I find it exciting to read Burton Mack’s book, “The Lost Gospel Q*, I find his account of the early days of Christianity fascinating, when, as a result of Jesus’ life and teaching, the discovery of God as being within was so vividly first articulated in the near-western world. And it is just as exciting to observe how this wonderful teaching almost immediately went awry – how it was so soon abandoned when early (and later) Christians returned to a largely external search for God. It would appear that in those early times there were not enough people devoted to moving forward in this search within to build and sustain an inner-searching Christian religion.
The question is, is it possible now?
Judging from the plethora of self-help and self-search practices in the secular world the past several decades – psychiatry, psychology, etc., ours is an opportune time to be expanding the religious search within. As an example of the beginnings of directions afoot within our religious world, I choose to think that theologians like Elaine Pagels are pointing toward this when they write as she does in The Gnostic Gospels (1979): “Only now that there are enough people searching for what lies beneath the Christian orthodoxy is it timely to revive the search for what Jesus learned and taught. If this knowledge, I claim, long lain hidden in the Gospels, especially those of Thomas and Q, is supplemented now by social and scientific knowledge, including philosophies and other world religions it may reveal a Christian theology and worship which will speak in far more meaningful terms than present orthodoxy – to modern seekers.”
But continuing with Mack, he identifies three historical phases in the Q gospel, from a first phase which speaks of introspection and compassion, to the second which begins sounding fearful, and then on to the third phase which introduces even more fear and oppression by addressing the final days of judgment. This is a drastic change in Jesus’ original message, which leads one to question whether the later developments came from Jesus. In what Mack identifies as “Q1” the words of Jesus are recorded as follows:
“I am telling you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”
“As you want people to treat you, do the same to them.”
“Don’t judge and you won’t be judged.”
“Be merciful as your father is merciful.”
Then, later in the Q community’s history, Jesus’ teaching suddenly changes to one of fear and judgment. Q2 quotes Jesus as saying:
“I am telling you, Sodom will have a lighter punishment on the day of judgment than that town.” (the town that does not receive you).”
“And you, Capernum, do you think you will be praised to high heaven? You will be told to go to hell.”
“Whoever is not with me is against me, and the one who does not gather with me scatters.”
And finally, in the last phases of the Q gospel, Q3 has Jesus announcing the arrival of the day of judgment:
“Just as it was in the days of Noah, so it will be on the day of the son of man. They ate, they drank, they married, they were given in marriage, right up until the day when Noah entered the ark. Then the flood came and took them all.”
“In the days of lot it was the same – they ate, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they built. But on the day when Lot left Sodom, fire and sulfur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all.”
“This is how it will be on the day when the son of man appears.”
Somehow the Christian community of that time found the latter fear-instilling message far more appropriate and captivating than the original. And so it has been for the past two thousand years. This is perhaps understandable since messages like that of Q2 and Q3 shock searchers into obeisance and submission, motivating them to examine themselves, but also giving an authoritarian church far more manipulative power to rule than the message of Q1. Did not Constantine employ this strategy? And perhaps he was right in doing so at the time, since his drastic action may have assured the survival of the Christian church.
On this point it is appropriate to again refer to Elaine Pagels when she points out that our present-day Christianity very likely owes its survival to the early Q2-Q3 orthodox message. In other words, without Q2 and Q3 the original theology of Q1 very likely may not have survived. Pagels page 142: “I believe that we owe the survival of the Christian tradition to the organizational and theological structure that the emerging church developed”. So, regardless of how we got here, we are here now, and a new approach to Christianity is sorely needed. I call for serious re-consideration of the more inner-searching Christian message of Q1, which incidentally is supported by similar messages in the Gospel of Thomas.
May I offer more quotes from Mack’s book that speak to this point:
P 213: “The importance of these conclusions for a revision of Christian origins is enormous. Q’s story puts the Jesus movements in the center of the picture as the dominant form of early group formations in the wake of Jesus, and it forces the modern historian to have another look at the congregations of the Christ. The congregations of the Christ will now have to be accounted for as a particular development within the Jesus movements, not as the earliest form of Christian persuasion …”
P 216: “The kerygma [of Jesus’ death and resurrection] developed in the congregations of Jesus people in northern Syria (Antioch and beyond) and appears to have overshadowed, if not erased, the memories and importance of Jesus as a teacher.”
P238: “Q challenged the New Testament account of Christian origins by offering another more plausible account of the first forty years. The Jesus movement is a more believable group of people than the disciples and first Christians who are depicted in the narrative gospels. Q provides a documentation for the Jesus movement that the narrative gospels cannot provide …”
P 246: “There is no indication that any of the Jesus movements were interested in salvation by personal, spiritual transformation on the model of the Christ event.”
P 247: “The narrative gospels can no longer be read as the records of historical events that generated Christianity. Q puts us in touch with the earlier history of the Jesus movements, and their recollections of Jesus are altogether different.”
If we now revive this new (old) interpretation of Jesus’ teaching, it changes everything. For one thing, it removes the stigma and guilt for those who have sincere difficulty believing those requirements of the orthodox message that demand belief in such things as the virgin birth, the resurrection of Jesus’ physical body, the final judgment of souls, and any other externally-imposed conformances – by offering a stronger emphasis on Christian inner exploration based on love, respect, honesty and self awareness.
The unique teaching of Q1 offers the opportunity to add new liturgies, new music, new preachments, new progressive Christian education, that can better fill the void facing those who have left the church because of disillusionment and dissatisfaction. And it offers a new hope to those who remain faithful to the church, but who suffer inwardly from suppression of long-hidden questions and uncertainties.
This is what I get from reading Mack’s book – that it is time to pay more attention to the spiritual evolution of individual seekers that to only preserving the 2000 year-old orthodox practices and traditions of the church. And in so doing, the church may indeed be revived – but in a new light. Hopefully speaking for many of us, it is time to listen more attentively to the original words of Jesus than to the later human-sculpted interpretations of his early words. And after that, we will need to better learn how to apply that knowledge to present day worship and living.
This – what many may call a far more progressive approach, could well cause a huge paradigm shift in Christianity – from the more outer-seekings to the more inner-seeking – at least it could amount to as much of a shift as evolved from the Jewish orthodoxy of Jesus’ time – to his new interpretation of the kingdom of God.
My claim is – that it is time to get more serious about this inner seeking. Is it really true that once we dig past the garbage that is in each of us – we begin to discover God? Jesus appears to be saying “yes”!
This is what I get from reading Mack’s book.
“What does it mean to you”?
A Westar Associate
*Q stands for the German word “Quelle”, or “source”. It is a gospel which has never been found in writing, but which is affirmed to have existed due to its being found imbedded throughout the four canonical gospels, indicating it existed prior to, and influenced these canonical gospels.
A selection of books that speak of the Gospels of Q and Thomas
May 1990 The Q Thomas Reader,
Feb 2006 The Gospel of Thomas -
— 2005 The Sayings Gospel Q: Collected Essays, also 2002: with Parallels to Mark & Thomas,
Aug 2001 From Quest to Q,
— 2000 The Critical Edition of Q: with Matthew, Luke, Mark & Thomas, in German/French,
— 1996 Documenta Q: Reconstructions Through Two Centuries of Gospel Research,
— 1993 The Lost Gospel, Book of Q, Burton Mack
John R. Mabry
— 2007 The Way of Thomas … from the Secret Sayings of Jesus
Oct 2000 The Intertextual Jesus: Scripture in Q,
Mar 1999 The Lost Gospel Q,
Ronald F. Hock
July 1996 The Infancy Gospels of James and Thomas,
A selection of books that speak of the search within
Apr 2006 Gnostic Gospels
Feb 2006 The Gospel of Thomas
— 2005, A New Earth, Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose
King, Karen L.
Apr 2005 What is Gnosticism?
— 1999 The Great Deception: What Jesus Really Said & Did
— 1998 Suppressed Prayers: Gnostic Spirituality in Early Christianity
— 1992 Man’s Search for Meaning
Speeth, Kathleen Riordan
— 1989, The Gurdjieff Work
— 1973, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson
— 1964 Psychological Commentaries
— 1949, In Search of the Miraculous
A gathering of books that speak for a change in the interpretation of our Christian religion:
Oct 2007 The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Birth
Mar 1995 Meeting Jesus Again ..For the First Time
— 1991, The Historical Jesus
Feb 1999 The Birth of Christianity: Discovering What Happened in the Years Immediately after Jesus’ Execution
Jul 2005 Lost Christianities: Battles for Scripture & the Faiths We Never Knew,
Jan 1996 The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture
Funk, Robert W.
Oct 1997 Honest to Jesus
Jan 1997 The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus
Sep 2002 Christianity without God
Mar 2001 Christian Faith at the Crossroads
July 2001 The World to Come: from Christian Past to Global Future
Hedrick, Charles W.
Jun 1999 When History and Faith Collide: Studying Jesus
— 1999 The Great Deception: What Jesus Really Said & Did
Mabry, John R.
— 2007 The Way of Thomas … from the Secret Sayings of Jesus.
Sep 2003 The Christian Myth
Sep 2003 1993 & 1985 Lost Christianity: A Journey of Rediscovery
(Books that speak for a change in our interpretation of the Christian religion)
Feb 2006 The Gospel of Thomas
Apr 1979 Gnostic Gospels
Patterson, Stephen J.
May 1998 The God of Jesus
Apr 1993 Gospel of Thomas
Robinson, James M.
Feb 2007 Jesus According to the Earliest Witness
Sep 2006 The Soul of Christianity: Restoring the Great Tradition
James M. Robinson and Helmut Koester,
— 2006 Trajectories Through Early Christianity
Sep 2006 Gospel of Jesus: In Search of the Original Good News, James Robinson.
John Shelby Spong,
Sep 2002 A New Christianity for a New World
May 1999 Why Christianity Must Change or Die
May2006 A New Spiritual Home: Progressive Christianity
— 2002 Re-imagining Life Together in America: A New Gospel of Community
— 1997 Re-imagining Christian Origins
Jul 2006 Jesus’ Third Way