Gospels: Myths or Biographies?

To continue the discussion of last Monday’s post: Who says the biblical gospels portray things as they really happened? If the Gospels were written from around 30 to 60 years after Jesus’ death, how can we know they portray the events of Jesus’ life faithfully? Couldn’t the oral transmission of Jesus’ stories get exaggerated and create a divine myth around him?

Three key facts are important to notice here. The first is that 30 years is too short a time for a myth to develop credibly. If a myth started to be promoted, most of the eyewitnesses were still alive, and could easily discredit the new version of the story. One could form a myth today about King Arthur, for example, who lived in the 5th century. But a myth about Margaret Thatcher, who governed England around 30 years ago, could simply not be credible. Richard Bauckham, a professor of New Testament at St. Andrew’s University, observes that “the period between the ‘historical’ Jesus and the Gospels was bridged not by anonymous community transmission but by the continuous presence and testimony of the eyewitnesses, who until their death remained as the authoritative sources of their traditions…” [i] There would be thousands of eyewitnesses still alive to discredit exaggerated or false reports of Jesus’ deeds.

The second important fact is the literary nature of the Gospels. If we actually read them, we’ll be surprised by how life-like they are. They portray people fishing, debating, complaining, living normal daily lives. Their literary genre does not resemble myth narratives at all. C. S. Lewis, who was an expert in literature and mythology at Cambridge University, writes,

I have been reading poems, romances, vision literature, legends, myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that none of them is like this [the New Testament record]. Of this text there are only two possible views. Either this is reportage … pretty close to the facts… Or else, some unknown writer in the second century, without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic narrative. If it is untrue, it must be narrative of that kind.[ii]

Another crucial element which points to the credibility of the Gospels is that they contain too much material which, if one was trying to compose an ideal story, would get simply eliminated. We see the future leaders of the church, for example, doing immature things like discussing among themselves who was the greatest one, or running away with fear when Jesus was imprisoned. Or if someone wanted to give credibility to Peter, one of the main leaders of the early church, he would have certainly left out the story where Peter denies Jesus three times, or when Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” There are stories embarrassing even for Jesus: people do not believe him in Nazareth, his home town, at times he is accused of being an impostor, and at one time even his mother thought he was crazy.

Only biographies which try to portray the events as faithfully as possible would include such stories. Fantastic accounts would retell the events in a more advantageous, rosier way. They would certainly leave out the embarrassing details. The most probable reason these counter-productive events are narrated in the gospels is that the writers were committed to reporting the facts as they really happened – as embarrassing as they may have been. Luke, for example, one of the biographers of Jesus, starts his gospel this way: “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 eyewitnesses 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…”[iii]

But then another question begs itself: still, even if the writers of the Gospels did not have room to fabricate a fantasized Jesus or create a myth around him, who says that the gospels were not manipulated over the centuries? How can we be sure that the church did not rewrite the gospels to suit its preferences and boost its power? These are major questions, let’s address them on Monday in the third and final post of this series.

René Breuel

[i]  Richard Bauckham, Gesù e i Testimoni Oculari [Jesus and the Eyewitnesses] (Chieti-Roma: Edizioni GBU, 2010), 11. The citation above is my translation into English from the Italian edition of the book. The original phrasing may be slightly different.

[ii]  C. S. Lewis, “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism”, in Christian Reflections (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1967), 155.

[iii]  Luke 1:1-3.


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