The Pre-Canonical Synoptic Transmission:
Who Was the Historical Jesus?
The biblical tradition places Jesus’ birth in Palestine at the town of Nazareth “in the days of Herod, king of Judea” (Lk. 1:5). We do know that Herod reigned from 40 BCE to his death in 4 BCE, so Jesus was born no later than 4 BCE and possibly earlier. Under Emperor Justinian, in 354 CE, the Church set the birth of Christ at December 25; however, this was most certainly not Jesus’ real birthdate. In ancient Rome December 25 was the last day of the pagan Saturnalia midwinter festival (called the “birthday of the unconquered”) which celebrated the sun’s new birth from its solstice.
During his life, Jesus taught primarily in Galilee, a small agricultural region north of Jerusalem. Jesus lived in a peasant society during a time of great social turmoil between the colonialization of Palestine in 63 BCE by Rome to the devastation of the First Jewish Revolt (66-70 CE). Violent revolts, banditry, uprisings, and Roman colonial oppression were the norm and many popular religious movements sprung up during this time in response to the social crises. Jesus was one such figure who gained a reputation during his life as both a miracle-worker and a wisdom teacher. By being declared a king by others (or declaring himself a king) Jesus was found guilty of treason against the Emperor under the Lex Juliana. Thus, Jesus was crucified by the fifth Roman procurator of Judaea, Pontius Pilate, who reigned from 26-36 CE before being dismissed by Syrian governor Vitellius for a bloody encounter with a Samaritan prophet and his followers. From this information we know that Jesus was probably born no later than 4 BCE and must have died no later than 36 CE. Like Socrates, Jesus left no writings behind. Everything that Jesus taught had to be preserved orally by those who knew him when he was alive. This body of teaching was transmitted among those early adherents of the Jesus movement by oral tradition.
Following Jesus’ death, certain of his followers reported that his tomb was empty (Mk. 16:1-8) and that he had, in fact, rose from the grave and appeared to them (Mt. 28:11-20; Lk. 24:36-49). Certain of Jesus’ disciples did as he asked in Mk. 3:13-19 and continued to teach in and around Palestine. The disciples would recall stories about Jesus and tell them to people in the context of their teaching (Eusebius, Church History, 3.39.15). For instance, when the disciple Peter taught in Palestine, Rome, (and perhaps Corinth), he may have preached to the wealthy by shouting: “Jesus said, ‘Damn you rich! You already have your consolation and damn you who are well-fed now! You will know hunger'” (Lk. 6:24-25). Peter might then have linked this saying of Jesus with his own preaching in which he relates Jesus’ words to a theological point. The disciples remembered these individual sayings of Jesus (called pericopes) in no particular order and used them as the situation demanded it. This particular Q pericope (from Luke) would not serve Peter very well among the outcast. Among the poor he may have comforted them by using the sayings of Jesus found in Luke 6:27-36 or perhaps Luke 11:2-4.
Over time, these stories came to be collected and were remembered in a thriving oral tradition that preserved Jesus’ miraculous deeds and wisdom teachings. Since Jesus left no writings, the stories about him that the disciples remembered were all that the early converts to the new movement knew about Jesus. The oral tradition thrived from shortly after Jesus’ crucifixion to well into the second century. Many pericopes in the oral tradition–for example the legend that Jesus was born in a cave–did not survive once the written gospels became canonical. However, even after the gospels were written, the oral tradition continued to thrive in many communities. The late first century church elder Papias preferred the oral tradition over the gospels.
Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea from 315 CE to his death in 340 CE, had read a now-lost work by the Church elder Papias who lived and wrote around 100 CE. In his Church History, Eusebius quotes Papias as saying that written material did not help him nearly as much as “the word of a living and surviving voice” of the sayings of Jesus (3.39.3). Papias collected all of the stories he could find from the elders who had known one of the disciples and wrote them down in a work called the Oracles (Sayings) of the Lord. Other writers had done the same thing. The very early Q gospel–which Matthew and Luke used when composing their gospels–was just such a collection of sayings, written sometime during the middle of the first century. Similarly, the Gospel of Thomas belongs to this genre because it preserves many short sayings of Jesus culled from the oral tradition. It is suspected that much of Jesus’ words preserved in the gospels reflect more the theology of the early Church rather than the historical Jesus himself. This is why scholars look closely at the Q Gospel. It lies on a closer trajectory to Jesus and may better preserve Jesus’ actual words than other gospels, for example, the Gospel of John which contains very little of the historical Jesus.
The oral tradition did not preserve autobiographical details of Jesus’ life and, surprisingly, the Q gospel does not even mention Jesus’ death and resurrection. The task falls to the first gospel writer (Mark in 70 CE) to write about Jesus’ death but he ends his gospel by the discovery of the empty tomb (Mark 16:1-8). Matthew and Luke will provide a genealogy for Jesus as well as post-resurrection appearance stories.
There is a disappointing irony in the Apostle Paul as a source for the historical Jesus. Even though Paul did not know Jesus (he was converted to the movement two years after Jesus’ crucifixion), his letters to various early Christian communities predate the gospels, making them the earliest testimony of Jesus. Yet Paul never speaks of Jesus’ life and very rarely mentions anything that Jesus said. This is because Paul’s letters to the various communities he founded are ecclesiastical policy designed to organize the young Church and were not intended to communicate the sayings of Jesus. Since Paul did not know the historical Jesus (and fought with those who did) he is not as helpful to us as we might at first imagine.
Jesus’ disciples were still alive of course and Paul tells us that three years after his conversion he visited Peter in Jerusalem (the headquarters for the Jesus movement) for fifteen days (Galatians 1:16-19). Paul tells us that he did not seek out any of the other disciples and seems to have had little interest in their perspective of Jesus. In fact, very quickly Paul feuds with other disciples and his theology is questioned by those who follow Peter (1 Corin. 1:12-13).
The “Cephas faction” (Peter) that Paul fought followed Mosaic law and insisted on circumcision even for the Gentile converts to the new faith. The fact that Peter is so insistent on this is good evidence that Jesus himself never abandoned the tenets of Judaism. Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians because a serious crisis had arisen in the community there over the conflict between the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem (under James and Peter) and Paul’s earlier teaching. Paul tells us that he did not receive any instruction from the disciples in Jerusalem because his gospel from divine revelation was the only true gospel.
These various factions that Paul mentions are called “trajectories” by biblical scholars; out of these trajectories emerge different movements which emphasized or understood Jesus’ teachings in manners that caused friction between them. In his second letter to the community at Corinth, Paul complains of those “superlative apostles” who preach a different Jesus than the one that he preached to them (2 Corin. 11:4-6). Paul goes on to characterize them as “false apostles” working for Satan (11:12-15). These enemies of Paul were probably the Judaizers (of Philippians 3:2-15) who, if they were not Jesus’ disciples, certainly Jewish-Christians in close agreement to the theology of Jesus’ disciples in Jerusalem. We must remember that Jesus was a Jew and advocated an adherence to the Law. Unlike Peter and the other disciples in Jerusalem, Paul considers Judaism a regression, a step in the wrong direction (cf. Acts 2:43ff).
We must conclude that Paul is of no help to us for understanding the teachings of the historical Jesus. Paul claims to have received his theology, not from Jesus via Jesus’ disciples whom he despised, but rather through a direct revelation with a Risen Christ. Paul’s understanding of Jesus’ teaching received from this revelation seems to be in sharp disagreement with the understanding and practices of Jesus’ own disciples in Jerusalem.
Since we can no longer know the words of Jesus as he would have wanted us to–by listening to him speak in rural Galilee–the closest thing we have is the Q gospel. The Q gospel puts the modern reader very close to those first Jewish Christians in the Jesus movement because it is the earliest source to Jesus’ words. Scholars date Q to about 50 CE, thus it enjoys priority to the synoptic gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. That Q (and Mark) predate and were sources for Matthew and Luke is called the two source theory. (See the excellent review of the synoptic problem by Stephen Carlson for a full treatment of the issues involved with the priority of Q. See also the Synoptic Gospel Primer at Rutgers University.)
Q is from the German Quelle or “source” so named because scholars recognized very early that certain passages in Luke and Matthew formed a unified source of material for the two gospels. The community of ancient Jewish Christians who produced Q was very different from the later communities of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. If one reads the Q gospel without imposing the developed theology of later trajectories, a clear picture emerges:
- Q is not a narrative gospel like the synoptics, but rather a collection of Jesus’ sayings. Q is a codification of the oral tradition and tells us Jesus’ words rather than anything about his life.
- The Q community emphasized the coming of God’s rule; yet there is a clear absence of the Risen Christ theology of the Pauline kerygma. In fact Jesus’ death is not even mentioned at all.
- Jesus is seen as a wisdom teacher as in the Gospel of Thomas. This conforms to the original testimony of Josephus who refers to Jesus as a wise man and a teacher of those who love truth.
John Kloppenborg identifies three layers of material in the Q gospel named simply Q1, Q2, and Q3. Q1 is the most primitive layer and closest to the historical Jesus while Q2 and Q3 represent additional redacted materials over time as new sayings were incorporated into it. Q1 consists largely of Jesus’ wisdom sayings (Robinson and Koester’s logoi sophon gattung, or “wisdom sayings genre”) and the attitude of the true followers of Jesus toward discipleship, death, and the world around them; Q2 adds eschatological sayings (apocalyptic pronouncements) concerning the judgment to come when God’s rule finally closes in; and Q3 adds the last layer of material which is introspective and cautions followers of Jesus to be patient while they wait for the eruption of God’s rule into the present situation.
Burton Mack points out twelve “core sayings” of early Q1 material that give us a picture of what Jesus taught during his life. All references are to Luke’s gospel:
- Love your enemies (6:27)
- If struck on one cheek, offer the other (6:29)
- Give to everyone who begs (6:30)
- Judge not and you won’t be judged (6:37)
- First remove the beam from your own eye (6:42)
- Leave the dead to bury their dead (9:60)
- Go out as lambs among wolves (10:3)
- Carry no money, bag, or sandals (10:4)
- Say, “God’s rule has come near you” (10:9)
- Ask and it shall be given to you (11:9)
- Don’t worry about living (12:22)
- Make sure of God’s rule over you (12:31)
We can see a clear theme in the early sayings of Jesus. The Q community believed in voluntary poverty, humbleness, total pacifism, and complete reliance on God rather than family or tradition. In the Q gospel Jesus says ironically “Congratulations to you poor!” (Lk. 6:20b) and further praises those who hunger and weep for they shall be rewarded when God’s rule comes soon. These sayings are representative of Jesus’ followers in the very early years of the movement. Paul tells us that when he visited the community in Jerusalem they reminded him to always remember the poor (Gal. 1:10). These people did not find meaning in Jesus’ death, but rather found deep meaning in his teachings while he was alive. By contrast, the Apostle Paul will find deeper meaning in the Risen Christ rather than the wisdom of Jesus’ teachings as preserved by the Jerusalem trajectory. This causes a crisis in the early Church prompting Paul to write his letters to the Galatians and Corinthians. (Later, Paul discovers that his rivals are completely subverting his work at Corinth and writes to them a second letter.) In any case, the striking differences between the kerygma embodied in Q and the Risen Christ kerygma of Paul may well mirror the conflict between them. Although the Q gospel lies on a trajectory much closer to the historical Jesus, it is important to remember that it still represents the theology of the Q community and probably does not accurately represent all of Jesus’ sayings.
I present the noncanonical Gospel of Thomas here because there is recent debate over its relationship to the canonical gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. Helmut Koester argues that it is a mistake to see Thomas as an “eclectic excerpt” from the canonical four because the canonical four contain large segments of narrative material which Thomas lacks entirely. Thomas is best understood in the genre that produced the Q Gospel (the sayings source genre) since its individual pericopes are independently based on oral tradition and not the narrative forms of the synoptics and John.
Since Q informed Matthew and Luke (according to the two source hypothesis), and Q dates to about 50 CE, Thomas may well have in its original form stemmed from that same tradition.
The Coptic version that is now extant as part of the Nag Hammadi library (not to mention the Greek Oxyrhynchus papryi fragments 1, 654, and 655) have not preserved the oldest tradition that is seen in the Q gospel. Nevertheless, it can be seen that the Coptic version belongs to a much older tradition, a tradition that probably stems from the oral tradition rather than upon another noncanonical or canonical gospel. Bishop Papias (c. 100 CE) tells us that Matthew first compiled the “sayings” of Jesus in Aramaic and everyone else translated these sayings into Greek as best as they could. The genre that Q and Thomas represent (as sayings sources) resemble such a description of Matthew leading some to speculate that the original Matthew was first a sayings source gospel in the manner of the Q gospel. If Papias is correct, then this certainly supports a very early dating of Thomas.
Scholarship on the Gospel of Thomas is still in its infancy and biblical scholars hesitate to draw hasty conclusions without further study. What is agreed upon is that, in its oldest strata, Thomas stressed the wisdom teachings of Jesus. In Thomas, Jesus teaches his disciples how to discover the “Kingdom of the Father.” (See the very comprehensive Gospel of Thomas web site for more information.)
Josephus (37-100 CE) is perhaps our primary source for the history of first-century Palestine. He was born Joseph ben Matthias into a priestly Hasmonean family, but after he became a Roman citizen he adopted the emperor’s name, Flavius. Josephus spent some time with the Pharisees, Essenes and, for three years, was a disciple of an ascetic teacher name Banus (Life, 2). During the First Jewish Revolt (66-70 CE), he led an army against the Romans but in 67 CE was captured in Galilee by the Roman general Vespasian. Josephus impressed Vespasian and, when in 69 CE Vespasian became emperor, he released Josephus from prison. After Jerusalem fell in 70 CE, Josephus returned to Rome and began writing the history of the Jewish people. His two major works are The Wars of the Jews (75 CE?) and The Antiquities of the Jews (95 CE?).
Josephus is considered important by students of the New Testament because his writings focus on the socio-political events that occurred during Jesus’ life. Interestingly, Josephus writes about John the Baptist’s teachings at great length (Antiquities, 18.5.2), but tells us very little about Jesus and his ministry. In a much-contested passage of the Antiquities this is all that Josephus writes about Jesus:
Now, there was about this time Jesus, a wise man . . . . For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. . . . When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. . . . And the tribe of Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared (18.3.3).
Following Patterson, I have excluded the places that scholars agree are later Christian interpolations. Even though Josephus does not tell us much we can discern a few very important things about Josephus’ portrayal of Jesus. Jesus was a wisdom teacher. This is an especially important attestation of the Q gospel’s portrayal of Jesus. Also, Josephus is aware of the pejorative term “Christian” (messiah-followers) and refers to them as “so called” Christians because, as a Jew, Josephus did not believe Jesus to be the messiah. The Roman historians Tacitus (Annals 15.44) and Seutonius (Lives of the Caesars 6.16) use the term Christian in a pejorative sense and we learn from 1 Peter 4:14-16 that the term was used derogatorily against Jesus’ followers while they were persecuted.
Other than Josephus, the only other historian that can tell us much about the historical Jesus is Tacitus (56 CE-117 CE). In his Annals he writes:
The founder of this sect, Christus, was given the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius by the procurator, Pontius Pilate; suppressed for the moment, the detestable superstition broke out again, not only in Judea where the evil originated, but also in [Rome], where everything horrible and shameful flows and grows (15.44).
Tacitus and Josephus provide good references to Jesus’ crucifixion, however Tacitus is no help for telling us anything about Jesus. The quest continues.
For Further Reading
The Jesus of History: A Reply to Josh McDowell
The Jesus of History and the Future of Faith
Davis’ Account of the Possibility of Rational Belief and Rational Scepticism in the Resurrection of Jesus
Origins of Christianity and the Quest for the Historical Jesus
Historicity of Jesus FAQ