Not all documents made to look like history actually record historical events. If many of the events in the Gospels are not historical, then how do Christians negotiate their believability today?
See Also: How the Gospels Became History (Yale UP, 2019).
M. David Litwa
Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry
Faculty of Theology and Philosophy
Australian Catholic University
What if the New Testament gospels, which look like history, are not actually historical? This question cuts to the heart of Christianity because so much of Christian faith seems to hinge on the historicity of past events. If Jesus did not exist or did not do the things said about him in the Gospels, then what do we make of all other Christian claims? Christian theology has a commitment to the flesh and blood of Jesus—flesh and blood that is eaten, literally or metaphorically, every week in Eucharistic services. Doesn’t that commitment to flesh and blood work itself out in a commitment to historicity—to affirming, that is, every concrete event in Jesus’ life as recorded in the Gospels?
My recent work, How the Gospels Became History (Yale UP, 2019), queries this whole line of thought by showing that there were good reasons in antiquity why a document that does not record history would be made to look historical. In the book, I show how ancient historians contemporary with the gospel writers (or evangelists) made their fantastical cultural lore—that is, their myths—look like history. “History” is meant as a record of events thought to have happened in the past. There was great motivation in antiquity to portray myths in the form of history because portraying stories in this way heightened their truth value. Ancient historians wanted their culturally important stories to participate in the discourse of reality so they would be believable to educated audiences.
Not all stories rose to the level of cultural importance by which they gained a claim on belief. But the stories now called “Greek and Roman mythology” were in their heyday the most important cultural lore of Western civilization. Since these stories were so foundational for identity, Greek and Roman historians understandably wished them to be believed. And so they transformed them, using historiographical tropes to make them take on the form of history.
Take the example of Theseus and the Minotaur. Theseus was one of the great cultural heroes of Athens, a city that was once the epicenter of Western democracy, theater, and philosophy. A story was widely told by the ancients that Theseus fought a man with a bull’s head in a giant maze called the Labyrinth. But such a story, at least by the first century CE, could not be believed by the educated classes.
Accordingly, a contemporary of the evangelists—a popular biographer by the name of Plutarch—retooled the tale by using the tropes of historiography. In his Life of Theseus, Plutarch said that the Labyrinth was actually a giant prison with a confusing network of dark and winding corridors. In this prison, Minos, king of Crete, shut up Theseus, who was attempting to save the lives of Athenian youths. Remarkably, Theseus escaped from his chains and fought one-on-one with Minos’ chief general “Taurus” (the Latin word for bull). And so there arose, says Plutarch, the spiced-up tale that Theseus defeated the Minotaur (the “bull” of Minos) in a giant maze.
But what does all this have to do with the Christian gospels? Like Greek mythology, the Gospels contained the most important cultural lore for Christians. They also contained some fantastical stories that the Greeks were wont to call mythoi (“myths”)—Jesus walking on water, for instance, or walking out of a grave. What better way to make these stories believable than to present them in historiographical form? Without totally ridding the stories of their fantastical elements, the evangelists added historiographical tropes to boost the believability of their tales.
These historiographical tropes include:
- objectification (describing individually experienced phenomena like Jesus’ post-mortem appearances as if they were fully knowable and observable by others)
- synchrony (noting well-known persons or occurrences like the supposed census under “Caesar Augustus”)
- syntopy (mentioning known places like towns on the Sea of Galilee)
- matter-of-fact presentation (which often frames the description of fantastical events)
- vivid presentation (such as the addition of circumstantial details like the sun darkening at noon)
- the rhetoric of accuracy which includes the introduction of literary eyewitnesses (such as the so-called Beloved Disciple) and staged skepticism among the eyewitnesses (who, for instance, doubted the resurrection)
- alternative reports (like the disciples stealing Jesus’ corpse)
- stated links of causation (the stolen corpse story going back to the lie of bribed guards)
- literary traces of past events (such as tomb tokens)
Admittedly, each of the individual evangelists did not use all these tropes, and they did not use them all consistently. When they did use them, however, they used them skillfully and often enough to make their works seem—even today—like historiography.
In the book, I examine these tropes in the stories of Jesus’ incarnation (chapter 3), his genealogy (chapter 4), his divine conception (chapter 5), the dream visions surrounding his birth (chapter 6), the magi and the star of Bethlehem (chapter 7), Jesus’ escape from Bethlehem (chapter 8), the accounts of Jesus as a righteous lawgiver (chapter 9), the tales of Jesus’ miracles (chapter 10), his tragic death (chapter 11), the stories of his empty tomb (chapter 12), his post-mortem disappearances and revelations (chapter 13), his ascent to heaven (chapter 14), and the reputed eyewitnesses of his glory (chapter 15).
This whole discussion raises the burning issue of whether Jesus actually existed, and I take head-on the most qualified representatives of Jesus Myth Theory (chapter 1). Some Jesus Myth theorists, making widespread assumptions about the relation between historicity and truth, try to undermine Jesus’ historicity to disempower Christian truth. My criticism targets their sometimes naïve theory of comparison. Some Jesus Myth theorists, I point out, compile the shards of all sorts of mythological tales from all ages and sources, thinking to find precedents for stories in the lives of Jesus. If they can find such precedents, then they consider the parallels in the lives of Jesus to be historically false.
This attempt to find genetic connections between (mostly) Greco-Roman myths and the Gospels manifests itself in another scholarly movement called Mimesis criticism. According to Mimesis critics, gospel stories are creatively adapted from stories in famous epics (like Homer’s Iliad and Vergil’s Aeneid) or plays (such as Euripides’ Bacchae). Although I do not wish to deny the influence and widespread knowledge of these great works of literature, to think that the evangelists were exclusively dependent on them for their stories is extreme and misconstrues the dynamic way that the evangelists imbibed Greek and Roman lore (the mass media of the ancient world). Some Mimesis critics also give the wrong impression that the evangelists attempted to write fables as opposed to history. But what may not be historical to us was certainly portrayed as historical to them.
This is the key issue that relates more directly to Christian faith and to the broader question of how we know what we know. Not all documents made to look like history actually record historical events. If many of the events in the Gospels are not historical, then how do Christians negotiate their believability today? Why was history in the past held up as the gauge of truth, and why does it still often play this role in Western culture? Why, for instance, are we more compelled by movies or stories that are publicized as “Based on True Events”? Why, given what we know about the fallibility of human memory, is the story of “what actually happened” any more important than the story of what we collectively imagine to have happened? Why are the stories in the Gospels any more compelling than the sacred—but clearly non-historical—stories of other religious traditions? And why do Westerners in general—not just Christians—still pride themselves on their “history” when what they’re actually talking about is the collective but selective memory of their prized cultural myths?
My book challenges the reader to accept the idea that what they mean by (religious) truth is not, in fact, based on historical knowledge. Therefore, to claim “history” as the basis for faith ends up rationalizing faith and, in some cases, distorting history by making texts and monuments say what religious believers need them to say. Religion often provides motives for historical research, but in the end, it cannot make documents (such as the Gospels) produce historical knowledge when these documents were never designed to do so. Representatives of religion cannot then make the additional claim that their faith is historical (or based on history) simply because its documents are made to look that way.
Thanks for your comment. The…
Thanks for your comment. The Life of Theseus is one of many texts I discuss in the book. Greco-Roman writers could of course also use the same historicizing techniques for recent figures like Apollonius of Tyana (Philostratus) or the Caesars (Suetonius). What is important to note is the rhetorical techniques of historicizing, which can apply to ancient and not-so-ancient people.
Just a minor quibble: any…
Just a minor quibble: any historicising technique will depend on one’s knowledge of the setting. The further back in time the story is set, the less knowledge an author will have of the period in question. And the less the author knows, the fewer authentic background details he will be able to include in his story. So I wouldn’t want to lump together a character like Theseus and someone like Augustus. But thanks for the clarification.
According to David Litwa, the Gospel writers were trying to make mythology look like history. Furthermore, this was supposedly common practice at the time. This raises an important question. The Gospels were written quite soon after the time which they depict. Was it common practice to set mythology in the recent past? That certainly wouldn't apply to Plutarch's Life of Theseus. The story of Theseus belongs to the distant, not the recent past of Plutarch. If one is seeking an analogy for the Gospels, the Life of Theseus is a very odd choice.