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Historical Jesus Theories: Burton Mack

The purpose of this web page is to explain and explore some of the theories offered up by contemporary scholars on the historical Jesus and the origins of the Christian religion. Issues include the nature of the historical Jesus, the nature of the early Christian documents, and the origins of the Christian faith in a risen Jesus Christ.

Burton Mack

The Lost Gospel:  Buy at! Following up on earlier suggestions, such as by Koester and Robinson in Trajectories through Early Christianity, Mack identifies numerous social groups lurking behind the scenes of early Christianity. Quoting from The Lost Gospel, p. 214: "The Q people were not the only group that formed within the Jesus movement. To take five additional groups as an example of the experimental nature of the Jesus movement, there is some evidence for (1) a group of Jesus people distinguished by its allegiance to Jesus' family, (2) Jewish followers who took up residence in Jerusalem for a time, (3) the people who designed sets of (five) miracle stories as their myth of origin, (4) the Jesus movement in which Mark was at home and in which the pronouncement story genre was highly developed, and (5) the tradition within which Luke was at home, a tradition with a sketchy history but one in which a distinctively human view of Jesus prevailed." Famously, Mack reconstructs the social history of the early Q people on analogy with the Cynics, libertines with a fondness for paradox and humor who traveled lightly and used their sharp words to controvert social conventions. Although Mack is hesitant to make pronouncements of knowledge concerning the historical Jesus, there is the distinct possibility that these early Cynic-like Jesus people were following the practice of their founder. Mack is among those who stratify Q, and the apocalyptic polemics characteristic of Q2 are thought to reflect anger and disappointment over the failure of their Jewish brethren to repent and live in the kingdom of God.

Who Wrote the New Testament?:  Buy at! Mack views these Jesus movements as the earliest expressions of incipient Christianity. In a particular group of Jesus people in northern Syria, the kerygma of Christ developed. In the mix of Hellenistic Jews and converted Gentiles, these congregations began to view Jesus as an innocent who had died "for us," for the congregations of Christians, in line with Greek traditions of the noble death. This martyrology, in which Jesus died for the kingdom of the God of Israel, allowed the first Christians to think of themselves as belonging the new configuration of "Israel," the people of God, justified in the inclusion of gentiles. The same first Christians developed the notion "that God raised Jesus from the dead as a vindication for his faithfulness to the cause for which he had died" (p. 218). Then came the idea that "Jesus was recognized by God as the rightful heir to his kingdom," as the "son of God whom God designated as a king." Jesus became the Christ, the lord of God's people, the Christians. "With such a dramatic mythology focused on the death and resurrection of Jesus as the Christ, the congregations of the Christ no longer needed to cultivate the memories of Jesus as a teacher." (p. 219) Mack continues, "The evidence from Paul's letters is that the congregations of the Christ were attractive associates and that their emerging mythology was found to be exciting. A spirited cult formed on the model of the mystery religions, complete with entrance baptisms, rites of recognition (the holy kiss), ritualized meals (the lord's supper), the notion of the spiritual presence of the lord, and the creation of liturgical materials such as acclamations, doxologies, confessions of faith, and Christ hymns." (pp. 219-220)

Thus, out of the soil of the Jesus movements, an entirely different movement sprouted up in the congregations of the Christ. According to Mack, the Gospel of Mark effected a reduction of the Christ myth into terms comprehensible to Jesus people. For the author of Mark, the "lord's supper" is merely the last supper, "not intended as an etiological script for ritual reenactment" (p. 222). Mark stayed a course between the Christ myth and the Jesus traditions and succeeded in getting people in the Jesus traditions to think of Jesus as the Messiah and to think of his death as a martyrdom for the cause. A different combination was effected by the Johannine tradition, in which the cross of Christ "revealed a divine world of life and light that had always been present but never clearly seen until Jesus as the son of God had made it known" (p. 223) Later second century documents such as Acts created the notion of an apostolic age in which true doctrine was handed down once for all.

Please enjoy exploring the varied Historical Jesus Theories offered by these authors through the links below.

Jesus the Myth: Heavenly Christ

Jesus the Myth: Man of the Indefinite Past

Jesus the Hellenistic Hero

Jesus the Revolutionary

Jesus the Wisdom Sage

Jesus the Man of the Spirit

Jesus the Prophet of Social Change

Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet

Jesus the Savior

For more information on the debate over the historical Jesus, visit the Christian Origins web site.

Go to the Chronological List of all Early Christian Writings

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Kirby, Peter. "Historical Jesus Theories." Early Christian Writings. <>.