Essays on the Historical Jesus

Evan Powell


The Essays

(Last update:  December 12, 2014)


1. The Missing Ending of Mark

The two earliest and best manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark end abruptly at 16:8 with the women fleeing in fear from the empty tomb. There are no resurrection appearances of Jesus. Meanwhile, the Gospel of John comes to a natural conclusion at 20:31, after which there is an unexpected appendix (John 21) depicting a third resurrection appearance of Jesus. The lost ending of Mark and the extra ending of John are not unrelated literary phenomena; the author of Mark composed the story that now resides in John 21 as the intended finale to his own gospel. The original ending of Mark was removed from Mark and rewritten as an appendix to John. The question is not whether this was done, but how and why it was done. This inquiry leads to a new perspective on the relationship between John and the Synoptics.

2.  The Ur-John Thesis

The first edition of the Gospel of John was a simple narrative, written in Aramaic sometime during the 40s or 50s CE. It was translated into Greek during the 70s, and subsequently expanded with advanced theological interpretations that were composed in Greek for insertion into the Greek edition during the late first century. The original Aramaic edition of the gospel is referred to herein as Ur-John. 

Much of the text of Ur-John still exists intact as the narrative skeleton of canonical John. Editors routinely treated the pre-existing narrative as sacrosanct (presumably due to perceived apostolic authority). Corrections and amplifications are inserted into the text, but the editors appear reluctant to erase or alter the original wording. Accordingly, a significant block of original text survives. It can be isolated from the editorial overlays and viewed as a discrete composition. Once this is done a coherent early portrait of Jesus comes into view. This portrait is detailed in the third essay.

Mark was written as a political and theological rebuttal of Ur-John. The many points of contact between John and Mark are not the result of John's awareness of Mark, but rather Mark's awareness of Ur-John. As noted in the previous essay, Mark's original conclusion beyond 16:8 can be largely reconstructed from John 21. With Mark’s original ending restored, the text can be compared to Ur-John. When interpreted in this light, the political hostility that existed between the Johannine and the Markan factions of the movement becomes obvious. The leadership of the movement did not wish to reveal this internal conflict to the world. The decision was made to remove Mark’s inflammatory conclusion and append it to the Aramaic Ur-John. The transfer of this text effectively masks the political conflict out of which these two gospels arose.

3.  An Early Portrait of Jesus

Ur-John was written by John of Zebedee, or by a talented writer working under his guidance. Ur-John depicts Jesus as messiah, king, prophet, and most frequently the Christ. The kingdom Jesus anticipates is a restored political kingdom of Israel, not a spiritual kingdom of God. Jesus views himself as the agent of change by which the kingdom will be restored, and many herald him as the coming king.

The author of Ur-John perceives Jesus to have been in his late forties at the time of his death. This is clear from the intended irony in John 2:19-21, where the forty-six year old Temple is equated to the body of Jesus, and in John 8:57, wherein Jesus is said not to have yet been fifty years of age. If Luke's questionable reference to Jesus having begun his ministry about age thirty did not exist, scholars would have been using John to support the inference that Jesus was in his late forties at the time of his ministry. 

Ur-John's Jesus is quite unlike anything that exists in the Synoptic Gospels. There are no references to Jesus as son of Man, or Son of God. Jesus does not teach in parables, he does not perform exorcisms, he does not practice open commensality, and he befriends no tax collectors. There is no record of Jesus being accused of blasphemy. Jesus is executed by the Roman prefect for challenging the authority of Rome and promoting his role as the coming king of the Jews. Ur-John is intentionally silent on details related to the specific message of Jesus.

Ur-John leads the reader to presume that the two who were crucified with Jesus were unidentifed disciples who had been arrested with him, thus making it appear that the movement at large had been condemned, not just Jesus alone. 

Once the story of Jesus in Ur-John is viewed side by side with Mark, it becomes clear that Mark is a second-generation reformulation of the gospel story designed to appeal to a Roman readership. With respect to historical Jesus research, Ur-John supersedes Mark in coherence and credibility and must take center stage as the most primitive record of Jesus to have survived from the first century.

4.   The Imaginary Q

Not only does the discovery of Ur-John undermine the credibility of Mark as a historical source, it calls into question the credibility of Q as well. Ur-John offers no hint of Jesus as an aphoristic sage, and no indication that either Jesus or John the Baptist had any apocalyptic content in their teaching. The fact that Ur-John and Q are almost mutually exclusive in content indicates that a critical reevaluation of Q is in order. This essay examines the arguments in favor of Q's existence and demonstrates that they lack a critical logical foundation. Moreover, the Q theory fails to explain several significant indications of direct dependence of Matthew upon Luke. The double tradition material is best understood as second- and third-generation attributions developed for the most part in the post-70 era, and having little direct contact with the historical Jesus. Contemporary Jesus reconstructions based upon the presumptions that Mark and Q are the two most trustworthy sources are likely to be wide of the mark. 

5. Jesus: The Film

The Essays lead to a portrait of the historical Jesus that differs from conventional reconstructions due to the establishment of Ur-John as a foundational primitive text. The author of Ur-John, quite evidently an eyewitness, views Jesus as having been in his late forties at the time of his death. He also has no awareness of Jesus speaking in parables, or conducting exorcisms, or preaching apocalyptic end of the world themes. The author has no recollection of Jesus claiming to be the Son of God, or Son of man. This essay presents the abstract of a film about the historical Jesus based on Ur-John, a film in five acts that would constitute the most historically credible vision of Jesus yet produced in film format.


6.  The Final Quest (not yet posted)

The first three Jesus quests failed due to (a) the popular interpretation of Mark as an early and reliable source, and (b) unwarranted faith in the existence of Q. Once Mark and Q are declared to be primary sources, numerous diverse and flawed images of Jesus must inevitably follow, from John Dominic Crossan’s imagined wandering sage to Bart Erhman’s distorted view of Jesus as apocalyptic prophet.

A general academic consensus in Jesus studies will be achieved once scholars are able to jettison the erroneous presuppositions that have muddled the quest until now. Mark is a deliberate political fabrication. The author knew he was not writing history; in fact he wrote with the intent to obliterate history. However, at the same time he was writing magnificent theology; the Gospel that he produced was a highly structured work of genius that was foundational to the emergence of Christianity.

The Q theory is a remarkable phenomenon. Though it does not resolve the Synoptic data and there is no evidence for its existence, belief in Q persists as a fundamental misinterpretation of the double tradition. It continues to thrive due to the tyranny of academic convention; younger scholars believe it because they have learned it from more seasoned scholars. Once it becomes apparent that the Q emperor has no clothes, the double tradition will be seen for what it is—further creative attributions developed in the post-70 era stimulated by the genius of Mark. 

The final quest for Jesus will succeed once it is recognized that there is only one surviving tether to historical events in the NT—that of the narrative story buried in the Gospel of John. It is there that we discover a man dedicated to the vision of a restored Israel, a man who believed he would be instrumental in freeing his people from the oppression of Roman rule. Though the details of his anti-Roman rhetoric and calls for tax resistance were omitted from the written records for obvious reasons, the echoes of his passionate call for political revolution reverberate in the remembrances of his disdain for the rich and powerful, his attention to the plight of the poor, and his compassion for the sick and helpless--a vision of social and economic justice that was to become his enduring legacy.