The Gospel Process

[Note: This rather lengthy posting is an exploration of how the Gospel message may have come about, how it may differ from the intended message of Jesus and how his actual message (which I refer to as the mystical thread) may be understood. I hope you get something of value from this article. JDB]

Though Mark is placed second in the lineup of Gospels, it will be news to some that this was actually the first Gospel written. In composing his Gospel (around 65 AD), Mark probably drew from a collection of sayings and stories that had circulated orally among the early community of follows for over three decades.[1] As one of the few who could read and write, this author apparently felt the need to consolidate and preserve this experience that had impacted his life and the lives of many others. With his precious collection of sayings and other anecdotal material, he began crafting the document we know today as the Gospel of Mark. [2]

Fragment of Early Manuscript

A written account of the teachings and meaning of Jesus would have the effect of solidifying and imbuing the orally transmitted story with the stamp of authority. Rather than speculate on what someone had heard, followers could now point to an actual document that not only set the record straight, it was the record. A decade or so later, Matthew and Luke would use the bulk of Mark’s account and add material from another available list of sayings.[3] To this they would each add their own collected material.[4]

Matthew, Mark and Luke are referred to as the synoptic Gospels for they drew their material from a common source and represent a similar point of view. John, who appeared roughly a decade after Matthew and Luke, put forth an entirely different picture of Jesus. Known as the spiritual Gospel, many scholars consider John’s portrayal of Jesus as being the least historically accurate. But it well earns its reputation as a spiritual gospel for the abundance of mystical gems that fill its pages. Though it also clearly bears the fingerprints of the developing church doctrine, this Gospel represents a strain of believers who were most certainly in sync with the defining principles of mysticism.   

For me, the question is whether any of the synoptic writers grasped this deeper aspect of Jesus’ message. I think the answer is no, they did not. Like a scattering of jewels, fragments of the mystical element survive, not because the authors understood it, but because any one of these accumulated sayings were too precious to discard. In creating their narratives, the authors did their best to incorporate all of the collected sayings into their written works. All promote a specific, theological agenda. They were not trying to give an accurate historical or biographical account of the life and teachings of Jesus. Rather, they used the voice of Jesus to clarify and advance the teachings of the early church. When it comes to understanding the nature and purpose of the Gospels, this point cannot be over emphasized.  

Let’s look at an example of how this may have worked. The Gospel of Thomas, not included in the New Testament, is a list of 114 sayings attributed to Jesus. Thomas contains no narrative, no story that gives these statements context. Though it was excluded from the New Testament, some scholars believe Thomas may predate the earliest Gospel sources, as it includes many sayings found in the canonized versions. Other sayings are strange and difficult to understand. Most begin with a simple, “Jesus said.”

Scribe at Work

 Let’s suppose that an aging man, a scribe by profession, did not know Jesus personally but knew of him, knew of his tragic death and, most importantly, shared in the shattered hopes and dreams of so many who followed him. Was this not the one they had been waiting for, and will he not return again soon to complete the work? Our scribe clings to the hope from the promise Jesus himself made:   

There are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.[5]

Our aging scribe considers his own death imminent. Might he be among those fortunate enough to witness this glorious return and the long-awaited fulfillment of God’s promise? Each day brings the renewed hope that Jesus will reappear. The few believing priests and rabbis search the scriptures for clues that support this hope. Rumors circulate of sightings of the risen Jesus, but outside a small circle of believers, he has yet to present himself. There have been many false alarms, self-proclaimed teachers who have exploited this hope to increase their own followings. Some take these false prophets as a good sign that things are coming to a head:

Children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come; therefore we know that it is the last hour.”[6]

Still, time passes and life continues as usual with no indication that things are about to change. Some are questioning what Jesus meant. Others are even losing their faith.

While only about one percent of the population can read or write, a carefully guarded written collection of sayings attributed to Jesus slowly appears and grows over time. This collection is undoubtedly the work of professional scribes charged with the task of copying sacred texts. They have either written down what they were told Jesus said and did, or they have come into possession of previously written notes which they add to their collection. A traveling merchant may learn something from a distant village.  The family of a scribe who dies turns over private notes he has kept, as their illiteracy renders these written treasures useless. People would know who in their village could read and write. An underground enterprise shrouded in secrecy begins to develop. Villagers know know where to safely report what they had hear.

For those who believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the value of anything concerning him, spoken or written, is immense.

Scriptural Reader

Meanwhile, a growing faction of doctors of the law search the scriptures[7] for messianic references and spend long hours debating how these may apply to what they know of Jesus. Some are incredulous, others are open to the possibility that Jesus may indeed have been the Messiah. They piece together those clues that support their growing acceptance. Some begin to encourage the readers in synagogue to include, along with readings from the Torah, their acquired sayings of Jesus. The Jewish community is sharply divided on whether he was indeed the Messiah.  

The believers focus on those scriptural prophesies that support their belief that Jesus was the one they have been waiting for. Others have copied and circulated these sayings which not only remind listeners of what Jesus said, but they give the sense of tangible evidence that Jesus was a real person who walked among people and gave hope that their struggles with life would soon end.

This is all good as far as it goes. But a new generation is beginning to raise different questions. They are losing faith that Jesus was anything more than just another dreamer full of big ideas. Where is the evidence that he changed anything? The Jews still suffer under Roman oppression and life for the average person has become no easier. Something more is needed, something that brings new life to these sayings that many now know by heart.

Jesus teaches people by the sea.

Our aging scribe is also asking questions. What was Jesus doing when he uttered these words? What were the circumstances? What prompted him to say these things? Some of these sayings appear to be responses to questions raised by his inner circle of followers. Others seem to have been prompted by arguments from religious teachers. Still others seem to come from situations that would likely have occurred while simply walking through the market, attending synagogue, or sitting by the lakeside  in the company of friends.

This scribe knows how everyone loves a good story. It occurs to him that if these sayings were couched in story form, they might take on new life by making them more real and meaningful. Because he has had the good fortune of learning to read and write, he can imagine doing something more than simply copying and passing on the sayings of Jesus. He is growing old and his body is beginning to fail. But his eyes are good and his mind is clear. It occurs to him that he could pass on these sayings using the power of the story.   

Our aging scribe, charged with overwhelming enthusiasm for his growing sense of mission, goes to work in guarded secrecy. He wants no one to know that he is the author but, more importantly, he wants to keep his work free of the influence of his own personality. In his spare time he works on this project, often into the early morning hours. Days turn to months and months to years. Every moment of his life his growing story plays out in the secrecy of his own mind. Here, in this world of his, unknown to even those closest to him, the voice of Jesus becomes so real our scribe feels as if he knows him.

Though there are many periods when he feels confident that his work will be well received, there are other times when he fears his work will be rejected. He questions his own audacity to think he is worthy of such a task. As he works, he wavers between these two states. Yet he persists. When his story is finally finished, his health is rapidly failing. The long nights of working in dim light have taken their toll on his vision. Though the dream of finishing his story is realized, he is too weak to find the way to bring it to the attention of fellow believers. And one day, his heart fails and he takes his final breath. His secret dies with him.

His family, unable to read, is unsure what to do with his collection of written works. They pass them to another old friend, a fellow scribe that promises to sort through it all. But this man too dies, and his own collection of written works is passed to yet another who puts them aside to address commissioned projects that must be finished.

In time, the story is discovered, and it is electrifying. No one has ever seen such an account of the life of Jesus. Who wrote it? Where did it come from? No one can tell. The author has left no signature, no explanation of any kind. This document feels important, even urgent. It contains all the familiar sayings of Jesus and much more. This scribe who discovers it can barely contain his excitement.  

He passes a copy to the local reader who shares it with the secret gathering of followers of the Way. Spellbound, they want to hear it again and again. Word travels fast and soon neighboring villages are commissioning copies. It’s a good time to be a scribe.

Now, a question that must be asked is this: How much influence would our scribe have had over the intended meaning of Jesus’ words? As the author, he would have had a great deal of influence. Today we see multiple biographers tell the story of a single figure. One will portray their subject, Gandhi for example, as a great symbol of independence while another might portray him as little more than a political dissident. It can be difficult to see that they are describing the same person.

It’s important to understand that our scribe was not a biographer who was interested in presenting an accurate historical account of the life of Jesus. He was a self-appointed evangelist whose goal was to bring clarity to the growing theological implications attached to Jesus. The actual “voice” of Jesus was transformed from his own and given to the role of spokesman for the early church. We do not have a Gospel according to Jesus himself. We have Gospels according to advocates of a newly formed religious movement we know today as Christianity.

The problem with the advent of the gospel is that now we have two messages. There’s the original sayings of Jesus, with his own intended meaning, and there’s the message that our scribe wishes to impress upon his intended audience. The irony is that it is the teaching of the scribe, using the voice of Jesus, that ultimately carries the day. Those who hear the public reading of this work assume they are getting the message of Jesus exactly as he intended. So why are there four gospels rather than just one? And why does Paul’s presentation of Jesus stand even further apart? And why does it appear that the author of Luke feels compelled to set the record straight?

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent The-oph’ilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed” (Luke 1:1-4).

We have the pool of sayings attributed to Jesus, and we have each of these author’s message crafted to use these sayings to advance the developing narrative of the early church, a narrative, by the way, that would in all likelihood have been foreign to Jesus.

 All the Gospel writers were confronted with similar problems, though the authors of Matthew and Luke would have had fewer emotional barriers to overcome. The author of Mark blazed the trail for further gospels to reach the public. The utilization of the material at each writer’s disposal required many interpretive and contextual judgment calls. And since they wanted to leave nothing out, they did their best to include everything, whether or not they grasped its more mystical significance. 

I can easily imagine that this is how the mystical thread was inadvertently, even haphazardly preserved, unacknowledged and lacking any type of systematic form. We’re left to pluck this thread from the writer’s works whose otherwise clear intent was to represent Jesus as the harbinger of a very observable kingdom, a divinely sanctioned social structure poised to materialize at any moment.

Evidence that he was not the forerunner to this anticipated kingdom is seen in the obvious fact that over two thousand years have passed and he has not returned. Yet the prevailing mainstream Christian hope is based on the perpetuation of the belief in his return. Though millions await, I am reminded of another bit of wisdom from the Gospel of Thomas:

He said, ‘Lord, there are many around the drinking trough, but there is nothing in the well.’”[8]

The living water we seek, the kingdom of God, is depicted, not in the empty trough of creed, dogma and eschatological anticipation, but in the mystical thread embedded throughout the sayings of Jesus. The kingdom does not appear as signs to be observed but from within the silent depths of the spiritually awakened individual.

What is this mystical thread and how do we recognize it? To address this question it will be helpful to stop trying to discern whether a given passage is the writer lobbying for the church or something Jesus actually said. An inspired passage has merit regardless of its origin.  

We must also admit that we cannot know with certainty what Jesus intended to say, as we cannot possibly know what was in his mind. For some, this will be a hard pill to swallow. But the fact is, the gospel accounts reveal much more about the intentions and thought processes of each author than they do of Jesus. These works represent their author’s case for Jesus as they understood him.  The voice of Jesus himself remains silent.     

The most we can do is look for those sayings that align with the defining principles of mysticism. Is the intention of the saying directed to the inner process of experiencing God first-hand and allowing further expression from our spiritual center? Does it refer to unity between God and the individual? Does it advocate the all-important need to become conscious of our indwelling, eternal source of life, love, power and intelligence?

It is here that we may shed light on one of Jesus’ more cryptic sayings.

Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.”[9]

Whoever perceives the mystical thread will be given more. He or she will recognize those gems of truth when they read or hear them. Those who do not grasp this way are left waiting at the empty trough, steeped in tradition and clinging to the hope of a brighter future promised by religious dogma and creed. In contrast, the mystical thread is always tied to the understanding of God as our indwelling Source. Its main thrust encourages the individual to become consciously aligned with this Source. In my book, The Complete Soul, I point out that there are no natural barriers between God and the individual soul.

The human mind is designed to live in conscious union with God. This is our natural condition. Most people live as if they are separate from God. This is the normal condition. Most religions are built upon the belief that we are separate from God. In whatever way God is perceived – as a mighty old man in the sky or as a great force of nature – God is treated as something independent of the human experience. Religion, with its institutions and texts, present themselves as a bridge (often the only bridge) between God and man. The common belief is that we join God at the death of the body.

The natural world is a direct expression of God. As such, no aspect of nature perceives itself as something separate from its spiritual source. Only the human being, with our unique faculty of imagination, can create the perception that God is one thing and we are another. This perceptual creation, normal as it is, is not natural. It is a self-imposed belief that is rooted in surface, senses-based perceptions rather than in spiritual reality. Our natural state is conscious union with God.

The belief in separation from God has put the world on the lookout for the advent of an observable kingdom. The mainstream Christian insists Jesus’ reference to the kingdom in our midst is a reference to the spread of a movement that would, like a tiny mustard seed, begin small but eventually grow into a worldwide religion. The temptation to hold such a view is indeed prompted by precedent, as all organized religious movements develop in this way. But then we hear Jesus saying, “My kingship is not of this world.[10] Or you’ll find other statements that are equally contradicting:

When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel, before the Son of man comes.”[11]

In another place we read,   

there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.[12]

Obviously this time has long passed. The disciples have tasted death. Yet the Son of man has yet to come with his kingdom. Will we continue to gaze into the sky and to a future date when this kingdom will appear, or will we consider the possibility that Jesus was referring to a present but unrecognized dimension that requires a different, more intuitive way of seeing? This possibility begins small, an intriguing curiosity, but if pursued it grows into the very basis of our new understanding of a deeper, spiritual reality. We transform from the proverbial human being having a spiritual experience to the spiritual being having a human experience.[13]  

This new way of seeing is clearly connected to the rebirth that Jesus describes to Nicodemus:

Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”[14]

As I said, to see this kingdom requires a new kind of vision.  It begins as an inner knowing, a small revelation that grows into something that transforms our entire consciousness. To find it, we must enter our inner closet, shut the door to the outside world, and open our heart in receptive silence. In other words, this kingdom is a subjective experience that is intuitively rather than intellectually apprehended. We see it with the inner eye rather than the physical eye.  

We’ve all heard of the born-again Christian who thinks of this new birth as occurring in one who “turns from sin and with his or her whole heart trusts in Christ as personal Savior and Lord.” But the context of this well-known encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus gives no indication that this was the intended meaning. Jesus explains to Nicodemus that “that which is born of flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”[15] The new birth is a transition from that which is born of the flesh to that which is born of the Spirit. One cannot see the kingdom of God, he says, unless they experience this new birth.

It’s no coincidence that we see this same idea expressed from a world away in the Hindu Upanishads: Thou canst not behold Me with thy two outer eyes, I have given thee an eye divine.”[16]

That in us which is born of the flesh is our senses-based, body-oriented self-image, the core identity most of us use to navigate through life. We can refer to this surface self as the personality, the ego, or as Paul put it, living “in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of body and mind.”[17] In contrast, that which is born of the Spirit is that individualized expression of God we know as the soul. We come to know the soul, not through thy two outer eyes, but through our intuitive faculty, the eye divine.

But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”[18]

We understand this instruction as closing the door of the senses, a quiet listening or feeling our way into the innermost stirrings of Spirit. Again, this is not an intellectual pursuit but an intuitive activity in which we attune to the quiet radiance emanating from our spiritual center.

On the road to Damascus

Though this new birth can occur in an instant, it occurs in most as a gradual awakening. This is more of a blessing than we might think. A mind that is suddenly opened to the inner presence can be so overwhelmed by the soul’s vastness as to find it difficult to function. You recall that Paul’s instant illumination blinded him for three days.[19] I’m not suggesting there is a possibility that spiritual illumination will literally blind us. Instant exposure to the full light of the soul can, however, leave us blindly confused. The world we assumed was so real is suddenly understood as but the surface layer of a profoundly deeper reality. Our values are brought into question. The stabilizing references we once relied upon no longer carry the same weight of authority.

In addition, the people in our lives know us by the values and interests we share through our words and actions. When our values change, our words and actions follow. What we pursued with enthusiasm no longer appeals to us. Others are slow and sometimes unwilling to accept the changes they see. The new birth, though proclaimed from many a rooftop, is not widely understood. It’s not about people growing apart due to changing interests. It’s about one person discovering and pursuing an inner path that they alone must walk. 

We see this same dynamic in many who have the near-death experience (NDE). Without warning they are exposed to a level of reality that both inspires and confuses. Researchers say it may take seven years to incorporate the revelations from this profound event into their normal life. Few, in fact, return to their normal life, at least as it includes their self-perception. Relationships often suffer. In a matter of minutes, in the twinkling of an eye, their understanding of themselves is forever changed. They cross a point of no return, often without the support or understanding of family and friends.

The gradual awakening usually begins as persistent curiosity or perhaps as a gnawing unrest. Science and plain logic may challenge our religious beliefs causing us to question the things we’ve been taught. Some develop a fascination with the psychic realm. As a youth, I remember becoming fascinated with the Rosicrucian teaching on astral projection. During those awkward teen years, seeking distance from a body ravaged by the hormonal eruptions of puberty had a distinct appeal.  I also responded to the positive thinking of Norman Vincent Peale. The psychic Jean Dixon was an intriguing curiosity and Edgar Cayce stirred my imagination.

It was Dr. H. Emilie Cady, however, who brought it all together for me. Her Lessons in Truth became the Rosetta Stone that helped bring to the surface the clearest path to tangible revelations. Her masterful use of common Christian terminology—reinterpreted—bridged the gap between my mainstream Christian understanding and the spiritual bedrock upon which the heart of every spiritual teaching rests. I think we each have a portal of entry that usually takes the form of a teacher. I’m not suggesting here that Cady or the Unity Movement might be suited for you. I’m simply pointing out that Cady was an important spiritual catalyst for me.

 In this progression, one teacher will lead to others which will in turn lead to a growing library of books compatible with our expanding understanding. I drew and continue to draw much inspiration and guidance from people like Emma Curtis Hopkins, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles and Myrtle Fillmore, Emilie Cady, Phineas Quimby, Thomas Troward, Joel Goldsmith, and Evelyn Underhill, to name a few. The time comes when we realize we’re hearing and reading nothing new. Like a water-filled sponge, we become saturated with the ideas and spiritual advice of others. It is then that we begin to lay down the books and ease into the deeper waters of our own first-hand relationship with God, the spiritual source of our being.

This is a slow leap of faith and our attempts to still the busy mind and enter the inner sanctum of the soul are often thwarted by long periods of wandering and feelings of a complete spiritual disconnect. This has been described as the dark night of the soul. We’ve pushed off from a familiar shore and drifted with not even a distant shore in sight. Yet we find needed encouragement from that one who has gone before us:

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”[20] 

The opening of this door is the new birth. When the half-gods go, Emerson wrote, the gods arrive.[21] The eye divine opens. And though we may squint in its brightness, we now see the kingdom of the Father…spread out upon the earth,[22] as it has always been. This is not merely a shift in ideas, it is a transformation of consciousness, a renewal of the mind,[23] a new birth. Our spiritual core, the soul, is brought into our field of awareness as the babe of living energy we know as the true basis of our very being. 

How do we know this is true? Emilie Cady has a great response to this question:

You will know just as you know that you are alive. All the argument in the world to convince you against Truth that comes to you through direct revelation will fall flat and harmless at your side. And the Truth that you know, not simply believe, you can use to help others. That which comes forth through your spirit will reach the very innermost spirit of him to whom you speak.”[24]

[1] The earliest copies of the Gospels were unnamed. The names were assigned later based on information found within the Gospels themselves. For convenience, I’ll refer to each of the Gospels as we know them today.

[2] Scholars consider 13:1-37 (the Little Apocalypse) and 16:9-20 (appearances after crucifixion) as later additions to Mark’s account.

[3] A theoretical list of saying known as the Q Source, material common to Matthew and Luke.

[4] M: material specific to Matthew. L: material specific to Luke.

[5] Matthew 16:28

[6] 1 John 2:18

[7] John 5:39

[8] Saying #74

[9] Mark 4:25

[10] John 18:36

[11] Matthew 10:23

[12] Matthew 16:28

[13] Attributed to G.I. Gurdjieff and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

[14] John 3:3

[15] John 3:6

[16] Quoted from Emma Curtis Hopkins’ High Mysticism

[17] Ephesians 2:3

[18] Matthew 6:6

[19] Acts 9

[20] Matthew 7:7-8

[21] Ralph Waldo Emerson, Give All to Love

[22] The Gospel of Thomas, #113

[23] Romans 12:2

[24] Lessons in Truth

4 thoughts on “The Gospel Process

  1. Thank you for this article on how the Gospels came to be compiled years after the death of Jesus. Jesus referred to God as Father and also as Spirit. The Spirit is revealed to us through Spirit and only then can we come to a full understanding of our heritage as Children of God/Spirit, heirs of the Kingdom of God which is at hand waiting to be birthed and lived in and through us. Jesus said to call no man our Father for Jesus himself experienced Spirit in himself as his true parentage and said that of himself he could do nothing, but that the Father within doeth the works.

    An interesting Scripture which alludes to this is found in Matthew 22: 41-46 when Jesus stumps the learned teachers of the Law with his question to them about whose son The Christ is. Their response was, the son of David. This is met with Jesus’ stunning question that the Pharisees were unable to answer or comprehend, “How is it then that David, inspired by the Spirit, calls him Lord. . .”
    It is still a question many wrestle with today and the answer can only come through Spirit’s revelation directly to our spirit, not through books or external means (including psychic phenomena which are often based on material means.) That is why Jesus said we are to continue to ask, seek and knock with the assurance that an understanding of Truth will develop or be revealed.

    Sorry for this long comment, but hopefully it will shed light on this topic of an inner revelation that comes to all who earnestly seek. It is so important and the source of our spiritual understanding and strength: he foundation built upon the rock (an understanding of who the Christ is) instead of on shifting sand.

    Thanks again, for this article.

  2. Nicely researched and written. Helps me understand a little more of how the Bible Evolved, being raised a Catholic with little understanding of the book. A Course in Miracles, supposedly voiced by Jesus, says: “God is an idea and you are an idea.”

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