Everyone who grows up Christian starts out with the Sunday School picture: the Nice Jesus holding lambs and patting children, Then, as we grow up and continue reading the Bible, we become aware of some moments that don't go very well with that benevolent picture, like one of Jesus whipping the money changers in the temple, or his followers cutting off someone's ear, or Jesus himself dying in despair, forsaken by God. We might contrast this image as the Rough Jesus. Once we start to notice this stuff, we have a choice. We can read around those disturbing passages and keep our Nice Jesus picture in place. Or we can read all the Bible, and see what that might tell us.
One of those options is already available. It is an on-line feature called Bible Odyssey. True to the spirit of Homer's family-centered story of the Homecoming of Ulysses, it provides a family version: the Nice Jesus of our childhood. We here offer a look at the other side, the story with the violence left in, in the spirit of Homer's earlier and rougher story. We are the Bible Iliad. We include the awkward places, to see what total picture that might lead to.
This difference of approach is the familiar one between scriptural and historical readings of any text. A scriptural reading accepts the Bible as the Word of God. On this view, there can be no error in any text, and no disagreement between texts. The work of the expert is to smooth the disturbing and inconsistent passages. A historical reading, on the other hand, regards the Bible as Words of Men about God. It wants to know what happened, and it resolves inconsistencies in the texts in favor of the earlier account. It recognizes change. This leads, as the other reading does not, to a sense of how Christianity itself came to be, and what issues shaped it. Both approaches offer a coherent view of the texts, but the two kinds of coherence are not the same. One gives a unified account of Christian teaching; the other gives a consecutive view of how that teaching developed.
Taking the historical path requires some technique; some tools for reading texts critically. The basic tools are four in number. First, the earliest evidence is usually the best evidence. (For accounts of Jesus, this means Mark; for Paul, it means the stuff he really wrote). Second, any text, including Mark as he had finally revised it, and the genuine letters of Paul when Paul's editors were through with them, may include later additions and revisions. That is, the text may be the result of a growth process. Third, between two related texts, we need to detect which is original and which is derivative. This links the texts together in time. Fourth, taking all the texts together, we need to discern the movement of history which they imply. The pages grouped below as Methodological Preliminaries are recommended as samples of the use of these basic tools.
For those who want to know what all this means for modern discipleship, there are updates at the end of each of our groups of examples. For the Historical Jesus, see the end of the Methodological Preliminaries section. For stages in Jesus' subsequent mythical development (whether as a Mean Kid or as a Cosmological Presence), see the concluding pages in the following groups. The Rough Jesus becomes unambiguously visible on the Money Changers page, and not less so on the Davidic Jesus page. As to whether all this hard historical work leaves behind a Livable Jesus, see the Epilogue. It shows the earliest Christianity, the thing we call Alpha Christianity, coming into being.
Some may recognize this Alpha Christianity. It is still being lived by millions of people at the present time - only they don't know it. If they should come across these pages, we would like to think that they will be encouraged when they discover that theirs, so far from being deficient or even heretical, is the original Christianity. The thing that came about when Jesus died, and left the future of his movement to Peter and the rest of his first followers. You see, it was Peter who turned the movement away from the Davidic Mistake of Jesus, and back where it had really focused all the time: to God.
All right, that's our introduction. Now, here we go. We will try to show what happened. Someone may ask, How can anyone tell what happened? The answer, we suggest, lies in how the texts were formed in the first place. Some of them were simply written, and those we proceed to date as best we can. But many, including the Gospel of Mark in which we are particularly interested, were formed by adding late material to early material. These come before us in layers, like the City of Troy, or a Black Forest Cherry Cake, with the later additions on top. All the layers are part of the story, but it is the early material which which we here are mostly concerned.
- Methodological Preliminaries
- The Four Gospels, or, Sequence in Time
- Herod, or, What's an Interpolation?
- The Nativity, or, What's an Adterpolation?
- The First Beatitude, a One-Line Directionality Problem
- Forgive Thy Brother, a Complex Directionality Problem
- The Mustard Seed, a Three-Part Directionality Problem
- The Structure of Matthew, a Large-Scale Formal Problem
- Paul's Editors, or, Whose Voice Are We Hearing?
- The Historical Jesus, a Life
- Persons and Issues
- The Ascension, Acts 1:2-11
- The Atonement in Luke
- The Beloved Disciple, Jn
- The Davidic Jesus
- The Empty Tomb, Mk
- Expulsion From the Synagogues, Jn
- Gnashing of Teeth, Mt
- The Good Samaritan, Lk
- Healing a Blind Man, Mk
- Jesus' Wife
- John Mark
- The Lord's Brother
- Pentecost, Ac
- The Prodigal Son, Lk
- The Rich Young Ruler, Mk
- Salome. Mk
- The Syrophoenician Woman, Mk
- The Young Jesus
- The Abraham File, or, Doctrinal Change
- The Cursing of the Fig Tree, or, Against the Temple
- Fulfilled Predictions in Matthew, or, Who Owns Scripture?
- The Harrowing of Hell, or, Salvation Before Jesus
- The Powers That Be, or, Reducing Social Difference
- Slavery, or, The Argument That Never Was
- The Son of Man, or, Jesus' Self-Concept
- Truly I Say Unto You, or, Coping With Unbelief
- The Universal Jesus, or, Escaping History
- The Abomination of Desolation, Mk 3:14-20
- Binding and Loosing, Mt 16:18-19
- The Good Thief, Lk 23:39-43
Lazarus, Lk 16;19-31
- The Love Chapter, 1 Cor 13
- The Money Changers, Mk 11:15-18
- The Naked Young Man, Mk 14:51-52
- Nazareth, Lk 4:16-30
- Old Wine, Lk 5:39
- Paul and the Temple, 1 Thess 2:13-16
- The Rending of the Veil, Mk 15:38
- The Sermon on the Plain, Lk 6:20-49
- The Sermon on the Mount, Mt 5-7
- The Treachery of Judas, Mk 14:2-50
- The Twelve, Mk 6:7-13
- Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me? Mk 15:34
- The Woman Taken in Adultery, Jn 7:53-8:11
- Zacchaeus, Lk
Now we are done. We hope that those who are trying their best to live decently in the present have found something in these notes, perhaps especially the last of them, that they can take with them. For those who are interested in the technical question of how one reads history from the texts, the other pages may be helpful samples. But they are only samples. There is much more to do, and we hope that people will continue on their own, to take up other puzzles and fit more pieces into the emerging picture of the First Christian Century.
And one need not work alone. Others are doing the same thing, and it can be a help and a refreshment to be in touch with them. One way to do this is by following (or even contributing to) our journal Alpha, which is often cited in these pages. Alpha 1 (available soon) can be ordered here; Alpha 2 (we hope) will be released later this year. There is also an ongoing discussion group, the Alpha Christianity E-list. Interested persons are welcome to make themselves known via the mail link given below.