In this post, we’ll take a closer look at the four canonical gospels as historical sources for the life of Jesus. But first, a brief note on how historicity works. Scholar Craig Keener writes:
“It should be understood that when historians speak in terms of probability, we speak only of what can be ascertained by historical methods. We lack historical evidence for most of what has happened in history; no one claims that nothing happened except what we can demonstrate by historical means. As scholars often point out, studies concerning the historical Jesus merely sort available historical evidence according to historical methods; they cannot bring us fully face-to-face with the Jesus who lived, taught, and died in the first century CE. They are useful, however, in providing a way that historians as historians can talk about Jesus, and a critical minimum of assumptions that both Christians and non-Christians can use in dialogue about Jesus” .
It is extremely important to understand this last point: that historical method can only give us a critical minimum of information about Jesus, not all that there is to know about him. Not every single point in the gospels can be historically verified; but that does not render them unhistorical in the sense that we ought to think they never occurred. But, as we’ll come to see, there is a somewhat surprising amount of information about Jesus contained in the gospels that can be verified to fair degree.
So, to begin, what exactly are the gospels? Keener writes:
“In more recent years scholars have been returning to the dominant historical consensus that the Gospels represent biographies in the ancient sense of the term. Biography (the bios or “life”) was one of the more common literary genres in antiquity” .
The bios was a standard Greco-Roman literary genre in which “genre conventions did provide a range of definitions for those who chose to follow them” . David Aune writes that
“the very fact that they chose to adapt Greco-Roman biographical conventions to tell the story of Jesus indicates that they were centrally concerned to communicate what they thought really happened” .
It should be noted that this issue is not without contention and debate, even amongst Christian scholars. But it seems fairly safe to say that a good majority of scholars hold the gospels to be examples of bioi, and that the overall evidence for this position is solid. Scholars such as Keener and Michael Licona in particular have written much about this. Licona also comments that
“If it the Gospels belong to a mythical genre, then it is true that claims of historicity bear the burden of proof. However, the converse is likewise true. If the Gospels belong to a historical genre, then claims of myth bear the burden of proof” .
And, citing Richard Burridges extremely influential work on this topic, he states:
“Although the Gospels do not possess all of the internal and external features of ancient biography, they do not differ from the genre ‘to any greater degree than other [works belonging to the genre of biography]; in other words, they have at least as much in common with Graeco-Roman [bioi] as the [bioi] have with each other. Therefore, the gospels must belong to the genre of [bios]'” .
Similarly, Craig Blomberg concludes:
“The mere identification of a few errors in the writings of a given historian does not lead to the conclusion that his or her work belongs to an unhistorical genre, such as a legend, novel or historical fiction. So too with the Gospels; even if some of the apparent contradictions proved to be genuine, this would not necessarily discredit the rest of the narratives. The view held by some Bible students that admission of one error in a book makes all the rest of it equally suspect presupposes a method that no reputable historian would adopt. If one is going to label the Gospels as something other than history, one must do more than point to seeming inaccuracies; an entirely different genre of writing into which the Gospels fit must be proposed. To this end, recent scholarship has proposed no fewer than six such genres, but in each case the parallels with the Gospels sooner or later break down. Only a seventh option withstands close scrutiny” .
Which seventh option is “the broadest and most widely proposed genre for the Gospels–biography” . What are characteristics of bioi? They:
“focused, in turn, on one great religious or philosophical teacher, selectively recounting events and teachings from his life, often arranging material thematically as well as chronologically and frequently focusing particularly on the manner and significance of his death” .
“The central difference between biography and history in this matter was that the former focused on a single character whereas the latter included a broader range of events . . . Biographies . . . [focused] more on the models of character they provided” .
While different bioi differed in many aspects from each other, and the degree of historicity in each varies, it seems fairly sound to conclude that the writers of the gospels were interested in writing historical narratives, not fictions or legends, even if it turns out that their historical narratives are not entirely free from inaccuracy, and even if that historical narrative was meant to convey theological truths. On this latter point, Licona comments:
“Each biographer usually had an agenda behind writing. Accordingly they attempted to persuade readers to a certain way of political, philosophical, moral or religious thinking about the subject. Just as with many contemporary historical Jesus scholars, persuasion and factual integrity were not viewed as being mutually exclusive. It was not an either/or but a both” .
In other words, the fact that they were writing from a certain theological perspective and aim does not mean that they necessarily were so biased as to be completely untrustworthy. They had the desire to tell the Jesus story to people because they were passionate about that story; and they were passionate about it because they believed it to be true. Locating the gospels within the genre of Greco-Roman biography does not in itself prove their absolute and total historicity. It does, however, offer us an indication of the authors’ intentions, the structure, function, and purpose of the text, and its general tendencies.
To fully establish the gospels as bioi and extrapolate the implications of this would require a much longer, much more complex and in depth paper. This was just meant as a summary/introduction to the issue.
The four canonical gospels, labelled as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, are the earliest and best sources we have for the life of Jesus. A more complete treatment would discuss the infamous non-canonical gospels such as the Gospel of Thomas, but it will have to suffice here simply to state that the vast majority of scholarship holds these gospels all to be much later and further removed from the historical Jesus than the canonical four.
Mark is widely accepted as the earliest completed gospel, usually dated as having been written at some point during the sixties AD, and no later than 70 AD. As some scholars note,
“Even if Mark were written this late, there would have been plenty of eyewitnesses still living to confirm the truth of what he wrote. But there is significant evidence to suggest that he wrote earlier than this” .
Dating for Matthew and Luke is a bit more controversial. The scholars quoted above argue for a pre-70 date for them both. Most scholars tend to put them somewhere between 70-85. John is almost always put around the year 90, although there is some considerable, albeit minority, opposition which would contend for a much earlier date here too. Nevertheless, all four were certainly completed during the first century.
As for the writers, it must be admitted that the majority of scholars do not hold that the traditional names ascribed to the gospels were their actual writers. However, I think there is some good reason to think otherwise, especially for Mark. Richard Buauckham’s extremely significant work Jesus and the Eyewitnesses compiles a fairly strong case that the gospels are based on traceable eyewitness testimony. However, discussing all these matters in depth is outside the scope of my current purpose. I’m merely point out that the commonly asserted claim that the gospels were written anonymously by people who never even knew Jesus so long after his death that no legitimate information tracing back to him could be contained within them is not at all what the weight of scholarship supports.
This post has been a very brief, cursory introduction to the genre and character of the gospels. In the next, we shall begin to look at specific events and sayings of the life of Jesus to determine their historicity.
*This post was a bit shorter than I hoped it to be, as I’m a little pressed for time at the moment. Some of the information I had to leave out I’ll try to fill in with future posts. Furthermore, as my research interests right now are mostly concerned with other topics, I might not be writing posts in this series as frequently henceforth; they might become more spread out*
. Keener, Craig S. The Historical Jesus of the Gospels. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009. Print, xxvii.
. Ibid., 78.
. Ibid., 73.
. Aune, David Edward. “Greco-Roman Biography.” 107-26 in Greco-Roman Literature and the New Testament: Selected Forms and Genres. Ed. David E. Aune. SBLSBS 21. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988. 125. Quoted in: Keener, Craig S. The Historical Jesus of the Gospels. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009. Print, 73.
. Licona, Michael R. The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010. Print, 201.
. Ibid., 203. The internal quote: Burridge, R. A. What are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004. 250.
. Blomberg, Craig L. The Historical Reliability of the Gospels. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2007. Print, 298-299.
. Ibid., 301.
. Ibid., 302.
. Keener, Craig S. The Historical Jesus of the Gospels. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009. Print, 80.
. Licona, Michael R. The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010. Print, 203.
. Komoszeki, J Ed, Sawyer, James M, and Daniel B. Wallace. Reinventing Jesus: How Contemporary Skeptics Miss the Real Jesus and Mislead Popular Culture. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2006. Print, 28.
Image credits: FreeImages.com/Bráulio Campos (http://www.freeimages.com/photo/jesus-1480847)