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The Case for a Proto-Gospel

Recovering the Common Written Source Behind Mark and John


Gary Greenberg

In this landmark study of the literary relationship between the gospel of John and the synoptic gospels, Gary Greenberg presents compelling evidence for the existence of a written pre-canonical Alpha gospel that contained almost all of the main episodes in the adult life of Jesus (excluding major speeches, such as discourses, parables, and "I Am" sayings) and which became the written source for the core biography of Jesus in Mark, Luke, John, and Matthew. While Mark used the Alpha gospel with only slight variations, John had profound theological disagreements with it, objecting to its theological message about how to obtain eternal life, the depiction of Jesus, and other matters. This induced him to rewrite the Alpha gospel so that it conformed to his own very different theological agenda. Consequently, John’s gospel functions as a thorough theological critique of Mark, but the changes he introduced made it difficult to see how he and Mark worked from the same written source. By using John’s theological concerns as a filter for reading and understanding what objections John would have with Mark’s Jesus stories, The Case for a Proto-Gospel reverse-engineers the editorial path taken by John and reconstructs the content of the Alpha gospel. Finally, the author discusses the relationship of the other two synoptic gospels to the Alpha gospel, asserting that Luke also knew the Alpha gospel but used Mark as his primary source, and that while Matthew did not know the Alpha gospel, his use of Mark as a primary source ensured that his core biography of Jesus also derived from this earlier source.

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9. The Jewish Trial of Jesus


9 The Jewish Trial of Jesus

In Mark’s gospel, the authorities wanted to put Jesus to death because they feared his popularity and saw him as a rival to their power base. From this perspective they couldn’t simply grab him and kill him. They needed a legal excuse. So, “the whole council were looking for testimony against Jesus to put him to death.”1 After Jesus’ arrest, Mark depicts a full-scale trial. The council called witnesses; it took testimony; it considered legal issues; it had Jesus cross-examined; it issued a verdict of blasphemy; and it handed down a death penalty.

John, on the other hand, says that the council met before Jesus’ arrest and it had determined that unless Jesus was put to death, the Roman would destroy the Temple and the nation. It considered no legal issues, called no witnesses and handed down a death sentence without Jesus even being present to defend himself. The decision was based on national survival.

After the arrest of Jesus, John depicts a temporary holding action prior to delivering Jesus to Pilate. As far as we can tell, no other council members were present. At most, if you really stretch the point, the High Priest Annas conducted a brief inquiry into Jesus’ beliefs. Annas called no witnesses, did not declare Jesus a blasphemer, and issued no verdict. In this post arrest preceding, there was no death sentence imposed. That had already been handed down earlier. Annas simply...

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