Did the Gospel authors intend their works to be read as non-fictional histories?

  • Our question

    Rather than being mythical or non-historical in genre, were the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John written with the intention of preserving and conveying historical truth? Even if aloofly some flexibility (associated with ancient story-telling), did the authors aim for accuracy, so that those who read their gospels would come out with true beliefs about Jesus’s sayings and deed during his mission, leading up to his crucifixion and resurrection? Did the Gospel authors aim to report truly on Jesus’s birth, ministry, death, activities and surrounding events?

  • What historians are saying

    • Dale Allison: “Despite the required hesitation, my inference, after taking everything into account, remains conventional: our Synoptic writers thought that they were reconfiguring memories of Jesus, not inventing theological tales.” [Constructing Jesus (Baker Academic, 2013), 459.]
    • Craig Keener: “Novels and collections of mythography did not deal with real persons of the past generation or two. Most ancient novels are purely fictitious romances; the minority of novels that use historical characters are set in the distant past. Moreover, they do not cleave closely to their sources the way Matthew and Luke obviously do. Since the dependence of Matthew and Luke on prior sources shows that they clearly are interested in prior information, and since they use Mark with such confidence as a reliable source—Matthew tweaks Mark, but includes more than 90 percent of the events he reports—and since they wrote fairly soon after Mark, and were in a far better position to evaluate Mark’s reliability than are modern scholars, it seems clear that they are writing information-based works, quite different from ancient novels.” [Christianity Today article]
“Yes, after all…
  • Gospels don’t invent Jesus-bio

    person writing at table with a speech bubble of jesus and a thought bubble of jesus

    Rather than inventing Jesus-biography, the authors of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—as editors/redactors—were honest in writing their Gospel reports.

    This page analyzes 8 arguments:

    • The originating Gospel/NT content seems honest.
    • Gospel authors faithfully copied their sources.
    • Gospels relayed Jesus-bio info (didn’t create it).
    • Readers took them as bios.
    • Gospel authors wouldn’t lie-invent Jesus-bio.
    • Mt/Mk/Lk/Jn are accurate where checked (trend).
    • Gospels display sacrificially honest restraint.
    • Gospel authors strove for witness-based Jesus-bio.

    If true, it is relevant because the perceived lack of freedom of the authors to significantly tamper with their source material, and the lack of freedom to invent wholesale, is hard to explain absent their reverence for that source material being true and wanting to preserve that truth in their own works.

  • The Gospels claimed to be witness-based

    The Gospels deliberately portray themselves as historical works, specifically ones aiming to accurately relay facts grounded in eyewitness testimony.

    This page analyzes 6 arguments:

    • Lk 1:1 explicitly says Lk is witness-based.,
    • E.g. Gospel traditions appeal-cite witness names.
    • Lk, Mt etc. endorsed Mk & Q etc. as witness-based.
    • Christians circulated the gospels (popular lit).
    • Greco-Roman histories self-identify as witness grounded.
    • The Gospels are witness-based.
  • Gospels are biographies/histories

    a man stands over a roman colosseum holding a book with Jesus's face holding

    The Gospels implicitly self-identify as information-based biographies, comparable to Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars etc.

    This page analyzes 5 arguments:

    • Ancient bios and letters predominated.
    • Gospels internally match ancient bios.
    • Gospels are honest historical accounts of Jesus’ life.
    • Gospel authors strove to relay only witness testimony.
    • Gospel Jesus-bio content is early/sourced.

    This is relevant if Greco-Roman histories overtly aim to report truth.

    • David Aune: “…the very fact that [the Gospels] chose to adapt Greco-Roman biographical conventions to tell us the story of Jesus indicates that they were centrally concerned to communicate what they thought really happened”. [“Greco-Roman Biography.” in Greco-Roman Literature and the New Testament. Ed. Aune, SBLSBC 21. (Scholars Press, 1988), 125.]
  • Gospels authors strove to know true Jesus-bio

    a detective with a book is chasing after speech bubbles, one with jesus another with a greek pillar

    The Gospel authors strive to learn and relay all and only true Jesus-biography.

    A full page will analyze 6 arguments:

    • The Gospels claimed to investigate.
    • The Gospel authors travelled to gather info.
    • Historians critically examined claims/sources.
    • Gospels strove to relay only witness-based testimony.

    This is relevant because this goal is irrelevant unless one’s wider goal is to report the truth.

  • Early Christians prized true Jesus-bio

    A crowd with hearts above their head look at an icon of Jesus's head with gears and information-symbols around it.

    AD 30-70 Christians prized the proliferation and personal acquirement of true biographical knowledge of Jesus.

    A full page will analyze these 10 arguments:

    • Christians prized understanding the Gospel.
    • Christians strove to vet and kill errors.
    • Christians prized witness-attested Jesus-bio.
    • Christians prize Jesus-bio traditions.
    • Gospels were early empire bios.
    • Christians didn’t invent Jesus-bio.
    • Gospel traditions abound in content Christians disfavored.
    • They strove to faithfully relay it.
    • Christians would suffer/die for their faith.
    • Christians strove to know/learn it.
      This is relevant because true non-fictional accounts of Jesus would then be in demand. By contrast, they would have little interest in a fictional novel about Jesus or anything of the sort. (It is extra significant than that we have no competing “true histories” of Jesus’s life in competition with the gospels; it is almost as if these were the true biographies.) Moreover, the authors themselves would want the truth disseminated, far more than a random fiction or novel.1
    1. John Wenham: “If we believe that [the gospel authors] were well informed, anxious to pass on their story in accordance with the apostolic tradition, we shall be sceptical of theories which allow great scope to the evangelist to modify and transpose his source material and to create new material to serve his purpose” [Redating Matthew, Mark, and Luke (IVP, 1992)]