The Story of two Gospels and their impact on Christianity
Louis A. Ruprechet JR. Ph. D is William M.Shuttles Chair in Religious Studies at Georgia University. He is also Fellow at the Vatican Library and the Vatican Secret Archives.
According to Ruprechet, the Christian Bible is a collection of “human books”, compiled by humans bearing their fingerprints. Scriptures are devotional writings, nothing more, nothing less.
Christianity is a scriptural religion. The Christians claim that they have received special revelation from their God; and the Christian God has forged a special relationship with them via his sacred message through the Old Testament and the New Testament. The authorships of the New Testament are attributed to Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. Who the real authors of these books were are matters of speculation. One thing is for sure; none of them knew Jesus personally, or were privy to his thinking, messages and activities. Oral stories about the Galilean were the basis of their writings. The manuscripts of the books,now available, are in the Greek language.
Sacred literature emerges out of particular place and time. The Bible and the epistles were composed in the Eastern Mediterranean region, in the early period of the Roman Empire. IN THIS WAY, CHRISTIANITY IS A HISTORICAL RELIGION: ITS FOUNDING DOCUMENTS ARE ALSO HISTORICAL. THE SCRIPTURES ARE NOT “TIMELESS DOCUMENTS” DROPPED FROM THE “HIGH”. THEY WERE NOT WRITTEN BY ANY “GOD” BUT BY MERE “Humans”.
Who was Jesus ?
Ruprechet says: Jesus lived and died as a JEW in a Roman and Greek world. The name “Christian” did not exist then. We are not even sure what the name “Christian” means. Acts 11:26 says, that a group of Jesus followers in the city of Antioch, Syria,called themselves by that name for the first time. It is a name derived from the Greek word “Christos”; the translation of Hebrew “messia” or the “anointed one”. It might be related to “messianic Jews”
How does the story unfold?
The unexpected execution of Jesus in Jerusalem was a scandal from which his shell- shocked followers took time to recover. They carried on with his memory by recalling and commemorating some of the most dramatic events of his life and the significant deeds he had done.
The followers were unsure of how to carry on with the Jesus movement in his absence. They did not write his story right away. Then someone, presented as Mark, who lived one generation apart from Jesus, wrote down the orally circulating story of Jesus; most probably after the fall of Jerusalem Temple in C. E. 70.
Mark adopted the powerful style of the Greek tragedy; a genre that was designed to evoke pity, compassion, and above all tragedy. The gospel he wrote is known as the “Tragic Gospel”. Two other writers bearing names Matthew and Luke, wrote their versions of the gospel from the kernel of Mark’s gospel, towards the final years of the 1stcentury C. E; added their own understanding of Jesus.
A sequel to the earlier 3 gospels was written by John, some time around the beginning of the 2nd century C. E. John’s gospel was intended to supplement the first three gospels, but it was radically different from Mark’s gospel. It gained undue influence on the Church’s thinking and outlook.
The different interpretation by John is reflected in his treatment of the “tragic moment” in the life of Jesus, when he prays in Gethsemane for “deliverance from his impending death”first portrayed by Mark. John reconstructed the prayer,changing its meaning from the one reflected in Mark’s gospel. In John’s version, “not only did Jesus, not pray to be spared, but he actually mocked this prayer”, embracing his imminent demise with “godlike” confidence. Ruprechet believes that this dramatic reinterpretation undermined the tragedy of Jesus’s death as Mark presented it.
This shift of perception twisted the outlook of the Christian religion; its focus veered away from “compassion” in the face of “human suffering” to another interpretation. John’s Christians did suffer; but they encounter suffering and death differently; even stoically; they never shed a tear.
Three hundred years after the Jesus movement’s beginning, everything changed drastically. Christian bishops preached sermons proclaiming that Jewish synagogues were “houses of Satan”. Greek had become synonymous with “pagan”. The worship places of the pagans were destroyed/closed down systematically. Emperor Theodosius I, made Christianity the sole official religion of the Roman Empire banishing all other religions with the threat of death or ouster from the Empire. Christianity, the “new religion”, smothered the visibility of other religions. But the pagan beliefs, especially Mithraism, came back with vengeance in the 5th century, through the new recruits to Christianity. In the process Christianity assumed “new identity” and ‘contour” shorn of its original “Jewishness” and “Greekness”, thus toppling it’s initial building blocks.
When the Church chose John’s account of Jesus,“over Mark’s haunting account of Jesus’s final moments, it dealt a death blow to the human-oriented concept of “Christian compassion.”
The new religious avatar abandoned the underpinning of the concept of empathy and compassion towards fellow beings. The milieu of “all inclusiveness”, the very hallmark of “Jews-and-Greeks together” was discarded. Christianity assumed a much harsher character with“well marked boundaries and borderlines of exclusiveness”; heresy hunting and inquisition,extreme violence became the norm, especially after the Church attained “Imperial Status” and secular power. The wealth and privileges conferred on it by Emperor Constantine led its abandoning the “humaneness” championed by Jesus. Then on, the “prosecuted” became “heartless prosecutors”, the “hunted” turned themselves into “ferocious hunters”.
The Special Features of John’s Gospel
Of the four gospels in the New Testament, John’s is the only one that is by design, “evangelical” in the modern sense of the term. At the end of his account, John says that if he had to write down everything Jesus said and did, “all the books in the world could not contain them” (John 21:25). “But these things have been written” he notes “so that you may believe…..and in believing, you may attain life in his name for ever” (John 20:30).
It seems that what was written by John would have been most useful to people who had never heard of the Christian story before. It is the “gospel” for the new converts. Mark by contrast, was writing to a community that already knew the story, but needed to understand it in new ways to face emerging challenges. The difference in the character of the audience changes everything. John’s Jesus offers “food so that you will never be hungry again; water so that you will never be thirsty again”— a vision of a world in which any one who has faith,will “never shed a tear”.
Mark makes no such promises but reminds the opposite idea. Christians do go hungry; Christians do thirst; Christians suffer and die, often unjustly, just like everyone else.
The great turmoil!
Thirty years after Jesus’s crucifixion, the province of Palestine erupted in a tumultuous revolt against Rome. In CE 70, the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed. The revolt lasted for 4 years, ended with the mass suicides in the hill fort of Mazda. During the course of the rebellion, almost the entire Jewish population was wiped out. In order to survive in the Roman Empire, the Christians made a volte face, putting the entire blame for the execution of Jesus squarely on the Jews and glossed over the role of the Romans in the tragedy.
The most remarkable thing: all the gospels were written in Greek NOT ARAMAIC, the language spoken by Jesus. The translation from one language to another, was never minor matters to the ancient people.The decision by some Jews in Alexandria, in the third century BCE,to translate the Hebrew Scriptures to Greek show a radical shift of perception. The intermingling of peoples from Anatolia, Persia, India and Egypt along with the Greeks,created a crucible in which Rabianic Judaism, Christianity and Gnocticism were moulded.The Eastern Mediterranean was a Greek world.
The first modern person who wrestled explicitly with tragedy was Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831). For Hegel,tragedy was fundamentally about what is called “collision”, more specifically, the inevitable moral collision that pervade in the lives of human beings.
Collisions occur, he noted, because there are more than one will in the world. Though we may be conflicted within ourselves — undecided or “of two minds” — we can never really collide with ourselves in the way we collide with other people, whose minds are not our own. Hegel distinguishes between what he called “horizontal” and “vertical” Greek tragedies.
The Tragic Gospel
The theme of Synoptic gospels is Christian tragedies. The genius of Mark’s gospel, is the way it combines the influence of horizontal and vertical tragedy in a single story. Jesus’s collisions with the religion and political authorities of his day,is exacerbated by the collisions between his Will with the Will of God the Father. The collision reverberates throughout Mark’s gospel; the heart of that collision is the Gethsemane prayer.
Mark’s Jesus is a dynamite. He erupts onto the scene as an adult — no sweet stories of his childhood; Mark was writing a tragedy and not a comedy of manners. Mark presents a Jesus,who erupts onto a very volatile and tense Roman Palestine; he was straightaway “tempted” by Satan. He assembled a circle of disciples, mostly brothers in pairs, many of whom he gave nicknames. Jesus is a mystery to everyone; they know him; yet they don’t. He speaks with authority.
Jesus, the Rebel?
Jesus detonated something in the tinderbox of Galilee.
Mark’s Jesus does not obey the law; “any law” for that matter, whether Jewish or Roman. He is scandalously dismissive of both. “Laws are for the people, not the other way around”, his position. That is the heart of his “horizontal” collisions in Mark’s gospel.
John the Baptist was beheaded by a local puppet king who had been placed in the throne by the Romans. Jesus understood what would happen to him. If Herod could do that to John, then he could and would do the worse to him, Jesus was fully aware.
The Jesus mission began to fray around the edges and the Jesus’s circle showed signs of falling apart. The disciples were caught squabbling with one another about who was the favoured one to get the reward of Paradise . Jesus suddenly decides to go to Jerusalem; “he has never been there before”. In Mark’s gospel, JESUS’S OPERATIONS WERE CONFINED EXCLUSIVELY IN GALILEE, IN THE NORTH. When he finally did go South, Jesus went out of his way to make trouble. He publicly condemned the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and Jerusalem priests, “a religious act” that clearly exacerbated his collision with Jewish officials. He drives away the money changers out of the Temple complex, a “political” act that set his collision with the Roman civil administration. He dismissed the importance of the Jerusalem Temple when his disciples talked about it. He scoffs at the overtly imaged “the end of things” telling his disciples to wait and pay attention to the so-called mini Apocalypse.
In the late evening hours of the Passover, he was arrested by the Romans, and CRUCIFIED IMMEDIATELY. All his followers abandoned him; even the two men hung along with him mocked and berated Jesus. THE DEFEAT IS TOTAL AND THE ABANDONMENT COMPLETE; the scandal of it all was unpalatable and unbearable. Jesus’s last words were the quotation from one of King David’s laments; “the shriek of despair”—“My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Jesus’s journey and his activities in Jerusalem lasted barely a month.
Amazingly, Mark’s gospel ends without “Jesus’s resurrection” incident. In Mark’s version, women were told to go to the tomb where Jesus’s body had been laid out, for anointing his body and to give it ritual care, as they did not have the time for a proper burial, when he was killed so suddenly. BUT THE BODY HAD GONE! A mysterious young man said: “HE IS NOT HERE, HE HAS GONE BEFORE THEM, BACK TO GALILEE”, the women were asked to tell Peter this amazing news. But they ran away “and tell no one, for they were afraid”
Many Christians find it impossible to accept the idea that Mark should end his gospel “without the resurrection appearance”, if it had really happened. ALL THE OLDEST MANUSCRIPT COPIES OF MARK’S GOSPEL END AT 16:8 WITHOUT THE RESURRECTION OF JESUS.
The Great Riddle?
Mark, the earliest gospel writer, WOULD NOT HAVE BEEN SILENT IF RESURRECTION HAD ACTUALLY HAPPENED. Such an extraordinary event would not have escaped his attention; he had no reason for its non-inclusion in his gospel when he wrote it. It is pertinent to note that as Mark belonged to the nearest generation of Jesus; he would have been surely aware of the happenings.
It is Paul of Tarsus, a diaspora Jew, after quarrelling with the Jewish establishment as well as Peter, who established Christianity. Paul was epileptic, prone to fits often, and susceptible to swooning. His claim of having seen the resurrected Christ holds no water; it could be the fantasy of his fevered brain. Note that he did never see the resurrected Galilean Jesus; he never met the living Jesus; not privy Jesus’s activities and deeds. Further the appellation Christ was conferred on Jesus, later.
The track record of the Church shows that it was never “shy of writing the scriptures BACKWARDS” or telling blatant lies to serve it’s purposes or to buttress its often ridiculous claims. Got the point?