Reading is Believing

The Gospels are among the most misunderstood texts in world history, primarily because much of the criticism directed at them comes from people who have never read them. “Fairy tale” is the word you often hear people use to describe these texts, often with a sneering upturned lip—as if the Gospels were similar in both content and ambition to Rapunzel, Beauty and the Beast or Little Red Riding Hood. With this we are supposed to assume that the principle character of the Gospels—Jesus—is as real as Hop-o’-My-Thumb or Cinderella, a vehicle for a mere morality story and nothing more, a nice thing to read to your children so long as you assure them that witches and talking wolves and the Son of God do not actually exist.

If one actually reads through Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, one discovers almost exactly the opposite. Rather than a simplistic stock-character fantasy yarn, the Gospels depict a world and a narrative firmly contextualized within the realm of 1st-century Jewish peasantry; the texts are as historical as they are evangelical. And rather than a simple tale of good versus evil, righteousness versus wickedness—the stuff of fairy tales—we have a story and a lesson utterly beyond all others. The moral of the Three Little Pigs is “don’t be lazy.” The teaching imparted by the Gospels is that God loves you beyond all fathomable reckoning and wants you to live with Him in unimaginable glory for all eternity. This is not a nursery rhyme.

As I wrote, a great deal of this kind of Gospel criticism comes from people who are unlearned in the text. One gathers that the average unchurched critic thinks the Gospels are full of fantastical and unbelievable events. In fact, while there are astonishing claims throughout them—the Virgin Birth, the numerous miracles and healings and exorcisms, the Resurrection—the Gospels are more naturalistic, so to speak, than not. Were it not for the supernatural events depicted in them, and the theological claims made by Christ Himself, the books would simply tell a story about an itinerant charismatic Jewish preacher who taught love and forgiveness, irritated the wrong people, was crucified, and died. You would think that, were the authors of the texts trying to tell an actual fairy tale, they’d ham it up a bit more than they actually do. But they don’t.

A great example of the actual fairy tale genre of Gospel comes to us from a recent discovery out of  Egypt by way of Oxford: scholars recently discovered a scrap of “the original Greek manuscript describing what Jesus secretly taught his brother James.” And what did Jesus teach his “brother?”

“Jesus tells his brother James that though they are both going to die violently, death is not something to be feared,” Landau, a lecturer at the UT Austin Department of Religious Studies, told Newsweek over email. “All James needs is to remember the passwords that his brother has taught him, so that he can escape from the clutches of the archons, a set of demonic beings guarding the material world.”

Anyone even moderately knowledgable in the style and narrative of the canonical Gospels will recognize at once the radical, almost comical difference in tone and content here. Instead of the rather laconic and unaffected narrative depicted in the Synoptics, or the more theologically explicative account in John, we have a depiction of Jesus as a kind of wily secret agent passing along clever tips to help James triumph in a battle against demons. “Remember to say this magic password to help you win:” that’s not believable, it’s the plot of a video game or a child’s fantasy. It is, in fact, the type of silliness that the fairly tale critics of the Gospels think are in the Gospels—but of course they are wrong.

Beyond that, the charge that the Gospels are fictional asks us to accept one of two rather incredible claims: either (a) that the authors of the Gospels wrote them with intent to deceive everyone into believing they were true (and moreover that they actually succeeded!), or (b) that the authors wrote the Gospels as mere inspirational doggerel, nothing more—and then evidently failed to inform anyone, anywhere of this fact. The former makes no real sense—Why go to all that trouble? What’s the point?—and the latter  is equally inexplicable: if I wrote a fantasy novel that thousands of people believed was factual, I’d take pains to set the record straight as quickly as possible. That there exists absolutely no historical record whatsoever that the authors of the Gospels did such a thing is yet another indication that they believed wholeheartedly that what they were writing was the truth. One is perfectly capable of believing the story of Jesus Christ is not truthful, of course—but not on the grounds outlined above, for which there is really no evidence at all.

One comment

  1. David

    Hi Daniel, I was bored so I thought I’d stop in & see what you are posting these days. I agree with you that there is good evidence that the synoptic gospels were sincere representations of what the writers observed. I think the true problem arises not with the authors of the Gospels but with the readers. As human beings, we interpret what we read according to the various preconceptions each of us have developed during our lives. It is not so much an issue of the Gospels as myth. It is an issue that we as human beings with finite knowledge & intelligence, mythologize what we read.

    In the same sense that so many of us have mythologized our conceptions of “cowboys” & the migration of European Americans in to the American West based on Hollywood movies and characters such as John Wayne, we also mythologize histories that are much further back in time. This is particularly true when such strong emotions are associated with those “myths” as they are with the Christian doctrine. The stories are quite arguably accurate within the allowance that they represent 4 distinct viewpoints of events. The inaccuracy arises when the stories are filtered by human minds. We all like to think that we are the ones with the clear understanding. A little more humility is always useful when considering something as important as ones relationship to God & how we think others should relate to the same.