The first part of the interview is available here, and the audio interview is found at the bottom of this article.
Gary Greenberg is the author of several popular and controversial books, including 101 Myths of the Bible, The Moses Mystery and The Judas Brief: Who Really Killed Jesus? He is a Fellow of The Jesus Project and is President of the Biblical Archaeology Society of New York. He has also served as a consultant to National Geographic Television’s Science of the Bible series.
In the second part of the interview, Gary discusses the agendas and influences of each gospel author, from the Jewish Christianity of Matthew to new gentile movement of Luke. His insights are based on his book Who Wrote the Gospels? Why New Testament Scholars Challenge Church Traditions.
MC: Gary, did each of the four gospels have a certain agenda or audience that may have influenced or redacted or modified their own work? I think you mentioned Matthew was more focused on a Jewish community; I think you believe he wrote it for a diaspora Jewish crowd in Antioch. What about the other gospels?
GG: Well, Mark – although we don’t know for sure where he wrote, it’s very possible he wrote from Rome – and there are hints of Nero’s persecution having occurred prior to Mark’s Gospel. So Mark may be writing from a perspective to give hope to the Christians who have been persecuted. At the same time he wants to eliminate any idea that Christians want to overthrow the Romans, in order to minimize any impact. So in Mark’s Gospel there is no public claim by Jesus, basically, that he is the Messiah, or that his goal is to get rid of the Romans or anything like that. He wants to leave the Christians as non-antagonistic to Rome. So you do have that kind of a theme playing out in Mark. I mean, there’s many other themes, of course, but Mark’s Gospel goes out of its way to emphasize that there was no public claim during Jesus’ mission that he was the Messiah. Whatever claims he made were based on teachings, and ultimately Jesus denounces Peter for not even understanding what his mission was about shortly before the crucifixion, you know, shortly before Passion Week.
Matthew clearly structures his gospel in a way to suggest a Jewish setting. Although he’s writing to a people outside of the Jewish homeland – he’s writing in Greek, not in Aramaic, where Aramaic would have been the Jewish homeland, Greek is in the diaspora – he structures his story in a lot of ways around the story of Moses: the birth story of Jesus in Matthew is clearly a variation of the birth story of Moses in Exodus; the Sermon on the Mount is clearly a parallel to Moses handing down the Law; and he talks about how to understand the commandments and so on. So there’s clearly a Mosaic tradition. In Matthew, Jesus says, “This teaching is just for Israel; stay away from the Samaritans; stay away from the Gentiles.” In Matthew, Jesus says, “The Pharisees sit in the seat of Moses; do what they tell you; they know what Moses wants.” So it’s clearly a very Jewish-oriented gospel. At the same time, Matthew’s community is clearly in conflict with mainstream Judaism. It’s a Jewish Christian group of sorts, that’s conflicted with the mainstream Jews, [1:00:05] so there’s a lot of polemic against the Jewish establishment in Matthew. So you have that conflict going on.
Luke is clearly writing for a Gentile audience to spread the word that the message of Jesus is a Gentile message—that salvation was originally given to the Jews but they blew it, and now it’s given to the whole world including the Gentiles.
John’s Gospel, a more advanced understanding of who Jesus was, or a more advanced Christology about Jesus, connected with some indications that his community was running into a lot of conflicts with Jewish leadership, was a very Jewish-oriented group at one time that wanted to go to Jewish synagogues, but conflicts began to develop in the communities where they were located with the regular Jewish community, and they were being kicked out of the synagogues. So you have a sense that John’s community was originally a very Jewish community, but they ran into conflict over the teachings. You also have in John a significant indication of a Samaritan connection. In John, Jesus goes into the Samaritan community and develops a big following there, so it’s been thought that a lot of Samaritans were part of the base of John’s community.
In Matthew, Jesus says don’t go to the Samaritans; in John, Jesus is with the Samaritans. So you have that kind of an agenda, and as I mentioned earlier, John also has a lot of, in my opinion, associations with the Exodus chapters, and teachings in Exodus, and a lot of parallels to that.
MC: Something we probably should have mentioned at the beginning, and you point out in your book, is when dealing with the dating, especially the late dating, and the destruction of the Second Temple, is that Jesus’ foes are the Pharisees, and not so much the Sadducees, and that has to do because the Sadducees didn’t make it out of the war, but the Pharisees did.
GG: Right. That’s one of the very unusual problems which helps date the gospels late. The priesthood was a Sadducee priesthood. They are the villains depicted in the gospels urging the crucifixion of Jesus, according to the gospel accounts. But you hear virtually nothing – the Sadducees are almost invisible throughout all four gospels. Luke knows that the priesthood was Sadducee, but doesn’t mention it in his gospel. He lets it slip in the Book of Acts – in Acts you learn that they’re Sadducees – but it’s clear that the gospel-writers don’t know very much about the
Sadducees at all. I mean, if they did, they were the ones who were allegedly urging the crucifixion, [so] why aren’t they being depicted more hostilely in the gospels? So it suggests that the gospels are being written at a time when the Sadducees have already left the scene, and the gospel-authors don’t really have a good historical understanding of what took place in Israel during Jesus’ lifetime. After the Revolt in 66 through 70 and so on, when the Temple was destroyed, the Sadducees disappeared, because a lot of the groups were wiped out in the Revolt.
But the Pharisees regained influence. After the Revolt they were authorized to establish an intellectual community, a school, [a] teaching, and they became the forerunners of rabbinical Judaism. They were the ones in major conflict intellectually with the Christian community – the Jewish Christian community, the Gentile Christian community – and really I’m sure there would have been some astoundingly verbally violent debates over the meaning of Scripture. The Christians were using mostly the Greek translation of Scripture, which differs in many ways from the Hebrew version of Scripture. So the Pharisees would have been arguing from the Hebrew version, the Christians would have been arguing frequently from the Greek version, and it would have led to a lot of fascinating debates and arguments. But because the Pharisees became the opponents of Christianity in the post-Revolution period, after the destruction of the Temple, they are shouldering the primary blame.
MC: What are some of the textual schools of antiquity, and how do they influence our modern Bibles?
GG: Well, obviously, Christianity established some footholds in many communities throughout the Roman and non-Roman world. We don’t hear a lot about the non-Roman areas, but there was a large-spread community. One of the chief intellectual centers of the ancient world was in Alexandria, Egypt. Many of the early Church Fathers came from Egypt, from Alexandria, or parts of North Africa, and another large area was places like Antioch, which had huge Jewish and Gentile communities. Within a lot of these intellectual areas you have scribal communities. So you have in Alexandria a scribal community that started producing Christian works, particularly the gospels, and the study of those manuscripts that we’ve recovered from those areas – 2nd, 3rd, 4th centuries – show that these were really competent scribes who were really good at it. So the manuscripts coming out of that tradition are thought to have been among the best exemplars of what the original gospels might have looked like. Similar manuscripts came out of other areas.
Then, at some point probably in the 2nd century, one the things that started happening is that scribes, in addition to making changes for theological purposes, started harmonizing manuscripts to try to eliminate difficulties between the four gospels. And one such kind of manuscript developed in Syria, and became known as the Syrian manuscript, and it was more a harmonization rather than an original manuscript. It wasn’t taking an original manuscript and preserving it – we don’t have any original manuscripts of the gospels – and it wasn’t based on any one source; it was taking gospels and such, and various manuscripts, and creating a new manuscript of what the gospels should be.
And that eventually got to be adopted in Constantinople after Christianity became the dominant religion among Constantine and so on, and the Councils started meeting. So they wanted a text to use for the Christian community, and this Syrian manuscript was adopted in Byzantium where there was an active scribal community – a big intellectual community – and that manuscript started getting turned out in huge amounts and spreading throughout the Roman Empire where Constantinople was influential. And those are the overwhelming dominant manuscripts that we have, but they were created from a harmonization of manuscripts rather than from a particular work with antiquity in it.
MC: And don’t you say that the King James Bible is actually based on an inferior manuscript?
GG: Right, right. What happened was this Byzantine manuscript spread out, and was the dominant manuscript. Then there came the point in the 16th century where King James and others wanted to create a printed manuscript of the New Testament. And they ran into a problem: we don’t have a Greek manuscript of the New Testament. We have bits and pieces, we have certain copies that disagree with each other and aren’t always complete, and they ran into a problem of how to create a Greek manuscript to be the manuscript that they translate from, or to preserve. What is the closest thing we can come to a Greek manuscript of the original New Testament? So they started to collect some of these manuscripts – they were Byzantine, this later version, poor quality at the time for what they had, according to the scholars who study this. And they began to edit them, and make corrections, and integrate, and make changes, fixing errors – grammatical errors, and all kinds of copy errors, typos, and words – with Greek scholars like Erasmus and others. And eventually they came up with a text to be the Greek version, or what they believed to be the closest thing to the Greek version, of the gospels, and the New Testament in general. Variations of that started to appear and be printed and introduced, and one of them became the basis for later Scriptures, and was adopted as the chief, official manuscript – although what is called the “jacket blurb” about this was that it was the original, authentic, unchanged, unaltered. So the text we have, that became the basis of King James and most modern religious translations, is not based on an authentic ancient manuscript. It’s a variation.
Then, over the centuries, after that was done, they started finding other manuscripts, and collecting manuscripts, and began to notice differences in many important areas – many changes and many differences – and they began to collate these manuscripts, and try to figure out which manuscripts had what was most likely the earliest version, and which manuscripts looked to be changes. And eventually, as we uncovered more and more manuscripts, this became a more and more refined art, and while there are still debates and disagreements, we now have basically a general Greek manuscript that differs in many ways from the Byzantine manuscript – or what they call the majority text for the most part behind the King James and others. And so we have competing underlying Greek translations: a scholarly version, and the traditional version.
While there isn’t complete agreement on what should be in the scholarly version, there’s a large consensus on most of it, and there are differences between it and the traditional majority text that creates some interesting problems in retrospect. And so today there are two main manuscript traditions, and so before you can translate a manuscript for the Bible you have to pick one of the versions to use.
MC: Well, I think that’s all the time we have today, Gary. I’d like to thank you very much for coming on Aeon Byte and discussing your new and, I thought, very, very great book, Who Wrote the Gospels?
GG: Thanks! It’s been good to be back.
MC: So now again I hope to have you on back, and thanks again, and good luck with the book!
GG: Thank you!