Most of what we know about the life and teachings of Jesus come from the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John)…and Q.
For all the hard core Trekkies out there – no, I’m not about to suggest that the infamous character from Star Trek: the Next Generation wrote his own gospel. I am saying, however, that a legitimate, but still somewhat mysterious, source – which bible scholars call “Q” – is widely thought to be heavily influential in the early church, and on the development of the gospels that are in our bibles.
In short, this is why we think there was a mysterious “fifth” chronicler of the life of Jesus: If you place the gospels of Matthew and Luke side-by-side, two things become apparent very quickly. First, you find that they often write about events in the same sequence as the Gospel of Mark. Second, you find that they are often utilizing the same language that is used in Mark’s gospel. Logic would seem to dictate that they are both using Mark as a source.
But…Matthew and Luke are telling other stories, using largely identical language, and it DOESN’T come from Mark’s gospel.
What is the explanation here? The broad consensus is that there is another, otherwise unknown source – one which seems to be comprised largely of the teachings of Jesus – that was utilized by the writers of Matthew and Luke. This source has been designated by New Testament scholars as “Q.”
Thus, while Matthew and Luke seem to be based on some first-hand information, they are not written as direct, eye-witness accounts. (Although the Gospel of Matthew was traditionally attributed to the apostle of the same name, it never claims such authorship, and it now seems very doubtful that the tax-collector-turned-apostle actually wrote the first gospel).
So – since they weren’t writing as eyewitnesses – how did they do? There is some reason to think that they didn’t give us what we would characterize as an accurate, historical picture. Here’s one example of why some people are making such claims:
The opening verses of Matthew 5 contain what we now call the “Beatitudes.” The first Beatitude, in verse 3, says “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” A saying that is very typical of source Q.
Luke (and, yes, the New Testament character by that name probably did write this one) also gives an account of the Beatitudes. Here, however, Jesus says “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (6:29). Also, seemingly, from Q.
Yet…each account is slightly different, both in wording and meaning. In Matthew, we are told that Jesus spoke of those whose spirits are downtrodden. But Luke tells us that Jesus spoke of those who are physically, not spiritually poor.
Did both of them get their information for this saying from source Q? Probably. Yet it seems likely that one of them has altered the source – and not slightly – for the specific purpose of making the first Beatitude “fit” with an overall theme in their writing.
Matthew is concerned with the life of Christians who live under the dominion of the Roman Empire – and some of them are not physically poor, yet they are under considerable duress. He wants to comfort them. Luke, on the other hand, is a champion of social justice. He constantly draws our attention to those who are in poverty, or who are otherwise marginalized within society. He doesn’t want us to be comforted because we are feeling depressed. He wants us to understand that God’s kingdom exists among the poor.
So which did the infamous source Q say originally? There is no way to know. For all that matters, there is no way to know whether Q got things right….and even if you assume that there is no Q, there is still the problem of two accounts of Jesus’ saying that are inconsistent.
Its possible, some suppose, that Jesus said both things at one time or another. This isn’t necessarily the most reasonable explanation from a strictly historical perspective, but it is at least a possibility. Still, it doesn’t address the fact that both Luke and Matthew are picking and choosing what they want to tell us to suit their purposes.
Either way, larger questions loom. Did Matthew and Luke get their facts right? Can we actually come to know the “historical” Jesus through their writings? Come to think of it, how did Mark and John do? And…if we can’t even be sure we truly know what Jesus taught or did in his lifetime, how can we be certain that we are coming to know the “real” Jesus through scripture?
These questions have been the subject of an intense debate that has been raging for several decades within the halls of academia. The entire fundamentalist perspective, which relies on the assumption that scripture is a direct, inerrant “message” from God is at stake. Most Pastors in the mainline churches have been trained to understand the issues involved in these arguments, and even evangelical seminaries – as I understand it – are pretty good about making sure their graduates are well-versed on the more conservative side of the debate.
Yet, outside of the academic world, most of us have been going on with our lives, completely unaware of this conversation. We are well versed in the young earth/evolution debate, but that is a whole different matter. It is one thing to wrestle with seeming contradictions between science and a literalistic reading of scripture. It is another for your assumptions about the absolute reliability of scripture to collapse under the weight of the scriptures themselves.
In the last post, I indicated that some translators alter the original language of the biblical text to smooth over what appear to be clear errors in the biblical text. But I also think that a lot of people who come out of academic settings – and who are charged with teaching the bible to the Church – are glossing over the problem of the subjectivity of scripture.
I don’t think there is a conspiracy among our leaders. Rather, I think they are wrestling with the implications of these issues in their own minds, and they don’t yet have any clear answers. They are concerned that – if they tell us too many details about the debate – they won’t have good answers for the questions that we will begin to ask once we know more about the problem.
But the inevitable result of efforts to “protect” us from these problems is superficiality. Our leaders are trained to think of scripture as a product of human minds and cultures. If they are constantly having to tip-toe around this perspective to avoid challenging fundamentalist-type thinking among the laity, they will always be tempted to fall back on shallow platitudes and vague generalities.
A good, open airing of this problem, difficult though it may be for some of us, is exactly what is needed, if we are to move forward.
So…lets start here:
The books of the bible were written by human beings, and each writing contains a perspective that is limited by the writers’ own languages, experiences, and cultures. We may be seeing God through scripture, but we are always looking at God through the eyes of other human beings who share flaws that are similar to our own. In other words, the writers of the bible are seeing God through their own set of window blinds.
Much more to come.