by Jonathan Sherwin
The Bible is an extraordinary book. As well as being the most-read, and the best-selling book in the English language – and in nearly every English-speaking hotel bedside table – it stands up exceptionally well to various tests put before it. In part 2 of this series we took a look at the evidence for the reliability of the transmission of the original texts. That test shows that we can be pretty sure that what we read in our Bibles today is what was originally composed by the authors of the texts.
In this article we’re going to pay closer attention to what is actually in these biblical writings, and to the style in which they were written. To affirm the question of the history of the transmission of the Bible is crucial if we are to trust the documents in front of us, however it is quite another thing to trust that the authors were writing a) accurately and b) truthfully.
We might today be confident that we know what was written, but can we have any confidence that was written is a faithful and true account? To answer this, let’s ask some questions of the text, questions – as with the Bibliographic Test – than can be asked of any work in history.
And let us here for the sake of brevity focus on the gospels, the testimonies to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. After all – if we get Jesus wrong then Christianity falls apart completely. So, here are three questions we can pose when internally examining the New Testament.
1. Were the authors of the New Testament gospels trying to write history?
Christians would claim that the gospels of Jesus Christ – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – are historic, in that they record faithfully the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. But how do we know that the authors were aiming to write historical accounts? Perhaps they were writing stories, allegories, or myths. Not that they were fabricating truth, but that they never intended their writings to be read as history, but merely as story.
Yet when we look at the gospels we immediately see the authors writing in a biographical fashion. That is, the style in which they write is in line with the normal historical writing conventions of their day. The gospels read as other historical accounts from the time do.
David Aune, a professor from Notre Dame University, remarks:
[Ancient biography] was firmly rooted in historical fact rather than literary fiction. Thus while the Evangelists clearly had an important theological agenda, the very fact that they chose to adapt Greco-Roman biographical conventions to tell the story of Jesus indicated that they were centrally concerned to communicate what they really thought happened.
What do we man by these biographical conventions? Well, for a start, the authors go to the trouble of naming people, places, distances between places, and regional variables on all manner of things like the botany in the area. This was not the style for fictional writers of the time. Fiction didn’t care about facts, places etc. – it wasn’t written to convince you of an alternate but plausible reality.
When I was a teenager I started reading Tom Clancy novels. Having a submariner for a father, I started with The Hunt for Red October and moved through the Jack Ryan series from there. These books captured me. The political intrigue and preludes to war were thrilling, but it was the battle scenes that grabbed me. There would be hundreds of pages dedicated to the battles. Detail after detail of the planes, the ships, and the people, drew me in. The blow-by-blow realism of the text brought me into Clancy’s created world. It made it real to me. Clancy was creating a universe parallel to our own and sucked his readers into it. We knew it was fiction but we loved it because we believed that it could be real.
But this form of writing is relatively new. For most of history, fiction didn’t come to us this way.
C. S. Lewis – whose day job was teaching Mediaeval and Renaissance Literature –knew a thing or two about fictional writing and said this on the matter:
I have been reading poems, romances, vision literature, legends and myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know none of them are like this. Of this [gospel] text there are only two possible views. Either this is reportage…or else, some unknown [ancient] writer…without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern novelistic, realistic narrative.
“Realistic narrative” was not the order of the day. So, upon inspection, the style of the New Testament gospel authors is that of Greco-Roman biography. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were writing in such a way that has all the hallmarks of appearing to be history.
So the gospel authors weren’t trying to write a nice, but made up, story. They were writing history. But, were they telling the truth, and were the eyewitness sources that make up the four gospels accurate? Let’s take a look…
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