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Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Story about the Gospels

The gospels form the major part of the New Testament and tells stories about Jesus but here is a story about the gospels, told by scholars, and academicians and documented by Frontline. Following is a short excerpt.

A period of forty years separates the death of Jesus from the writing of the first gospel. History offers us little direct evidence about the events of this period, but it does suggest that the early Christians were engaged in one of the most basic of human activities: story-telling. In the words of Mike White, "It appears that between the death of Jesus and the writing of the first gospel, Mark, that they clearly are telling stories. They're passing on the tradition of what happened to Jesus, what he stood for and what he did, orally, by telling it and retelling it. And in the process they are defining Jesus for themselves."

These shared memories, passed along by word of mouth, are known as "oral tradition." They included stories of Jesus' miracles and healings, his parables and teachings, and his death. Eventually some stories were written down. The first written documents probably included an account of the death of Jesus and a collection of sayings attributed to him.

Then, in about the year 70, the evangelist known as Mark wrote the first "gospel" -- the words mean "good news" about Jesus. We will never know the writer's real identity, or even if his name was Mark, since it was common practice in the ancient world to attribute written works to famous people. But we do know that it was Mark's genius to first to commit the story of Jesus to writing, and thereby inaugurated the gospel tradition.

"The gospels are very peculiar types of literature. They're not biographies," says Prof. Paula Fredriksen, "they are a kind of religious advertisement. What they do is proclaim their individual author's interpretation of the Christian message through the device of using Jesus of Nazareth as a spokesperson for the evangelists' position."

About 15 years after Mark, in about the year 85 CE, the author known as Matthew composed his work, drawing on a variety of sources, including Mark and from a collection of sayings that scholars later called "Q", for Quelle, meaning source. The Gospel of Luke was written about fifteen years later, between 85 and 95. Scholars refer to these three gospels as the "synoptic gospels", because they "see" things in the same way. The Gospel of John, sometimes called "the spiritual gospel," was probably composed between 90 and 100 CE. Its style and presentation clearly set it apart from the other three.

Each of the four gospels depicts Jesus in a different way. These characterizations reflect the past experiences and the particular circumstances of their authors' communities. The historical evidence suggests that Mark wrote for a community deeply affected by the failure of the First Jewish Revolt against Rome. Matthew wrote for a Jewish community in conflict with the Pharisaic Judaism that dominated Jewish life in the postwar period. Luke wrote for a predominately Gentile audience eager to demonstrate that Christian beliefs in no way conflicted with their ability to serve as a good citizen of the Empire.

Despite these differences, all four gospels contain the "passion narrative," the central story of Jesus' suffering and death. That story is directly connected to the Christian ritual of the Eucharist. As Helmut Koester has observed, the ritual cannot "live" without the story.

While the gospels tell a story about Jesus, they also reflect the growing tensions between Christians and Jews. By the time Luke composed his work, tension was breaking into open hostility. By the time John was written, the conflict had become an open rift, reflected in the vituperative invective of the evangelist's language. In the words of Prof. Eric Meyers, "Most of the gospels reflect a period of disagreement, of theological disagreement. And the New Testament tells a story of a broken relationship, and that's part of the sad story that evolves between Jews and Christians, because it is a story that has such awful repercussions in later times."

The Emergence of the Canon

The New Testament, published in Christian Bibles used around the world, contains 27 manuscripts or texts. The most prominent of these are the four gospels known as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. These texts are so familiar, that it is easy to assume that four -- and only four -- gospels ever existed.

This is not the case, and the story of how the four gospels became chosen as part of the canon, or accepted literature of the church, offers a fascinating glimpse into the world of the early Christians.

Early Christian communities produced many gospels. One was the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, in which Mary is regarded as a disciple, a leader of a Christian group. Another early Christian text known as the Gospel of Truth, reflects on the teachings of Jesus, but does not talk about his death and resurrection; and the Gospel of Thomas contains only sayings attributed to Jesus.

As the number of Christian communities grew, so did the number and types of gospels. During the 2nd century, writing gospels became practically a "cottage industry," for the audience and the appetite for the literature seemed unlimited...

But Callahan suggests that the choice of these four gospels reflects the preferences and practices of a growing majority of early Christian communities. There was a rough consensus about "literature that they want to read, that they want to hear over and over again. And other kinds of literature that they don't want to hear."

The canon imposed limits, but it also preserved a measure of diversity. As Helmut Koester has observed: "There is no claim that this canon represents four gospels that are all saying the same thing. It is rather an attempt to bring together as many Christian communities as possible into one major church."

The four gospels reflect diversity, yet they all share one key element: each tells the story of passion of Jesus, his suffering and his death. That story is intimately connected to the ritual that is the centerpiece of Christian worship, the celebration of the Eucharist, the Last Supper. Story and ritual are deeply connected. As Koester has observed, the ritual cannot live without the story. And, in the worship of the emerging church, the story was sustained and deepened by the ritual. – Frontline - From Jesus to Christ

Srila Prabhupada writes “Vedic knowledge is infallible because it comes down through the perfect disciplic succession of spiritual masters, beginning with the Lord Himself. Since He spoke the first word of Vedic knowledge, the source of this knowledge is transcendental. The words spoken by the Lord are called apauruseya, which indicates that they are not delivered by any mundane person. A living being who lives in the mundane world has four defects: (1) he is certain to commit mistakes; (2) he is subject to illusion; (3) he has a propensity to cheat others; and (4) his senses are imperfect. No one with these four imperfections can deliver perfect knowledge. The Vedas are not produced by such an imperfect creature” (Sri Isopanishad Mantra One Purport).

If we have to compare the New Testament gospels to the Vedic standards above, the gospels desperately fall short of any thing perfect let alone transcendental. The Christian religion and rituals, as we know today, is based on stories told years after Jesus. The stories are based on memory and second hand information on the life and passion of Jesus years after he was crucified. There is little to no evidence about the actual life of Jesus as of today. Fundamental Christians believe that the Gospels are the truth and word of God. How they come to this conclusion is open for question. The four gospels were picked so it can tell a common story - the story of the death and resurrection of Christ. There was premtpive thought by the early church leaders to limit the gospels to four that had a common thread. The other gospels were rejected as heresy as it did not conform with the passion story.

Based on the scholarly presentation, one cannot but help to think that the method of choosing the four gospels, little knowledge about the gospel authors and the environment in how the gospels were written force the reader to speculate that the religion as we know today for most part was based on forced human intervention far from any divine intervention or precedence. How then are we to accept the word of the gospel as the true representation of the life and teachings of Jesus or word of God?

The Jesus, the church portrays, may actually not be the actual Jesus who lived some 2000 years ago! What then to speak of his actual teachings!

The whole story (by Frontline) can be seen and read here.

Hare Krishna


Sita-pati das said...

Will you also publish an academic account of the origin of Vedic texts such as Bhagavad-gita and the Bhagavat Purana (Srimad Bhagavatam)? Or will you insist that they be understood from "within the tradition"?

Because Western academics will be equally unkind to your story of the origin of your scriptures.

Be careful to throw stones if you live in a glass house.

ananda said...

Please see the post I created for my answer