How the Christian Gospels Became Increasingly Pro-Roman & Anti-Jewish

(This post is a continuation of yesterday’s post on Is the Bible “History Remembered” or “Prophecy Historicized?”)

To give you a thumbnail sketch of how the canonical Christian Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John came to be, Jesus died around the year 30 C.E. The earliest of the four Gospels is Mark, written four decades later around 70 C.E. The next two were Matthew and Luke, written around 80 C.E. The last to be written chronologically was John, written around 90 C.E. or later.

If, instead of reading the four canonical Gospel in sequence, you read them comparatively in parallel columns, you can begin to notice trends such as:

  • “80% of Mark’s verses are reproduced in Matthew”
  • “65% of Marks’ verses are reproduced in Luke”—with both Matthew and Luke consistently correcting Mark in ways that are idiosyncratic to their respective editorial styles.
  • “90% of the Gospel of John is unique to John,” but the 10% that John has in common with the Synoptic (“see together”) Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, are the passion narratives.

From their reconstructions of evidence, most respected biblical scholars tentatively conclude that both Mark and John independently had on their respective desks a passion narrative source that is now lost to us. Matthew and Luke, in turn, had on their desks both Mark as a source as well as the Q Gospel (from the German word Quelle, meaning “source”) that was primarily a list of Jesus’s sayings.

Another pattern you notice if you read the Gospels not in the order they appear canonically, but in the order they were written chronologically is that the later the Gospel was written, the earlier Jesus is declared to be divine and the more divine he is declared to be:

  • In Romans, written three decades after the historical Jesus, Paul depicts Jesus as being exalted at his resurrection.
  • A decade later, in the first chapter of Mark, we see Jesus declared to be divine at his adult baptism.
  • Moving another decade forward in time, Matthew and Mark mark Jesus’ divinization at his birth from a virgin.
  • Moving forward yet another decade, John declares Jesus as divine since before Creation.

Keep that pattern in mind.

KilledCrossanThere is a similar but more pernicious trajectory that inspired Crossan’s book title Who Killed Jesus? Over the centuries, the accusations have grown increasingly loud that “The Jews killed Jesus.” However—even if there were in all likelihood some Jewish collaborators with the Romans—ultimately the Romans killed Jesus for disturbing the peace. The inciting incident was Jesus’s nonviolent activism at the Temple during Passover, when many pilgrims were in town and the Romans had a particularly low threshold for potential signs of insurrection. Jews did not crucify people; the Romans did. But as we progress chronologically, the Gospels—and the Christian tradition generally—becomes increasingly pro-Roman and anti-Jewish:

  • In Mark, the Jewish authorities are bad, and a Jewish crowd is bad.
  • In Matthew and Luke, not only are the Jewish authorities are bad, but the Jewish people at that time as a whole are bad.
  • In John, Jews are bad without distinction. (90).

Pilate has even been canonized as a saint in some streams of the Christian tradition.

The truth is that there would have been standing order from a Roman official such as Pilate to crucify any peasant inciting insurrection, particularly during Passover. All the increasingly complex Christian narratives about Pilate (and/or his wife) wringing their hands in duress about potentially having to crucify a Jewish peasant are not history, but propaganda—as Christians sought increasing to distinguish themselves as independent from Judaism and as acceptable to the Romans (150-151). At first, when the early Jesus followers were marginal, this pro-Roman, Anti-Jewish trend was benign. But by the fourth century, when the Roman Empire became Christian, these seeds of Anti-Judaism grew into the virulent Anti-Semitism of the Middle Ages, the Inquisition, and the Holocaust—including Anti-Semitic and Anti-Jewish movements that continue today (152). Here in the twenty-first century, there remains much spiritual and ethical wisdom in the Christian tradition, but we are long past the point at which one can responsibly defend the claim that the Gospels should be read as literal “history remembered.” We must be honest about the original context and all that we have learned about how prophecy became historicized.

To summarize Crossan’s perspective:

  • “The first stage is the historical passion…. It is what actually happened. But, because those who knew did not care [the Roman authorities] and those who cared did not know,” [the early followers of Jesus, who scattered after Jesus’s arrest] the actual historical facts “come to us today as little more than barest minimum: [Jesus of Nazareth was] crucified by a conjunction of Jewish and Roman authority under Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem at Passover….”
  • “The second stage is the prophetic passion. It is the work of learned followers of Jesus, not from the [illiterate peasant class] but from literate scholars. They searched their Scripture seeking understanding of what had happened to Jesus and to themselves…. Would they find in their sacred writings certain texts, themes, and types that would explain it all…?”
  • “The third stage is the narrative passion, which took that somewhat esoteric scholarly exegesis and turned it into a popular story,” which circulated independently and was used by both Mark and John as a source for their respective Gospels.
  • “The fourth stage is the polemical passion,” which claimed that the third stage of narrative was synonymous with the first stage of history. That cruel twist turned Jesus’s mystical and prophetic reform movement within Judaism into a state religion that was anti-Jewish and pro-empire.

In light of what we know about prophecy historicized, we can now see the absurdity of citing the “Old Testament” as proof that the Gospels are history remembered. “Of course, the narrative passion agreed in details with the prophetic passion; it had been quarried from its contents” (219-221).

So, more than two thousand years later, can we still find hope and transformation in the passion narratives? In many ways, our invitation parallels second and third generation of Jesus followers. They searched their scriptures to better understand themselves and their situation—and to create meaning in a way that might inspire a better life and a better world. Too often, however, later generations have been content to unquestioningly perpetuate whatever created meaning and community to a subset of people two millennia ago. Instead, in the search for hope and transformation, the challenge to us—and for every new generation— is to do what our path-breaking, creative ancestors did, but in our own time and place. To draw from the sources of wisdom available to us—from all the world’s religions and from modern science—in our own “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”

The Rev. Dr. Carl Gregg is a certified spiritual director, a D.Min. graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary, and the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick, Maryland. Follow him on Facebook (facebook.com/carlgregg) and Twitter (@carlgregg).

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About Carl Gregg

The Rev. Dr. Carl Gregg is a trained spiritual director, a D.Min. graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary, and the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick, Maryland. Follow him on Facebook facebook.com/carlgregg and Twitter @carlgregg.