Essays on the Historical Jesus

Evan Powell
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3.  An Early Portrait of Jesus

 

The Gospel of Ur-John presents an image of Jesus unlike anything we find in modern reconstructions. Not only is he a Jesus that scholars have never seen, he is one that many scholars would never want to see. Ur-John offers a straightforward, coherent portrait of a man who believes he is a coming king of Israel, and one who is heralded by believers as the coming king. There are two explicit references that he is to fulfill the role of an anticipated messiah, but this title is not primary; the Greek analogue Christ is far more prevalent. He believes the restoration of the sovereign Kingdom of Israel is at hand, and he is to be the agent of change that brings it to fruition. Once the Kingdom of Israel is restored, he believes he is destined to rule as King of the Jews. Anticipating the imminent revolution, he is dedicated to the task of convincing a sufficient number of followers that he is the genuine messiah/Christ. He and his first disciples emerge as a splinter group that separates from the Baptist’s movement. It is unclear what leads Jesus and his supporters to go out on their own, but one clue may be that Ur-John’s Jesus is decidedly pro-active, confrontational, and willing to travel. The Baptist’s apparent preference for remaining in the wilderness and preaching only to those willing to make the trek to come out to see him would not have suited the temperament of Jesus as Ur-John portrays him.

Early in his ministry while the Baptist was still active, Jesus takes his mission directly to Jerusalem and stages the famous Temple cleansing, or what Paula Fredricksen aptly terms the Temple tantrum. In this episode Ur-John reveals a Jesus who is disturbingly aggressive. This event is attested in all four gospels, but only in Ur-John do we find Jesus physically assaulting people and animals with a whip (2:15). The Synoptic authors, not surprisingly, omit this detail, which is consistent with the view that the Synoptics contain a later, redacted version of the account in Ur-John; it is unlikely that the Church would have adopted a newly composed gospel toward the end of the first century that depicted Jesus wielding a whip in this scene.

Jesus is shown to be confrontational not only in the Temple episode, but he soon returns to the remote location of the Baptist’s ministry and begins to compete with him directly, seeking to attract converts among John’s adherents (3:22-26). Ur-John makes it clear that the Baptist did not become a follower of Jesus, but rather continued to run his own operation. As described by Ur-John, Jesus’ decision to set up a competing ministry of baptism adjacent to that of John appears to be a bold challenge to the validity of John’s ministry as well as somewhat of a public spectacle. It surely was an unwelcomed intrusion into John’s domain, as is made clear by his disciples’ comment in 3:26. With the Temple disturbance and now this confrontation, Ur-John begins to sketch the image of an aggressive Jesus who stages controversial public spectacles to gain attention and promote his claim to be the Christ. This theme recurs throughout the gospel with the feeding of the five thousand, the raising of Lazarus, and the triumphal entry. In each case Jesus uses dramatic public theater as a means of promoting his kingship.

In addition to depicting Jesus as a theatrical self-promoter, Ur-John reveals a Jesus that is really not all that likeable as a person. Jesus is often abrupt and abrasive even when the situation does not appear to call for it. He speaks in a demeaning manner to Nicodemus who has purposely sought him out: “Are you a teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand this? (Ur-John 3:10). He is coldly dismissive of his mother:  “O woman, what have you to do with me?” (2:4). He speaks in demanding and condescending tones to the Samaritan woman at the well:  “Give me a drink” (4:7); “You have had five husbands and he whom you have now is not your husband” (4:18);  “You worship what you do not know. We worship what we know” (4:22). Jesus’ response to the official begging his help on behalf of his ill son is a rather curt, “Go. Your son will live.” (4:50). After a dialogue on bread from heaven that many took offense at, Ur-John states “After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him” (6:66). At times, arguments with the Jews descend into petty bickering (ch. 8).

Related to Jesus’ off-putting demeanor is the fact that healings in Ur-John are depicted with a cool sense of personal detachment. In ch. 5 he encounters the paralyzed man by the pool and asks, “Do you want to be healed?” The sick man explains his situation, addressing Jesus as an unknown stranger. Jesus then follows with the simple command, “Rise, take up your pallet and walk.” Jesus finds the man later and delivers a terse warning, “see, you are well. Sin no more that nothing worse may befall you.” The author’s intent is clearly to illustrate the power of Jesus to heal on command, and that this is to be interpreted as a sign of his authenticity. Yet the episode is remarkable for its lack of personal warmth and interaction. The healed man never recognizes Jesus as the Christ, and never professes a faith of any kind. Jesus performs the healing in order to make a public statement about himself; the essential element in the story is the command that the healed man take up his pallet, for it is the public display of carrying of the pallet, not the fact that the healed man is walking, that sets up the ensuing dialogue concerning Jesus’ authority to heal on the Sabbath.

The same cool dynamics are at work in the healing of the blind man in ch. 9. Here the disciples notice the blind man and ask the reason for his condition. Jesus states candidly that his blindness was intended to provide Jesus an opportunity to display his power. Jesus has no preliminary interaction with the man. The first thing the blind man is aware of is a stranger rubbing mud on his eyes, then being commanded to go wash it off in the pool of Siloam. He does so and is miraculously healed, but Jesus has no further interaction with him. There is no recognition of who Jesus is at the time, and Jesus does not speak to him again. Presumably Jesus could have healed him on command or simply by touch, but the mud in the eyes makes the event a more dramatic public spectacle, as if it were staged for maximum theatric effect.

In these two healings the author of Ur-John is narrowly focused on portraying the power and the authority of Jesus without giving any thought to how he interacted with people. Jesus moves among the people with a sense of aloofness and superiority. He is most concerned with establishing his identity as the Christ or demonstrating his miraculous powers while routinely manifesting little compassion or respect for those he encounters. In modern parlance, he is a self-absorbed narcissist who lacks people skills. Conversely, the Gospel of Mark offers a portrait of Jesus that is, in breathtaking measure, an extreme polar opposite to that of Ur-John: in Mark we find an intensely compassionate Jesus who interacts tenderly with people, while forbidding anyone to discuss or acknowledge his messiahship. Nowhere is the stark difference between these two images of Jesus more obvious than in Ur-John and Mark’s respective stories of the anointing with oil:

The Anointing at Bethany

 

Ur-John 12:1-8

Mark 14:3-9

 

1 Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Laz'arus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 There they made him a supper; Martha served, and Laz'arus was one of those at table with him. 3 Mary took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was to betray him), said, 5 "Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?" 6 This he said, not that he cared for the poor but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box he used to take what was put into it. 7 Jesus said, "Let her alone, let her keep it for the day of my burial. 8 The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me."

 

 

 

3 And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head. 4 But there were some who said to themselves indignantly, "Why was the ointment thus wasted?  5 For this ointment might have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and given to the poor." And they reproached her. 6 But Jesus said, "Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 7 For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you will, you can do good to them; but you will not always have me. 8 She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burying. 9 And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her."

 

The Anointing at Bethany is a beautiful story as told by Mark; Jesus is aware of the woman as a human being with feelings. He makes a specific point of honoring the significance of her sacrificial act of applying the ointment to his head. When she is criticized he graciously affirms her and proclaims her act as one that will be remembered forever. In Mark, Jesus deliberately turns the light entirely onto the woman and away from himself. By contrast, this same episode in Ur-John is arguably the single most offensive performance of Jesus that exists in the NT. In this version of the story Jesus is content to sit and watch Mary (the sister of Lazarus in this story, not the mother of Jesus) perform the supremely debasing act of wiping his feet with her hair. In this account it is Judas Iscariot in particular, not an amorphous “some” of the disciples, who challenges the waste of the ointment. The author thinks it is more important to use this scene to cast further aspersions on the unsavory character of Judas rather than to keep the focus on Mary’s self-sacrifice, which indicates something about the author’s intense personal animosity toward Judas, or his disregard for Mary, or both. As she wipes his feet with her hair, Jesus sits back smugly and proclaims, “Let her alone, she can keep the rest of it to bury me, the poor you always have, but you do not always have me.” The author perceives Mary has having no value worth commenting upon and puts no words in Jesus’ mouth that would suggest such. The important element in this author’s mind was to emphasize the kingly greatness of Jesus as one who deserved to be serviced by a servant in this manner.

These two stories manifest literary interdependence in the details. John and Mark know that the ointment was one of pure nard, and that it was worth three hundred denarii, but Matthew and Luke do not. To describe the value of the ointment, John and Mark use variants of the same adjective—costly (polutimos) in John and very costly (poluteles) in Mark. By comparison, Matthew uses the unique term barutimos, which the RSV translates as very expensive (the only occurrence of this word in the NT), and Luke drops any reference to the value of the ointment altogether. That Ur-John and Mark uniquely share these insignificant details in common suggests that the later of the two authors was aware of the earlier account. There is no doubt that Ur-John contains the original story and Mark the highly redacted and morally improved version. Matthew carries forward Mark’s whitewashed version with only minor changes in wording. But Luke apparently did not care for Mark’s approach to the rewrite of the story. Luke eliminates any notion that the woman was Mary the sister of Lazarus (per Ur-John) or that she was unnamed and presumably unknown (per Mark). Luke retains Ur-John’s disturbing image of the woman wiping the feet of Jesus with her hair, but he adds colorful details that she was weeping, wetting Jesus’ feet with her tears, and kissing his feet. Most importantly, Luke identifies her as a “woman of the city,” a prostitute who was already maximally debased. Thus, the implication is that the use of her hair to clean the feet of Jesus could not possibly degrade her any further. So Luke portrays this as an act of abject contrition that ultimately leads to the woman’s forgiveness. The story is no longer about Jesus being served in an obsequious manner, but rather the woman’s restoration to grace.

The fact that Mark and Luke each offer morally improved revisions to the Anointing at Bethany indicates that they were as offended by Ur-John’s account as anyone would be today. However, they resolved the problem in radically different ways. Mark simply erases the image of a woman cleaning Jesus’ feet with her hair and instead has her apply the ointment to his head. Luke retains the degrading spectacle, but places it in a radical new context such that the woman’s act might be compassionately understood. In both versions Jesus appears decidedly noble in spirit and acutely sensitive to the needs of the woman—traits that are wholly absent in Ur-John.

There is little chance that Ur-John’s account appeared later in the first century as per conventional academic theory. The early Church surely would not have adopted Ur-John’s unseemly portrayal of Jesus if the more compelling treatments by Mark and Luke were already in circulation. Clearly, Ur-John represents a primitive account that the Synoptic writers were motivated to correct. However, the most remarkable aspect of the Anointing at Bethany is not that we find the Synoptic writers offering substantially revised and enhanced versions, but that John’s repellant account survived at all. Since the Synoptic authors sensed the need to create morally corrected versions of the story, why not simply delete the offending account from the official records? Once again, as we saw several times in the previous chapter, the specter of apostolic authorship provides a likely explanation. This must have been a long established text, composed by an author whose reputation and authority were an essential part of the movement’s history, so much so that his words could not be deleted from the traditions.

If Ur-John was indeed written by an apostle who knew Jesus personally, what could account for his characterization of Jesus as imperial, aloof, and aggressive? We can only speculate, but the answer may lie in the fact that Ur-John was composed at a time when the movement of the Baptist was regarded as the established dominant force and Jesus was the newcomer and challenger who did not have the reputation, gravitas, or following of the Baptist. Within this context, the author of Ur-John may have been motivated to overcompensate in portraying the superior power and authority of Jesus over the Baptist. Thus he was inclined to emphasize him as one who strode among people with a kingly presence and a decisive, awe-inspiring confidence—a man who was head and shoulders above the common man:  “No man ever spoke like this man!” say the authorities who failed to arrest him (Ur-John 7:46); “including John the Baptist” was perhaps the unstated subtext. At that early juncture it did not occur to the author that issues pertaining to Jesus’ moral behavior and his attendance to the emotional needs of people would be relevant to establishing the superiority of Jesus over the Baptist as a messianic claimant. Essentially, we might imagine that his primary objective was to portray Jesus as one with a commanding presence that struck awe in all whom he encountered, so much so that a perfectly natural reaction would be for a woman to fall at his feet and wipe them with her hair. So consumed was the author with the desire to highlight the power and authority of Jesus that he simply failed to produce a more nuanced, multi-dimensional portrait of Jesus as a human being.

Indications of an Early Composition Date

Ur-John offers a fascinating glimpse of Jesus as remembered by one who had known and traveled with him. It certainly predates the Synoptic tradition. As discussed in Chapter One, it contains a formidable attack on the integrity of Peter, indicating that it was composed prior to the martyrdom of Peter circa 65 CE. But how early could it be? The evidence that it was composed in Aramaic is consistent with its primitive origin but it does not help any further with dating, for one might expect any document produced by Jewish factions of the Jesus movement prior to 65 CE to have been written in Aramaic. However, there are other indicators of extremely primitive origin that would suggest a date as early as the 40s: 

The Calling of Twelve Disciples. Many scholars have expressed skepticism that the historical Jesus had actually called twelve disciples to symbolize the twelve tribes of Israel. Skepticism is warranted based on the fact that it seems intrinsically implausible that a new movement could have manifested such a formal hierarchical structure so quickly. Furthermore, for anyone who grants that the historical Jesus has been mythologized at all, the concept of the twelve would have been an easy and obvious mythical element to incorporate into the tradition. Add to that the fact that the lists of the twelve in Mark and Matthew differ slightly from the lists in Luke and Acts, and there is a reason to doubt the historicity of the twelve.

However, Ur-John is intriguing for the fact that, though it contains no formal account of the calling of the twelve, it does contain a muted remembrance of the twelve. Their existence is acknowledged in passing but not featured. While the Synoptic gospels all highlight the calling of twelve special disciples and make a point of naming each, Ur-John provides no list, and contains only one passage in which the twelve are addressed by Jesus:

66 After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him. 67 Jesus said to the twelve, "Do you also wish to go away?" 68 Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; 69 and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God." 70 Jesus answered them, "Did I not choose you, the twelve, and one of you is a devil?" 71 He spoke of Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the twelve, was to betray him. (John 6:66-71)

In this passage the author clearly assumes his readers are aware that Jesus called twelve disciples, for he uses the oblique phrase the twelve casually without further exposition. Throughout Ur-John, the author finds occasion to name six of the twelve that appear in the Synoptic lists: Simon Peter, Andrew, Philip, Thomas, Judas Iscariot, and the Beloved Disciple, whom we identify herein as John, son of Zebedee. The remaining six go without mention at all. Ur-John also mentions Nathanael, a disciple who does not exist in the Synoptics, but it is not clear whether the author viewed him as one of the twelve.

There is one other use of the twelve at the end of the gospel: “Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came” (20:24). However, this is a suspicious reference; one would expect the author to have written this descriptor in the more appropriate order “Thomas called the Twin, one of the twelve…” Since editorial glosses throughout the gospel tend to result in clumsy grammatical constructs, we might suspect that this was a gloss intended to imply that the rest of the twelve disciples were present at this first appearance of Jesus in the upper room—information that would not have otherwise been in the original composition.

It is important to note that Ur-John is quite in harmony with Paul in treating the twelve has having only minor relevance. Paul is evidently aware of the twelve, but he only acknowledges their existence once in all of his letters, and then only in passing: 

3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.  (1 Cor. 15:3-8) 

Thus, in both Ur-John and the letters of Paul, the existence of the twelve is remembered but not proclaimed with any enthusiasm. This muted treatment of the twelve is not likely to have been a mythologized overlay; the existence of the twelve is taken for granted and mentioned in passing by both authors without highlight or explanation. This is not what one would expect from the pen of an editor who was introducing a newly minted symbolic myth of the twelve. What, then, could explain this cursory treatment of the tradition?

Two possible motives come to mind. First, Ur-John is written to highlight the special relationship that the Beloved Disciple had with Jesus and to bolster his claim to leadership in the movement based upon that unique relationship. (As an aside, the author of Ur-John, the apostle John son of Zebedee and the “disciple whom Jesus loved” are all one and the same person, in the present interpretation.[1]) To draw attention to the fact that Jesus had called eleven other disciples in addition to himself might have been viewed as an unnecessary distraction from this objective of the work. To some degree the same motive may have been influencing Paul as he was promoting his own unique mission and ideology. For Paul there simply was no compelling reason to draw attention to the twelve since he was not one of them.

However, an intriguing clue to the mystery may be found within Ur-John’s reference to the twelve itself. It may be no accident that Ur-John remembers the twelve only in the context of Jesus questioning their allegiance. Realistically, if Jesus had indeed called twelve associates, it is likely that many of them abandoned the movement upon Jesus’ crucifixion; the desertion by these disciples was the likely historical reality behind the tradition that the sheep would be scattered. In point of fact, eight of the twelve named by Mark were never remembered as having played any role in the movement either during Jesus’ ministry or after his death. Peter, James, John, and Judas are accounted for, but what of the other eight? For the disciples still committed to the Jesus movement in the 40s, those who were remembered as deserters would not have been recalled with fondness. There would have been no interest in featuring their activities in the Gospels, or indeed even in highlighting the fact that Jesus had once called twelve disciples. Seen in this light, the muting of the tradition of “the twelve” in the earliest records of Ur-John and Paul would be understandable.

By the time Mark was composed almost forty years after the death of Jesus, a second generation of believers had risen up for whom awareness of the original twelve would have been minimal. So Mark was free to reaffirm the theological significance of Jesus’ calling of twelve without concern for how they might have been remembered. Thus Mark emphasizes the calling of the twelve so much so that he names them individually. This may not seem remarkable when viewed from a modern perspective in which Luke, Acts, and Matthew did the same. But at the time, if Ur-John had not called them out and Mark was the first to do so, it would have been regarded as a bold new development. Not surprisingly, Mark opened his list of the twelve with the active disciples, Peter, James, and John, and rounded it out with names of those who played no subsequent role in the movement, including Andrew, Philip[2], Bartholomew, Matthew[3], Thomas, James the son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot. For Mark, the symbolic power of twelve trumped the fact that most of them were unknown, for the significance of twelve was fully exploited in the literary structure of his gospel—Mark’s Gospel is constructed on a brilliantly conceived framework of seven and twelve for theological reasons (see Appendix 3: The Literary Structure of Mark).

The muted remembrance of the twelve in both Ur-John and Paul is compelling evidence that Jesus did indeed assemble a group of twelve, for if the calling of twelve was a legend fabricated for theological reasons it would not have been introduced in the off-handed, inconsequential fashion that it appears in these works. For John and Paul, Jesus’ calling of the twelve was a subject better left forgotten than highlighted, for it would not have served the movement well to acknowledge that many of the original twelve disciples had chosen not to follow the post-Easter Jesus tradition. The cursory treatment of the twelve in Ur-John and Paul is consistent with a very early composition date.

The Non-mythologized World. Ur-John stands apart from the Synoptic tradition in many ways, but one of the most intriguing is that supernatural events, other than the miracles performed by Jesus, are rare. Jesus conducts his ministry on the stage of an almost exclusively natural world. This is ironic in that the Gospel of John is widely perceived as the most theologically evolved of the four gospels and therefore the most mythologized and the least relevant in historical research.

Supernatural Events in the Gospels

(excluding the miracles of Jesus)

 

Event

 

 

Ur-John

 

Mark

 

Luke

 

Matt

  Virginal Conception

 

 

1

1

  Star of Bethlehem

 

 

 

1

  Warnings in Dreams

 

 

 

2

  Angelic appearances

1

1

4

4

  Heavens open upon Jesus’ baptism

 

1

1

1

  Spirit descends upon Jesus like a dove

1

1

1

1

  Voice from heaven

1    

1

1

1

  Temptation by Satan

 

1

1

1

  Conversations with Satan

 

 

1

1

  Angels minister to Jesus in wilderness

 

1

 

1

  Conversations with demons

 

3

3

1

  Transfiguration/ Moses & Elijah appear

 

1

1

1

  Voice from cloud during Transfiguration

 

1

1

1

  Sky darkens on afternoon of Jesus' death

 

1

1

1

  Tearing of the temple curtain

 

1

1

1

  Earthquake upon Jesus' death

 

 

 

1

  Earthquake at the tomb

 

 

 

1

  Saints resurrected/appear in Jerusalem

 

 

 

1

 

____

____

____

____

 

Total Supernatural Events

 

 

3

 

13

 

17

 

22


Clearly, canonical John’s portrayal of Jesus as an eternal being who visited Earth and returned to heaven is theology rather than history, but once this distinctive mythology is lifted out the underlying Ur-John narrative is remarkably natural compared to the Synoptic gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke envision Earth as a place where the forces of heaven and the underworld duel for influence and control as they frequently break through into daily life in the form of dramatic angelic appearances, temptations by Satan and demons, perfectly timed earthquakes, darkening skies, and the opening of the heavens at key moments.

While supernatural events are commonly used to punctuate the drama of the Jesus story in the Synoptics, there are only three events that qualify as supernatural in Ur-John. Yet even these three are oddly natural compared to their Synoptic counterparts. In Ur-John, the spirit descending as a dove is represented as a private vision of the Baptist (1:32-33). It involves no public “voice from heaven,” but rather the Baptist recounts what he has heard from God in a vision. The Synoptics report it as a vision experienced by Jesus, and the voice from heaven is the voice of God himself making a public announcement.

Ur-John’s account of the angelic appearance at the tomb is the most uneventful angelic appearance of the NT; the angels say nothing of consequence, they deliver no message or insight, they behave as if they are human, and Mary Magdalene reacts to them as if they are human (20:11-13). Oddly enough, the Beloved Disciple and Peter have been called to the empty tomb by Mary; the Beloved Disciple realizes that the resurrection has occurred, and both he and Peter return home before the angels even appear. Conversely, in the Synoptics the essential role of the angels is to deliver the news of the resurrection.

The third supernatural event in Ur-John is a “voice from heaven.” This appears to be an ironically timed thunderclap, which the author forthrightly indicates that the crowd recognized as such (12:28-29). We do not find the Synoptic authors volunteering natural interpretations of their supernatural events as we do here. As supernatural events go, the thunderclap “voice from heaven” in Ur-John is of a kind with the inconsequential human-like angelic appearance at the tomb and the Baptist’s private vision.

In short, Ur-John is decidedly sparse in its report of paranormal events when compared to the Synoptic gospels. The three that it does offer can be interpreted as natural phenomena due to the remarkably candid impulse of the author, a writer who simply does not rely upon mythologized imagery to amplify the drama of the story. At the opposite extreme stands Matthew, the most mythologized of the Synoptic gospels. Though it is conceivable that a gospel sans all of the dramatic supernatural imagery could have been composed later in the first century, the most likely explanation for its absence in Ur-John is an early composition date. Ur-John was composed prior to the time that the movement had begun to incorporate supernatural events into the gospel story in order to recast Jesus’ mission as a cosmic spiritual drama rather than an earthly political conflict. When interpreted in this manner it appears that Ur-John predates Mark by a significant period of time. 

John the Baptist. Ur-John states that Jesus conducted a ministry of baptism in competition with John the Baptist prior to John’s arrest. Early in his ministry he was baptizing near the same location in Judea as John and winning more followers than John (John 3:22-26). This is contrary to Mark’s contention that Jesus did not begin his ministry until after John’s arrest, and that he began his ministry in Galilee (Mark 1:14-15). Ur-John’s account appears to be the earlier of the two, for the Jesus movement had begun to claim that the Baptist’s prophetic role was to act as a forerunner announcing the coming of Jesus as Son of God. In Mark’s version he performs this role, then is removed from the scene by his arrest. This scenario eliminates the need to ask why the Baptist did not himself become a follower of Jesus if he had indeed perceived him to be the Son of God.

Ur-John retains this difficulty. It is candid about the competition between the two:

22 After this Jesus and his disciples went into the land of Judea; there he remained with them and baptized. 23 John also was baptizing at Ae'non near Salim, because there was much water there; and people came and were baptized. 24 For John had not yet been put in prison.  25 Now a discussion arose between John's disciples and a Jew over purifying. 26 And they came to John, and said to him, "Rabbi, he who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you bore witness, here he is, baptizing, and all are going to him." (John 3:22-26)

4:1 Now when the Lord knew that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John 2 (although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples), 3 he left Judea and departed again to Galilee. (John 4:1-3)

The curious thing however, is not that Ur-John reports concurrent competing ministries of Jesus and the Baptist, but that the author does not anticipate that anyone would wonder why the Baptist did not become a disciple of Jesus. This would make sense if the Baptist had a larger movement and a more established reputation than did Jesus at the time Ur-John was composed. There are remnants of tradition in the NT gospels that John was thought by some to be the messiah; there are also remembrances that the Baptist had been resurrected—some even wondering whether Jesus himself was the resurrected Baptist. Furthermore, Ur-John represents Jesus and his initial followers as having split off from the Baptist’s movement. In this scenario the notion of the Baptist giving up his formidable ministry to follow Jesus would never have occurred to the author of Ur-John, nor would he imagine anyone wondering about it. It is all the more true if the author himself had been a disciple of the Baptist who left him to follow Jesus, as Ur-John rather candidly implies—the mysterious unnamed disciple who was the first, along with Andrew, to recognize Jesus as the true messiah was no doubt the author of Ur-John. There is also no doubt that the community of Ur-John recognized in this unidentified figure a surreptitious reference to their leader:

35 The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples; 36 and he looked at Jesus as he walked, and said, "Behold, the Lamb of God!" 37 The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38 Jesus turned, and saw them following, and said to them, "What do you seek?" And they said to him, "Rabbi" (which means Teacher), "where are you staying?" 39 He said to them, "Come and see." They came and saw where he was staying; and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour. 40 One of the two who heard John speak, and followed him, was Andrew, Simon Peter's brother. 41 He first found his brother Simon, and said to him, "We have found the messiah" (John 1:35-41)

Related to this is the fact that Ur-John refers to John the Baptist simply and exclusively as “John,” and it does so fourteen times. It does not refer to him as the baptizer, as Mark does twice (1:4, 6:14), or the Baptist, as Mark also does twice (6:25, 8:28), Luke does thrice (7:20,33, 9:19), and Matthew does seven times (3:1, 11:11-12, 14:2,8, 16:14, 17:13). In addition, the Jewish historian Josephus refers to him as John called the baptist in Antiquities of the Jews (93 CE). In Ur-John, neither the baptizer nor the Baptist are used and were obviously not required to identify the John being discussed. There is an assumed intimate familiarity with John. Readers/hearers clearly knew of whom the author was speaking and had no need for a distinguishing appellation. It is possible that Ur-John was composed before the practice of referring to John by the title “the baptizer” or the more legendary variant “the Baptist” came into vogue.

We have looked at three unusual features of Ur-John—the oddly muted record of the twelve, the peculiar absence of supernatural events, and the portrayal of John in a uniquely familiar manner. These traditions have nothing in common except that they each can be explained by supposing Ur-John to be a primitive composition written very close to the historical events, and certainly prior to the Synoptics. Once Ur-John is perceived as a primitive composition written by one who had known Jesus personally, a number of other Synoptic traditions that are missing from Ur-John become of acute interest, including the lack of moral vision, the absence of the tax collectors, the absence of tradition related to open table fellowship, the almost total silence on the kingdom of God, the unawareness of Jesus as the son of Man, the lack of the idea that Jesus taught in parables, or that he practiced exorcism. Each of these will be considered in turn.

Moral vision. We have already seen that Ur-John views Jesus as detached and aloof in his dealings with people, while the Synoptics portray him as more intimately engaged. In concert with this, Ur-John recalls no sayings of Jesus that bear upon moral conduct and thinking. Conversely, the Synoptics are laced throughout with teachings of a moral essence including admonitions on praying in public, forgiveness, divorce, lust, anger, swearing, blaspheming against the Spirit, the hoarding of earthly treasure, serving God and mammon, turning the other cheek, etc. In Ur-John there are no beatitudes to honor the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers. There is no Lord’s Prayer in Ur-John; in point of fact there is almost no prayer at all in Ur-John—the Greek words for pray and prayer do not exist. In Ur-John there are two brief displays of prayer on the part of Jesus. The first is that he is said to have given thanks prior to the feeding of the five thousand (6:11), and the second is part of the public performance in advance of the raising of Lazarus (11:41). In short, the author of Ur-John does not remember Jesus as a teacher of wisdom and moral conduct, or one who counsels extensive reliance on prayer.

Tax collectors.  There is no record of Jesus befriending tax collectors in Ur-John. The Greek term telones which is rendered tax collector in the RSV appears 21 times in the Synoptic gospels, but not once in John. How might this be explained? It is probable that the historical Jesus, anticipating the fall of Roman domination and the rise of a sovereign Kingdom of Israel, was encouraging civil disobedience in the form of tax resistance. Luke remembers this as one of the accusations against him: 

1 Then the whole company of them arose, and brought him before Pilate. 2 And they began to accuse him, saying, "We found this man perverting our nation, and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ a king." (Luke 23:1-2)

If Jesus had been advocating tax revolt as part of a popular uprising to hasten the coming of the new kingdom, the surviving post-Easter movement would have been strongly motivated to deny and suppress it. An ideal way to neutralize the memory of Jesus as one who had advocated tax resistance would be to spread the story that he had actively befriended and socialized with tax collectors—after all, how could Jesus be remembered as one who had incited a tax revolt if the tax collectors were in his camp? The tradition that Jesus befriended tax collectors was introduced in Mark, embellished in Luke, and taken to its extreme in Matthew, wherein the otherwise unknown disciple Matthew is declared to have been a tax collector. Once the early Church was claiming that a Roman tax collector was not only one of the original twelve but also the author of the movement’s First Gospel, this rather transparent whitewashing of the memory of Jesus as one who had encouraged tax resistance was complete.

Since the Synoptic tradition actively fosters the friendly and penitent tax collector meme, it is noteworthy that Luke candidly recalls the accusation that Jesus had forbidden the payment of taxes. Would this not have been counterproductive? Not at all. Luke’s Gospel repeatedly claims that Jesus went out of his way to eat and drink with tax collectors, so in context the charge that Jesus had encouraged tax revolt appears ludicrous. At the time Luke was composed, there was evidently a remembrance of Jesus advocating tax resistance. By documenting the accusation in the manner that he did, the effect was to make the historically accurate memory of Jesus as one who had advocated tax resistance appear nonsensical. To this day, people interpret Luke 23:2 as an apparently absurd charge, which was no doubt the author’s intent.

This also makes more sense of Mark’s claim that a key question asked of Jesus upon arrival in Jerusalem was his position on the payment of taxes:

13 And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to entrap him in his talk. 14 And they came and said to him, "Teacher, we know that you are true, and care for no man; for you do not regard the position of men, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? 15 Should we pay them, or should we not?" But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, "Why put me to the test? Bring me a coin, and let me look at it." 16 And they brought one. And he said to them, "Whose likeness and inscription is this?" They said to him, "Caesar's." 17 Jesus said to them, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." And they were amazed at him. (Mark 12:13-17) 

Behind this repetitive questioning of Jesus’ position on the payment of taxes is the historical memory that Jesus had encouraged tax resistance. There is no other way to rationalize the premise that his adversaries had posed the questions in order to “entrap him in his talk.” This episode is intended to erase that memory via the famous “render to Caesar…” quotation, which is intentionally obscure. Mark successfully blurs the line between the historical position of Jesus as one who stood against an onerous taxation system and a politically inoffensive response that seems to honor Caesar. The brilliant obfuscation is responsible for render to Caesar being one of the most memorable of Jesus sayings.

In light of the foregoing, a reasonable inference would be that Ur-John contains no mention of Jesus associating with tax collectors because in reality he never did associate with tax collectors. Ur-John was written prior to the time this mechanism designed to sanitize the memory of Jesus had come into vogue.

Table fellowship. Among the activities many modern scholars ascribe to the historical Jesus is his eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners—a concept promoted in the Synoptic gospels. Elevated to the level of a theological imperative, Jesus is widely supposed to have actively promoted the practice of inclusive table fellowship, or in the language of the academy, open commensality, with friends and acquaintances. There is no indication of such a thing in Ur-John. There exists one account in which Jesus sits at table with the recently raised Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha (12:1-2), who are already identified as cherished personal friends (“Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” Ur-John 11:5). This sets up the problematic scene of Mary cleaning Jesus’ feet with her hair, already discussed. Yet this one episode does not a tradition make. We find nothing of Jesus seeking the opportunity to dine with tax collectors and random sinners as he does in the Synoptics. In Ur-John, Jesus dines once with intimate friends, and that is all.

The practice of open commensality appears to have been attributed to Jesus by the Synoptic writers to support the concept that he befriended tax collectors. But it also serves to nullify Ur-John’s disturbing memory of Jesus as aloof and detached; the image of the gregarious Jesus eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners is the polar opposite of the Jesus depicted in Ur-John.

The kingdom of God/heaven. In the present reconstruction of Ur-John, Jesus makes one reference to the kingdom of God in 3:3. Other than this, the phrase is non-existent. This is alarming, for the kingdom of God is mentioned 15 times in Mark, 39 times in Luke and 52 times in Matthew, mostly in the variant phrase kingdom of heaven. Its dominating presence in the Synoptic gospels (especially in Mark and “Q”) causes scholars to suppose that the revealing of the kingdom of God, reflections upon its spiritual nature, and qualifications for entry into the kingdom were central to the message of Jesus. No other single concept has had as much defining influence on contemporary historical Jesus reconstructions. As New Testament scholar Douglas Oakman observes:

All critical scholars today accept that Jesus’ main concern and aim was expressed under the term Kingdom of God.[4]

Thus it is striking that Ur-John recalls almost nothing of Jesus’ teaching or preaching on the kingdom of God. What could account for this? The answer may lie in the same reasoning we have already explored—Ur-John contains historical memories of a Jesus who had promoted his own kingship. He was anticipating the rise of a sovereign state of Israel, and the author perceived Jesus to be the coming King of the new state. Thus he has Nathanael proclaim “Rabbi, you are the King of Israel!” (1:49). In Ur-John 6:16 the crowds are incensed to the point that they want to seize Jesus and make him king by force. During the triumphal entry, the people hail him as the arriving King of Israel:

13 So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying, "Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!" 14 And Jesus found a young ass and sat upon it; as it is written, 15 "Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on an ass's colt!" (Ur-John 12:13-15)

In stark contrast, in the Synoptic triumphal entry scenes the writers delete the politically inflammatory King of Israel language and replace it with softer variants. In Mark, Jesus is said to herald the coming of the kingdom of our father David (Mark 11:10); in Luke he is the indistinct "king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!" (Luke 19:38). By the time Matthew rewrites the story, Jesus is no longer explicitly proclaimed as king at all: “And the crowds … shouted, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’” (Matt. 21:9)

The remembrance of Jesus as a self-proclaimed king who challenged the authority of Caesar would have been as politically problematic for the Jesus movement as the memory of his tax resistance. The solution was to redefine the kingdom as a uniquely spiritual realm with no political consequence, and then to claim that the spiritual kingdom is what Jesus had been referring to all along. Thus the Synoptics are peppered with reflections on the “true” nature of the kingdom of God. Jesus is seen as one who visualized, revealed, and promoted a spiritual kingdom, and who in Crossan’s influential view brokered access to it. But more importantly, an essential aspect of the Synoptic kingdom of God teaching is that it is cloaked in mystery, revealed in parables that do not say precisely what it is, but rather what it is like. For the Synoptic authors it is vital that readers understand that the kingdom of God as revealed by Jesus was an elusive, amorphous concept that was not easy to define or comprehend. It had been revealed in parables that mystified outsiders by design. Therefore, the Synoptics would have us believe that it is no surprise that the kingdom language used by Jesus had been wholly misunderstood. The message of Mark, Luke, and Matthew is obvious: “You may have memories of Jesus as advocating the restoration of a sovereign Kingdom of Israel, but he never did speak of such a thing; he had been speaking of a spiritual kingdom of God; his message was misconstrued.”

Teaching in parables. Ur-John contains no tradition that Jesus taught in parables, or that he spoke in allegories that only those who had “ears to hear” could understand. The Greek word parabole is used 48 times in the Synoptic gospels, but not once in the Fourth Gospel. Beyond this, the parabolic form of sayings is largely absent from John. Instead, the thought of Jesus is revealed through conversational and often argumentative dialogue. That Ur-John contains no recollection of the parable tradition suggests that Jesus may not have spoken in parables after all, and that this was a secondary development in the interpretive traditions. Why would the movement have invented the parable tradition? Very simply, it supported the claim that Jesus’ message regarding the coming Kingdom of Israel had been misunderstood. Many of the parables are about the kingdom of God, its nature, what it means, and how one may participate in it. But only those granted the ability to discern were able to understand these obscure sayings. Mark says of the purpose of the parable:

10 And when he was alone, those who were about him with the twelve asked him concerning the parables. 11 And he said to them, "To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables; 12 so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again, and be forgiven." (Mark 4:10-12)

The background context is that Jesus had in fact been teaching about the coming Kingdom of Israel as a restored sovereign state, and the consequent fall of Roman power. If the movement were to survive, that message would need to be altered or suppressed. The parable tradition was invented as a smoke screen—the “confusion” people had concerning the spiritual kingdom of God derived from the fact that Jesus had, by design, revealed the kingdom in parables that most people did not understand.

The most likely reason that the parable tradition and the focus on the kingdom of God do not appear in Ur-John is that the historical Jesus did not speak in parables, nor did his message have as a central theme the revealing of a spiritual kingdom of God. Ur-John was composed prior to the time these interpretive elements were incorporated into the Jesus story.

No reference to the Son of man. Due to the frequency of the Son of man in Mark and the sayings alleged to come from Q, it is common for scholars to assume that this was a favored self-reference of Jesus. However, there are no references to the Son of man in Ur-John. The Gospel of Mark contains 14 instances of Jesus referring to the Son of man. It occurs 25 times in Luke and 30 times in Matthew. In most cases the context of its usage makes it obvious that Jesus is referring to himself in the third person. Sometimes it appears that he may be referring to a separate spiritual being yet to be revealed from heaven.

There is a similar phrase son of man in the Old Testament, but the title in the NT routinely includes the definitive article and its use as an honorific title is unique and specific to the NT gospels. The title generally appears in sayings placed on the lips of Jesus wherein he refers to himself in the third person. However, the voice of the narrator can on occasion reproduce a saying of Jesus as in Mark 8:31: “And he began to teach them that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” No other character in the gospels refers to Jesus as the Son of man, and it is odd indeed to imagine Peter or Nathanael declaring, “You are the Son of man!” Other than the gospels, no other book of the NT uses it. The institutionalized churches quietly ignore it, for it never appears in any official creeds of the Church, and no formal article of Christian faith professes Jesus to be the Son of man. Yet it appears 81 times in the NT gospels.

What might explain the frequent use of the Son of man in the Synoptics and in John’s editorial overlays, but its absence from Ur-John? Once again, the political dynamics appear relevant. The titles used for Jesus in Ur-John are messiah, king, King of the Jews, King of Israel, prophet, and most frequent, the Christ, all of which carry uncomfortable political connotations of challenge to establishment authority. However, the Son of man does not. This phrase is often translated the son of the man, meaning simply a human being. Bruce Chilton translates it as “the one like the person” which is to be interpreted as “one human among others in the Aramaic of his time.”[5] Practically speaking, the title is meaningless, but it appears to be its very meaninglessness that made it of substantial value to the movement. For unlike messiah, the Christ, King of the Jews, and Son of God, there was no way to infer from the Son of man any tangential association with political activism. Thus it is reasonable to surmise that it was placed in the mouth of Jesus precisely for that reason.

If this is the case, it becomes clear why the Son of man does not appear in Ur-John. The title was introduced by Mark to underscore his portrayal of Jesus as one with no concern for politics or the Roman domination of Israel. Luke and Matthew carried it forward with new Son of man sayings that were being developed and attributed to Jesus in the post-70 era. The editorial overlays onto Ur-John that contain 13 occurrences of the Son of man were added for the same purpose—that of depoliticizing the image of Jesus.

No Exorcisms. Ur-John contains no remembrance of Jesus performing exorcisms. However, the author does not even acknowledge the existence of demons or unclean spirits, so there is no opportunity for Jesus to perform exorcisms. In general, the author avoids the supernatural across the board—there is no mythologized Transfiguration on the mountain with appearances by Elijah and Moses, no resurrection of the saints, no glorious descending angel and earthquake to open the sealed tomb, and no conversations with Satan as there are in the Synoptics. And, quite in concert with all of this, there are no conversations with demons or unclean spirits as there are in the Synoptics (e.g., Mark 1:24; 3:11). Ur-John does use the concept of “having a demon,” but only as a euphemism for simply being crazy or out of one’s mind (7:20; 8:48-52; 10:20-21). There is no evidence that the author of Ur-John believes that autonomous evil spirits can indwell a person, or that they can be cast out.

The present theory holds that the supernatural elements of the Jesus story found in the Synoptics are intended to portray Jesus as having been at the center of a cosmic spiritual battle between good and evil. The unspoken corollary is that he should not be viewed as one who was negotiating the more terrestrial political conflict between God’s chosen people and the evil Roman occupation. Seen from this perspective, Ur-John’s failure to mention the exorcisms of Jesus is simply due to the fact that he had never performed exorcisms. The notion that Jesus was an exorcist is a mythologized construct, part and parcel of the overarching tendency of second-generation interpreters to situate Jesus within the context of a cosmic spiritual struggle in order to depoliticize his memory.

The Passion Narratives in Ur-John and Mark

Ur-John and Mark both offer extensive commentary on the arrest, interrogation, condemnation, and crucifixion of Jesus. The stories are radically different, and in many respects mutually exclusive. Close scrutiny of how these two accounts differ reveals a great deal about the authors and their respective objectives. The details documented in these two accounts are vital to the quest for the historical Jesus. They add significantly to the evidence that Ur-John is a primitive work written by someone closer to the events, and that Mark constitutes a major revision of events designed to appeal to Rome.

The Arrest of Jesus.  Ur-John indicates that Jesus was arrested by a detachment of Roman soldiers and “some officers” from the Temple authorities. The author seems aware that the arrest is being conducted after dark, as he makes specific reference to the incidental fact that they carried lanterns and torches:

2 Now Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place; for Jesus often met there with his disciples. 3 So Judas, procuring a band of soldiers and some officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees, went there with lanterns and torches and weapons.  (Ur-John 18:2-3)

The lanterns and torches are not mentioned in the Synoptics. This would have been an unusual detail to add to the story in the late first century with Mark, Luke and Matthew already in circulation. Moreover, the Synoptics eliminate the Roman soldiers from the scene and depict the arrest party as an unofficial “crowd” with swords and clubs that is exclusively Jewish. The Synoptic language connotes an angry mob:

And immediately, while he was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the scribes and the elders. (Mark 14:43)

47 While he was still speaking, there came a crowd, and the man called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them…. 52 Then Jesus said to the chief priests and officers of the temple and elders, who had come out against him, "Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs? (Luke 22:47, 52)

47 While he was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a great crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. (Matthew 26:47)

Was Jesus arrested by Roman troops as per Ur-John, or by an incensed Jewish mob as per the Synoptics? If Roman troops were involved in the arrest it indicates that Jesus was recognized by the Roman administration as a threat to social stability; they surely would not have dispatched a contingent of soldiers to arrest a preacher accused of blasphemy. The Synoptic writers eliminate the Roman soldiers from the scene and replace them with a Jewish mob, making it appear that Jesus was embroiled in a dispute with other Jews over matters of religion. Elsewhere in the Synoptics we learn that the dispute was over the offense of blasphemy—a charge that would have been of no concern to the Romans. The notion that Jesus was accused of blasphemy does not appear in Ur-John.

The Nature of the Betrayal:  There is a significant difference between Ur-John and the Synoptics in the way they report the betrayal by Judas. In Ur-John, the betrayal consists of Judas disclosing to the authorities the whereabouts of Jesus; according to Ur-John 18:2, Judas “knew the place, for Jesus often met there with his disciples.” The Synoptics eliminate this language and replace it with the famous story of betrayal with a kiss. The role of Judas in the Synoptics is not to reveal where Jesus is, but who Jesus is. Presumably, without the kiss, they would not have known whom to arrest:

44 Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, "The one I shall kiss is the man; seize him and lead him away under guard." 45 And when he came, he went up to him at once, and said, "Master!" And he kissed him. 46 And they laid hands on him and seized him.  (Mark 14:44-46)

Why the shift in the story? As Ur-John tells it, the reader would suppose that Jesus and his disciples were in hiding and that the authorities wanted to know where he was. Judas betrays Jesus by agreeing to reveal his location, so the story operates on the premise that Jesus and his band are hiding from authorities due to an awareness that they are subject to arrest for some reason. The arrest by Roman troops indicates that his concerns were not ill-founded, and that he was in some way perceived by the administration as a threat.

In Ur-John, Jesus does not deny his identity upon their arrival, and there is no occasion for the theatrical kiss. Moreover, in one remarkably telling reference, Ur-John portrays Jesus as pleading with the troops to let his disciples go:

7 Again he asked them, "Whom do you seek?" And they said, "Jesus of Nazareth." 8 Jesus answered, "I told you that I am he; so, if you seek me, let these men go." (Ur-John 18:7-8)

With this one candid phrase, the author of Ur-John reveals that there was an intent to arrest not only Jesus but his disciples as well. The writer falls silent on whether the arrest party complied with his request. The balance of the scene focuses primarily on Jesus’ arrest and interrogation at the house of Annas. However, it does include the highly suspicious tale that an unnamed disciple and Peter voluntarily followed the arrest party at a distance and walked into the courtyard of the high priest. This account seems incredible in light of the report that Peter had (allegedly) attacked a member of the arrest party with a sword, that Jesus had pleaded for the release of his disciples, and that they had been in seclusion for the purpose of evading arrest. Notice that at face value, the story in Ur-John states that Peter and the unnamed disciple ended up at the same interrogation facility as did Jesus, and that Peter was questioned concerning his association with Jesus at that location. If there is a historical core underlying this story, it seems probable that the disciples did not simply wander in as innocent spectators but rather that they had been arrested and brought to the premises along with Jesus. It surely would have been in the movement’s interest to whitewash any hint that Jesus’ disciples had been subject to arrest by the Romans, and this is what we seem to have in this account.

The Synoptic writers tell a completely different story. In the Synoptics, the Roman soldiers are eliminated from the scene altogether. The arrest party consists of a crowd of angry Jews who are presumably incensed by the reports of Jesus’ blasphemy. Of central interest in the Synoptic accounts is the famous betrayal with a kiss by Judas. At first glance, the “betrayal with a kiss” seems to operate on the premise that the crowd would not have otherwise been able to recognize Jesus, and/or that he would have refused to identify himself. However, there is no chance that the authors would have meant to suggest that Jesus was so unknown as to be unrecognizable, or so cowardly that he would have declined to identify himself. So what is the purpose of Judas’ betrayal with a kiss? We need only to focus on the effect of the kiss—it functions as a dramatic and memorable sign that Jesus had been singled out as the only one subject to arrest. (“Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, ‘The one I shall kiss is the man; seize him and lead him away under guard.’" Mark 14:44). The Synoptic betrayal with a kiss makes it clear that the disciples were never in danger of arrest, so it is fair to presume that this was the intended message behind the legend. Thus while the arrest scene in Ur-John leaves the door open to the possibility that Jesus’ disciples had been subject to arrest, the Synoptic writers slam that door shut.

Were Two Disciples Crucified with Jesus?

It is just at this point that we confront what Paula Fredriksen deems the “core historical anomaly of the Passion stories”—the fact that “Jesus was crucified but his followers were not.”[6] For if Jesus and his followers had been perceived as a political group that stood against Roman rule, it seems highly unlikely that Pilate would have executed Jesus alone. Fredriksen accepts at face value the gospel traditions that Jesus was the sole member of his movement to die; this assumption is foundational to her reconstruction of Jesus and the events surrounding his death. She is certainly not alone among elite Jesus scholars who have been willing to accept this premise. Yet Ur-John gives us reason to question whether Jesus was in fact the only member of his movement to have died. The key passage is this:

15 They cried out, "Away with him, away with him, crucify him!" Pilate said to them, "Shall I crucify your King?" The chief priests answered, "We have no king but Caesar." 16 Then he handed him over to them to be crucified. 17 So they took Jesus, and he went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called the place of a skull, which is called in Hebrew Gol'gotha. 18 There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, and Jesus between them. 19 Pilate also wrote a title and put it on the cross; it read, "Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews." (Ur-John 19:15-19)

The incidental reference to “two others” who were crucified with Jesus, one on each side, warrants very close scrutiny. We are accustomed to reading this passage through the filters of both Synoptic interpretation and modern academic presuppositions. Mark, widely alleged to be the earliest gospel, maintains that these two were robbers, not to mention rather unsavory characters who reviled Jesus while on the cross. Matthew essentially repeats Mark’s tale. Luke gives an altered and embellished account, saying that the two were criminals without specifying the nature of their crimes; one taunts Jesus while the other repudiates the first and asks Jesus for grace. Since scholarship routinely dates John to the end of the first century, the reference to the two crucified with Jesus in John 19:18 is typically interpreted as an abbreviated version of the Synoptic stories.

However, since the Ur-John account predates the Synoptics it must be interpreted without reading the derogatory Synoptic commentary into it. At face value, it simply says that two unknown persons were crucified with Jesus. The Synoptics say that the two were crucified “one on the left and one on the right.” The author of Ur-John presents the same scene with language that has a slightly more delicate tone, saying Jesus was crucified “and with him one on either side, and Jesus between them,” as if it were an intimately shared tragedy. Unlike the Synoptics, Ur-John makes no disparaging comments about the two at all. The author’s silence on the two who died with Jesus speaks volumes. He has done here what he did at the beginning of the gospel where he introduced an unnamed disciple as the first to recognize Jesus as the messiah. There is no question that the audience for whom the author was writing knew the identity of that first follower of Jesus, and there is little doubt they also knew the identities of the two who died with Jesus.

Roman crucifixion was used as a means to torture the victim, but its primary value to the Romans was its terrorizing effect on those who witnessed it. Crucifixions were carried out on well-traveled roads for maximum deterrent effect. It was intended as a gruesome public announcement that those who challenge Roman authority will pay a horrific price. With this in mind, picture the scene as painted by Ur-John: Three are crucified together, Jesus between them with a sign proclaiming him to be King of the Jews. If the other two were known to be disciples of Jesus, this would have constituted a dramatic public condemnation of the movement at large. It is reasonable to suspect that these two were indeed disciples, and that this triple crucifixion was a warning to all who would dare to associate with the Jesus movement. If this were the case, Ur-John’s silence on the identity of the two is understandable—the movement would not have wanted to publish any evidence that the movement as a whole had been condemned. In this case the author’s brief mention of the two unidentified souls who died with Jesus might best be interpreted as a covert honorary remembrance of their martyrdom.

Not only does Jesus plead for the release of his disciples in the arrest scene, but if there is any doubt that the disciples were subject to arrest, one might consider the telling comment in Ur-John’s first resurrection appearance:

On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, "Peace be with you." (Ur-John 20:19)

With this one riveting detail that the doors were shut for fear of the Jews, the author reveals a memory that the disciples were in hiding after the crucifixion. This makes little sense if Jesus had been the only one subject to arrest, but it makes a great deal of sense if two of their comrades had been arrested and executed with Jesus. Whether this was indeed the history behind the tradition or not, it is clear that Ur-John leaves the door open for such an interpretation. As always, the Synoptic writers are anxious to eliminate potential evidence of the Jesus movement’s historical anti-Roman roots. Mark obviously wrestled with the problem of the two who died with Jesus. The most obvious solution would have been to eliminate any reference to the two at all—just drop them from the story. If it was important for the movement to propagate the notion that Jesus was the only one in his movement to have died, why bother to carry forward the tradition that two unknown persons were crucified with him?

Clearly Mark did not believe that editing them out of the scene was an option. Ur-John had been in circulation for some time and its report that two others had died with Jesus was (evidently) not an inconsequential detail that could be deleted from the account. There was an established historical memory that two individuals had died with Jesus under some dramatic circumstance. So Mark’s first order of business was to make clear that these two were not disciples in order to prevent readers from drawing the inferences we have just rehearsed. Since crucifixion was reserved as a punishment for political sedition, his first thought might have been to claim that they were guilty of “murder in the insurrection,” just has he alleges of Barrabas in 15:7. Yet to claim that they were being crucified for insurrection would risk painting Jesus with the same brush. No, it would be important to maintain that these two had been guilty of a mundane crime that had no political ramifications. He settled on the notion that they were guilty of robbery, despite the fact that it was a common crime for which people were not typically crucified. So Mark ended up constructing the improbable scenario of two robbers unassociated with Jesus being crucified with him, one on each side, which in light of the foregoing is an astounding detail for Mark to have carried forward. For what goes unnoticed is that if the Romans had indeed staged the crucifixion scene in this highly theatrical manner, their intent would have been to make the other two victims appear to be disciples of Jesus whether they were or not. So the message would have been the same either way—the scene would have functioned as a public condemnation of both Jesus and his followers, not just of Jesus alone.

One cannot lightly dismiss the fact that Ur-John’s record of events would have been far more politically problematic than the Synoptic versions. If the only surviving gospel account was that of Ur-John, we would understand that Jesus was arrested by a detachment of Roman troops, that he had pleaded for the release of his disciples, that at least two disciples ended up at the same location to which Jesus had been taken, that Peter was interrogated concerning his association with Jesus, that Peter denied knowing Jesus, that Peter’s denial was motivated by the fear of dire consequences should he have been identified as an associate, that two others were crucified with Jesus as a public warning, and that after the crucifixion the remaining disciples were in hiding for fear of arrest. There is no question that readers of that time as well as historians of the present day would assume from this account that the Jesus movement had been perceived by the Romans as socially subversive in nature, and that the movement had been condemned for its seditious activities. It is only the Synoptic whitewashing of events that prevents this interpretation of history. One cannot help but wonder if Jesus scholarship has been quite naïve in assuming Jesus was the only member of his movement to die.

Ur-John’s record of events is by large measure historically coherent. Given that Jesus was crucified by the Romans, it is easy to believe he would have been apprehended by Roman troops. There is no reason to doubt that Jesus would have pleaded on behalf of his followers for their release. It makes sense that he would have been detained in the compound of the high priest where he was interrogated and abused over night before being delivered to Pilate. One can understand the author’s reluctance to document in writing the specific allegations against him, or to record the actual message of Jesus. If Jesus had been expected to spark a riotous revolt while 200,000 pilgrims were in town for the Passover, the administration’s urgency to arrest and summarily execute Jesus as a warning is no particular surprise. Both in its specifics and the occasions on which it is purposefully silent, the account in Ur-John manifests an aura of authenticity. The author, aware that he is addressing a politically sensitive subject, treads carefully, confident that his audience will read between the lines.

In comparison, Mark’s version has little historical coherence. It appears to be a strained attempt to cover up the story as it exists in Ur-John. In Mark, the Roman soldiers disappear. In their place an incensed Jewish mob materializes out of nowhere, evidently desperate to apprehend a man whom they believe may have uttered blasphemy and who had staged a disturbance in the Temple earlier in the week. What was the pressing emergency on this evening before the holy day of Preparation? What did the crowd intend to do with him had they succeeded in finding him? Had they been told that if they captured Jesus that night, that officials would roust the members of the Sanhedrin out of bed to conduct an emergency late night trial? To what purpose? Who among the Jews would have imagined that it was urgent to apprehend Jesus, condemn him for blasphemy at an impromptu trial, and then convince the Romans to execute him? If he was guilty of blasphemy, why demand of the Romans that they crucify him as an enemy of the state? Why do all of these on the eve of the Passover, one of the holiest days of the year? If Jesus’ offense was blasphemy he represented no threat to anyone. Jesus could simply have been detained and the issue dealt with the following week after the pressing distractions of holiday rituals had concluded. Thus, the entire premise of Mark’s account is absurd on the face of it. It is a fictionalized tale punctuated with the ludicrous kiss of betrayal, a nonsensical trial, and a Roman crucifixion as penalty for a Jewish religious offense. Jesus ends up dying between two morally depraved thieves who, unfazed by the agony and terror of their own crucifixion, remain outwardly focused enough to heap ridicule upon Jesus. Mark finished his tale with the sad caricature of the despicable Jewish authorities mercilessly taunting Jesus in his dying moments, followed in counterpoint with the angelic Roman centurion’s recognition of Jesus as Son of God. From end to end, Mark’s account is historically incoherent, an imaginary tale manufactured out of whole cloth designed to appease a Roman audience.

The Message Vacuum in Ur-John

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of Ur-John’s portrayal of Jesus is that it does not contain much information about the message of Jesus other than his proclamation of messiahship. His message obviously provoked the wrath of the authorities, but Ur-John remains largely silent on what that message was. Jesus is characterized as a teacher on numerous occasions, but other than calls to believe in him as the Christ, it is unclear what he taught. In this passage, the author indicates that the audience is impressed with Jesus’ teaching while making no mention of what it was that impressed them: 

14 About the middle of the feast Jesus went up into the temple and taught. 15 The Jews marveled at it, saying, "How is it that this man has learning, when he has never studied?" (Ur-John 7:15-15)

A similar reference occurs here, in which the officers are overwhelmed by the teaching of Jesus, but it is not clear what he had said to garner such a reaction: 

43 So there was a division among the people over him. 44 Some of them wanted to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him. 45 The officers then went back to the chief priests and Pharisees, who said to them, "Why did you not bring him?" 46 The officers answered, "No man ever spoke like this man!" 47 The Pharisees answered them, "Are you led astray, you also? 48 Have any of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him? 49 But this crowd, who do not know the law, are accursed." 50 Nicode'mus, who had gone to him before, and who was one of them, said to them, 51 "Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?" (Ur-John 7:43-51)

In the interrogation of Jesus by Annas, the author indicates that there is confusion regarding the content of Jesus’ teaching. However, Jesus refuses to clarify or summarize, but instead tells him to go ask those who had heard him:

19 The high priest then questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching. 20 Jesus answered him, "I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all Jews come together; I have said nothing secretly. 21 Why do you ask me? Ask those who have heard me, what I said to them; they know what I said." (Ur-John 18:19-21)

Thus, not only does Ur-John maintain silence on the historical message of Jesus, but the author is acutely aware that he is doing so; this was not an unintended oversight. He knows the audience for whom he was writing was aware of the content of Jesus’ teaching—“ask those who have heard me, what I said to them; they know what I said.” Furthermore, the author did not construct this overarching theme of secrecy just to avoid a few incidental aphorisms and parables. The author knows he is suppressing the central tenets of the message of Jesus. Anyone who read Ur-John in the mid-first century would have come away with the same question we ask today: What did Jesus teach that the author did not want to put in writing?

The explanation for Ur-John’s silence on Jesus’ message is likely the most obvious one: Given that Ur-John’s Jesus was promoting his kingship, that people proclaimed him as the coming King of Israel, and that he was put to death via a method reserved for persons accused of sedition, it is not much of a stretch to suppose that the central teachings of Jesus were anti-Roman in nature. If Jesus was convinced that a restored Kingdom of Israel was imminent and that he would be instrumental in shepherding its arrival, there is little doubt that he would have been preaching the illegitimacy of the Roman occupation of Judea. He would have been railing against the injustice of an onerous taxation system in which the peasant class was forced to pay taxes to Caesar. He would very likely have been advocating civil disobedience in the form of tax resistance. And he would have been using this highly charged rhetoric to stir the people to rise up. There is no mystery as to why this message would have been fully suppressed by the movement. It would explain the fundamental anomaly at the heart of the Ur-John document—that it depicts a messiah without a message. Yet it also resolves other pervasive but unexplained elements of the Jesus story including the immediate and persistent hostility of the authorities, the reports that they were out to kill him, the peculiar confusion, ambivalence, and possible openness  toward Jesus among some of the Pharisees, the outward hostility of others, and most obviously, the arrest of Jesus and his crucifixion as a would-be King of the Jews.

Ultimately, the message vacuum in Ur-John explains the rise of the radically different Synoptic tradition. If major components of Jesus’ teaching had consisted of anti-Roman rhetoric, then suppressing that material would have left a gaping ideological hole in the movement’s preaching quite like the one visible in Ur-John. As the movement matured, there would have been an urgent need to fill that hole, and it would need to be filled with messaging acceptable to the Romans. So as the movement faced a pressing need to redefine the mission and message of Jesus it when through a metamorphosis driven by fundamental questions: If Jesus had been a teacher, what did he teach? If he was the Christ, what did it mean to believe in him? If he was raised, where was he now and what should we anticipate in the future? If Jesus had not meant to usher in a restored Kingdom of Israel, what was the purpose of his life and death, and what was the mission of the ongoing movement? The movement’s answers to all of these questions are found in Mark, Luke, Matthew, and ultimately the later interpretive overlays in canonical John.

Newton’s Third Law says that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction; forces always come in pairs. What is true in physics applies here as well. Though the early Jesus movement suppressed the inflammatory anti-Roman rhetoric of Jesus, we can certainly witness the equal and opposite reaction to it in the Gospel of Mark, the first publication to offer a decisively pro-Roman alternative to Ur-John. Mark began by relocating the ministry of Jesus exclusively in rural Galilee; not only does Jesus avoid Jerusalem, he also avoids Tiberias and Sepphoris, the two centers of political and economic power in Galilee at the time. The objective of the mythical rural Galilean ministry was to eliminate any possibility of construing Jesus as one who had intended to confront the Jerusalem establishment. Mark highlighted a ministry of healing the sick and casting out demons—activities wholly unrelated to political concerns. Mark introduced the spiritual kingdom of God as a central theme of Jesus’ message—an otherworldly kingdom that had nothing to do with Roman rule. Along with it came the parable tradition—a source of confusion foundational to the claim that Jesus’ coming kingdom message had been misunderstood all along. He created the Messianic Secret to argue that Jesus had actively resisted attempts to characterize him as messiah or political aspirant of any kind. Mark also introduced the Son of man as a spiritual/apolitical title that invokes no hint of messianism. He introduced angels, demons, and a temptation by Satan to situate Jesus at the center of a cosmic spiritual drama rather than a political one. He introduced the theological premise that the death of Jesus was preordained by God, which had the side benefit of mitigating Roman moral culpability in his execution. Mark promoted the newly minted concept of Jesus befriending and dining with tax collectors to offset the memory that he had collaborated against them. He neutralized the memory of Jesus as having advocating tax resistance with the saying “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” Mark eliminated the Roman soldiers from the arrest party and replaced them with a crowd of Jews with swords and clubs. He concocted the dramatic kiss of betrayal to illustrate that Jesus alone, not his disciples, was marked for arrest. Mark introduced the accusation of blasphemy as the source of conflict between Jesus and Jewish leaders—a religious infraction of no consequence to the Romans. He created the fictitious midnight trial before the Sanhedrin at which Jesus is condemned for blasphemy, absolving the Romans of responsibility and creating a distraction from the memory that he had claimed kingship of Israel. As a final tip of the hat to Rome, after the Jewish chief priests and passers-by despicably revile Jesus in his dying moments, Mark produces the angelic Roman centurion declaring, “Truly this man was the Son of God.”

Thus at every opportunity, Mark is driven to cloak the Jesus story in Roman-friendly garb, even to the point of obvious fabrication. To be sure, in many ways the Gospel of Mark is a brilliantly conceived literary composition. It is an impressive display of theological interpretation featuring an occasional prophecy historicized, but far less history remembered. Despite its literary complexity, at the end of the day the Gospel of Mark is, in its essence, a mythical whitewashing of the Jesus story motivated by the need to survive under Roman rule. Its sweeping revisualization of Jesus reads like an obsequious bow to Rome. This cannot have emerged out of a politically neutral context. It is a reactionary text by an author consumed by the desire to negate historical memories of Jesus as one who had stood against Rome. The Gospel of Mark is, in essence, a whole cloth fabrication of the Jesus story designed to obscure history rather than to record or enlighten it. The Jesus quest has failed in no small measure due to the academy’s misguided reliance upon Mark as a trustworthy historical source.


The Historical Jesus

At the historical core of the Christian tradition stands a man who led an uprising against the Roman occupation of Judea. He was cheered by his followers as an arriving king, and he actively promoted himself as one. He operated out of a conviction that if the people rose up with sufficient faith and political action, God would purge the hated Romans from Jerusalem and reestablish a sovereign Kingdom of Israel. The anti-Roman rhetoric of the historical Jesus was largely suppressed by the movement, but echoes of it still resonate in the surviving first century writings of those who followed him.

There is nothing remarkable about this understanding of Jesus. There were several Jewish peasant uprisings featuring leaders who were proclaimed as kings both before and after Jesus. Athronges, a self-proclaimed messiah, led a rebellion against the Romans and Herod Archelaus (4 BC – 6 CE). Josephus writes of him:

Together with his brothers, [Athronges] slew a great many of both of Roman and of the king's forces, and managed matters with the like hatred to each of them. They fell upon the king's soldiers because of the licentious conduct they had been allowed under Herod's government; and they fell upon the Romans, because of the injuries they had so lately received from them.

The timing of this event is curious for one side note worthy of mention. There are two references to the age of Jesus in Ur-John. At one point the Jews say to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” (8:57). This would be a normal thing to say to a man in his mid-40s, but quite an odd thing to say to one who was only thirty as Luke suggests.  The second allusion to Jesus age in Ur-John is in this exchange:

Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." 20 the Jews then said, "It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?" 21 But he spoke of the temple of his body. (Ur-John 2:19-21)

The use of irony in John is well recognized. This may be one example of it. If the author perceived Jesus to have been forty-six years of age at the time, this would account for the unusually specific reference. And it would harmonize with the comment in 8:57 that Jesus was not yet fifty. If we had nothing but Ur-John to go on, we would assume Jesus was in his late forties at the time of his death. We do have Luke’s note that Jesus begun his ministry when he was about thirty years of age (Luke 3:23). However, Luke is writing about fifty years after the fact, and his birth narratives are the stuff of legend with obvious historical error. So there is no reason to believe Luke over Ur-John.  

The point of this side note is that if Jesus was in his late forties at the time of his death in 30 CE, he would have been in his mid-teen years at the time of the death of Herod in 4 BCE. The death of Herod sparked numerous peasant uprisings that were brutally suppressed by the Romans. Jesus would also have witnessed the Roman destruction of Sepphoris, just four miles from Nazareth, in 4 BCE. He would have seen many lives destroyed by the Romans very close to his own home town. These events would have provided ample opportunity for the radicalization of Jesus as a young man. The insurrection of Athronges would also have been something Jesus was following as a young man. It could well have been a role model, planting seeds and even the inspiration that led to Jesus’ own uprising.

In the end, there is insufficient data to determine the age of Jesus. The interpretation of Ur-John’s references is speculative. However, we do know that at the time of Jesus peasant uprisings led by persons proclaiming themselves to be king or messiah were not unusual. Richard Horsley, in Bandits, Prophets and Messiahs writes:

It appears that the ancient Israelite tradition of popular anointed kingship, though dormant during the Persian and Hellenistic periods, remained alive. It certainly reemerged in vigorous form just before and after the life of Jesus of Nazareth. In response to foreign domination, severe repression, and illegitimate Herodian kingship, peasant attempts to set things right took the form of messianic movements. They took back or destroyed the excesses of wealth that the ruling class had gained by exploiting their labor. They fought against the hated foreign domination by the Romans so that, led by the king whom they themselves had recognized or acclaimed, they could once again be free to live under the rule of God, according to the traditional covenantal ways. In some cases (Athronges, Simon bar Giora, Bar Kochba), before the Roman troops could suppress these large-scale movements, they were able to control and apparently govern their territories for several months, even years.[7]

All three of the rebels cited by Horsley, Athonges, Simon bar Giora and Simon bar Kokhba, were hailed by followers as messiahs that would restore the nation of Israel. Simon bar Giora was executed by the Romans as a would-be King of the Jews, just as Jesus was. If there were at least several messianic rebellions against Rome, occurring both before and after Jesus, why would we have difficulty perceiving the Jesus movement as simply another example of it? Richard Horsley, writing more recently in 2011, sheds light on this conundrum:

For over a century, many critical scholars have come to one or another of two almost opposite conclusions, that Jesus must have been an apocalyptic visionary or that he was a wisdom teacher. It is hard to imagine, however, that either a visionary or an itinerant teacher would have been sufficiently threatening to the Roman imperial order that he would have been crucified. Not surprisingly, therefore, to explain why Jesus was crucified, some still argue that Jesus must have claimed to be or must have been acclaimed by followers as “the Messiah” (presumably at the “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem).

        Historical research and critical examination of the sources in the last forty or fifty years suggest that this last position is highly unlikely, however, for two principle reasons: (a) there is little textual evidence for a standard Judean expectation of “the Messiah,” which means that the question must be reformulated; and (b) the earliest sources for Jesus death do not present him as (claiming to be or acclaimed as) an anointed one or king during his mission or in its climax in Jerusalem.[8] (emphasis added)

Our earliest sources for Jesus (other than Paul), the series of speeches in Q, Mark’s Gospel, and “Peter’s” speeches in Acts, thus offer no support for the view that Jesus was crucified because he or his followers claimed he was a messiah or king.[9] (emphasis added)

The problem therefore is simple: contemporary New Testament scholarship over the last half century has operated on the premise that Q and Mark are the “earliest sources.” Scholars routinely assume this to be an assured finding of NT scholarship that is beyond question. Accordingly, Q and Mark are proclaimed to be our most reliable windows into the historical Jesus. All Jesus reconstructions in the last half-century have been heavily influenced by this one foundational presupposition. If a saying or concept is not in Mark or Q, then its historicity is doubtful. To the example at hand, since Mark and Q do not support the view that Jesus was a would-be king, Horsley does not entertain the possibility.

The problem is that Mark is not the earliest source, for the Ur-John narrative certainly predates Mark. As discussed above, Mark is best understood as a second-generation reinterpretation of Jesus, a thoroughly reworked vision of Jesus designed to appeal to (or at least to not offend) Roman authorities. The notion that Mark can be relied upon for trustworthy information concerning the historical Jesus is simply false. Furthermore, Ur-John, the actual earliest surviving source, does portray Jesus as an acclaimed king and messiah and it does so unabashedly. Conversely, there is no hint in Ur-John that either Jesus or John the Baptist were in any sense apocalyptic preachers, contra Erhman’s claim that the “earliest sources available to us…all portray Jesus apocalyptically.”

What are we to make of this confusion? In the last half century Jesus scholars have produced a variety of plausible but mutually incompatible reconstructions based on the assumption that the Jesus of history must be located somehow, somewhere, in Mark and Q, and that John’s Gospel is of marginal relevance to the quest. Discounting the historicity of John is an egregious error that has so far been fatal to the enterprise. Geza Vermes states unequivocally of Jesus quest methodology:

Research has to be restricted to Mark, Matthew, and Luke and to exclude John because, despite the occasional historical detail it contains, its Jesus portrait is so evolved theologically as to be wholly unsuitable for historical investigation.[10]

Paul Anderson summarizes the role of John’s Gospel in the modern Jesus quest as follows:

John’s historical riddles are among the most perplexing features of any biblical text. Whereas John’s theological riddles especially captivated the attention of ancient theologians, John’s historical riddles have evoked some of the most explosive religious and scholarly discussions in modern times. Put bluntly, the “consensus” of modern critical scholarship regarding John’s historicity actually involves two platforms: the dehistoricization of John and the de-Johannification of Jesus. First, because John differs so much from the three Synoptic Gospels, its historicity is often doubted where those differences are most pronounced. Second, its pervasively theological thrust eclipses its distinctive historical features in the judgment of many a critical scholar. Therefore, the three modern quests for Jesus (the “Original Quest” of the nineteenth century, the “New Quest” from the 1950s to the present, and the “Third Quest” using more interdisciplinary methodologies over the last three decades) have one thing in common: they leave John on the shelf, and programmatically so.[11] (emphasis original)

Thus, there is no mystery as to the root of the confusion: The only first century document that provides a coherent (albeit incomplete) image of Jesus in a credible historical context is the primitive narrative embedded in the Gospel of John. Meanwhile, the Synoptic gospels are second- and third-generation amalgamations of evolving depoliticized mythologies—Jesus as aphoristic sage, exorcist, healer of the sick, friend of outcasts and tax collectors, teacher of moral wisdom, magician, apocalyptic prophet, purveyor of parables, broker of the spiritual kingdom, son of a virgin, descendent of David, born in Bethlehem, misunderstood messiah and mystical Son of Man—anything but a would-be King of the Jews who challenged the legitimacy of Roman rule in Judea and was crucified for fomenting social unrest. The academy dives headlong into the Synoptic miasma of competing revisualizations of Jesus with confidence that there must be a way to sort the historical wheat from the mythical chaff, not realizing that it is overwhelm-ingly the latter. On the sidelines, far out of the limelight sits the theological Gospel of John, universally disqualified as admissible historical evidence, but containing the essential keys to the puzzle. NT scholarship has gotten it exactly wrong: the narrative in John is the earliest and best source for the historical Jesus; the Synoptic gospels are the mythologized and marginally relevant works. Little wonder that the two-hundred year quest for Jesus has failed to generate any consensus.




[1] As noted previously, Ur-John was composed by a literate and talented writer. This may very well have been an assistant to John, son of Zebedee, who was writing under his direction and authority.

[2] The Philip named as one of the Twelve is not to be confused with the Philip in Acts 6:5 and later references, who was clearly not one of the Twelve.

[3] The Church attributed authorship of the Gospel of Matthew to the apostle Matthew, whom the gospel itself identifies as the tax collector otherwise known as Levi in Mark and Luke. There is no historical credibility in this attribution, or in the notion that any of Jesus’ disciples were tax collectors.  Matthew is otherwise unknown in the gospels and Acts.

[4] Oakman, Douglas, The Political Aims of Jesus, p. 70

[5] Chilton, Bruce, Rabbi Jesus, an Intimate Biography, p. 172

[6] Fredriksen, Paula, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, p. 255

[7] Horsley, Richard and Hanson, John, Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs, 1999,  p. 131

[8] Horsley, Richard, Jesus and the Powers; Conflict, Covenant, and the Hope of the Poor, p. 198

[9] Horsley, ibid, p. 194

[10] Vermes, Geza, The Religion of Jesus the Jew, 1993, p. 4

[11] Anderson, Paul, The Riddles of the Fourth Gospel: An Introduction to John, 2011, p. 46