Here I return to the quiz I gave my undergraduate class the first day of the term; I have been explaining why I ask the questions I do and what I would like my students to learn from them. Here now are three more of the questions
- Name three Gospels from outside the New Testament
Some students may know something like the Gospel of Thomas, but, well, not many even know this one. In the course we spend most of our time, of course, talking about Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. But we also look at some of the amazing non-canonical Gospels:
- The Gospel of Peter. This is a fragmentary alternative account of Jesus’ trial, death, and resurrection, with unusually interesting features, including an actual description of the resurrection. People are surprised to hear this, but the New Testament Gospels do *not* describe the resurrection. They indicate that Jesus was buried, and then they jump to the third day when his tomb is discovered empty. The event itself is not narrated. But it is in the Gospel of Peter. And it’s a remarkable story, of Jesus emerging from the tomb taller than a mountain, supported by two giant angels (not quite as tall), followed then by the cross which speaks to a divine voice that comes from heaven! A giant Jesus and a walking, talking cross….
- The Infancy Gospel of Thomas. This is an entertaining account of Jesus as a boy, showing how the supernatural powers he had as an adult were already evident when he was young. He has many of the same kinds of controversies he will have later in life – with overly zealous Jews insistent on keeping a strict view of Sabbath, with scribes, with teachers who think they know more than he does. But in this case – hey, he’s just a kid! – he curses those who irritate him, either maiming or killing them. OK then! But in the end he ends up doing good and, well, healing and raising those he had earlier harmed.
- The Proto-Gospel of James. This is the “Gospel before the Gospel” (hence its name) about the miraculous birth of Mary (she is not born of a virgin but to parents who were barren), her miraculous upbringing (she is raised in the temple of Jerusalem and fed daily by an angel), her betrothal to Joseph, and then her own miraculous conception of Jesus. In this account, after the birth of Jesus a dubious midwife gives Mary an internal exam to see if she really is still a virgin and, yup, she sure is!
- The Coptic Gospel of Thomas. This is a collection of 114 sayings of Jesus, with no narrative of any kind – just one saying after the other. About half of them are very similar to ones you can find in Matthew, Mark, and Luke – and many scholars think that the phrasing found in Thomas is probably more likely what Jesus actually said. The other half seem very peculiar to modern readers; mystical, mind-bending. Scholars for a long time called this a Gnostic gospel but these days most are not sure it represents a gnostic point of view, even though it does teach that salvation comes by understanding the meaning of Jesus’ secret teachings.
- Gnostic Gospels of Philip, Mary, and Judas. These on the other hand are Gnostic in one way or another, also stressing the secret teachings of Jesus that can provide knowledge that leads to salvation, but rooted in set of (to modern hearers’) bizarre Gnostic myths about how the world and the divine realm came into being.
So the point of this question is to get students to realize that the canonical Gospels are just four that were on offer in early Christianity. They are indeed most likely to be the four earliest that survive; and more than the others they do provide historical information about Jesus himself. But they, like the others, are all different not just from the others but from one another; and all of them are more easily studied for what they want to tell us about Jesus than for knowing what Jesus himself was all about: they all represent distinctive points of view, perspectives, ideas, and understandings of who Jesus is and what he accomplished.
- What does the word “Gospel” mean?
It comes from the Old English term for “good news,” which is a translation of the Greek term εὐαγγέλιον EUANGELLION (from which we get the word “evangelist,” which is why the Gospel writers are sometimes called the “four evangelists”). I think it is important that these books are called “Gospels,” and not, for example, “biographies” or “histories.” By calling them Gospels the early Christians acknowledged that their intention was not just to give the bare facts of history, but to describe the events of Jesus’ life and death in order to convey an important theological message. These are “proclamations of the truth,” as the Christians saw it. Their purpose is to make religious claims about Jesus, not simply to recount what happened in the past. That in turn means that can’t be read simply as history books, even if they do discuss past events.
- According to the Gospels, who baptized Jesus? Who carried his cross? Who buried him?
Most of my students get the first right (John the Baptist); those raised in the church often get the third (Joseph of Arimathea); but they tend to disagree on the second. Some say Simon (of Cyrene), and others say Jesus himself.
And I use that as a teaching moment Mark’s Gospel, followed by Matthew and Luke, indicates that Simon of Cyrene was compelled to carry the cross. John’s Gospel says that Jesus himself carried the cross all the way. Oh. Uh, how can it be both?
I use this as the first example to the class of what looks like a contradiction. In fact, I think it is one, but I tell them to see if they can figure out a solution. And then I tell them that we will be watching films to see how directors deal with the problem. Do they follow Mark? Or John? Or some kind of reconciling view of their own? The last solution is the most interesting.
I’ve seen over the years that many people think that Jesus started out carrying his cross; he stumbled under the weight because he was weak from flogging; and then the Roman soldiers compelled Simon to take the cross the rest of the way. But that sequence happened is found in precisely *none* of the Gospels (it’s either Simon or Jesus, not first one then the other).
Another solution found in some films (such as the Greatest Story ever Told, where Max von Sydow is Jesus and Simon is played by Sidney Poitier!) is that *both* of them carry the cross, simultaneously. Hey, that solves the problem! But again, it’s something none of the Gospels says.
It’s interesting how even the most simply questions about the Gospels can uncover major problems; then again, if the Gospels posed no problems, there would be no need for biblical scholarship. Everyone could just read them and know everything that there is to be known!