Christians believe that the Gospel Jesus was a real historical figure. There are various reasons for this belief, but the main ones include: this is what they are told by all of the authorities in their life, from their parents to their pastors of their church. It’s hard not to believe something when everyone is telling you it’s true. Second of all, Christian tradition for the last two thousand years has conflated the Gospel Jesus with the historical figure from Nazareth, without so much as attempting to check whether both versions are similar. Finally, it seems the majority of Christians have a desire to believe in Jesus because it comforts them. Christianity, as the Christian apologist Josh McDowell has often said, “Christianity is not Religion. Religion is humans trying to work their way to God through good works. Chrisitanity is God coming to men and women through Jesus Christ.”
Interestingly enough, we know that the Gospel Jesus is most likely to be a work of fiction. Now I could appeal to historians who take the mythical view (e.g., that Jesus is an amalgamation of various mythical figures) and argue for an alternative interpretation of the historiography, but I think such a criticism is flawed for the very fact that there seems to be enough evidence to suggest Jesus was more than a myth.
The reason we can say this is because of the way Gospel narrative treats Jesus. But at the same time, this treatment reveals something else too. Something many Christians would be devastated to discover. The same text which affirms Jesus was real also proves he never existed! It sounds like an enigma which is both impossible and absurd all at the same time. Well, yes and no. See, the thing is, the thing which most Christians neglect to see, because I failed to see it when I was a Christian too, is that the Gospel Jesus and the real historical Jesus are two separate figures!
This highlights the biggest reason why the majority of Christians believe that the Gospel Jesus was real. Because they approach the Gospels as a historical documents about a historical person and not a work of fiction about a fictional person. But for anyone who has studied literary fiction will instantly see that the Gospels have all the markers of fiction.
Allow me to better explain by giving a few examples.
Matthew 2:19: The Massacre that Never Happened
In Matthew 2:19 there is a tense shift in the writing to historic present tense.
King Herod has launched the Massacre of the Innocents in an attempt to kill the infant Jesus, but the Holy family having been warned have left for Egypt. In this verse Joseph is (again) contacted by an angel and told that it is safe to return home.
In the King James Version of the Bible the text reads:
But when Herod was dead, behold,an angel of the Lord appearethin a dream to Joseph in Egypt…
The World English Bible translates the passage as:
But when Herod was dead, behold,an angel of the Lord appeared ina dream to Joseph in Egypt…
The NIV says:
After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”
The tense in shift is probably a tool the author used to make the narrative flow better by matching it to the tense in verse 2:13. It doesn’t mean the author was alive and chronicling events during Herod’s death, which actually is chronicled in detail by the Jewish historian Josephus. The reason we know the writer wasn’t recalling these event first hand was because Jesus wouldn’t even have been born yet. If nobody had heard of the young messiah, then nobody would be attempting to chronicle his birth. This clues us in that the writer, who is writing at a much later date, has made up the events of Herod’s Massacre of Innocents.
Wiki has this to say on the historicity of the Massacre of Innocents.
Modern liberal scholarship, says Marcus Borg, regards the biblical accounts of the birth of Jesus as symbolic narratives rather than factual history. Thus, according to Paul L. Maier, the majority of Herod biographers and theologians hold that the Massacre of the Innocents is “legend and not historical”: Geza Vermes and E. P. Sanders, for example, regard the story as part of a creative hagiography. Robert Eisenman argues that the story may have its origins in Herod’s murder of his own sons, an act which made a deep impression at the time and which was recorded byJosephus. Other arguments against historicity include the silence of Josephus (who does record several other examples of Herod’s willingness to commit such acts to protect his power, noting that he “never stopped avenging and punishing every day those who had chosen to be of the party of his enemies”) and the views that the story is an apologetic device or a constructed fulfilment of prophesy.
Some biblical scholars hold a generally sceptical view of the incident’s historicity. Whilst acknowledging that the episode “contains nothing that is historically impossible” Hill says that Matthew’s “real concern is … with theological reflection on the theme of OT fulfilment”.
If no other historians, not even Josephus who does write in detail about Herod’s demise, can recall any account of such a massacre, then odds are, it simply didn’t happen.
The prophecy, in otherwords, is retconned into the story. It is done in such a way, in this case the author has it occur in the past, so that it can become a self fulfilling prophesy in the present time in which he is telling the narrative of Jesus Christ. Convenient, is it not? But this is one of the hallmakrs of narrative story telling. Histories are not usually written in this fashion. Likewise, histories usually try to catalog major events–and the massacre of innocents under Herod the Great qualifies as a major event if there ever was one. Yet nobody except for Matthew knew about it. Not even the Gospel author Luke knew of it, which is why we only hear of it from Matthew. He invented it for theological purposes! All fine and well, except, it proves the entire story is a fabrication.
The Use of Literary Asides
The above example of the Massacre of Innocents, if you recall, was relayed to Joseph in a dream. Notice that This is the third time in the gospel in which an angel contacts Joseph in a dream the others appearing at Matthew 1:20 and Matthew 2:13.
What often goes ignored by Christian readers is the setting in which the narrative itself takes place. Like so many Christians who simply assume a priori that the events are all historical, they neglect to actually think about what it is they are reading. In the cases of Joseph and his angel friends, we are listening in on their conversation from a ways off to the side, as if we were standing in the very room with them eavesdropping when their conversation occurred. This is why we call this narrative technique a literary aside.
The reason we know this is all fiction is two fold. First, the angel (is it one angel several times or multiple angels?) only appear to Joseph in a series of private dreams. The only person then, who was actually in the room, was Joseph. And he was asleep.
There was nobody else in the room with him, so the question becomes, how did an author living in Rome some fifty to seventy years later learn of the contents of Joseph’s dream? Was he a personal friend of the family? Or did Joseph simply talk loudly in his sleep? Not likely. The truth is, the reason Matthew knows exactly what Joseph is dreaming is because he is the author! Joseph is his character, and so he can pretty much have him dream anything and speak to anyone–even angels.
Second, as we have seen with the above critique of the Massacre of Innocents, we already know that Matthew is inventing a narrative to tell a story. He is not cataloging actual historical events. As such, we already have reason enough to assume the story is a fiction. Since Joseph’s dreams fit this scenario whereas no historical interpretation does we can be fairly certain that this is part of a bigger work of fiction.
But Joseph isn’t the only Gospel character which is given away by literary asides. Mary has her own brush with an angel in Luke 1:26-38. Mary has a private conversation with the angel Gabriel. An entire conversation mind you! But nobody else is there. Also, we know the angel’s name is Gabriel how? Mary never asks for a name and the angel never introduces himself as Gabriel. The only way we could possibly know the angel’s name is if the author, Luke, simply told us. Which he does. When literary authors introduce a new character into the story they usually do it along with the characters name. This is a big clue which shows us that we are dealing with characters from the authors imagination. If it was an actual historical account the angel would have at least said something like, “I am the angel Moroni…er… heh-hem… I mean Gabriel! Behold, I have a message from God!”
But nowhere does the angel actually introduce himself like this. We are just told that Gabriel appeared to Mary (alone) and not only are we explicitly told the angel’s name but we hear their entire conversation from aside.
Another case of literary asides is the famous dialog between Jesus and Satan when Satan tries to tempt Jesus the Christ. They even teleport from one location to another instantly. Unless the author was teleported with them, we know that the conversation was completely made up.
In the Garden of Gethsemane (Matt. 26:36 & Mark 14:31-33) we have another excellent example of a literary aside. Jesus tells his disciples to wait while he goes off to pray alone. Even though Jesus forbade anyone to accompany him, we have the full account of his prayer, as if someone was their eavesdropping to write it all down.
These are just several examples of literary asides which help reveal that the characters and conversations never actually occurred in real life. They are merely the imaginings of different authors who used these time honored literary devices to drive their narratives forward.
There are many literary asides in the Gospels. Jesus talking to Pontius Pilate alone. Or Pilate suddenly talking to Herod of Antipas. Then Jesus to his disciples. Or Pilate to Joseph of Arimathea ( who was probably a fictional character, by the way).
Other Literary Markers Found in the Gospels
Another oft overlooked sign that the Gospels are mainly fiction is the amount of ahistorical additions. Again, we’ve already discussed the massacre of innocents never happened, but neither did the census in Luke. Luke simply needs the narrative to get Jesus to Bethlehem, where the descendant of King David is prophesied to be born. But as you will recall, Jesus wasn’t from Bethlehem. He was from Nazareth! So Luke concocts a census which never actually happened, but which moves the narrative along nicely. The question becomes, which seems more likely, that Luke was a hack historian and a liar or that he simply wrote the events as he best saw fit in order to move the narrative along?
Missing information is another key example. Information we would usually expect to find in a historical record, for example, but do not is often a sign that the authors didn’t do their research.
I would be remiss if I failed to point out that the Gospel authors, all of them, were entirely unfamiliar with the entire region of the Levant where Jesus and his followers roamed. They placed Jewish synagogues outside of their correct time frame in places that didn’t have synagogues. Which means they didn’t know anything about synagogues. But this only goes to explain why they fail to mention the second Jewish temple in Egypt at Leontopolis (more missing information we would expect to find in a historical document but do not find in the Gospels). Why do the Gospel authors fail to mention important temples but fabricated numerous non-existent synagogues? Because they didn’t do their research.
The Gospel authors also forget to mention the capital of Galilee is Sepphoris, which would have been the central hub of all the events the Gospels hinge on. The Jewish historian Josephus called Sepphoris “The Jewel of Galillee” and remarked on how important it was to King Herod.
Presumably, Sepphoris was a location which Jesus and his disciples would have inevitably needed to frequent as it was directly in the center of Galilee. Any which direction they went they would need to pass through Sepphoris. Yet there is not a single mention of it in the NT. Not one! It is omitted entirely from the Gospels.
The question becomes, if the Gospels are genuine accounts of history, why would the authors all deliberately omit any mention of Sepphoris? There, seems to me, an obvious answer. Realizing the authors of the Gospels lived hundreds of miles away, lived in a different country, in a different decade, and spoke a different language from Jesus–then it’s not too far of a reach to assume they simply weren’t as familiar with the region as they should have been. In other words, we find, they simply didn’t do their research.
This is a common flaw we find with authors of fiction but a flaw we do not typically expect to find with well trained historians, since even Josephus accounted for Sepphoris! This only adds further support to the idea that the Gospels are works of fiction.
There are a lot more examples of missing information I could go into, and although it doesn’t act as definitive proof that the Gospels were fabricated, it does however predict a literary trend we already expect to see when we find examples of literary asides, tense changes, and narratives which are massaged to make a specific character or theological message more prominent.
There is an over abundance of examples which point away from the Gospels being historical documents and instead point to them being historical fictions.
The problem this raises for Christians is two fold. 1) If the Gospels are historical documents, they are largely inaccurate, incorrect, and misleading. That is, they are imperfect and untrustworthy as historical documents. In which case, the question would become, how reliable are the Gospels really? 2) The other problem is only a problem for Christians who want to believe the Gospels are historical documents but, as we have seen, there are good reasons to suspect the Gospels are literary fictions. What this means is quite profound, because everything that Christians believe about Jesus Christ and about God, including events such as Christ’s Resurrection, probably never happened. It was all made up. So, either way, it seems the Christian is at an impasse.
Of course, many Christians apologists spend lots of time and energy finding rationalizations to get around these objections. Why? Because they don’t want to admit to either one of these possibilities. Both conclusions work against faith and diminish the conviction they have worked so hard to edify by simply taking it on a matter of faith that the Bible is true to its word.
The problem, however, is that these rationalizations typically create more questions than answers. What works for one example doesn’t necessarily work for all the examples. So basically, the apologist is stuck having create brand new theories for every single objection raised, independent of all the others, meaning they have hundreds of theories to explain how the Gospels could be historical documents. But the liteary theory only requires the one theory to explain ALL of the problems because, as we have seen, they are problems we already would readily expect to find if the Gospels were indeed works of fiction. Since this single theory does account for these elements, it seems the best inference to the truth. The Gospels, and so too Jesus Christ, all appear to be fictionalizations.
Now this doesn’t mean that the Gospel Jesus wasn’t, in fact, based off a real historical person named Jesus. However, we simply don’t have enough information to say what the historical Jesus might have been like or be able to demarcate the exact point where his persona overlaps and diverges with the legendary one that we find within the pages of the Gospels. Of course, this question doesn’t really matter all that much because Christians aren’t actually placing their faith in the historical Jesus–they are placing their faith in the Gospel Jesus. The Jesus of scripture. But the crux of the matter is, it appears that, to our best understanding of the underlying text, the Gospel Jesus may be more fiction than fact.
One Final Aside
Ultimately, it was this very realization which pushed my three decade long faith to its breaking point. With no real savior to speak of, to affirm belief in, I had no real reason to continue believing. In the end though, I think I’m much happier with the truth. As comforting as the illusion was–it’s much more liberating to know that I am in control of my own destiny. Knowing that I can take a hold of the thread of my own fate, instead of relying a savior, I can simply call upon close friends, family, brothers, sisters, and my dearest comrades to help me get by. But isn’t that what the Christian story is really about? About not having to suffer the trials and tribulations of a strife filled life alone? About the desire to feel love and acceptance–to belong to something greater than yourself? Isn’t this why God sent his one and only son? Yeah, it’s a mighty powerful narrative. But in writing the story of my own destiny, I have found an equally powerful narrative. I have found this in my camaraderie with my fellow human beings–who I know for a fact–exist. And for me that’s good enough.