After carrying out an in-depth examination of what many academics believe was the source material on which the gospels were based, the American historian of early Christianity, Dr Burton Mack, Professor of New Testament Studies at Claremont School of Theology, California, is suggesting that, in his lifetime, Jesus was seen as a sort of Jewish Socrates - not a divine messianic saviour.
In a controversial new book, The Lost Gospel, he argues that Jesus's transformation into a divine figure occurred between 20 and 50 years after his death. This process of turning man into myth occurred as pagan non-Jewish - mainly Hellenistic - influences began to reshape what had up till then been a purely philosophical 'Jesus Movement' within Judaism. The main authors of this transformation appear to have been St Paul and St John.
Professor Mack's conclusions about Jesus's philosophical rather than divine status are based on a detailed study of the so-called 'Books of Q' - the putative reconstructed source texts from which Mark, Matthew and Luke are believed to have drawn when writing their gospels between 75 and 115 AD. The 'Books of Q' (scholarly shorthand for Quelle - German for 'source') were reconstructed back in the last century (when they were considered as a single book) by removing from Matthew and Luke's gospels any material common to both, and was therefore likely to have been borrowed from earlier, now lost, texts.
Academic detective work over the past seven years by 25 European and American biblical scholars involved in a 'Q' research project now suggests that there were three original texts written between 40 and 70 AD. Jesus died between 29 and 31 AD.
The earliest of these reconstructed texts (now known as the Original Book of Q) appears to have made no reference to Jesus as a divine Messiah or the Son of God. It seems to have portrayed Jesus solely as a philosopher and appears to have consisted almost exclusively of his sayings. The second Book of Q seems to have been, above all, critical of society for rejecting Jesus' philosophy. Christianity's apocalyptic ideas appear to have had their origin in this putative second source text, written around 25 years after Jesus' death. The third book developed the movement's religious aspect and portrays Jesus as a sage - a prophet to whom God had given limitless wisdom.
Professor Mack's analysis of the reconstructed material suggests that during and immediately after Jesus's lifetime his disciples and other followers did not 'know' about the conflict with the Jewish establishment, the Last Supper, or the Resurrection. Nor did they worship in his name, honour him as a god, praise him in hymns, or see his teachings as an indictment of Judaism.
Few of the key titles and concepts of Christianity occur in any of the Q texts. There is no mention of the word 'Messiah', and no mention of Jesus dying for the sins of the world.
Professor Mack's research suggests that Jesus was a unique philosopher - not in the individual facets of his philosophy (which were not new), but in their extraordinary breadth. The new analysis suggests that he was, above all, a Jewish thinker in the tradition of the Greek Cynics. Greek Cynicism had already existed for 350 years and Jesus undoubtedly drew on its traditions of outspokenness, shamelessness, unconventionality, idealised anarchy, anti-materialism and identification with the poor.
The Cynics also saw themselves as the watchdogs of morality and exposers of hypocrisy. Their name - Cynics - is derived from the Greek word for 'dogs', and was awarded to them by their critics.
Jesus also drew substantially on the philosophical tradition of Stoicism - on the need to stand firm for one's beliefs and value them more than one's life, according to the Books of Q. 'The Q material shows that Jesus was viewed in his lifetime as a great philosopher, not as a divine figure,' says Professor Mack, whose research is significant because of the Cynic Movement context in which it attempts to place Jesus. Since the early part of this century, most New Testament scholars have concluded that Jesus was not considered divine or the Son of God by his followers during his lifetime. Academics have been fairly evenly divided for many decades as to whether, before his death, Jesus was viewed by any of his contemporaries as the Messiah. Relating Jesus to the Greek Cynics movement, however, is injecting new life into the continuing debate about the origins of Christianity.
'Burton Mack's book shows the increasing importance which some scholars are claiming for Greco-Roman Cynicism as the context in which we should place some parts of early Christianity and possibly Jesus himself,' said Professor Christopher Tuckett, a leading New Testament scholar at Manchester University.
The Lost Gospel. The Book of Q and Christian Origins by Burton L Mack (Element Books, pounds 14.95).
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