who are using “Q” as a foundational source are now going further and are arguing that “Q” itself can be divided into different stages, with each stage reflecting an increasingly “mythological” view of Jesus. While the exact demarcations of these “stages” differs among scholars, the most common view is that at stage one (often referred to as “Q1”) we find a wise Jesus who is simply a teacher. In stage two (“Q2”) we find a prophetic and apocalyptic Jesus who is chastising his opponents and announcing the coming judgment of God. And in stage three (“Q3”) we find a superhuman Jesus who is being seen as having divine authority and as embodying the wisdom of God.

To the thinking of these scholars, this “progression” demonstrates that the Jesus of the Gospels was not the Jesus of history. It shows that the earliest followers of Jesus, reflected in the earliest layer of “Q” (and, of course, in the “early” material in the Gospel of Thomas) held a perfectly natural view of Jesus. It shows that only gradually did these people begin to see Jesus in increasingly exalted terms. And it shows, therefore, that the Gospels’ view of Jesus Christ as the miracle working Son of God who died for sins and rose from the dead is not historical. It is simply the product of the “creative imaginations” of the early Christians.

Piling Assumptions Upon Assumptions
What is one to make of all this? Initially this reconstruction of early church history can look somewhat convincing. But on closer inspection, it simply does not stand up.

Among other things, the entire scheme is completely conjectural. These scholars are asking us to trade in the Gospel portrait of Christ, the reliability of which we have already seen (see The Jesus Seminar and the Reliability of the Gospels), for a hypothetical reconstruction of history based on a hypothetical reconstruction of a hypothetical document. And, at least to the thinking of many other scholars, this does not come close to being a good trade.

To see just how conjectural this speculation is, consider the number of assumptions that must be made for this version of how the “mythological” Jesus of the Gospels came about to get off the ground. And consider how tenuous these assumptions are.

The Circularity of the Mack Attack
We see, then, that the liberal reinvention of who the original Jesus was and what his original followers were like on the basis of “Q” amounts to nothing more than a pile of arbitrary assumptions built upon other arbitrary assumptions. But what is perhaps even more damaging to their theory than this is the fact that the whole enterprise of reconstructing “Q” is a classic example of circular reasoning.

The all important question to ask yourself is this: On what basis do these scholars conclude that the material in the hypothetical “Q” document that portrays Jesus as a wise teacher came before the material that portrays him as a prophetic or apocalyptic teacher? And on what basis do they further conclude that all of this material came before the material that portrays him in divine terms?

The answer, in a word, is that this conjectural scheme of what comes “before” and what comes “after” is simply the one that best fits their assumption of how the earliest followers of Jesus progressed in their views of Jesus. But this assumption is the conclusion they arrive at from the various literary stages they supposedly “discover” in “Q.” In other words, the supposed literary stages of “Q” are inferred from the supposed historical stages of “the people of Q.” And the supposed historical stages of “the people of Q” are then inferred from the supposed literary stages of “Q.” And this is a classic case of circular reasoning!

Lest you think I’m exaggerating, let’s look at a few examples of how Burton Mack makes his case in his very popular work, The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins (henceforth abbreviated as LG). For starters, Mack helps his readers note that, “Frequently the way sayings are grouped or ordered [in “Q”] makes a point. Sometimes a saying offers a specific interpretation of a preceding unit of material” (LG, p. 106). But remember, the only “Q” we possess is the one Mack and others have pieced together from Matthew and Luke. They decided how the sayings are to be ordered, and they did so on the basis of the points they think “the original Q” was making. So it’s not too surprising that Mack “discovers” that “the way sayings are grouped or ordered makes a point.” He’s the one who ordered them to make just this point!

Similarly, Mack argues that “the order and organization of material [in “Q”] are…clear signs of the coherence of a particular layer of tradition” (LG, p.108). The coherence of various “stages” of “Q,” in other words, are discernible by how well the material in each is ordered. But, of course, it is Mack himself (along with others) who has imposed on the sayings that Matthew and Luke have in common this particular “order and organization.” So arguing on the basis of this “discovered” organization that Q has distinct “layers of tradition” can hardly be called convincing!

Along these same lines, Mack “discovers” that in the first layer of “Q” (“Q1”), as opposed to the second layer of “Q” (“Q2”), “[t]here is no sign of hostility” towards those outside the “Q” community (LG, 111). In his view, it was a growing sense of hostility to the “outside” world that led the “people of Q” to gradually develop a more prophetic and apocalyptic view of Jesus. But this “discovery” can hardly be called a “discovery,” since it is again Mack himself who decided ahead of time that any saying which exhibits such “hostility” belongs to the later layers of “Q”!

So too, Mack notes with interest the “shift in tone that awaits the reader of Q2,” and notes how, “[i]n contrast to Q1 the reader now encounters narratives, dialogue, controversy stories…warnings, and apocalyptic pronouncements” (LG, 131). Amazing indeed. But who was it who ruled out all this material from “Q1” and placed it all in “Q2”? It was the very person who is now with fascination “discovering” it!

The whole project of reconstructing earliest Christian history on the basis of “Q,” we see, is as circular as it is conjectural. And we are being asked to trade in the Gospels’ accounts of who Jesus was, and what his disciples were like, for this. To some of us, it is a ridiculous proposition.

Whose History Can You Trust?
What makes this proposition far worse, however, is that accepting this liberal reconstruction also requires of us that we trade in the Bible’s own history of the early Church, found in the Acts of the Apostles. If this reconstructed view of early Church history is even remotely close to being correct, the view given to us in the book of Acts must be altogether false! For if there’s anything that is clear from Acts, it’s that the early Church believed and proclaimed that Jesus Christ was the Son of God who rose from the dead from its very inception. And the Church’s inception, of course, occurred just weeks after Jesus’ resurrection (on the day of Pentecost).

So the question is, whose history are you going to trust? Mack’s or Luke’s? For many reasons, a host of scholars would argue that the nod must be given to Luke. While we certainly cannot even begin to investigate this matter with any thoroughness at the present time, a brief summary of the more important pieces of evidence which substantiate the reliability of Acts is in order.

The Author of Acts
The early church is unanimous in maintaining that the author of this work, as well as the Gospel which preceded it (cf. Acts 1:1) was Luke, the “beloved physician” who accompanied Paul on many of his journeys (Col. 4:14; cf. Philemon, 24; 2 Tim. 4:11). Only the most radical of Bible critics ever questions this. The fact that this author reflects such a detailed knowledge of Paul’s life, and the fact that he sometimes speaks in the first person plural in his narrative, signifying that he was present at the time (Acts 16:10–17; 20:5–21:18; 27:1–28:16), further confirms Lucan authorship.

This information already is enough to raise this very important question: Who is in a better position to tell us how the church began and developed in its earliest stages? A companion of Paul who, as he tells us, is writing an orderly and accurate account while relying on eyewitnesses (Luke 1:1–3)? Or certain scholars investigating the matter two thousand years later, while relying on questionable inferences from a hypothetical reconstruction of a hypothetical document?

The Dating of Acts
The book of Acts ends very abruptly with Paul under house arrest in Rome in 62 A.D. The question is, why? What makes this question especially interesting is that we know that Paul, as well as Peter and James, were martyred shortly after this time under Nero’s persecution. And we also know that Luke is interested in recording the martyrdom of key Christian figures. Thus he mentions the stoning of Stephen (7:57–59) and the martyrdom of James, the brother of John (12:2). But why then would he omit mentioning the martyrdom of the three key figures in his book?

The most obvious answer is that these martyrs hadn’t yet occurred when Luke was composing his narrative. And for this reason, many scholars have argued that the book of Acts must be dated sometime shortly after 62 A.D.

A number of other factors provide further confirmation of this early dating.

Other consideration could be given, but this is sufficient to show that the events Luke recorded both in his Gospel and in his Acts of the Apostles were events that had happened just a short time before he recorded them (for further reading, see Is the Book of Acts Reliable?). Which again raises this important question: Was this author in a worse position to know “what actually happened” than certain scholars are today as they dissect “Q”? Not likely.

The Accuracy of Luke’s Record
Even more important in establishing the reliability of Acts than the question of its authorship and date is the question of how well it has, or has not, squared with what we know from other ancient sources about the first century Roman world. And the answer, in a nutshell, is that Acts has received remarkable confirmation from a wide variety of sources. To cite just a few examples of this confirmation:

Thus, for example, Luke is consistently correct in calling the magistrates of senatorial provinces “proconsuls” while calling those in imperial provinces “governors” (hagemon). In a Roman colony like Phillipi, however, they are correctly called “praetors” whose attenders are correctly labeled as “lictors” or “serjeants” (16:12, 35). In Thessalonica, however, they are correctly identified as “politarchs,” a term elsewhere unknown, but confirmed in Thessolonica by archeology.

Now if Luke was consistently correct about such details as these, on what grounds can we question the accuracy of his record on more general matters—such as what the earliest Christians believed about Jesus?

It was evidence such as this that led Dr. Sherwin-White, arguably the ablest historian of ancient Roman law in our time, to conclude that:

The confirmation of historicity [in Acts] is overwhelming…any attempt to reject its historicity even in matters of detail must now appear absurd. (5)

Assessing the Liberal Proposition
It is, however, just this “absurdity” that the liberal scholars who are now trying to rewrite early Church history require us to believe if we are to accept their radical revisionist views. They are, in effect, asking us to believe that the book of Acts, as well as the Gospels (to say nothing of the apostle Paul) are all fundamentally incorrect in how they viewed Jesus and his earliest disciples. Despite all the evidence which supports their reliability, we are to believe that they are, in fact, altogether untrustworthy. What we are to trust is certain scholars’ ability to locate the “real” Jesus behind all of this myth.

And what is the evidence that should compel us to accept these scholars’ radical views? Well, there’s a brief allusion to a lost “secret” Gospel in a late second century letter that has, unfortunately, only been seen by one person and has now itself been lost (Secret Mark). There is a third century account of the crucifixion and resurrection which includes a talking cross that less than a handful of scholars think predates the Gospels (Gospel of Peter). There is a second century gnostic document, parts of which some now want to date early (Gospel of Thomas). And, of course, there is this hypothetical reconstruction of a hypothetical document (“Q”) built on very tenuous assumptions that are pieced together in a viciously circular fashion.

To a good number of people, the suggestion that the New Testament record should be traded in for this is not even tempting. The proposed trade is a poor one. While the liberals’ accounts of who Jesus was and what he did might be initially compelling to many ordinary readers, its appeal is quickly lost once you gather all the facts.

End Notes

(1) J. D. Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), 329.

(2) op. cit.

(3) S. Neill., N. T. Wright, The Interpretation of the New Testament: 1861–1986 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 153–4, 151.

(4) F. F. Bruce (quoting H. J. Holtzmann), “The Acts of the Apostles: Historical Record or Theological Reconstruction?” Aufstieg und Niedergang der romischen Welt, ed. H. Temporini and W. Haase, 23:5 (New York; Berlin: de Gryter, 1985), 2578.

(5) A. N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963), 173.

Further Reading

P. Eddy & G. Boyd, The Jesus Legend (Baker, 2007)

G. Boyd & P. Eddy, Lord or Legend? (Baker, 2007)

G. Boyd, Cynic Sage or Son of God (Bridgepoint, 1995)

Finding an Alternative Jesus