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 Signs Gospel

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke contain material which is common to them both, but doesn't appear in Mark or John. These passages were first spotted more than 100 years ago. It has taken that long for a majority of scholars to come around to the view that Matthew and Luke used the same written source - now lost. That source is generally called "Q" (which stands for Quelle, the German for "source").

It wasn't until comparatively recently that many scholars have proposed that some sections of John's Gospel also derive from a similar, probably written, source which hasn't survived the centuries.

It seems to be an account of seven of Jesus' miracles which were thought to be "signs" or demonstrations of his special nature, and some material about the crucifixion of Jesus. The Signs Gospel [1] has to be reconstructed - unlike "Q" - from only one text, that of John's Gospel.

When the text is carefully analysed, rough patches appear - points where the original Greek shows a seam or slight break in form. Matthew and Luke paste over such breaks so well that they are much harder to spot. If it weren't for the duplicated texts we might not have discovered "Q" at all - or at least have been uncertain about its extent.

John, on the other hand, doesn't do such a good job of pasting in the Signs source. He seems to insert them verbatim. One commentator suggests that he did this because the Signs Gospel was already well known and that John's author therefore didn't dare alter it. At any rate, the Signs Gospel stands out from the long discourses because it is entirely narrative.

John's Gospel is late. It probably didn't appear as a whole until around 100 and perhaps up to 20 years after that - nobody is sure. But if so, the Signs Gospel would have been considerably earlier. But, whatever some scholars may claim, there's no way of knowing exactly how much earlier. Nor is there any way of knowing if it reports "what really happened" or if it was a collection of blown-up accounts made up by those who needed to turn the man Jesus into a Messiah.

The language and form of the Signs Gospel indicates that those who knew and used it were Jewish. They may have had close links with Greek culture and a Greek or Roman city. But they were Jews first and followers of Jesus second. Perhaps they would better be called Jewish Messianists.

The way all four Gospels are put together demonstrates clearly that these Jewish-Christian groups, living as they initially did within the Jewish faith, used the text of the Jewish Bible (the Old Testament) to "prove" their beliefs about the meaning of Jesus.

There are many examples of John's author doing this with the "Signs" material:

John 2.17  Jesus disruption of the Temple trade is justified by a quotation from Psalm 69.9. Perhaps the Jewish-Christians were thinking of the crucified Jesus as one who has "become the gossip of the people sitting at the city gate" (Psalm 69.12).

John 12.38  The man who "bore our sufferings" in Isaiah 53.4 is the subject of Isaiah 53.1 which is quoted to "prove" that Jesus was the Suffering Servant - one of John's favourite themes.

John 19.24  Did soldiers actually gamble for Jesus' clothes at the crucifixion? We can't be sure because John says directly that it "happened in order to make the scripture come true," and then quotes Psalm 22.18. When Gospel authors do this, we have to question the historicity of the material, if only because they didn't have our idea of history as "what really happened."

From the point of view of plain historicity, the Signs Gospel doesn't raise the credibility of John's Gospel. We have to be content that, for all its remarkably good writing and convincing face-validity, it simply doesn't contain much that we can identify as "what really happened."

[1] The sections of John's Gospel which have been identified as from
the Signs Gospel are:

1.6-7, 19-34, 35-49; 2.1-11, 14-19; 4.46b-54;5.2-9; 6.1-25;9.1-8; 11.1-45, 47-53; 12.1-8, 12-15, 37-40;18.1-11, 12-27; 18.28-19.16a; 19.16b-37, 38-42; 20.1-10, 19-22, 30-31; 21.1-14;

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