by miriam berg


What did Jesus really say? and what did he really do? I have been studying the gospels and books about the gospels for many years trying to answer these questions. The best answers seem to come from reading the four books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John side by side, noting their similarities and disagreements and seeking to understand those differences and to separate what is likely from what is unlikely. The most searching examination of these questions that i have found is The Teaching of Jesus about The Future, by Henry Burton Sharman, and also The Origins of the New Testament by Alfred Loisy.

I will begin with a discussion of the content of the first three chapters of Matthew and Luke together with the first chapter of Mark. These chapters all relate matters which precede the beginning of the actual career of Jesus. These three books, known as the Synoptic Gospels, may be considered the most reliable witnesses we have of the life and teachings of Jesus.

(Luke 1:1-4)
Forasmuch as many of us have taken in hand to write the life of Jesus, it seemed good to me also, having traced the course of all things accurately from the first, to write to thee in order that thou might'st know the certainty about these things.

Did Luke compose his gospel on his own? No, here he plainly tells us that there were older gospels and that he had collected them and researched them ("traced the course of all things accurately"), and written what he considers a better and more complete gospel. And we can summarize all of the last 400 years of analysis of the gospels by stating the conclusion that Mark was the earliest gospel, and that it was copied by both Matthew and Luke. This is demonstrated by the fact that nearly all of Mark is contained in both Matthew and Luke, or sometimes in Luke or Matthew alone, in the same order, and often in the same language and details and forms of expression.

However, all attempts to reconcile the fourth gospel with the other three fail, because both the chronology of events and the specific teachings and healings attributed to Jesus in the gospel attributed to John are inconsistent with those in Matthew, Mark,  and Luke. We shall note these inconsistencies as we work our way through the gospels, and I will summarize all these differences in Chapter XIX. (For a thorough examination of the gospel of John, the reader is referred to my pamphlet "The Refutation of John").


2. Genealogy of Jesus
Both Matthew and Luke give us a genealogy of Jesus, Matthew tracing it from Abraham down to Joseph and Mary, and Luke tracing it backwards from Joseph all the way to God, according to the lists in the Old Testament. However, these two genealogies do not agree with each other; Matthew omits some of the known descendants of David, and Luke gives completely different names from those in Matthew for all the generations before Joseph back to David. They do not even give the same name for the father of Joseph! And Luke's genealogy is wedged awkwardly at a different point in his gospel from where it is found in the gospel of Matthew. Therefore we can conclude that the genealogies are unreliable, and where they came from, nobody knows.


Neither Mark nor John have any birth story. Matthew and Luke each contain legends about the parents of Jesus and the parents of John the Baptizer. Matthew is concerned wholly with predictions to Joseph, and Luke is concerned wholly with predictions made to Mary and to the mother and father of John the Baptizer. Here are the references:
3. Forecast to John's father
4. Forecast to Jesus' mother
5. Forecast by John's mother
6. Forecast to Jesus' father


Thus the first chapter of Matthew and the first chapter of Luke have nothing in common with each other, nor with any other gospel. In fact they contradict each other on many points. This fact enables us to classify them as legends, which must have come into being after the death of Jesus. We can note that Luke reports a miraculous birth for John the Baptizer as well as for Jesus.


Next we find that the second chapter of Matthew and the second chapter of Luke have nothing in common with each other either. Here is a breakdown of the contents of Luke and Matthew regarding the births of Jesus and of John.
7. The birth of John
8. The birth of Jesus
9. The shepherds and angels
10. The dedication in Jerusalem
11. The three wise men
12. Joseph's flight to Egypt
13. The slaughter of the boys
14. Joseph returns to Nazareth
15. Jesus and the rabbis
16. The youth of Jesus



Some of these details may have some basis in fact, but there is no way any of them can be confirmed, and they are in conflict with each other. Matthew reports Joseph and Mary as living in Bethlehem, but Luke says they lived in Nazareth; Matthew reports that they only came to live in Nazareth after they returned from Egypt following Jesus' birth, whereas Luke says they came to Bethlehem only because of a Roman census and a prediction from the Old Testament. But in any case these chapters do not tell us anything about the teachings or career of either John or Jesus.
There is one notable and popular event reported from the childhood of Jesus, told in Luke 2:41-50. Joseph and Mary have come to Jerusalem for the passover when Jesus was 12 years old,  and when they began their return journey they couldn't find him anywhere. So they went back to Jerusalem, and after three days of searching they found him in the temple, "hearing the rabbis,  and asking them questions." And when they reproached Jesus for not telling them where he was, he answered, "Didn't you realize that I would be with the doctors and teachers of the law?"

What would we not give to know what were the questions that Jesus asked the rabbis! Luke tells us that his parents understood him not, but gives us no other commentary on this event. But we are justified in concluding from this story that Jesus showed a precocious interest in matters of religion, in the law of Moses and the writings of the prophets. The story tells us further that "all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers." Alas, we must remain forever ignorant of that preview of the man who has become one of the most acclaimed teachers in the history of humankind.


One of the most important discoveries following the discovery of the primacy of Mark was that Matthew and Luke were each copying from a SECOND document as well as from Mark. This document has been given the name of "Q" or document Q, from quelle, the German word for "source". This document is revealed by a careful comparison of the material found in both Matthew and Luke but not in Mark. This comparison shows that each must have possessed this additional document, but that each used it in a different way.

However, there are sound reasons for believing that document Q was actually TWO documents, as first described by Ernest DeWitt Burton in 1898. The first of these was called by Professor Burton the Galilean document or document G, because it reports events around the sea of Galilee, all at or near the beginning of Jesus' career. The second was called by Professor Burton the Perean document or document P, and includes all the chapters of Luke from 9:52 through 18:14 plus Luke 19:1-28. Luke's policy appears to have been to use document G for the first part of Jesus' career and to interpolate portions of Mark not found in either G or P, whereas Matthew's policy was to use document G to amplify the discourses that were found in Mark, as well as a few of the narrative events found in document G. Luke's policy was to use document P in its entirety, with little editing and without changing its order, which is proved by the fact that all of that material is placed between Mark 10:1 and 10:2, as well as between Matthew 19:1 and 19:2. Matthew again used passages from document P to amplify the discourses attributed to Jesus, just as he did with document G.

While I accept Professor Burton's theory as sufficiently demonstrated, it is not necessary to use it except in a few cases to determine whether Luke's version or Matthew's version of quotes from either G or P is more accurate. It may be added however that Professor Burton refers to document G as "the high-water mark of gospel material, all vividly told and with a high quality of literary style."


Both Mark and John begin their gospels with the activity of John the Baptizer. Here is a thumbnail sketch of Mark, Luke, and Matthew in parallel with each other, covering the beginning of the careers of both John and Jesus:
17a.The coming of John
17b.His teachings
17c.His prediction
18. The baptism of Jesus
19. Luke's genealogy
20. The temptations




Luke begins with some statements about the historical setting into which John came. It was the 15th year of Tiberius Caesar, who was the successor to Augustus Caesar, and the sons of Herod the Great are the rulers in Judea. Note how Luke inserts his genealogy, which is inconsistent with that of Matthew, inbetween the baptism of Jesus and the reported Temptations.

John the Baptizer predicted an imminent disastrous destruction of the world, with good people being saved and bad people being destroyed. He made people who wanted to follow his teachings bathe themselves in the river Jordan, which practice came to be known as baptism, from the Greek word for "bathe". These facts are confirmed by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus of the first century C.E.

Luke reports some additional teachings of John which sound like primitive forms of some of the teachings which are attributed to Jesus. These teachings are given in the form of a little dialogue between John and his hearers:
(Luke 3:10-14)
CROWD: What then must we do?

JOHN: If you have two coats, then you should give one to the person who has none; and if you have food, you should do likewise.

PUBLICANS: Master, what must we do?

JOHN: Extort no more from anyone than is required of you.

SOLDIERS: And we, what must we do?

JOHN: Do violence to no man; and be content with your wages.

Share your food, and even your clothes; be honest in your dealings; and do violence to no one. All of these teachings can be found in the prophets in the Old Testament; and John was doing no more than pointing them out to the eager questioners. Luke probably found them in document G (or Q), but Matthew seems to have ignored them.


The belief that Jesus had been baptized by John before the beginning of his career of teaching and preaching was so strong that all four gospels report it, but differ among themselves as to details. Mark says, copied by Matthew and Luke, that Jesus entered into the river and then had what we would today call a mystical or spiritual experience or an awakening, reported as thunder and lightning in the sky, a dove descending on him, and a voice speaking words from the 2nd Psalm: Thou art my beloved son; this day have I begotten thee (Ps.2:7). The gospels do not report the second half of this verse, but both the epistle to the Hebrews and some ancient manuscripts of Luke report that the entire verse was heard by Jesus. But if we take this to be a mystical or spiritual experience, then no one else could have heard anything, and so we can only know that Jesus had this experience because he must have told someone, probably his disciples, and they told others, and it was written down by Mark and copied by Matthew and Luke. The gospel of John reports that it was John the Baptizer who saw angels ascending and descending on Jesus, which convinced John that Jesus was the One Who Would Come, or the Messiah.

Perhaps no term is more misunderstood than the Jewish concept of the Messiah, which title came to be applied to Jesus, either before or after his death. The term originated six centuries earlier, when Judea had been conquered by Nebuchadrezzar and most of the Jews were deported to Babylon. While they were allowed freedom of religion, and they were allowed freedom to return to their home in Judea after Babylon was conquered by the Persians, and later the Persians were conquered by the Macedonians, who were in turn conquered by the Romans, still they wanted freedom to govern themselves, and their prophets recorded in the Old Testament spoke often of a coming leader or king who would liberate them and reign over them as the heir of the throne of David. The term for this leader was "messiah", which literally meant "anointed", since the Jewish custom was to anoint a king with oil for him to become king. In the late 1st century B.C.E. and the 1st century C.E. many leaders emerged with promises of liberating the Jews, but they were all defeated by the Romans and Jerusalem was finally destroyed completely in 70 C.E. and the Jews deported out of Judea. The term "messiah" was translated into Greek as "chrestos", which also means "anointed", but without the sense of crowning a person, and this term was applied to Jesus and shortened to "Christ", and eventually came to be used as part of his name. But there is no record in Mark, Matthew, or Luke that he ever applied this term to himself: that is, he never claimed to be "the" messiah or even "a" messiah.

So one of the questions we want to answer is, Did Jesus believe or claim that he was a messiah, as did all these other Jewish leaders? Up to this point in the gospels we have no words spoken by Jesus, so we cannot answer this yet.

20. The temptations
Mark, Luke, and Matthew all report that after the experience had by Jesus when he was baptized, he went out into the wilderness alone, presumably to meditate on his experience. The gospel of John says nothing about this. Mark says that the Spirit "drove" him into the desert, but Luke says he was "full" of the Spirit and Matthew says that he was "led" by the Spirit. But again, we can only know the content of his sojourn in the desert for forty days because he must have told someone afterward. Mark merely says that he was "with the wild beasts", but Luke and Matthew tell us of three specific temptations which he experienced while alone. The content of these temptations is so specific and so important that we will consider them in some detail. Matthew and Luke report them in almost the same words, which suggests that they were also part of document Q (or G).

Each of the three temptations purports to be a report of how Satan or the devil came to Jesus and urged him to do each of three different actions to prove he was the "son of God". The mythical nature of such a being as Satan, virtually a god of evil opposed to the God of goodness, is so evident that we can only conclude that these three reports were told by Jesus to someone, again probably his disciples or the crowds, as PARABLES about his internal struggles that he went through while he was in the desert.

The first was simply to turn stones into bread, presumably meaning to try to get and give more material comforts to his people. Jesus refuses to give in to this temptation, with a quotation from the Old Testament that human beings need something more than food to reach fulfillment: Man does not live by bread alone (Deut. 8:3; Luke 4:4). Thus Jesus seems to be saying here that trying only to get food for yourself is really a temptation of Satan, and even if you try to get food for other people that's not enough, because we need something else beyond food in order to become fully alive.

The second was to jump off the roof of the temple, on the theory that the angels would catch him and thereby prove that he was the "son of God". Jesus refuses this temptation also, again quoting from the Old Testament, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God (Ps.91:11-12;Matt.4:7;Luke 4:12). So here Jesus seems to be saying, not only that it would be a stupid thing to do, but further that ANY attempt to do something and expect God to intervene is also a Satanic temptation, that is, evil or devilish.

The third was that Satan led him up to a high mountain where he could see all the kingdoms of the world, and offered them to Jesus if Jesus would worship him instead of God. And again, as we might easily expect, Jesus also refuses to do this, and quotes one more time from the Old Testament: Thou shalt worship God, and him only shalt thou serve (Deut. 6:16), clearly indicating that the desire for power over kingdoms was another Satanic or evil temptation. As for this being a literal event, we can only remark that no such mountain has ever been found on the earth.

The cumulative effect of these three parables (we can call them nothing else) is that here at least, after his baptism in the Jordan at the hands of John, Jesus denies that he would produce bread or perform any signs or seek to gain power in any way, and denies any belief that he is the messiah, at least as the term was understood at that time. There is no record of these "temptations" in the gospel of John.


But we can affirm, and with some confidence, this much about Jesus we have seen so far: that there was a man called John, who made people bathe in the river to show their willingness and readiness to become righteous, and that there was a man called Jesus, who came to John to be baptized as his disciple, and had some sort of spiritual experience during the moment of baptism, and another experience alone in the desert afterward which he told in the form of three parables explaining why he would not seek temporal power or spiritual power or even engage in such laudable activities as providing more food for his people ("turning stones into bread").