5568303244_70fe46dedf

Are the Gospels Historical Fiction?

Some scholars today argue that the stories recorded in the Gospels are actually intentional fabrication. In essence, they argue that Mark took Paul’s theology and robed the story of Jesus in a fictitious historical narrative. The other Gospels followed suit. The argument is clever and removes the difficulty of explaining how a legend of a God-man could arise so quickly among first-century Jews.

But there are 7 major problems with this contention:

  1. The Gospels don’t read like a fictional genre of literature. To the contrary, they give us many indications that they genuinely intended to report reliable history. In addition, they pass all the standard tests scholars usually apply to ancient documents to ascertain a general historical reliability.
  2. We must ask why the authors of the Gospels would want to create a new, fictionalized Jesus story. What was their motivation? By the time that these authors were writing the Gospels, Christians were being tortured and put to death for their faith. So what could these authors have thought they or their readers would gain by fabricating and embracing this fictional story?
  3. We have to wonder why any early Christian would have accepted them as true.
  4. How did the authors of the Gospels think they could get away with creating a fiction situated in the recent past and in such close geographical proximity to their audiences? We must remember that Jewish religious authorities had a vested interest in putting an end to this movement, which they considered to be a dangerous sect. If the story these authors were telling was false, it seems it would have been relatively easy to expose it as such.
  5. To accept the version of the early church history offered by these scholars, we must also accept that the version of the church history given in the book of Acts is largely false. For many reasons that cannot be addressed here, the book of Acts is a remarkably reliable piece of ancient historiography.
  6. An understanding of the Gospels as fictitious completely ignores the role that writing plays in orally-dominant cultures. Writing was not the primary means of communication among people in the first century. Rather, information was passed along primarily by word of mouth. Writing plays a very different role in these cultures than in “literary cultures.” In literary cultures, novelty and innovation in literature is valued. In orally-dominant cultures, it is generally frowned upon. The primary purpose of writing, rather, is faithfully to re-express an established oral tradition.
  7. Research has demonstrated that in orally-dominant contexts people tend to be quite resistant to change in terms of the essential components. Oral performers—those who regularly recite oral traditions for their communities—are allowed a certain amount of flexibility in how they recite traditional material. But if the oral performer alters anything of substance in the tradition, members of the community customarily interrupt and correct him or her. Hence, the suggestion that a fictional writing from an anonymous author could have overturned established oral traditions about Jesus in the early church must be judged as massively improbable. This is simply not how orally-dominant cultures tend to operate.

—Adapted from Lord or Legend? pages 42-45

Image by Walters Art Museum Illuminated Manuscripts via Flickr

Related Reading

Participating in God’s Love

Greg took a slight detour from his reflections on free will in this video in order to talk about Jesus’ prayer in John 17. He discusses the idea that God desires the kind of unity among his children that the triune God enjoys. “He wants our love to participate in the triune God.” In order to…

Reflecting on the Lord’s Prayer

Jesus begins the instruction on prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) by telling his disciples to pray for the Father’s name to be “hallowed,” for his kingdom to come, and for his will to be established on earth as it is in heaven. He is, in effect, telling them to pray for the fulfillment of everything his ministry,…

How Details in the Gospels Support Their Historicity

*This essay is adapted from G. Boyd & P. Eddy, Lord or Legend? (Baker, 2007). For a fuller discussion, see P. Eddy & G. Boyd, The Jesus Legend (Baker, 2007). There are a number of questions historians ask when they are trying to assess the historical value of an ancient document that claims to report…

Christmas Greeting from Greg

Blessings and God’s peace to all of you from all of us at ReKnew.

Part 2: Disarming Flood’s Case Against Biblical Infallibility

Image by humancarbine via Flickr In this second part of my review of Disarming Scripture I will begin to address its strengths and weakness. [Click here for Part 1] There is a great deal in Disarming Scripture that I appreciate. Perhaps the most significant thing is that Flood fully grasps, and effectively communicates, the truth that…

Is the open view the only view that is compatible with the Incarnation?

Question: You have said that the Open view of God is the only view that squares with the Incarnation and the only view that truly exalts God’s greatness. On what basis do you say this? Answer: The revelation of God in the Incarnation is the ultimate expression of God’s willingness and ability to change that…