Gospels as Literary Creations

The Gospels are, it must be said with gratitude, works of art, the supreme fictions in our culture, narratives produced by enormously influential literary artists who put their art in the service of a theological vision. It is, of course, not uncommon to recognize literary artistry in the Gospels; there is perhaps no more beautiful short story than “The Prodigal Son,” no more moving sentence in all world literature than “I am with you always, until the end of time” (Matt. 28:20) – Randel Helms

A previous post argued that the gospels should have a qualifier to the consensus genre classification of greco roman biography, namely that they should be legendary biographies and not historical biographies.  The genre gives an indication of what to expect, so we should see a lot of legendary and mythological embellishment in the biography.  But this does not necessarily imply that all is fiction since there could be some historical content embedded in the narratives.  There are criteria that historians use to determine if content is historical or not, but I don’t have much confidence in the results, as Richard Carrier has outlined that many arguments can be fallacious.  Besides I tend to think that the Gospels are more literary than anything else, as this post will illustrate by drawing chiefly on Bart Ehrman’s analysis.


To put it plainly, the Gospel stories should be viewed as pieces of theological literature with little historical value.  What undermines their historicity is not so much the miracle stories and mythology – as most biographies of their time period contain – nor their favorable bias towards the subject matter, but rather their direct use of literary devices and editing to make theological and idiosyncratic points.  After all, if you start with one thing (Gospel of Mark) and change it to another thing (the other Gospels), how do you know which is correct?  This post will focus on how each author borrowed and changed content from the Gospel of Mark (or from oral tradition) to construct their own ideas and implications of the life and death of Jesus Christ, while a later post will explore the different literary devices used to craft such stories.


The Gospels are filled with symbolism – things that mean something beyond their literal meaning. If you miss this, then you miss the best parts of the story.  Metaphor is a type of symbolism that equates one thing to another, not using like or as.  Most pervasively though, the stories use allusion, which makes references to people or events outside of the Gospels, most commonly from the Old Testament.  Just as heavily, the Gospels are filled with allegory, which makes references to other stories outside of the Gospels by subtly recasting characters or retelling events.  Parables are the most common form of allegory found in the Gospels, and they teach moral or spiritual lessons.  Lastly, rhetorical devices that are meant to persuade are quite common, consisting of hyperbole, chreia, personification, amplification, irony and incomplete syllogisms [3].


To explain the tools of analysis, redaction is the process of editing and redaction criticism is the study of how authors have created a story by editing another story.  As Bart Ehrman says, “If enough changes point in the same direction, we may be able to uncover the redactor’s principal concerns and emphases.”  Redaction criticism is very important to the study of the Gospels since both Matthew and Luke relied on the Gospel of Mark to create their story.  In fact, 80% of Mark is contained in the Gospel of Matthew. Remember that the Gospel of Mark was written first, roughly around 70 CE. The Gospel of John’s story uses sources that are more controversial; he may or may not have relied directly on Mark, Matthew or Luke and instead may have used a mixture of oral tradition and written. As a side, the authors of the Gospels are all anonymous, and for brevity sake, I’ll be referring to them by their traditional names assigned to them by the Church.


As a first example of editing, in Mark, it starts out by having the heavens open up and a voice from above says, “You are my beloved Son”, while in Matthew it says “This is my beloved Son.”  The change may be grammatically slight, but it’s significant in meaning.  Matthew is trying to show that his identity of being the Son of God is not hidden to everyone as it is in the Gospel of Mark.  By saying this is my beloved Son, you know you have an audience (Pharisees and Sadducees).  As another example of this difference, there is the walking on water narrative.  In the Gospel of Mark, people do not understand the implications when Jesus walks on water and “their hearts were hardened”, while in Matthew, they react by falling down in worship, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God”.  Matthew deliberately made a change to Mark to make a different point.  Why did Matthew make this change? Matthew probably made this change to emphasize the culpability of the Jews, which works more dramatically in Matthew than in Mark since they were conscious of his identity all along.  Moreover, “in John, for example, as in Luke, three times Pilate tries to release Jesus by declaring him innocent (unlike in Mark).  And at the end, so, too, does the centurion (Roman soldier).  The Romans all agree on Jesus’ innocence.  Who then is guilty for his death? Not the Romans, but the Jewish authorities, or the Jewish people themselves” [1].


To mix things up, we can go to the end of the story of Mark, the crucifixion narrative. His dying words on the cross were “My God My God why hast though forsaken me.”  This is a direct quote from Psalm 22 of the Hebrew scriptures.  This passage and others (35 and 69) were known as the Psalms of Lament (22, 35 and 69) – speaks of a righteous man who suffers at the hand’s of God’s enemies and becomes vindicated by God in the end [1].  Knowing that the author had in their hands a copy of the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible), it’s hard to not think that the passion-crucifixion narrative was influenced by these passages, including Isaiah 52, the Songs of The Suffering Servant.  After all, there’s a direct quotation, and the beginning of the story says this is to follow in accordance with Scripture.  Whether or not the author wanted people to know that this was allegorical or something that Jesus actually said, we’ll never know for sure.  Now Luke changes the words completely by appealing to Psalms 31, “Into your hands I will commit my spirit.”  Again, this is a direct quotation out of the Septuagint in order to fulfill scripture.  Luke’s Jesus accepts his death and willingly gives himself over during the crucifixion.  By contrast, Mark’s Jesus is in agony and seems to be completely unaware of his purpose, which is an atonement for our sins.  Luke changes this to fit his formulation of Jesus.  Luke’s Jesus is a prophet that was rejected by God’s people; he preaches as a prophet, heals as a prophet and also dies as a prophet.  The greatest prophets from scripture, e.g., Elijah, Amos, Ezekiel, all were persecuted and sometimes even martyred by their own people [1].  Luke has placed his Jesus alongside these great prophets. “Luke emphasizes that Jesus dies as a righteous, blameless martyr of God.  As a prophet he knew that this had to happen” [1].  Right, prophets are visionaries, they can foresee the future. This explains why Jesus has complete confidence that his death will bring him in God’s special care as his final words were a prayer not a plea.


Towards the end of both Mark and Luke, the curtain in the holy Temple gets torn in half. The curtain tearing, however, happens at different times and for different reasons.  The Temple is where sacrifices were offered up to God, and the most sacred place in the Temple was the square room, “in whose darkness God’s presence was thought to dwell.” No one could enter this room unless it was the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) when the high priest would go behind the curtain into the presence of God to perform a sacrifice to atone the sins of the people [1].  Mark indicates that when Jesus died, the curtain separating the holiest of places from the outside world was torn in half [1].  This is symbolic in that the tear has opened up the holiest of places to the rest of the world; God is no longer separated by the curtain and all have access to him now.  The ultimate sacrifice has been made, voiding the necessity of all others. Jesus, the Son of God, has “given his life as a ransom for many” (Mark).  People now have direct access to God, who comes to them in the death of Jesus [1].  On the other hand, In Luke, the curtain is torn when Jesus was on the cross and when darkness comes upon the land.  The torn curtain is symbolic of the people rejecting God’s gift (Jesus) and shows God’s judgment upon them. The torn curtain accompanies the eerie darkness over the land as a sign of God’s judgment upon his people who have rejected his gift of “light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” (Luke).  What underscores this point of God’s wrath is when Jesus says to his enemies (Jewish authorities) that “this is your hour and the power of darkness” (Luke).


The centurion (commander in a Roman army) at the end of Mark says that, “Truly this man was God’s Son.”  The centurion in Luke says, “Certainly this man was innocent.”  These two passages are clearly different.  We can try to reconcile them, but what is more likely the case is that the authors wanted to get across different messages.  Mark is portraying Jesus as the atonement for sin, so his phrase reconfirms that Jesus, the Son of God, had to die for our salvation.  By contrast, Luke wanted to emphasize that Jesus was truly innocent and whose death would not bring, in it of itself, salvation or forgiveness.  Jesus died because he was a prophet rejected by God’s people.  And the people need to repent of their sins and return to God, and then they will be forgiven and granted salvation.  So Mark’s theology regarding salvation (forgiveness for sin) is more of a “get out of jail free card”, while in Luke’s you have to work for it.


Lastly, but certainly not the last of the discrepancies, is the day that Jesus actually died.  This is a contradiction not easily reconciled, despite numerous attempts by apologists.   In the Gospel of Mark, the Passover Meal is the Last Supper.  Passover was a most significant event for Jews during Jesus’ time.  For this year, it started on Thursday evening and continued on to Friday day since Jews viewed the start of the day as the beginning of nightfall.  So Thursday evening was the beginning of Passover.  Thursday day was the Day of Preparation where people brought their lambs to be slaughtered for sacrifice for their sins, and the meal was prepared that afternoon to be eaten that evening, on Passover.  The Last Supper includes the ceremonial wine and bread, where Jesus says after breaking the bread and giving it to his disciples, “This is my body.”  This is symbolic for when his body is broken for the salvation of all.  Jesus then gave the cup of wine to his disciples and said, “This is my blood of the covenant, that is poured out for many” (Mark).  And this is symbolic for the blood that will be shed.  After the Last Supper, Jesus is later taken by the authorities and spends the night in jail, while being found guilty by Pontius Pilate the next day.  He dies on Friday at 9 AM on Passover Day.  In John’s Gospel, John the Baptist announces that “Jesus is the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world.”  This is the only Gospel in which a metaphor for a lamb is used for Jesus.  The Passover meal in John takes place on Friday evening.  Jesus’ Last Supper is not a Passover meal; it occurs on a Thursday, the evening before the Passover lambs are slaughtered.  After the meal, Jesus spends the night in jail and then Pontius Pilate announces that he will be crucified on the Day of Preparation at noon – the day the lambs are slaughtered, which is a Thursday [1].  Therefore, in Mark, Jesus dies on Friday Passover Day, and, in John, Jesus dies on the Day of Preparation, which is a Thursday.  So Jesus is the slaughtered lamb in the Gospel of John.


Looking at these differences, and there a lot more to point out, one can conclude that either the writers based their stories on different sources of information or that they are literary creations.  I believe that since the changes made coincide with an authors particular vision of Jesus Christ that they are most certainly fabrications, molded to fit a theme or to make a point.  One could argue, as most Christian apologists do, that the differences are historically compatible.  They could argue that, using the centurion as an example, he was both innocent and also the Son of God, so there is no contradiction but rather one author chose to emphasize one point over the other.  However, Luke had the centurion say that “certainly this man is innocent” for a reason; Jesus was a prophet in which his people outright rejected him, and it’s structured this way to fit within Luke’s theology of guilt and repentance.  Moreover, it’s a climatic phrase for the centurion to say, and therefore has all the hallmarks of a literary creation.  I don’t think anyone was recording what the centurion was saying and passed it on through oral tradition; it’s just part of the story.  This goes for all the modifications aforementioned.  In my view, the editing in it of itself makes it hard to know which is historical and which is not, but an even better argument is that the changes made are too integral to the author’s theme to be anything but literary creations.



[1]  Ehrman, Bart D. (2009-02-20). Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

[2]  Helms, Randel. Gospel Fictions. Kindle Edition.

[3]  Witherington III, Ben.  (2009).  New Testament Rhetoric: An Introductory Guide to the Art of Persuasion in and of the New Testament.  Cascade Books.

Gospels as Legendary Biographies

Knowing what type of writings the Gospels are – for example, legendary versus historical – will help us to understand the writers intentions and therefore help guide our interpretation.  And the subject of genre – the category in which a piece of literature should fall into – is crucial to this understanding.  This short piece will establish why the Gospels should not be categorized as historical biographies.  For starters, Richard A Burridge in “Four Gospels, One Jesus?: A Symbolic Reading”, defines what genre means.
Genre forms a kind of `contract’ or agreement, often unspoken or unwritten, or even unconscious, between an author and a reader, by which the author sets out to write according to a whole set of expectations and conventions, and we agree to read or to interpret the work using the same conventions, giving us an initial idea of what we might expect to find.
The Gospels were initially viewed as being “one of a kind” (sui generis) biographies because they differed from modern biographies in that the subject lacked much personal detail, such as personality, character development and appearance.  In the 1920’s, form criticism came to the forefront analyzing the different types of mini-stories that the Gospels are comprised of.  They saw the Gospels as completely void of biographical and historical content.  This, and other reasons, led them to conclude that the Gospels were folk literature, that is, pieces of oral tradition passed down and synthesized into narratives.  Ben Witherington, on the other hand, a modern New Testament scholar, says, “The whole form critical approach to these Gospels is deeply flawed, for the Gospels do not amount to boiling up narratives from shards and bits of tradition and sayings of Jesus; on the contrary, Gospel writing was a matter of editing the material down in specific ways.”  

A more recent analysis, namely by Richard Burridge, has stolen the show.  He concludes that the genre of the Gospels should be one of ancient Greco-Roman biography by comparing the Gospels to other well established Greco-Roman writings in terms of similarity in function, form and content.  To be sure, the consensus for both Christian and secular scholars do agree with Richard Burridge.  To gain further insight into Greco-Roman style, Bart Ehrman defines Greco-Roman biography as follows: “ a prose narrative recounting an individual’s life, often within a chronological framework, employing numerous subgenera (such as sayings, speeches, anecdotes and conflict stories) so as to reflect important aspects of his or her character, principally for purposes of instruction (to inform about what kind of person he or she was), or propaganda (to show his or her superiority to rivals).”  Although this definition is fair enough for the Gospels, I tend to think that it lacks granularity.  As the historian Matthew Ferguson points out:

The genre of Graeco-Roman biography was rather diverse in antiquity, with many variations in structure and content depending on the biographical subject being described. As such, the comparison of the NT Gospels with “Graeco-Roman biography” is no simple or straightforward matter, as ancient biographical scholars still debate how the genre can even be defined to begin with.
Matthew Ferguson believes that if the Gospels are classified in the aforementioned manner, there should be a distinction made, namely that the Gospels are more similar to prose novels and legendary biographies than to that of historical biographies.  This inference comes from the Gospels lacking analytical rigor and containing many storytelling elements in comparison to that of historical biographies.  Some of these novelistic biographies, for example, are about Homer, Alexander the Great, and Aesop, whereas writings by Plutarch, Arrian and Suetonius are historical biographies.  There are even biographical examples of miracle-working “divine men”, similar in broad outline to Jesus, such as Pythagoras, Empedocles, Asclepius and, the most uncanny, Apollonius of Tyana.  As Morton Smith puts it, these are known as aretalogies because they are “a miracle story or a collection of miracle stories” whose primary purpose was “praise of and propaganda for the deity supposed to have done the deeds.”  Matthew Ferguson further contrasts historical and prose writing:
Ancient historical prose has a very distinct style, in which the historian often would discuss the methodology of his research, the sources he consulted, the differences between multiple traditions about a person or event, and his judgment as an inquirer into past affairs. History, derived from the Greek ἱστορία (“inquiry”), is not merely a narrative about past people, places, and events, but is an investigation that one conducts in the present in order to formulate a hypothesis of what probably took place in the past, based on the available evidence. 
Rather than read as the unmitigated praise of a saint who can do no wrong, ancient historical works and historical biographies were far more critical of their subjects, whom they analyzed less one-dimensionally and more as complete persons. Even for a popular and well-liked emperor like Augustus, his biographer Suetonius in his Life of Augustus still did not hold back from describing Augustus’ acts of adultery and lavish behavior. Good historians are concerned with telling the past as it really is rather than just heaping praise upon individuals as propaganda.  
So historical biography, generally, is more investigatory, analytical and critical of their subject matter.  This does not seem to be the case with the Gospels where the aim of the omniscient, third-person authors is not to chiefly convince you of the accuracy of their accounts but rather to convince you of the subject matter’s heroic deeds, etc.  Moreover, all of the Gospels are anonymous, don’t cite their sources or methodologies and utilize much myth making, which is atypical of historical biographical material.  

Two possible exceptions, one being the Gospel of Luke, where there is mentioning of how sources have been passed down and that the author has done all that he could to ensure that his account is the correct account.  This passage doesn’t amount to much as it excludes the names of the sources and doesn’t bother to discuss their relevancy to the events.  There is no critical engagement at all.  Second exception is the Gospel of John where John claims to have an eyewitness disciple, but the Gospel doesn’t even name this person.  To summarize, I leave you with a quote from Ferguson.  
The Gospels, in contrast, are not historical biographies but hagiographies written in unquestioning praise of their messianic subject. As a good representation of the scholarly consensus about the aims of the Gospels, the Oxford Annotated Bible (pg. 1744) explains, “Neither the evangelists nor their first readers engaged in historical analysis. Their aim was to confirm Christian faith.” Such works, written for an audience of converts, are not chiefly concerned with being critical or investigative, but rather serve the religious agendas and ideologies of the communities that produced them.
Boyd, Gregory A.; Eddy, Paul Rhodes (2007-08-01). The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition. Baker Book Group – A. Kindle Edition.
Burridge, Richard A. . Four Gospels, One Jesus?: A Symbolic Reading. Kindle Edition.
Ehrman, Bart D.  The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings.
Ferguson, Matthew.  Κέλσος
Witherington, Ben.  New Testament Rhetoric.