Of the many scrolls recovered from Nag Hammadi, Egypt, two shed light on the creative writing strategies of the early Christians.
The first one, an ancient, possibly pre-Christian epistle called “Eugnostos the Blessed,” outlines a doctrine of obscure Jewish theology concerning the firstborn celestial Son of God, aka Savior and Son of Man. The second, a later Christian Gospel called the “Wisdom of Jesus Christ,” lifts direct quotations from Eugnostos and places them on the lips of the Lord to fabricate a post-resurrection dialogue between Jesus and his disciples.
Here we have clear evidence of early Christians inventing and pirating to create their tales, and we have no reason to assume this isn’t how it was always done.
Nearly every detail of the life of Jesus as presented in the Gospels relates back to some prior scripture, mostly from sacred writings in what we now call the Old Testament. Christian clergy have traditionally explained the parallels between the story of Jesus and Hebrew scripture by claiming Jesus “fulfilled” various prophecies. But there are serious problems with this claim.
First, the Gospel authors knew exactly what to write in order to satisfy the prophecies, and we have nothing independent of the Gospels to prove the events they describe weren’t just a literary fulfillment of scripture.
Second, many of the parallels don’t relate back to prophecies at all, but instead refer to stories about different people, or simply to songs and poems. Verses from Psalms, for example, informed much of the Jesus tale.
- Thou art my son, this day I have begotten thee. — Psalm 2:7
- I will open my mouth in parable, I will utter dark sayings of old. — Psalms 78:2-4
- A pack of villains encircles me, they pierce my hands and my feet…They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garments. — Psalm 22:16-18
- All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads. — Psalm 22:7
- … and for my thirst they gave me vinegar. — Psalm 69:21
- My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? — Psalm 22:1
- He keeps all his bones, not one of them is broken. — Psalm 34:20
In his newly published book, “On the Historicity of Jesus,” historian Richard Carrier writes: “The entire crucifixion scene is a fabrication, a patchwork assembled from the verses in the Psalms in order to depict Jesus as a standard Jewish mythotype of ‘the just man afflicted and put to death by evildoers, but vindicated and raised up by God.’”
Moved by their messianic fever, some pre-Christian Jewish sects wrote apocalyptic peshers — documents attempting to discover hidden messages in scriptures by searching for secret connections among disparate, previously unrelated passages. One such pesher, a Dead Sea Scroll called the Melchizedek Scroll, appears to link the “suffering servant” of Isaiah 52-53 with the coming Anointed One of Daniel 9: 24-27, who they expected to die to atone for sins shortly before the end of the world.
These Isaiah passages, as well as some from Zechariah, were favorites among apocalyptic Jews.
- … despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows…wounded by our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities…he bore the sins of many and made intercession for the transgressors. — Isaiah 53:4-32
- They look upon me who they have pierced. — Zechariah 12:10
- … make a crown and set it on the head of Joshua ben Jehozidak (literally Jesus, son of Jehovah the Righteous). — Zechariah 6:11
“The Wisdom of Solomon,” another important pre-Christian scripture, also presented a son of God who was killed, resurrected and crowned in heaven. The concept wasn’t new.
Finding hidden messages in scripture was a common pastime. In fact, the Apostle Paul was adamant that the Christ he preached was known to him not by hearsay or tradition, but only from Hebrew scripture (1 Corinthians 15: 3-4) and his own revelatory visions (Galatians 1: 11-12).
Matthew claims multiple times in his Gospel, “All this was done to fulfill scripture.” And he insisted on a literal interpretation, as evidenced by his treatment of Zechariah 9:9 — “Lo, your king comes to you riding on a donkey, on the foal of a donkey.” Matthew decides to change Mark’s rendition (Mk 11:7) and has Jesus ride into Jerusalem upon two donkeys simultaneously. (Mt 21:7)
To some it is evident that the Gospels were deliberately designed to give the impression these scriptures were fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Even the renowned theologian John Dominic Crossan sees through the artifice: “Hide the prophecy, tell the narrative, invent the history.”
The Gospel tale almost writes itself. So do these recombined, out-of-context scriptures constitute a prediction of a Jewish messiah, or is it more logical to assume they were used as blueprints in the literary creation of a long-awaited Christos?