How Studying Religions Has Increased My Appreciation of the Gospel Biographies

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Sundays are for personal reflection, and I have indeed being reflecting. My apologies to readers for the obvious lack of content being released on this blog site over the last two or three weeks. Time is short given my upcoming thesis deadline and a stack of other papers I have to keep on top of. Time is indeed short.

Over the last few months I have been going through in some detail the likes of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Islam, as well as the founding of Sikhism in the 16th century, and, to a lesser extent, the origins of Jainism in the social reformer Mahavira. I will be looking at Mahavira in some more detail over the coming weeks, so stay tuned. What I want to highlight is my appreciation of the earliness of the New Testament gospel biographies for Christ. Both in New Testament Studies, and in my own free time over the past few years, I have looked in some detail at the textual source materials for Christ. This includes the gospels themselves, the several source materials behind them (creeds, hymns, and hypothetical materials), Paul’s letters, as well as extra-biblical testimony. I have personally vetted the gospels according to historical criteria, and although I do not believe they are inerrant texts, they do seem to me to satisfy standard historical method.

What fascinates me is that the early church so soon after their leader, Christ, had been put do death decided to pen biographical accounts of his ministry. I don’t mean ‘biographical’ in the sense of modern biography or akin to a strict scientific account or like one might find in the social sciences on a prominent figure. The gospels are far from extensive and they are not neutral sources for the life of Christ. Their authors certainly had their goals, which in particular was to demonstrate that Jesus was the Christ. They are also far from extensive and chronicle a fairly short, albeit very powerful, ministry if we compare its duration to the likes of the Buddha or Guru Nanak.

Given that the four gospels were all written well within a century of Christ’s death (dated to around 30 AD), we are dealing with remarkably early materials. John, the latest of the gospels, comes in at 90 AD, just 60 years post Christ. Mark is our earliest and is just 40 years removed. The gospels are not contemporaneous with Christ (perhaps with the exception of an early material used in Mark’s passion) but they are early sources, especially in comparison to other major religious and ancient figures.

I have been trying to apply the same criterion to Buddhist sources for the life of the Buddha and it tends to leave much to be desired. Although there are occasional academic doubters of the Buddha’s historical existence most scholars accept that he at least existed, a view I also share. However, there is little agreement on when the Buddha was born and most scholars are quite hesitant to state with conviction what actually constitutes genuine teachings of the historical Buddha as opposed to what was later ascribed to him over the centuries. The source materials were compiled a significant 400 or so years after the Buddha’s life, and although some of these materials have traditions possibly dating to a century of the Buddha’s death (in the Vinaya), so much still remains uncertain on historical grounds. Beyond the Theravada material there is no point, at least where biographical construction is concerned, looking for the historical Buddha in the even later Mahayana sutras, regardless if proponents of this tradition of Buddhism claim (on first and foremost religiously motivated grounds) that his authentic teachings can be found within their late texts.

The same I find with the Prophet Muhammad. Although the textual evidence for Muhammad is far better than what we have for the Buddha, it will surprise many that it took roughly 150 years for the first biographer, Ibn Ishaq, to pen a biographical account on the prophet. Further, the only existing copy of Ishaq’s biography comes from Ibn Hisham, who was writing roughly a century later to Ishaq (therefore two centuries after Muhammad’s life). In other words, historians do not possess Ibn Ishaq’s material, and they are dependent on an edited version of his work provided by Ibn Hisham. The Qur’an itself, moreover, is entirely baseless for constructing anything biographical about the prophet. After all, the Qur’an does not purport to function as a biography, it certainly does not, and it mentions Muhammad directly no more than four (possibly five) times, and instead takes readers “inside” of his head, so to speak, where God speaks to him, telling him what to preach, and more. I tried to construct something biographical of the prophet from the Qur’an, and I discovered that we are left with little more than that Muhammad believed he was the messenger of a deity by the name Allah, that he was apparently a good example of what it meant to be a devout Muslim who had faith in Allah, and that he believed in the Last Day of judgement. Muhammad is also said to have had followers who were hard on non-Muslims yet merciful to their fellow believers. This is about as much one could say about the prophet from the Qur’an as a source, which is minuscule in comparison to what is found in the classical narrative derived from much later Islamic sources. There are indeed very early non-Islamic sources which refer to the Prophet, but these add little more to what we can say from the Qur’an. These sources view Muhammad in a negative light and as an unwelcome raider and invader of new territories, and that’s about it.

The same challenge confronts the ancient Chinese thinker Confucius, who lived about the same time as the Buddha (around the 6th to 5th centuries BC). One might argue Confucius was more of a political and moral philosopher than the founder of a religion, but it is indisputable that he has perhaps been the single most influential thinker within China’s history. Surprising it then is that the textual evidence for this incredible ancient thinker is so late. The Analects was penned and preserved by Confucius’s disciples during the centuries following his death, Mencius, a Confucian philosopher himself, wrote an account about a century later, and the notable Chinese historian Sima Qian, from whom we learn swathes of Chinese dynastic history, four centuries later.

In comparison to these sources it is most striking that the gospels materials on Christ were penned so shortly after his death. I believe that a later writer penning an account of a prominent figure who lived 100 years prior to his writing likely had access to some historical information on that person, even though that information might, over the course of a century, include distortions, legends, and myths. I therefore think that given the earliness of the gospel sources for Christ we are dealing with information that is at most two to three generations removed from Christ’s death, and therefore, in many cases, goes back to the earliest believers themselves.

The question is why? What explains this decision to write about Christ within 60 years? I am not yet sure, but it is possible that the gospel authors were expecting the triumphant return of Christ within their own life time. But as time went on and this appeared increasingly unlikely (perhaps witnesses to the ministry and resurrection were growing old and dying out) it motivated the early church to pen accounts of their leader’s remarkable ministry, perhaps with the hope to preserve Christ’s deeds so that they would not be forgotten but instead handed down from one generation to the next. This could be the explanation although I will return to this question in much more detail in the short future, but in the meantime I shall satisfy myself by reveling in the uniqueness that are these gospel sources.

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2 responses to “How Studying Religions Has Increased My Appreciation of the Gospel Biographies

  1. I appreciate this entry. I’ve often wondered why it took so long for the Gospel Writers to pen their Gospels. What makes the most sense for me is that there was a number of competing interpretations of Jesus, and the church thought that they should record the memories of the eye-witnesses. This may be especially true since, by the end of the 60s, most of the disciples had been killed. I welcome your thoughts on this!

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