August 6, 2007

The Gospel of Jesus...???, #1

In his book The Gospel of Jesus (New York: Harper Collins, 2005) James M. Robinson aims to get in touch with the original gospel preached by Jesus’ which, according to the author, has been, “hidden behind the gospel of the church” (1). The first chapter, entitled “The Lost Gospel of Jesus,” lays out the basics of Robinson’s method. He intends to peel back the layers of later add-ons to Matthew, Mark, and Luke in order to distinguish between the authentic sayings of the historical Jesus and the later theology written onto the lips of Jesus by the early church. John’s gospel is of little use to Robinson since it, “reflects more of the church’s gospel about Jesus than it does the gospel of Jesus himself” (4). To the synoptic sources Robinson adds the so-called “Sayings Gospel Q” formerly known only as “Q” (from the German Quelle meaning “source”). Q is a hypothetical source reconstructed from those sayings of Jesus which appear in Matthew and Luke but are absent from Mark. The hypothesis goes basically like this: Much of Mark’s text appears in Matthew and Luke. Thus, Matthew and Luke must have each had a copy of Mark making it the earliest of the three synoptic gospels. However, there is material in both Matthew and Luke which is not found in Mark indicating that they shared another common source. For lack of a better name this source is now known as Q. The difficulty with the Q hypothesis is that it is just that, a hypothesis. No one has ever seen an original manuscript of Q because one does not exist. So Robinson and others have taken it upon themselves to reconstruct the Sayings Gospel Q. The reconstruction project took the sayings of Jesus common to both Matthew and Luke and compiled them into a single volume. Word variation among the common sayings sometimes made the reconstruction task difficult so the Q scholars calculated the probability of the original wording. Various editions of Q have been published in both Greek and English. The critical edition contains the technical details of probability while popular versions contain the text with a minimum of technical notes. This task has huge historical importance for Robinson, “Since the reconstructed Sayings Gospel Q is the best source that exists today to get back to what Jesus actually had to say…” (9, emphases mine).

There are, however, some weaknesses to Robinson’s argument that the hypothetical Q is the best source for knowing what Jesus said and who he was. First, as noted above, is simply the fact that Q remains a hypothesis. Robinson has never seen an original manuscript of Q yet he still claims that it is the best source for who Jesus was. Certainly the gospel writers had sources. Luke tells us as much in the opening verses of his gospel (1:1-4). But to claim to reconstruct one of these sources word for word without having seen a manuscript and then to say it is the best source for understanding Jesus is outrageous. This is especially true when one considers that we have the four very early and widely used canonical gospels. At the very least, it is very shaky scholarly ground to say that a reconstruction of a hypothetical document is the best source we have for the historical Jesus of Nazareth. At most, it is not scholarly at all.

A second problem with arguing that Q is the best source for understanding Jesus is that the sayings of Q have no narrative context in which to be interpreted. The miscellaneous sayings of Q can mean almost anything because there is no story within which they can be understood. As Dr. Ben Witherington of Asbury Theological Seminary has said, “A text without a context is just a pretext for whatever you want it to mean.” For example, it is only by the narrative context of Jesus eating with sinners and tax collectors in Luke 15:1 and the grumbling of the scribes and Pharisees in 15:2 that we can properly understand the parable of the prodigal son later in the same chapter. Jesus is telling the parable to explain what he is doing by eating with the disenfranchised and to critique his grumbling opposition. Reading the parable apart from this context has created a variety of interpretations that misses the sharp point that the Jesus of history was making in his unique cultural context (cf. N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 126- 127). With no narrative we do not know who the sayings of Jesus are directed to or what they really mean. We cannot know with certainty what, if any, power systems they were intended to subvert or reinforce. Nor can we know how they fit into Jesus' life and ministry as a whole. The reader is left to create any reading he or she would like because there is no thought-flow to aid in interpretation. How can this be the best source for who Jesus was and what he said and did? The answer is a simple one. It cannot.

Robinson’s position is disconcerting for evangelical Christians who take the canonical gospels to be trustworthy sources for the words and deeds of Jesus. There is much more to be said, but I must take it up at another time. At the danger of judging this book by its cover, I’ll conclude by noting the irony of the book’s subtitle, “In Search of the Original Good News” which is emblazoned on the cover atop a painting by Hendrik de Clerck of a very Caucasian looking Jesus. Historical? Original? I think not.

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