The Jesus of History: the Source of the Course?

by Greg Mackie

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A Course in Miracles claims that Jesus is its author, but how can we really know this is so? There’s no way it could ever be proven one way or the other, but one way to at least evaluate the plausibility of the Course’s claim is to compare the Jesus of the Course to the historical Jesus revealed by modern scholarship. I’ve been reading a fascinating book by Jesus scholar John Kloppenborg, entitled Excavating Q: The History and Setting of the Sayings Gospel. In it, Kloppenborg examines what many scholars believe is the earliest extant layer of the Jesus tradition: a “sayings gospel” embedded within Matthew and Luke which scholars call “Q.” And strikingly, the Jesus of the earliest layer of Q as Kloppenborg describes it looks much like the Jesus of the Course.

What exactly is “Q”? It is a result of historical detective work that has been going on for over two centuries now. Part of the work of Jesus scholars has been a process of discerning, through examining historical and literary evidence, what material in the gospels is most likely to represent the earliest and most accurate picture of the historical Jesus. Over time, this process has led scholars to gradually separate the wheat from the chaff, as it were. The first step was setting aside the gospel of John as a reliable historical source; it was the last canonical gospel written, and presents a very different Jesus than the three “synoptic” accounts of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. Next, they determined that Mark is likely the earliest of the gospels, the source for the basic narrative outline and most of the material in Matthew and Luke.

However, scholars also noticed that when Markan material is removed from Matthew and Luke, the two later gospels still have a significant amount of material in common: what scholars call the “double tradition.” Since they had reasons for rejecting the idea that Matthew was a source for Luke or vice versa, the key question became: What was the source of this “double tradition” material? Study of the material led most scholars to conclude that in addition to Mark, the two later writers drew from a second source: an earlier written document, consisting mainly of Jesus’ sayings, that scholars dubbed “Q” (from the German word Quelle, or “source”).

Kloppenborg’s book is an in-depth examination of Q, and it takes this winnowing process one step further. In his view, literary evidence suggests that there are three layers to Q, the latter two representing stages when Q was edited and expanded by later writers. The latest layer, which he calls “Q3,” consists mainly of the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert. The next layer down (Q2) consists mainly of pronouncements of apocalyptic judgment against those who rejected the Jesus movement. Finally, there is the oldest layer (Q1). This layer, Kloppenborg believes, was written in the lower Galilee, and consists almost entirely of Jesus’ teachings.

Let’s step back and take this in for a moment. If Kloppenborg is right about Q, then we have a gospel whose earliest layer dates to the 50s or even earlier, well before the first canonical gospel, Mark, which was written sometime around 70 CE. This earliest layer was written in the Galilee, the homeland of Jesus’ mission, and the content of it is Jesus’ teachings. Here, then, is likely the earliest and most accurate source available for information on what the historical Jesus really taught. Many Jesus scholars agree that this is the case. In fact, sixty percent of the sayings judged to be authentic by the Jesus Seminar (a group of scholars who voted on the authenticity of sayings and deeds attributed to Jesus) are from this Q1 material.

What, according to Q1, did Jesus teach? Wisdom of a very unconventional sort. Within Q1 are many of the most original, radical, and memorable teachings attributed to Jesus. The material Matthew formed into the Sermon on the Mount is there. It is in Q1 that we are instructed to be as carefree as the birds of the air and the lilies of the field; to ask, seek, and knock in the assurance that we’ll be answered by God; to forgive so we’ll be forgiven and give so we’ll receive; to love our enemies and bless those who curse us; to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile; to treat others as generously as does the God who sends His sun and rain on the bad and the good alike. The essence of these teachings is that as children of an unconditionally loving and indiscriminately generous God, whom we can trust completely to take care of us, our function here on earth is to extend that same unconditional love and indiscriminate generosity to others. Luke’s version of Q1 sums up the message this way: “As you know, [God] is generous to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be as compassionate as your Father is” (Lk 6:35-36). Or as Matthew’s version puts it: “To sum up, you are to be as liberal in your love as your Heavenly Father is” (Mt 5:48).

The resemblance to the Course’s teachings here is unmistakable-indeed, many of these teachings are referred to in the Course. We see major themes of Q1 throughout the Course’s pages: the unconditionally loving and indiscriminately generous God, the carefree joy that results from placing our trust in Him, forgiving so that we’ll experience forgiveness for ourselves, giving as the means of receiving, loving and blessing those we would normally regard as our “enemies,” even when they attack us. The essence of the Q1 teachings could easily be a description of the essence of the Course: As children of a God of pure Love who cares for us completely, our function on earth is to extend that love to others. Salvation in the Course comes from being as liberal in our love as our Heavenly Father is.

What does all this mean? We shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that this “proves” Jesus wrote the Course. Even if Q1 is the earliest source of the Jesus tradition, we cannot know for sure how much of it really goes back to Jesus himself. Kloppenborg draws no conclusions on this issue. What this scholarship does for me, however, is increase the plausibility of the idea that Jesus wrote the Course. I’m struck by the fact that historical Jesus scholars, without having any sort of agenda to find a Course-like Jesus, have independently come up with a portrait of a Jesus whom one could easily imagine writing the Course. Perhaps, then, the Course’s authorship claim is really true. Perhaps the Jesus revealed by Q is the Quelle of A Course in Miracles as well.

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