Comparing Paul and the Gospels

“Faith, if it is possible and if it is to be responsible, can never escape from history or ignore the evidence that history provides”

 – Thomas Sheehan, Ph.D., Stanford University Department of Religious Studies


The New Testament narratives in Paul and the Gospels differ in important ways about how they record and interpret the life and death of Jesus according to oral traditions and pre-canonical scripture of that time.   Mark, Matthew and Luke are called the “Synoptic Gospels because they are so similar in content (syn meaning “alike” and optic meaning “to be seen”) .  Religious and history scholars believe that Mark was the earliest of the Gospels and served as the primary source document for both Matthew and Luke because nearly 80% of Matthew and 65% of Luke are word-for-word identical to Mark.  In addition, most scholars also believe that Matthew and Luke both used a common source called the “Q” document (“Q”uelle –  meaning “source”)  because both of these Gospels share identical passages not contained in Mark.  Finally Mathew and Luke appear to have each used separate source documents not known to the other because each Gospel contains passages not found in the other. The Synoptic Gospels are narratives telling about about the life and death of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah1 in the tradition of Jewish Messianic Prophecy.  The Gospel of John places more emphasis on the cosmic spiritual nature of Jesus than on his life story.  

Are the Gospels intended to be a record of historical events, is the historical Jesus the same person as the Christian Jesus, what does the Christian Testament tell us about the history of the Christian faith?  Does if offer any proof of Christian theological doctrine?  Are the canonical Gospels a “prophesy historicized”  i.e. theologizingor are they “history revealed” i.e. an account of actual events? The popular view among religious scholars today is summarized nicely by Thomas Sheehan, Professor of Philosophy, Stanford University, a Catholic himself, from his book  The First Coming How the Kingdom of God Became Christianity:

“Today at the dawn of the third millennium, the Christian church is undergoing a theological crisis in what she thinks and believes about Jesus of Nazareth.  The crisis grows out of a fact now freely admitted by both Protestant and Catholic theologians and exegetes: that as far as can be discerned from the available historical data, Jesus of Nazareth did not think he was divine, did not assert any of the messianic claims that the New Testament attributes to him, and went to his death without intending to found a new religion called “Christianity.” That is, the theological crisis has to do with the prima facie discrepancy between what Jesus of Nazareth apparently thought he was (a special but very human prophet) and what mainline Christian believers now take him to be (the divine Son of God, consubstantial with the Father and the Holy Spirit)

More recently Roman Catholic exegetes and theologians have joined the discussion. With the encouragement of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, Catholic scholars now teach that the Gospels are not accurate “histories” of Jesus but religious testimonies produced by the second and third generations of Christians, whose faith that Jesus was their savior colored their memory of his days on earth. Thus, even though all Catholic biblical scholars believe that Jesus is God, they do not necessarily maintain that Jesus himself thought he was the divine Son of God, who had existed from all eternity as the Second Person of the Trinity.

How, then, do believers know that the Jesus of history is Christ and God? Some Christians assert that faith is a higher form of cognition than empirical, historical knowledge and therefore that Christian believers have a deeper insight into who Jesus really was than do nonbelievers. According to this thesis, historical research gives us only the “historiographical Jesus”—that is, only those aspects of him that are available via historico-critical method—but it cannot show us the authentic, divine Jesus of history, who actually lived and preached two millennia ago. To arrive at that real Jesus, so the theory goes, one must have faith; and unlike the scientific historian, the believing Christian supposedly knows that Jesus really was the Son of God, even if the historical evidence does not show that.

But this solution does not work. Faith provides the believer with no more data about who Jesus of Nazareth “really” was than does normal historical experience. There exists no revealed body of supernatural information that is given over to the Christian faithful while being kept hidden from nonbelievers. Christians have at their disposal only the same public evidence about Jesus that everyone else has—but they interpret the data differently. That is, Christianity is a “hermeneusis,” or interpretation. Its beliefs and doctrines are but one of many possible and equally valid ways of understanding the universally available empirical data about Jesus of Nazareth. Christians may claim that their faith is based on revelation, but as far as one can tell empirically, such revelation is a name for the historically relative and culturally determined hermeneutical process in which Christians, confronting the humanly available information about Jesus of Nazareth, choose to interpret him as their savior, who reigns with God in heaven.”

Summary of Paul’s Epistles and the Gospels

 The chart below is a quick reference that compares how Paul and each of the Gospel authors treat, in their respective narratives, the life and death of Jesus. The information reflects the work of religious and history scholars who try to understand how early Christians understood the meaning of the gospels and it is often quite different from how Christians interpret the Gospels today.

Narratives Paul’s Epistles
(45 – 50 CE)
(65 -70 CE)
(80 – 85 CE)
(80 – 85 CE)
(90 – 95 CE)
Authorship2 Paul Unknown – probably written in Rome Unknown – probably written in Caesarea Unknown – probably written in Antioch Unknown – probably written in Ephesus
Birth Narrative3 None None Virgin Birth  Virgin Birth None
Recognized as the Messiah4 At Resurrection (Romans 1:1-4) At baptism
(Mark 1:(9-11)
       At conception       (Matt 1:20)       At conception       (Luke 1:41-42) “In the beginning…”
(John 1:2 )
Birth Place Not given Not given Bethlehem Bethlehem Bethlehem
Resurrection Story  Resurrection of the spirit not the body None
(Mark 16:9 -20   added later – only empty tomb )
Tomb open, body gone and Jesus appears Tomb open, body gone and Jesus appear None
(John 16 – 21 added later)
Ascension Story None None None Yes None
Genealogy5 None None Davidic Adam In the beginning with God
Jesus’ Death6 After the Seder After the Seder After the Seder After the Seder Before the Seder
Jesus’ Suffering7 No description Crucifixion only
quick death
(Mark 15)
Crucifixion only
quick death
(Matt 27)
Crucifixion only
quick death
(Luke 23)
Flogged & crucified
quick death
(John 19)
Jesus’ Last Words None quoted “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!” “It is finished.”
Readership Jews early on & Gentiles later Jews Jews Gentiles All mankind
Who is Jesus —- Promised King Servant of God (syn:. a Son of God ) Son of Man God incarnate or perhaps a mere mortal but indwelled with the Holy Spirit 
Is Jesus Divine8 see discussion see discussion see discussion see discussion see discussion
Biblical Accuracy9  deutero-Pauline scripture and other errors Verses 16:9 – 20 were added after 150 C.E. Numerous Numerous Versus 20:11 – 21 were   added after 150 C.E.


1 – The definition of “Messiah.  “Messiah” is the Hebrew word meaning the “anointed one.”  The word “Christos” is the Greek translation of the Hebrew from which we get the English word “Christ“.  To very early Jewish and gentile Christians, whose first language was Greek not Hebrew,  Jesus was known as “Jesus the Christ” meaning “Jesus the Messiah.”  With the passage of  time, Jesus became known simply as “Jesus Christ” (The man we know as Jesus however was known to his family as “Yeshua” which is Hebrew for “Joshua.”  “Jesus” and “Christ” are the names Christians use to identify Yeshua and therefore when they appear in text, we can be certain that a Christian doctrinal view is the focus of the discussion).

To fully appreciate how the life and death of Jesus captured the imagination of those who became the first Christians, one must first understand the influence of Jewish Messianic philosophy on first century Judaism and the influence that pagan culture had on how gentiles understood and accepted Jesus.

The Three Philosophies of Jewish Messianism.

  1. Prophetic Messianism – A belief that according to Old Testament prophesy, God would anoint a special man who would become the new King David.  As a king, he would unite the Jews to overcome their oppressors and would subsequently establish a Kingdom of God on earth where righteousness prevails.  The presumption in this Messianic philosophy is that Prophetic Messiah would be a special human being but not divine.
  2. Apocalyptic Messianism – A belief that the Kingdom of God would not come about by a gradual transformation of society under the leadership of a human King but rather that it would be brought about by a sudden supernatural intervention. In this case, the Messiah would be a heavenly being, sent by God,  who will descend to earth and inaugurate the new era or Kingdom of God on earth.  Such a Messiah, while being supernatural or metaphysical, was not seen as divine being i.e. God himself.
  3. Revolutionary Messianism – The Jewish sect called the Zealots, were not satisfied to endure suffering and persecution while they waited for God to intervene on their behalf.  Instead, they believed that God would come to their aid only after they had done all that they could to change the world by themselves.  The Zealots were responsible for many of the Jewish uprising against the Romans and consequently they were the principal reason that political tensions were so high during the Passover in Jerusalem.  The Romans had advised Caiaphas that they would swiftly and mercilessly suppress any kind of political unrest should it occur during Passover.  When Jesus attempted to preach his message in this politically charged atmosphere, Caiaphas was understandably concerned and perhaps even fearful that Jesus would create enough civil unrest to bring down the wrath of the Roman army on his people.  As most leaders in Caiaphas’ position would do, he eliminated the threat by simply removing Jesus from the scene.

To his own generation, Jesus was seen as the fulfillment of the Old Testament Prophetic Messiah, a male human being specially anointed by God to right the wrongs of the world, eliminate the oppression of the Jews and usher in the Kingdom of God on earth.  But his crucifixion and death became the undeniable evidence that he could not have been the Messiah of Prophetic Messianism.  Because Jesus’ death confirmed for many that he was not the Prophetic Messiah, any memory of him would have probably have faded into obscurity if it had not been for Paul.

Paul is said to have had a vision about the nature of Jesus but more precisely he had a “feeling” about it because he said that God chose “to reveal his son in me” (Gal 1:16). He reasoned that Jesus’ death did not stand a proof he was not the Messiah but rather as proof that he was.  Paul points to the resurrection of  Jesus’ spirit  as the very evidence that he was the Messiah (he does not assume a resurrection of the body as later Gospel authors do).  Believing in Jesus’ spiritual resurrection following his death, Paul claims Jesus to be the Messiah of Apocalyptic Messianism, i.e. one who would ultimately return from heaven to become King of the newly established Kingdom of God on earth.  Mark, writing circa 70 C.E. after the Jewish Temple had been destroyed by the Romans sees this event as marking the onset of the Parousia (second coming) and thus he has his Christ declare, “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass a way before all these things take place” (Mark 13:30).  However, Matthew and Luke, writing long after the the destruction of the Temple had occurred without much of any other change occurring, place a diminished emphasis on the Parousia.  Instead, they emphasized Jesus as a lord, during his lifetime, had been in the act  of ushering-in a new Kingdom of God and had revealed the way to salvation.

What did Jesus teach?

The canonical Gospels depict a Jesus who taught a non-apocalyptic eschatological message about the beginning of God’s Kingdom on Earth that will ultimately replace the current establishment of mankind.  For Jesus, the eschatological prophecy was being fulfilled as he taught, yet he also taught that it would not be until the Son of Man descended from Heaven to actually endow the Kingdom of God on Earth.  Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Kingdom of God come with power” (Mark 9:1). In the final act of creating God’s new kingdom, the Son of Man would choose, from the quick and the dead, those who would receive salvation, i.e. eternal life of the spirit; those not “saved” would thus suffer eternal death (note: Jesus never taught that the “un-saved” would be eternally tormented in hell; he said, “The wages of sin is death”).

It is important to note that Jesus did not foretell a cataclysmic kind of apocalypticism as the precursor to the establishment of God’s Kingdom on Earth contrary to the prophecy in Revelations written by John of Patmos (for a detailed exploration of this issue read Who Killed Jesus by John Dominic Crossan).  Perhaps this accounts for the popular preference of the early 4th Century C.E. Church fathers not to include Revelations among the manuscripts to be canonized.  It was included primarily because Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria who proposed the 27 manuscripts that ultimately were canonized, was politically powerful enough within the Church to win over its inclusion.

Pagan culture and the 1st Century world view.  

It is appropriate to begin by summarizing the life of a remarkable man who live 2,000 years ago.  The accounts of his life will no doubt be familiar to some readers:

  1. Before he was born, an angelic visitor told his mother that her son would be divine.
  2. His birth was accompanied by miraculous signs and wonders.
  3. He was a religiously precocious child.
  4. As an adult, became an itinerate minister teaching his good news that people should live for spiritual not material things. 
  5. He gathered disciples and did miracles to confirm them in their faith.
  6. Some believed him to be a “son of God.”
  7. He raised the ire of those in power and was brought up on charges by them before the Roman authorities.
  8. Even after his death, some of his followers claimed they saw alive again and witnessed his ascension into heaven.
  9. His followers wrote books about his life that still survive today.

Many will of course conclude that the accounts above describe the life of Jesus.  But, in fact, the man described above was Apollonius of Tyana who was a famous neo-Pythagorean philosopher and holy man of the first century C.E.  His life and teachings are available to us today in the writings of one of his followers named Philostratus who wrote, The Life of Apollonius of Tyana.  Jesus and Apollonius were contemporaries but there is no evidence that the two ever knew each other.  However their followers did and often engaged in heated debates about which of the two was superior.

The reason for recounting this story is that it offers an insight to a part of 1st century Roman culture not commonly understood by Christians today.  Jesus’ miracle works, healing the sick, driving out demons, etc., taken alone, would not be proof of his divinity because it was widely believed that others like Apollonius were also capable of performing these same kinds of miracles. Jesus would be considered an exceptional man but not necessarily a unique one.

Moreover, in 1st century Rome, for example, it was not uncommon to believe that a particular Caesar was divine.  We even have testimonials from witnesses who claim to have seen dead Caesars bodily ascending to a place with the gods in heaven.  Great military generals, wise men and national heroes were often believed to be demi-gods i.e. children of a human mother and divine father.  A belief in miracle workers, magi and seers was common to that society as well.  It was precisely this cultural background contrasted with the culture of Judaism, that explains why gentiles so readily accepted Christian beliefs about Jesus and why this Jesus no longer fit the image of the Messiah foretold by either Jewish Prophetic or Apocalyptic Messianism.   

While miracles themselves did not distinguish Jesus from other miracle workers per se, his followers believed that the importance of Jesus’ miracles was their special apocalyptic revelation.  To some, Jesus was simply demonstrating how sickness, death, demonic possession etc. would not exist in the coming kingdom of God.  For others, his miracles  were the evidence that the kingdom of God had already begun and his resurrection made him the “first fruits” of the new kingdom…. the apocalyptic eschatology was in the act of being fulfilled. 

2 – Authorship of the Gospels.  It was a commonly accepted practice in the 1st Century to ascribe one’s writings to a prominent individual who held similar beliefs as the author himself.  The practice of ascribing another’s name to one’s own work was not seen as an act of deception but rather as a tribute to that person.  The Deutero-Pauline epistles (2 Thessalonians, Colossians, Ephesians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus) are good examples of writings similar in style and content to Paul’s epistles and thus ascribed to him although very likely not written by him.  Scholars also believe that the Gospels are anonymous works and were not actually written by those whose names are ascribed to them for the following reasons:

  1. The following books of the New Testament are anonymously written, i.e. the earliest manuscripts do not bear any attribution of authorship:  Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, the letters of Paul, 1 and 2 Peter, and 1, 2 and 3 John?
  2. None of the Gospels (canonized or otherwise) has an author’s name attached to it; and none of the authors the four New Testament Gospels, claims to be the follower whose name is ascribed to the Gospel.
  3. None of the authors claimed to be eyewitnesses to the events surrounding the life of Jesus.
  4. In first century Roman culture, only 10% of the population was literate and even smaller percentage could compose text as well written as the Gospels.  
  5.  The disciples of Jesus were lower-class Aramaic speaking peasants. 
  6. Peter and John were known to be illiterate (Acts 4:13).
  7. Since the Gospels were written in Greek rather than Aramaic, they were probably written outside of Palestine (although Mark and Matthew may have originated in Galilee where Greek was spoken).
  8. The Gospels were written 35 to 65 years after the events that they narrate and by highly educated, Greek-speaking Christians 
  9. Two of the authors admit that they inherited the stories from oral traditions circulating in their day. Luke and ?
  10. There are many inconsistencies and contradictions between the Gospel narratives.  These kinds of inconsistencies and contradictions would not be expected if all of the authors had themselves been eyewitnesses of the events they wrote about.
  11. Ascribing the names of disciples to the Gospel books was done as a dedication to the men whose name they bear.  The first appearance of the  tradition of attributing the names of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John to the canonical Gospels does not occur until near the end of the first century C.E. 
  12. By the time the Gospels were written, Christianity had already spread throughout Asia Minor, Macedonia and Syria in most of the major urban centers in the empire.  The people at this time propagated their religion principally by word of mouth i.e. oral traditions.  
  13. Oral traditions were often changed in language translation or adapted when being told in different cultures.  Early scriptural written history confirms that these different oral traditions did indeed exist so this is not a scholarly speculation. 

3 – Virgin Birth.  The authors of Matthew and Luke get their authority for the “virgin birth” story from the prophecy given in Isaiah 7:14 as recorded in the Septuagint which says (King James translation), “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”   There are two problems with this verse as it appears in the KJV Bible (and in many other Biblical versions used today as well).  

First, because Hellenistic Jews living in Alexandria, Egypt spoke only Greek, having long before lost their Hebrew language, they used a Greek translation of the Hebrew Tanak (Old Testament) called the Septuagint (translation circa 300 to 200 B.C.E.).  Hebrew Tanak manuscripts that predate the Septuagint use the Hebrew word aalmah which means  a ‘young woman'” rather than a ‘young virgin’.  The most common Hebrew word for ‘virgin’ is betulah but the Septuagint contains the more ambiguous Greek word parthenos which can mean either a ‘young girl’ or a ‘virgin’.   This error was known as early as the mid-second century when Trypho, the Jew in Justin Martyr’s Dialog with Trypho, objects that aalmah should be rendered in Greek as neanis meaning a “young girl”. 

Moreover,  First the Hebrew Testament versions that predated the Septuagint say, “Behold, a young woman has conceived…” meaning that female of Isaiah’s prophecy is already with child when the prophesy was made. That child would have been born in the 7th Century B.C.E. so this prophecy cannot have referred to the expected birth Jesus of Nazareth nearly 700 years later.

According to Paula Fredriksen (Aurelio Professor of Scripture at Boston University) in her book From Jesus to Christ (page  38), “In its original context, it represents God through the prophet assuring King Ahaz the evil days are fast approaching for his enemies.  ” Behold , an aalmah will conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel ….. And before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good (i.e. before the age of reason), the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.”  In other words, the next child born with the name Immanuel {meaning “God with us” emmanu-El) will signal an imminent positive turn of events for King Ahaz.   

Fredriksen  explains, ” … Matthew builds his story largely around selected quotations [“pericopes”] from Isaiah, Jeremiah, the minor prophets, and Psalms, books whose texts are monuments of metaphor and ambiguity.  Other books, which bend less easily to such narrative remodeling (e.g., the bulk of Torah, or the historical books) do not receive as much of Matthew’s attention.”   It seems then, we might reasonably conclude that Matthew must have reasoned accordingly: 

  1. Because Messianic philosophy had its origins in Judaism, any claim that Jesus is the Messiah demands evidence that Jesus, specifically, was predestined by Hebrew Testament prophecy.
  2. In the Davidic Messianic prophecy, the Messiah will be born of a young woman. 
  3. In the Hebrew Testament, a frequent literary trope used to introduce an important Biblical figure was to have that person be born of a woman miraculously made fertile beyond her child bearing years or in spite of her having been barren all of her adult life.  Women who could not be with child include those who are either post-menopausal or infertile (or . . . .  virgin).
  4. The word parthenos, used in Isaiah 7:14 of the Septuagint,  can mean ‘virgin’ in the Greek language; most virgins are young women.

Through a literary synthesis of the above, Matthew can now claim that Jesus was born of a virgin (a variation on the Hebrew Testament trope), who, as a young woman, fulfills one of the Messianic criteria, and he can tie the virgin birth claim to Hebrew Testament prophesy cited in Isaiah 7:14 to meet yet another.   Christians today consider Matthew’s birth narrative as proof of Jesus’ divinity but they might wonder why the Gospel of Matthew never explicitly claims this.   Conclusion: Matthew was merely establishing the credentials necessary to authenticate Jesus as the Davidic Messiah an entity who was presumed to be a human being from the family line of David.    

Paul says Jesus was “born of a woman” (Galatians 4:4) and was “descended from David, according to the flesh” (Romans 1:3), thereby implying a normal birth. Thus Paul gives no indication that he is aware of the virgin birth story or if he was, he has apparently discounted it as a literal account.   Mark makes no mention of the birth narratives either.  The author of John claims that Jesus was the son of Joseph (John 1:45) and choose to ignore or reject the birth stories in the earlier writings of Matthew and Luke.   Of course the miraculous birth stories may have been used to serve other purposes, namely, to rebut the contemporary inferences about the illegitimate birth of Jesus (Matt. 1:18-19, Mark 6:3, John 8:41) and to counter charges that he was possessed by the devil, rather than the spirit.  There were perhaps also theological apologias that led to the birth narratives appearing when they did and these reasons are more fully explored in the Genealogy section below.

The virgin birth narrative also fits into an oft repeated motif found in both the Hebrew and Christian Testaments.  Both record instances where important Biblical figures are miraculously conceived by barren couples.  In the Christian Testament, Zechariah and Elizabeth, both advanced in years, become the parents of John the Baptist.  Earlier in the Hebrew Testaments, there are the narratives of Abraham and Sarah’s conception of Isaac and of Jacob and Rachel’s conception of Joseph and finally of Hannah’s conception of the prophet Samuel.  In each of these cases conception occurred in women beyond childbearing age.  In a Biblical context then,  an immaculate conception or a conception beyond childbearing years was frequently used as a literary device to signal the reader that a child so conceived is to become important Biblical figure later on. 

4 – When was Jesus first identified as the Messiah?  From Paul’s writings through all four of the Gospels,  each later author believed that Jesus could be identified as the Messiah at an earlier date than any of the previous authors did.  This is of course an ex post facto interpretation that discloses how Christian theological doctrine matured over time.  

5 – Genealogy.  The birth narratives of Jesus only appear in Matthew and Luke.  These two narratives contradict each another but that fact is not really pertinent to the understanding why the were included by Matthew and Mark in their respective Gospels. Scholars offer several possible reasons why they were introduced at that particular time:

  1. They were an apologia against Gnosticism and specifically the Docetists.  Gnosticism is a blanket term for various mystical Christologies, sects and knowledge schools, which were most prominent in the first few centuries.  Docetism was a Gnostic sect which asserted that Jesus did not have a physical body and that his body and his crucifixion were merely illusions.  The birth narratives were introduced as evidence of Jesus’ humanity and thus they served to rebut this Docetist claim that Jesus was manifest in spirit only.
  2. The Birth narratives may have been older oral traditions dating back to the period when pagan gentiles first began to convert to Christianity.  The demigods of pagan religions were believed to be the offspring of a human mother and divine father.  The early pagan converts therefore may well have comfortably included such stories in their oral traditions about Jesus.
  3. Luke was writing to gentile converts and so he told this story about Jesus because he believed it might resonate better with gentiles whose religious history included similar stories about the demigods of the pagan religions. 

Matthew and Luke both believed that Jesus was the Apocalyptic Messiah of Old Testament prophecy.  They both emphasized this by identifying the birthplace of Jesus as Bethlehem no doubt because Micah 5:2 says of this Messiah, “But you, O Bethlehem Eph’rathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.”  

6 – When did Jesus die?  The Last Supper described by Paul and in the Synoptic Gospels is the Jewish Seder or Passover meal that was consumed after the sacrifice of the paschal lamb.  According to these scriptures, Jesus had already enjoyed the Seder meal with his Apostles before he was arrested, tried and crucified.  But the last supper described in John was not the Seder.  

According to John, Jesus was arrested and crucified about noon on the day before Passover (the Jewish new day begins at sundown not at midnight so the Seder would have taken place that evening after the Paschal lamb had been sacrificed).  John marks the death of Jesus as occurring at the very moment that the paschal lamb of the Passover was sacrificed at the Jewish temple and thus metaphorically cast Jesus in the unmistakable role of being the ‘Lamb of the God’ whose death takes away the sins of the world.  In John’s account, therefore,  Jesus dies before the Seder meal not after it. 

7 – Did Jesus suffer? Protestant Christian doctrine has always placed an emphasis on the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection because that, not his suffering, was what paved the way for the redemption of mankind’s sins and a promise of a life everlasting.  Just as we say that a  soldier who died in battle made the “supreme sacrifice”, the supreme sacrifice Jesus made was not his suffering but his death.  Death is the supreme sacrifice; one does not recover from it except by divine intervention.  

Crucifixion is a brutal punishment during which the victim typically suffered agonizing pain for days before finally dying.  Yet in each Gospel, the author de-emphasizes Jesus’ suffering by having him die quickly on the cross and without any cries of agony.  Catholic tradition differs from the Gospel accounts in this respect because it emphasizes his suffering rather than his death as being the greater sacrifice.  Two source for Catholic tradition come mind.  

In the late first century, the Docetists (a sect of Gnostics) believed that Jesus appeared on Earth only in the form of a spirit and that his flesh and blood were only illusions as was his crucifixion.  If the Gnostic Jesus could not have been crucified, then it is also logical to suggest that he could not have suffered on the cross.  In fact, the non-canonical Gospel of Peter tells us exactly that. Because of this,  Serapion, the 2nd Century Bishop of Antioch declared the Gospel of Peter to be a heretical Gnostic  scripture.  For the Proto-Orthodox Christian (those who became Trinitarians), a suffering Christ then became evidence that he was both human and divine and consequently by emphasizing a suffering Christ they could contradict the heretical Docetist view that Jesus was present in spirit only.

Another source of this tradition appears to be the work entitled The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ written by Klemens Bentano who recorded the dictations of Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824), a Catholic Augustinian nun, who recounted to him her claim of “divinely” inspired visions that told of the trial and tribulations of the crucified Jesus.  This work was the primary inspiration for Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ.”

Insert the origins of the passion narrative here.

8 – Divinity of Jesus.   What did Paul and the authors of the Gospels believe about the nature of Jesus?  

  1. Was he God’s divine incarnate self?  
  2. Was he a man who first experienced an indwelling of God’s Holy Spirit and therefore had both human and divine attributes but was not God? 
  3. Was he a mere mortal albeit one who had been specifically selected by God i.e., a Son of God in the traditional Jewish meaning of this title,  to usher in God’s Heavenly kingdom on Earth?

Paul offers an enigmatic explanation in Philippians 2:5 – 11 “Have this mind among you Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men8 And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name10that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”  Paul says he is “not equal to God” therefore we can conclude Paul is not saying that he is God incarnate.  He was “born in the likeness of man” and found in “human form” so he must indeed be counted among humanity.  And finally “God highly exalted him” and “gave him a special name” thus even God arguably sees Jesus as a special person.  The question is, can man be come as special in the eyes of God as Jesus is?  In Romans 8:9-11, Paul gives us his insight into the nature divinity when applied to other than God himself:

But you are not of the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.  Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.  But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.  If the spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”

Paul is focused on the spirit world; Jesus’ spirit not his body is resurrected and therefore only with the indwelling of God’s spirit can the spirit of man be also resurrected.  “..flesh and blood cannot inherit the empire of God!‘ (1 Cor 15:50).  Man therefore can be like Jesus and achieve salvations when he too has received the indwelling of God’s spirit.

Mark presents conflicting testimony.  In Mark 3:21 we learn, “And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for people were saying, ‘He is beside himself’.”  This leaves us with an unresolved contradiction: how do we explain Mary’s actions if  we accept the virgin birth narratives of Matthew and Luke, where an angel told Mary about the special nature of her son?  Moreover, Jesus is quoted in Mark 13:32 as saying, “But of that day [eschatological beginnings] or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” But if Jesus is God i.e. If he is divine and one with the Father, then how could this knowledge dichotomy occur?  

In yet another example, Mark (1.11), when Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist, a voice from the heavens is heard saying, “You are my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”  One early Greek manuscript and several Latin ones, record a slight but nevertheless important difference in the saying, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you.”  This phrase is a trope for recognizing an “adoptive son” that is taken from Psalm 2:7 where the King of Israel becomes God’s “son” upon his coronation.  These manuscripts seem to fit more with what Paul seems to be saying, to wit, that Jesus had received the indwelling of the spirit of God here represented in the act of being adopted by Him.

The last words spoken by Jesus in Mark and Matthew are, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”  It is hard to see any reason why Jesus would say this if the authors believed him to be divine with the omniscience of God.  Quite the contrary, they record a Jesus who did not appear to even understand himself to be the Apocalyptic Messiah of prophecy let alone God incarnate.  And Luke’s version which has Jesus saying,  “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!” reveals only that Jesus believed his human soul was destined to be with God.  This is something that Paul might have written.  But Luke gives us nothing else to suggest that Jesus knew himself to be divine.  

John is the one Gospel, however, that does  introduce a new theological meaning to the nature Jesus’ being that had not been addressed the Synoptic Gospel authors.  John, therefore,  is the principal Gospel cited by Christians as their evidence for a belief in the divinity of Jesus.  Because John saw Jesus in a very different and deeper philosophical way than was apparently understood by the earlier authors, it deserves special analysis to answer the question, “did John believe in the divinity of Jesus?”

John 1:1-3, begins, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God;  all things were made through him, ……” (NOTE: The literal translation of the Greek for this verse is “In a beginning …. ” not “In the beginning…..” – that is consistent with the literal translation of the ancient Hebrew text of Genesis 1 which begins, “In one of many beginnings ….. “).  And, Genesis 1: 1-3 says, First God made heaven & earth.  The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.  And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.”  The similarity of John 1:1-3 and Genesis 1:1-3 is not just a mere coincidence.  Here John repeats the lesson of Genesis by reminding the reader of the important role that the Holy Spirit played as God’s agent in His creation of and His connection to the natural world consistent with the lesson in Psalms 33:6, “By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth.”

The Jews often spoke of God in an anthropomorphic terms because they could better relate an understanding of Him when His being and actions were interpreted though a human world view.  As Genesis tells us, God creates by speaking things into existence through words.  Of course, speaking requires one to exhale in the process or to breath out if you will.   The word “spirit” has its etymological origin in the Latin noun spritus meaning breath, that derives from the Latin verb sprre, meaning to breathe).  For the Jews, one who was close to God could feel the breath of God on him.  Metaphorically then, one who was close to God could feel the  spiritof God on him.  Here, the author of John is using Word as a synonym for the spirit of God who Christians call the the Holy Spirit.  John repeats the lesson in Genesis 1, by saying “…. thru him (Holy Spirit or Word) all things are made ….”  John is identifying the force by which God, a supernatural entity, creates and maintains contact with the natural world.  

There is also another and perhaps more important doctrinal lesson in the Gospel of John.  In his opening sentence, ” ….. and the Word was God,” he explains the relationship between the Holy Spirit and God stating that they are in fact one and the same .  By uniting the God and the Holy Spirit, John’s Gospel was a seminal document that laid the foundation for the Doctrine of the Trinity that would later become a central doctrine of Christianity.

John 1:14, says, “The Word became flesh.….”   Christians generally interpret this as John’s declaration of the divine nature of Jesus as God incarnate.  For certainly, if theWord is a synonym for the Holy Spirit who is one and the same with God, then Jesus, by logical extrapolation, must also be one and the same with God and thus Jesus is the third person of the Trinity.  But is John really describing Jesus as an incarnation of God or is he saying something else entirely? 

John 1:22 reports that John the Baptist said,  ” …. I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on him …. Behold the Lamb of God.”  The spirit of God (the Holy Spirit, aka the Word), was upon Jesus in a way that Christians today might describe as the indwelling of the Holy spirit of God in the person of man.  In this case the man was Jesus and he was the first to experience such an indwelling of God. Is this perhaps a refinement of Paul’s ideas about the nature of spirituality?  If so, then John believes that a special relationship between man and God can occur when man allows the Holy Spirit, the Word, if you will, to indwell within.  So whether John sees Jesus as divine or the first to achieve an indwelling of God, his Gospel is indeed a ground breaking new philosophical understanding of how man and God can be related in a far deeper and meaningful way.  Either way, John still believes in redemption thru Jesus directly or by Jesus’ example.

In John 2:19 – 22, Jesus said to the crowd in the Temple, ” ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’  The Jews then said, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?’  But he spoke of the temple of his body.  When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken.”  The Jewish Temple was built of stone and Jews believed that God resided in a central room called the Holy of Holies.  But in this construction, God is isolated from mankind. Because Jesus has received the indwelling of the Holy Spirit at his baptism, metaphorically speaking then, Jesus’ resurrected spirit is the temple of God which by his resurrection was rebuilt in three days.  Jesus thus became the Christ who teaches the way by showing that man can achieve a personal relationship with God through an indwelling of His Holy Spirit i.e. God’s Holy Spirit.  If Jesus was God incarnate, then the resurrection of his Spirit is problematic.  God’s Spirit is eternal it does not need to be resurrected.  So it is more likely then that John saw Jesus not as God Incarnate but one who is “divine” because of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

What about other references in John that suggest that Jesus is God incarnate?  For instance, in 1:34 where the Baptist says about Jesus,  “And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God,” But the title Son of God does not mean that Jesus is divine in the sense of being God incarnate.  “The Son of God” is a traditional Jewish honorific title for one who has been chosen by God to do God’s service.  For instance, descendants of Seth, were called “sons of God” (Job 1:6; 2:1; Psalm 88:7; Wisdom 2:13);  and the Israelites (Deuteronomy 14:1); the Peacemakers (Matt 5-9), the King of Israel (e.g. King David – 2 Sam 7:14) and sometimes the entire nation of Israel (Exodus 4:22; Hosea 11:1).  Jesus confirms this in 10:33 – 37,  “The Jews answered him, “It is not for a good work that we stone you but for blasphemy; because you, being a man, make yourself God.” Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’?  If he called them gods to whom the word of God came (and scripture cannot be broken),  do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?  If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me;  but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.”

While John’s Gospel is often cited by today’s Christians as being  the seminal Gospel that lays the foundation for the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, there really is no explicit definition or explanation of the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity anywhere in the New Testament scripture.  In fact, the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity became universally accepted among Christians only very late in the 4th Century.  The Council of Nicea in 326 C.E. united the Father and Son but did not include the Holy Spirit, as the original Nicene Creed discloses. The First Council of Constantinople in 381 C.E. added the Holy Spirit as the third entity with the Father and Son to form the Holy Trinity and the original Nicene Creed was then amended accordingly.

9. Biblical Accuracy

The Ancient world did not yet have the benefit of the printing press to mass produce and disseminate uniform copies of scripture and other writings, so the originals had to be hand-copied by scribes.  These scribes frequently, by either omission or commission, introduced numerous deletions and/or additions which resulted in the copies being insignificantly to materially different from their source documents.  Sometimes the inaccuracies were intentional changes made by the scribes and other times they were simply unnoticed errors.  Unlike the Jewish Masorites who employed professional scribes and used various error detection methods, the early Christian scribes were neither professional nor did they employ any consistent error detection methods.  Moreover, many scribes felt that they had an obligation to make clarifying changes to scripture whenever the original wording was not sufficiently explicit to make an unqualified apologia for the doctrines of Proto-orthodox Christology.  

These problems overlay even more fundamental ones.  Jesus spoke in Aramaic and yet the Gospels, the only writings that claim to quote him, are written in Koine Greek, the everyday Greek of Hellenistic and Roman times.  We have no way of knowing whether Jesus actually said what was attributed to him or whether the translation from Aramaic to Greek was an accurate one.  Today, over 5,700 Greek texts have been discovered and cataloged and these documents differ in so many ways that religious scholars often lament that there are more variations among these manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament. Even Jerome expressed his frustration at not being able certify which of the many texts where the authentic manuscripts when the Church fathers engaged him (circa 405 C.E.) to translate the Hebrew Testament directly into a Latin version of the bible known as the Vulgate that is still used by the Church today,  

add examples of where Jesus is quoted but the quote is word-for-word from the Hebrew Testament.  Early followers of Jesus were Jewish and consequently they looked to OT prophecy for their authority to believe that Jesus was the promised messiah.  It was important then for the Gospel authors to make this connection as well in their narratives about the life and death of Jesus and they did so by frequently quotes Jesus as saying something that is word-for-word identical to OT scripture thus recording the fulfillment of OT prophesy.  Examples include:

  • “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” – Mark from Psalm
  • “You are my Son; today I have begotten you” Psalm 2:7  


Dr. Bard D. Ehrman, in his book Misquoting Jesus, noted some of the more interesting accidental and intentional changes to scripture that have been documented by religious scholars.  I have liberally quoted and/or extracted from his book in reproducing a few of these examples below.

Examples of Accidental Changes:  

1 Cor. 5:8   “Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice [evil] and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”  The word for malice or evil is spelled PONERAS in Greek but can easily be mistaken for the word PORNEIAS which means “sexual immorality.”  Several surviving manuscripts have mistakenly used the word PORNEIAS and therefore these texts mistakenly quote Paul as explicitly warning specifically against sexual vice instead of his original intention to warn against evil in general.

Rom 12:11  Here Paul urges his readers to “serve the Lord.”  But the word Lord, KURIW, was typically abbreviated in manuscripts as KW with a line drawn over the top, which some early scribes misread as an abbreviation for KAIRW, which means “time.”  In these manuscripts, Paul exhorts his readers to “serve the time” when he originally wrote “serve the Lord.”  This can result in a change to the contextual meaning.

1 Cor 12:13   The Greek word for spirit is PNEUMA and is often abbreviated in manuscripts as PMA with a line draw over the top of the three letters.  Some scribes interpreted PMA as an abbreviation for the Greek word POMA which means “to drink”.  So when Paul points out that everyone in Christ has been “baptized into one body” and that they have all “drunk of one Spirit” these other manuscripts have Paul saying that  they have all “drunk of one drink.”

John 17:15  Some errors of omission can result in a disastrous change to the meaning of text.  Here the correct passage of what Jesus taught is:

I do not ask that you keep them from the
world, but that you keep them from the
evil one.”

but in one of the best manuscripts available (the fourth-century Codex Vaticanus), the scribe obviously “eye-skipped” from the last two words of the first line to the third line and recorded Jesus as saying:

I do not ask that you keep them from the
evil one.

Rev 1:15  In this verse, John of Patmos prays that “…the one who released us from our sins.”  He used the Greek word LUSANTI meaning “released” which sounds exactly like the word LOUSANTI which means “washed.”  The King James version included the second but incorrect version.    Today it is more likely that you will hear a Christian speak of his sins being “washed” away rather than his being”released” from sin.

Rom 5:1  In this example, Paul states that “since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God.”  But the word meaning “we have peace” sounds exactly like the word meaning “let us have peace” which is an exhortation rather than a statement of fact.  In a large number of manuscripts including some of the earliest ones, Paul urges himself and others “to seek peace.”  This is a passage that textural scholars have difficulty deciding which reading was the correct one.  Do we “have peace with God” because of faith or must we do both – have faith and continue “to seek peace with God?”

These are but a few of the many thousands of accidental mistakes that textual scholars have found were made in the manuscripts found to date.  To most the differences are probably seen as being insignificant but these error can represent a much more profound concern.  How do we decide which verses most correctly reflect the meaning of the original authors and how can we be certain that we have discovered all of these errors?  Since none of the original Gospel manuscripts have survived, all we have are copies.

Examples of Intentional Changes:  

The Septuagint  The Jewish name for God was YHWH but in Christian versions of the Septuagint, it was given the Greek rendering “Kyrious” which refers to a pre-incarnate Lord, i.e. Christ.

Isaiah 7:14   This prophecy is used by Matthew and Luke as scriptural justification for their birth narratives.  The issues concerns a mistranslation of this passage from the Hebrew Testament written in Aramaic to the the Hebrew Testament written in Greek (the Septuagint).  The  word aalmah, which in Hebrew means “young woman”, was rendered in Greek as “parthenos” which can mean either a “young girl” or a “virgin.”   While this may have originally been an unintentional error,  it was known as early as the mid-second century when Trypho, the Jew in Justin’s dialog, objected that aalmah should be rendered in Greek as neanis meaning a “young girl.”  Therefore we can legitimately argue that the persistent use of the word “virgin” in Christian versions of the Septuagint is evidence of an intentional change. 

Mark 16:9 – 20 & John 20:11 – 21  These chapters and verses are not a part of the earliest Gospel manuscripts and make their first appearance in the respective Gospels sometime after 150 C. E.

The following examples are taken from “A Historical Introduction to the New Testament by Robert M. Grant, Professor of the New Testament, University of Chicago.

I John 5:7  (KJV)    All early Greek manuscripts, all early Church Fathers (including Jerome and Augustine),  all early versions, and the older manuscripts of the Vulgate, contain the following text, “There are three which bear witness, the spirit and the water and the blood, and the three are one.  But  scribes were unsatisfied that nowhere in the Christian canon was there any explicit statement of authority for the Trinity and so, in the 4th Century,  this text was interpolated to provide that authority by adding the bolded language accordingly, “There are three which bear witness on earth, the spirit and the water and the blood, and these three are one in Christ Jesus; and there are three who bear witness in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Spirit, and these three are one.” 

John 8  The story about a woman ‘taken in adultery’ and forgiven by Jesus does not belong to the Gospel of John. (a) It occurs in the Byzantine text of the gospel, usually as John 7:53-8:1 but sometimes after John 7:36 or 21:24 (in a small group of manuscripts it is found after Luke 21:38). (b) No manuscript before the end of the fourth century contains it; no Church Father, in the same period, refers to it. (c) Therefore it is not authentic.


Jesus and the money lenders in the Temple:  This story goes to the Jewish origin of the synaptic Gospels as compared to the later independent  ideological interpretations made of them by Gentile Christians unfamiliar with Jewish traditions.  Bishop Spong explains

“I do not believe it was devised to carry an anti-Jewish message and I do not believe it was an expression of anger that violated the message. My take on this passage, which was introduced into the tradition by Mark, is that it was a messianic sign drawn from the writings of the prophet Zechariah and wrapped around Jesus to proclaim that he was indeed the messiah.

When the book of Zechariah describes the “Day of the Lord,” a Jewish term for the coming of the Kingdom of God that would be inaugurated by the messiah, he writes “On that day there will no longer be traders in the house of the Lord.” Earlier the hero in Zechariah, known as the Shepherd King of Israel, was removed from his leadership role by those who buy and sell animals. The price of this removal was thirty pieces of silver which were then hurled by the Shepherd King back into the Temple. Matthew, building on Mark, placed those extra details from Zechariah into the passion story in which the Temple authorities, following Jesus’ act of disrupting the traders, paid Judas Iscariot thirty pieces of silver to betray the messiah. Judas then hurled the silver back into the Temple.

This passage reveals more than most the necessity of understanding that the gospel writers are not writing history or biography, they are painting interpretive portraits. The first three gospels, Mark, Matthew and Luke, are clearly products of the synagogue and reflect the fact that in their interpretation of Jesus, they are literally wrapping him in the Jewish Scriptures. The original Jewish leaders of the synagogue understood this. By the first quarter of the second century there were few Jews left in the Christian movement, and Gentile believers, ignorant of what were obvious symbols to the Jews, began to treat the gospels as history and to literalize these accounts. That is what led us to creeds, doctrines and dogmas that served to institutionalize Christianity, but distorted the Jesus experience dramatically.”


  • “The Historical Jesus” by Professor Bart D. Ehrman, University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill
    The Great Courses series by The Teaching Company
  • “The New Testament” by Professor Bart D. Ehrman, University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill
    The Great Courses series by The Teaching Company
  • New Advent – Catholic Encyclopedia
  • Desire of the Everlasting Hills by Thomas Cahill
  • The Christology in the Apostolic Fathers by Alonzo Rosecrans Stark
  • The Hebrew Bible – Stanford University Course – Mark Mancall, Ph.D. – Professor of History, Emeritus
  • From Jesus to Christ (second edition) – Paula Fredriksen Ph.D. – Aurelio Professor of Scripture at Boston University
  • A Historical Introduction to the New Testament by Robert M. Grant, Professor of the New Testament, University of Chicago
  • The First Coming How the Kingdom of God Became Christianity by Thomas Sheehan, Professor of Philosophy, Stanford University
  • Beyond the Passion – Rethinking the Death and Life of Jesus by Stephen J. Patterson, Professor of New Testament at Eden Theological Seminary.
  • Who Killed Jesus? by John Dominic Crossan, Professor of Religious Studies, DePaul University.