Last month I posted The Apocalyptic Jesus, summarizing Bart Ehrman's view of Jesus as a "first-century Jewish apocalypticist." This post summarizes an alternative scholarly view of Jesus drawn from James M. Robinson's The Gospel of Jesus: In Search of the Original Good News (HarperCollins, 2005). Robinson is a first-rate scholar who was instrumental in translating and publishing the Nag Hammadi texts. He rejects the view that Jesus preached primarily an apocalyptic message. Instead, according to Robinson, Jesus preached the present reign of a caring God on the earth, inviting his hearers to trust in God for the necessities of daily living and to show love and compassion for others.
Where Ehrman relies primarily on Mark, Robinson uses what he calls the Sayings Gospel Q as the primary text conveying the teachings of Jesus. Q is the term scholars use for the hypothesized source for many sayings of Jesus that appear in both Matthew and Luke but not in Mark. There was undoubtedly such a source (or sources), but we don't have it, at least in the form of a manuscript. The Sayings Gospel Q is a reconstruction of what can be recovered of the hypothesized Q based on material common to Matthew and Luke but not found in Mark. It is, in other words, the best we can do lacking an actual manuscript of Q.
The title "Sayings Gospel Q" used by Robinson contrasts that reconstructed gospel with the four narrative gospels of the New Testament. The idea of a sayings gospel — one that is primarily a collection of sayings rather than a narrated series of events accompanied by some dialogue — moved from the tentative to the accepted with the discovery and publication of the Gospel of Thomas, one of the Nag Hammadi texts. The Gospel of Thomas is a sayings gospel. With the "sayings gospel" firmly established as an actual rather than a hypothetical genre, scholars could thereafter speak of Q with more confidence. Robinson presents the entire text of his reconstructed Sayings Gospel Q in about thirty pages in the book. Here's his short sketch of how it came to be:
[T]he Jewish church was made up of the immediate disciples of Jesus, all of whom were Jews, who after Jesus' death resumed preaching his sayings. The result was that small collections of his sayings were brought together for preaching purposes and in the process translated from Aramaic into Greek. These small collections were over a period of time supplemented with new material, and the whole was edited around the year 70, at about the time of the Jewish war, thus finally producing the Sayings Gospel Q. (p. 8.)
Robinson goes further. Mark was the first gospel of the Gentile Christian community, evident by the explanations of Jewish customs and translations of Aramaic and Hebrew expressions provided in Mark. Robinson suggests that Q was the first gospel of the Jewish Christian community. The readers of Q, being Jewish, did not need the explanations or translations seen in Mark. All they needed were the words of Jesus (which was, after all, what those who heard Jesus himself received). When these two Christian communities eventually merged late in the first century, these two primary gospels were also merged. The Gentile community combined Mark and Q to make Luke, while the Jewish community combined Mark and Q to make Matthew.
Mark, the original Gentile gospel, was retained in the New Testament canon. Q, the original Jewish gospel, was not. It's a simple story that makes the pieces (Q, etc.) fit together nicely. No doubt there are dozens of scholarly articles that support or critique this story of the relationship between Mark, Q, Luke, and Matthew. All I can say is that if Robinson is arguing that view, it is at least a credible scholarly position to take.
So let's get back to the central message of Jesus, which Robinson refers to as a "utopian vision of a caring God."
Jesus' message was simple ... trust God to look out for you by providing people who will care for you, and listen to him when he calls on you to provide for them. God is somebody you can trust ....
Jesus found his role models for such godly living in the world of nature around him. Ravens and lilies do not seem to focus their attention on satisfying their own needs in order to survive, and yet God sees to it that they prosper. ... So God ... can be counted on to give what you really need. You can trust him to know what you need even before you ask. (p. viii.)
You no doubt hear echoes of the Sermon on the Mount [Q material] in that summary. Robinson adds several chapters of commentary fleshing out how the early community read Q and what portrait of Jesus Q conveyed. Some of the later chapter titles are "Jesus was a Galilean Jew," "Jesus was converted by John," and "Jesus' view of himself." On the whole, it is a more welcome view of the life and teachings of Jesus for a Latter-day Saint than than Ehrman's apocalyptic portrait. But the resulting ethic does seem to be "utopian," as Robinson termed it, hardly the way someone could live today. Who in the 21st century, after all, would possibly consider leaving property and possessions behind, taking noting but a cloak and sandles in a satchel (or a suit and shoes in a suitcase), and wander around preaching this gospel of Jesus Christ to those who would listen? Unpaid? For a couple of years? Utopian indeed.