The Evolving Jesus Story

Christian apologetics - does God exist?If the gospel story were true, it wouldn’t change with time. God’s personality wouldn’t change, God’s plan of salvation wouldn’t change, and the details of the Jesus story wouldn’t change. But the New Testament books themselves document the evolution of the Jesus story. Sort them chronologically to see.

Paul’s epistles precede Mark, the earliest gospel, by almost 20 years. The only miracle that Paul mentions is the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:4). Were the miracle stories so well known within his different churches that he didn’t need to mention them? It doesn’t look like it.

Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (1 Cor. 1:22–3).

The Jews demand signs? That’s not a problem. Paul had loads of Jesus miracles to pick from. But wait a minute—if the Jesus story is a stumbling block to miracle-seeking Jews, then Paul must not know of any miracles.

Miracles come later, with the gospels. Looking at them chronologically, notice how the divinity of Jesus evolves. He becomes divine with the baptism in Mark; then in Matthew and Luke, he’s divine at birth; and in John, he’s been divine since the beginning of time.

The four gospels were snapshots of the Jesus story as told in four different communities at four different times. Because the synoptic (“looking in the same direction”) gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke share so much source material, their similarity is not surprising. Nevertheless, 35% of Luke comes uniquely from its community (such as the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son), and 20% of Matthew is unique (such as Jesus and his family fleeing to Egypt after his birth and the zombies that walked after Jesus’s death). And, of course, John is quite different from these three, having Gnostic and (arguably) Marcionite elements.

This synoptic similarity undercuts the argument that the gospels are eyewitness accounts. If the authors of Matthew and Luke were eyewitnesses, why would they copy so heavily from Mark? The authorship question (that Mark really wrote Mark, etc.) that grounds the claims that the gospels record eyewitness history is another tenuous element of the evolving story, as I’ve written before.

The gospels don’t even claim to be eyewitnesses (with the exception of a vague reference in John 21:24, in a chapter that appears to have been added by a later author). And even if they had, would that make a difference? Would tacking on “I Bartholomew was a witness to all that follows” to a gospel story make it more believable?

Would it make the story of Merlin the wizard more believable?

Consider some of the noncanonical gospels that include attributions. “I Simon Peter and Andrew my brother took our nets and went to the sea” is from the Gospel of Peter, and “I Thomas, an Israelite, write you this account” is from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. These gospels are rejected both by the church and by scholars despite these claims of eyewitness testimony. Why then imagine that the vague “This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down; we know that his testimony is true” (John 21:24) adds anything to John?

There are dozens of noncanonical gospels. Christian churches reject these in part because they were written late. But if we agree that the probable second-century authorship for (say) the gospels of Thomas, Judas, and James is a problem because stories change with time, then why do the four canonical gospels get a pass? If the gospel of John, written 60 years after the resurrection, is reliable despite being a preposterous story, why reject Thomas, written just a few decades later?

The answer, it seems, is simply that Thomas doesn’t fit the mold of the version of Christianity that happened to win. History, even the imagined history of religion, is written by the victors.

Read the first post in this series: What Did the Original Books of the Bible Say?

God made everything out of nothing,
but the nothingness shows through
— Paul Valery

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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  • Anna

    Orbital Teapot: I don’t say atheists and fundamentalists believe the same things. They cannot be further apart from one another. But they use the same reading methods (or lack thereof).

    Bob’s reply to Orbital Teapot: Some Christians say that the Bible is literally true. No atheist says that the Bible is literally true–big difference. The atheist simply says, “Let’s suppose that you’re right and see what happens.”

    I understand OT’s point. He means atheists most often read the bible literally in order to debunk biblical literalists. No so often do they read for themes such as redemption that are woven throughout scripture as many Christians do. But I suppose that approach can be dismissed by saying that the Christians who aren’t literalists are making the bible say what they wish it to say.

    • (You need to use angle brackets, not square ones, for blockquote.)

      Yes, I’ve had some Christians push back that they don’t read that part of the Bible literally. (To which I say: then how about a pat on the back for someone who’s trying to stop them from making you look foolish??)

      I agree that you can find weighty themes through the Bible, and the Bible’s take on them is food for thought. It’s the existence of a supernatural Creator that I’m concerned about.

  • James Walker

    thread necromancy, I know, but..

    I’m a bit at a loss with regard to the opening statement.

    If the gospel story were true, it wouldn’t change with time.

    from where does this assumption come? it makes no sense to me. stories, whether initially true or not, DO change and evolve over time. this is especially the case with stories involving heroic figures who eventually become legends and/or deities.

    are we somehow operating from the “God wrote it” presumption of the origins of Scripture?

    • Lbj

      The gospels are a record of a person in history who said and did things that were eventually written down. The only way they could truly change is if some new information was found or something in them was proven to be false.

      • James Walker

        mmm… so explain, please, the varying stories we in the USA have right now about the history of our own Constitution and what the founders intended regarding several of the amendments in the “Bill of Rights”? stories change and evolve as time passes and as the culture grows farther away from any living memory of the persons and events recorded.

        • Lbj

          I don’t know much about the history of the constitution but from what you say it appears that not all the facts are in just yet. If something is recorded that does not change unless there are facts or reasons to change it.

          I don’t know anyone alive today who would have a “living memory of the persons and events recorded” on the constitution.

        • James Walker

          we have a number of people in the US who will proof-text you to death in support of their claim that all of the founding fathers were Christians and that the US was always intended to be a Christian nation. any evidence submitted to the contrary will be quibbled to death with “teach the controversy” techniques.

          but the point is that since there is no one alive with actual memories of the founders to reference, the narrative may well change depending on whether the population at large adopts a strictly scientific view of history or a revisionist one.

          sure, that won’t change the historic, scientific facts of the nation’s founding. but narrative is often more powerful than fact, especially when politics and religion are in play.

        • MNb

          What only few people seem to wonder: so what if the founding fathers intended to be a christian nation? Are you Americans legally and morally obliged to worship every single fart they produced?
          It’s just an argument from authority.

          Now I think of it, the argument in its core is also ethnocentric white supremacist. The legal and de facto owners of most parts of the country weren’t exactly consulted when the DoI and Constitution were written down.

        • Some founding fathers very much wanted America to be a Christian country–Patrick Henry (a fellow Virginian) being a prominent member of that camp. That faction lost, and the Constitution only restricts religion; it doesn’t promote it.

          Failing in the only test that counts, Christians who want to make this argument (David Barton, e.g.) typically handwave about letters and other evidence. Of course, that counts for precisely nothing–the Constitution is where this sentiment would be expressed, and it’s not there.

        • James Walker

          you have hit upon one of the core hypocrisy’s of the US’s history of “freedom” and “liberty” provided one is a member of the privileged class. I think our founders were so focused on escaping the tyranny of European monarchs they didn’t even realize they were setting up something that could be far more dangerous – because who can depose a plurality of the ignorant and anti-intellectual? (well, I think a few of them ruminated about this possibility in their memoirs)

          but we digress from the initial topic… 😉

        • Pofarmer

          “A Mrs. Powel of Philadelphia asked
          Benjamin Franklin, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a
          monarchy?” With no hesitation whatsoever, Franklin responded, “A
          republic, if you can keep it.””

          I think they pretty well understood what they had undertaken.

    • I may be missing your point. Yes, stories change over time, but the history doesn’t. If the story is accurate, then it comports with history. Geo. Washington either did or didn’t chop down a cherry tree.

      • James Walker

        that seems predicated on the assumption that whoever wrote the story down had an interest in what we consider “historical accuracy” or if they were trying to convey something else entirely.

  • >’He becomes divine with the baptism in Mark; then in Matthew and Luke, he’s divine at birth; and in John, he’s been divine since the beginning of time.’

    The fact that the farther removed an author is from the actual historical Jesus the grander and more philosophically complicated the description of Jesus is really a dagger in the heart of Biblical literalism and inerrancy.

    And then you have Revelation, which is so far removed than what you read in- say- Mark that it seems not worth the paper its printed on (it doesn’t even work as talented literature the way that, say, Paradise Lost does).

  • Andrew

    im interested in errancy of scripture – im still sure that jesus lived and taught amazing things , however sustitutionary atonement etc does worry me, ive started reading church history and its like a new world. I have my faith but its looking different the more I find out. – can you comment on this rant of mine:

    jesus say to believe first or to follow first ? Sometimes I wonder if
    we have the order wrong. According to the an article I read jesus didnt
    even mention his impending death until 3 years into the 3.5 year
    ministry of teaching and healing etc. And when he did mention it he said
    he would suffer at the hands of the romans (empire) and be rejected by
    the elders and religious teachers and rise again. there is surpirsing
    little of jesus talking about him being a sacrifice infact only twice
    matt 20.28 – he says he came to give his life as a ransom for many -as
    well (same thing recorded in mark 10.25) and the other in the last
    supper – This ransom word had a guy called Origen (c. 185-c. 245
    AD) develop a theory of the atonement called “ransom theory.”- that
    jesus paid off Satan, this was changed later by the church to the modern
    susbstituionary idea that jesus paid off God for sins. However i am
    sure that Jesus only hints at a ransom not child sacrifice, The only
    other place jesus mentions sacrifice is last supper ” this is My blood
    of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins.”
    SO- it was only hinted at by Jesus – and was heavily elaborated on
    by the church afterwards – I think things are very wrong around this. –
    Yes Jesus laid down his life, and yes jesus brought this teaching of
    forgiveness and love to us, but he called disiples to follow – and
    imitate far before they knew who he was, he declared that he had
    authority to forgive sins, and later that he had all authority! Gods
    grace is there in the parables of prodigal son – why does it have to be
    so elaborated into a system of atonement which is probably incorrect!
    Put it this way – singing about a lamb that was sacrificed for us, might
    make you feel teary and greatful- yay, but singing about the details of
    a healing teacher who knew how we struggle with pride in religion, and
    commanded us to forgive to recive forgiveness from God, commanded us to
    love in a ‘sacrificial way’ – that makes you feel challenged. Thats the
    sacrifice – a sacrifice of love – not of atonement, or justice, or mercy
    – a sacrifice that said I will suffer so that I can be a sign to many
    of the truth – so that I may be ressurected. Jesus even prooves it with
    this statement in John 10:18 The father loves Me, because I lay down My
    life so that I may take it again. 18″No one has taken it away from Me
    (God or satan has not taken his life), but I lay it down on My own
    initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to
    take it up again. This commandment I received from My Father.”

    up statements Jesus made himself (according to gospel texts), I see that his ressurection is much
    much more important than his death, and that his life and teaching is
    much much more important than even that. Jesus is full of grace and

    imediately after jesus dissapeared the focus of believers was on this
    ressurection (good on them) – and gradually the focus moved to his death
    – starting with Pauls writings – amazing guy -but notice he ignores
    almost of the events in Jesus’s life! (1 Cor. 15:3–8) is a summary of
    what mattered to him! and all of his letters are just rehashes and
    extrapolation from that brief sentence!! Seems a triffle worrying to me.
    What about Forgive to be forgiven, what about the sermon on the mount
    or how to pray? : and there the focus stayed for the rest of church
    history, gradually becoming a religious tradition, full of theology
    with brief interludes of grace and love in the church throughout the two
    thousand years. Why did paul focus so much on what the cross achived
    and nothing on Jesus the Man who lived?

    • Keep in mind that the Bible is just words on paper. We don’t simply accept it as a historical account without much evidence. Worrying about how Jesus is portrayed here vs. there in the Bible isn’t a helpful exercise.