Burton L. Mack

Now retired from the Claremont School of Theology, in California, Burton Mack carried out his doctoral studies in Germany and has played a leading role in helping the modern field of New Testament studies reinvent itself as the histroically-grounded field of Christian origins. The texts of the earliest Christians are therefore of relevance to Mack neither for the meaning they convey nor for their accuracy in depicting the origins of the movement, but because they are understood as artifacts (or better put, subsequent copies of long lost originals) from a series of particular historical worlds out of which a social movement began and grew. Although many contemporary scholars of religion studying the New Testament continue to do so in a traditional manner (engaging in hermeneutic studies), Mack helped to pave the way for current studies which examine the texts as evidence of self-perceived marginal groups contesting social boundaries and experimenting with alternative ways of building social identity in the turn-of-the-era Greco-Roman world. As such, the texts are understood by Mack as myths--not in the sense of lies or innocently fanciful tales but in the sense of narratives that reflect and advance specific ways of representing the world and, along with it, ones place in it. For example, his study of the Gospel of Mark concludes that one would be mistaken to read it as a historical narrative that can be judged accurate or not; instead, the text comprises a myth of origins conducive to the interests and needs of the writer and his community. Mack's work therefore also closely examines non-canonical texts (texts from the same era as those subsequently included in the Bible but which early Christian leaders excluded from their authoritative collections, or canon [from the Latin for rule or measuring line]) as well as the "Q" document. Such non-canonical resources are useful for those attempting to gain information on the earliest forms of the social movement rather than simply reading authoritative texts which portray the origins of the movement as later generations understood it to have taken place.

Major Works

Wisdom and the Hebrew Epic: Ben Sira's Hymn in Praise of the Fathers (1985)

A Myth of Innocence: Mark and Christian Origins (1988)

Patterns of Persuasion in the Gospels (1989, co-written with Vernon Robbins)

The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q & Christian Origins (1993)

Who Wrote the New Testament?: The Making of the Christian Myth (1995)

The Christian Myth: Origins, Logic, and Legacy (2001)


"Once upon a time, before there were gospels of the kind familiar to readers of the New Testament, the first followers of Jesus wrote another kind of book. Instead of telling a dramatic story about Jesus' life, their book contained only his teachings. They lived with these teachings ringing in their ears and thought of Jesus as the founder of their movement. But their focus was not on the person of Jesus or his life and destiny. They were engrossed with the social program that was called for by his teachings. Thus their book was not a gospel of the Christian kind, namely a narrative of the life of Jesus as the Christ. Rather it was a gospel of Jesus' sayings, a 'sayings gospel.' His first followers arranged these sayings in a way that offered instruction for living creatively in the midst of a most confusing time, and their book served them well as a handbook and guide for most of the first Christian century. The the book was lost ... to history somewhere in the course of the late first century when stories of Jesus' life began to be written and became the more popular form of charter document for early Christian circles."

- from Burton Mack, The Lost Gospel (1983)

Select Web Resources on Christian Origins

There are many web sites devoted to this topic, the vast majority of which have been created by either theologically liberal or conservative groups, of one sort or another. Below is therefore a small collection of academic introductions to the topic.

The Jesus Seminar

Historical Jesus Theories

The New Testament Gateway

"The Search for a No-Frills Jesus," By Charlotte Allen (Atlantic Monthly, December 1996)

"From Jesus to Christ," a series from "Frontline," a series on the U.S.'s Public Broadcasting System

Secondary Literature on Christian Origins

"Ancient Myths and Modern Theories of Christian Origins: A Discussion," Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 8/3 (1996): 229-289.

Elizabeth A. Castelli and Hal Taussig (eds.), Reimagining Christian Origins : A Colloquium Honoring Burton L. Mack. Trinity Press International, 1996.

Ron Cameron and Merrill P. Miller (eds.), Redescribing Christian Origins. Brill, 2004.

< Back to Functions of Religion

< Back to Biographies