The Evolution of Christology in the New Testament

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November 18, 2022

Paul Williams is the creator of Blogging Theology, a YouTube channel which attempts to introduce some academic and scholarly content to the subject matter of comparative religion, especially concerning the Abrahamic faiths. He has interviewed leading scholars in biblical studies, Islamic/Christian theology, and the philosophy of science from the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Yale, Princeton, and Zaytuna College, amongst many others. Paul studied philosophy and theology at the University of London. He confesses to being an incurable bibliophile and divides his time between London and the South of France.

The Evolution of Christology in the New Testament

The scholarly consensus[1] is that the first gospel to be written was Mark. Matthew and Luke then used Mark as a reference, as well as a hypothetical source of sayings known as Q. I believe that this is the most plausible explanation, though a few scholars disagree. To take Matthew as an example: he relies on Mark as one of his sources. But he clearly thought Mark was inadequate and incomplete. Sometimes Matthew paraphrases Mark, sometimes he deliberately alters Mark to ‘improve’ his presentation of Jesus. This shows us that for Matthew, facts could be changed to enhance his message. A good example of this change is to note the negative portrayal of Jesus’ disciples in Mark: they are shown as hard of heart and timid and they repeatedly fail to understand Jesus’ message. Matthew has a very different and positive picture: perhaps wanting to show the disciples as good role models for Christians, he is happy to change the facts of history to fit his viewpoint. Compare, for example, Mark 6:51-52 and Matthew 14:27-33

 

Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened. (Mark 6:51-52)

But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid. ’Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’ (Matthew 14:27-33)

Likewise, it is clear that there has been a development in the way Jesus is presented in the pages of the New Testament. Let’s look at the earliest gospel to be written, which again, is that of Mark.

This shows us a very human figure:

1) Jesus is a man who prays to God:

Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. (Mark 1:35)

2) Jesus is unable to work miracles in his own town:

He left that place and came to his home town, and his disciples followed him… And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief. (Mark 6:1,5)

But in Matthew’s redaction of Mark in we read:

And they took offence at him. But Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honour except in their own country and in their own house.’ And he did not do many deeds of power there, because of their unbelief. (Matthew 13:57-58)

In other words, he ‘could not’ is changed to he ‘did not’ – an inability to act becomes a decision not to act. The incapacity is removed and Jesus’ status is accordingly enhanced.

3) Jesus confesses his ignorance about the date of the end of the world:

But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.’ (Mark 13:32)

4) Jesus did not know the identity of a woman who touched him and had to ask his disciples for help:

Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my clothes?’ (Mark 5:30)

But we see Matthew’s redaction in 9:20-22:

Then suddenly a woman who had been suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak, for she said to herself, ‘If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well.’ Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, ‘Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.’ And instantly the woman was made well. (Matthew 9:20-22)

In the earlier Gospel of Mark, Jesus is ignorant of who had touched him. This shortcoming is eliminated in Matthew’s improved version where Jesus immediately identifies the woman.

5) Jesus was so irritated by the absence of figs he cursed a fig tree even though it was not the season for figs:

On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. He said to it, ‘May no one ever eat fruit from you again.’ And his disciples heard it. (Mark 11:13-14)

But see Matthew’s redaction of Mark:

In the morning, when he returned to the city, he was hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the side of the road, he went to it and found nothing at all on it but leaves. Then he said to it, ‘May no fruit ever come from you again!’ And the fig tree withered at once. When the disciples saw it, they were amazed, saying, ‘How did the fig tree wither at once? ‘Jesus answered them, ‘Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, “Be lifted up and thrown into the sea”, it will be done. Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.’ (Matthew 21:18-22)

Matthew transforms Jesus’ “mistake” into an edifying spiritual lesson for the disciples.

6) Jesus even denies that he is perfectly good in the earliest Gospel of Mark, chapter 10,

“As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” (Mark 10:17-22)

As a humble Jew, Jesus attributes ‘goodness’ as originating with God not himself.

Now see Matthew’s version and how he had subtly corrected it to remove the embarrassment of Jesus’ denial that he is ‘good’:

Then someone came to him and said, ‘Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?’ And he said to him, ‘Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. (Matthew 19:17)

‘Why do you call me good?’ had been changed to ‘Why do you ask me about what is good?’ – a subtle change that completely alters the meaning of the question. Matthew may have removed an embarrassing saying of Jesus, but he had unintentionally created another problem: the Messiah is asked what good deed must he do to have eternal life, but oddly, the Messiah (the Anointed of God), who should know a thing or two about good deeds leading to everlasting life, rebukes the man. But if God’s Anointed knows nothing of good deeds, what hope is there for the rest of us? This problem did not arise in Mark’s earlier account.

7) Mark portrays Jesus despairing of God’s help at the crucifixion as he cries: ‘My God my God why have you abandoned me?’ (Mark 15:34) – Luke and John both omit this in their gospels.

So, it seems clear that in the earliest gospel, Jesus does not exhibit any of the attributes of God that Jews, Christians and Muslims commonly accept: unlike God, Jesus is not all-knowing; he is not omnipotent; he is not perfectly good; he is not eternal; he is not immortal; he is not unchanging. Therefore, it seems obvious that he cannot be God.

As we have seen, comparing incidents from Mark with Matthew’s later version of these same stories, one can see that Matthew had removed the statements of Jesus that may clash with a later Christology.

As a thought experiment, let us assume that Matthew had a copy of Mark in front of him. What Matthew does is make Mark fit his own understanding of Jesus. In each case, Matthew introduces significant changes to Mark’s account with the result that Matthew has an evidently higher Christology than Mark. Matthew has quietly changed statements where Mark presented a more human Jesus.

Though Muslims and pious Christians would find it deeply perplexing, Jesus is portrayed in the gospels as uttering offensive – potentially racist – comments to a non-Jew. Matthew 15:21-26 tells us:

‘Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’

He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ (Matthew 15:21-26)

When Jesus is portrayed as calling the gentile woman a “dog”, he was being derogatory toward non-Jews.

The central affirmation of Islam is that Jesus was a prophet of God and a Messiah of Israel. Is there any evidence in the earliest gospels of Jesus identifying with these roles?

There are at least two occasions in which Jesus is portrayed as describing himself as a prophet. One instance was when Jesus visited his home town of Nazareth, where he was not accepted as a prophet because he was seen as just an ordinary person; a carpenter whose family still lived there.

Jesus said to them:

“A prophet is not without honour except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” (Mark 6:4) See also Luke 13:33.

Finally, according to Matthew 21: 8-11, during Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem,

‘A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!”
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Hosanna in the highest!”

When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?” The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”

 

[1] Tuckett, “The current state of the Synoptic Problem”, pp. 10

2022-11-18T10:00:42-08:00

Paul Williams

Paul Williams is the creator of Blogging Theology, a YouTube channel which attempts to introduce some academic and scholarly content to the subject matter of comparative religion, especially concerning the Abrahamic faiths. He has interviewed leading scholars in biblical studies, Islamic/Christian theology, and the philosophy of science from the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Yale, Princeton, and Zaytuna College, amongst many others. Paul studied philosophy and theology at the University of London. He confesses to being an incurable bibliophile and divides his time between London and the South of France.
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