How Probable is it that Many of the Stories in the Gospels are Fiction?

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Do ancient historiographers sometimes say things they know to be factually untrue?

Emphatically, yes.

The accusation of deliberate fabrication is made repeatedly. Herodotus is dubbed the father, not only of history, but of lies; Polybius castigates historians not only for incompetence, but falsehood; Lucian tells of historians who claimed to be eye-witnesses of things they could not possibly have seen; invention and manipulation of factual material is (I believe) demonstrable in Herodotus and Plutarch, as well as Hellenistic tragic historians. The motives vary: some, of course, crudely political — propaganda, flattery, denigration; literary rivalry (to trump one’s predecessors, of which we have seen examples even in Thucydides); the desire to spin a good yarn (often important in Herodotus and other historians of the exotic); sometimes (surely) historiographical parody; sheer emotional arousal or entertainment; the need to make moral points or bring out broader patterns or causes behind complicated sequences of events. Why then do Herodotus and Plutarch behave in this way? Serious ancient historians (which both Herodotus and Plutarch intermittently are) face the problem of the eternal see-saw of history: the need to generalize from specifics. No serious ancient historian was so tied to specific factual truth that he would not sometimes help general truths along by manipulating, even inventing, ‘facts’. Of course, the requisite manipulation could sometimes be achieved through the medium of ‘what-is-said’ material, to whose historicity the ancient historian did not commit himself.

– J.L. Moles, “Truth and Untruth in Herodotus and Thucydides” in “Lies and fiction in the Ancient World” edited by Christopher Gill and Timothy Peter Wiseman, University of Exeter Press, 1993. — pages 90, 115, 120

 

Gary:

I find it curious that moderate Christians snicker at fundamentalist Christians when those “silly, poorly-informed (ignorant) literalists” insist that the Creation occurred in six literal days and that Jonah really was swallowed alive by a great fish, but these same moderates are shocked and appalled when skeptics snicker at them for their insistence that Jesus’ brain-dead corpse really did come back to life, ate a broiled fish lunch with his former fishing buddies, allowed a guy named Thomas to poke his fingers in his nail wounds, and then, forty days later, flew off into outer space!

The fact is, the majority of scholars do not believe that eyewitnesses nor the associates of eyewitnesses wrote the Gospels. Even NT Wright has stated, “I don’t know who wrote the Gospels nor does anyone else”. If we don’t know who wrote these books, and we don’t have any contemporaneous record of these events, how on earth can we know which parts of their stories are historical and which parts are simply theological or literary embellishments??? How on earth can we know which parts should be understood literally and which parts should not? If today, someone told you that they just read four anonymous books which state that a guy living 40 years ago in the Middle East rose from the dead would you believe it?

Of course not.

Maybe “Matthew” and “Luke” invented their two (very different) stories about a birth in Bethlehem for theological purposes (never intending to write an historically accurate biography).  So why couldn’t the virgin birth story also be an invention?And while we are at it, why couldn’t the Joseph of Armathea Tomb story be fictional? The Women at the Tomb story? The Appearance in the Upper Room story? The Appearance on the Shores of Lake Tiberius story? The Ascension story?

My point: Isn’t it entirely possible that the only historical truths in the gospels are that Jesus lived in the early first century; his paternity was questioned; he became known as a religious teacher, a healer, and an exorcist; he preached an apocalyptic message that the End was very near; he irritated the Jewish authorities; they asked the Romans to crucify him; they did; and shortly after his death, some of his followers believed he had appeared to them?

Isn’t it possible that the entire Resurrection belief, the foundation of Christianity, began solely due to Jesus’ bereaved loved ones and friends claiming to have experienced “appearances” of their dead loved one…experiences that tens of thousands of other grieving family and friends have claimed to have experienced down through the millennia?

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39 thoughts on “How Probable is it that Many of the Stories in the Gospels are Fiction?

  1. Gullibility: Tendency to believe too readily and therefore to be easily deceived

    From Wikipedia: Gullibility … is closely related to credulity, which is the tendency to believe unlikely propositions that are unsupported by evidence.

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  2. NT Wright’s assessment of what Christians meant by “resurrection” renders your reconstruction of what happened impossible and illogical.

    If you’re using your phrase about 10’s of thousands of people claiming resurrection appearances like Paul, Matthew, Luke and John did (and Peter, the writer of Hebrews and the rest of the NT), then you’re saying that 10’s of thousands of people over the centuries have claimed that their deceased loved ones have been resurrected bodily, never to die again.

    I’m not aware of these 10’s of thousands of claims. In fact, to be consistent that is what you must be claiming – and that’s a fabrication.
    If you’re saying 10’s of thousands of people have said they had post-death visions of loved ones that confirmed the death of said loved ones, well, that’s not what the NT writers claimed, and it exposes your ignorance of Christian beliefs Gary.
    So you’re fabricating or misinformed. Which is it?

    About the point you’re trying to make about ancient historians – even if they have any merit regarding the NT, you’re still left with the fact of the bodily resurrection of Christ, since no one disbelieves the Persian War because of the difficulties of Herodotus, and we have ample testimony for the Resurrection considering Mark, John, Paul and other writers.
    So if you disbelieve the NT because of these supposed difficulties, but still believe that the Persian War happened, you’re again special pleading.
    I contend that the difficulties you think insurmountable a) don’t exist to begin with and b) if they did, you still have enough good historical material to establish the fact if Jesus’ physical bodily resurrection.

    See here: http://www.joydigitalmag.com/have-your-say-post/trustworthy-new-testament-compared-ancient-historians/

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    1. Your comment is riddled with assumptions, Liam.

      “NT Wright’s assessment of what Christians meant by “resurrection” renders your reconstruction of what happened impossible and illogical.”

      NT Wright, and the majority of NT scholars, believes that the early Christians believed that Jesus was bodily resurrected. I accept that position as historical fact. The question remains, however, WHY did they believe that Jesus was bodily resurrected? If you can find a statement by NT Wright in which he states that he believes the Appearance to the Eleven in the Upper Room story is an historical fact (or any of the other appearance stories in the Gospels), please share.

      “If you’re using your phrase about 10’s of thousands of people claiming resurrection appearances like Paul, Matthew, Luke and John did (and Peter, the writer of Hebrews and the rest of the NT), then you’re saying that 10’s of thousands of people over the centuries have claimed that their deceased loved ones have been resurrected bodily, never to die again.”

      Since the majority of NT scholars do not believe that eyewitnesses nor the associates of eyewitnesses wrote the Gospels, you cannot make the claim that “Matthew, Luke, and John” had resurrection appearances as described in the Gospels as if it is accepted fact. For all we know, the detailed appearance stories in the Gospels could be literary inventions. That doesn’t take away from the agreed upon historical fact that the early Christians believed Jesus had been bodily resurrected, we just don’t know for sure why they believed this. It is possible that the original appearance claims were based on the same type of experiences that other grieving family and friends have experienced of their dead loved one. The four gospel authors simply embellished the original bare bones (no pun intended) appearance claims to make for better reading and for theological instruction.

      As for Paul, we have no idea what Paul saw since he never personally describes his “appearance experience” in any of his epistles. Since we do not know who wrote the Book of Acts, we cannot be sure that his story of Paul’s conversion on the Damascus Road is historical or another literary/theological invention. (And note: the author of Acts refers to Paul’s experience as “a vision”. Visions are not reality.)

      We have no proof that the anonymous authors of Hebrews and the Gospel of Peter claimed to have seen a glowing/walking/talking/fish-eating corpse.

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    2. Testimony is not empirical evidence. Nor are personal revelations, visions or apparitions. Nor is scholarly concensus.

      Theologians maintain that Jesus, the Son of God — the most important being to have ever walked the planet — visited upon us. Yet strangely, we have no physical artifacts of his earthly presence: no sketches or protraits, no personal journals or sermon transcripts, no birth records, no arrest records, nor trial transcripts, no execution decree, no death certificate, no contemporaneous accounts of the miracles or events accompanying Jesus’ death . . . NADA.

      To insist that the supernatural accounts of Jesus be accepted at face value given this paucity of evidence for his historical existence is peposterous.

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    3. Indeed! You’d expect an all-powerful, all-knowing being to predict and furnish sufficient evidence to convince even the most hardened 21st century skeptic of its own existence; but for some reason, the apologist attempts to gloss over this theological anomaly. They want you to try out their miracle-free Jesus for 30 days so they can pressure you into buying their “supernatural” Jesus later.

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    4. Jesus doesn’t want you to believe due to “signs and wonders”; Jesus wants you to believe by faith.

      Sorry, Jesus, I insist on evidence. I am not willing to believe your supernatural claims by “faith” (wishful thinking).

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  3. Powerful use of speculation and conjecture! We can’t trust historians so we’re free to make up our own history, huh?

    It’s possible that the first Jew sprouted from the ground. Subsequent generations made up the story of Abraham because they were embarrassed by their plant-based heritage. This is supported by the OT reference to a Godly man being “like a tree firmly planted”.

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    1. Which historians state that the detailed appearance stories in the Gospels are accepted historical fact. Please be specific.

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    2. What difference does it make? Historians can’t be trusted. Isn’t that what you said?

      Let’s just make up some stories to support what we want to believe. As I recall from previous conversations with you, the truth is relative anyway.

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    3. Where did I say that we should not trust historians?

      Which historians say that the detailed appearance stories in the Gospels are accepted historical fact? Answer: NONE! Please prove me wrong. No where in my post did I state that the appearance stories in the gospels ARE fiction. I am merely presenting evidence that in the genre in which the gospels were written, it was perfectly acceptable to “doctor” the facts.

      I am more than happy to engage you in a real discussion, John. I welcome opposing opinions. But don’t make up outright lies or your comments will be deleted.

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    4. “Do ancient historiographers sometimes say things they know to be factually untrue?
      Emphatically, yes.”

      Sorry. I thought you read your article…

      Why quote historians when I can just speculate alternative possibilities? My conjecture is just as good as yours.

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    5. Here was your original comment:

      “Powerful use of speculation and conjecture! We can’t trust historians so we’re free to make up our own history, huh?”

      The article does NOT say that we must distrust all historians. What it is saying is this: We must be careful in our evaluation of the claims made by ancient historians in their writings, as ancient historians had a very different standard for what should and should not be included in an alleged biography.

      -I am not accusing the gospel authors of being liars.
      -I am not claiming that the appearance stories in the gospels are fabrications.
      -What I am saying is that it would have been perfectly acceptable, within the literary genre in which the gospels were written, for certain details and even entire stories to have been literary inventions (fiction).

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    6. “Let’s just make up some stories to support what we want to believe.” You got in one! I’m surprised, I must say, that you’re now admitting this is how Christianity got off the ground.

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    7. Conservative evangelical Christian scholar Mike Licona believes that the story of dead saints being shaken out of their graves at the moment of Jesus death is a fictional story, told for theological purposes. In addition, conservative evangelical scholar Gary Habermas does not include the detailed appearances stories in the Gospels in his Minimum Facts Argument for the Resurrection, thereby indicating that these stories might be fictional. Richard Bauckham, another conservative evangelical Christian scholar believes that the author of Matthew (who he believes was NOT the apostle Matthew) invented the story about Matthew the tax collector’s calling by Jesus. Therefore you have three major conservative Christian Bible scholars admitting that fictional details either are or may be present in the Bible.

      I have read the books of all three of these scholars so I am not just repeating something I heard on the internet. Your argument that the consensus of experts rejects the claim that there could be fictional stories in the Gospels is proven false by your own conservative Christian scholars.

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    8. You will have to ask them.

      These three scholars are currently considered the preeminent New Testament scholars of conservative evangelical Christianity. All three of these scholars believe that at least one of the gospels was written by an eyewitness (the Gospel of John) although they disagree which “John” wrote that gospel. All three believe that John Mark, the traveling companion of Peter, wrote the Gospel of Mark, and they all three believe that Luke the physician and traveling companion of Paul wrote the Gospel of Luke. Therefore, my guess as to why they remain Christians is because they believe that the Gospels contain eyewitness testimony and they trust the accuracy of this alleged eyewitness testimony, although Licona admits that some of the minor details in the Gospels may be literary embellishments (such as the dead saints roaming the streets of Jerusalem story).

      However, the majority of NT scholars believe that the Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses nor the associates of eyewitnesses. Conservative Christians will claim that the majority of scholars are liberal and biased against the supernatural. I don’t buy that argument as the overwhelming majority of NT scholars refer to themselves as Christians. If you believe in God you believe in the supernatural. I find it interesting that conservative Christians will appeal to majority scholarly opinion on the question of “Did Jesus really exist” but will reject majority scholarly opinion on the authorship (and dating) of the Gospels.

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    9. I don’t need to “ask them”. We both know why they’re still Christians.

      Insignificant details may be “made up” or “embellished” in any historical document. That does not render the entire document a “work of fiction”.

      Jesus birth, crucifixion and resurrection are the key facts of the New Testament documents. The calling of Matthew and the names of the eye witnesses are of secondary importance.

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    10. John. Are you reading what I write or just spouting off to troll me?

      I HAVE NEVER SAID THAT THE ENTIRE DOCUMENT (the Gospels) IS A WORK OF FICTION.

      What I said is that some of the stories in the Gospels MAY be fictional. BIG DIFFERENCE! If I determine that you are intentionally twisting what I say to do nothing other than troll my blog I am going to automatically delete any comment coming from you.

      Liked by 1 person

    11. I asked you why you thought they were still Christians.

      Okay, you never said the entire document is a work of fiction. Fine.

      All you’re saying is that SOME parts of the document are fiction.

      What conclusion should I draw from this article that will prevent you from feeling trolled?

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    12. You may draw any conclusion you like, just do not continue to twist my words. We now can agree: I believe that some parts of the Gospels may be fictional because such embellishments were acceptable in the genre of literature in which the gospels were written. Even evangelical scholars agree with me. The question is: WHICH stories are fictional? Answer: We don’t know.

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    13. “Isn’t it possible that the entire Resurrection belief, the foundation of Christianity, began solely due to Jesus’ bereaved loved ones and friends claiming to have experienced “appearances” of their dead loved one…experiences that tens of thousands of other grieving family and friends have claimed to have experienced down through the millennia?”

      The answer to this question remains, firmly, “No”. And I betcha if we asked your 3 favorite evangelical scholars they would agree.

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    14. I think it would depend upon whether you ask them if they think it is “possible” or if they think it is “probable”. I agree with you that they would say it is NOT probable, but if they are honest, they would admit it is possible…just extremely unlikely.

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    15. Also…you said this…
      “Isn’t it possible that the entire Resurrection belief, the foundation of Christianity, began solely due to Jesus’ bereaved loved ones and friends claiming to have experienced “appearances” of their dead loved one…experiences that tens of thousands of other grieving family and friends have claimed to have experienced down through the millennia?”

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    16. @ JB

      Perhaps it might make interaction with you easier if you were to tell us whether you think the virgin birth and the nativity as described in the bible to be fact or fiction, JB?

      And if you are up to it, explain your reasons why/why not?

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  4. This is a wordy way of saying we can’t trust historians.

    Most literary critics (even the atheists) agree that the New Testament writers were not composing “fiction”. Your claim about the “literary genre” allowing for fabrication of stories is not the consensus of scholarship.

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    1. Baloney.

      Mike Licona, a very conservative evangelical Christian New Testament scholar, has written a book about this very subject. His conclusion is this: the differences in the four Resurrection stories in the Gospels can be attributed to literary freedoms allowed in Greco-Roman biographies. “Literary freedoms” is short hand for “making things up” which is another way of saying “fiction”.

      I never said that the Gospels are entirely fictional. What I am saying is that it is possible some of the stories in the Gospels are fictional. Stop being dishonest, John.

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    2. I’m not being dishonest.
      Equating “literary freedom” with “fiction” is baloney.

      I heard you the first time. The vast majority of literary critics disagree with you. There is no possibility that the stories in the New Testament were written as fiction.

      Honest.

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    3. The story of the woman caught in adultery and brought to Jesus was not in the original gospel. It was added later by a scribe. Is this story an historical fact or is it fiction and how do you know for sure?

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    4. So myth is not fiction? Would you agree that some aspects of the NT Jesus are fictional, even if you believe he existed historically? And if so, how do you distinguish between mythological elements and historical elements?

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    5. Don’t many of the Jesus Seminar scholars believe that myth is a legitimate literary form used by the biblical authors?

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    6. Yes. That is correct.
      The resurrection, however, is not written as a myth. It is incorrect to summarize the Bible as “pure fiction” because certain parts use literary mythological forms.

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  5. @ JB

    Perhaps it might make interaction with you easier if you were to tell us whether you think the virgin birth and the nativity as described in the bible to be fact or fiction, JB?

    And if you are up to it, explain your reasons why/why not?

    Like

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