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8.2 The Discovery of the Lost Gospel

Many ancient writings have been discovered in ruins, caves and old monasteries during the last one hundred years. Some are well-known manuscripts of well-known writings such as those found at St. Catherine Monastery in 1850 and at Qumrân in the 1940s. Others were known only by their titles given as references in other books but thought to be lost for ever. In this category we have the Epistle of Barnabas found at St. Catherine in 1859 and the Didache, or “Teaching of the Twelve Apostles”, found in Constantinople in 1875 as well as many others found at Qumrân and at Nag Hammadi. These newly discovered writings have been greeted with enthusiasm by most scholars since they help them to reconstruct the history of an interesting, and little known, period of time.

Q did not bring much excitement probably because no old manuscript of it was discovered in, for instance, a cave. Instead Q was reconstructed from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke where it was hidden among the well-known texts. Some scholars thought already 150 years ago that such a text must exist but they could not find it. This long delay is probably due to the fact that the New Testament scholars were more interested in the “life” of Jesus that in his Sayings or preaching that they took for granted. In addition, extracting a hidden text from two Gospels was not easy. It took a long time to develop a method to extract it by a very precise comparative study of the two narrative Gospels.

The study was initiated in the nineteenth century by the Protestant Church that wanted to find some proof that the Catholic Church was no more that a pageant alteration of the true Christianity. At first they looked for such proofs in the New Testament but it was not easy. They tried to show that the Catholics abandoned Jesus’ doctrine and moved away from the early Christian community and faith. The difficulty of this approach was due to the fact that the only historical evidences were the four narratives Gospels with all their miracles, myths, and legends. To go behind all this, and to reconstruct the story of Jesus as he really was, took more that a hundred years. By merging the four Gospels it became clear that Matthew and Luke had introduced a different story in it that the other two had ignored. John’s Gospel, in addition, was different in tone and content from the first three. It was left apart and the detailed comparison was limited to the first three books. The early scholars agreed that Matthew’s Gospel was the first (after all he was the only Apostle among the writers). Luke’s was probably the second Gospel to be written and Mark the third as it is based, in part, on the other two.

It was obvious from the start that all three Gospels contained mainly narrative material and that Matthew and Luke’s contained Sayings of Jesus that were not to be found in Mark’s. As a result the scholars were led to change their priority, and to admit that the first Gospel was written by Mark. Matthew and Luke wrote their own version on the base of two sources: the first was Mark’s Gospel and the second an unknown book that contained the “Sayings” of Jesus. Even to-day many scholars refuse to admit that Mark wrote the first Gospel, mainly because Matthew’s text is better, and more acceptable to the Catholic Church.

The two-sources hypothesis for Matthew and Luke’s Gospels, and the priority of Mark’s, made their way very slowly among the scholars but they could not be ignored as they help to increase our knowledge of the historical Jesus. By eliminating the common narrative parts of both Matthew and Luke’s Gospels, one is left with the “Sayings of Jesus”, a text known as Q of about 225 verses. The original Q may have been longer as both Matthew and Luke’s Gospels contain some Q material not present in the other. It could very well be that some sayings are not included in any of the two Gospels. There was not yet a unified text of Q and everybody had to compare the text of the two Gospels to extract the required document.

It is by now clear that early Christianity was not a unique religion, but that it had been influenced by older ones. It was, in some way, similar to the Jewish apocalyptic doctrine as well as to the Greek mystic cult. It was also necessary to decide if the core of Christianity had to be found in the person of Jesus and in his message, as related in the Gospels, or in Paul’s interpretation of Christian faith with its focus on the death and resurrection of Christ. The answer was not easy. Karl Ludwig Schmidt showed that Mark had introduced many words of his own in his Gospel and that this book was not very good as a biography. It was at the best a recollection of oral traditions, parables, and stories put together by the author. Lately the study of Q became important and attracted many scholars as many other extra-canonical writings of the early Christianity became available (the Gospel of Thomas, the Didache, the Apostolic fathers, the Coptic-Gnostic writings, the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel of Peter). After all Q was written before the narrative Gospels. The reconstructed minimal texts, acceptable to most scholars, were published in the 1970 and 1980’s, but a unified text acceptable to all is still to be done.

In the nineteenth century scholars wanted the “Sayings” of Jesus to be read without reference to the narrative Gospels since, according to them, this was the essence of Christianity. For them Jesus was a first class teacher of an elevated and timeless humane ethic. Harnack thought that these teachings should set the standards for a civilised world. As a result Jesus appeared to be an apocalyptic prophet who was mistaken preaching the imminent end of the world. Q, in this sense, was unable to settle the problem as the sayings could be interpreted in different ways. The conclusion was that Jesus’ teaching was “Eschatological” that means last, extreme, or final. In clear it means that even if the end of the world did not occur to fulfill apocalyptic expectations, the new age Jesus initiated was so different from the old one that, altogether, he was right. Jesus was eschatological in the sense that he was the last Prophet at the end of the Jewish history and announced the end.

Q is a mix of proverbial Wisdom and apocalyptic pronouncement with very few parables, whereas there were plentiful in the narrative Gospels. The notion of eschatology did not fit anymore. Q is a large collection of Jesus’ Sayings made by first century AD followers that have to be taken more seriously that the parables. It is not a selection of Jesus’ Sayings from different synoptic texts and traditions made by twentieth century scholars. A Coptic-Gnostic text found at Nag Hammadi, the Gospel According to Thomas, is a collection of Jesus’ Sayings. It is very similar to Q and 35% of the Sayings in Thomas are also found in Q. This new document proves that the concept of Q is correct. In fact these were not the only collections of Jesus’ Sayings (see parables in Mark 4, the Didache and other Coptic-Gnostic writings). Q is then a common form of literature in Jesus’ time or, in other words, a collection of “Sayings or Wisdom” by a sage. It is now generally accepted that Q contains Wisdom, apocalyptic and prophetic sayings, all of them integral part of the document. Moreover it is also admitted that Q has taken shape in stages, that there were changes in its content over time, that the Wisdom Sayings were the first and the apocalyptic ones the last. This has led some scholars to believe that the Wisdom Sayings are to be attributed to Jesus but that the authorship of the apocalyptic ones is not so certain. If this is true then Jesus is correctly remembered for his Wisdom.

The conventional scenario of Christian origin was linked to apocalyptic teaching that gave way, later on, to a language of Wisdom when the world did not come at an end as expected. It was thought that it was the apocalyptic teaching that attracted people to the movement that preached salvation at the time of the Last Judgement. Now, it looks as if Jesus’ teaching went from Wisdom to apocalyptic. We now have to find what was the earlier message and attraction of the Jesus’ movement, and why there was a shift toward apocalypse. In order for Q to help us to understand the change from Wisdom to apocalypse it must be clearly cut of the narrative Gospels; the people of Q must come into view and the social and cultural climate of Galilee must be understood.

New Testament scholars have always assumed that Jesus’ earliest followers formed a Christian congregation. The authors of the Gospels, as well as St. Paul, assumed it too, stating that Cephas and James were the head of the early Christian Church in the mid-50s AD. It is obvious that if Jesus started a religion, as the Church said, then the first followers must have been Christian. When Q came to life the scholars started to talk about the “Community of Q” that would have been the first Christian community or church. Unfortunately the study of Q did not reveal anything about the death and resurrection of Jesus, there was no mention of Jesus as the Christ, or instruction to his disciples to continue his mission and bringing converts into the church. There was nothing that fitted with the traditional image of Christian origin. On the other hand Q suggested to the followers to sell all their possession and to give the proceeds to the poor, not to carry money, not to worry about what to eat, or about leaving home and the family to follow Jesus. The Q people are described as itinerant charismatics who imitated Jesus’ style of life of poverty and begging. This does not fit too well with the traditional image of the Christian beginnings. This can only be explained by saying that there were settled Christian communities who provided the necessary support to the Q itinerants, or missionaries, also known as Christian prophets.

Q is a mixture of Wisdom, prophecy, and apocalyptic language but the implicit doctrine is not yet fully Christian, with the exception that the people of Q, together with the Christians, were expecting His return as the Son of Man. The Q people continued to proclaim the Kingdom after Jesus’ death by talking in His spirit and name; they believed that they were filled with His spirit as the risen Lord. Q was their handbook of instruction for their preaching during their missions. Later studies followed more closely the text of Q whereas the precedent scholars had taken many liberties with it. The conclusions were that Q was preaching a behaviour and life-style that were very close to the Greek Cynics. The conventional image of Christian origins was not helping in understanding Q and had to be put aside in the following studies.

The three layers of textual tradition were used as a base for the following studies. The earliest layer of “Sapiental instruction” was called Q1; the “Announcement of Judgement” is known as Q2 and the latter addition such as the story of Jesus’ temptation is Q3. The people of Q experienced changes with time in their social circumstance. Their social history began with an early period of elan, general social critique and experimentation. This was followed by an attempt to establish rules about dress, conventional signs of greeting, and proper etiquette. All this is part of Q1. The group experienced a period of frustration with failed expectations that led to the language of judgement directed against the sectors of the society that created obstacles to the movement. This stage is described in Q2. A series accommodation to other streams in the Jesus’ movement, as well as to some Jewish and Greek traditions, had to be accepted. That period called Q3 shows a relaxation of the tensions that appeared during the previous stages of social formation. Specific attitudes and practices described in Q1 are typically Cynic and lead to abandoning one’s family, homelessness, lack of cleanliness, dressing simply, and begging. In the same way the style, the logic, and the forthrightness in Q1 are also very close to the Cynic way of expression. There was a definite call for the individual to live and behave differently from the majority of the people. In the Q2 period the behaviour changes; the authority of Jesus is enhanced as he is assumed to have a special Wisdom and a higher knowledge. A man called John enters the picture with a message of judgement, parables, and with the statement that a strict account of everybody’s deeds is kept. The Pharisees were particularly blamed for many of their actions. People were reminded, in an apocalyptic way, that the Son of Man would come to deliver final judgement on the day of the trial to come. All these features were familiar in the narrative Gospels but did not seem to have their place in Q2; perhaps the people of Q had been Gospel Christians after all. This would lead us to believe that Jesus was first a Cynic sage who, only later on, uttered apocalyptic warnings.

We will see that if we study Q independently of the narrative Gospels, we are led to believe that the people of Q were not Christians, that they did not believe Jesus was the Messiah, that they did not recognise the Apostles as their leaders after Jesus’ death, that they did not imagine that Jesus went to Jerusalem to clean the Temple and reform the Jewish religion, that they did not see his death as an unusual divine event and that they did not follow his teachings to “be saved”. The people of Q are, however, a part of a Jesus movement that can be studied in its Galilean environment, social and cultural.

In the New Testament Galilee is described as being part of Palestine, the religion of Palestine is Judaism, and so all the people of Galilee are Jewish. It is known that this assumption is not correct. Galilee is separated from Judea by Samaria. During three or four centuries before Jesus’ time, there were some tensions between the Samaritans and the Jews who wanted to rebuild their Temple in Jerusalem after their return from exile in Babylon in 539 BC. In the second century BC the Jews won their independence from the Seleucids of Antioch who had taken over the land conquered previously by Alexander the Great. The Maccabean-Hasmonean dynasty of priest-kings was installed in Jerusalem and tried to regain all the land ruled once by David and Solomon. Samaria was taken in 135 BC, then it was the turn of Idumea in the South, and Galilee in the North. Galilee, with its long tradition of freedom, no capital city, no king, no Temple, and no hierarchy of priest, was never fully incorporated in the Jewish state. After Alexander many cities in Galilee were built on the Greek model whereas Judea resisted strongly this foreign influence. In 63 BC Palestine became a Roman province.

Galileans, nevertheless, were very active and productive people. The country had rolling hills, fertile valleys, was bordered to the North and West by mountain ranges, to the East by the sea of Galilee and the Jordan river, and to the South by the mountains of Samaria. Galilee was, in some ways, protected against foreign invasions, even if it had to feed many foreign armies. It was trading with Damascus, Tyre, Ptolemais, Caesarea, Samaria, Jerusalem, the Transjordan and the Decapolis as well as with Egypt, Syria, the Tigris-Euphrates valley and the sea ports of the Mediterranean. The climate was sunny and temperate and the water was plentiful. Its agriculture and fishery products were exported abroad. It was strongly populated for that time. Its economy was self-supporting and the country was pleasant to live in.

Galilee had been populated by a large variety of Semitic people; these people and their culture met and mixed. It was not the land of origin of a specific ethnic identity or of a specific tradition, culture, or religion; it must have been rural in mentality and peasant in population. This should be the sign of an illiterate, sleepy population isolated from the political and ideological disputes of the time. But Q shows that this picture is not correct. The inhabitants had a clear identity that they kept despite the numerous wars and invasions. No Galilean city ever played an important role but they were important all the same. The Greek influence, that lasted three hundred years until Jesus’ time, was an important factor; a large part of the population spoke that language in addition to their own. Of course many Jews moved to Galilee after the exile and before the war but they did not build any synagogue until the third century AD, as they did not consider themselves as part of the Diaspora. The Jewish influence in Galilee was not negligible but it was not overwhelming. Jerusalem became the Galileans’ royal city instead of Antioch, but the distinction between Galileans, Samaritans and Jews of Judea remained. There is very little evidence of the presence of Pharisees in Galilee before the Roman-Jewish war. In Galilee they certainly never had the same power as in Jerusalem. The Romans brought with them some tensions and war in Galilee and they were cruel with the local population. By Jesus’ time, the Galileans refused to be loyal to the Romans as well as to Jerusalem. The New Testament states that Jesus appeared in Galilee on a typically Jewish scene needing reform but there is no historical evidence to support this assertion. However Jesus’ movement was well received in Galilee. The Greek and Roman invasion brought many good things to Galilee but it destroyed the old traditions of the people, and this was not well accepted. The presence of a strong foreign government installed locally was badly resented, as well as the forced displacement of people from their native land. As a consequence most people at home, or displaced in other lands, had the impression to be left alone and this void was filled with the search to salvage what was left of the old traditions. It is against this background that Jesus came to preach in Galilee. As Q relates he was very successful, and soon he had many followers.