You sometimes hear that the gospels were never meant to be read as history. They’re more like parables of the spiritual life or myths and legends from antiquity. Or maybe just about ethics, but certainly not about the flesh and blood history of the real world. This was first proposed by the German scholar, David Friedrich Strauss in one of the most influential books of the 19th century. Strauss’ The life of Jesus, critically examined, published in 1835, argued that the Gospels need to be understood as myth.
By myth, he didn’t mean just untrue and nor did Strauss go along with the idea that the Apostles just made everything up in a deliberate attempt to deceive us. What he meant was that wherever the Gospel writers strain our rational minds, like in the miracle stories, they are employing the religious imagination to express the inexpressible longings of the human soul. The resurrection narratives, for instance, are not out and out lies and nor are they historical reports. They are poetical images, myths of the divine life that the early Christians reckon they found in Jesus.
David Strauss believed that the core ideas of Christianity as he saw them, namely peace and love, could still be preserved, even if the basic events of Jesus’ life were unhistorical.
In modern times, the popular American writer, Bishop John Shelby Spong goes along with this Straussian model for understanding the life of Jesus. But virtually no one in the Academy today buys any of this.
The more we’ve discovered of ancient texts, the clearer it is that the Gospels are nothing like ancient myth or legend. They are very much like historical biography of which we have about 30 or 40 other examples from the time. No one in the ancient world will have picked up a Gospel and thought that they were reading something like Homer’s The Iliad or The Odyssey or Virgil’s Aeneid.
No, the Gospels read like genuine accounts of a first century life. They might not be true accounts – that’s for each of us to work out – but they are definitely aiming to be historical records.
Let’s compare the opening lines of Homer’s Iliad, the greatest of the ancient world’s legends:
Achilles’ wrath, to Greece the direful spring
Of woes unnumber’d, heavenly goddess, sing!
That wrath which hurl’d to Pluto’s gloomy reign
The souls of might chiefs untimely slain;
Whose limbs unburied on the naked shore,
Devouring dogs and hungry vultures tore.
Since great Achilles and Atrides strove,
Such was the sovereign doom, and such the will of Jove!
Cool opener! But let’s compare it with the opening lines of Luke, Chapter 1:
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eye witnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
Think of all the history-sounding bits in that opening paragraph. Luke refers to prior sources. He says that this material was handed down from people who were eye witnesses. He says that he has investigated everything from the beginning. And we can place him in the 40s, so that’s pretty close to the beginning. He’s writing an orderly account and he wants his readership to know the “certainty” – the Greek word is ‘asphaleia‘ from which we get the word “asphalt”, the stuff that roads are made of. This is the sturdiness of the things in this Gospel.
Many scholars have pointed out that Luke’s opener is written in the very style of the introductions of other ancient historical works like Polybius Dionysius of Halicarnassus and the first century Jewish writer, Josephus. Just a few pages later, in Luke Chapter 3, Luke introduces the adult ministry of Jesus with a classic historical pinpoint. I love this passage. It might not sound very spiritually enlightening, but historically it’s exciting:
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
When the Gospels were written, there was no BC or AD. That dating system was invented 500 years later. So Luke dates the first year of Jesus’ ministry by referencing overlapping historical rulers from the time. And we can verify every one of these rulers from outside sources: Tiberius of course, Pontius Pilot, but also Herod, Phillip, Caiaphas, and even John’s son, Zechariah (that’s John the Baptist, who’s mentioned in a non-Christian writing from the same period).
This historical precision is nothing like The Iliad or the Odyssey. In other words, this stuff didn’t happen in the time of distant dreams, but in the known history of Judea and Galilee. This is not a story from the land of the Hobbits. It’s a biography from the Middle East: the land of Pilot, Herod, Caiaphas and of course, Jesus. There may be all sorts of decent reasons to resist picking up a Gospel and reading it for ourselves. But the idea that the Gospels are mere legend, isn’t one of them.
By John Dickson
5 Minute Jesus: The Gospels are not mere legend