Monday, September 28, 2009

The Cross Gospel

The Cross Gospel is an early passion-resurrection text hypothesized by Jesus scholar J.D. Crossan as one of the primary sources behind the 2nd century Gospel of Peter, as well as the four Gospels of the New Testament.

As a “passion-resurrection” text, it tells the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, execution, and resurrection.

From a cursory examination, it seems that most accounts of the Cross Gospel go one of two ways: either they are accounts intended for a general audience that provide only a cursory explanation of the Cross Gospel without much detail (for instance, on the Internet), or they are accounts given in publications intended for academic audiences and are therefore not accessible for the average dabbler in Biblical scholarship.

My intent in this essay is to provide an overview of the Cross Gospel for armchair enthusiasts and those with a general interest in Biblical scholarship.


J.D. Crossan spent most of his career at DePaul University, where he is now a Professor Emeritus. He is widely regarded as one of the premier Jesus scholars alive today, and is both famous and infamous for his conclusions regarding Jesus of Nazareth and the history of early Christianity. Regardless of how one regards his conclusions, there are few who would disagree that Crossan is one of the most prominent, widely quoted, and widely debated New Testament scholars alive today.


Crossan has hypothesized what he calls the “Cross Gospel” from a study of the Gospel of Peter – a 2nd century work that has been available to scholars for more than 100 years, but which most average Christians are not familiar with.

Prior to the late 19th century, the Gospel of Peter was known only through a few references and quotations by early Church fathers, who mention it in writings from the 3rd and 4th centuries. In the 1880’s, however, a large fragment of the Gospel was discovered (like so many other lost Christian texts) in Egypt, inside the tomb of a 10th century Christian monk. That 10th century version was itself copied from just a fragment of the text, demonstrating that even in the early Middle Ages, most of the text was already lost.

The surviving text begins just after the arrest of Jesus, follows through his trial, execution, burial, and resurrection, and ends just after his tomb is found empty by Mary Magdalene and her “women friends.” It actually ends in mid-sentence, with Peter (writing in first person) going out to sea to fish together with his brother Andrew and Levi son of Alphaeus (identified in most traditions with the disciple Matthew).

Most scholars, including Crossan, agree that the original Gospel of Peter dates to the mid-2nd century – roughly 150 C.E. Eusebius, writing in the 300’s, refers to another Church historian who wrote about the Gospel of Peter around 190 C.E. So it must have already been in existence, and in wide circulation, by that time.


There are three obvious conclusions scholars can draw about the sources used by the writer of the Gospel of Peter. The first is that the writer depended solely on one or more of the New Testament Gospels in writing his text. The second is that the writer did not depend on any New Testament Gospel, and thus exclusively used some other source no longer in existence. The third is a combination of the first two – the writer of Peter used both New Testament sources and non-New Testament (or non-canonical) sources.

Very few scholars have argued for the second position. Most agree that the writer of Peter used one or more of the New Testament Gospels, and a fair amount argue that he also used some source not found in the Gospels and no longer in existence.

Crossan falls into the camp asserting that there are both canonical and non-canonical sources in the Gospel of Peter. He points out that if Peter is based only on canonical sources, why is there so much in the existing text that is not found in those four New Testament Gospels? A sizeable portion, perhaps more than half, of the existing Gospel of Peter has no parallels in the New Testament. It seems clear to Crossan and many others that the writer of this text was using some other source in addition to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and/or John.


Crossan has formed the hypothesis that this “fifth source” for the Gospel of Peter is a passion-resurrection narrative no longer in existence, which he calls the Cross Gospel. He has dated this Gospel to the early 40’s C.E., roughly 10-12 years after the execution of Jesus. He has further asserted that it not only informed the passion-resurrection account of the Gospel of Peter, but was also the primitive account that informed the Gospel of Mark. Since Mark informed Matthew and Luke, and all three together informed John, Crossan has argued that the Cross Gospel is at the heart of all existing passion-resurrection narratives known to modern Christian scholarship.

This is, without question, a highly controversial view. Crossan himself has stated that when he first proposed it in the late 1980’s, it was met “with almost universal rejection” among his colleagues. I don’t think that “universal rejection” is still apparent – it seems that slowly but surely, more and more scholars are taking his proposal seriously. It remains, however, a distinctly minority view.

The primary argument against the Cross Gospel is not necessarily its existence (many scholars, as I mentioned above, agree that the Gospel of Peter uses a non-canonical source), but rather its unified content and dating.

First, as to the unified content. While many scholars argue for non-canonical sources in the Gospel of Peter, most assert that this content may have come from several sources, both written and oral, and may not represent an actual “consecutive” account (that is, an established written story with a distinct beginning, middle, and end). In other words, the content of Peter that does not come from the four Gospels of the New Testament may have been drawn from a number of different textual and oral traditions known to the writer of Peter.

Second, regarding the dating. This is perhaps the most controversial of Crossan’s arguments. Critics argue that while there may well have been some early source known to Mark which no longer exists, it is hard to equate the Cross Gospel with that Markan source.

Crossan responds to the first criticism by arguing that the material at question in the Gospel of Peter (that is, the material that does not come from the New Testament) has all the structural earmarks of a unified account – a beginning, middle, and end, as it were. If it was drawn from numerous written and textual sources, it would not demonstrate that sort of cohesion.

For instance, the text tells us that Herod Antipas, and not Pilate, ordered Jesus’ execution, and that the execution was carried out not by Roman soldiers, but by the Jewish people. Later, however, the Jewish people are stunned by the miraculous signs that take place during the crucifixion (darkening of the sun, the curtain of the holy of holies ripped in two, etc.), and appear to be on the verge of repenting and proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah. The Jewish authorities, however, having witnessed the resurrection themselves (and thus, in effect, knowing that Jesus is the Messiah), plot with the Romans to cover it up, lest the Jewish people attack them for leading them to kill God’s promised Messiah.

With the exception of the miraculous signs at Jesus’ crucifixion, none of that is found in the four Gospels of the New Testament. Yet it clearly has a narrative cohesion one would expect in a single written story – and which one would not expect from a conglomeration of various written and oral traditions. The Jews execute Jesus on the orders of the Jewish authorities, the Jews are amazed at the miraculous signs during the crucifixion, the Jews are on the verge of repenting, so the Jewish authorities cover up the resurrection to keep their own people from attacking them out of anger that their authorities led them to crucify their own Messiah.

This seems to be (and is argued by Crossan to be) a cohesive and well-established written account being used by the writer of the Gospel of Peter. Furthermore, Crossan points out that while many scholars have disagreed with his Cross Gospel hypothesis, none have managed to show how a conglomeration of oral and written traditions could have resulted in the cohesive narrative found in the Gospel of Peter.

As to the dating issue, Crossan supports his date of roughly 42 C.E. by looking at the context of the story and comparing it to similar situations in Jewish-Christian history. He specifically argues that it was created in Jerusalem during the early 40’s, after Agrippa returned from Rome as the new King of the Jews.

Agrippa was a grandson to Herod the Great, but was raised in the imperial palace at Rome.

Because of those Roman connections, he eventually was given rule of a portion of the Jewish homeland in 37 C.E. Once installed, he deposed the Roman-appointed high priestly family, and re-established the priestly family that had been in favor during the time of his grandfather, Herod the Great. The Roman-appointed family, by the way, had been involved in the deaths of both Jesus around 30 C.E. and the early Christian Stephen around 37 C.E. The Christian Jews would no doubt have been pleased with Agrippa for deposing this priestly family.

Agrippa returned to Rome, however, in 39 C.E. and stayed there for two years. When he came back to Judea in 41, he was granted kingship of the entire Jewish homeland. One of his first actions was to reinstate the Roman high priestly family that he had deposed four years earlier. Shortly thereafter, he had James son of Zebedee (one of Jesus’ disciples) put to death, and arrested Simon Peter (who later escaped). Where Agrippa had been favorable in the eyes of early Christianity before, he now became its enemy.

Crossan argues that it was in this setting that the Cross Gospel was composed. He states: “The Romans were completely innocent then [at the execution of Jesus] because that was how they appeared now [in the early 40’s]. The house of Herod and the Jewish authorities were completely guilty then because that was how they appeared now. The ‘people of the Jews’ were ready to convert then because that was how they appeared now.”


I have already alluded to the primary content of the Cross Gospel in the points above. Pilate and the Romans are shown to be completely innocent of Jesus’ execution. Herod Antipas orders “the Lord to be taken away” instructing them to “do what I told you to do.” But who did Herod hand Jesus over to? That question is answered a few sentences later: “…he gave them over to the people” – that is, the Jewish people.

The Jewish people then run Jesus through the streets, spitting on him, hitting him with a reed, slapping his cheeks, and whipping him. They also put him in a purple robe and place a crown of thorns on his head.

Jesus is then crucified together with two criminals. The Jews (not the Roman soldiers, as in the Gospels) cast lots for his clothes. One of the criminals derides the Jews for executing Jesus. The people respond not by torturing the criminal, but by ordering that Jesus’ legs are not to be broken, so that he will die more slowly and suffer more.

By midday, the sky goes dark and the people aren’t able to tell whether it is evening or not. They fear breaking Mosaic Law by allowing a corpse to remain crucified after sunset and the start of the Sabbath. So they give Jesus a mixture of gall (poison) and vinegar to hasten his death. It works, and Jesus cries out “My Power, O Power, you have forsaken me!” The text does not actually say Jesus dies, however. Instead it uses a euphemism and says that Jesus was “taken up.”

After this, the curtain of the Holy of Holies is torn in two and there is a great earthquake. The darkness then dissipates and the sun reappears, showing it to be the “9th hour” (that is, 3 o’clock in the afternoon). The Jews are happy because they have not broken Mosaic Law.

Because of the miraculous signs during his execution and death, “the Jews,” “the elders,” and “the priests” – that is, all the Jewish people including their leaders – realize they have made a grave error and begin to “beat their breasts” and lament over the fall of Jerusalem, which must surely be coming from an angry God.

The Jewish authorities (“the scribes and Pharisees and elders”) become concerned that if Jesus’ disciples break into his tomb, revive him, and take him away, the Jews will become convinced that he has risen from the dead. So they urge the Romans to put guards at the tomb for “three days” – the time period Jews believed it took to ensure that a person was truly dead. Pilate agrees and sends a centurion named Petronius, together with his soldiers (presumably 100 of them), to guard the tomb. The Jewish elders go to the tomb as well. Once there, they roll a stone in front of it and seal it with “seven wax seals.” They then “pitch a tent” and literally camp out in front of the tomb. On the Sabbath (Saturday), large crowds come by and see the sealed and guarded tomb.

Early in the morning on Sunday, while it is still dark, there is a “loud voice in heaven.” The heavens open and “two men” descend in a shining light and approach the tomb. The stone rolls away by itself and the two men enter the tomb. The soldiers quickly wake up the centurion and the Jewish leaders and tell them what just happen. While they are telling the story, three men suddenly emerge from the tomb. The first two men are on either side of the third man, regally sustaining him with their arms the way a king might be led by his courtiers. The heads of the two men reach to the heavens, but the third man’s head goes “beyond the heavens.” The three men are being followed by “a cross.”

At this moment, a voice from heaven says: “Have you proclaimed to those who have died?” Jesus doesn’t respond, but the cross does: “Yes.”

This scene, of course, has made the Gospel of Peter and its Cross Gospel source infamous for those familiar with it. A walking, talking cross? Crossan, however, has argued persuasively that when taken in context, it is clear that the “cross” is not the cross that Jesus was crucified on, but rather a “cruciform procession” of the Holy Ones of Israel’s history that Jesus had just freed from hell. This “harrowing of hell” is an idea that has a long tradition in Catholic Christianity. The ancient Israelites, living before the time of Christ, must, by the definitions of Christian doctrine, have been in hell. So Jesus went there during his time in the tomb and freed those “Holy Ones” from their eternal torment. In the Cross Gospel source of the Gospel of Peter, Crossan argues that these freed Holy Ones exit the tomb with Jesus, forming a “cruciform procession” behind him. He uses this to argue that the earliest passion-resurrection accounts of Jesus viewed his death and vindication as a communal event rather than simply a personal event that happened to Jesus. Jesus, together with all of Israel, was vindicated upon his resurrection. Furthermore, the heads of Jesus and his courtiers are already up in the heavens because Jesus has already been exalted to God – he’s already resurrected and ascended, in other words.

After the resurrection scene, the centurion and his soldiers, together with the Jewish authorities, report to Pilate and proclaim that “truly he was God’s son.” The Jewish authorities, however, beg Pilate to cover it up and not allow his soldiers to tell anyone. The authorities fear that the people will “stone them” if they find out that they were led by the authorities to crucify the son of God. Pilate agrees.


The above story is what Crossan proposes was contained in the Cross Gospel. There are a number of scenes and events in the Gospel of Peter that I did not illustrate above, including a scene where Joseph of Arimathea asks for the body of Jesus, then buries it, and where Mary Magdalene finds the tomb empty. These stories, by Crossan’s account, were drawn by the writer of Peter from the New Testament Gospels, and not from the Cross Gospel source.

As for the Cross Gospel itself, it is made explicit that the Jewish authorities urged the Jewish people to crucify Jesus, and then those people recognized their error and were on the verge of repenting. The Jewish authorities, fearing for their own safety, covered up the resurrection so that the Jewish people wouldn’t find out about it.

What is perhaps most significant, and unique, in that Cross Gospel text is that we have our only Christian story of the actual resurrection itself. In the four canonical Gospels, the resurrection has already occurred when the women find the tomb empty. Jesus then later appears. In the Cross Gospel, however, we have a story of the resurrection itself. Jesus is regally led out of his tomb by two heavenly men, their bodies already being exalted to heaven, followed by a procession of Israel’s Holy Ones who have been freed from the torments of hell. Furthermore, it is not the disciples or any of Jesus’ followers who witness this resurrection, but the Jewish and Roman authorities! The Jewish authorities are depicted as actually knowing from first-hand experience that Jesus rose from the dead, but covering it up to save their own skins.

The theological implications are fairly obvious there, and I alluded to them earlier in the context of Jerusalem in the early 40’s C.E.

Crossan argues that this text was the primitive passion-resurrection account used by Mark when developing his own, much more extensive, narrative. And following Mark were Matthew, Luke, and John. Thus, Crossan argues that familiar New Testament themes such as the purple robe, the crown of thorns, the beating and whipping, the two criminals – one of whom supports Jesus, the gall and vinegar, the decision not to break Jesus’ legs, the earthquakes, the harrowing of hell and the opening of the tombs of the Holy Ones, the sepulcher with a rolling stone door, the belief of the centurion, the “cry of dereliction” by Jesus on the cross, the heavenly messengers at the tomb – Crossan argues that all of this was original to the Cross Gospel, and informed the four canonical Gospels which were written after it.

Crossan, of course, does not argue for a literal interpretation of this Cross Gospel. He argues that it was theologically designed to show that the Romans were innocent of Jesus’ blood, the Jewish authorities were guilty of Jesus’ blood and of keeping the Jewish people from repenting, the resurrection of Jesus was a communal event of vindication for all rather than a personal event that happened to Jesus, and he argues finally that it was drawn not from “history remembered” but from “prophecy historicized.”

On that last point, “history remembered” would be an account drawn primarily from the memories of those who experienced it. Crossan, and of course numerous other scholars, have argued that the various Gospels of Jesus, both canonical and non-canonical, are not “history remembered,” but primarily “prophecy historicized.” That is, they are not based on memory, but are based on what the early Christians believed Jesus’ death meant, based on prophecy and scripture from the Jewish holy texts. Our accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection (including the Gospel of Peter), are unanimous in their assertion that Jesus’ followers abandoned him after his arrest. They weren’t there for the trial, the persecution, the execution, the burial, or even the resurrection. They do not reappear in our various texts until the women report that they found the tomb empty.

Most scholars, therefore, agree that Jesus’ closest companions didn’t really know what happened to Jesus after his arrest. Thus, the stories we get from Christian history are accounts drawn “according to the Scripture” (as stated by Paul), rather than accounts drawn from personal memory. Crossan argues that the same is true of the Cross Gospel, and that it was designed to fit the common Jewish wisdom stories of persecution before and vindication after execution (found in texts such as Isaiah, 2 Maccabees, and the Wisdom of Solomon). In effect, Crossan argues that the story is an early written account reflecting the early Christian belief that Jesus had been vindicated after his death and exalted to heaven by God.


As I made clear at the start, the Cross Gospel is a hypothetical text that has long been in wide contention among scholars. Many agree that the Gospel of Peter used non-canonical sources, but not all agree that this source was a single, consecutive narrative predating the Gospels of the New Testament.

The debate is sure to continue, but it is worth noting that when the hypothetical “Q Gospel” was first proposed by scholars in the 19th century, it was met with wide and almost universal rejection. Now, of course, it is accepted widely among scholars, and numerous arguments, conclusions, and historical reconstructions of early Christianity have been based upon it. One has to wonder if the Cross Gospel won’t enjoy the same sort of slow but sure acceptance in decades to come, as more information comes to light.

One thing seems sure: it will either become widely accepted, or it will finally be shown to be misguided. But for the time being – as Crossan has pointed out – no scholar has yet been able to show convincingly why and how it is wrong, or to make a counter-proposal that makes more sense.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Text of the Common Sayings Tradition

If you didn't catch my last blog post on the Common Sayings Tradition, you can read it here.

The Common Sayings Tradition is a hypothetical very early source of sayings attributed to Jesus of Nazareth. It has been collected by comparing the Q Gospel (a source found within the Gospels of Matthew and Luke) and the Gospel of Thomas.

Both of those sources – Q and Thomas – are “sayings Gospels;” that is, they are made up of sayings of Jesus, rather than biographical accounts of his life. The 37 sayings they have in common have been dubbed the Common Sayings Tradition by scholars Stephen Patterson and John Dominic Crossan, who have gone on to assert that these sayings represent a very early thread of Jesus material, and may well be the closest we can come to knowing what Jesus actually said and taught.

Since it does not appear that any prominent source on the Internet has ever published a written text of this hypothetical source, I have decided to create one myself. To compile the list of sayings, I have used Crossan’s references, given in Appendix 1 of his 1998 book, “The Birth of Christianity: Discovering What Happened in the Years Immediately After the Execution of Jesus.”

Of the 37 sayings in the CST, 18 of them have not been redacted in either Q or Thomas (meaning that the two texts stayed true to the original CST source). This doesn’t mean, of course, that the Q version and the Thomas version of these sayings are exactly word-for-word the same. Among these 18 sayings, I have tended to go with the simplest version, because the original oral tradition that would have produced these sayings would have been based on simple word formulas. Only 7 of the 37 sayings have been redacted in both texts. When one text redacted the CST, but the other did not, I have used the non-redacted material in creating my reproduction. In the case of the 7 sayings that are redacted in both sources, I have given the sayings in both forms.

Of course, no implication is intended that this is a complete list, or that anything not found in the Common Sayings Tradition is, by definition, not an authentic saying of Jesus.


1. So I say to you: ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

2a. [The kingdom of God] will not come by watching for it. It will not be said, “Look, here!” or “Look, there!” Rather, the Father’s kingdom is spread out upon the earth, and people don’t see it.

2b. The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.

3. Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.

4. Do to others as you would have them do to you. Don’t do the things you hate.

5. When you go into any region and walk about in the countryside, when people take you in, eat what they serve you and heal the sick among them.

6. Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.

7. Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.

8. [The kingdom of God] is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.

9a. For this reason I say, if the owners of a house know that a thief is coming, they will be on guard before the thief arrives and will not let the thief break into their house and steal their possessions. As for you, then, be on guard against the world. Prepare yourselves with great strength, so the robbers can’t find a way to get to you, for the trouble you expect will come.

9b. But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

10. You see the sliver in your friend’s eye, but you don’t see the timber in your own eye. When you take the timber out of your own eye, then you will see well enough to remove the sliver from your friend’s eye.

11. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.

12. No one lights a lamp and puts it under a basket, nor does one put it in a hidden place. Rather, one puts it on a lamp stand so that all who come and go will see its light.

13. If a blind person leads a blind person, both of them will fall into a pit.

14. One can’t enter a strong person’s house and take it by force without tying the man’s hands. Then one can loot his house.

15. Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you? And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.

16. Woe to the Pharisees! They have taken the keys of knowledge and have hidden them. They have not entered nor have they allowed anyone else to enter.

17. Whoever has something in hand will be given more, and whoever has nothing will be deprived of even the little they have.

18. And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.

19. Grapes are not harvested from thorn trees, nor are figs gathered from thistles, for they yield no fruit. Good people produce good from what they’ve stored up; evil people produce evil from the wickedness they’ve stored up in their hearts, and say evil things. For from the overflow of the heart they produce evil.

20a. From Adam to John the Baptist, among those born of women, no one is so much greater than John the Baptist that his eyes should not be averted. But I have said that whoever among you becomes a child will recognize the Father’s kingdom and will become greater than John.

20b. I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”

21. A person cannot mount two horses or bend two bows. And a slave cannot serve two masters, otherwise that slave will honor the one and offend the other. You cannot serve both God and wealth.

22. Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

23. Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.

24. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

25a. Two will recline on a couch; one will die, one will live.

25b. I tell you, on that night there will be two in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. There will be two women grinding meal together; one will be taken and the other left.

26a. I am the one who comes from what is whole. I was granted this from my Father.

26b. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows who the son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the son, and anyone to whom the son chooses to reveal him.

27. Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, “Come; for everything is ready now.” But they all alike began to make excuses. So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, “Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” And the slave said, “Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.” Then the master said to the slave, “Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.”

28a. Fortunate are you when you are hated and persecuted; where you have been persecuted, they will find no place [of rest]. Fortunate are those who have been persecuted in their hearts: they are the ones who have truly come to know the Father.

28b. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

29. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.

30. The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.

31. Seek his treasure that is unfailing, that is enduring, where no moth comes to eat and no worm destroys.

32a. Why have you come out to the countryside? To see a reed shaken by the wind? And to see a person dressed in expensive clothes, like your rulers and your powerful ones? They are dressed in expensive clothes, and they cannot understand truth.

32b. What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who put on fine clothing and live in luxury are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.”

33. Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.

34. Why do you wash the outside of the cup? Don’t you understand that the one who made the inside [of the body] is also the one who made the outside?

35. If you have money, don’t lend it at interest. Rather, give it to someone from whom you won’t get it back.

36. The Father’s kingdom is like a woman. She took a little leaven, hid it in dough, and made it into large loaves of bread.

37. The Father’s kingdom is like a shepherd who had a hundred sheep. One of them, the largest, went astray. He left the ninety-nine and looked for the one until he found it. After he had toiled, he said to the sheep, “I love you more than the ninety-nine.”

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Common Sayings Tradition

The Common Sayings Tradition is a hypothetical early collection of sayings attributed to Jesus of Nazareth. It has been proposed by Stephen Patterson, Professor of New Testament at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, and John Dominic Crossan, Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University in Chicago. Both are among the world’s leading scholars on historical Jesus research.

This sayings tradition has been hypothesized based on two very early Christian sources: The Gospel of Thomas and the Q Gospel.

The dating, reliability, and legitimacy of these two sources have themselves been topics of frequent debate among New Testament scholars.

The Gospel of Thomas was long known only through references by Catholic Church fathers. St. Hippolytus of Rome is the first to mention the text, writing around 220 C.E., and Origen of Alexandria mentions it a few years later, around 230 C.E. The text, however, was long lost until the late 19th century, when a few fragments of one copy were discovered in Egypt. Later, in the 1940’s, a complete copy was found, also in Egypt, among dozens of other early Christian texts.

Those first few fragments discovered in the late 1800’s have been dated to around 200 C.E. Since those fragments certainly did not come from the original copy, this means the original composition took place long before that.

In past decades, many scholars had dated the text’s original composition to around 180 C.E. In recent years, however, as scholars have continued to study and examine it, the consensus has generally moved toward an earlier date. At present, there are generally two camps on the dating of Thomas: early and late. Those in the early camp argue for a date as early as 60 C.E. (well before the Gospels of the New Testament), and no later than roughly 80 or 90 C.E. Those in the late camp argue for a date in the first part of the 2nd century, no later than 140 C.E., and probably no earlier than 90 or 100 C.E.

The dating issue is complicated by the fact that the existing text shows signs of heavy editing by Gnostic Christians of the 2nd century – called “redaction” in scholarly language. Folks like Crossan and Patterson argue that while the Gospel of Thomas as we have it in its current form may date to the late 1st century or even later, its original form is much earlier – around 60 C.E., which makes it a contemporary of Paul.

As for the Q Gospel, this is a text that – like the Common Sayings Tradition which is derived from it – is hypothetical in its own right, although its existence in early Christianity is widely accepted by New Testament scholars.

The theory of the Q Gospel is based on the material that is common between Luke and Matthew, but not found in the Gospel of Mark. It has been widely accepted for several centuries that Mark was a primary source for the writers of Matthew and Luke. Matthew, in fact, regurgitated something like 90% of Mark’s Gospel, much of it word for word. However, there is a significant amount of material found in Matthew and Luke that is not present in Mark. This has essentially led to two theories, one of which is almost certainly the “right” answer: either Luke used Matthew as a source for this secondary material, or Luke and Matthew had another source in common – one which is no longer in existence. This second, no longer existing, source is referred to as the Q Gospel (Q stands for the German word “quelle,” which simply means “source”).

While there are still many scholars doubtful about the Q hypothesis, most modern New Testament scholars accept it as accurate. Even if one assumes that the Q hypothesis is wrong, the fact remains that we know (with as much certainty, of course, as we “know” anything in ancient history) that Matthew used Mark as a source. Yet we know the writer of Matthew used a lot of material not found in Mark. He must have gotten that information from somewhere, unless one supposes that he simply made it up. So whether one accepts the Q hypothesis or not, it is almost without question that Matthew had some second source which no longer exists – a source that by definition must have been written much earlier than Matthew.

(A side note: Church tradition has long held that the disciple Matthew wrote the Gospel of Matthew – hence the name – thus his “source” would have been personal experience; but this is an argument almost universally rejected by modern scholarship.)

We can’t know, of course, everything that was contained in the Q document. We only know stories from Q when both Matthew and Luke repeat them.

Patterson and Crossan argue for an early date for the original version of the Gospel of Thomas. They also presuppose the existence of the Q Gospel and date it around the same time – roughly 60 C.E., give or take a few years. Furthermore, they make cogent arguments for why these two documents are independent of one another (in other words, Thomas didn’t simply use Q and vice versa). I won’t go into those arguments here, but will simply state that Patterson and Crossan assert these two texts are not only early, but also independent.

Both of these documents – the Gospel of Thomas and Q – are made up totally of “sayings” of Jesus. They don’t describe scenes or give biographical information. They don’t contain miracle stories. There is no instance of Jesus making divine claims for himself. There are no resurrection accounts or predictions of resurrection. Instead, the stories simply present Jesus speaking and teaching, giving his vision of how to live and act in regards to the kingdom of God.

The eschatology of these two documents is opposing. “Eschatology” is a fancy philosophical term that simply refers to one’s belief about the ultimate destiny of humankind and the end of the world. In Q, the eschatology is apocalyptic; that is, Q foresees the kingdom of God as an event still in the future, but coming soon. Q’s theology is one of warning – straighten up, as it were, because the time is near. The Gospel of Thomas, on the other hand, has what Crossan calls an “ascetical” eschatology. Instead of warning that the end of the world is coming, the Gospel of Thomas asserts that the kingdom of God is already here and the way to find it is through rejecting society and its norms.

With their arguments established that Q and Thomas are among our earliest sources for the sayings of Jesus, Patterson and Crossan have proposed the Common Sayings Tradition (Patterson actually first proposed it, and Crossan has added to it). The collection is simply made up of those sayings that are common to both Q and Thomas. Since those two sources are believed to be independent, the existence of these common sayings indicates an even earlier textual or oral source. Thus, the argument asserts that the Common Sayings Tradition, made up of sayings common to both Q and Thomas, is a very early tradition in the Christian movement – perhaps going back to the first few years after Jesus’ death.

While Q tends to redact its material toward apocalypticism (“The kingdom is coming soon, so straighten up if you want to be part of it”) and Thomas tends to redact its material toward asceticism (“The kingdom is here, so reject worldly pleasures if you want to be part of it”), they sometimes don’t redact their material.

Among the sayings of the Common Sayings Tradition, nearly half (49% of 37 sayings) are not redacted in either direction. Furthermore, only 7 of the 37 sayings are redacted in both Q and Thomas. This has led Patterson and Crossan to assert that the earliest Jesus material was neither apocalyptic nor ascetical. Instead, Crossan in particular has argued that this early material had an “ethical” eschatology; that is, it sought to make the kingdom of God a reality in the present by “actively protesting and nonviolently resisting a system judged to be evil, unjust, and violent.” That system, of course, was the systemic evil of Roman oppression against the Jews.

Since this material is the earliest Jesus material available, and since it describes Jesus as negating systemic evils (as opposed to warning people about coming wrath, or encouraging asceticism), Crossan has argued that the historical Jesus is best described as asserting that the kingdom of God can be a reality if and only if human beings make it happen by coming together to fight injustice, systemic evil, and oppression in society. This was the mission of Jesus, Crossan argues, and it was the mission of the earliest Christians, whose actions and teachings gave rise to the Common Sayings Tradition in the few years after Jesus’ death.

Whether you ultimately agree with these eschatological conclusions or not, Patterson and Crossan make compelling arguments for the existence of this early sayings tradition of Jesus. Crossan specifically notes that it is impossible to say whether this collection was written or oral, but in either case it seems to have directly influenced the writers of both Thomas and Q.

The obvious ultimate conclusion is that the 37 sayings of the Common Sayings Tradition may well be the closest thing we have to knowing what the historical Jesus actually said and taught.

I haven’t been able to find any sources online that publish the proposed contents of the Common Sayings Tradition, so my next blog post will be a recreation of the text, based on the references cited by Crossan. Read it here.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Judas Iscariot

Perhaps no other name in Western culture has quite the stigma attached to it as that of Judas Iscariot. Most everyone in the West – Christian or otherwise – can identify this character, and his name has even become synonymous with a backstabber or betrayer in modern language.

Judas, of course, has been the subject of much study throughout the years. In churches he is vilified as the man who handed over Jesus to authorities – the man responsible in many ways for the death of the Savior. Like his name, the thirty pieces of silver he was said to have received have become synonymous with betrayal and treachery.

Christian art and literature have encouraged this characterization. In the Inferno, Dante consigns Judas to the deepest level of hell, where he is to be chewed up for all eternity in the mouth of Satan. His companions there are the two men who betrayed and murdered Julius Caesar. The point couldn’t be more clear – there is no sin more damnable than a betrayal of trust.

In paintings, Judas is frequently depicted with gaunt, prominent features, dark skin and hair, and ghoulish expressions. Consider Da Vinci’s famous painting of the Last Supper.

Judas is seated just to Jesus' right, leaning across the table and looking back toward John. He is wearing blue and green. Click on the picture to see it much larger.

Judas Iscariot is the only one with dark skin, hair, and beard, and his face is long and flat, a reptilian face. He is clearly the most “Jewish” of the bunch, and that is surely no accident.

Or take, for instance, the painting of the Last Supper by Philippe de Champaigne, a 17th century French artist.

Judas is seated in a prominent position, with his toga riding high, revealing his bare leg in startling and rather disconcerting clarity. And while the other disciples look rather aghast (Jesus has apparently just predicted his betrayal), Judas is staring directly at Jesus, a confrontational expression on his face and in his body language.

In Caravaggio’s famous painting of the betrayal of Jesus, Jesus himself has a clear, almost child-like face, while Judas’ head is remarkably larger and rounder, with a broad ridge of forehead and an extremely thick, prominent nose.

He looks like a true Neanderthal brute.

Judas has become, for Christianity, the consummate antagonist, the embodiment of evil to Jesus’ embodiment of holy.

Despite that, some scholars and theologians in recent years have begun to question the authenticity of the Judas story. A few have even gone so far as to say that Judas was likely an entirely fictitious character. From my own study of the issue, I don’t think this is, by any means, a majority opinion among Biblical scholars, but I do find the arguments to be interesting if not compelling.

Judas does not enter the Christian tradition until the Gospel of Mark – written around 70 C.E., or forty years after the death of Jesus. However, the apostle Paul, writing some 10-20 years earlier, does mention a betrayal surrounding Jesus.

1 Corinthians 11:23 – For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed…

This seems, on the surface, to suggest that within 20-25 years of Jesus’ death, there was already a story circulating about Jesus having been betrayed. That might support the idea that the story is, in fact, historically-based and not legendary. The earlier an event is testified to, the more likely it is to be true.

However, there is an issue with Paul’s word use.

The Greek word used by Paul is paradidomi. This word doesn’t actually mean “to betray.” It means to “hand over” or “deliver.” In fact, Paul uses the same word earlier in the very same verse. The phrase translated in that verse as “passed on” is actually a repetition of the same word. More than likely, Paul’s original intent was not to imply betrayal. What the verse is really saying is: “For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over…”

There is a different word in Greek for “betray,” and interestingly enough, that is almost never the word used in reference to Judas and Jesus – even by the Gospel writers. Judas is always shown to be “handing over” Jesus, not necessarily “betraying” him.

That might be easy to disregard as mere semantics of language. But there may be more significance to it than what is implied at first glance. Consider the following two scenarios:

Joe and Bob are good friends.
Bob insulted Bill.
Bill went looking for Bob to rough him up.
Joe handed Bob over to Bill.

In that scenario, it would be fair to say that Joe, in handing over his friend Bob, betrayed Bob. But consider it another way:

Joe and Bob are good friends.
Bob robbed a bank.
The police came to Joe looking for Bob.
Joe handed Bob over to the police.

Did Joe’s action in that scenario really imply a wonton act of betrayal? Or was Joe simply doing what was right, cooperating with police? Furthermore, perhaps Joe feared for his own safety if he didn’t cooperate with police.

Could the story of Judas be interpreted in a similar fashion? Consider this:

Judas and Jesus are good friends.
Jesus committed the crime of blasphemy.
The authorities came to Judas looking for Jesus.
Judas, fearing for his own safety, handed Jesus over to the authorities.

While blasphemy may not be a criminal offense to our modern sensibilities, it most certainly was a criminal offense to 1st century Jewish sensibilities. Could it be that Judas was simply cooperating with authorities out of a desire to follow the laws of his land and out of fear that he might be brought down with Jesus if he didn’t cooperate?

It’s an interesting question that might be the first “chink in the armor” on traditional ideas about the treachery of Judas. Even the Gospel writers didn’t claim Judas betrayed Jesus – he merely was the one who handed him over. Having said that, of course, by no means am I arguing that the Gospel writers don’t depict Judas in a basically negative light. But could their use of the word “handed over,” as opposed to “betrayed,” indicate an earlier tradition that knew of Judas only as the one forced by circumstances to hand Jesus over to authorities, and not someone who wantonly betrayed the son of God?

Returning again to Paul’s discussion of the Last Supper and Jesus being handed over, it is noteworthy to point out that Paul does not mention anything about Judas, or make any implication that one of Jesus’ inner circle betrayed him. Paul simply notes that Jesus had a final meal with his disciples on the night he was handed over to authorities. As noted earlier, Judas – as a character – does not enter Christian tradition until the Gospel of Mark.

In Mark, Judas is first mentioned in the list of disciples, where the writer notes that Judas was the one who betrayed (again, “handed over”) Jesus. Judas doesn’t appear again until the actual betrayal scene, where he is shown to seek out the authorities on his own to hand Jesus over to them. Mark says that when Judas came to them, the authorities “were delighted.”

Later, Mark asserts that Judas showed up in the place where Jesus was praying. He brought with him an armed crowd sent by the Jewish authorities. Using a prearranged signal, he kisses Jesus and Jesus is arrested. Jesus questions the crowd about why they have arrived with swords and clubs, and he points out that he has been in full view every day, preaching at the Temple.

This, of course, brings up a salient point. What was Judas’ purpose in all this? The authorities didn’t need someone to hand Jesus over to them. He was preaching at the Temple, exposed to the world, every day. Recall for a moment my scenario above about Joe and Bob. Imagine that Bob robs the bank and then camps out on the sidewalk in front of the police station for the following week. Would the police really need to go to Joe to find Bob?

This is perhaps the second “chink in the armor” for literal interpretations of the Judas story. It just doesn’t seem to add up. Why was Judas necessary? Could it be that the Judas story was originally designed as a metaphor for something else?

Moving on to the book of Matthew, the writer of this Gospel expands the story of Judas. Adding to Mark’s account, he notes that Judas was offered thirty silver pieces for handing Jesus over.

In Matthew’s last supper scene, Judas is specifically mentioned among the disciples who say “Surely not I?” in response to Jesus’ prediction that he will be handed over by one of the Twelve. Jesus responds by saying, “Yes, it is you.”

The betrayal scene itself is more or less identical in Matthew and Mark. But where Judas disappears from Mark’s account after the betrayal, Matthew includes a scene where Judas, overcome by guilt, throws the thirty silver pieces into the Temple and goes out and hangs himself in shame. Thus, the earliest account of Judas’ suicide comes around 85 C.E., or more than fifty years after Jesus’ death.

In Luke, we have the first instance of Judas actually being called a “betrayer” or “traitor.” Although he uses the phrase “handed over” when talking about Judas’ actions, Luke does explicitly call Judas a traitor on this one occasion. This, in other words, shows that as we move forward chronologically among our sources for stories of Judas, we begin to see Judas painted in an every increasingly negative light.

Luke’s increase in vitriolic language does not stop there. When describing Judas’ discussion with authorities about handing Jesus over, Luke asserts that “Satan entered Judas.” Judas is not just doing something bad; he’s now essentially working on Satan’s orders.

Luke’s Last Supper and arrest scenes don’t differ dramatically from Matthew and Mark. However, where Judas kisses Jesus in the first two Gospels, Luke says that Judas only starts to kiss Jesus, but Jesus effectively stops him with a question: “Are you handing over the Son of Man with a kiss?”

As with Mark, Judas does not appear again in Luke’s Gospel. However, Luke wrote a second volume of work that we know as the book of Acts. Judas’ fate is described in the first chapter of that account.

Luke tells us that Judas bought a field “with the reward he got for his wickedness,” and that he “fell headlong” in the field “and his bowels spilled out,” leading locals to name the place the “Field of Blood.”

In this passage, we again see the increase in vitriol directed at Judas. Where Matthew described Judas being wracked with guilt and remorse, going so far as to exclaim that he had handed over “innocent blood,” Luke asserts that Judas kept the money he gained from his “wickedness” and bought land with it. Where Matthew asserts that Judas committed suicide over his guilt, Luke asserts that he simply died in a rather unfortunate and gory accident – getting what he deserved, in other words.

Furthermore, the “bowels” were understood by ancient Hebrews to be the seat of love, compassion, kindness, and good will. Where evil came from the heart, love and goodness came from the gut. There can be no question that Luke’s description of Judas’ bowels spilling out is a metaphorical way of implying that all that was good, kind, and loving about Judas spilled out into this field of blood.

Moving on to the last Gospel of the New Testament era – the Gospel of John – we find the first reference to Judas when Jesus proclaims that one of his inner circle is a slanderer (in Greek diablos, where we get the word “devil”). John notes that Jesus was talking about Judas.

The next appearance of Judas comes in the one and only scene in the Bible involving Judas that is not related to his betrayal of Jesus. A woman named Mary takes an expensive bottle of perfume and anoints Jesus with it. Judas objects, arguing that the perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor. Lest the reader assume this meant Judas was kind-hearted, John is quick to point out that Judas’ motivation wasn’t altruistic; he asserts that Judas was the “keeper of the money bag” and that he frequently stole from it.

Later, John asserts that Satan entered Judas and prompted him to hand Jesus over. During the Last Supper, Jesus hands a piece of bread to Judas, indicating that Judas is the one who will betray him. John notes again that “Satan entered” Judas when Jesus gave him the bread. Judas then gets up and leaves.

After that, Jesus enters a long teaching discourse, which takes up several chapters of John’s book. None of the previous Gospels include this speech, and none mention Judas leaving the table before the meal was over. That doesn’t seem accidental. Clearly John’s intent was to exclude Judas from this final and all important teaching of Jesus – a teaching that culminates in a long, heartfelt prayer for the disciples.

In the arrest scene, John deviates from the previous Gospels by asserting that Roman soldiers were among those who showed up with Judas. The soldiers arrest Jesus after he more or less gives himself up to them. There is no mention of a kiss or even an attempted kiss. As with Mark, Judas disappears from John’s account after Jesus’ arrest.

When we look at these Gospels accounts of Judas, several things come to light. I have already mentioned how there is a noticeable increase in contempt and hostility toward Judas with each successive Gospel. Luke and John both assert that Judas was working on Satan’s orders, with John making the assertion twice. Luke calls him a traitor. John calls him a thief and depicts him as using charitable concerns as a front for his thievery. Where Matthew paints Judas as remorseful to the point of returning the money and committing suicide, Luke says he bought land with the money, then died in a horribly violent accident, where the source of all his love, compassion, and goodness spilled out of him. John has Judas leave the table of the Last Supper, effectively excluding him from the climactic final teaching discourse and final prayer for the disciples.

Another issue that appears when comparing the Gospel accounts of Judas is the basic disagreement among the four sources on the details.

Mark and Matthew say Judas kissed Jesus, based on a prearranged signal. Luke says Judas only attempted to kiss Jesus, but Jesus stopped him. John says nothing about a kiss, and depicts Jesus as simply handing himself over.

In Mark and Luke, Jesus predicts his betrayal, but does not say who it will be. In Matthew and John, Jesus specifically fingers Judas. In Matthew, he does this simply by stating that Judas is the one. In John, however, he points the finger at Judas by handing him a piece of bread.

In Mark, Matthew, and Luke, Judas remains until the end of the meal. In John, he gets up and leaves before the meal is over.

In Mark, Matthew, and Luke, Judas is motivated by money. Only Matthew, however, mentions thirty silver pieces. In John, on the other hand, nothing is said about money, and instead Judas’ sole motivation is simple Satan-inspired wickedness.

In Matthew, Judas is full of guilt, returns the money, and commits suicide by hanging. In Luke, Judas – apparently not feeling guilty at all – uses the money to buy land, then has a terrible accident and dies in a gory mess.

These inconsistencies stand out like a sore thumb and practically beg for explanation. Some have suggested that the inconsistencies are to be expected when dealing with human memory. The general thrust of the story – that Judas was the one who handed over Jesus – is agreed upon by all sources. It’s only in the details that inconsistencies occur. Others, however, have suggested that the details of the story frequently changed because it was legendary to start with. With no basis in history to go on, the story was free to morph and diversify at will.

Another issue we see when looking at the accounts of Judas is an increase in detail. In Mark, Judas is introduced in the list of the twelve disciples. He’s not mentioned again until the Last Supper, when it is noted that he agreed to hand over Jesus in exchange for money. Judas leads a crowd to Jesus after the Last Supper, Jesus is arrested, and Judas disappears from the story. Matthew adds in thirty silver pieces, has Jesus specifically call out Judas as his betrayer, and adds in an account of what happened to Judas after the arrest and how he died. Luke brings Satan into the picture in regards to Judas, suggesting that Judas was under Satan’s spell, and gives his own account of Judas’ death. John includes a story about Judas during the ministry of Jesus, noting that Judas was the treasurer for the disciples and a thief to boot, then lengthens the account of Jesus’ actions during the Last Supper in regards to naming Judas as the one who would hand him over.

This general increase in detail seems to support the idea that the story was mostly legendary. Like any legend, the story of Judas was added to and embellished over time, with each successive author adding in his own unique details and exaggerations.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly for the argument of a legendary genesis of the story of Judas, is the fact that Judas shared a name with the Hebrew people. Anyone who has studied Christian history is aware of the sharp divide between Judaism and Christianity. While Christianity began as a sect within Judaism, it very quickly separated from Judaism all together and became a religion of non-Jews and ex-Jews. As such, Christianity and Judaism, once in a parent/child relationship, became bitter enemies. Anti-Semitism among Christians was already flourishing even during the Gospel era of the late 1st century.

Is it just coincidence that the betrayer of Jesus – the man who handed the son of God over to be crucified, the man who was said to be a minion of Satan himself, the man who was called a thief, the man who was said to have spilled out all his goodness, love, and compassion upon his gruesome death – is it just coincidence that this man’s name was Judas, a name synonymous with Judah, the nation of the Jewish people? In fact, “Judas” is simply our English transliteration of the Greek spelling of the name. Judas’ name was, in fact, “Judah.”

The character of Judas was literally named after the Jewish people – those same people that the Gospels say had rejected Jesus and had yelled “Crucify him!” when Pilate brought him before them. Just as the Jews were said to have rejected their own son in Jesus, Judas – a member of Jesus’ own inner circle – handed him over to his death.

This leads back to the “second chink in the armor” I mentioned above. Judas doesn’t seem to be necessary. The Gospels quote Jesus as being perplexed about his arrest – he notes that he has been freely visible preaching every day in the Temple. The authorities didn’t need Judas. Could it be that Judas is simply a metaphor for the Jewish people – those people who rejected Jesus and were accused of being responsible for his execution?

The congruence of these two facts – the rejection of Jesus by the Jews, and the name of Jesus’ betrayer being the name of the Jewish people – is difficult to ignore. It is, in my opinion, the strongest argument one can give for asserting that the Judas story is a legendary account. When you add it to the evidence I have already provided, it makes for a very compelling argument.

Despite that, I am not yet fully convinced that the Judas story is completely legendary. I noted at the start of this essay that the majority scholarly position does not seem to support the idea that Judas Iscariot was a fictional character. A number of scholars have indeed argued for Judas’ legendary status, but from what I can tell, those people represent a minority in the scholarly academy.

It seems most likely to me that someone named Judas Iscariot probably was a follower of Jesus. Despite the strong evidence of the name link, it is important to remember that “Judah,” as a male name, was very common among 1st century Jews. In fact, no fewer than three of Jesus’ own twelve disciples were given that name in one source or another (Judas Iscariot, Judas James, and Judas Thomas). Furthermore, another “Judas” appears as the writer of the book we call Jude in the New Testament, and a fifth appears as the name of one of Jesus’ brothers. Finally, the book of Acts names three additional men named Judas (Judas the Galilean who led a revolt, Judas the man whose house Paul was taken to after his Damascus Road conversion, and Judas one of the early Christian apostles who was chosen to deliver a letter to Antioch from Jerusalem). “Judas” was, without question, a popular 1st century Jewish name.

So while it is highly intriguing that Jesus’ betrayer was named Judas, I think it’s at least possible that this was coincidental. Furthermore, while I think it is historically reasonable to say that Jesus had a follower named Judas Iscariot, it may very well be that the story of the betrayal itself is either legendary or at least greatly embellished. Perhaps this Judas left the group on bad terms, thus leading to later vilification; perhaps this Judas fell to the wayside and didn’t continue with the movement after Jesus’ death, leading to hard feelings among the remaining followers; or, as I indicated earlier in this essay, perhaps this Judas was somehow involved in Jesus’ arrest, but it was only out of fear or persuasion by authorities, and not because he wanted to wantonly betray his own teacher.

I once wrote a short story about the rise of Christianity (alas, it was never finished) wherein Judas figured prominently in the resurrection and was the first of the disciples to continue with the Jesus movement after Jesus’ execution.

(Judas speaking to a crowd) “[The priests] are enemies of God because they seek to bind the human soul, to simplify God’s fullness into a formula and a system! Jesus, speaking with the authority of God, taught a different message. A message of freedom from bondage – a message where love for one another is the ultimate expression of God’s will.”

I had intended to develop some intriguing account of how Judas had come to be known as the one who handed Jesus over to the authorities, but as I said, the story was never finished.

If my readers will forgive a moment of stark personal reflection that has no legitimate place in an otherwise historically researched essay, I suppose I have long identified strongly with Judas because Judas was the betrayer, the one who turned his back on the movement, the one who was vilified not because he never believed at all, but because he believed and then (apparently) stopped believing. I often feel that way myself. I grew up in a Christian family, attended church every week, was heavily engaged in church activities, went to a Christian college (I even started out majoring in Church Music), and remained active in the Church for many years after entering adulthood. But then changes began to take place and I started questioning a lot of things that I had always more or less taken for granted. I started being accused by friends of turning my back on Christianity; one friend said I was “venomous and scathing” and said I had become too judgmental; others talked down to me for “losing my faith;” one of my online networking profiles was deemed “scary” by a religious fundamentalist; someone even once called me a “heretic.” This all coming despite the fact that I continue to identify myself as a Christian, regard Jesus as a unique conduit to the presence of a real and living God, and consider the lifestyle of Jesus to be vitally important to living a God-filled life.

So I have a kind of soft spot, I think, for Judas. I like to imagine that he got a bad rap – that maybe he doesn’t deserve all the defamation and character assassination that he has gotten over the years from Christian tradition. I like to imagine that it was something else, some difference of opinion, perhaps, that led to his ultimate vilification in emerging Christian circles.

So I’m no doubt biased, but I think Judas Iscariot probably really existed; I’m just not very much convinced that his portrayal in the Gospels is accurate – and that, I’m sure, is a combination of both textual evidence and a little bit of a soft spot for him.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Who Were the Twelve Disciples?

The twelve disciples of Jesus are widely understood by Christians to have been Jesus’ closest companions in life, his inner circle, made up of fishermen and others who gave up family and career to dedicate their lives to following the man who taught radically about the kingdom of God.

Despite the familiarity of “the twelve disciples” among Christians, there is little doubt that most people couldn’t name all twelve off the cuff. It may surprise some to discover that even the texts of the Bible don’t agree on who made up this most distinguished group of men.


Among the texts of the New Testament, the seven or so authentic letters of Paul represent our earliest sources. In one of these letters – 1 Corinthians – Paul gives us our first Biblical reference to the twelve disciples:

1 Corinthians 15:5b - …[Jesus] appeared to Peter, then to the Twelve.

Outside of the Gospels, there is only one other New Testament reference to the twelve disciples, and that comes from the book of Revelation, where the writer refers to the “names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.” Revelation, of course, was one of the last books of the New Testament to be written, probably in the first decade of the 2nd century.

Despite only referring once to “the Twelve,” Paul does mention two disciples by name: Peter and John. Peter is referenced a number of times in 1 Corinthians and Galatians, and John is mentioned one time in Galatians.

Interestingly, Paul never tells us explicitly that either of these men was a disciple of Jesus. Of course, the recipients of his letters would have known who they were, so it stands to reason that he doesn’t go into any biographical details.

Still, if one only had the letters of Paul to go by, we would have an idea that there was a group of twelve people who played some central role in the resurrection, but we would not know who they were. In fact, if we had only the letters of Paul to go on, we would no doubt conclude that Peter was not among “the Twelve,” since his role in the resurrection is separated from the Twelve, as indicated in the quoted passage above.


The majority of what we know of the twelve disciples, of course, comes from the four Gospels of the New Testament. These texts were all written in the 1st century, but the earliest of them was written after the letters of Paul.


In Mark, the first of these Gospels to be written, the writer is kind enough to give us an actual list of names:

Simon Peter
James son of Zebedee
John the brother of James
Andrew (Mark notes elsewhere that Andrew was the brother of Peter)
James son of Alphaeus
Simon the Canaanite
Judas Iscariot

Simple enough on the surface. But there is at least one internal trouble spot. Before providing this list of names, Mark had described a scene in which Jesus dines at the home of a tax collector named Levi, and the text tells us that Jesus called on him to “follow me” – a command Levi obeys. That, of course, is the same formula used elsewhere when Jesus is calling his twelve disciples. It seems clear that Levi is one of the “twelve,” yet he does not appear in Mark’s list in the next chapter.

Complicating that issue even further is the fact that Mark refers to Levi as the “son of Alphaeus.” You will notice that one of the disciples on Mark’s list is also the son of Alphaeus, but it’s a man named James, not Levi. No indication is given by Mark as to whether this is the same person, they are two brothers, or they are unrelated and just happen to have fathers by the name of Alphaeus.

If Mark was our only source for the disciples, we would no doubt conclude that James son of Alphaeus was, in fact, Levi the tax collector.


Moving on chronologically through the Gospels, we come next to Matthew. The writer of this Gospel used Mark as a primary source, and also provided a list of the twelve disciples:

Simon called Peter
Andrew the brother of Simon Peter
James son of Zebedee
John the brother of James
Matthew the tax collector
James son of Alphaeus
Lebbaeus Thaddaeus
Simon the Canaanite
Judas Iscariot

You will notice first that the disciple Matthew is now noted as a tax collector – something not mentioned by Mark. Furthermore, when the story of Levi son of Alphaeus is retold in the Gospel of Matthew, Levi’s name is changed to Matthew, and “son of Alphaeus” is eliminated completely. The writer of Matthew seems to have seen the problem with Mark’s text regarding Levi, and simply fixed the problem by asserting that Levi and Matthew were the same person (and not Levi and James son of Alphaeus). The name “Levi” is never actually mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew.

The other noticeable difference between the two lists is that the Gospel of Matthew notes that the disciple Thaddaeus’s name was actually Lebbaeus.


We come next to Luke. Luke, like Matthew before him, used Mark’s Gospel as a source. However, where Matthew regurgitates something like 90% of Mark, Luke only uses about 60%. And it is when we look at Luke’s list of disciples that we begin to see more prominent discrepancies.

Here is Luke’s list:

Simon Peter
Andrew the brother of Simon Peter
John (Luke notes elsewhere that James and John were brothers and the sons of Zebedee)
James son of Alphaeus
Simon called the Zealot
Judas James
Judas Iscariot

To begin with, Luke follows Mark in regards to the Levi/Matthew issue. When Luke tells the story of the tax collector, he calls him Levi (although he leaves out “son of Alphaeus”), and he never mentions that Matthew the disciple is a tax collector. Like Mark, if we had only the Gospel of Luke to go by, we would have no way of knowing what become of Levi the tax collector who became a disciple of Jesus but was then left off the official list of twelve.

Second, Luke changes Mark and Matthew’s “Simon the Canaanite” to “Simon called the Zealot.” Some textual scholars have attempted to connect the two Greek words in question (Kananaios and Zelotes) with Aramaic roots, but these arguments are tenuous and speculative at best. What is clear is that this disciple’s name seems to have varied in both oral and textual tradition from region to region.

Finally, and most significantly, Luke omits the disciple Thaddaeus all together, and adds in a man named Judas James. Depending on which English translation of the Bible you read, this name is given as “Judas brother of James” or “Judas son of James.” In both cases, it’s just a textual guess. The original Greek doesn’t indicate whether this Judas was the son or the brother of James, who this James was, or whether Judas James was simply known by two names (like Simon Peter).

What is clear is that we now have three different accounts of this disciple’s name. Mark calls him Thaddaeus, Matthew calls him Lebbaeus Thaddaeus, and Luke calls him Judas James. While it’s reasonable to assume Matthew and Mark were talking about the same person, it seems that Luke is thinking of someone else entirely. It’s possible, of course, that Lebbaeus Thaddaeus was also known as Judas (son of/brother of) James, but it seems like a stretch. Of course, if it wasn’t the Bible we were discussing, but instead some random ancient text, no one would question at all whether the texts contradicted one another – it would be taken as a given.

Regardless of one’s personal theological perspective, what is clear is that this disciple – like Simon the Canaanite/Zealot – was known by many different identities in both oral and textual tradition during the 1st century.

(One quick note on Matthew’s Lebbaeus Thaddaeus: if you read any English version other than the King James, you will find only “Thaddaeus” listed – no mention of “Lebbaeus.” The reason for this is because the King James was translated from a Medieval Greek text of the New Testament called the Textus Receptus, which many scholars believe is inferior due to its numerous textual discrepancies and questionable provenance. Other than the KJV, most modern English translations use a different textual tradition when creating their translations, and this different textual tradition does not contain the language about “Lebbaeus” in the Gospel of Matthew. More than likely, Matthew’s actual original text conformed to Mark’s original text on the name of this disciple. Luke’s text, however, most definitely deviated.)


Moving on to the last Gospel of the New Testament, we come to the book of John. Unlike the three Gospels that preceded it, John does not provide a list of Jesus’ disciples. The writer does refer several times to “the Twelve,” but never provides a complete list of their names. He does, however, refer to several disciples by name throughout the text. In order of appearance, they are:

Simon Peter (John notes that Andrew and Peter are brothers)
Judas Iscariot, son of Simon Iscariot
Thomas called Didymus (Didymus means “the twin”)
Judas (John explicitly notes that this is not Judas Iscariot)
The sons of Zebedee (John only refers to them once, and does not use their actual names)

First, John never mentions anyone named Matthew, Levi, Thaddaeus (or Lebbaeus), Bartholomew, Simon the Zealot, Simon the Canaanite, or James son of Alphaeus.

Second, John tells us Thomas was known as Didymus, something none of the other Gospels mention.

Third, John agrees with Luke that there was a second disciple named Judas, though he doesn’t include any second name for him (i.e. Judas James).

Finally, he includes a disciple – Nathanael – that does not appear in any of the other Gospels.


Most of our non-canonical Christian texts were written in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, well after the New Testament era. However, a handful of non-canonical writings may very well have been contemporaries of, or even in some cases predated, the texts of the New Testament. Most of the debates about the dating of these texts deal with the question of whether they are early (before the Gospel era) or late (right after the Gospel era). In either case, most scholars agree that these texts were at least contemporaries of some of the later New Testament texts, and so I will look briefly at what they have to say about the disciples.

The Gospel of Thomas

Some scholars date this text among our earliest Christian written sources. Indeed, there is a whole school of thought that puts Thomas as a contemporary of Paul’s letters, making it well earlier than any of the Biblical Gospels. Even those who are in the “late camp” on the Gospel of Thomas tend to date it around the same time as books like Revelation, 2 Peter, and Jude.

Regardless of your particular take on that issue, Thomas does mention a few of Jesus’ disciples by name. They are:

Didymus Judas Thomas
Simon Peter

This is eye-opening, to say the least. First, the text agrees with John that Thomas was called Didymus (“the twin”). But it also calls him Judas, which causes one to wonder if there wasn’t some sort of general confusion in early Christianity about disciples named Judas. We now have three different men with that name among Jesus’ disciples in our various sources.

Second, of course, is the inclusion of two female disciples. While the Biblical Gospels seem to downplay the role of women in some cases, it is clear even from those texts that women played a significant role in the ministry of Jesus. All four Biblical Gospels, after all, agree that it was women who first experienced the resurrection. Additionally, Mark tells us that women traveled with Jesus and helped to finance his ministry. These Biblical texts, however, most definitely do not list any women among Jesus’ inner core of twelve disciples.

Yet the Gospel of Thomas does. The reference to Mary does not explicitly call her a disciple (nor does it imply which Mary we are talking about), but the only other people with speaking roles in this Gospel are Jesus or his disciples. Secondly, Salome – the other woman mentioned – is, in fact, explicitly called a disciple in the passage in which she speaks.

If the Gospel of Thomas is an early text (predating the canonical Gospels), this is highly significant. But even if Thomas comes from the late 1st or early 2nd century, it still shows that even in the New Testament era, some Christians believed that Jesus had included women among his inner circle of disciples. It is also worth noting that while none of our New Testament Gospels refer to any women as disciples, both Mary and Salome are mentioned as followers of Jesus by the canonical Gospel writers. Furthermore, Mary (assuming we are talking about Mary Magdalene) figures much more prominently in the canonical Gospels than many of the named male disciples.

The Gospel of Peter

Most experts agree that this Gospel is a work of the 2nd century, no earlier than 150 C.E., putting it well outside the New Testament era. However, a number of prominent scholars have argued that its writer used early sources that are not found in the New Testament. Since it potentially contains early Christian source material, I will include it here.

The Gospel of Peter is only a fragment of a much longer work, but in the existing text, the following disciples are mentioned:

Simon Peter
Andrew (who is noted to be Peter’s brother)
Levi son of Alphaeus

The interesting reference, of course, is the last one. Recall that Mark first tells the story of Levi son of Alphaeus, calling him a tax collector who becomes a disciple of Jesus. But Mark then fails to include him later on his list of disciples. Luke follows him in this, but omits the “son of Alphaeus” phrase. Matthew, on the other hand, used Mark’s story of Levi, but changed his name to Matthew, and also didn’t include the “son of Alphaeus” phrase. The writer of the Gospel of Matthew essentially connected Mark’s Levi the tax collector with the disciple Matthew.

Remember also that all three of those Gospels included another disciple named James son of Alphaeus.

In the Gospel of Peter, we again see Levi son of Alphaeus, and again he is clearly one of the twelve disciples.

The Didache and the Egerton Gospel

Just a brief note here. Like the two preceding Gospels, the dating of these two texts is hotly debated. Some very prominent scholars, however, have argued that these two documents may represent our very earliest Christian writings, predating even the letters of Paul, and dated somewhere within 10-15 years of Jesus’ death. The Didache is a short series of Christian teachings, and the Egerton Gospel is just a fragment with four brief stories – two that have loose parallels in the canonical Gospels, and two that are completely unknown in any other source.

Since these texts might represent early Christian material, it is important to include them in this survey. The only thing that need be noted, however, is that neither text names any disciples. The Didache, in fact, doesn’t even use the name of Jesus, but instead refers to him as “Lord.”


The short answer to that question, of course, is that we do not know for sure. Putting together all lists from all available sources, we get the following (the number of sources attesting the name is given in parentheses):

Simon Peter (7)
Andrew the brother of Peter (5)
James son of Zebedee (4)
John son of Zebedee and brother of James (5)
Philip (4)
Bartholomew (3)
Nathanael (1)
Judas James (2)
Judas Iscariot (4)
James son of Alphaeus (3)
Matthew (4)
Levi son of Alphaeus (3)
Simon the Canaanite/Zealot (3)
Thomas (5)
Thaddaeus (2)
Mary (1)
Salome (1)

If we cull this list down based on the most source references, it seems clear that Jesus’ inner circle included Simon Peter, his brother Andrew, the brothers James and John sons of Zebedee, Thomas, Philip, Judas Iscariot, and Matthew.

That’s eight that we can say with a fair amount of certainty, historically-speaking.

More than likely, we can add James son of Alphaeus to that list, as well as Simon the Canaanite (Luke’s slight change of name notwithstanding).

After that, it gets foggy. Church doctrine has long paired Nathanael with Bartholomew, Levi son of Alphaeus with Matthew, and Judas James with Thaddaeus. Mary and Salome, of course, have never even been considered by the Church.

The arguments presented for these pairings go from fairly reasonable to fairly unreasonable. Nathanael is paired with Bartholomew primarily because of his association with Philip and because of the issue between first names and last names. In Mark, Matthew, and Luke, Philip and Bartholomew only appear in the official “lists.” However, they are always listed one after the other. This has led to the argument that they were understood to be a “pair.” In John, we have no Bartholomew, but we do have a Nathanael, and he is paired together with Philip in a story where Philip meets Jesus, then goes and tells Nathanael about him and brings Nathanael into the fold, as it were.

The argument against this theory is simply that it is looking for connections where none really exist. Matthew and Luke pair Philip and Bartholomew together because that’s what Mark did, and they were using Mark as a source. Furthermore, the disciples Thomas and Matthew are always paired together in Mark, Matthew, and Luke, and no one supposes that they were a “pair.”

The second argument in regards to Nathanael and Bartholomew deals with first names and last names. Nathanael is a first name, while Bartholomew is a last name – it literally means “son of Ptolemy.” The argument suggests that John used Bartholomew’s first name (Nathanael), while the other Gospel writers referred to him by his last name. Thus, his name may have been Nathanael son of Ptolemy.

In regards to Levi and Matthew, the primary reason for identifying these two people together is because the writer of the Gospel of Matthew did it himself. When copying Mark’s Gospel, he changed the name of Levi to Matthew and went on to note that the disciple Matthew was the same tax collector who had been called earlier by Jesus. Remember that in Mark and Luke, Jesus calls Levi the tax collector, but then Levi is not listed among the twelve disciples. It is accepted that the “son of Alphaeus” designation given by Mark and the Gospel of Peter is accurate, but simply not mentioned by the other Gospel writers.

Judas James is identified with Thaddaeus because those are the only two apostles left. Mark and Matthew name Thaddaeus. Luke and John mention a second Judas (with Luke adding James to the name).

In all three of these scenarios, and especially the last one, it appears that two differently named people are being equated with one another simply in the service of Biblical literalism. Since it is not possible that the Bible contains errors, these problems must be reconciled. In the case of Thaddaeus in particular, how someone can be known as Thaddaeus, Lebbaeus, Judas, and James, all at once, is simply glossed over.

Thus, we get the official Church list:

James son of Zebedee
John son of Zebedee
Nathanael Bartholomew
Levi Matthew son of Alphaeus
Thomas the Twin
Judas Iscariot
Lebbaeus Thaddaeus Judas James
James son of Alphaeus
Simon the Canaanite/Zealot

Mary and Salome have easily been rejected by Church tradition because they are only named disciples by the Gospel of Thomas, a text that itself was long ago rejected by the Church as heretical (no doubt, in part, because it did things like claim women were disciples).

It is interesting to note, however, that if we include the four Gospel references to Mary Magdalene as a close follower of Jesus, and add to that the reference from the Gospel of Thomas to Mary as a disciple, Mary is testified as often in our earliest sources as Andrew, Thomas, and James son of Zebedee, and more often than any remaining disciple except Peter (who leads the pack with testimonies in all of our earliest sources).

Even regarding Salome, if we count her reference in Mark (where she is referenced twice), and add that to the reference in Thomas, Salome – a name most Christians have probably never even heard in regards to Jesus – is mentioned as often as Thaddaeus and Judas James, and more often than Nathanael. The fact that Salome is mentioned by name twice in the same Gospel (Mark) also puts her head of most of the other disciples, who are typically only mentioned once – in the official “list” – and then never heard from again.

As to the question of whether James son of Alphaeus and Levi Matthew son of Alphaeus were brothers, Church tradition has left that question unanswered. They have, however, connected James son of Alphaeus to James the Just and James the Lesser. James the Just is noted by both Paul and Luke to have been the leader of the Church in Jerusalem during the first generation of Christianity, and also the brother of Jesus. How the brother of Jesus could have been the “son of Alphaeus” is anyone’s guess, but the Catholic Encyclopedia makes the claim regardless. James the Lesser, on the other hand, is mentioned in the Gospels as the son of one of the several Mary’s who followed Jesus. It is not unreasonable to connect James son of Alphaeus to this person, but there is certainly nothing in the text to imply the connection.

Lebbaeus Thaddaeus Judas James, on the other hand, has been connected to the writer of the letter of Jude. That text starts out with the assertion that it is being written by “Judas brother of James.” In this case, “brother of” is explicitly stated in the text. However, this letter is generally dated to the early part of the 2nd century, making it far too late to have come from a disciple of Jesus, and the writer even refers to the disciples in the third person (“…remember what the apostles of our Lord Jesus foretold…”).

And just to make it a bit more confusing, he is referred to in Catholic circles as St. Jude – to ensure you don’t confuse him with Judas Iscariot.

So now it’s Lebbaeus Thaddaeus Judas James Jude.

I hope you’ll forgive me if I’m skeptical.


Many scholars over the years have argued that the Gospel depictions of Jesus surrounded by an inner circle of twelve disciples is likely legendary. They point out that twelve was a sacred number to ancient Jews, a number strongly associated with God, representing the original twelve tribes of Israel, the original Jewish patriarchs who fathered God’s people. It would be easy to see how Jewish followers of Jesus may have begun to imagine an inner circle of twelve disciples, twelve men symbolizing the original Hebrew fathers, twelve men representing the new covenant God was making with humanity, twelve patriarchs going out into the world to father a whole new flock of God’s people.

Such arguments draw evidence from the points I have outlined above. While most of the names of the twelve disciples are generally agreed upon among our earliest sources, there is a clear sense of variation in the earliest oral and textual traditions that informed our existing documents. No fewer than five of the twelve disciples have name variations among our sources. At least three of those twelve have names that are explicitly opposed from text to text. One disciple has a different name or a name variation in all four sources he is mentioned in, and has been given a fifth name by Church tradition.

Whether Jesus actually had twelve disciples is ultimately impossible to prove one way or the other. My personal belief is that the number twelve is probably a later development (although fairly “early” in the post-resurrection Christian movement), and Jesus likely had a varying number of “inner circle” disciples that traveled with him throughout his ministry, including both men and women. Some were there among his closest companions for most of the time – Peter, Andrew, James, John, Mary, perhaps Thomas and Philip. Others may have come and gone – a Levi here, a Bartholomew there, a Judas here, a Salome or Joanne or Nathanael there. Very good arguments have been made suggesting that the entire character of Judas Iscariot is legendary, but I am undecided on that particular issue. I may share that argument in a later essay.

My personal feelings aside, the textual evidence suggests strongly that even the earliest Christians weren’t quite sure about the existence of the twelve, or were at the very least in disagreement about who they were.