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Burton L. Mack (born 1931) is an American author and scholar of early Christian history and the New Testament. He is John Wesley Professor emeritus in early Christianity at the Claremont School of Theology in Claremont, California.[1] Mack is primarily a scholar of Christian origins, approaching it from the angle of social group formation. Mack's approach is skeptical, and he sees traditional Christian documents like the Gospels as myth as opposed to history. He sees the gospels more as charter documents of the early Christian movements, not as reliable accounts of the life of Jesus.

In the field of religious studies more generally, Mack is known for popularizing the term "Social Formation," originally coming from the work of Louis Althusser, as a descriptive category for religion. This stems from his development of a theory of religion as "social interests." Along with his close friend Jonathan Z. Smith, Mack is active in the Redescribing Christian Origins Group of the Society of Biblical Literature.[1]


Though he does not regard himself as a Historical Jesus scholar, he suggests that Jesus was a wandering sage, similar in style to the Greco-Roman Cynics, and that the earliest "Jesus Movements" followed a similar model. He is a noted scholar of the hypothetical Q Document, and is confident that it can be sifted into three layers: one containing primarily wisdom sayings, another giving details on how the community ought to behave, and another containing apocalyptic pronouncements.

The Lost GospelEdit

The Lost Gospel develops the hypothesis of the "Q" source for the common material of Luke and Matthew not found in Mark. Mack develops the thesis that this was the earliest writing about Jesus, developed over decades by a community which he describes with unwavering confidence. Following John S. Kloppenborg, he believes that there are three major layers to it, each of which coincides with a stage in this community's life. The layers are significantly structured - the earliest material is spaced out and bracketed by later material, the later material showing awareness of the earlier sayings, but not vice versa.

The earliest layer, called Q1, is composed of sayings attributed to Jesus and addressing the audience directly. These are mostly instructions on how to behave. The main teachings are to live in poverty, to lend without expecting anything in return, to love your enemies, not to judge, and not to worry, since God will provide what you need. Mack posits that Q1 itself can be broken into two historical stages, the first being simple maxims containing the core of the teachings, and the later stage being developments by the community giving illustrations and arguments for these maxims. Mack suggests that at this time Jesus was seen simply as a teacher by the community which produced the text, with many similarities to a sage in the Cynic tradition.

The next major development, Q2, comprises the major portion of the Q document as reconstructed by Mack. In this layer the figure of John is introduced (he is not called a baptist in the Q document), as is the eschatological theme of judgement at the end of time, and also opposition to outsiders: the Pharisees and scribes are criticised. Mack sees in this layer an increased anxiety on the part of the community, a need to define itself against others, and also intimation that the community itself was causing tension: there is reference to father turning against son, brother turning against brother etc.

The final layer, Q3, is very scant and thought by Mack to have been written after the Roman-Jewish war from 66-73AD. Passages added at this time include the temptations of Jesus, and a lament for Jerusalem. The remainder consists of stern warnings and threats to keep the law, the first reference to Gehenna (hell fire) occurs at this stage. The severity of the language and the paucity of material compared with the earlier stages is thought to reflect the losses suffered by the community during the war.


Mack's hypothesis presenting Jesus and the earliest Christians within the frame of Greco-Roman cynicism is controversial. While most scholars have recognised finding Jesus within the context of first century Judaism, Mack and other proponents go against the majority and argue that Jesus be understood in a Hellenistic context. According to Craig A. Evans "The Cynic hypothesis will in time assuredly be consigned to the dustbin of ill-conceived hypotheses, but it will be useful nonetheless to appeal to it as our point of departure."[2]

Mack follows the lead of Kloppenborg in reconstructing Q in layers, focusing on Q communities. This sort of reconstruction has been criticised by a number of scholars such as Maurice Casey. On Jesus as a Cynic, Casey states that "When all the evidence is taken into account, supposed parallels of this kind show that Jesus was quite different from a Cynic philosopher, not that he was like one."[3]

Selected worksEdit


  • Mack, Burton L. (1986). Wisdom and the Hebrew Epic: Ben Sira's Hymn in Praise of the Fathers. Chicago Studies in the History of Judaism. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226500492. OCLC 12103912.
  • ——— (1988). A Myth of Innocence: Mark and Christian Origins. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press. ISBN 9780800621131. OCLC 16683374.
  • ——— (1989). Patterns of Persuasion in the Gospels. Foundations & facets - Literary facets. Sonoma, CA: Polebridge Press. ISBN 978-0-944344-08-8.
  • ——— (1990). Rhetoric and the New Testament. Guides to Biblical Scholarship - New Testament series. Minneapolis, MI: Fortress Press. ISBN 9780800623951. OCLC 19970940.
  • ——— (1993). Lost Gospel: The Book of Q & Christian Origins (1st ed.). San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco. ISBN 978-0-06-065374-3. OCLC 26262429.
  • ——— (1996). Who Wrote the New Testament?: The Making of the Christian Myth. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco. ISBN 0-06-065518-6. OCLC 32396578. - The gospels as narratives created by various communities.[4]
  • ——— (2001). The Christian Myth: Origins, Logic, and Legacy. New York, NY: Continuum. ISBN 978-0-8264-1355-0.
  • ——— (2017). The Rise and Fall of the Christian Myth: Restoring our Democratic Ideals. New Haven & London: Yale University Press. ISBN 9780300222890. OCLC 953985622.

Edited byEdit



  1. ^ a b Mack, Burton L., The Christian Myth: Origins, Logic, and Legacy, back cover. (Continuum:2001) ISBN 0-8264-1355-2
  2. ^ Craig A. Evans, "The Misplaced Jesus: Interpreting Jesus in a Judaic Context" in The Missing Jesus: Rabbinic Judaism and the New Testament by Bruce Chilton, Craig A. Evans and Jacob Neusner.
  3. ^ Maurice Casey, An Aramaic Approach to Q. 2002.
  4. ^ "Who Wrote the New Testament?: The Making of the Christian Myth". Retrieved November 22, 2018.

External linksEdit