Mack on Q Gospel

(See Hank’s and Bob’s comments at the end of this article)

Here is a summary of Burton Mack’s chapter two in his The Lost Gospel: the book of Q and Christian origins. Its just a discussion group post but may later be gussied up for more public consumption. If this is too dense for some, just ignore or delete.

Mack on Q gospel

This is just a summary of some interesting things that happened in the development of the Q (Quelle) gospel history (Q being the very earliest collection of Jesus’ teaching, the earliest gospel). This applies to our own concerns with the Christian rejection of Jesus’ non-retaliation gospel (unconditional love) by his own followers and their return to retaliatory justice such as in Paul’s gospel, an entirely different gospel to that of Historical Jesus.  Burton Mack traces the discovery of two notable layers in Q- Q1 and Q2. Q1 was an original collection of Jesus’ sayings (the very earliest of all) that focused on wisdom or sage sayings. It did not have any apocalyptic content. The apocalyptic tone and content was introduced later in Q2.

Apocalyptic statements are notable to our argument because they show the rejection of non-retaliation and the return to retaliation thinking. Apocalyptic is about ultimate retaliation, punishment, and judgment.  This is all good groundwork to what we are focusing on- the great contradiction between Jesus and Paul, or Jesus and Christianity, and how this happened and what it is about at core. This has to do with the grand narratives. It is all critical to sorting out the argument that Jesus had a distinct gospel message of non-retaliation and his followers drastically changed that back into a message of divine retaliation and necessary atonement, an entirely opposite message that undermined and even buried the gospel of Jesus about unconditional love. There is a profound contradiction between Jesus and Paul or Jesus and Christianity. And this is clearly evident in works such as Mack’s but is not as publicly understood as it should be.

While Mack and other scholars provide excellent evidence they do not bring forth the full implications of their research. They provide great evidence of the history behind the development of Jesus’ gospel and later Christian myth making (Paul’s payback gospel) but do not state the profound consequences of all this.  Mack’s “The Lost Gospel”

Mack covers the essence of this Q shift from wisdom to apocalyptic in his chapter 2, An Uncommon Wisdom. He starts by noting that Adolf Harnack, a historian of early Christianity, published a book of Jesus’ sayings in 1908. He wanted to know just what Jesus was actually saying before the mythology of his later followers was built around him, as in the narrative gospels. He wanted to eliminate the “problem of miracle and myth” to get at what liberal theologians considered to be the essence of Christianity. 19th Century liberals believed that Jesus was a teacher of elevated and humane ethics and that these set the standard for a civilized world. According to them, Jesus introduced to the world a new age of reason that was the highest human ideal.  But this liberal Jesus was in trouble as there was growing excitement about the presence of apocalyptic language in the preaching of Jesus. This had come out in books in the late 1800s. The interest was in relating these apocalyptic statements to Jesus’ statements on the kingdom of God (putting these two themes together- kingdom of God and future judgment). Some came up with the view of Jesus as a proclaimer of an imminent apocalyptic transformation of the world (Schweitzer was instrumental in pushing this view).  This caused uncertainty among other Jesus researchers because it was a shift in paradigm from Jesus as teacher of humane ethic to Jesus as radical visionary of the cataclysmic end of the world.

The apocalyptic excitement could not be ignored and to counter it required taking a hard look at the early texts. As Mack notes, no one thought it necessary to actually study the sayings of Jesus in rigorous historical perspective. The apocalyptic emphasis was simply accepted as undeniable. As a result, the noble liberal Jesus was fading. Q research at that time did not help because Q also contained the apocalyptic announcements. Hence, embarrassment emerged over the growing image of Jesus as apocalyptic prophet. But it was also recognized that the teaching of Jesus still contained a great deal of instruction that was better classed as wisdom than apocalyptic. This caused confusion because “the languages of wisdom and apocalyptic assume different views of the world, and scholars have found it difficult to image how Jesus may have merged them in a single message” (p.31).

Let me interject here for emphasis- Jesus’ core teaching on unconditional response and relating is clearly about non-retaliation (no judgment or punishment) and he related that clearly to God also (even in Q1). But in contrast, apocalyptic is all about retaliation, judgment, and ultimate punishment. These are two entirely opposite views.

By the 1920s scholars had come up with three proposals to resolve this conflict between the wisdom sayings of Jesus and the apocalyptic statements. Rudolf Bultmann and C. H. Dodd were key to these resolutions.

  1. Bultmann offered that the apocalyptic sayings were foremost and the wisdom sayings added later by the church to present an ethic for the present age before the apocalypse would occur. The wisdom sayings were considered secondary additions.
  2. Another solution was the view that the teaching of Jesus was eschatological, meaning last or extreme. The new age Jesus initiated was so different from the social world of that time that apocalyptic idiom was appropriate to announce this new age. Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet announcing a new age. This is much like Van Wishard’s view that apocalyptic can refer to the passing of an old worldview and the introduction of a new one.
  3. The third solution was that Jesus’ parables were metaphors of the kingdom of God and announced that the kingdom could be imagined as some future advent, a kind of mixture of already present but still reserved for the future that came to be known as “realized eschatology”.

This view is still popular, that the parables explain the odd mix of wisdom and eschatology in Jesus’ teaching.

Attention then turned to explaining Q, a collection of Jesus’ sayings made by first century followers of Jesus. Effort turned to understanding what actually happened in Q and what clues were there to help solve this problem of the odd (contradictory) mixture of wisdom and apocalyptic statements.  A breakthrough came in 1945 with the Nag Hammadi discovery of the Gospel of Thomas. It was very much like Q and provided material for a comparative study with Q. James Robinson then made another breakthrough in 1964. He concluded that Q was a common form of wisdom literature, “the sayings of the sages”. He argued that those who collected the sayings of Jesus in Q and the Thomas gospel did so on the model of a wisdom genre.  This provoked more detailed studies. If Robinson’s view was right then “the idiom of wisdom, not apocalyptic, was fundamental to the collection” (p.35). The wisdom collections functioned as handbooks of instruction, “sapiential instruction”.  Others continued to argue that apocalyptic, the theme of judgment, functioned as a principle of organization in Q. This, scholars argued, was not peripheral but integral to Q’s organizational structure. But then another breakthrough occurred- Robinson’s thesis was revised to argue that Q had taken shape in stages. “The earliest layer of material was indeed a collection of instructions on the wisdom model”. The prophetic and apocalyptic sayings were also a layer and the announcement of judgment was indeed the principle of organization of Q at this second stage of composition.

The outcome was that Robinson was considered right and a sequence was established…”First, there was a collection of sayings organized as sapiential instruction. Later these were incorporated into a composition that developed the theme of judgment by using prophetic and apocalyptic discourse. There was no literary evidence that suggested a reverse sequence” (p.37). Both collections functioned differently and entered the history of composition at a different time. The wisdom sayings were typical of the earliest layer of Q. So, as for Jesus, “It would mean that he had probably been more the sage, less the prophet”. And as for Christian origins, “It would mean that something other than an apocalyptic message and motivation may have impelled the new movement and defined its fundamental attraction”.

Some cautiously admitted that it now appeared that the “apocalyptic sayings were added to Q at a second stage of composition, they were not taken from oral tradition as early as that from which the wisdom sayings derived” (p.37). Others were more bluntly ready to see the “stratigraphy of Q as additional evidence for a non-apocalyptic Jesus”. The evidence was mounting for the non-apocalyptic background for the kingdom of God and it was accepted then “that the Gospel of Thomas was thoroughly non-apocalyptic in tenor and contained sayings from the very earliest period of the Jesus movements”. There was a growing consensus that Jesus was first remembered for his wisdom.

So if Jesus was a non-apocalyptic prophet then how to explain the presence of apocalyptic language? Conventional wisdom had assumed an apocalyptic imagination at the beginning and a shift to the language of wisdom. Now the sequence was seen as working the other way around. “The shift was not from apocalyptic announcement to instruction on wisdom, but from wisdom to apocalyptic” (p.38). as Mack says, this switch forced a total reconsideration of Christian origins. And so much more. Mack offers some concluding comment in this chapter on social currents that may have influenced wisdom and apocalyptic thinking.

For us, and our work on grand narratives, it is affirming evidence that the followers of Jesus (Christianity) rejected his historically unique gospel of non-retaliation or unconditional love for a retreat to archaic retaliation and atonement mythology. This distorted entirely the gospel of Jesus. It was a complete rejection of the liberating gospel of Jesus. The outcome is monumental. Christianity, or Paul’s apocalyptic retaliation gospel, has subverted entirely the message of Jesus.

Comments by Hank Hasse

I would add just a few historical reminders, many from Robinson and Tabor and others.

1) Original followers were not writers, not even Peter. Someone else penned the 2 letters in his name. 

2) Original followers passed Jesus’ unconditional message on orally.

3) Original followers were Jews and continued to follow Jewish customs which drew no special attention to them either from the Romans or from the Jewish Temple leadership. 

4) Original followers, Jesus’ brother James, and Peter were leaders in their Jerusalem synagog.

5) Some 20 years after Jesus’ death, James and Peter heard the news of Paul’s work among the Gentiles, and Peter was sent to check it out among several Asian “church” groups where he learned that Jewish members had not been circumcised. He and Peter had a heated argument about it. That was only the beginning!

6) A couple years later, Paul was asked to come to Jerusalem for a first-time visit with Jesus’ followers to discuss his new vision of a salvation payment through his resurrected “Christ,” neither of which the original followers knew anything about.

7) The original followers sharply disagreed with Paul’s vision which did not match with what they had heard directly from Jesus, namely, a loving unconditional forgiving presence of the Father in and among us here and now who required no human blood sacrifice for sin. 

8) We know little more about the debate, but keep in mind that Paul was a highly educated writer and speaker compared to the uneducated fishermen. And an off-handed remark in one his letters indicates that he had little respect for them.

9) The writer Luke, who admired Paul’s skills and message, wrote around the turn of the century about stories he had heard on the “Apostles,” and he tried to cover up the seriousness of the debate by simply mentioning the agreement Jesus’ brother, James, and Peter made between them that Paul would service the Gentiles and Peter would be sent out to service the Jews.

10) Paul’s many letters and his “Christ” salvation message spread quickly throughout Asia and beyond because the Gentiles were hungry for a new myth.

11) Some of the sayings of Jesus that were being passed on orally were finally recorded by scribes. It may have been done before the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 A.D. Those records were not widely distributed. And we are not sure what happened to Jesus’ followers.

12) 5 to 10 years after the destruction, and about 30 years after Paul’s letters, or some 50 years after Jesus’ death, the writer, Mark, built a narrative around hearsay accounts of Jesus’ life, using several of Jesus’ sayings, and many of Paul’s claims concerning the “Messiah-Christ.”

13) Another 5 and 10 years after Mark’s narrative, Matthew and then Luke wrote their narratives using most of Mark’s account, but also adding their own distinct suppositions.

14) Finally, the theologian, John, wrote his account which claimed much more for Jesus’ identity than either of the previous three writers.

15) Keep in mind three important facts. For 20 years after Jesus’ death, early followers only had the oral accounts of Jesus’ sayings to share, and that was done only locally for the most part. Then, for the next 30 years, the Gentile “church” groups only had Paul’s letters and his “Christ” message to share. And after that, the gospels, slanted by Paul’s message, began to trickle in to the churches until the turn of the century.

16) The “Christians” faced untold persecutions from the Romans during the following 200 years and were scattered throughout Europe, Asia, and North Africa. During those centuries, numerous arguments and divisions took place.They had only two things in common: FEAR of tyranny and FEAR of Christ’s return in judgement, another part of Paul’s message.

All this history is important to know in order to understand why the unconditional loving message of the historical Jesus got buried by Paul’s message of retribution.

Since Mark uses sayings from Q1 and Q2, those sayings had to be written before Jerusalem was destroyed, a fact that Mark also connects with Jesus’ murder. So his narrative was written after 70 AD, and Q1 and Q2 had to have been recorded before 70 AD.

Since Matthew and Luke use Mark’s material 10 and 20 years later and also include Q3 material, Q3 must have been recorded after Mark’s story (after about 75 – 80 AD) but before Matthew’s story (before about 85 – 90 AD).

So Q1 and Q2 must have been recorded sometime after Jesus’ murder (after 30 AD but before 70 AD). And since Q2 was recorded for lack of response from listeners (lack of treating others like God would do), and since Q2 added sayings of judgment much like the ones included in Paul’s letters (written about 50 AD) which were also added to Matthew’s and Luke’s narratives, it could be said that Paul was indeed the source behind the Q2 judgment sayings as-well-as the further instruction sayings on how to avoid the judgment found in Q3.

Now throw in the Thomas collection of Jesus’ sayings which were discovered hidden in clay jars in Egypt in 1945 together with other early writings, and you will find that those sayings almost match perfectly with the Q1 sayings, and like Q1, also have nothing on Jesus’ life and nothing on the Q2 judgment warnings nor anything on Q3’s instructions on how to avoid the judgment. The Thomas collection of Jesus’ sayings must have been recorded even earlier than Q1 and perhaps while Jesus was still alive.

Finally, remember that the Q were not Christians but rural farmers and early Jesus-followers who became discouraged over the years due to increasing threats of rebellion and war with Rome. Little wonder that they added Q2 warnings of judgment. After the war, many had been killed or had escaped from their homeland. And then, now under the influence of Mark’s narrative which also included Paul’s false vision of the historic Jesus, little wonder that they added the unauthentic Q3 sayings to their Q collection.

Comment by Robert D. Brinsmead

Indeed!!! I believe Paul publicly talked James and Peter under the table with his highly educated debating skills while in Jerusalem for their meeting.  And I think the others sat there and said nothing.  But after Paul left, I’ll lay odds that Peter looked at James and whispered, “Bullsh–!” James and Peter and the others were simply no match with Paul, and they did not go out to all the big cities in Asia and fearlessly speak in the public squares about a “Christ” while smoothly relating him to Greek and Roman myths. The disciples and the rural farmers of the Q knew the real message of the historical Jesus, but they did not have a slick ad campaign to spread it.

Hey! Now I’m beginning to wonder, maybe all Jesus intended to do was plant seeds. Maybe his unconditional message needed humanity, especially Christians, to make total asses of themselves first while his seeds lay silent. For all the horrible messages that serious Christians have fought for with bloody swords, for all the fear they have promoted for two millennia, and for all the thoughtful and questioning folks that they have driven out of their assemblies, some even becoming atheists as a result, perhaps the time is finally ripe to do what we are doing. The plants have taken root and matured enough to see the vivid contrast between retribution and love. We (mostly Bob and you) have exposed this so well that it’s now ready to flood humanity with the contrasting news. How can the rest of us help?