Scholars estimate that as many as 200 gospels were written by the end of the second Christian century. We have fragments of dozens of these and only one complete text: The Gospel of Thomas. Even in the four gospels that are considered canonical (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), it is possible to isolate traces of older texts.
The writing of gospels was the major literary activity of the first few centuries of Christians. Not one of these writers is thought to have been a living witness of the events they describe. They depended on tales passed on by several generation of story tellers. As we know, historical accuracy evaporates rapidly as the decades pass. However, due to the vast array of archeological and linguistic studies conducted in our time, it can be said that we know more about Jesus and his world than most of the gospel authors themselves–very few of whom could even speak Jesus’s native language, Aramaic, now stock-in-trade for modern New Testament scholars.
So the question rises: why should we not revive this ancient tradition and take up the writing of gospels ourselves–as long as we remain faithful to the scholarly record?
The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple is offered as a response to this challenge. The “beloved disciple” is an unnamed companion of Jesus, known to us only through a single verse in the Gospel of John. I imagine this person to be a woman, intimately associated with the young, itinerant and homeless rabbi. My “Gospel” is presented in the first-person voice of this mysterious figure, as a recollection transcribed years after the single year of the Galilean’s ministry.
My “Gospel” has a linear structure, describing the words and actions of Jesus, his friends, and his enemies, over the course of the final year of his life. To be sure, just as it was for the earliest evangelists, I report these events out of a theological, philosophical, and historical perspective deeply informed by what has happened in the twenty centuries that followed. My account is no less true–nor any more neutral or objective than those of Jesus’ own contemporaries.
In this text, Jesus is every bit the provocative story teller he was said to be in the canonical literature. I excerpt a brief account of one such occasion.
It happened that a rabbi heard something of Jesus’s teaching to the people, especially his skepticism concerning miracles. He invited Jesus to have dinner with him and some thirty of the rabbi’s students.
When they had reclined preparing to eat, the rabbi turned to Jesus. “I am told you deny that anyone can perform wonders. Didn’t Moshe make his staff into a serpent when he cast it down before the pharaoh? Didn’t Elijah restore a dead child to life?
“It is written that God performed these wonders through Moshe and Elijah,” Jesus answered, “but where does torah promise that you and I can use this power?”
“How else are we to understand these writings?”
“Why must we understand them at all?”
“What?” the rabbi exclaimed. “Torah is beyond understanding?”
“What we can understand we don’t need torah to learn,” Jesus replied, then told this story:
A millet farmer suggested to his neighbor, a vintner, that they buy an olive tree splitting the cost evenly. The vintner agreed. They planted it on the boundary line between their properties.
The first year the vintner pruned half the tree, reducing the crop on his side almost to nothing. The following year however the pruned part of the tree produced double the remainder and grew larger than the other half.
When the millet farmer saw this he asked the vintner to share half the produce.
“But I pruned my half and took the loss the first year” the vintner said
“Who said it was your half? We bought it together. We mixed our money, why not our olives?”
“I should be recompensed for my labor in pruning,”
“You were,” the farmer said, “by having less labor in harvesting the first year.”
“It was my idea to prune one side” the vintner argued. “It is because you didn’t have this idea yourself that you have fewer olives.”
“It was my idea to buy the tree. It is because I had this idea that you have any olives at all.”
“Still, the pruned side hangs over my land.”
“Does the rain fall only on your land?” the farmer asked. “Does the sun reach only half the tree? Are the roots divided also?”
“You could always prune your side,” said the vintner.
“Your side will always be larger,” the farmer answered.
Jesus paused, as though waiting for the vintner and the farmer to continue. But the listeners joined the argument, some taking one side, some the other. After a while they turned to Jesus.
“Who has the stronger argument?” they asked.
“Then how does the argument end?”
“Why should it end?”
There were many voices speaking at once The rabbi raised his hand to silence them, then turned to Jesus. “We were talking about interpreting torah. Are you saying agreement is not possible ?”
“Whenever we agree on the meaning of torah” Jesus responded, “that agreement takes the place of torah.”