FOTCM Logo
Cassiopaea
  • EN
  • FR
  • DE
  • RU
  • TR
  • ES
  • ES

The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins by Burton L. Mack

Book Review by Laura Knight-Jadczyk

Note:

Q is short for the German word Quelle (which is source). Q is one of the two sources for Matthew and Luke, the other being old Mark, but the unknown lost source is now named Q. While this subject comes up under the subject heading of Q hypothesis – (synoptics criticism), since the discovery of the Gospel of Thomas, it really isn’t a hypothesis anymore. But it looks like that subject heading will stick. But more and more books are indexing Q as Sayings Gospel Q. The first layer of Q is known as Q1.

Two years ago I wrote a bit about Christianity based on the research I had done up to that point. In recent months, I have revisited the subject at the suggestion of several people, one of whom promoted the book by Tony Bushby, The Bible Fraud. This book was already on hand in our library, but I had discarded it in disgust at the time I originally began to read it (in 2002, I believe) because I had noted a “twisting” of the facts in the first chapter. However, at the urging of a correspondent, I revisited this book, reading it through to the end. Indeed, there were a number of interesting references, but again I found it to be a frustrating read because these references were often used in a very loose way intended to support the incredible leaps of assumption, and a wholly fantastic story. Bushby, like so many others, began with the assumption that at least SOME of the “facts” of the narrative gospels were true, however distorted or misrepresented.

In any event, reading Bushby’s book started me off on the search for Christian origins again, and that led me to The Lost Gospel by Burton L. Mack. Let me say in advance that I highly recommend this book, and I hope that the excerpts I am going to present here will stimulate interest in the details that Mack presents in his fascinating discussion of the discovery of Q (the theorized source document for the basic ideas of Jesus) and the subsequent analyses that helped to extract the truth of early Christian history.

Mack begins his discussion saying:

Once upon a time, before there were gospels of the kind familiar to readers of the New Testament, the first followers of Jesus wrote another kind of book. Instead of telling a dramatic story about Jesus’ life, their book contained only his teachings. They lived with these teachings ringing in their ears and thought of Jesus as the founder of their movement. But their focus was not on the person of Jesus or his life and destiny. They were engrossed with the social program that was called for by his teachings. Thus their book was not a gospel of the Christian kind, namely a narrative of the life of Jesus as the Christ. Rather it was a gospel of Jesus’ sayings, a “sayings gospel.” His first followers arranged these sayings in a way that offered instructions for living creatively in the midst of a most confusing time, and their book served them well as a handbook and guide for most of the first Christian century.

Then the book was lost… to history somewhere in the course of the late first century when stories of Jesus’ life began to be written and became the more popular form of charter document for early Christian circles. [...]

For the first followers of Jesus, the importance of Jesus as the founder of their movement was directly related to the significance they attached to his teachings. What mattered most was the body of instructions that circulated in his name, what these teachings called for in terms of ideas, attitudes, and behavior, and the difference these instructions made in the lives of those who took them seriously. But as the Jesus movement spread, groups in different locations and changing circumstances began to think about the kind of life Jesus must have lived. Some began to think of him in the role of a sage, for instance, while others thought of him as a prophet, or even as an exorcist who had appeared to rid the world of its evils. This shift from interest in Jesus’ teachings to questions about Jesus’ person, authority, and social role eventually produced a host of different mythologies.

The mythology that is most familiar to Christians of today developed in groups that formed in northern Syria and Asia Minor. There Jesus’ death was first interpreted as a martyrdom and then embellished as a miraculous event of crucifixion and resurrection. This myth drew on Hellenistic mythologies that told about the destiny of a divine being (or son of God). Thus these congregations quickly turned into a cult of the resurrected or transformed Jesus whom they now referred to as the Christ… The congregation of the Christ … experienced a striking shift in orientation, away from the teachings of Jesus [...]

Narrative gospels began to appear. [...] These gospels combined features of the martyr myth from the Christ cult with traditions about Jesus as he had been remembered in the Jesus movements, thereby locating the significance of Jesus in the story of his deeds and destiny. Naturally, these gospels came to a climax in an account of his trial, crucifixion, and resurrection from the dead. They followed a plot that was first worked out by Mark during the 70s in the wake of the Roman-Jewish war. The plot collapsed the time between the events of Jesus’ life and the destruction of the Jerusalem temple which took place during the war. Mark achieved this plot by making connections between two sets of events (Jesus’ death and the temple’s destruction) that could only have been imagined after the war. His gospel appears to have been the earliest full-blown written composition along these lines, but once it was conceived, all the narrative gospels used this same basic plot. [...]

The first followers of Jesus could not have imagined, nor did they need, such a mythology to sustain them in their efforts to live according to his teachings. Their sayings gospel was quite sufficient for the Jesus movement as they understood it. [...] Even after the narrative gospels became the rage, the saying gospel was still intact. It was still being copied and read with interest by ever-widening circles. And it was available in slightly different versions in the several groups that continued to develop within the Jesus movement. Eventually, the narrative gospels prevailed as the preferred portrayal for Christians, and the sayings gospel finally was lost to the historical memory of the Christian church.

Were it not for the fact that two authors of narrative gospels incorporated sizable portions of the sayings gospel into their stories of Jesus’ life, the sayings gospel of the first followers of Jesus would have disappeared without a trace in the transitions taking place. [...] But Matthew and Luke each had a copy of the sayings gospel… It was this fortuitous coincidence that made it possible in recent times to recover the book [...]

By reading Q carefully, it is possible to catch sight of those earlier followers of Jesus. We can see them on the road, at the market, and at one another’s homes. We can hear them talking about appropriate behavior; we can sense the spirit of the movement and their attitudes about the world. A sense of purpose can be traced through subtle changes in their attitudes toward other groups over a period of two or three generations of vigorous social experimentation. It is a lively picture. And it is complete enough to reconstruct the history that happened between the time of Jesus and the emergence of the narrative gospels that later gave the Christian church its official account of Christian beginnings.

The remarkable thing about the people of Q is that they were not Christians. They did not think of Jesus as a messiah or the Christ. They did not take his teachings as an indictment of Judaism. They did not regard his death as a divine, tragic, or saving event. And they did not imagine that he had been raised from the dead to rule over a transformed world. Instead, they thought of him as a teacher whose teachings made it possible to live with verve in troubled times. Thus they did not gather to worship in his name, honor him as a god, or cultivate his memory through hymns, prayers, and rituals. They did not form a cult of the Christ… The people of Q were Jesus people, not Christians. [...]

In Q there is no hint of a select group of disciples, no program to reform the religion or politics of Judaism, no dramatic encounter with the authorities in Jerusalem, no martyrdom for the cause, much less a martyrdom with saving significance for the ills of the world, and no mention of a first church in Jerusalem. The people of Q simply did not understand their purpose to be a mission to the Jews, or to gentiles for that matter. They were not out to transform the world or start a new religion.

Q’s challenge to the popular conception of Christian origins is therefore clear. If the conventional view of Christian beginnings is right, how are we to account for these first followers of Jesus? Did they fail to get his message? Were they absent when the unexpected happened? Did they carry on in ignorance or in repudiation of the Christian gospel of salvation? If, however, the first followers of Jesus understood the purpose of their movement just as Q describes it, how are we to account for the emergence of the Christ cult, the fantastic mythologies of the narrative gospels, and the eventual establishment of the Christian church and religion? Q forces the issue of rethinking Christian origins as no other document from the earliest times has done. [...]

With Q in view the entire landscape of early Christian history and literature has to be revised. [...]

The narrative gospels can no longer be viewed as the trustworthy accounts of unique and stupendous historical events at the foundation of the Christian faith. The gospels must now be seen as the result of early Christian mythmaking. Q forces the issue, for it documents an earlier history that does not agree with the narrative gospel accounts. [...]

The issues raised are profound and far reaching. [...] They strike to the heart of an entrenched reluctance in our society to discuss the mythic foundations for attitudes and values, both shared and conflictual, that influence the way we think, behave, and construct our institutions. Q can hardly be discussed without engaging in some honest talk about Christian myth and the American dream.

[The Lost Gospel by Burton L. Mack]

Well, you can say that again!

Christians, as a whole, are not comfortable with myth. Again and again we hear stories about this or that group of Fundies that want to ban such things as The Wizard of Oz, or Harry Potter, or Grimm’s Fairy Tales. We hear stories of censorship and exclusion of other ideas. The Christian mentality takes itself and its own myths way too seriously. They have to in order to maintain their “rightness.” This “rightness” is fundamental to the lynchpin of Christianity: Faith.

Faith that can “move mountains” is promoted by Christianity as the necessary thing that the “faithful” must cultivate in order to receive the benefits that are promised by the religion. And so it seems that admitting, reading, discussing, myths in general is perceived as opening a door to the insinuation that maybe – just maybe – Christianity itself might be a myth.

The example of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac, has been trotted out for ages as the supreme example of how one is to approach the “god”. One must be willing to give the god anything and everything! This “Faith” is an essential part of the “covenant” with the god – a sort of “act of trade”, so to say. You must “believe in Jesus and his atonement” to be saved.

What would happen if a good Christian was to read the myths of other cultures and discover that the story about the almost sacrifice of Abraham in the Bible is actually nearly identical to a Vedic story of Manu? Mack writes about the Christian resistance to myth as follows:

This strong resistance [to myth] is … a peculiarity integral to the Christian myth itself. The Christian myth was generated in a social experiment aware of its recent beginnings, and because the myth was about those beginnings, early Christians imagined their myth as history. The myth focused on the importance of Jesus as the founder figure of the movements, congregations, and institutions Christians were forming. Thus history and myth were fused into a single characterization, and the myths of origin were written and imagined as having happened at a recent time and in a specific place.

Christians of the second, third, and fourth centuries found themselves troubled by the resemblance of their myths to both Greek and Jewish mythologies. They could distance themselves from these other cultures and distinguish their myths from the others only by emphasizing the recent historical setting of their myths and the impression given by the narrative gospels that the myths really happened. [The Lost Gospel by Burton L. Mack]

What seems to be so is that it is generally individuals who have been “disenfranchised” or who feel helpless and at the mercy of the forces of life – whether they manifest through other people or random events – who are those most likely to seek such faith, such a surety that their myths, and theirs alone, are the RIGHT ones. They feel acutely their own inability to have an effect in the world, and they turn their creativity inward to create and maintain their subjective “faith” in opposition to objective reality.

They then spend an enormous amount of energy editing out all impressions that are contrary to their system of illusion. They become “The Right Man” (or woman).

It is extremely important to get others to believe in their illusion in order to confirm its “rightness”, even if they claim, on the surface, that “everyone has the right to their own opinion”. The fact is, they cannot tolerate anyone else’s opinion if it is different from their own because it threatens their “rightness”. And this is the reason that they are so “serious” and rejecting of such frivolity as myths, fairy tales, and so on.

This rightness must be maintained at all costs because, deep inside, the Right Man (or woman) is usually struggling with horror at their own helplessness. Their rightness is a dam that holds back their worst fears: that they are lost and alone and that there really is no god, because how could there be a god who loves them if they have to suffer so much? Their inability to feel truly loved and accepted deep within is, in effect, like being stranded in a nightmare from which they cannot wake up.

Faith. This is the thing that, historically, has caused individuals to engage in violence against other human beings.

This “faith” can be induced by manipulations and promises of heavenly or other rewards, this “rightness” of one’s views, of one’s god, and what the god is supposedly “revealing” to the leader, and this can then be used to manipulate other people to do one’s bidding.

And so it seems that the requirement of “faith” and “worship” of an object of cultic value such as Jehovah, Yahweh, Jesus or Allah is the means by which human beings can be induced to commit atrocities upon other human beings.

But that is not what the Jesus people were about originally.

Mack’s discussion shows how the Jesus movement was a vigorous social experiment that was generated for reasons other than an “originating event” such as a “religious experience” or the “birth of the son of God.”

The Jesus movement seems to have been a response to troubled and difficult times. Mack outlines and describes the times, and shows how the pressures of the milieu led to thinking new thoughts about traditional values and experimenting with associations that crossed ethnic and cultural boundaries. The Jesus movement was composed of novel social notions and lifestyles that denied and rejected traditional systems of honor based on power, wealth, and place in hierarchical social structures. Ancient religious codes of ritual purity, taboos against intercourse across ethnic boundaries, were rejected. People were encouraged to think of themselves as belonging to the larger, human family. Q says: “If you embrace only your brothers, what more are you doing than others?”

The Jesus people not only rejected the old order of things, they were actively at work on the questions of what ideal social order they wanted to manifest and promote. The attraction of the Jesus people to its followers was not at all based on any ideas to reform a religious tradition that had gone wrong, nor was it even thought of as a new religion in any way. It was quite simply a social movement that sought to enhance human values that grew out of an unmanageable world of confusing cultures and social histories. It was a group of like-minded individuals that created a forum for thinking about the world in new ways, coming up with new ideas that included the shocking notion that an ethnically mixed group could form its own kind of community and live by its own rules. Mack writes:

At first no one was in charge of the groups that formed around such teachings. Conversation and mutual support were enough to encourage an individual to act “naturally,” as if the normal expectations of acquiescence to social conventions did not apply. As groups formed in support of like-minded individuals, however, loyalty to the Jesus movement strengthened, a social vision for human well-being was generated within the group, and social codes for the movement had to be agreed upon . Why not ask when in need and share what one had when asked, they wondered? Eventually, therefore, the Jesus movement took the form of small groups meeting together as extended families in the heady pursuit of what they called God’s kingdom.

To explore human community based on fictive kinship without regard to standard taboos against association based on class, status, gender, or ethnicity would have created quite a stir, and would have been its own reward. Since there was no grand design for actualizing such a vision, different groups settled into practices that varied from one another. Judging from the many forms of community that developed within the Jesus movement, as documented in literature that begins to appear toward the end of the first century, these groups continued to share a basic set of attitudes. They all had a certain critical stance toward the way life was lived in the Greco-Roman world. They all struggled not to be determined by the emptiness of human pursuits in a world of codes they held to be superficial. [...] Despite these agreements, however, every group went its own way and drew different conclusions about what to think and do. [The Lost Gospel by Burton L. Mack]

In addition to reconstructing the times in which the Jesus people lived, Mack presents the Q document itself, showing that it was built up in three layers, each layer being additions made in response to external pressures on the group. What is most interesting is the analysis of the first layer, the one that must be composed of the actual teachings of the man called Jesus. It seems that Jesus’ challenge to his followers was to take a deeper look at their world and challenge it in how they lived their lives.

Seven clusters of teachings, or sayings, emerged from the study of Q, and each of these express a coherent set of issues. These sayings comprise a comprehensive set of sage observations that delight in critical comment on the everyday world and unorthodox instructions that recommend unconventional behavior! The ever-present theme of Jesus’ teachings was a review of life and conventional values that promoted the idea that customary pretensions are hollow, wealth, learning, possessions, secrets, rank, and power are meaningless in terms of the true value of a human being. Jesus was promoting the idea that the Emperor is naked, though in no way did he propose any idea of changing the system. Implicit in his critique is the idea that there is a better way to live. The challenge was to be able to live without being consumed with worry even if one was fully aware that the world “out there” was a dangerous jungle that required care to navigate.

When fully analyzed and compared with other norms of the time, Jesus emerges as a man living the life of the popular philosophy of the Cynic. This is striking because the Cynics are remembered as distinctly unlovable because they promoted biting sarcasm and public behavior that was designed to call attention to the absurdity of standard conventions. Cynics were:

“critics of conventional values and oppressive forms of government. [...] Their gifts and graces ranged from the endurance of a life of renunciation in full public view, through the courage to offer social critique in high places, to the learning and sophistication required for the espousal of Cynic views at the highest level of literary composition. Justly famous as irritants to those who lived by the system and enjoyed the blessings of privilege, prosperity, and power, the Cynics were rightly regarded for their achievement in honing the virtue of self-sufficiency in the midst of uncertain times.

The crisp sayings of Jesus in Q show that his followers thought of him as a Cynic-like sage. [...]

These popular philosophers of a natural way of life did not wander off to suffer in silence. Their props were a setup for a little game of gotcha with the citizens of the town. [...] The Cynic’s purpose was to point out the disparities sustained by the social system and refuse to let the system put him in his place. [...] The marketplace was the Cynic’s platform, the place to display a living example of freedom from social and cultural constraints, and a place from which to address townspeople about the current state of affairs. [...] The challenge for a Cynic was to see the humor in a situation and quickly turn it to advantage. [...]

In our time there is no single social role with which to compare the ancient Cynics. But we do recognize the social critic and take for granted a number of ways in which social and cultural critique are expressed. These compare nicely with various aspects of the Cynic’s profession. For example, we are accustomed to the social critique of political cartoonists, standup comedians, and especially of satire in the genre of the cabaret. All of these use humor to make their point. We are also accustomed to social critique in a more serious and philosophical vein, such as that represented by political commentary. And there is precedent for taking up an alternative lifestyle as social protest, from the utopian movement of the nineteenth century, to the counterculture movement of the 1960s, to the environmentalist protest of the 1980s and 1990s. The list could be greatly expanded, for much modern entertainment also sets its scenes against the backdrop of the unexamined taboos and prejudices prevailing in our time. Each of these approaches to critical assessment of our society (satire, commentary, and alternative lifestyle), bears some resemblance to the profession of the Cynic sage in late antiquity. [...]

Noting the Cynic’s wit should not divert our attention from their sense of vocation and purpose. Epictetus wrote that the Cynic could be likened to a spy or scout from another world or kingdom, whose assignment was to observe human behavior and render a judgment upon it. The Cynic could also be likened to a physician sent to diagnose and heal a society’s ills. [...] The Stoics sometimes claimed the Cynics as their precursors. [...]

[The Cynics] were much more interested in the question of virtue, or how an individual should live given the failure of social and political systems to support what they called a natural way of life. They borrowed freely from any and every popular ethical philosophy, such as that of the Stoics, to get a certain point across. That point was the cost to one’s intelligence and integrity if one blindly followed social convention and accepted its customary rationalizations. [...]

What counted most, they said, was a sense of personal worth and integrity. One should not allow others to determine one’s worth on the scale of social position. One already possessed all the resources one needed to live sanely and well by virtue of being a human being. Why not be true to the way in which the world actually impinges upon you [objectively]? Say what you want and what you mean. Respond to a situation as you see it in truth, not as the usual proprieties dictate. Do not let the world squeeze you into its mold. Speak up and act out. The invitation was to take courage and swim against the social currents that threatened to overwhelm and silence a person’s sense of verve. [...]

The Jesus people are best understood as those who noticed the challenge of the times in Galilee. They took advantage of the mix of peoples to tweak the authorities of any cultural tradition that presumed to set the standard for others. They found a way to encourage one another in the pursuit of sane and simple living. And they developed a discourse that exuded the Cynic spirit. [...]

Beliefs were not a major concern. Behavior was what mattered and the arena for the action was in public. The public sphere was not subjected to a systematic analysis, however, as if society’s ills had been traced to this or that particular cause. The social world was under review, to be sure, for the behavior recommended was intentionally non-conventional, mildly disruptive, and implicitly countercultural. But there is no indication that the purpose of this behavior was to change society at large. The way society worked in general was taken for granted, in the sense of “What more can one expect?” Instead, the imperatives were addressed to individuals as if they could live by other rules if they chose to do so. [...] It is important to see that the purpose of the change was not a social reform. The Jesus people were not organizing to fight Roman power or to reform Jewish religion. [The Lost Gospel by Burton L. Mack]

Apparently many responded to the movement and associations of like-minded people began to form. And then, something very interesting happened… Suddenly, in the next layer of Q, a heightened sense of belonging to a movement becomes obvious because injunctions given as aphorisms now become rules supported by arguments. At this point, the idea of the “Kingdom of God” enters the picture. This “Kingdom” was, apparently, a realm or domain in which the rule of God is actualized. The rule of God is what the Q people said they were representing in the world. For the Jesus people, this meant something quite different from what Christians now assume it to mean. First of all, there was nothing at all apocalyptic about it (all that came later). For the Jesus people, the Kingdom of God was compared repeatedly to the natural process of growth as witnessed in Nature. Everything about this “Kingdom of God” was practical, having to do with things that can be accomplished in contrast to the conventional life.

God’s kingdom can be announced, desired, affirmed, claimed, and signaled in a given human exchange. Thus the link between the notion of the rule of God and the pattern of Q’s countercultural practices is very, very strong. [...]

If the present forms of rule were far from the ideal, and the people knew it, something other than philosophical speculation was called for. The ideal kingdom had to be imagined as an alternative order with some relation to the present status quo. [...]

The language of rule or kingship came to be used as a metaphor for personal self-control. The term king no longer had to refer to an actual ruler, and kingdom no longer had to refer to a political domain. “King” became a metaphor of a human being at its “highest” imaginable level, whether by endowment, achievement, ethical excellence, or mythical ideal. “Kingdom” became a metaphor for the “sovereignty” manifest in the “independent bearing,” “freedom,” “confidence,” and self-control of the superior person, the person of ethical integrity who thus could “rule” his “world” imperiously.

Stoics internalized the image of the king and idealized the individual who ruled his passions and controlled his attitudes even in circumstances where others governed his existence. Their strategy was to be hopeful about the constructive influence of such individuals on society. A popular Stoic maxim was “the only true king is the wise man.” Cynics were not as sanguine about the philosopher’s chance of influencing social reform, but they also used the royal metaphor to advantage. In their case, taking control of one’s life required extrication from the social scene. [...]

The use of the term kingdom of God in Q matches its use in the traditions of popular philosophy, especially in the Cynic tradition of performing social diagnostics in public by means of countercultural behavior. The aphoristic imperatives recommended a stance toward life in the world that could become the basis for an alternative community ethos and ethic among those willing to consider an alternative social vision. [...] The language of the rule of God in Q refers not only to the challenge of risky living without expectation that the social world will change but also to the exemplification of a way of life that like-minded persons might want to share. The God in question is not identified in terms of any ethnic or cultural tradition. [The Lost Gospel by Burton L. Mack]

The match between the Cynics and the Jesus people is not exact in all cases because the Jesus people DID have an interest in the “Divine” aspect of “God.” Unfortunately, there is little in the Q document that explains this Divine source other than the fact that the Jesus people represented it as a “Father” and those who could successfully resist the ruin of social evils were the “children of God.” The way the Jesus people referred to God was a bit more serious than the way the Cynics referred to such ideas. The Q people were concerned with the care of their members as a “family.” I would suggest that there was a perception of differences in human beings among the Q people, though Mack does not make a special point of analyzing that issue.

Mack continues to examine and identify the stages in the Jesus movement, including the point at which the movement experienced rejection, criticism, and censure. A sudden shift in tone is noted in the third layer of Q. This is one of the more interesting parts of the book which describes an extremely troubled phase of the movement. There is a concern with loyalty noted, which suggests that there had been pressure from some outside authority, and betrayal from within. At this point, the role of Jesus was expanded, and this seems to have been related to mutual recognition of other “Jesus people.” The movement must have been growing quite fast and threatening the authorities, and some action must have been taken which resulted in the need to find criteria for who was or was not a real follower of the teachings. So it was that concern for loyalty to the teachings resulted in the need to recast Jesus as the authoritative founder of the movement whose teachings must be “kept”. That is to say, the shift in focus was from the teachings to the teacher. The next step was, of course, loyalty to Jesus himself.

The question is, of course, what happened? The document doesn’t tell us, though it hints at the nature of the problem by virtue of the additional text that dealt with the issues. There were, obviously, painful experiences that were turned to a lesson. Mack suggests that the formation of Jesus people “families” must have seriously offended certain authorities. He writes:

This concern for loyalty to the movement is matched by signs of social distress. Tensions within the movement are indicated by the saying on scandals and the instruction to forgive a brother if he has a change of heart. But changes of heart have apparently not been the rule. Families have been torn asunder and the divisions have been rationalized as fully in keeping with the importance and purpose of the movement. Painful? Yes, but to be expected.

It seems that families were being split, and ethnic conventions were being personally challenged over loyalty to the movement. The evidence indicates that this occurred in relation to Judaism.

The story of the Beelzebub accusation is about rejection, conflict, and labeling Jesus and his followers as agents of a foreign (Syrian) god. Jesus’ retort about “your sons” turns the challenge back upon his questioners and directs the issue of conflict to the social world that Jesus shares with them. There are instructions about what to do in case one is called before the village authorities. [...]

The people of Q2 had not organized their movement to become a society with membership requirements and officers, much less with rites of entrance. But the rule of God that they represented was certainly in the process of being reconceived as a discrete domain or kingdom, and there was now a great deal of talk about “entering into” the kingdom or being excluded from it. [...] Loyalty to the Jesus movement had run up against the challenge of Jewish propriety and the question of belonging to the people of God as the children of Abraham, or Israel. And the Jesus people had taken this challenge seriously. The evidence for this includes the repeated appeals to biblical traditions, the preaching of John about the children of Abraham, the import of the Beelzebub accusation, and the list of counter charges leveled against Pharisees and lawyers. [The Lost Gospel by Burton L. Mack]

Here we find the most fascinating twist of all in the development of Christianity. If the Jesus people had not been attacked by the Jewish authorities, they would not have sought to justify their movement in terms of the Jewish religion. It was only in defense that they did this. They ran afoul of the Pharisaic code, probably because they had Jewish members whose families were horrified at the participation of their children or relatives in the new movement. The issue of loyalty came to be phrased as a “Jewish” question, and the Jesus people felt they had to answer it in Jewish terms.

One can easily understand how this situation might have developed if loyalties to the Jesus movement began to wear and tear at the fabric of families and villages in which Jewish sensibilities were strong. One can imagine a family worried about the involvement of some of its members in the Jesus movement. Attempts at dissuasion could have and must have taken many forms. But insisting upon traditional family loyalties, throwing up Pharisaic standards, and making arguments for preserving Jesus’ identity were apparently the ploys that struck home. They were in any case the ones that got a response from the Q people. And they triggered a spate of counter-charges that determined the emerging self-identification of the Jesus movement. [...]

The charges against the Pharisees and lawyers are especially interesting in this regard. The issues under debate were just what one might expect – washings, giving to charity, tithes, justice, honor, and knowledge. The list combines items typical for the Pharisaic code of ritual purity with items for which scribal representatives of the temple system of courts and taxation would be known. Such standards had apparently been held up as exemplary by families and village leaders seeking to chide their Jesus people into postures of propriety. Apparently the people of Q were not impressed. [...]

True to their Cynic heritage, the Jesus people were still capable of engaging in a bit of caustic riposte. The Pharisees were like tombs (so much for their desire to be honored), and the lawyers treated people like beasts of burden (so much for their claims to know the law and administer justice). [...]

Lo and behold, the people of Q linked the Pharisees and lawyers to the history of what their fathers did to the prophets. …

That is some ante. …

It is clear that the offense had registered and that the defense would be to beat the Jewish exemplars at their own game. [The Lost Gospel by Burton L. Mack]

And so it was that the Jesus people turned to the labor of mythmaking. They had to find ways to best their critics by turning their own words against them. They began to search for self-justifying arguments, examples in support of their own movement. They were only doing it in the sense of the Cynic system of argumentation, but the results were nonlinear. What they presented as their arguments was then adopted as REAL, and the Jesus people made an implicit claim on the cultural heritage of the Jews.

It is clear that the individuals who did this were not well versed in the Jewish writings. They made no appeals to such obvious things as the promises to the patriarchs, the priestly covenants, the Mosaic law, the Davidic covenant, and so on. Most of the allusions to Judaism were taken from popular oral traditions that would have been available to non-Jews of the time.

It is almost as if, when challenged by a Jewish orthodoxy, the Galileans appealed to what they knew of the popular epic traditions of Israel generally shared by Jews, Samaritans, and Galileans. [...] The people of Q worked these stories to their own advantage on the one hand, and to the detriment of their detractors’ claims to represent the true form of Israel on the other. [...]

The Jesus people were encouraged to think of themselves as “fortunate” because they were treated just as the prophets had been treated [by the Jews in ancient times.] The logic was that the epic tradition supported the Jesus people because they, like the prophets, registered appropriate criticism of the status quo. The motif of the killing of the prophets could also be cited to embarrass their detractors because they, just as the fathers always had done to the prophets, were wrongfully “persecuting” and “killing” the Jesus people. [...] The way the Jesus people of Q used the motif was not a particularly clever manipulation of the Hebrew scriptures of the logical thrust of the biblical epic. They simply took what there was in the Jewish reservoir of stock images and turned it against their detractors. [...]

Their achievement was a popping of pompous balloons and a freaky delight in seeing themselves reflected in the story at its most embarrassing turns. Think of Jonah. Were the Ninevites Jews? No. Did they not repent at Jonah’s preaching? Yes. Now think of Jesus and the Jesus movement in the very same light, only brighter.

Remember the

Queen of the South (Sheba)? Was she a Jew? No. Did Solomon withhold his wisdom from her? No. See? Something greater even than Solomon is here.

And the story of Noah? Be careful whose side you are on. Everyone else perished you know. It is going to be the same story… And the same goes for Lot and the city of Sodom. He was called out; they were destroyed.

So there is your epic, they seemed to be saying, if you want to know what we are about, read it. [...]

Their movement certainly was not generated by an apocalyptic hysteria or persuasion of imminent judgment any more than it was by a drive to reform or restore some ethnic identity based on the promise inherent in the biblical epic of Israel. In both cases, the appeal to examples from the epic and the threat of an apocalyptic judgment, the Q people invaded the territory of their Jewish detractors and used their own idioms against them.

And yet, once involved in such an imaginative exercise, polemical as it surely was at first, a curious fascination with the broadened horizon seems to have developed. To think of the Jesus movement taking its place in the grand scheme of things, from the very “foundation of the world” to the “day when the son of man appears” was not a bad idea. No one could have started, either with the thrust of the Hebrew epic, or with the pull of an apocalyptic hope, and come up with a plan for just such a movement as the Jesus movement. But once it was there as a movement in the process of social formation, worthy of the loyalties of those within and threatened by the cuffs of those without, finding a place in the sun was exactly what the movement needed. And what a place to take, aligned with the “little ones” whose pedigree reached back to the beginning and who already knew in advance how the final judgment would go. [The Lost Gospel by Burton L. Mack]

Mack next takes the reader through the process of exactly how the subsequent myth was built, layer by layer, and it is fascinating. Effectively, what happened was that a group of people created a myth of broad – even global – horizons by elaborating on the sayings of an unlikely sage of Cynic persuasion who was reconceived as a wisdom teacher, an apocalyptic prophet, the son of God, and the means of atonement for all the world’s sins if people will just “believe.” By degrees, Jesus was saying things that only the wisdom of God could reveal. An amazing accommodation with Jewish piety against which earlier battles had raged was made, and Jesus was now quoting scriptures as proof texts that he was the son of God whose kingdom would only be revealed at the end of time.

This brings us back to the fact that Christians don’t like myths. At some level they surely know that Christianity based on the narrative gospels is a myth, but they are in denial. They cannot deal with the fact that, for the original followers of the teachings of Jesus , there was no need to claim any epic legitimacy. To them, Jesus was simply a Cynic sage whose insights were tried and tested and found to be good. His success was in his masterful Cynic discourse that challenged others to try a different way of living.

The most ironic thing about the development of Christianity as a global religion is that it has aligned itself with Judaism as a “daughter” when, the facts indicate that the adoption of a “Jewish” heritage was merely the result of a defensive maneuver. The Jesus people simply usurped the epic of their main detractors and used it against them. “Get off our backs. Your own history should tell you that what we represent is a critical voice in unhealthy times and has always been needed. See, we are OK even on your own terms.” It was never intended to be a serious alignment.

The conclusions to be drawn from the story of Q are therefore obvious. The followers of Jesus were normal human beings, responding to their times in understandable ways, investing intellectual energy in their evolving social experiments, and developing mythologies just as any society-in-the-making does. As for methods and means toward the creation of a mythic universe, the Jesus people also performed according to normal patterns. They assessed their social and cultural context with critical care, laid claim to the cultural traditions most relevant and ready at hand, sorted out the combinations most appropriate to their movement, and borrowed creatively from the mythologies current at the time. [...]

Q’s story puts the Jesus movements in the center of the picture as the dominant form of early group formations in the wake of Jesus, and it forces the modern historian to have another look at the congregations of the Christ. The congregations of the Christ will now have to be accounted for as a particular development within the Jesus movements, not as the earliest form of Christian persuasion and standard against which the Jesus movements have appeared as diluted accommodations to banal mentalities.[...]

Q documents a Jesus movement that was not Christian. The Jesus movement that produced Q cannot be shunted aside as a group of people who missed the dramatic events portrayed in the narrative gospels. They cannot be dismissed as those who mistook Jesus, failed to understand his message, or misunderstood their mission to found the church. The reason they cannot be dismissed is because they were there at the beginning. Q reveals what Jesus people thought about Jesus before there was a Christian congregation of the type reflected in the letters of Paul, and before the idea of a narrative gospel was even dared. [...]

Q is the best record we have for the first forty years of the Jesus movements. There are other snippets of early tradition about Jesus, but they all generally agree with the evidence from Q. [...]

Q’s challenge is absolute and critical. It drives a wedge between the story as told in the narrative gospels and the history they are thought to record. The narrative gospels can no longer be read as the records of historical events that generated Christianity.

Q puts us in touch with the earlier history of the Jesus movements, and their recollections of Jesus are altogether different. The first followers of Jesus did not know about or imagine any of the dramatic events upon which the narrative gospels hinge. [...] All of these events must and can be accounted for as mythmaking in the Jesus movements, with a little help from the martyrology of the Christ, in the period after the Roman-Jewish war. The narrative gospels have no claim as historical accounts. The gospels are imaginative creations whose textual resources and social occasions can be identified. The reasons for their composition can be explained. They are documents of intellectual labor normal for people in the process of experimental group formation. [...]

From the above, we can almost understand why so many must insist on denying these conclusions. So much energy, for two thousand years, has been put into this mythology, into related mythologies, including an entire industry that today tries to come up with novel and alternative explanations for who Jesus was, whether or not he was married, did he did of a blood clot, is the Shroud of Turin authentic, and so on and so on. It seems, based on the Q document, that it is unlikely that Jesus was even Jewish.

Mack is NOT saying that there was not something going on at that period of history. Clearly there was. Clearly, there WAS a teacher and a teaching and followers. Of that, there can be no doubt.

Biblical scholars, of course, work very hard trying to find ways to “enhance” the picture of Jesus. For a very long time, they (and even alternative writers such as Bushby, Lincoln, Leigh, Baigent, and others) have assumed that Jesus was a unique individual, and his teachings and life must have been novel. But even this approach has failed to save the story told in the narrative gospels. When scholars reveal the results of their work outside scholarly circles, there is generally an anguished public outcry. People cannot bear to be told that Jesus did not say what Matthew, Mark and Luke say he said, and the scholars who are trying to save the buns from the fire don’t seem to be able to adequately explain to the public how they arrive at their conclusions. There is a complete lack of basic knowledge on the part of the general public about the formations of early Christianity, generally encouraged by the purveyors of the “religion” itself. “Thou shalt not ask questions,” they intone solemnly, and the threats of hell-fire and damnation are intimated for those who even open the cover of a book on the subject.

The average Christian is horrified to think that Matthew was either lying, or was mistaken, or he made it all up and didn’t bother to inform the reader that he was making stuff up. Mack deals with this issue in some detail and even if the explanation will produce discomfort in many Christians, the explanation is “eminently understandable.” The fact is, the authors of early Christian texts, following a tradition of Greco-Roman attitudes and practices with regard to sayings or maxims of a teacher, felt perfectly free to attribute new sayings, and even deeds, to Jesus. At various points in the history of these early groups, when certain tensions arose, it was seen as necessary and useful to recast the character of Jesus by speech attribution and narrative changes. This is exactly what was done, and the evidence is in the textual analyses. It was in this sense that the history of the Q community was traced.

At the first stage, the discourse was playful and the behavior public. The people of Q were challenging one another to live a life of integrity despite the social repercussions.

The second stage was that of forming groups. Apparently, these experiments in behavior produced satisfying results and more and more people were attracted to the idea. Human relationships became a particular focus, and there was no evidence of any idea of reforming society or any demand for conversion of outsiders.

And then, the third shift: apparently, when groups were formed, this attracted very negative attention. The distress signal in the text is evident, and it is also evident that it was not a consequence of weariness with reproach or discouragement, but rather that there was a definite and dangerous social conflict relating to certain members of the Q groups.

And then, another stage occurred, a period during which the people of Q began to see themselves as carriers of a social movement with a purpose in the grander scheme of things.

It was in this context that the ideas of the Christ cult of northern Syria overshadowed and even erased the memories and importance of Jesus, the Cynic teacher. As Mack points out, the cost of surviving the Roman-Jewish war must have been very high. This part of the discussion is particularly interesting, and one can speculate on the possibility of an esoteric tradition being combined with the social experiment and coverted into a history. The “real” Jesus disappeared from the story because the narrative gospels told a more exciting tale that promised wonderful things in terrible times, and Jesus became the “lynchpin” of all history.

Mack’s conclusions regarding the importance of this event on our world are quite startling considering what has transpired on the world stage since he wrote this book.

The question now is whether the discovery of Q has any chance of making a difference in the way in which Christianity and its gospel are viewed in modern times? The question is quite serious, because neither the university, nor among knowledgeable people in our society, nor among the Christian churches, have the results of biblical scholarship ever made much of a difference. [...]

The discovery of Q effectively challenges the privilege granted the narrative gospels as depictions of the historical Jesus. The difference between the narrative gospels and modern retellings of the story can no longer lie in the distinction between history and fiction. The narrative gospels are also products of mythic imagination.

The difference lies in the status of the gospels as foundation stories for a religion in distinction from interpretations of that story in genres of a surrounding, secular culture. So the modern critic who seeks to understand a public outcry over Jesus is now confronted not only with the question of modern myth and ancient history, but also with the more interesting question of the reasons why the gospels are so hard for moderns to recognize as myth. [...]

Myths, mentalities, and cultures go together. Myths are celebrated publicly in story and song. Mentalities are nurtured just beneath the surface of social conventions by means of unexpressed agreements. Myths, mentalities, and cultural agreements function at a level of acceptance that might be called sanctioned and therefore restricted from critical thought. Myths are difficult to criticize because mentalities turn them into truths held to be self-evident, and the analysis of such cultural assumptions is seldom heard as good news.

Christian myth and Western culture go together. [...]

To acknowledge publicly that [the American Dream] may owe something to the legacy of western Christian culture is, on the other hand, taboo.

The exception to this general rule occurs, interestingly enough, when pressure on public policy and patriotism results in exaggerated expressions of those values for which our nation stands. We have a history of such platitudes: new world, new land, new people, righteous nation, manifest destiny, city set on a hill, liberty enlightening the world, a beacon for the homeless, one nation under God, moral majority, defenders of the free world, and new world order.

These truisms signal a messianic mentality.

When times are not perceived to be critical, it is easy to discount these expressions as the harmless formulations of a well-meaning people. Then we are willing to recognize the influence of Christian symbols on our self-understanding. But in periods of critical decision, when the rhetoric is used by our leaders in support of some national interest, few find it easy to blow the whistle and ask for debate on the reasonableness of attitudes rooted in religious convictions. Why? Is it because we do not dare, or because we do not know how to criticize our myths? [...]

We do not know how to talk about the mentalities that underlie a culture’s system of meanings, values, and attitudes. Some cultural critics are saying that it is time we set to work at cracking that equation.

I also think that the time is right. Americans have lost their sense of our nation’s innocence, though the rhetoric of the righteous nation continues to be heard from our leaders.

The recent history of what we have done with our technology and power throughout the world is troubling, as are the human cries for help from around a world grown small and yet too large to handle. The list of concerns has run off the page, and we seem to be overloaded with unsolvable problems and strife, and ecological responsibility. For thoughtful people, the issues have to do with assessing the chances for constructing sane and safe societies in a multicultural world while understanding the conditions for predation and prejudice, power abuse, and violence. In either case, it is irresponsible not to engage in public discussion of our own system of cultural values. [...]

In order to understand ourselves and register reasons for our social options, cultural analysis will have to include a comparative evaluation of mytholgies. And that means having a close look at our own mythology.

Q should help with this analysis by breaking the taboo that now grants privilege to the Christian myth. That is because the story of Q gives us an account of Christian origins that is not dependent upon the narrative gospels. … Christian mythology can now be placed among the many mythologies and ideologies of the religions and cultures of the world. The Christian myth can be studied as any other myth is studied. It can be evaluated for its proposal of ways to solve social problems, construct sane societies, and symbolize human values. [...]

So the times are troubled for thinking Christians who wonder about the social and political consequences of Christian mythology in its secular dress.

The effect of Christian mythology has not always been humanizing. The Captain America Complex, a book by Robert Jewett has traced our zealous nationalism to its biblical roots.

Others have reflected deeply on the Christian persuasions that have undergirded colonial imperialism, the taking of the West, the Indian wars, and the slave trade.

Still others have studied the relationship of the gospel story to the profile of the American hero, the American dream, and the destructive politics of righteousness wherever we have intervened in the affairs of peoples around the world.

The conclusion seems to be that the Christian gospel, focusing as it does on crucifixion as the guarantee for apocalyptic salvation, has somehow given its blessing to patterns of personal and political behavior that often have had disastrous consequences. [...]

Q’s challenge to Christians is therefore an invitation to join the human race, to see ourselves with our myths on our hands and mythmaking as our task

.

[The Lost Gospel by Burton L. Mack]

After reading Mack’s book, Tony Bushby’s The Bible Fraud is even sillier than I originally thought. It will have to join a host of others – including Holy Blood, Holy Grail, the Da Vinci Code, The Templar Revelation, The Jesus Conspiracy, Jesus the Magician, and just about everything that assumes a priori that there is ANYTHING even remotely historical in the narrative gospels – on the trash heap.

Yes, it’s all a fraud, no doubt about that, but not exactly the way so many are claiming nowadays when they create their equally ridiculous “New Age” or “alternative” mythologies to replace the Dead Man on a Stick nonsense.

I say good riddance to all of it.

Originally Published 2005_06_11

Related Articles: