Gospels: History or Folklore?

Many scholars believe the authorities behind the Gospels were those whose names they bear – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. This doesn’t mean they originated every word themselves:

  • They shared sources – the testimony of people closes to Jesus’ life and ministry
  • They used other writings – Luke admits many accounts had already been written by the time he penned his and they often include verbatim accounts shared by other gospels

It also does not mean they physically wrote every word themselves:

  • They might have dictated to a scribe
  • They may have led the compilation of their Gospel by a small group of writers
  • A disciple of theirs may have transcribed the Gospel to record his teacher’s account
  • The name on the Gospel could even mean simply that these men authorized it in advance or approved it after the fact, regardless of who wrote it

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The evidence shows these men were intimately involved in the process of putting their experience of Jesus on paper ( Who Wrote the Gospels? ). Reason alone makes this probable – Jesus had eleven faithful disciples and a hundred followers by Pentecost, and each had their own disciples. The movement grew rapidly – it’s hard to imagine no one thought to start taking notes. They knew how earth shattering the movement was: it cost Jesus’ life and they feared it would take theirs. (They hid in a locked room after his death – Stephen was killed not long after – and ten of eleven faithful disciples would in fact die for their faith as martyrs.)

One question deserves closer attention before looking at individual gospels: did the authors (whoever they were) intend to write history as opposed to folklore? Did they intend to accurately depict the words and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth?

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Genre is the aspect of literature that best teaches the intent of the author. We immediately recognize “Once upon a time” as folklore while we recognize “This is a record of the life of John F. Kennedy” as a biography. We know automatically one is fanciful and the other claims to be factual. There are compelling reasons to recognize the Gospels as part of the historical biography genre, not the genre of folklore.

  • The Gospels were considered biographies for the first 1,800 years of faith
  • This includes those closest to their writing and most familiar with the genre; ancients in the Roman Empire saw the Gospels in the Hellenistic biographical tradition.
    • Justin Martyr (2nd century) calls them “memoirs” that “recorded” the things Jesus actually said and did.
    • Augustine of Hippo calls them “trustworthy testimonies,” the “remembrance” of the disciples recording the “words heard from his lips, and the deeds.”
  • The claim that Gospels are folklore is based on cultural misunderstanding; proponents like Rudolf Bultmann argued “that is why they have nothing to say about Jesus’ human personality, his appearance and character, his origin, education, and development.” While modern biographies might give these elements treatment ancient ones did not. Ancient biographies focused on the birth, public life and death – just like the Gospels.
  • Two Gospels explicitly claim to be historical
    • Luke 1:1-4 mirrors ancient prologues; the word “narrative” (Gr diegesis) was used by Greco-Roman writers for history; Luke claims eyewitnesses can corroborate and he states his purpose was so people could know “verified facts” (Gr asphaleian)
    • John 21:20-24 says his Gospel was based on eyewitnesses, including himself, and that the account is a “testimony” (Gr martyria) recording what Jesus “did” (Gr epoiesen)
    • Other ancient biographers wrote similarly, such as Lucian and Josephus who stress the historical biographer’s obligation and intent to write factually
  • The closest literary parallels to the Gospels are Greco-Roman biographies (Gr. bioi)
    • They average 10k-20k words in length – longer than ancient letters and folklore, shorter than ancient histories. All four Gospels fall in this range
    • They often begin with genealogies, as two of the Gospels do
    • They are often not chronological: Suetonius’ biography of Caesar Augustus was “not in chronological order, but by categories” and Papias says Mark “wrote down accurately everything he remembered, though not in order.” According to Brant Pitre: “ancient biographers were not as worried about exactitude as are modern biographers… arranging a biography thematically rather than chronologically doesn’t magically transform it into folklore or fiction.”
    • Ancient biographies are not an exhaustive record. Plutarch said, “I do not tell of all the famous actions of these men, nor even speak exhaustively at all in each particular case… for it is not Histories I am writing, but Lives.” An incomplete biography is not an unhistorical biography, and Gospel writers like John freely admit they chose only a small selection of the actual words and deeds of Jesus (John 21:25).

We’ll look at each of the Gospels independently for evidence that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were intricately involved in writing them – but for now, it’s safe to say the Gospels don’t look a thing like folklore, were never treated as folklore by early readers (Christians or their opponents), and they make a claim to tell the truth. These biographies are reliable history, as historians and archaeologists have discovered often enough. They are not “telephone game” legends that grew over time, they are the real impressions of real people about what really happened.

For further reading: “The Case for Jesus” by Brant Pitre

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