The Church’s Gospel and the Idiom of Jesus

By Charles W. Hedrick
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From The Fourth R
Volume 30, Issue 4
July – August 2017
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This essay is an abridgment and adaptation of chapter two (pages 23–59) in Hedrick, Wisdom of Jesus. Used by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers.

The popular assumption is that the faith and teaching of the church are rooted in the faith and teaching of Jesus. This idea, however, proves completely unfounded when one checks the data. The truth is that there is a dichotomy between Jesus and the church. While the church may name Jesus as its founder, what it preaches and what Jesus had to say are very different. According to Günther Bornkamm, a student of Rudolf Bultmann, an ugly gap exists between Jesus of Nazareth and the church founded in his name.

Paul’s theology is not a repetition of Jesus’ preaching of the coming of God’s kingdom. Jesus Christ himself and the salvation based on and made available through his death on the cross, his resurrection, and his exaltation as Lord form the subject of Paul’s proclamation. This means a complete shift came about [from Jesus to the early church] which the modern mind finds hard to understand and often deplores.1

It is true that between the preaching of the historical Jesus and the gospel not only of Paul but of the post-Easter church in general there is a fundamental difference: only the unthinking can miss it.2

The Eclipse of the Jesus Sayings Traditions

To judge from literature that was later canonized into the New Testament, authority shifted rather rapidly from the remembered sayings of Jesus the historical man to the inspiration of the resurrected Lord, who continued to speak new sayings to the church through early Christian prophets (see, for example, Matt 28:16–20 for a scene that portrays this phase of the early church experience). By the middle of the first century, authority had clearly passed from Jesus to the resurrected Lord whose sayings were mediated through prophets to enterprising teachers. They in turn proclaimed a “gospel” that set out their understanding of faith, citing Scripture (Old Testament) and the Lord as the authority for their ideas. The canonical gospels, written in the latter half of the first century, do not generally cite the words of Jesus as sources of authority for the continuing life of the church, but rather they report sayings attributed to him as part of the process of creating and describing his public career. The gospels look back to the first third of the century in order to establish that the gospel preached by the church in the latter half was based on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

Although Jesus’ sayings (and sayings of the resurrected Lord) and references to the sayings of Jesus are abundant in Christian-Gnostic literature, they are virtually non-existent in the New Testament apart from the gospels. They are also relatively rare in Paul’s letters, where, because of his early date, we might expect to find a greater number. Paul’s letters make only five explicit references to sayings or traditions that derive from Jesus (or the Lord): 1 Cor 7:10–11 (Mark 10:11–12), 9:14 (Luke 10:7), 11:23–26 (Mark 14:22–25), 14:37 (no known parallel in the sayings tradition); 1 Thess 4:15–17 (no known parallel in the sayings tradition). And one reference from First Corinthians (7:25) admits that no saying of Jesus was known to cover what the unmarried ought to do in the face of the imminent end of the world.

Some statements of Paul do seem to echo sayings by Jesus, but they do not acknowledge that the ideas derive from him (or the Lord): Rom 12:14 (Luke 6:28), 12:17 and 1 Thess 5:15 (Luke 6:29), Rom 13:7 (Mark 12:17, parallel), Rom 14:13 (Mark 9:42), 14:14 (Mark 7:15, and parallels); 1 Thess 5:2 (Luke 12:39–40), 1 Thess 5:13 (Mark 9:50).3 A few statements in James and 1 Peter have also been cited as echoes of Jesus sayings. Though some scholars find a larger number of such echoes or allusions, all would agree on the few I have just cited.

The issue of what is and what is not an echo of a Jesus saying is controversial among scholars and probably impossible to resolve definitively. The evidence clearly shows that the Jesus sayings tradition has indeed influenced the discourse of the church. But the entire collection of such citations, echoes, or allusions in the canonical literature fails to dispel the impression that, already before the first half of the first century, authority had shifted irrevocably from the personal authority of the historical Jesus as represented by his own words, to the resurrected Christ as mediated through prophets and enterprising teachers. Consider this surprising statement of Paul, which appears to imply that the authority of the resurrected Lord carried more weight than the historical man:

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once regarded Christ from a human point of view, we regard him thus no longer. (2 Cor 5:16)

Although sayings of the historical Jesus remained in memory, they competed, eventually rather unsuccessfully, with other sources of authority in the church: the authority of Scripture, new sayings of Jesus mediated through early Christian prophets (see 2 Cor 12:7–9), and the personal authority of enterprising Christian teachers—like Paul, for example. The authority of the sayings of both the historical Jesus and the resurrected Lord made a greater impact on certain non-canonical texts, as is clear particularly in the Gospel of Thomas.

Reinventing Jesus

As best as we can tell from the sketchy details, it appears that Jesus was attracted to John the Baptizer’s preaching of repentance (Mark 1:9) and was baptized by him in the Jordan River (Mark 1:9–10). For some time Jesus must have been one of John’s followers (John 3:26), but after John was arrested (or perhaps before, John 3:22–24), Jesus stepped out of John’s shadow to began his own public career (Mark 1:14–15). In the hypothetical Q Gospel Jesus announced that the Empire of God was so close on the horizon that its presence was being experienced already through the exorcisms he performed (Luke 11:20 = Matt 12:28).

Jesus is best described as an itinerant pundit for God’s imperial rule, and, although he was accompanied by a small band of associates, his career was essentially a solo performance. He formed no communities. In the latter half of the first century, however, Matthew credited him with establishing a gathering, traditionally translated as a “church” (Matt 16:18)—at least that was the belief in the Matthean community.

From the evidence the early Christians left us, it appears that Jesus was a parsimonious talker. He wasn’t given to long-winded speeches. His discourse basically took three forms: short quips, brief summaries, and rather secular stories. These are the vestiges that have come down to us. The synoptic gospels describe the principal focus of his interest as the Empire of God; he thought it was near enough to be experienced now (Luke 17:20–21).

Jesus ran afoul of the religious authorities (priests of the Jerusalem temple and the Pharisees) for criticizing the temple (perhaps Matt 24:2), the traditionally religious (Matt 23:5–7, Luke 11:43) and political leaders (Mark 8:15); for discounting the traditions of the elders (Mark 2:27; 7:15); and for his open lifestyle (Matt 11:18–19). The witness of the Jesus tradition is that he was arrested, crucified, and resurrected. All this information comes from the synoptic gospels, texts written in the third quarter of the first century—after the church had become a self-conscious organism. (The exception to this uniform tradition is the Gospel of Thomas.) The writing of the gospels was part of the church’s pursuit of its own roots—an attempt to understand and confirm how and where it all had begun.

Towards the end of the first century, a generation after the writing of the synoptic gospels, the Gospel of John portrays a very different Jesus. John’s story is nothing less than a rewriting of the career and idiom of Jesus of Nazareth. The form, style, and content of Jesus’ idiom in John are remarkably different from what we see in the synoptic gospels and Q.

Jesus’ small group of associates—let’s call them the Jesus people—scattered after his death and, at this point, even secondary sources dry up. We really know very little about the fifteen to twenty or so years that separate Jesus’ death from Paul’s first letter (First Thessalonians). When the thread of the story picks up again, it is mid-century. In the Pauline correspondence (and the rest of the New Testament), Jesus is now touted by Saul of Tarsus, a Roman citizen, as a resurrected Lord, a divine man with a heavenly origin. Saul, or Paul as he called himself, was a writer of letters to “gatherings of saints” that (except for the gathering at Rome) he personally brought together in the name of the crucified and resurrected Son of God.

The subsequent literature of what would, from the midpart of the first century forward, be dubbed Christianity comes from churches that must be characterized as Greco- Roman. The Jewish-Semitic part of the story ended shortly after the death of Jesus—at least, as far as the sources are concerned.

The shift from Jesus and his wandering band of Jesus people to Paul and his gatherings of saints was more than cosmetic. That shift reflects nothing less than a virtual transformation of what Jesus had to say to Jews in the early part of the century. Jesus was a country boy and the heir of Israelite culture and religion. He wandered through the dusty lanes of Galilean villages touting the Empire of God, and debating with Pharisees, a Jewish religious sect, about Torah and the traditional teachings of the elders. Paul, on the other hand, wandered on good roads from major city to major city in the Roman Empire, establishing gatherings of those he called “saints” (that is, those set apart, separated, or the holy ones). People who read his letters included some of the most sophisticated citizens of the Roman Empire (1 Cor 1:26; Rom 16:23; Phil 4:22).

“Those willing to benefit from Hedrick's expert guidance and ponder the historical Jesus's shrewd observations, dark humor, and paradoxical perspectives, run the real (and exhilarating) risk of changing their minds about what they thought they knew.”
—Robert J. Miller, Professor of Religious Studies, Juniata College

The Formal Difference

I have already mentioned the change in the form of the message: the early records show that Jesus spoke in short quips, brief summaries, and stories. Church leaders wrote letters, epistles, and theological essays. They eventually affirmed
written creeds and confessions, incumbent on all believers in their churches, and added a new set of holy books that controlled how one would understand the Jewish Bible, the Scripture that Jesus knew. Whereas Jesus was an unschooled peasant sage, later church leaders were well-schooled in the traditions of Greco-Roman culture.

The Difference in Content: Two Radical Shifts

The Loss of Kingdom Language

The shift from Jesus to the church most noticeably resulted in the virtual loss of language about the near arrival of the Empire of God, which Jesus had announced. The gospel writer Mark summarized his message this way:

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God and saying, “the time is fulfilled, and the Empire of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel.” (Mark 1:14–15)

But Jesus is also reported to have said,

The Empire is not coming with signs to be observed; they will not say, “Lo, here it is!” or “Over there!” for behold the Empire of God is in your midst. (Luke 17:20–21)

Virtually all of the early Christian gospels, with the exception of the Gospel of John, report that the Empire of God dominated the message of Jesus. But in John, except for a few allusions, the Empire of God virtually disappears.

Outside the gospels, in the rest of the New Testament, this kind of immanent “kingdom” language is virtually lost after Jesus, and when it does resurface, God’s rule has become a hope for some distant, indefinite future. For example:

The unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Cor 6:9)

Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Cor 15:50)

Lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory. (1 Thess 2:12)

I charge you … by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word. (2 Tim 4:1)

The Lord will … save me for his heavenly kingdom. (2 Tim 4:18)

Confirm your call and election so that there will be … an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (2 Pet 1:10–11)

The Proclaimer becomes the Proclaimed

Perhaps the most notable shift from Jesus to the church was that the proclaimer became the proclaimed: whereas Jesus proclaimed the Empire of God, the church proclaimed Jesus—specifically his crucifixion and resurrection. And this proclamation became known as “the gospel” in churches that thought of themselves as part of the “universal” (catholic) church. The short of the matter is that Jesus did not proclaim the “gospel” that the church proclaimed. The church’s gospel is couched in the language of religious institutionalism: it is direct, unambiguous, authoritarian, confessional, propositional, and intolerant. Here is the way Paul describes it:

If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Rom 10:9)

Now I would remind you, brothers, in what terms I preached to you the gospel, which you received, in which you stand, by which you are saved, if you hold it fast.… For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures and that he appeared to Cephas and to the twelve. (1 Cor 15:1–5)

There is not another gospel, but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be damned. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, damn him. (Gal 1:7–9)

Actually Paul’s crucifixion/resurrection gospel was not shared by all Christians in the first and second centuries. Other ways of making sense of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus appear elsewhere in the broader stream of early Christian literature. Texts that were not included in the canon of the “universal” church do not, for instance, tie crucifixion and resurrection to human sins, as Paul does.

These two observations about the difference between what Jesus proclaimed and what the church proclaims have been recognized among New Testament scholars since 1778 when Gotthold Lessing published a fragment of a work by Hermann Samuel Reimarus entitled On the Intentions of Jesus and his Disciples.

Ambiguity and Aphorism versus Mythical and Mystical Language

The language of Jesus was generally indirect; it traded in ambiguity, aphorism, metaphor, hyperbole, etc. The language of the church, on the other hand, was no-nonsense language, and unlike Jesus it traded in mythical and mystical language.  

Mythical Language

By “myth” I mean stories about the gods, or greaterthan- human figures that exist in a place and time different from common human experience. In the synoptic gospels the reader encounters a bigger-than-life character of a Jewish man in a setting that bears some resemblance to common space and time—with notable exceptions like demons, evil spirits, and manipulations of nature. Jesus is described in this literary context as a Greco-Roman demigod or immortal.4 Immortals at the end of their careers became gods. This image accorded to Jesus becomes even more pronounced in the Gospel of John and in the Pauline traditions. Here are three such passages in Christian texts reflecting a mythical view of Jesus the Jewish peasant sage and pundit for the Empire of God:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him and without him was not anything made that was made … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father … No one has ever seen God; the only Son who is in the bosom of the Father has made him known. (John 1:1–4, 14, 18)

He was in the form of God but did not count the equality with God a thing to be held on to, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.… (Phil 2:6–10)

He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Col 1:15–17)  

Mystical Language

Mystical language is related to “mysticism,” in which all barriers between the immediacy of the divine presence and human beings are broken down and the finite and the infinite are merged. In short, an individual becomes one with the deity so that the individual person is indistinguishable from the deity. Language suggesting a type of “Christ mysticism” is found throughout early Christian writings, although this language does not appear to describe mysticism in a technical sense because both Christ and the individual appear to remain clearly defined entities. Nevertheless, early Christian writers clearly used mystical language to reflect the close union between believers and Christ. Here are some of those passages that make use of mystical language:

I do not pray only for these [you have given me] but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they may also be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one. (John 17:20–23).

I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. (Gal 2:20)

The Spirit of God dwells in you. (Rom 8:9)

My little children, with whom I am again in travail until Christ be formed in you. (Gal 4:19)

Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you? (2 Cor 13:5)

But if Christ is in you, although your bodies are dead because of sin, your spirits are alive because of righteousness. (Rom 8:10)

[May God grant] that Christ dwells in your hearts through faith. (Eph 3:16–17)

Anyone in Christ is a new creation. (2 Cor 5:17)

All of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into his death. (Rom 6:3)

In Christ Jesus you are all one. (Gal 3:28)

God … made us alive … and raised us up with him, and made us to sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus. (Eph 2:4–6)

My only point in tracing mythical and mystical language in New Testament texts is to illustrate the kind of language the church uses to express its faith and to point out that it is not a form of speech employed by Jesus. The existential merits and appropriateness of this kind of language for the twenty-first century is another matter entirely.

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The Rise of Christian Institutionalism

Paul saw the church as a gathering of saints that existed at the end of time (1 Cor 10:11; 1 Cor 7:29–31)—that is, between the crucifixion/resurrection of Jesus and his near return: the present age of the world was ending and a new age beginning (1 Cor 15:20–24). Hence if the gatherings of saints belonged to the present age, the community needed to provide for its religious life. As a historical entity, it required such things as ritual, liturgy, confessions, creeds, and clergy.

Here are some selected passages that show the church adapting, in recognition that it still lived in the present, by making appropriate changes in the life of the community; these changes effectively convert a community that had conceived of itself as belonging to the Age to Come into an institution of the Present Age.

The experience of baptism:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Rom 6:3–4)

Celebrating the Lord’s Supper:

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night he was betrayed took bread and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Cor 11:23–25)

Leaders were chosen by God:

And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in various kinds of tongues. (1 Cor 12:28–29)

Leaders were chosen by the church:

A bishop must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, sensible, dignified, hospitable, an apt teacher, no drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and no lover of money. (1 Tim 3:2–3)

Hymns and confessions became necessary:

The saying is sure: If we died with him, we shall also live with him;

if we endure, we shall also reign with him;

if we are faithless, he remains faithful. (2 Tim 2:11–13)

Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of our religion: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated in the spirit, seen by angels, preached among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory. (1 Tim 3:16)

There is, of course, more of this kind of language, but this kind of thought-world, these sentiments and contents, are foreign to the language of Jesus. Church language reflects the institutional interests of the early Christian communities. Such language relates to their faith (Christ crucified and resurrected) and to the order of the church, including practices such as baptism, communion, church hierarchy, and rituals. It includes instructions in “Christian” living, which relate to life in the world: marriage, sexual behavior, diet, and the relationships between the sexes.

Household Codes of the Roman Empire

The church did not turn to the radical ethics of Jesus, if it even knew them, to define the duties and responsibilities that covered the private affairs of families in the community. It turned rather, to “household codes,” which were based on the values of the early Roman Empire. The “household code”—a brief list setting out the duties and responsibilities for the proper management of one’s private affairs, specifically in the home or household—was a familiar form in ethical writing from Antiquity. Here is one of the earliest:

Wives be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them. Children obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. Fathers do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged. Slaves obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not with eye service as men pleasers, but in singleness of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever your task, work heartily, as serving the Lord and not men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you are serving the Lord Christ. For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done and there is no partiality. Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven. (Col 3:18—4:1)

Some of the other household codes found in New Testament texts are: Eph 5:21—6:9; 1 Pet 2:11—3:12; 1 Tim 2:8–15; 5:1–2; 6:1–2; Titus 2:1–10; 3:1.

Though Jesus’ values countered culture, the church eventually assimilated aspects of the culture and values of the Hellenistic world in these household codes. The ethic of Jesus is radical and extreme, but the household codes ensured that members of Christian communities do not give cause for criticism by the community at large. The church aimed to be a good citizen of the Roman Empire (Rom 13:1–7) and conducted itself wisely toward outsiders (Col 4:5). The church concluded the transition from the radical Jewish pundit for the Empire of God by erasing Jesus’ life and message from its creeds. The Apostles Creed, for example, skips from Jesus’ birth to his death—thus leaping over the one solitary life that had announced the immediacy of God’s Empire:

I believe in God almighty and in Christ Jesus, his only son, our Lord who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary <…> who was crucified under Pontius Pilate and was buried and the third day rose from the dead.

In short: the church’s gospel of the resurrected Christ simply dismisses as unimportant the career and words of God’s pundit for the kingdom.


Our survey of the language used in the institutional church leads to the conclusion that Jesus, the historical man, was merely a presupposition for the faith of the church. To judge from their creeds, all the church needed from Jesus was that he be born and die. His teaching and deeds were of no interest at all. The church’s faith is not actually based on Jesus, but rather on what the Jewish man later became in the belief of the church: the resurrected and exalted Lord.

Copyright © 2017 Westar Institute. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

Photo of Charles Hedrick

Charles W. Hedrick (Ph.D., Claremont Graduate School) is Distinguished Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at Southwest Missouri State University. A member of the UNESCO team that worked on the Nag Hammadi Codices, he is the author of several books including Many Things in Parables (2004) and The Gospel of the Savior (with Paul Mirecki, 1999).

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1. Bornkamm, Paul, 109.

2. Bornkamm, Paul, 110.

3. See the discussion and the sources in Koester, Ancient Christian
, 49–75.

4. See in particular the discussion in Talbert, What is a Gospel, 25–52.

Sources Consulted

Allison, Dale C. “The Pauline Epistles and the Synoptic Gospels: The Pattern of the Parallels.” New Testament Studies 28 (1982): 1–32.

Balch, David. “Household Codes.” Pages 318–20 in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 3. Edited by David Noel Freedman et al. 6 vols. Doubleday, 1992.

Bettenson, Henry and Chris Mauder. Documents of the Christian Church. 3rd ed. Oxford University Press, 1999.

Bornkamm, Günter. Paul. Translated by D. G. M. Stalker. Harper & Row, 1971.

Fitzgerald, John T. “Haustafeln.” Pages 80–81 in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 3.

Hedrick Charles W. The Wisdom of Jesus. Between the Sages of Israel and the Apostles of the Church. Cascade, 2014.

Hedrick, Charles W. When History and Faith Collide. Studying Jesus. Hendrickson, 1999.

Koester, Helmut. Ancient Christian Gospels. Their History and Development. Trinity Press International and SCM Press, 1990.

Talbert, Charles H. What is a Gospel? The Genre of the Canonical Gospels. Fortress Press, 1977.

Talbert, Charles H., ed., and Ralph S. Fraser, trans. Reimarus: Fragments. Life of Jesus Series. Fortress, 1970.