Were The Gospels Designed to Be Works of Pure History?
Most Christians are well aware that although the Bible is divinely inspired, this hasn’t stopped its human authors from expressing their own writing styles.
What Christians often fail to recognize, however, is that the inspiration of Scripture has also allowed the authors to express the particular ways of thinking and speaking that existed in ancient Jewish culture.
Often, modern Western Christians approach the Bible assuming that the authors thought and spoke like we do, when in some ways they actually didn’t. This frequently leads to puzzlement and mistakes in interpretation. Many of the difficulties that modern readers experience when reading Scripture can be solved by taking account of the authors’ cultural ways of talking about things.
ATTITUDES TO PRECISION
One important difference between the authors of the Bible and us concerns attitudes to precision. The biblical writers (and Jesus Himself) often spoke much less precisely about things than we do. They also tended to be less concerned about precisely sticking to traditions that they held in high esteem.
To be sure, when it was important, the authors of the Bible could be very precise. But often they were imprecise in ways that we find strange, at times even amazing.
In the mindset of the biblical writers there was clearly less of a connection between precision and truthfulness than we are used to in modern Western culture. They were happy to regard some things as true even when those things were more than a little imprecise.
Of course, there would have been a limit to this. There is only so far a biblical author could have gone in speaking imprecisely before they were regarded as untruthful. But nevertheless, there was less of a connection between truthfulness and precision in the mindset of the biblical writers than there is in the modern Western one.
In our culture, a piece of writing doesn’t need to be more than a little imprecise before it is viewed as not completely truthful. And because the Bible is from God who cannot lie (Titus 1:2), Western Christians often assume that it must be very precise in all it says.
A close reading of Scripture, however, shows that this is not how the minds of the biblical writers worked.
For some striking examples of imprecision in Scripture, see my article, The Bible Is Often Very Imprecise about Things.
And for some (overlapping) examples of how concepts of what is true and false in Scripture are not always the same as in our culture, see my article, What Do We Mean When We Say That the Bible Is Free from Error?
One important way in which the biblical authors tended to connect truthfulness and precision less closely than we do concerns how they wrote history.
A careful examination of historical narratives in the Bible shows that the writers often felt a degree of liberty to modify the traditions they received. They were not usually as concerned to precisely record exactly what happened as modern Western Christians might be. Instead, their top priority was to build up their readers in the faith. And if this could be helped by departing a little from a strictly factual approach to what they were writing, that is often what they did.
HISTORY AND THE GOSPELS
The four Gospels contain many examples of this sort of thing. Reading the Gospels closely shows that the authors didn’t always aim simply to record events from the life of Jesus as accurately as they could. Rather, they felt a certain amount of freedom to modify the traditions about Jesus that they received.
It is not that they didn’t hold these traditions in high regard. They certainly did. Yet if they could modify their traditions to a certain extent to make them more edifying for their readers or to simplify things, they often did that.
The result of this is that the four Gospels are not, and were never intended to be, works of pure history in the sense of being 100 per cent factual records of what happened. Instead, they are better described as works that are mainly historical with some extra theological reflections mixed in.
Here are some examples of this:
Where two or three are gathered
In Matthew 18:20 Jesus is portrayed during the time of His earthly ministry stating:
“For where two or three have gathered in My name, I am there among them.”
It seems unlikely that Jesus did in fact speak these words during His earthly ministry:
Firstly, when He says “I am there among them,” He seems to mean that He is with gathered followers in a deep and real sense. He seems to be quite strongly implying that He knows all about what is going on when His followers gather, and that He is there to help them. However, this fits much better with a time when Jesus had risen and ascended to heaven, than with the time of His earthly ministry.
Secondly, these words don’t look like a prophecy of something that would take place in the future. If, during His earthly ministry, Jesus had wanted to prophesy that after He had risen from the dead and ascended to heaven, He would be with gathered followers, we would expect Him to have said, “I will be there among them.” However, the words in this saying are “I am there among them.”
It is doubtful, then, that Jesus did actually speak these words when He was on earth.
Instead, a much better explanation is that this is a saying of the risen Jesus that He spoke through a Christian prophet in the early church. That would make sense of the implied real presence of Jesus with gathered followers, and it would also make sense of the present tense, “I am.”
I suggest that the following sequence of events led to this saying being included in Matthew’s Gospel:
The saying was spoken by the risen and ascended Jesus through a Christian prophet in the early church. Matthew learned of this prophecy. He correctly believed that it was from Jesus, and He found it to be very edifying. He therefore decided to include it in his Gospel. However, because his Gospel finishes before the time Jesus ascended to heaven, the only way he could include the saying was by putting it on the lips of Jesus during His earthly ministry. So this is what he did. Modifying history in this way was not a problem, because Matthew never intended his Gospel to be a work of pure historical fact. Instead, his Gospel was always designed to be a work that was basically historical with some extra theological insights mixed in.
It is worth noting that many other sincere Christians agree with my view of what Matthew did here.
The day of the crucifixion
Another good example of how the Gospels sometimes don’t contain pure historical fact can be seen in what they say about the day of Jesus’ crucifixion. Let’s compare what Mark and John tell us about this.
In Mark 14:12-13 Mark writes:
“12 On the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb was sacrificed, Jesus’ disciples asked Him, ‘Where do You want us to go and make preparations for You to eat the Passover meal?’ 13 And He sent two of His disciples . . .”
Then in verses 16-18 Mark continues:
“16 The disciples went out and came to the town . . . and they prepared the Passover meal.
17 When it was evening Jesus arrived with the twelve. 18 While they were eating at the table . . .”
These passages say that Jesus ate a Passover meal on the evening before He was crucified. And “when the Passover lamb was sacrificed” in v. 12 strongly implies that He ate the Passover on the normal day for having this meal.
In the account of the Last Supper in John’s Gospel, however, there is no reference to this meal being a Passover meal (John 13:1-30).
Much more importantly, in John’s account the day Jesus is crucified is the day of preparation for the Passover meal:
In John 18:28 he writes:
“Then they took Jesus from Caiaphas into the governor’s headquarters early in the morning. But they themselves did not enter the headquarters, so that they would not become unclean and be unable to eat the Passover meal.”
Then in John 19:14 John says:
“Now it was the Day of Preparation for the Passover.”
Similarly, in John 19:31 he writes:
“Then the Jews, because it was the Day of Preparation . . .”
And in John 19:42, referring to a time after Jesus has died, John states:
“So because it was the Jewish Day of Preparation . . .”
As John portrays things in these verses, the Passover meal has not yet happened. And when he says, “the Day of Preparation (for the Passover),” he is apparently referring to the normal day of preparation for this meal.
Mark and John therefore differ on the timing of Jesus’ crucifixion in relation to the Passover meal. In Mark this meal takes place on the evening before Jesus is crucified. In John it takes place on the evening after He is crucified.
Trying to explain away this difference by coming up with forced readings of one or other text is the wrong thing to do. We need to let the Bible stand as it is.
In their own ways, both Mark and John theologically connect Jesus’ death with Passover. In Mark Jesus Himself eats a Passover meal and speaks about His body and blood at that meal (Mark 14:12-26). In John Jesus dies on the cross on the day the Passover lambs are sacrificed (John 18:28; 19:14, 31, 42).
There is no contradiction in theology between these Gospels. And the fact that the accounts cannot be reconciled in terms of history is not a problem, because neither of these Gospels was designed to be a work of pure historical fact.
Another good example that shows how the Gospels are not works of pure history concerns Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ resurrection.
In Luke’s resurrection account, on the Sunday Jesus rises from the dead He appears to the inner circle of eleven disciples (Judas Iscariot having defected) in Jerusalem (Luke 24:1, 13, 33-49).
In Matthew’s account, however, on the day Jesus rises an angel appears to Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary,” who instructs these women to tell Jesus’ disciples to go to Galilee, where they will see Him (Matthew 28:1-7). Immediately after that, Jesus meets the women and repeats the instruction: they are to tell the disciples to go to Galilee, where they will see Him (Matthew 28:8-10).
Then in verses 16-17 we are told:
“16 The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 And when they saw Him they worshiped Him, but some doubted.”
There should be no doubt that in Matthew’s account, this meeting in Galilee – a few days’ journey from Jerusalem – is being portrayed as the occasion on which the eleven see Jesus for the first time after His resurrection. It is impossibly implausible to suppose that the eleven are being portrayed as those who have already seen and spoken to Jesus in Jerusalem on the day of the resurrection. Following on from verses 1-15, verses 16-17 cannot reasonably be read in that way.
This means that Matthew’s and Luke’s portrayals of the first resurrection appearance to the eleven cannot both be historical. And the best solution is that one or both of these authors felt a liberty to depart a little from writing pure history.
Our final example concerns the book of Acts as well as Luke’s Gospel. The same sort of modification of historical traditions that we find in the Gospels is also found in Acts.
Let’s compare what Luke 24 and Acts 1 say about the timing of Jesus’ ascension.
Luke 24 has an account of Jesus’ resurrection appearances on the Sunday He rises from the dead. This narrative includes words of Jesus to His disciples in verses 46-49. And these words are certainly portrayed being spoken either on that Sunday or perhaps in the early hours of the following Monday morning. Then immediately after these words, Luke continues in verses 50-51:
“50 And He led them out as far as Bethany, and He lifted up His hands and blessed them. 51 And while He was blessing them, He left them and was carried up into heaven.”
By far the most natural way of understanding verses 50-51 is that they are portraying Jesus’ ascension taking place on the Sunday of His resurrection or early the following Monday.
If we turn to Acts 1:1-11, however, we find that Luke – the same author! – portrays the ascension taking place forty days after the resurrection!
To claim that there must have been two ascensions is a very dubious explanation. And this is surely not what the church has believed down through the centuries.
Similarly, trying to force the interpretation of one or both of these passages to make them agree historically is the wrong thing to do. We need to let the Bible stand as God inspired it.
Instead, the best solution is that in at least one passage Luke felt a freedom to modify his traditions.
ALTERING HISTORICAL TRADITIONS
I could give many more examples of where the Gospels are not fully historical, but I think I have said enough to make my point.
It should be regarded as a fact that the Gospel writers didn’t intend to write works that were 100 per cent factual records of what happened. Instead, they felt a freedom to modify their traditions about Jesus to some extent.
Appropriate to the culture of the Gospel writers
Altering the history of Jesus tends to strike us modern Westerners as strange and even dishonest. Besides, it is in our psyche to want to know exactly what happened.
But in the cultural context of the Gospel writers, there was apparently nothing dishonest about this at all. There was less of a connection between truthfulness and precision than we are used to in our culture today. And this meant that the authors of the Gospels felt a liberty to depart from a strictly historical approach to what they were writing.
Importantly too, we can be sure that the Holy Spirit, who inspired the text, approved of what the authors were doing in this respect. The Spirit knew that it was culturally appropriate for the Gospel writers to modify traditions when writing narrative, and He must have decided to work within that framework.
A hypothetical question
Imagine we were able to ask Luke, for example:
“Luke, after looking closely at your Gospel, it seems clear that you haven’t written pure historical fact. Is that right?”
I am sure he would reply by saying something like this:
“Yes. I’ve modified some of the historical traditions I received to make them more relevant for my audience, to make some theological points, and to do some simplification. Nevertheless, my Gospel approximates fairly closely to history. I’ve done something similar in some of my quotations of the Old Testament.”
Designed to build up Christians in the faith
It is important to understand that the Gospels are first and foremost works that are designed to build Christians up in their faith. They are aimed primarily at teaching us things we need to know about God and about how to live our lives. They are only secondarily designed to tell us what happened.
Once we understand that, the fact that the history has at times been modified is a bit easier to understand.
It is also worth noting that understanding the Gospels as something other than pure history is not an invention of modern theological liberalism.
For example, the second-third century theologian, Origen, stated:
“There are many . . . points on which the careful student of the Gospels will find that their narratives do not agree.” (Comm. Joh. 10.2)
Similarly, the fourth-fifth century church leader, John Chrysostom, wrote:
“But if there be anything touching time or places, which [the Gospel writers] have related differently, this nothing injures the truth of what they have said . . . [but those things] which constitute our life and furnish out our doctrine nowhere is any of them found to have disagreed . . .” (Hom. Matt. 1.6)
THE GOSPELS ARE LARGELY HISTORICAL
It is a mistake, then, to treat the four Gospels as if they are 100 per cent factual records of what happened.
Nevertheless, it is very important to understand that these works are still largely historical. It would be wrong to think that they are basically unhistorical with a few historical facts thrown in.
We can be sure that the Gospels give us essentially historically accurate portraits of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Historically speaking, His ministry really did go according to the pattern outlined in these books. They teach us how Jesus lived, taught, died and rose, when He was on earth.
The Gospels are historical enough that a Christian teacher need not bother to try to distinguish between what is historical and what is modification of history when teaching.
When I write about Christian matters and I want to cite the Gospels, I myself usually just speak about the text I am dealing with as if it is fully historical. Simplifying things in this way will not cause any problems for a Christian teacher.
PROBLEMS WITH INSISTING THAT THE GOSPELS ARE PURE HISTORY
If it is true, then, that speaking about the Gospels as if they are fully historical is not going to cause any problems for a teacher, the reader may well be wondering why I have written this article. What is the point?
Importantly, we can only accept that the Gospels are pure historical fact, if, over and over again, we take very unnatural interpretations of passages. We have to keep explaining things away.
However, this whole business of coming up with forced interpretations and explanations is problematic in several ways.
First, there is the matter of honesty. When we approach any part of the Bible, we should always be as honest as we possibly can be with each passage that we read. If a text seems most naturally to be saying something, we should admit that.
Time and time again, I see Christians giving interpretations of the Gospels (and other parts of Scripture) that are at best dubious, at worst impossible, without admitting that they are taking an unnatural interpretation of the text. They obviously think that the passage they are reading shouldn’t be saying what it strongly seems to say, so they force their interpretation of it to make it say something else. And then they pretend that this forced interpretation is actually a natural one or only slightly awkward.
Being dishonest in any way, however, is a sin, and that includes dishonesty when dealing with the Bible. It greatly displeases God.
But dishonesty is not just wrong in itself. It also serves to put non-Christians off the gospel. Non-Christians are often very sensitive to noticing when Christians are being dishonest. And when they think they see this, they frequently want nothing to do with the Christian faith.
If Christians were to admit what they are doing when they take extremely unnatural interpretations of the Bible, the problems caused by dishonesty would be avoided. But they rarely, if ever, seem to do this.
Importantly, the reason for a dishonest interpretation of a Gospel passage is often that the reader is assuming that the passage must be fully historical, because they haven’t understood that the Gospels were never intended to be works of pure history. Recognizing that the Gospels are not fully historical removes one temptation to dishonestly use the Bible.
Putting people off the faith
I have just noted that being dishonest in biblical interpretation often puts people off the Christian faith.
However, there is another, more significant way in which insisting that the Gospels are works of pure history puts people off the faith.
Something along the following lines often happens:
A Christian says that if the Gospels were not perfectly historical, then the Christian faith would have to be false. A non-Christian accepts this reasoning as correct. The non-Christian then examines the Gospels and concludes that they are not perfectly historical. So they decide that the Christian faith must be false.
The same sort of thing often happens to those who are already Christians. They become convinced that the Gospels are not fully historical. They accept that this is incompatible with the truth of the Christian faith. And so they walk away from the faith.
I find this so sad. These people have tripped over a rock that should never have been there in the first place. I wonder how many people might have become Christians or might still be in the faith if they had understood that the Gospels were never designed to be works of pure history.
I think there are many Christians who have a lot to answer for in this area.
A dangerous precedent
There is yet another big problem with insisting that the Gospels are works of pure historical fact.
As I have said, the only way to hold this view is by taking some extremely unnatural interpretations of Gospel passages. However, doing this sets a terribly dangerous precedent. It gives a green light to those who want to take extremely unnatural interpretations of the Bible in other places too.
So when Christians come up with forced explanations of Gospel passages and claim they are defending truth, they are unintentionally encouraging people to misinterpret the Bible in all sorts of ways.
In this article I have tried to show that our four Gospels were not designed to be works of 100 per cent historical fact. Instead, the Gospel writers modified their traditions about Jesus to a certain extent, to make them more relevant for their readers, to make some theological points, and to simplify things. And the Holy Spirit, who inspired the text, approved of what the authors did in this respect.
It is also important to understand that insisting that the Gospels are works of pure historical fact actually causes big problems. It leads to dishonesty, it unnecessarily puts people off the salvation that is in Christ, and it encourages misinterpretation of Scripture.
There are those who say that people like myself, who deny that the Gospels are fully historical, are leading Christians astray. On the contrary, it is those who insist that the Gospels are fully historical who are causing harm. They are trying to force the Bible to fit with modern Western ways of doing things instead of reading it in its cultural context.
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