The Big Question: What Can We Know of Jesus Beyond the New Testament?

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What Can We Know of Jesus Beyond the New Testament?

Rev Dr David Hilborn

Head of Theology, Evangelical Alliance

Associate Research Fellow, London School of Theology

It's hard to avoid The Da Vinci Code. Dan Brown's novel has sold 40 million copies worldwide, and recently spurred a plagiarism suit in the high court. Now comes the Hollywood film, which looks set to pack out cinemas this summer.

Famously, The Da Vinci Code challenges the 'official' version of Christianity. Instead, it commends a supposedly long-suppressed religious vision. As Brown tells it, the legendary Holy Grail is not the chalice with which Jesus celebrated the Last Supper, but the womb of Mary Magdalene. Jesus had a sexual relationship with Mary, which produced a daughter. Her bloodline developed through the French Merovingian dynasty and lives on in their present-day descendants, who are guarded by a secret society called the Priory of Sion.

Clearly, none of this is from the Bible! Yet Brown claims to have based his plot on authentic extra-biblical sources which the Church has long sought to sideline. Specifically, The Da Vinci Code proposes that the historical Jesus was not divine, but a merely mortal prophet whose original teaching resides in documents which once vied for inclusion in the canon, but which orthodox Christianity later 'outlawed, gathered up, and burned'. It also charges that the Church retrospectively embellished what would become the four gospels. In particular, it claims that Jesus was artificially deified in the fourth century by the Council of Nicea, under instruction from the Roman emperor Constantine.

So what exactly are the alternative sources to which Brown refers, and is his interpretation of them correct? More generally, is there evidence about Jesus beyond the New Testament, and if so, what significance does it have when compared with the biblical material?

Brown makes much of the 'Apocryphal Gospels' - a series of writings about Jesus discovered at the Egyptian sites of Oxyrhynchus and Nag Hammadi in 1896 and 1945. Indeed, The Da Vinci Code states that the Nag Hammadi texts are the earliest records about Jesus, and were excluded from the canon precisely because their portrait of him undermined Constantine 's effort to make Christianity uniquely powerful in his empire. Yet while these sources contain certain sayings which derive from the first century and are close to those found in the canonical gospels, their own likely dating is mid-second century at best, with many going back no further than the third century. By contrast, even quite sceptical scholars accept that the four New Testament gospels were in circulation by around 100 AD. Thus, while The Apocryphon of James echoes some of Jesus' parables, in doing so it draws on material from each of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. This indicates that the canonical gospels had already been collected together in some form before it was produced. The Gospel of Philip and The Gospel of Truth likewise contain some early sayings of Jesus, but are infused with a Gnostic philosophy which is sharply at odds with the canonical worldview, and which was rejected by mainline theologians like Irenaeus and Tertullian in the second century—well before Constantine came onto the scene.

Gnosticism describes a broad range of philosophies and spiritualities, but in essence it espoused a dualism which held that matter is evil and spirit good, and that God is therefore divorced from the world. As such, it rejected the incarnation, often preferring a Jesus who pointed to God but was not himself divine. Brown’s suggestion of a relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene may bear out this idea, but it is not in fact confirmed by any of the Apocryphal Gospels. In some cases, as with the Apocalypse of Peter, Gnosticism separated the divine and the human through the flip-side heresy of Docetism—the view that the cosmic Christ only appeared to be human. So here the true Saviour laughs at bystanders who think he has undergone the indignity of crucifixion, when the man nailed to the cross is a substitute.

The most prominent of all the 'Gnostic Gospels' is the Gospel of Thomas, and The Da Vinci Code makes great play of it. Thomas comprises 114 sayings, many of which parallel those found in New Testament. The idea that the earliest written records of Jesus’ ministry comprised sayings-collections rather than connected narratives has been influential since the mid-nineteenth century, when German scholars hypothesised a source of quotations, Q, on which Matthew and Luke were thought to have drawn. However, Brown misrepresents the highly theoretical nature of Q when he suggests that it might have been written in Jesus’ own hand. A similar distortion attends his account of The Gospel of Thomas. Brown implies that this may be as early as Q, but it in fact excludes the more distinctively Jewish elements of Jesus’ ministry reported by Matthew, and misses the future aspects of his teaching about the kingdom of God common to the first three canonical gospels. Indeed, the Jesus of Thomas comes over as an enigmatic Greek sage, rather than as a Hebrew Rabbi. This again suggests a later Gnostic reconstruction of his life, rather than an authentic account. No doubt a fair number of the sayings resemble those found in the New Testament, and this has led some scholars, including those of the so-called Jesus Seminar, to date the overall text from the mid-first century. But the majority of historians hold it to have been compiled and edited in the Syrian district of Edessa around 140AD. Moreover, the fact that the distinctive sayings of Thomas advocate harsh asceticism and celibacy reinforce the impression that it is a Gnostic recasting of the more earthy Jesus we find in the canonical gospels.

Brown misleads readers still further when he links the Nag Hammadi documents with the Dead Sea Scrolls. These manuscripts were found in 1947 and date from the first century AD. They contain a mixture of Old Testament texts and apocrypha, and rules relating to a monastic Jewish community which most now locate at the nearby site of Qumran . The scrolls shed important light on the religious context of the time, but they never once mention Jesus or his disciples. Certain resemblances between the Scrolls and the New Testament have led some to speculate that Jesus might have been connected to the Qumran group. Both criticised institutional Judaism, both emphasised baptism, and both foretold an imminent apocalypse in which the Temple would fall. Yet the Scrolls are exclusive, sectarian, legalistic and puritanical whereas Jesus embraces Gentiles and ‘sinners’, challenges ritual purity codes and presents himself as the fulfilment of the Law.

If the Scrolls tell us nothing directly about Jesus, the same is true of most other contemporary Jewish sources. Experts occasionally claim to see coded polemics against him in key Hebrew texts like the Talmud, the Tosefta, the targums and the midrashim, but he does not appear by name there. The Babylonian Talmud mentions a ‘Yeshua’ who was ‘hanged [crucified] on the eve of Passover’, but names and numbers his disciples very differently from the New Testament. A notable exception to these gaps and ambiguities is the work of the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus, who was born in 37AD. In his Antiquities Josephus records the execution of James ‘the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ’. Elsewhere he offers a brief account of Jesus which appears to have been supplemented by later Christian editors, but whose likely original details confirm that he was ‘a wise man’, a ‘doer of startling deeds’ and ‘a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure.’ Josephus goes on to describe Jesus’ ministry to Jews and Gentiles alike, his confrontation with Pilate, and his death on the cross. He also notes that ‘the tribe of Christians’ has not died out.

Complementary references to Jesus’ followers also appear in the work of the Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius. At the close of the first century, Tacitus looks back on the persecution of Christians by the emperor Nero. Writing around 120AD, Suetonius recalls that the emperor Claudius expelled Jews from Rome following a dispute about ‘Chrestus’, which is probably a corrupted Latin form of ‘Christ’. If so, this would refer to the same expulsion described by Luke in Acts 18:2. In addition to these sources, both Pliny the Younger and Lucian of Samosata write in the early second century of those who worship Christ. Lucian intriguingly calls Jesus a ‘sophist’, but as in other Roman sources he is known only through his disciples.

During the same period in which these Roman historians were writing, there emerged various ‘sub-apostolic’ texts, written in Greek by the early ‘fathers’ of the church. Among the most important of these are the community manual called the Didache, and the epistles of 1 Clement, Barnabas, Ignatius and Polycarp. Towards the end of the second century there also appeared the epistle 2 Clement and the document known as the Shepherd of Hermas. These texts quote widely from what would become the canonical gospels. In the latter case, their wording very closely parallels the written texts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, which further supports the idea that these four gospels were regarded as authoritative by this point. In the Didache and Ignatius, for example, virtually every quotation of or allusion to Jesus’ teaching is paralleled in Matthew. 1 Clement and Polycarp tend to conflate and summarise canonical sayings, but probably did so because they were relying on an early oral tradition which the New Testament writers also shared. 2 Clement contains certain non-canonical citations, some of which appear Gnostic, but this influence is consistent with its later date.

The overwhelming conclusion to which all this evidence points is that the earliest, fullest and most reliable accounts of Jesus life, words and ministry are those contained in the canonical New Testament gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. If they drew on earlier oral collections of sayings like Q, they represented them authentically, and crucially set them in narrative and historical context. Josephus, Roman historians and Dead Sea Scrolls may supplement our understanding of the wider world of the New Testament, but they tell us little or nothing about Jesus that is not contained in these four gospels. The sub-apostolic fathers post-date the gospels and rely on them heavily, mostly quoting them with remarkable accuracy. By contrast, the ‘Apocryphal Gospels’ on which The Da Vinci Code relies so heavily are often even later, and betray an inauthentic Gnosticism which was already regarded as heretical and non-canonical in the second century church.