Political Context of the Gospel Fictions

Who Wrote the New Testament? - Burton L MackVery serious reflection had to set in when the war ended. As we have seen, both the Jesus movements and those engaged in the Christian mission had been eagerly seeking ways to justify their existence as heirs to the grand traditions of Israel. The burning questions had to do with how Jesus fit into the picture, where to locate the kingdom of God, and how to relate the new, unlikely communities of Jesus and Christ people to the various forms of being Jewish in the first century. Now that the temple-state was no longer the central institutional form of Judaism, the epic would have to be revised, for it could no longer be read as if its promise had been fulfilled in Jerusalem. And since the failure of the second-temple establishment was easily laid to the account of its sins, the stage was set for others more righteous to take its place as the rightful heirs of the epic’s promise… We now need to recognize the options taken by Christians.

The congregations of the Christ were not as deeply affected by the Roman-Jewish war as were the Jesus people. The Christian congregations had quickly developed their own system of myth and ritual on the model of a Hellenistic cult of a dying and rising god. But the Jesus movements had thought of themselves on the model of schools and had stayed in touch with their Galilean origins and generally Jewish cultural environment. These movements were caught in the confusion created by the catastrophic events and found themselves forced to rethink everything. It must have been a distressing time but also one of great, exhilarating intellectual challenge. The thought that commended itself to several of these groups was to distance themselves from the “sins” of the recent Jewish past and reread the epic of Israel to end with Jesus instead of with the temple-state. That thought was revolutionary, and the reason for bringing judgment upon the recent Jewish establishment began to take on a very critical edge…

For the history of Christianity, the most important shift in postwar thinking took place in the Markan community. It was there that a dramatic change took place in the memory and imagination of Jesus, one that laid the mythic foundation for the Christian religion. The change is documented in the Gospel of Mark, a literary achievement of imcomparable historical significance. Before Mark there was no such story of the life of Jesus. Neither the earlier Jesus movements nor the congregations of the Christ had imagined such a portrayal of Jesus’ life. It was Mark’s composition that gathered together earlier traditions, used the recent history of Jerusalem to set the state for Jesus’ time, crafted the plot, spelled out the motivations, and so created the story of Jesus that was to become the gospel truth for Christianity. All the other narrative gospels would start with Mark. None would change his basic plot. And the plot would become the standard account of Christian origins for the traditional Christian imagination. What an achievement! Mark succeeded in collapsing the time Jesus in the 30s and destruction of the temple in 70 CE. Ever after, Christian would imagine Mark’s fiction as history and allow this erasure of time as a wink in the mind of Israel’s God. And yet, Mark’s fiction could not have been conceived before the war. It would not have made sense before the war had run its course and the tragic fate of the city was known.

—Burton L Mack
Who Wrote the New Testament?

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