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Identifying the Historical Jesus

©  Wim van den Dungen

To the Jesus-page

1. Introduction
2. Selection of premises & hermeneutical rules :
The Jesus Seminar
Selection of premises
Hermeneutical evidence
3. "Q1" : the earliest layer of "Q"
4. The English text of the "Gospel of Thomas"
5. A classification
6. An exercise in balance
7. Conclusion


It was Robinson (1964) who initiated the philosophical interpretation of Q, followed by recent researchers who characterized its philosophy as cynical (like Mack, 1993). However, the cynics had no interest in the Kingdom of Elohim, nor did they think it possible that the rule of the supposed "Son of Man" could be the rule of Elohim Himself (Mack acknowledged this). This mismatch between the cynics & the Q-people (or Jesus-people) leads to the question : "What kind of philosophy prevails in the historical sayings of Jesus ?". This is clearly a matter for philosophers, not theologians or biblical scholars.

Although only 125 fragments of Heracleitos survived, it is possible to arrive at a probable picture of his thought. But a total view is absent. Variation in details will always be possible, for Heracleitos makes ample use of metaphor, semantic clashes & ambiguities. He also layers meaning. The traditional interpretation (initiated by Aristotle) focused on the so-called quest for the final "archè" of physical existence (making him an early "natural" philosopher). In recent studies, he is viewed as a typical example of the ante-rational mind, close to mythical, pre-rational and proto-rational thought (in this form of thinking, objectified projections of subjective states and subjectified states of objective facts exist). But the dynamical & expressive features of his mode of thought (to name only two) are acknowledged by most scholars concerned.

The Words of Jesus is a miscellany, an open, possibly incomplete book of historical sayings from Jesus, written down between AD 50 - 110. At present, only three texts may be considered to be historically authentic. Two are sayings gospels (Q1 and the Gospel of Thomas), or words from Jesus, and one is the catechism of Jewish Christians (Didachè).

Q has been composed in three stages (Kloppenborg, 1988), called Q1, Q2 & Q3. At first, only the earliest layer (Q1) will be taken into account. Q2 & Q3 were added in a later stage. They textualize the Early, Jewish Christ-theology of the Jesus-people, and this before "Christ" became generalized and became associated with the largely Paulinian idea of a Christian community of the Son of God, beyond race & social class, a mystical body "in" Christ Jesus.

Selection of premises & hermeneutical rules of the Jesus Seminar

The prelude to Knowledge & Love-Mysticism sketched the outlines of a critical hermeneutical theory (rooted in an adjacent epistemology and neurophilosophical anthropology), interpreting & evaluating mystical texts. This helps to understand post-formal cognition and the way this new mental operator, ex hypothesi, emerges as a result of the radical & willed change in the aspirant's co-ordination of actions and states of consciousness, co-relative with spiritual experiences. The process from rational to intuitional is described in three stages : emptying, totalizing & actionalizing. These categories parallel the monastic model, or "scala perfectionis", with as steps purification, illumination & deification.

Three types of textualizations of mystical experiences are distinguished :

(1) exemplaric : the journal of a mystic's inner experience, i.e. a particular mystical life being a sublime example of the universality of mystical experience itself. Exemplaric texts are meant for a small, local audience or language-community in order to create within this group -through an analysis of identity- new meaning concerning "authenticity". This discourse is not symmetrical.

Example : Q1, Book of Visions (Hadewijch of Antwerp), The Third Life (Jan of Ruusbroec)

(2) emancipatoric : the liberation of the reader's false consciousness using a secret, mystical "technology" of "images" hidden in word & action. Texts on diet, posture, breathing, affects & mentals. Focused on spiritual growth.

Example : Gospel of Thomas, Seven Ways of Holy Love (Beatrix of Nazareth), Yoga-Sûtra (Patañjali)

(3) canonical : the manifesto of what a genuine spiritual tradition considers as its spirito-symbolical identity, copied and sanctified.

Example : Torah, Didachè, New Testament, Qur'an

1.The Jesus Seminar :

The Jesus Seminar, sponsored by Westar (based in Santa Rosa) and involving a group of over 200 biblical specialists (philology, history, theology, ...) has recently completed an ambitious and controversial decade of work on the problem of the "historical Jesus". Result was a book by 77 present-day scholars : The Five Gospels : What Did Jesus Really Say ?

The Jesus Seminar unwrapped a different Jesus. Not an apocalyptic visionary but a social revolutionary, an itinerant, wandering sage. An original, with a sense of humour, who said a lot of things with a twinkle in his eye. Some scholars associated the historical Jesus with the Stoics or the Cynics. This historical Jesus did not even say 80% of the words attributed to the figure presented in the canonical gospels. The latter are not definitive texts about Jesus but compositions written with a spirito-communal emphasis in mind. 

What a statement !

In the semi-annual meeting (October 1996) of those currently engaged, the plan was elaborated to focus on the history of the apostle Paul and to scrutinize the way how the Early Christian Church developed.

Karen King said : "The point is not to produce some new tool for authoritative worship and belief. Instead, the idea is to create a more accurate portrayal or portrait of what the early church was like, something that will allow a better tool for understanding the historical Jesus (and) the formation of the early church.''

Some argue that Paul displayed a lamentable ignorance of any details of Jesus' earthly life. He does not name Jesus' parents, where he was born, where he lived, when he lived. On his own admission, Paul never knew the human Jesus, and based his whole faith on the visions he claimed to have of the resurrected Christ Jesus.

The Jesus Seminar does not draw conclusions about Jesus being the Son of Elohim nor that Jesus rose from the dead.

For the conservatives, the members of the Jesus Seminar form a "minority" with no trustworthy academical status ! The scholarly community is -according to them- generally in agreement about the date of the Gospel of Thomas, which was completed after the canonical gospels and strongly influenced by them (i.e. between AD 150 & 180 or even later - Miller, 1996). Its value to demonstrate the existence of a "sayings genre" is negligible. The Jesus Seminar does not represent a cross-section or consensus view of non-evangelical scholarship. Its dating of the work of Thomas is deemed extraordinary early, highly controversial & a shaky element in their methodological foundation (Hayes, 1994). Some of these scholars even reject the "two-source theory", i.e. the standard solution to the synoptic problem (cf. the Farrer Hypothesis). 

This brings us back to the division within the intellectual community. The present author agrees with the findings of the Jesus Seminar, although he is not a materialist, nor an atheist. Neither do the new restrictions limit his view & experience of Jesus the Christ. In fact, they allow to better move to the core of Christianity.

The present interpretation of the "Words" of the historical Jesus is influenced by Western philosophy, the qabalah & (universal) mysticism and should be distinguished from the "premises" of the Jesus Seminar. The Words of Jesus mirror an extraordinary teacher of wisdom, an itinerant master, a prophet, a sublime mystic. But, this Jesus, Son of Man, is also "the Christ", the Word of God Incarnate.

Especially the summary proposed by Conrad has been very helpful as has the work of the Jesus Seminar. Premises that play a major role in my understanding of the historical Jesus are in italics.

2. Personal selection of premises & hermeneutical rules of evidence :

Proposed by Conrad (1996) as summarising the position of the Jesus Seminar without the latter acknowledging this assertion :

2.1. Regarding the historical Jesus :

1. The historical Jesus and the gospel portraits differ.
2. Jesus taught the disciples orally and wrote nothing.
3. Traditions about Jesus were circulated by word of mouth many years after Jesus died.
4. Jesus' mother tongue was Aramaic ; the gospels were written in Greek.
5. Jesus possibly spoke Greek as a second language.
6. Jesus was itinerant, wandered and adapted sayings and parables to the occasion.
7. Jesus' disciples were also oral and itinerant.
8. The oral tradition has no real interest in Jesus' biography.

2.2. Regarding chronology :

9. Forty years elapsed after the death of Jesus before the first canonical gospel was composed.

2.3. Regarding the canonical gospels :

10. Mark was the first canonical gospel.
11. Mark was not an eyewitness of the events he reported.
12. The synoptic gospels -Mark, Matthew, Luke- share a common view in contrast to that of John.
13. Between them Matthew and Luke incorporated nearly all of Mark into their gospels.
14. Matthew and Luke made use of a sayings gospel, known as Q, often literally.
15. Matthew and Luke each made use of additional material unknown to Mark, Q, and each other.
16. Matthew and Luke have no independent knowledge of the order of events.

2.4. Regarding the gospel of John :

17. The portrait of Jesus in the fourth gospel differs markedly from that of the synoptics.
18. Here Jesus speaks in long monologues, in which only an occasional aphorism and no parables appear.
19. In the gospel of John Jesus' mission and purpose are important and Jesus has little to say about the poor and oppressed.
20. John is a less reliable source than the other gospels for the sayings of Jesus.

2.5. Regarding independent and derivative gospels :

21. Q is a collection of sayings without a narrative framework.
22. The earliest sources are Q1. The second and third editions of Q follow closely.
23. The Gospel of Thomas has provided a new and important source for the Jesus tradition.
24. The Gospel of Thomas consists of 114 sayings without a narrative framework.
25. Thomas represents an earlier stage of the tradition than do the canonical gospels.
26. Thomas represents an independent witness to the Jesus tradition.

2.6. Regarding the stratification of the gospels :

27. The gospels are made up of layers of tradition.
28. Close verbal and structural parallels permit scholars to identify the minimal texts of common sources.
29. Q appears to consist of three layers : Q1, Q2 & Q3.
30. The gospel of Mark probably went through two or more editions, one of which is known as "secret" Mark.
31. Matthew has three strata : Q, Mark & "special" Matthew. Luke likewise has three strata: Q, Mark & "special" Luke.

2.7. Regarding the assessment of written sources :

32. Only a small portion of the sayings attributed in the gospels to Jesus was actually spoken by Jesus.
33. A larger portion of the parables goes back to Jesus because they were very difficult to imitate.

2.8. Regarding surviving copies of the gospels :

34. No original manuscripts of the gospels have been found.
35. The earliest minor fragments of any gospels date from about 125 A.D.
36. The earliest major fragments of the gospels date from about 200 A.D.
37. The earliest complete copy of the gospels dates from about 300 A.D.
38. Prior to 1.454 A.D. no two surviving copies of the same gospel are exactly alike.
39. In the copying process, gospels were "improved" & "corrupted".
40. Copies of the Bible suffered from textual corruption, devastation by insects & moisture.
41. Of the Greek text in modern critical editions can not be said that it is exactly the same text written by the evangelists.

2.9. Revolt against dogma :

42. The same methods of study should be applied to the Bible than those used in the study of other ancient texts.
43. The Bible should be studied without being bound to theological claims made by a church.
44. Jesus should be studied like other historical persons.
45. Jesus was not a christian but a Jew.

3. Rules of hermeneutical evidence :

3.1. The wit and wisdom of Jesus :

46. Jesus said things that were short, provocative, memorable (the oral test).
47. Jesus' best remembered forms of speech were aphorisms & parables (the form test).
48. Jesus' talk was distinctive (distinctive talk).
49. Jesus' sayings & parables cut against the social & religious grain (against the grain).
50. Jesus' sayings & parables surprise and shock : they characteristically call for a reversal of roles or frustrate ordinary, everyday expectations (reversal & frustration).
51. Jesus' sayings & parables are often characterised by exaggeration, humour & paradox (extravagance, humour & paradox).
52. Jesus' images are concrete and vivid, his sayings & parables customarily metaphorical and without explicit application (vivid images, unspecified application).
53. Jesus does not as a rule initiate dialogue or debate, nor does he offer to cure people. Jesus rarely makes pronouncements or speaks about himself in the first person (the serene, self-effacing sage).

3.2. Oral evidence :

54. In the oral transmission of Jesus' words, his disciples remembered only the core or gist of his sayings & parables, not his precise words (one core, different performances).
55. The bedrock of the sayings tradition is made up of single aphorisms & parables that once circulated independently (single aphorisms & parables).
56. The simpler forms of saying & parables are more likely to be original with Jesus. More complicated forms may mask earlier and simpler forms (the simpler, the earlier).
57. Hard sayings are frequently softened in the process of transmission to adapt them to the conditions of daily living (hard is softened).
58. Words are frequently borrowed from the fund of common lore or from the Old Testament and put on the lips of Jesus (words on the lips of Jesus).

3.3. Written evidence :

59. The evangelists frequently group sayings & parables in clusters and complexes that did not originate with Jesus (clusters & complexes).
60. The evangelists frequently invent narrative contexts for sayings & parables (narrative contexts).
61. The evangelists often expand sayings of parables, or provide them with an interpretative overlay or comment, which may take the form of allegory (expansion & interpretative overlay).
62. The evangelists frequently compose or revise and edit both sayings and narrative contexts to make them conform to their own individual language, style or viewpoint, or to make saying and context conform to each other (editorial style & viewpoint).
63. A criticism of, or attack on, Jesus often becomes a criticism of, or attack on, Jesus' disciples in the later tradition (brunt of criticism).
64. Variations in difficult sayings often betray the struggle of the early christian community to interpret or adapt sayings to its own situation (difficult sayings).
65. The evangelists frequently attribute their own statements to Jesus (Jesus as spokesman).
66. Sayings & parables expressed in "christian" language are the creation of the evangelists or the oral tradition before them. Sayings or parables that contrast with the language or viewpoint of the gospel in which they are embedded reflect older tradition (christian language).
67. Sayings and narrative that reflect the social practice of the emerging christian community were formulated or edited by the evangelists or the oral tradition before them (christian social practice).
68. Sayings and narratives that reflect knowledge of events that took place after Jesus' death are the creation of the evangelists or the oral tradition before them (post-mortem events).
69. Neither the evangelists nor the oral tradition before them would have invented statements that cast aspersions on Jesus' character or contradicted their own viewpoint (defamatory statements).

3.4. Rules of attestation :

70. Sayings or parables that are attested in two or more independent sources are likely to be old (independent sources).
71. Sayings or parables that are attested in two different contexts probably circulated independently at an earlier time (different contexts).
72. The same or similar content attested in two or more different forms has a life of its own and therefore may stem from old tradition (different forms).
73. Unwritten tradition that was captured by the written gospels relatively late may preserve very old memories.

3.5. Rules of narration :

74. Only words reported as directly quoted speech are eligible to be considered words of Jesus (quoted words).
75. Quoted speech that is entirely context-bound is probably the product of the storyteller (context-bound speech).
76. Statements made by Jesus when a second party was not present are not historically verifiable (absence of auditors).
77. Statements attributed to the risen Jesus are not admissible as evidence for the historical Jesus (the post-historical Jesus).

3.6. General rules of evidence :

78. The convergence of two or more rules on a single piece of evidence greatly strengthens the case for or against that piece of evidence. A major conclusion cannot rest on a single piece of evidence (base of evidence). 79. A plausible reading or interpretation for a historical context in Jesus' public life is required for sayings & parables that are to be correctly attributed to Jesus (the plausibility test).
80. The saying or parable which is the more difficult -which least suits the tendencies of the unfolding tradition-is likely to be the earlier. The saying or parable that best accounts for any confusion or variation that arose in the development of the tradition is probably the more original (the more difficult reading).
81. Canonical boundaries are irrelevant in critical assessments of the various sources of information about Jesus (canonical and extra-canonical).
82. The emerging body of primary date should be reasonably coherent (coherence).
83. Beware of the profile of Jesus that accounts for all the data (loose ends).
84. Beware of a congenial Jesus (watch out that you don't come up with an idea of the historical Jesus that is simply a retrojection into the past of the idea of Jesus that you prefer).

Q1 : the earliest layer of Q

The sayings gospel called Q (from the German "Quelle" or "source") is a collection of words spoken by the historical Jesus (written down in three phases between ca. AD 50 - 75). It was used by both Matthew & Luke together with the scenario of Mark, who did not incorporate Q in his gospel. The Dutch translation of Q1, was more influenced by Nestle-Aland (1979) and based on the research of Denaux & Vervenne (1986) as well as the translation of Catherine (1996). The English translation differs only slightly (like in verse 43) from the one proposed by Mack (1993) except for the translation of "God" as "Elohim" and punctuation. The capitals of certain words as well as the names of the sections are done anew.

The English text of the Gospel of Thomas

In December 1945, In Upper Egypt, some six miles north-east of the town of Nag Hammadi, a remarkable discovery was made : a library consisting of twelve books, plus eight leaves removed from a thirteenth book in Late Antiquity and placed inside the front cover of the sixth book was found in a jar at the foot of a desert cliff known as the Gebel et-Tarif (below Luxor, near the village of Es-Sayyâd, the ancient Chenoboskion). Of these 13 codices or manuscripts, eleven were complete with their bindings, while of two only a few scattered leaves were found. In total, these codices contained 52 texts.

Of the 52 tractates (13 codices), only 6 were already extant, either in the original Greek or in Latin or Coptic translations. What a discovery ! These books had been translated one by one from the original Greek into the Coptic dialect of Upper Egypt (Sahidic). The library was written in two different Coptic dialects, and reflect the handwriting styles of several scribes. 

One of these texts, the Coptic Gospel of Thomas (II,2), had been translated from the Greek. These texts were most probably buried as a result of the thirty-ninth festal Easter letter of Archbishop Athanasius who condemned heretics, mentioning the gospel of Jesus' twin brother by name. The head of the Pachomian monasteries, Theodore, who had just succeeded Pachomius as head of the monastery of Tabennisi, had the letter translated into Coptic and read throughout the monasteries of Egypt to serve as a rule (in AD 367). Probably this library was buried to save it from destruction. Many of the Nag Hammadi texts are pseudonymous. They proved the thesis of the pluriform patchwork of Early Christianity, with its Jesus-people, Jewish Christians, apostolic communities (Thomas, John), gentile gnostics (Paul) and centrists (Peter and the church of Rome) in the first century and an explosion of Christian Gnosticism, counter-churches and sects in the next (triggering heresiologism).

In 1950, Peuch recognized that this long Coptic version of the Gospel of Thomas, found in the famous jar of Chenoboskion, gave the integral restoration of a text of which hitherto only Greek fragments had been known. The collection of "sayings of Jesus" had been discovered in three papyri of Oxyrhyncus : I,1 (discovered in 1897) and IV,654 & IV,655 (discovered in 1903). These discoveries led to the thesis of the existence of a "logia"-collection, or sayings preserved outside the canonical traditions

In ecclesiastical literature, some sayings (or Logia Iesu) figure as early as the middle of the second century ! We know that at least one collection of Words of Jesus from various sources existed. About AD 140, Papias composed five books (now lost) called On the Interpretation of the Logia of the Lord. Sayings which are not found in the New Testament or variations of synoptic texts, are the authentic historical remains of an independent Jesus-tradition which the canonical gospels and the "canon" tradition did not take fully into account. What is more, the Catholic tradition supressed their memory (cf. what the post-Amarna Egyptians did with Akhenaten and his Aten-religion).

Peuch (1950) also showed that the Thomas-collection seems to be an anthology made from texts disparate both in age & contents. The text is a compilation, a miscellany gleaned from previously written apocrypha (Doresse, 1986). The name of this work was mentioned by Hippolytus (ca. AD 222 - 235), Origen (233), Eusebius of Caesarea (326) & Philip Sidetes (430). Cyril of Jerusalem (348) speaks of it as being used by the Manichaeans, but this is not correct.

As could be expected, the community of biblical scholars is divided regarding the date of the original copy of this most important composition.. An early date underlines the liberal view. A later date allows conservatives to stress the originality of the narrative gospels. Proposed dates are : second half of the first century (Robinson, 1977), middle of the first century (Crossan, 1992 ; Koester, 1990 ; Hedrick, 1988 ; Davies 1983 ; Cameron, 1982), last quarter of the first century (Mack, 1993). The early-daters are all closely associated with Claremont & Harvard (homes of Koester & Robinson). They are often either colleagues or students of the latter (with the exception of Crossan). The majority view (Guillaumont, Peuch, Cullmann, Quispel, Gartner, Frend, Fieger, Hengel) is that it was actually composed near the middle of the second century (AD 140). According to Mach (1993), the Thomas-people textualized their tradition in the last quater of the first century (Mach, 1993).

It is only after Clement I had claimed universality, that gnostic ideas became subcultural ideologies of a well-defined community or group (groping together around teachers like Valentinus, Basilides, Marcion & Montanus). Their "invention" is a fortiori earlier. Why was the Gospel of John still doubtful in the second century ? Precisely because it contained "gnostic" elements which the centrists (as yet) did not wanted to integrate into their Christ Jesus. Accepting these would blur the orthodox line between themselves (true to Christ and the One Church of Christ) and the others (the heretics). Their identity was thus shaped as a function of the stronger opposition they encountered (a common strategy in the history of the Catholic Church). And where did the author of this gospel got his ideas ? Clearly from teachings about Jesus which had been circulating in the late first century ...

The Dead Sea scrolls, as well as the Nag Hammadi library have made us appreciate the diversity of spiritual expressions suggested by the revolutionary Jews piety of the community at Qumrân as well as the Gnosticism present in Early Christians spirituality. Gnosticism and the phenomenon of heresy show the heterogenous character of the movements around Jesus, all trying to make a "Christ" congenial to their own views  (these views have no centrifugal, common measure, but are clearly in contradiction with each other as well as with the orthodox narrative). If Gnosticism was an integral part of Early Christianity, then it seems that from the start an apostolic schism was present, namely between those apostles who wanted a Christian community (Paul, Luke) and those who desired to find the interior Christ (Mark, John).

The "incipit" of the collection mentions "Didymus Jude Thomas". A strong tradition attributes to him the role of special confidant of Jesus, His twin and heir to his most secret teachings. It is he who is said to be privileged to touch the "body of resurrection" of the "risen" Jesus. Ancient Church historians mention Thomas as having preached to the Parthians and in Persia. It was said that he was buried at Edessa, were the work was copied. From the fourth century, Thomas is credited with the evangelization of "India", probably denoting Central Asia.

In the Book of Thomas, a dialogue between the resurrected Jesus the Christ and His brother Judas Thomas, found in the same Coptic manuscript, the supposed author, Matthias, wrote : "Now since it has been said that you are my twin & true companion, examine yourself that you may understand ...". In the canonical gospels, Thomas hardly appears except in the Gospel of John. Thomas has been remembered as the apostle who does not believe without physical proof, wishing to touch the body of the "risen" Jesus (John, 20 : 24-29). Also in the apocryphal Acts of Thomas (§ 39) an unnamed personage praises Thomas as the "Twin of Christ, apostle of the Most High, initiated into the secret sayings of Christ and receiver of His secret oracles ..."

A classification

Following hermeneutical categories emerge :


"Jesus said" or the sayings of Jesus :

(1) Q1 (AD 50)
(2) Q2 (ca. AD 65) + Q3 (ca. AD 80) 
(3) Gospel of Thomas (ca. AD 70 - 100)

The information gathered here is crucial. A general picture of Jesus emerges. Both the solitary and the spirito-communal occur, but in Q1 & the Gospel of Thomas Jesus' sublime spiritual exemplarity is very pronounced. This historical Jesus has nothing to say about the resurrection, the apostolic church, the holy orders, the eucharist or the redemption through sacrifice. His message feels nevertheless very Christian. Is this the archetypal layer of Christianity ? 


The work of Paul is outstanding. The circumstances of his conversion too. To say he is the first Christian "gnostic" is to underline the intimate, private and interior of Paul's source of knowledge, which he calls "Christ" and in whom he recognized the human face of Jesus, the Messiah of Israel. That his testimony has influenced the formation of the Roman Church is due to his moral and centrist views, much like a very good administrator (a Western Confucius). His Alexandrian overtones reinforced the connection between Rome and the Egyptian Alexandria, subdued as a wealthy Roman province, but allowed, under Roman law, to continue its religious practices.

The Gospel of Thomas as well as the nearly "heretical" Gospel of John reflect a completely different life with Jesus the Christ. Here, the interior, private but direct confrontation with Christ in the Holy Spirit is found as God's eternal gift to humanity. Christ is seen as Jesus, the incarnated Word. The desert is a better place than a town. Urban life is avoided. And how many other early testimonies have there been ? Reseach suggests hundreds and hundreds. Again, this variety betrays the traditional story of how Early Christianity and the Early Church of Rome came into being. Instead of one mindset, hundreds of views circulated. The Roman centrists catched the fish because of their unique political position and shrewd spiritual administration and trade.

History shows that an explosion of prophetic activity took place after Jesus, the Anointed died. This death of the incarnated Word, implied the end of the ongoing symbiosis between God and the flesh, i.e. the humanity of Jesus the Christ. The "return of Christ, the Word of God" is never again "in the flesh" (this incarnation was a unique, single event) but the spiritual sealing, at the Pentecostal descent, of the soul's ordination in the Holy Spirit which comes out of Christ. This is the gnostic testimony rejected by the centrists. It is a miracle that a few of these views have survived (cf. the Nag Hammadi library).

We know now that these eye-witnesses (John, Thomas) or gnostics of the first hour (like Paul) initiated independent, local Christian communities. Like the Jewish Christians that made up the church of Jerusalem, they expected the return of Jesus in their time (parousia). The fact that this did not happen at all, must have had a tremendous spiritual impact on the adherents (instead of Jesus' return, persecutions were unleached which initiated martyrdom). The explosion of prophetic sects in the early second century underlines the fundamental diversity of Early Christianity.

The centrists of Rome had three great advantages : Jewish Temple service was down (AD 70), between AD 69 - 96, Christians were not persecuted by the Roman Empire and Paul & Peter had been executed and buried in Rome (AD 67). Around their dead bones, a very popular mystique and geosentimentality was created. Not unlike talismans & amulets of old, relics of saints were deemed to be vehicles of Divine grace. In various ways, morbid associations were present. Death was present everywhere. Roman Christians of the first hour used the lid of a coffin as an altar (hence the later practice of placing bones of saints in altars). The catacombes of Rome show how the rituals of Antiquity (later deemed "Pagan" and "heretical") were intermixed with the earliest forms of this brand of centrist and administrative Christianity, an imperial spiritual order, which would conquer the world and try to rule it in the name of Christ !

III) THE ADVENT OF ROMAN CHRISTIANITY (AD 67 - before the New Testament was created and given its name - AD 95)

The New Testament was only universally accepted as late as AD 367.

The administrators of the church of Rome (the community of Christians living in Rome between AD 67 - 96) successfully organized their cherished "universal" church in Christ Jesus, largely because of a concert of lucky circumstances and the presence of "sacramental" (not "magical" !) Christian relics (the bones of the martyred founders of the "universal" church, namely the Jew Peter, appointed by Jesus Christ, and the gentile Paul, appointed by Jesus in the Holy Spirit). In Rome under the Flavians, Pagan imperial structures and various religious practices were present everywhere, both to imitate and to reject. It took only three decades before the bishop of Rome (Clement I) claimed to be the guardian of the whole of Christianity (AD 95), a claim repeatedly rejected by countless "heretics", both in the West as in the East. In 96, the persecutions of Christians restarted. The decades that followed, a wild bunch of Christian Gnosticism and counter-churches were active. Sects emerged and "false" prophets gathered large communities ...

Orthodoxy had to be the ideology countering these movements. Roman geosentimentality became a cherised fetish of orthodoxy or the cursed Babylon for the heterodox. But, Rome had the bones ! Those who made a different choice ("heretics") were excommunicated. A century after Jesus the Christ had died, the spiritual terror of the old system had returned ! Once the imperial order reconciled with this Roman brand of Christianity, the fundamental of "pagan" worship would sublimate in the myth of Christ, the emperor of all ... This is precisely what happened after Constantine.


The formation of a centrist Roman church did not safeguard orthodoxy. In fact, the latter had to acquire apologetic means to counter the formation of sects, counter-churches, Christian gnosis etc. By countering these heretics, the Roman centrists developed a straight orthodox ideology, which attracted intellectuals who had enjoyed a better (higher) education. This led to a refinement of centrist theology and a firmer administrative grasp on the Christian communities that sought the blessing of the bishop of Rome ...

V) THE CATHOLIC TRADITION = liturgical practices, ecclesiastical hierarchy & theology of the "Fathers of the Church" based on the New Testament & other "inspired" writings (AD 190 - today)

The formula proposed by the Reformation ("sola scriptura, sola fidei") questions the Roman Catholic transposition of the scriptures in terms of public worship (liturgy) and a specific theory on God backed by a synodal consensus presided by a "pontifex maximus" (theology) representing a supreme magisterial power on Earth in matters Christian (cf. the Jewish "Great Sanhedrin").

The conviction that the "deposit of faith" initiated a Christian tradition which is as important (if not more important) than the "holy" scriptures, was firmly rejected. The individual relationship with Jesus Christ became more essential than the adherence to the traditions of a church invented by male bishops sustaining a whole series of raw injustices (like papal infallibility, the commerce of indulgence & the sacramental theory "ex opere operato").

The Catholic tradition was initiated as soon as the "canon" of "holy texts" was defined. By now, it should be clear that this choice was not arbitrary and very likely unguided by the Holy Spirit, but political and administrative. The "Word of God", namely Christ Himself, was identified with the New Testament. By erecting a Catholic superstructure or ideology, the so-called "universal church" could establish its authority with ease. This spiritual order was so hierarchical that Constantine saw in it the means to eternalize the Roman empire. As soon as Roman Catholicism was raised to the level of State Religion, all other Christian movements were banned, and its adherents excommunicated. Paganism was eliminated and the temples of old closed. The books of so-called "heretical Christians" were blacklisted and nobody could possess or read their books without being in conflict with ... God.

An exercise in balance

The canonical gospels, John's work, the Acts of the apostles & the authentic Letters of Paul clearly record a shift away from the Jesus documented in the Words of Jesus towards the spirito-communal "Christ", the anointed "Messiah" condemned by the ruling priests of the temple of Jerusalem (the Sadducees embracing Hellenism) & executed by the Roman Empire. This is Paul's Christ Jesus, He who took "our" sins, rose from the dead & redeemed humanity. "In Christ" we are thus the adopted sons of God. 

AGAIN : Christianity (or "evangelium de Christo" - the gospel about Christ) has to be distinguished from the original Jesus-people, recording the Words of Jesus (or "evangelium Jesu" - the good new from Jesus).

The collection called Words of Jesus is open & unfinished. It contains -as yet- 205 Jesus-sayings found in Q1 & the Gospel of Thomas. Together with the Didachè, a glimps of Jesus as Son of Man and Son of God is possible. The interpretation of these sayings and their theology has not yet truly started.

Christian fundamentalism did not & does not drill for ultimate textual authenticity. Vatican II was unable to move beyond the limitations imposed by the dogmatic tradition represented by the Roman Church. Recent theological conservatism (Laurentin, 1997) bluntly denies the work of the Jesus Seminar. They continue to superstructure inventions, fictions, myths & outdated metaphysics. Serious scientific exploration is often -because of the lack of open communication- confused with militant atheism. Catholic, Protestant and Anglican Christianity have difficulty accepting that their canonical gospels are narratives predated by a non-centrist Christian movement around the historical Jesus. Vatican II did not unfold this true, historical Jesus. Instead of reinterpreting Early Christianity, this vast community of male bishops "modernized" their religion, with devastating results.

When analyzing the change from the earliest, pluralistic Jesus-movements to the early centrist Roman Church, four stages emerge :

(1) original Jewish Jesus-people : in Q1 there are no "christic" notions present (except "Son of Man") but in Q3 Jesus is (as in Mark) only recognized by the Satan as "Son of God" ;
(2) Jesus, the saviour of Israel : "christos" is a Greek word added to "Jesus" to indicate that Jesus is the "anointed" Messiah or Saviour of Israel. These Christian Jews (with Greek as their language) remained loyal to the "old convenant" and converts had to be circumcised (cf. the church of Jerusalem, AD 48) ;
(3) Christ Jesus, head of the mystical body : "Christ" is used as a separate word, indicating a "new convenant" open to everybody. The "law" of Moses (Paul) is superceded. Jesus' message of the Kingdom is interpreted as the unique & truly saved Christian community open to all who live "in Christ", not as saved humanity as such (i.e. irrespective of mediation). The Son is the head of the "mystical body" of believers and the Church His instrument to redeem the world ;
(4) Jesus Christ, unique Son of God : "Christ" is the unique Son of His Father. He is God. Without "Christ" there is no salvation. The God of Israel is the God of Humanity. The Pope replaces Christ on Earth. This is the Nicæan Christ-theology.

In fact, historically speaking, only the phrase "Jesus the Christ" is correct (cf. "Gautama the Buddha). The Word of God (Christ) incarnated in the Son of Man called "Jesus"..


It can not be denied that -if we accept Q1 & Gospel of Thomas as a whole- Jesus is a secessionist. The accepted order of things are firmly and not without humour rejected. The Pharisees are scorned ... but, the itinerant, interior and gnostic Jesus is not without a spirito-communal sense. He speaks to followers, calls disciples, teaches radical goodness "to those who hear", explains how to pray to the Father, warns, consoles, instructs disciples to heal the sick, to bless every house with peace, to greet nobody "on the road" etc. 

This historical Jesus calls himself the "Son of Man" (Q1). About His deification we find Jesus as the "Son of God" (Q3), the "Word of the Father" & the "All" (Gospel of Thomas). The historical Jesus has nothing to say about the resurrection, the eucharist, the church founded in Peter or the holy orders. This a remarkable discovery.

Again, the "Christ Jesus" or "Jesus Christ" of the centrists, is not without glimpses of the interior, solitary, withdrawn Jesus (cf. the narrative of Mark, transfiguration, garden of Gethsemani, on the cross, resurrected, touched by Thomas, ascending). Each of these moments are meant to reveal the exceptional spiritual nature of the person of Jesus Christ. He is portrayed as a solitary, withdrawn lover of the Wisdom of the Father. He transcends alone. In the "cosmic gnosticism" of the Gospel of John & Revelation, this solitary Jesus Christ is truly deified as the Word of God Incarnate.

Three major strands may be discerned :

(1) founding layer (Q1) : a diversity of movements around Jesus, pluralism, early Jesus-people, sayings of Jesus, emergence of early communities ;

* the original teachings = Q1
* proto-christic elements (Q2 & the gnostic section of the Gospel of Thomas, Miracle-stories, Pronouncement-stories) : Jesus as the Son of God, the Word of the Father, the Undivided, the All, the Messiah ;

(2) christic structure : Christianity per se, or Jesus as the face of Christ in Christian thoughts like those of Paul, the narrative gospels, the Gospel of Thomas, the Didachè, as well as in the mindset of Roman dogma, its "magister" and "deposit of faith" ;

(3) paraclitic process : direct spiritual experience of Jesus (through personal revelation), Gnosticism, free study of the words of Jesus, emergence of a spontaneous, plural and global spirituality (reality being love) as is the case for all genuine Christian mystics (cf. the monastic movement, the beguines, hermits & ascetics).

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initiated : 14 XI 1997 - last update : 25 XI 2005 - version n°7