How do we know if the testimonies preserved about Jesus in the New Testament Gospels were intended to be taken as historical testimony in the first place? It is possible, after all, that the Gospels that came to be included in the New Testament were never meant to describe actual occurrences. Perhaps they were written as fiction, but later readers have misconstrued them as fact. That’s what several scholars of religion have suggested over the years. According to Reza Aslan’s bestselling book Zealot, for example, the New Testament Gospels
are not, nor were they ever meant to be, a historical documentation of Jesus’s life. They are testimonies of faith composed by communities of faith and written many years after the events they describe.
Reza Aslan is correct that the Gospels were most likely composed decades after the events they narrate—but so were the most reliable surviving accounts of the life of Emperor Nero. The writing of biographies didn’t occur nearly as quickly in the ancient world as it does in the modern era. As long as information from eyewitnesses was accessible, an accurate and widely-accepted biography could still be constructed many years after the events occurred.
Despite Aslan’s assertion to the contrary, the Gospels don’t fail the test of providing ‘historical documentation’ simply because they are ‘testimonies of faith’. No one denies that the earliest records of the life of Jesus were based on the testimonies of women and men who had committed themselves to follow Jesus—but a text doesn’t become unhistorical simply because it happens to be a testimony as well. The crucial question isn’t whether testimonies from believers in Jesus were some of the sources behind these texts—of course they were! The question is, ‘Did their testimonies describe events that actually happened? And were the texts in which these testimonies have been preserved meant to recount real events?’ If the most comprehensive accounts of the life of Jesus were never intended to provide us with historical testimony, any further discussion about the resurrection of Jesus or the trustworthiness of the Bible is pointless. And so, before going any further, I want to explore the question of whether or not the authors of the New Testament Gospels intended to tell their readers what really happened in the first place.
A Question of Genre
This dilemma is, in part, a question about the genre of the Gospels. The word ‘genre’ describes a category into which a particular culture places an artistic or literary composition. The reason a piece of art or literature lands in a particular category is because it shares certain key features with other compositions in that category. The genre of a literary composition is one of many factors that influences whether we receive a particular testimony as fiction or fact.
When the Gospels are compared with other ancient texts, the Gospels fall within an ancient literary genre known as bios, a Greek word that simply means ‘life’. The word bios is sometimes translated as ‘biography’, but the category of Greco-Roman bios was quite a bit broader than what you might find beneath the sign that reads ‘Biographies’ at your local library. The bios genre did include meticulously- researched Greek and Latin biographies like the volumes that flowed from the pens of Plutarch, Suetonius, and Tacitus—but formal biographies of this sort weren’t the only types of texts that fell within the bios genre. The genre of ancient biography could also encompass compositions that were closer to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter than to anything a classical author might have composed for the upper echelons of Athens or Rome.
To understand the breadth of the bios genre, let’s take a look at one of the most popular ancient novelistic biographies, the Life of Alexander. This romanticized biography spices up the real life of Alexander the Great with a string of fabulous but mostly made-up anecdotes. According to this bios, Alexander’s birthfather wasn’t Philip of Macedon but the last pharaoh of Egypt assisted by the god Amun. As a teenager, Alexander tamed a warhorse that had once consumed human beings. As king, he stood before a sea in Cilicia, and the wind and waves bowed before him. Unlike more formal biographers, the authors of novelistic biographies tended to write their works as anonymous third-person narrators, and they freely borrowed from a wide range of earlier compositions without explicitly identifying their sources.
So what does all of this have to do with the claims made in the New Testament Gospels? In some ways, the Gospels are more similar to ancient novelistic biographies than any other type of text. Apart from the opening verses of Luke’s Gospel, everything in the New Testament Gospels is conveyed from the perspective of a third-person narrator, and the authors never explicitly identify themselves by name. What’s more, Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels incorporate more than two-thirds of the Gospel According to Mark without ever mentioning where this content came from— much like the novelistic biographies which were narrated in the third person and which freely borrowed from earlier writings without identifying their sources. Taken together, these patterns and others suggest significant similarities between the New Testament Gospels and ancient novelistic biographies.
These similarities represent a potential quandary for those who believe that the Gospels were composed to convey historical testimony. Do the similarities between the New Testament Gospels and novelistic biographies suggest that the resurrected Jesus is as fictional as the exaggerated Alexander described in the Life of Alexander? And why—if the Gospels are so similar to ancient novelistic biographies—should anyone take the resurrection of Jesus and other miracles in the Gospels to be anything other than pious exaggerations? Such a dilemma deserves serious attention. And so, before exploring how the Gospels provide a foundation for trusting the Bible as a whole, I want to look together at a couple of reasons why the Gospels seem to be historical testimony, even if they exhibit some of the same literary features as novelistic biographies.
Reasons Why the Gospels Should Be Read as Historical Testimony
One reason why I’m convinced that the Gospel authors didn’t intend to write fiction is because the most crucial claims that the authors of the Gospels made about Jesus also appear in another literary genre, the genre of epistle. Much of the New Testament is made up of epistles—letters sent to particular communities to be read publicly and then circulated widely. Many of these epistles were penned prior to the New Testament Gospels. Most important for our purposes, virtually every essential claim about Jesus that appears in the Gospels also shows up in these letters, despite the fact that these epistles were composed for people who already knew about Jesus.
The New Testament epistles corroborate, at the very least, the following claims from the Gospels:
- Jesus was physically born into a Jewish family that traced its lineage back to King David (Rom. 1:3; Gal. 4:4; compare Matt. 1:1).
- Jesus had twelve close followers as well as relatives who were well known among early Christians (1 Cor. 9:5; 15:5; compare Matt. 10:1-4; 13:55-56).
- Jesus was sentenced to death during the political administration of Pontius Pilate (1 Tim. 6:13; compare Mark 15:1-15).
- Jesus was crucified, buried, and raised from the dead (1 Cor. 1:22-23; 2:8; 15:3-4; 1 Pet. 1:3, 21, and many other texts; compare Mark 15:16–16:8)
- Jesus was seen alive on the third day after his death (1 Cor. 15:3-6; compare Matt. 17:23; 28:1-10); he later ascended from human sight (1 Tim. 3:16; compare Luke 24:50).
It’s at this point that one of the clearest distinctions emerges between the New Testament Gospels and novelistic biographies like Life of Alexander. No one today believes that Alexander the Great was fathered by a pharaoh or that he rode a horse that once consumed human flesh. This disbelief is not, however, based merely on the fact that these claims stand outside usual human experience or because they sound outlandish to us today. If you decided to disbelieve anything about the past that sounds absurd, you would end up repudiating the reality of many bizarre events that actually happened. You’d probably reject the dancing plague of 1518, for example, as well as the cloud of darkness that settled in the skies over Europe and Asia Minor for an entire year in 536 C.E.—despite the fact that both of these are well-attested historical events. The claims in Life of Alexander are implausible for far more objective reasons than the mere fact that they sound outlandish. One of these reasons is that the most fantastic claims made in the novelistic retellings of Alexander’s life are not corroborated in the reports about him in other literary texts and genres.
When it comes to Jesus, however, the most fantastic claim of all—the declaration that Jesus walked out of a tomb alive on the third day after his death—is repeated in a range of other genres, including the genre of epistle. The fact that certain claims about the life of Jesus and his resurrection are attested in more than one genre doesn’t prove that the events took place. The presence of the same affirmations in two distinct genres does suggest, however, that early Christians didn’t intend these claims to be read not as fiction but as historical testimony.
Excerpted from Why Should I Trust the Bible? by Timothy Paul Jones
Edited by Isabella Wu