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Were the Gospels Meant to Be Taken as Historical Testimony?

This post was originally published on this site

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?”

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.

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