April, 1973

Friends have historically eschewed "notional" religion -- opinions about the nature of God and Jesus and the relationship of man to both -- out of what may be an early form of "logical positivism": such opinions can only be verified for any person subjectively and are not subject to proof in any social sense. Nevertheless, I have some ideas (not original with me) which I would like to develop here.

In the first four verses of Luke, the author declares his intention of relating the story of Jesus "as it happened" since many others had previously tried to do so and by implication had failed. This introductory statement proves the existence of older documents and makes it at least plausible that the author of that Gospel used some such prior documents.

Careful comparison of Matthew, Mark, and Luke reveals that each reports essentially the same chronology of events, and that wherever Matthew differs from Mark, Luke reports the same order as Mark, and wherever Luke differs from Mark Matthew reports the same order as Mark; furthermore most of the stories in Mark are reported almost verse for verse with only stylistic modifications by Matthew and Luke. This tends to support the thesis that some version of Mark was used by both Matthew and Luke in constructing their Gospels. Further comparison of Matthew and Luke reveals that the material in common between them (but not in Mark) appears in distinctive ways in their respective Gospels; many parables and sayings found scattered throughout Matthew in his five great Discourses which also appear in Mark, are found in one continuous segment of Luke known as Luke's Great Interpolation since it appears to be interpolated into the middle of Mark, which segment also contains many parables and sayings not found in any other Gospel. This in turn leads to the thesis that some other document (called by scholars the Perean document) was also used by both authors but in different ways. Accepting these two older sources (together with a third document called the Galilean document evidenced by other material found in both Matthew and Luke) for the three Gospels makes it possible to draw inferences as to the editorial policy of the two later editors: Matthew is very theologically and editorially minded, altering sayings to emphasize the Godhood of Jesus and the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, while Luke is relatively faithful putting his sources together with little alteration. A simple example is his answer when his family came calling him (Mark 3:31-35); his answer reported by Mark is "Whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother", which Matthew reports as "Whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, he is my brother, and sister and mother", and Luke reports as, "My mother and brethren are these which hear the word of God, and do it."

Further development of this theme tends to become highly technical, and I shall not pursue it further here. It does lead to a critical attitude towards the Gospels, with which not every thing need be accepted as being from Jesus, and in particular that statements about Messiahship and the future can be seen as having undergone editorializing by either of the editors or by some later editor. In addition it may be noted that firstly, the chronology reported by the writer of the Gospel of John is completely at variance with that of Mark there is a completely different set of miracles in John, and the Jesus reported by John does not use parables about the kingdom of God but allegory about the relationship of "the Christ" to God which is not found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The phrase "Son of God" is not used in the first three Gospels, while it is used constantly in John by Jesus to refer to himself, and the phrase "my father" used extensively in John to refer to God is used only once or twice in the Synoptics, where Jesus repeatedly refers to God as "thy Father" when talking to people. This is not intended to undermine the reliability of the Gospel of John, but only to point out that these differences do exist with whatever relevance they may have.

In the Synoptics, whenever the opinion of the people about Jesus is referred to, it is that Jesus was a "prophet", and comparisons are constantly made between Jesus and Elijah. Remembering that John was also accepted by the people as a "prophet" and that Jesus speaks highly of John ("There is not a greater born under heaven"), it is probable that Jesus acted and accepted the role of prophet, and not that of Messiah. To put it a different way if we ask the question, What did Jesus think of himself and we examine his rejection of power, magic, and miracles in the Temptations, his refusal to give a sign to the people his answers at the trials, and his recognition as a prophet, we may conclude that Jesus did not think of himself as a Messiah, and furthermore-that he rejected the notion of Messiahship; the kingdom of God was not to come visibly, but within a person and very gradually like yeast; it was a thing to be hidden and highly valued like a pearl of great price and a treasure hidden in a field; everyone could communicate directly with God, and everyone should judge of themselves what was right.

Examination of the passages where Jesus predicts his death and resurrection, it may be noted that his prediction of his death always follows his being identified as the Christ and that he rebukes those who call him so. We are also told that after his first public miracle at the beginning of his career the authorities began to plot to kill him and we can assume that Jesus saw the forces building up against him. The construction placed by Matthew, and subsequently by all of Christendom, that his death was a fulfillment of some prediction in the Old Testament is totally artificial; you will search the Old Testament in vain for any such prediction. The child referred to in Isaiah is in the context of disaster to the enemies of the reigning king before that child attains manhood; the "Suffering Servant" image in Isaiah has been shown by Leroy Wat~rman to fit perfectly the life of Jeremiah and is reported in the past tense and therefore can be safely assumed to be an historical reflection on the life of Jeremiah and not a prediction, and in any case the image does not mention any rising from the dead. The whole concept of Jesus as an "offering" unto God for the sins of man is entirely unsupported by anything Jesus said about himself but is the result of later theologizing over the Old Testament.

Examination of the passages in the four Gospels following his death and burial reveal glaring contradictions regarding who he appeared to, how many, and where; no two of the Gospels Gospel of Mark contain no description of the resurrection. The agree on these details. The oldest manuscripts of the statements attributed to Jesus after his supposed resurrection are at variance with the statements made before his death as for example: Jesus did not baptize during his career but in Matthew after his arising orders the disciples to baptize in his name; he does not use the concept of the Trinity anywhere in the four Gospels (nor does it appear in the rest of the New Testament) except in the last verse of Matthew which concept did not even become Church dogma until the Nicean Council in the fourth century. The conclusion to be drawn from all this is that whatever happened after Jesus was buried, the reports in the Gospels cannot be accepted as trustworthy, but as having most probably been the oral traditions explaining to different groups how the movement actually got going, after their leader suffered his ignominious death.

What did happen? Paul tells us, in an Epistle written long before any of the Gospels that the appearance to the disciples was the same as the appearance to himself which is reported as a light and a voice. History is full of reported "experiences of God", also described as either or both a light and a voice. The conclusion I draw from this is that the disciples probably experienced a group experience of God, a feeling of the presence of Jesus, which they reported as being "as if" he had risen from the dead and this imbued them with great power and preaching ability although it was ultimately appropriated by Paul who forged a religion quite different from that of Jesus out of Hebraic, Greek, and Persian ideas. In a sense this may be saying that Christianity is based on a falsehood since it asserts that Jesus did not in fact 'physically rise from the dead. In fact, I think I am saying that; but the importance of Jesus' life and teaching anyhow is what he says about living, not about his death.

(originally published under the name of John Fitz)