Whilst any honest investigation of the Gospel Narrative stories leads most unbiased students to conclude that they are almost entirely works of fiction, it is also true that the writers of the Gospels of Mark, Mathew and Luke had access to a collection of sayings attributed to the Jesus of History. Those sayings are echoed in the Gospel of Thomas and were confirmed by the Jesus Seminar as the Q Source Sayings.
As I’ve already said, those sayings account for only 18% of the words attributed to Christ but they have a common syntax and philosophical paradigm in which it is possible to detect a common intelligence.
The problem that most biblical scholars have in trying to understand those sayings is that they lack the philosophical matrix and spiritual experience by which these words might be translated.
Any one of you who is lucky enough to speak another language will quickly confirm that a literal translation is often worse than useless. As an example, in Spanish we often say ‘Has encontrado la madre del cordero’. That would translate to ‘you have found the mother of the lamb’. In two thousand years scholars might argue that the Spanish had a fetish for keeping lambs at home. In fact, that Spanish phrase means, ‘You have the heart of the matter’.
To understand any phrase you must understand the cultural and philosophical matrix of the speaker and the intended audience. As another example no explanation could be made of Dr Martin Luther King’s phrase ‘I have a dream’ without understanding something of American Slavery and the subsequent Black Apartheid Jim Crow laws.
The great problem for the Jesus Seminar and indeed all Christians who try to understand the sayings of the Jesus of History is that they ignore the matrix of the speaker and his intended audience.
FORENSIC TEXTUAL ANALYSIS AND WHY THE JESUS SEMINAR FAILED
If we are to understand the matrix of the originator of a phrase and the matrix of his audience it follows that we cannot be lost within our own belief matrix. We have to approach the subject with humility.
Unfortunately for the Jesus Seminar, and indeed for most biblical scholars, it is very easy to become intoxicated by one’s own academic achievements and almost impossible to let go of the degrees with which one was awarded by other people with degrees, all of which were obtained from Divinity schools and universities. Add to that the fact that nearly all biblical scholars were or are Christians and with regard to the Jesus Seminar nearly all of their scholars are from the progressive left, you might be forgiven for concluding that they all have something of a ‘dog in the fight’! From a Jewish Che Guevara to a failed version of Muhammad nearly all of them have their own ‘personal Jesus’ and for that reason find it impossible to understand the intrinsically Jewish matrix of the sayings.
Similarly, after two thousand years of pogroms and persecutions, largely inspired by the anti-Semitic New Testament, it is somewhat understandable that most Jews (excluding notable exceptions like the late Rabbi Hyram Maccoby) find any discussion of the Jesus of History somewhat distressing.
For these reasons and many more, a true exploration of the matrix of the sayings of the Jesus of History has proved to be, until now, a bridge too far!
As a practical example of forensic textual analysis, let’s return to Luke 17:21 ‘Neither shall they say it is here or it is there for the Kingdom of God is within you!’
To decipher this saying we must understand three things:
- The ‘Kingdom of God’ is NOT material or physical.
- What, then, did the Jesus of History mean by the term the ‘Kingdom of God’?
- In what way is the ‘Kingdom of God’ within us?
In order to understand the concept of God and the way that Jesus uses the term ‘Kingdom’, you have to understand something of the dichotomy between Israel (based around Galilee and the Jezreel Valley) and Judah. You also need to understand the evolution of the Hebrew concept of God as described by the name ‘El’ and then ‘Yahweh’ and how they were eventually united.
Spoken in the first quarter of the first century, in the context of the increasing religious fundamentalism of the Judeans and their obsession with the end of the world and rising of the dead, this saying is a beat against the idea that God is physically going to come down and kill all of Judah’s enemies and establish a physical kingdom on Earth with a new ‘David’ in charge.
To say to his students, who may well have been in danger of being radicalised, ‘They will not say it is here or it is there’ is typical of the incisive and profound sayings attributed to the Jesus of History.
The Judeans hated the Galileans for their cosmopolitan ways and their Greek lifestyle. The Magdala stone suggests that the Elohist view of God was still prevalent in the Galilee in the first century CE.
If God is all that was, is and will be it follows that everything is God. In the context of other sayings, which we can attribute to the Jesus of History we can see that the ‘Kingdom of God’ is a growing awareness of our inner connection to the divine and the world around us as expressed in the way that we live. This saying, as are most of the Q Source sayings, is intentionally cryptic in order to push the student to an intuitive understanding of the phrase.
Other sayings have illustrated that from the perspective of the Jesus of History God’s Kingdom was everything ‘Good’ or in Hebrew ‘Tov’. It also means ‘Beautiful’ and implies balance. Within Hebrew thinking, due to the manner of our creation, we have two natures the Yetzah H’Ra and the Yetzah H’Tov. When we direct our intention toward God and restrict our evil inclination we realise automatically our ‘goodly’ nature (Yetzah H’Tov).
Knowing that fact and in the context of the evolution of the concept of God, we can understand now that this saying from Luke 17:21 is related to Thomas 24:
“There is a light within a person of light and he becomes a light to the whole world. If he does not become the light, he is the darkness.”
It follows then that the ‘light’ within us is ‘God’ himself.
So why does this matter?
Without applying forensic textual analysis, biblical scholars have left us with a confusing array of contradictory sayings that don’t, taken as a whole, make any sense.
By trying to translate the Q Sayings through anything but the lens of a first century Galilean Jew, your conclusions are philosophically opposed to the intention of the original speaker.