In my previous post in this series, I talked about a discussion group I was a part of at our local university with one of the founders of the Jesus Seminar. The Jesus Seminar was a group of scholars intent on debunking the historical accuracy of the Gospels. They said what the Gospels tell us about Jesus cannot be trusted but that they can get behind the Gospels and relay to us what Jesus was really like. Today this mantle has been taken up by Reza Aslan and his best selling book, Zealot. In this post, I address their argument that the earliest sources we have about Jesus depict him as being a human teacher only.
The Jesus Seminar people and Reza Aslan argue that the earliest Christians believed Jesus was only a teacher, not a divine Saviour. They claim later Christians made up all the stories about Jesus doing miracles, dying for our sins, being the Son of God, rising from the dead, etc. The Jesus Seminar scholar I encountered claimed he had evidence for this in the “Q” source.
The Q source is a document proposed to exist because the Gospels of Matthew and Luke have some similar materials that are not found in Mark. Scholars have said there must have been a source for these similar passages and have named it Q. In studying the Q passages in Luke and Matthew, the scholars have noticed there is very little about Jesus’ miracles in them and that they are mostly teachings of Jesus. The sceptical scholars say this proves that there were a group of Christians existing before Luke and Matthew who believed in Jesus as a teacher only, not a divine Saviour.
Problems with Q source theory
1) There is no external or independent evidence of its existence. There is no manuscript of Q in existence. No one in the ancient world mentions its existence. Sceptical scholars are basing an entire theory of early Christianity on a document whose existence can’t be confirmed.
2) Alternative explanation for similar passages in Matthew and Luke. It could be that Matthew used Luke as a source and copied those passages right out of Luke or that Luke used Matthew in the same way. Indeed, some scholars argue for this option. It’s not necessary to posit a independent source for which there is no evidence of its existence.
3) False deductions about Q. If Q did exist, how do we know its author didn’t believe in the miracles of Jesus? The Q passages in Matthew and Luke never deny the miracles of Christ or his divinity in any way. First, perhaps Q did contain the miracles stories but Luke and Matthew just didn’t choose to use them since they had plenty of those from other sources (see 5 below). Second, perhaps the writer of Q did believe in the miracles, but that was not the focus in this document. A person writing a book on the parables of Jesus might never mention his miracles, but it doesn’t follow he or she didn’t believe in them. It just want wasn’t the focus of that book. The same is possible with Q. The sceptical scholars are deducing an entire theory of early Christianity on the basis of a document they can’t prove existed and based on an argument of silence from that document for which equally plausible explanations can be given.
Other early sources invalidate Q claims
4) What about Paul? After the Jesus Seminar scholar had finished his argument about Q proving the earliest Christians didn’t believe in a divine Jesus, I asked him a question. “Aren’t some of the letters of Paul considered the earliest Christian documents in existence, some having been written around 50 AD, less than 20 years after Christ’s death.” He responded that that was true. I continued, “But Paul’s letters contain a supernatural view of Jesus as a divine messiah that died for our sins and rose again from the dead.” He said that, “yes, I know” and then shook his head in frustration as if to say, “I can’t figure out how that view of Jesus could exist at such an early date when we know that did not represent the real Jesus.” Hmmmm, could it simply be that the earliest Christian documents in existence demolish his entire position.
5) What about Mark? All those that believe in the existence of Q that was used as a source by Matthew and Luke also believe that those two gospels used Mark as a source. But wait, Mark is full of miracles and the supernatural Jesus. In other words, according to the sceptics own theory, there is a source as early as Q (before Matthew and Luke) that definitely supports the supernatural view of Jesus. And we actually have manuscripts of that source (The Gospel of Mark), unlike Q that we can’t confirm its existence. Matthew and Luke’s use of Mark could also explain why they didn’t use the miracles stories out of Q. They already had a good source for miracles.
Reza Aslan says he believes in Jesus the human teacher and leader of political change which is the real Jesus, but he can’t believe in the supernatural Jesus of orthodox Christianity. The trouble is, there is zero, nada, no proof that Aslan’s or the Jesus Seminar’s Jesus ever existed. The earliest Christian documents speak of the Jesus of orthodox Christianity. Sceptical scholars creatively try to make up an earlier document that proves their position, but there simply is no external evidence to confirm its existence and even the document they came up with does not prove their point. Equally plausible explanations for its content allow for its author to still believe in the supernatural Jesus.
Let me point out this does not prove Christianity is true or what Jesus and the early Christians believed was true. That is a topic for another essay. It simply proves the most rational explanation for the evidence is that Jesus believed himself to be the Son of God who came to die for our sins and that the early Christians followed that belief. You can say he was wrong, but there is no evidence for any earlier form of Christianity that believed otherwise.
It is interesting that some Jewish scholars are beginning to believe that the Gospels give a basically accurate view of Jesus’ teaching and self understanding. They don’t believe in Jesus. They simply say there is no evidence that Jesus or the early Christians believed anything else.