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Petros Vassiliadis
Ass. Prof. of the University of Thessaloniki

Beyond Theologia Crucis: Jesus of Nazareth from Q to John via Paul
(or John as a Radical Reinterpretation of Jesus of Nazareth)

Chapter I

One of the major issues, which will no doubt occupy our theological scholarship during the third millennium, is the nature and the essence of Christianity. If I may put it quite bluntly, the issue at stake will be its soteriological or ecclesiological character; its personal and salvation-by-faith dimension, or its communal one. In other words, the solution will depend on the emphasis one gives to the Pauline version of the Christian kerygma, as well as his interpretation of Jesus of Nazareth with its climax in the famous theologia crucis, or the Johannine understanding of the mystery of incarnate Word and its eucharistic conception of reality.

This short and by no means extensive and detailed presentation is my first attempt to examine the theological trajectory from the very early stages of the Christian literary activity to the composition of the Gospel of John. It is based on some recent articles and scholarly contributions of mine on Q, Paul and John(1) It is my humble tribute to Prof Savas Agouridis, the Orthodox biblical scholar who is struggling for nearly two generation to decipher the profound meaning of John Theologian, the banner of Orthodox theology. Prof. Agouridis was my mentor in biblical scholarship and the scholar who courageously wrote the reference to my dissertation on the Q-Document.(2)

The scene is becoming more or less clear after the great progress made in the biblical field, especially in the field of the synoptic Gospel tradition, more precisely in the study of Q. Not so much in terms of historical critical analysis of the earliest Gospel accounts, i.e. as a solution to the Synoptic problem, but because of the effects it causes to the conventional picture of the Christian origins, which dominated biblical scholarship for almost a century. The well-known to scholarly circles second source – now lost – of the Synoptic tradition, which no serious study can now ignore, seems to expound a radically different theological view from the mainstream kerygmatic expression of the early Church. Taken together with the discovery of the Gospel of Thomas, the widely held among scholars conviction of the existence of an early “Christian” document (Q, i.e. a document with a semi-canonical status) lacking not only (i) a historical structure of Jesus’ life of a Gospel type, i.e. with a “Passion and Resurrection Story”, but also (ii) any reference to the soteriological significance of Jesus’ death,(3) “challenges the assumption that the early Church was unanimous in making Jesus' death and resurrection the fulcrum of Christian faith.”(4) The results of recent research on Q “has revealed the complexity of early Christian literary activity and also contributed to a reassessment of the originating impulse(s) of the whole Christian movement”.(5)

In fact, the challenge of Q to the conventional picture of Christian origins, and by extension also to the quest of the Historical Jesus, and the predominance of the Pauline interpretation of the Christ event, is more far-reaching than the making of a little room for yet “another Gospel,” another early Christian community etc. If Q is taken seriously into account the entire landscape of early Christianity with all that it entails may need to be radically revised, at least thoroughly reconsidered.(6)

Of course, there have been voices from the discipline of Archeology for some time now(7) pointing out that the extant archaeological evidence supports this view.(8) But none (or very few) could have ever listen to them, nor was biblical scholarship ready to review or put to a test the conventional picture of early Christianity. Yet, more than a generation ago a number of scholars from all Christian traditions tried to reflect upon, and analyze, the origin of the theological significance of Jesus' death.(9) They all illustrated that there was no unanimity among the first Christians with regard to the interpretation of Jesus' death on the cross. In fact, there was a considerable variety of attempts to give a theological interpretation to this significant (and by all means unique) event of the Divine Economy, i.e. Jesus' death.(10)

Besides the so-called “soteriological” interpretation, according to which the raison d’ être of Jesus' death on the cross was the salvation of humankind, one can count at least another four (4) crystallized interpretative attempts, with which the early Christian community attempted to grasp the mystery of Jesus’ of Nazareth death on the cross:

(a) The “prophetic” interpretation,(11) according to which Jesus’ death was given no expiatory significance, being rather seen as the true continuation of the persecution, sufferings and violent end of the Old Testament prophets.

(b) The “dialectic” interpretation,(12) according to which Jesus’ death was dialectically contrasted(13) to the resurrection (with the stress being more or less laid on the latter), making again no soteriological hint to the cross.

(c) The “apocalyptic” (or “eschatological”) interpretation,(14) where too Jesus’ death is referred to as having no soteriological significance, but was seen as an eschatological act in full agreement with the divine plan. And finally,

(d) the “Eucharistic” or “covenantal” interpretation,(15) pointing also to other than the expiatory significance of Jesus’ death. His blood has rather sealed the new covenant that God established with his people.

The almost unanimous preference in the later New Testament literature to the so-called “soteriological” interpretation, which of course can surely be traced to the period before Paul’s conversion (cf. 1 Cor. 15:3ff.), was “due to its hellenistic background, compared with the more or less Jewish background of all the other interpretations….The lack of any reference in other pre-pauline strata of the early Christian tradition… suggests a limited usage in the early Christian community. On the other hand, the prophetic interpretation, traces of which are found in almost all layers of primitive Christianity (Q-community, Hellenistic community, Marcan community, Pauline community), suggests that it was widespread during this creative period”. (16)


In successive articles a few years ago I argued that: “the time has come for scholarly research to distance itself as much as possible from the dominant to modern scholarship syndrome of the priority of the texts over the experience, of theology over ecclesiology. There are many scholars who cling to the dogma, imposed by the post-Enlightenment and post-Reformation hegemony over all scholarly theological outlook (and not only in the field of biblical scholarship or of Protestant theology), which can be summarized as follows: what constitutes the basis of any historical investigation, the core of Christian faith, cannot be extracted but from given texts (and/or archaeological evidence(17)), from the expressed theological views, from a certain depositum fidei (be it the Bible, the Church (or apostolic) Tradition etc.); very rarely is there any serious reference to the eucharistic/eschatological experience that preceded them, in fact from the communion-event which was responsible and produced these texts and views”.(18)

These views were met with some scepticism on the basis of a suspicion of a latent return to the pre-critical approach to the Gospels, and were further connected with my expressed post-modern concerns.(19) I do not hide my discontent of modernism, if not for anything else at least because it has over-rationalized everything from social and public life to scholarship, from emotion to imagination, seeking to over-control and -limit the irrational, the aesthetic and perhaps even the sacred. In its search to rationalize and historicize all, modernism has transformed not only what we know and how we know it, but also how we understand ourselves. Hence the longing by a wide range of intellectuals (not limited to scholars) for wholeness, for community, for Gemeinschaft, for an antidote to the fragmentation and sterility of an overly technocratic society, and at the end of the road a content to post-modernism.

Having said all these, it is important to reaffirm what sociologists of knowledge very often point out, i.e. that modernism, counter (alternative) modernism, post-modernism, and even de-modernism, are always simultaneous processes. Otherwise post-modernism can easily end up and evaporate to a neo-traditionalism, and at the end a neglect or even negation of the great achievements of the Enlightenment and the ensuing critical order and of course the democratic structure of our (Western) society.(20)

I felt obliged to affirm all these and reaffirm that all I argue for is a reminder of the priority of the eschatological experience of the early Christian community over against its literary products (texts, Bible etc), admitting of course at the same time that “ very early, even from the time of St. Paul, there has been a shift – no matter for what reasons(21)– of the centre of gravity from the (eucharistic) experience to the (Christian) message, from eschatology to Christology (and further and consequently to soteriology), from the event (the Kingdom of God), to the bearer and centre of this event (Christ, and more precisely his sacrifice on the cross) .... (concluding) that the horizontal-eschatological view always remained predominant in the early Church, both in the New Testament and in most of the subsequent Christian literature. The vertical-soteriological (and Pauline?) view was always understood within the context of the horizontal-eschatological perspective as supplemental and complementary.(22)

This, however, is not something uncommon, even among the most fervent supporters of modernism within biblical scholarship of our time. More and more studies come out, and more and more scholars appear, admitting the priority of the “eucharistic” behavior and/or “common meal” eschatological anticipation of Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries, of Jesus himself “eating together” with his disciples, and of course of the early Christian community.(23) This wide recognition of the importance of what has come to be called Eucharist in dealing with Christian origins brought new dimension to the understanding of its earliest stages. We are talking, of course, of the Eucharist neither in the sense of a mystery cult, nor as a mere ritual, but as the living expression of the ecclesial identity of the early Christian community, an expression of a koinonia of the eschata, and a proleptic manifestation of the Kingdom of God, a vivid act of a community living in a new reality.


The issue at stake, therefore, is how the ritual developed into a story. To put it in different terms, how our Jesus-tradition-literature moved from an eschatological, experiential, didactic (saying [sophiological]?)(24) pattern, to a historical Markan type. How can one explain the trajectory of Jesus’ traditions from a (non-pauline) Saying literary genre (Q and Thomas) to a Story literary genre (Mark and then the rest of our canonical Gospels). In addition, one cannot ignore that Paul did not care about the Jesus of History (II Cor 5: 16f), and yet Mark theologically produced a Gospel of a Pauline type.

Previously, before the consolidation of the Q hypothesis, everything was woven around the assumption of a soteriological emphasis from the very beginning of the Christian origins. According to this explanation the trajectory goes as follows:

The soteriological significance of Jesus of Nazareth -> Paul -> Post-pauline Christianity (Gospels: Mark etc. - John) ->and then on to Catholic/Orthodox Christianity.

After the consolidation and the almost unanimous acceptance in our scholarly circles of the Q hypothesis, an alternative explanation can be convincingly advanced. And this explanation places a great deal of importance on the assumption of the priority of the eschatological teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, being re-enacted and performed around the “common-meal” eschatological fellowships, and the ensuing “eucharistic” expression of the Christian community. According to this explanation the early Christian community was developed in two trajectories:

(i) The Kingdom-of-God teaching of the Historcal Jesus -> Q -> James -> Didache -> Thomas..... and then on to marginal Christian groups, especially to Gnostic Christianity.

(ii) The Kingdom-of-God teaching of the Historcal Jesus -> Paul -> Mark -> the rest of our canonical Gospels -> Acts ....and then on to early Orthodoxy.

It is quite interesting that the later Catholic/Orthodox Christianity preserved both the eucharistic/eschatological element, prominent in the first trajectory, and the soteriological/christological one, around which the second trajectory developed.

With regard to the Markan-Q relations I rejected in an earlier study of mine all the proposed from time to time solutions (either of a direct dependence one way or the other, or of the mutual independence) and hinted that Mark did “have knowledge of Q-traditions ….. he was acquainted with the Q-Document itself…. (he did not) derive any material therefrom….(because) his attitude to the Q-materials (was) critical”.(25) And this might have been due to Q’s non-soteriological motifs and perhaps to its non-theologia-crucis orientation, which the entire pauline tradition was so depended upon.

I take for granted the findings of some (cultural) anthropologists, that in Israel, like in all societies and religious systems, the connection between ritual and story was fundamental. The main story of the Jewish people, the exodus from Egypt, was ritually re-enacted in Israel's major festival, the Passover. And the main promise of Yahweh to his people, i.e. his unilateral covenant to all descendants of Abraham and later to Jacob (Israel), was re-enacted in rituals and offerings during all their annual festivals. We also know that these promises of the blessings of that covenant had been a hope rather than a reality, which nevertheless stayed alive and was constantly renewed up to the time of the Historical Jesus. In all its forms (Isaianic, Danielic, Enochic or Qumranic) this hope was celebrated around their common meals in anticipation of the coming of the messianic meal with the anointed priest and/or the anointed king. And there were numerous prophets during Jesus’ time, who attempted to re-enact or to prepare for the messianic liberation of Israel.

Coming now to Jesus of Nazareth there is good evidence in all Gospel accounts that he, too, celebrated common meals with his disciples and friends, and this not only because he certainly was a devoted Jew, “marginal” or not. And there is no reason to doubt that the early Christian communities celebrated common meals in anticipation to the eschatological/messianic reality. Most probably the Christian community meals had its origin in meals that Jesus celebrated with his disciples.(26)

There is a growing awareness among most biblicists and liturgists working on the original form of the eucharistic accounts of the N.T., that Jesus' last meal, as well as the other common meals, must have been understood in eschatological rather than soteriological terms, i.e. as anticipation of the banquet of God with his people in the Kingdom of God. Whatever soteriological significance was later attached to them was certainly understood only within this eschatological perspective, never outside it.

It is not only (i) the apparent eschatological orientation of the overall “institution narratives” in all their forms (Marcan/Matthaean and Pauline/Lucan); it is also clear that (ii) the saying of the cup in its oldest form was not centered on the content of the cup (the wine, and further through the sacrificial meaning of Jesus’ blood, on its soteriological significance), but on the cup as the symbol of the new covenant;(27) and above all, (iii) the bread in its original meaning was not connected with Jesus’ crucified body, but had ecclesiological connotations, starting as a symbol of the eschatological community. Justin Taylor has convincingly argued for the eschatological importance of the “breaking of the bread” in early Christianity.(28) Perhaps the intermediate stage in the overall process was the pauline image [term?] “body of Christ”.

The story of Jesus' suffering and death remained fluid for a long time. Evidence for this is the different versions of the passion narrative in the Gospel literature, owing to the oral performance of the story in ritual celebrations. As the early faithful in their ritual celebrations were reading again and again the O.T. lessons and then told the story of Jesus' death, that story was enriched by more scriptural language.


At this stage Paul’s theological interpretation of Jesus’ death through his famous theologia crucis – in fact his major contribution to Christianity – played a catalytic role. In view of the fact that, it is stories that create nations, and more precisely stories that can function as a founding element in any religious system, the story of Jesus' suffering, death, and resurrection – and by extension the Gospel narratives – proved to be a significant factor in Christianity, by which its original eschatological dimension was able to survive and have a lasting impact in the course of history. The new eschatological community, which expressed its identity in eucharistic ritual, could only be nourished and sustained by this version of the story, namely the passion narrative, a version derived from ritual, and which in turn has ultimately its roots in the meal practices of Jesus.

The theologia crucis, the story, and the soteriological interpretation of Jesus’ death in the course of history eventually overwhelmed the earlier ethical, eucharistic and eschatological understanding of Christian identity. Ironically enough, the same process was in force in the understanding of the Sacrament of the Eucharist, where for most of the time the personalistic and soteriological elements overwhelmed the prominent eschatological and ecclesiological ones; not as a deviation and corrupted additional elements, but as a necessary surviving process. What, however, became quite damaging for the future of Christian theology was its elevation after the Reformation to an absolute approach to the Christian faith.

And here the other, equally unique, contribution of the early Christian community, namely the Johannine radical interpretation of Jesus of Nazareth, needs to be taken into consideration. The importance of the Johannine theology, so badly overlooked in modernity as a tool for the proper understanding of the Christian identity, and completely ignored as a contribution to all quests (first, second and third) of the Historical Jesus, may need to be reconsidered.


1. “Paul’s theologia crucis αs an Intermediate Stage of the Trajectory from Q to Mark,” in L.Padovese (ed.), Atti del VII Simposio di Tarso su S.Paolo Apostolo, Rome 2002, pp. 43-52; and “John II. With Special Reference to the Eucharist,” in Daniel Patte (General Editor), Global Bible Commentary, to be published next year by Abington Press.

2. H περί της Πηγής των Λογίων Θεωρία. Κριτική θεώρησις των συγχρόνων φιλολογικών και θεολογικών προβλημάτων της Πηγής των Λογίων, Athens 1977.

3. Cf. P. Vassiliadis, ΛOΓOI IHΣOY. Studies in Q, Atlanta: Scholars Press 1999.

4. H. Koester, Ancient Christian Gospels. Their History and Development, SCM London, TPI Philadelphia 1990, p. 86.

5. H. W. Attridge, “Reflections on Research into Q,” Semeia 55 (1991) 223-34, p.223.

6. Cf. P. Vassiliadis, “Pauline Theology, the Origins of Christianity and the Challenge of Q. A Personal Journey,” L. Padovese (ed.), Atti del V Simposio di Tarso su S. Paolo Apostolo, Rome 1998, pp. 41-60.

7. Graydon Snyder, Ante Pacem: Archaeological Evidence of Church Life before Constantine, Mercer GA 1985. Cf. also L. M. White’s more recent two-volume work in the Harvard Theological Studies, entitled The Social Origins of Christian Architecture (Vol. I: Building God’s House in the Roman World: Architectural Adaptations Among Pagans, Jews and Christians; and vol. II: Texts and Monuments for the Christian Domus Ecclesiae in its Environment), Valley Forge 1996 and 1997 respectively.

8. G. Snyder e.g. has pointed out that “from 180 to 400 artistic analogies of self-giving, suffering, sacrifice, or incarnation are totally missing. The suffering Christ on a cross first appeared in the fifth century, and then not very convincingly.” Snyder, of course, interprets these exemplars of early Christian iconography as representative of popular Christian religion as opposed to official Christian religion, simply because as an archeologist he did not scrutinize theologically his extraordinary findings. “There is no place in the third century [or earlier] for a crucified Christ, or a symbol of divine death. Only when Christ was all powerful, as in the iconography of the Emperor, could that strength be used for redemption and salvation as well as deliverance” (G. Snyder, Ante Pacem, p. 29)

9. Cf. H. Kessler, Die theologische Bedeutung des Todes Jesu. Eine traditionsgeschichtliche Untersuchung, Düsseldorf 1970; K.Kertelge (ed.), Der Tod Jesu. Deutungen im Neuen Testament, Freiburg 1976; O. Knoch, “Zur Diskussion über die Heilsbedeutung des Todes Jesu,” Theologisches Jahrbuch 1977/78, Leipzig 1978; G. Delling, Der Kreuzestod Jesu in der urchristlichen Verkündigung, Göttingen 1972; M. Hengel, The Atonement. The Origins of the Doctrine in the New Testament, Philadelphia 1981; F.-J. Ortkemper, Das Kreuz in der Verkündigung des Apostels Paulus dargestellt an den Texten der paulinischen Hauptbriefe, Stuttgart 1967; J.Roloff, “Anfange der soteriologischen Deutung des Todes Jesu (Mk X.45 und Lk XXII.27),” NTS 19 (1972), pp. 38-64; and M.-L.Gubler, Die frühesten Deutungen des Todes Jesu. Eine motivgeschichtliche Darstellung auf Grund der neueren exegetische Forschung, Fribourg 1977; and P. Vassiliadis, Cross and Salvation. The Soteriological Background of St. Pau1's Teaching about the Cross in the Light f the Pre-Pauline Interpretation of Jesus' Death, Thessaloniki 1983 (in Greek, an English summary of which can be found in “Σταυρός: Centre of the Pauline Soteriology and Apostolic Ministry,” A. Vanhoye [ed.], L’Apôtre Paul. Personnalité, Style et Conception du Ministère, Leuven 1986, pp. 246-253).

10. P. Vassiliadis, Cross and Salvation, pp. 47ff.

11. Traces of the “prophetic” interpretation are found in the earliest pauline epistle (1 Thes 2:15), the Acts (7:52), the Marcan tradition (cf. Mark 12:1-12 par) and the Q-Document.

12. This is found in the earliest and most traditional strata of Acts (2:23ff.; 2:32ff.; 3:15; 4:10; 5:30; 10:39f.) and the pauline literature (1 Thes 4:14; Rom 8:34; 14:19a; 2 Cor 13:4).

13. J. Roloff (“Anfange der soteriologischen Deutung..”, p. 39) calls it Kontrastschema.

14. Cf. the synoptic passion predictions (Mark 8:31 par; 9:31 par; 10:33 par).

15. Cf. the earliest layers of the eucharistic tradition both in Paul and the Synoptic Gospels (1 Cor 11:25 par.; also Mark 10:45a; Luke 22:37b; 12:37b).

16. Cross and Salvation, pp. 58.

17. Nevertheless, note the remarks above (n. 4 and 5).

18. P. Vassiliadis, “The Challenge of Q. The Cynic Hypothesis,” ΛOΓOI IHΣOY. Studies in Q, pp.151f. Cf. also idem, “Pauline Theology, the Origins of Christianity and the Challenge of Q,” p. 57; and “The Eucharistic Perspective of the Church’s Mission,” Eucharist and Witness. Orthodox Perspectives on the Unity and Mission of the Church, WCC Publications/ HC Orthodox Press, Geneva/Boston 1998, 49-66, p 50.

19. P. Vassiliadis, “Prolegomena to Theology of the New Testament,” Deltion Biblikon Meleton 19 (2000) 5-21 (in Greek). Cf. also my recent book, Postmodernity and the Church, Akritas Publications Athens 2002 (also in Greek).

20. The rationalistic sterility of modern life, has turned to the quest for something new, something radical, which nevertheless is not always new, but very often old recycled: neo-romanticism, neo-mysticism, naturalism, etc. In fact, all these neo-isms share a great deal in common with the early 18th century reactions to the modernist revolution.

21. Bruce Chilton (A Feast of Meanings. Eucharistic Theologies from Jesus through Johannine Circles, Leiden 1994) has discerned six such paradigm shifts from Jesus’ time to the Johannine circles. D. Passakos (Eucharist and Mission in Greek, Athens 1997, p. 267) analyzed this “paradigm shift” at that crucial moment of early Christianity and claimed that “the Eucharist in Paul” was understood not only as an icon of the eschata, but also as a missionary event with cosmic and social consequences. The Eucharist for him was not only the sacrament of the Church, but also the sacrament of the world. Within the Pauline communities the Eucharist had a double orientation (in contrast to the overall eschatological and otherworldly dimension of it in earlier tradition): towards the world as diastolic movement, and towards God as a systolic movement.” According to Passakos “the Eucharist for Paul is at the same time an experience of the eschata and a movement toward the eschata” (p. 268).

22. This is why the liturgical experience of the early Church is incomprehensible without its social dimension (see Acts 2.42ff., 1 Cor 11.1ff., Heb 13.10-16; Justin, 1 Apology 67; Irenaeus, Adver. Her. 18.1, etc.).

23. Cf. H. Koester’s recent lecture on “Story and Ritual in Greece, Rome and Early Christianity,” (http:// Also B. Chilton, A Feast of Meanings; and E.Nodet - J.Taylor, The Origins of Christianity: An Exploration, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville 1998.

24. My argument in what follows is not affected by the dispute over the priority in Q of the wisdom or apocalyptic element. More on this in J. S. Kloppenborg The Formation of Q: Trajectories in Ancient Wisdom Collections, Philadelphia 1987.

25. P.Vassiliadis, “Prolegomena to a Discussion on the Relationship Between Mark and the Q-Document,” Deltion Biblikon Meleton 3 (1975) 31-46, p. 45.

26. The question which arises is whether these meals can be reduced only to the last one, commonly called “Last Supper”, before his crucifixion. Paul, our earliest source, seems to anchor the eucharistic tradition he received in the historical situation of the last meal of Jesus with his disciples. Thus, he claims continuity between the meals celebrated by the community with the meal celebrated by Jesus in the night in which he was handed over. However, the possibility that this connection was the result of his theologia crucis cannot be excluded.

27. Cf. my “The Biblical Foundation of the Eucharistic Ecclesiology,” Lex Orandi. Studies of Liturgical Theology, EKO 9 Thessaloniki 1994, pp. 29ff (in Greek).

28. J. Taylor, “La fraction du pain en Luc-Actes”, in: J. Verheyden (ed.), The Unity of Luke-Acts, Leuven 1999 pp. 281-295; cf. also E. Nodet - J. Taylor, The Origins of Christianity, pp. 88-123.

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