Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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The Historical Jesus
The Jewish Gospels

The impression has unwittingly been created over time that the Christian Church broke away from the Jewish Church within a few decades of the death of Jesus. This impression is not surprising since history is usually written by the victors in any contest. 

The victors in this case were "orthodox" Christians who, in the fourth century, became part of the Roman Empire's civil service. As such they sought to eliminate, with the help of the Roman Emperor, any source of unrest and dissent.

Part of the Christian victory consisted in suppressing rival versions of the Gospel. This gradual destruction of early written material about Jesus was completed by the establishment of the biblical "Canon", or "measure" of what is revealed written authority for Christian doctrine.

The ancient attitude which sought to protect doctrinal purity at the expense of evidence is long gone. We usually (in the West and increasingly elsewhere) now seek to preserve evidence from the past, and to use it to gain as accurate a picture of that past as we can. Our quest for good evidence of what really happened has radically changed the way we regard the Bible.

In particular, we have realised the degree to which the formation of the Canon of approved biblical material has destroyed much good evidence. R W Funk maintains, correctly in my opinion, that the    " for the historical Jesus ... has made the New Testament incredible ... scholars have shown the gospels to be statements of faith mixed with some historical reminiscences" [1]. The quest has also helped us understand a little more about the pre-Canon Church.

What I have here called the Jewish Gospels comprises three versions, all originally attributed to "the Hebrews". We know about them only because they were quoted later by early Christian commentators and theologians who were attempting to silence heretical teachings:

[1] The Gospel of the Hebrews seems to have had little in common with the gospels which were later chosen as acceptable sources of knowledge about Jesus. That the Gospel of the Hebrews was judged to contain bad theology doesn't mean, of course, that it did not contain valuable historical evidence. If it did, however, almost all of that evidence is now lost to us.

[2] The Gospel of the Ebionites seems to have been based either directly on the the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke) or on the same original source material used by the authors of the Synoptics - that is, probably a combination of written and word-of-mouth material.

[3] The Gospel of the Nazoreans has similarities with Matthew's Gospel. But is sufficiently unlike it to suggest that it may have derived from the same or similar original sources as Matthew's author used.

Somewhat ironically, everything we know of these three gospels comes from those who sought to erase them from the Christian tradition. The passages we have are quoted by various Christian bishops and theologians, and then criticised to show that they must be wrong. The implication is that we know only those parts of the gospels which didn't suit the theological tastes and orthodoxies of the critical writers - and not that what they contained wasn't good history.

The Christian authors who quote these gospels seem to think that they all come from a single gospel. But modern scholars now generally agree, on the grounds of style, various inconsistencies and other internal evidence that there were almost certainly three distinct Jewish Gospels. Of course, we have no way of knowing if the quotations were accurate since we have nothing to compare them with.

Christian authors quote the Jewish Gospels as early as the first half of the second century. Irenaeus (140-200) reports that the Ebionites used only Matthew's Gospel and that they denied the Virgin Birth. As R J Miller remarks, 

This means that they must have been using their own gospel and not the canonical Matthew, which clearly attests to this belief [2]

Another possible conclusion is, one should note, that the story of the Virgin Birth was added in later to Matthew's Gospel - though I doubt that many biblical scholars would much like that idea.

Apart from the intrinsic value of the texts themselves (even though they are mostly very brief and fragmentary), their existence gives us a tantalising glimpse of the nature of the early Church. 

I have tended to imagine the early Church as a primitive, simple form of the institutional Church which came later. I have every indication that this perception is shared by many - which is hardly surprising, given the centuries over which Christian leaders have succeeded in destroying alternative, unorthodox pictures.

The existence of these three gospels indicates that there were probably Jewish communities in what we now call Palestine until at least the middle of the second century, and probably much later. If this is correct, then they existed in parallel with the earlier Christian community at Jerusalem and the fast-growing "Gentile" churches in Syria and elsewhere. At some point, perhaps centuries later, these groups of Jews who thought of Jesus as the Messiah but remained in their original tradition were probably either absorbed into the Christian mainstream or reverted to a more orthodox Jewish faith.

The Gospel of the Hebrews seems to have contained mainly narrative, interwoven with quite extensive theological interpolations by the author. Among the subjects the fragments allude to are:

  • Jesus' pre-existence and birth;
  • Jesus' temptation;
  • the call of Levi;
  • an appearance of the risen Jesus to James the Just (not the Apostle, but the brother of Jesus and leader of the pro-Law faction in Jerusalem), who is here portrayed as the first person to have seen the resurrected Jesus; and
  • various sayings, such as "Whoever marvels will rule and whoever rules will rest" and "Never be glad except when you look at your brother and sister with love".

The Gospel is unusual in that it depicts the Holy Spirit as female, probably stemming from the traditional Jewish idea of Wisdom, one of God's most important attributes, as female.

One of those who quotes a passage from the Gospel is Jerome (345-420), one of the Church's greatest early scholars. He claims to have translated the quote from the Hebrew. But it's almost certain that he got it from Origen (185-254) or that they both translated it identically from the original, a rather unlikely possibility. It was most probably originally written in Greek, not Hebrew.

R J Miller records that 

Most of its citations come from, or can be traced to, Christians who lived in Egypt. Parallels to some of its teachings are found in Egyptian Christianity, so it may well have been written there, though this is only an educated guess.

The Gospel of the Ebionites is known entirely from the works of Epiphanius of Salamis (313-403), in his discussion of the Jewish-Christian group called the Ebionites. He founded a monastery in Judea and in 367 was elected Metropolitan of Cyprus and Bishop of Salamis (then known as Constantia).

This is a mainly narrative gospel, more like Matthew's Gospel than like the others, but nevertheless having definite connections with Mark and Luke as well. What few fragments we have allude to:

  • John the Baptist;
  • the baptism of Jesus;
  • the choice of the Twelve Apostles;
  • the Last Supper; and
  • two sayings of Jesus.

Epiphanius tells us that the Gospel left out the accounts of the birth of Jesus and the genealogy of Jesus. This may indicate that these elements were added to the Synoptic Gospels after the formation of the main body of these gospels. But we shall probably never know for sure, since we don't know either when the Ebionites Gospel was written nor where it came from.

The Ebionites were attacked by the Church for a heresy known as "adoptionism" in which it's taught that Jesus became God's son at his baptism - that is, he was adopted by God at this point.

The fragments indicate that the Ebionites followed the Greek text of the Synoptic Gospels closely, even though Epiphanius asserts that this was a "Hebrew" gospel.

Indications are quite strong that the Gospel was written in the first half of the second century, even though Epiphanius' quotations are our only source. Irenaeus knows about the Ebionites and tells us that they used Matthew's Gospel. Some sources indicate that the Ebionites lived in the area east of the Jordan, but our evidence is too imprecise for certainty.

The Gospel of the Nazoreans is closely related to Mathew's Gospel, although there are tantalising differences between the two. Because the Nazorean Gospel is quoted to show at which points it differed from Matthew, it's possible that what was not quoted was acceptably similar to the canonical gospel. Sometimes the Nazorean Gospel explains the correct theology of difficult words; sometimes it fills in small details for clarity's sake; and sometimes it corrects something Matthew seems to have got wrong.

Our authorities for the text are Jerome, Epiphanius, Eusebius of Nicomedia (died 342) and Hegesippus (180). They say it was written in the Hebrew alphabet, which makes it likely that its original language was Aramaic. But scholars think, on analysing the text, that it was more likely to have been taken originally from a Greek version of Matthew and then translated into Aramaic. Judging its accuracy becomes even more difficult when we note that the documents in which it was quoted were also translated into Syriac and Latin.

The importance of alternative sources of information about what Jesus really said and did as a matter of good history has increased in the last 50 years or so. It seems to me that the objectivity of our knowledge of the historical Jesus has increased as the institutional Church's grip on the "correct" Bible gradually weakens. In short, these "Jewish" gospels have contributed in a small way to a clearer vision of the real Jesus.
[1] Christianity in the 21st Century, Ed Deborah A Brown
[2] The Complete Gospels, 1992

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