By Tristan D. Vick
Often times a certain work of fiction, or character portrayed within, will become so iconic that the work will literally challenge the way we perceive the world around us. As a student of literature, I know the profundity of stories which can capture the human imagination and hold power over us. In all this, there is probably one figure, one story that is still considered taboo to criticize completely, and that is the story of Jesus Christ.
Recently, however, there has been a greater attempt by scholars and historians alike to treat the material, namely the Gospels, which contain the exploits of the so-called historical Jesus in a different light by exposing it for what it (in actuality) appears to be—the work of fiction.
Christians seems to get annoyed by the mere suggestion that the Gospel Jesus may merely be little more than a fictionalization. They often rebut the statement by pointing toward all the historical information, never mind that much of it is inaccurate or altogether wrong, what counts for historical material also counts for Jesus’ historical validity in the eyes of the religious.
In fact, devout belief in Jesus’ historicity has been one of the leading reasons why the mythicist view, as well as the legendary and literary hypothesis, have all but been dismissed by Christians. But what strikes me as peculiar is the sheer ignorance and naïveté of the Gospel Jesus with which the religious prescribe to.
Christians aren’t stupid people—but time and time again they prove to be ignorant of the book they hold to be divine and the person they believe to be the Son of God—or so legend has it. You see, there are just too many reasons, too many clues, to many pieces of evidence which all compound to prove a rather startling case—the gospel Jesus is a literary creation. There may have been a real genuine historical figure lurking in the penumbra of ancient history, but this is only speculation since, as fate would have it, there isn’t enough evidence to identify let alone nail down (pardon the pun) any actual Jesus.
Meanwhile, anyone who has read their Bible and understood it will undeniably realize that nearly all of it is myth while the rest is historical fiction interwoven with these very same myths. Those who cannot see this, I am afraid, simply haven’t understood their Bibles and need to re-read it with a more critical outlook.
Recently I came across a very well written explication of why the Gospels are distinctly a literary creation and not historical. For some time now I have been of this opinion, but reading the Gospel Fictions by Randel Helms sealed the deal for me. Read it if you get the chance, because honestly, I do not see how anybody (even third rate apologists) can contest his research.
That said, I have composed a short list of reasons why we know the Gospels are fiction and the New Testament Jesus to be little more than a literary fabrication.
Clues which reveal a literary (e.g., fictitious) Jesus are:
1) The Christian Story has its Roots in an Archaic Fable
Jesus is sent to earth to atone for mankind’s sins. But mankind’s “sins” are a convoluted concept found in an ancient Hebrew myth about a talking snake. If you read the Garden of Eden story very carefully the one thing which becomes abundantly clear is that the NT Jesus is (technically) dying because of the dubious antics of a fabulous talking snake (which traditionally appear in fable and folk-lore—tell tale signs of a tall tale, if you will). Biblical literalists have traditionally gotten over this by suggesting the so-called “talking snake” was, in “reality,” a devil tongues Satan in disguise—although there is absolutely zero Biblical evidence for this. Even if sin is real and the Garden of Eden myth is just a metaphor, it does nothing to explain away the problem of why God would have created sin in the first place or why he would sacrifice his own son unto himself for a curse he endowed upon the human race in the first place (see: Penal substitutionary Atonement theory).
Theology aside, we cannot expect the historical Jesus to literally have atoned for the curse of sin placed (unfairly) on two unknowledgeable, gullible, child-like, simple-minded adolescents who were beguiled by a cunning talking snake in a magical garden. Yet if you dismiss the story in Genesis as merely a fable, then the consequence is explicit, the concept of sin could only ever be a metaphor. Jesus very well could not have died for a metaphor, and that leaves sin undefined—but more importantly—it leaves the concept of sin open to interpretation. At the same time, it suggests that if there was a historical Jesus he probably died for social and political reasons related to his day and not for some unspecified, barely perceptible, supposition.
2) No Authentic Eye-witness Testimony and too much Third Person Narrative
The Gospels contain the tradition of literary third person narrative for events which couldn’t possibly have had any eye-witnesses. Whether it is Jesus praying to God alone in the desert, or having a conversation with Satan atop of the highest pinnacle of the Jerusalem temple (cf. Luke 4:1-13; Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13), or his prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane (cf. Mark 14:32-42; Matthew 26:36-46; Luke 22:39-46), the fact is, there couldn’t have possibly been anyone around to account for these moments of solitude. Third person narration is a technique frequently employed by storytellers while first person narration is usually used by those who have experience a particular event and later reflect upon it. Moreover, the NT continually gives itself away, as is the case in Mark (Mark 16:1-8) when the two women stumble upon the empty tomb of Jesus and flee in terror to tell know one of it, this only begs the question, who’s telling us (if nobody else is the wiser) and how on earth did they find out? The problem here is obvious; any theory which comes after the fact of the women’s silence which literally attempts to account for how we could possibly know what they never spoke of can only be post hoc speculation.
3) There are Signs of Literary Embellishment
The Gospels, in their proper chronological order, have signs of literary embellishment which move further and further away from the original source of Mark, which itself may purely be fictional. About Christ’s resurrection the Biblical historian James D. Tabor clarifies has this to say:
“What I don’t think was happening was that there were people going around and saying, “I saw him,” as a revived flesh-and-blood corpse. That comes later. The reason I say that is because there are no Resurrection appearances in Q or in Mark. If they were so well known and so widespread, how could Mark write a Gospel and not put them in? If you read the Gospels in chronological order, Mark has no appearances, Matthew has one to the disciples and one to Mary Magdalene, Luke has several, and John has the most, and these get more and more “physical,” so that finally Jesus even eats with his disciples. What’s happening is that you get this embellishment of legend and a magnification of the theology.” (See: “Mysteries of History,” p.41, 2010. Available in PDF courtesy of James D. Tabor: http://www.youtube.com/user/Evid3nc3#grid/user/A0C3C1D163BE880A )
The same can be said with other details, such as who was at the tomb, was there no one, a boy perhaps, maybe an angel or two? How many animals did Jesus ride side-saddle into Jerusalem, was it one, or did he surf in on two? When Jesus rose on the third day did he hang around for forty days and sup with the remaining disciples, did an army of the undead rise and parade down the streets with him, or did he fly off into the sky like Superman? Up, up, and awayyyy! The point is, the pattern of embellishment always follows the progression of the mundane to the phantasmagorical. All this, of course, is the stamp of the literary imagination running wild—and the taller the tale gets the less certain we can be it ever had its roots in reality to begin with. The consequences being, if we know points A, B, and C are all fabrications, then what it to suggest that points E, F, and G are not also? Therefore the whole NT becomes suspect.
4) The Gospels are Historically Unreliable
Doubting the historical reliability of the NT is easy—especially since it gets more wrong than it gets right. Luke is reporting himself to be a careful (supposedly reliable) historian (Luke 1:3), yet seems to have the most trouble accurately reporting on historical concerns, such as the census debate, incorrect genealogies, conflicting accounts when Jesus was supposedly born, and so on. Whereas the author of John’s high Christology is evidence that he was writing from a very different mind-set and from a very different Jesus tradition. It’s not the fact that one or two of the NT stories have historical inaccuracies which should bother Christians, but the fact that there are so many as to constitute the NT as a unsanctioned, unauthorized, and unofficial work by hack historians who are all but malfeasant in how they practice and apply the historical method (apparently a tradition which has carried on in Biblical studies relatively uncontested). On the other hand, if the Bible, the Gospels, and the rest of the NT are works of fiction then (at least) the historical inaccuracies are forgivable, albeit an eyesore for any historian and/or knowledgeable reader.
Archeology, meanwhile, has proved beyond a reason of a doubt that there was no town called Nazareth during Jesus’ day (See Rene Salm’s book The Myth of Nazareth: The Invented Town of Jesus for more on the Christian problem of a distinct lack of archeological evidence with regard to the Gospel stories, also read Frank R. Zindler‟s essay “Where Jesus Never Walked,” in American Atheist, Winter 1996-97—available online at: http://www.atheists.org ). In fact, oddly enough, mention of the capital city, the Jewel of Galilee, Sepphoris, is missing altogether from the NT. The implications of this all point to the Gospels being a later literary creation—as the Greek authors of the NT were obviously unfamiliar with the basic geography of the region they were writing about. Nobody from Galilee would have made this mistake, and this presents a two-fold problem for Christians because 1) it reveals that the whole of the NT is literary in nature and 2) definitively proves that the synoptic tradition has no actual eye-witness testimony to speak of (since any living eye-witness would have corrected the information. That is, in modern terms, you could not talk about the politics of Washington D.C.—in a tome as large as the NT—without briefly mentioning Capitol Hill or the White House even just once).
5) The Gospel Jesus Uncannily Conforms to the Mythic Hero Archetype
There is nothing in Jesus’ life story that does not conform to the mythic hero archetype (to acquaint yourself with the mythic hero archetype read Joseph Campbell’s A Hero with a Thousand Faces). Nearly every event, every miraculous deed, even the themes of his teachings and the adventures he has with his merry band of Apostles, from his virgin birth to his death and resurrection, all these events fit with similar events cataloged in the stories of countless other heroes of myth and legend—which subsequently either predate (i.e., precede) or immediately follow (i.e., tag on to) the Jesus narrative. Although this doesn’t prove there was no historical figure named Jesus, it does confound any attempt to separate the historical Jesus from the Gospel Jesus—leaving Christians in a bind. Now Christians must concede one of two points, neither of them trivial. Either they concede to the fact that there was probably never any historical Jesus and side with the mythicist view, or else they can salvage their faith in the historical Jesus as long as they concede to the fact that, as the Biblical historian R. Joseph Hoffmann has alluded to, there is relatively nothing that can be known of him to any certainty which would pass as historically trustworthy—that is we must remain agnostic as to who and what the historical Jesus may have been.
6) The Gospels are Self-reflexive
The Gospel Jesus often times contradicts himself, so frequently in fact that he negates many of his own sayings (meaning it’s more likely they aren’t genuine sayings at all—John 5:31 and John 8:14 are good examples of this). Not only this, but many of Jesus’ so-called sayings fit the pattern of literary persuasion, or rhetoric. Frequently when a NT author would want to get across a message they would Jesus as a mouthpiece, but often times the authors disagree on what the message should be. An obvious case with this is with regard to Jesus final dying breath of Jesus, in which, according to the Gospels, each time he dies he says something inharmoniously different. First, I should like to point out, this again rules out any eye-witness testimony, since we can reasonably assume that if there were eye-witnesses they all would have reported Jesus last words to be the same—instead of the discrepant and discordant reports we do get. Second of all, within these sayings are embedded subtle strands of Midrashim—as the basis and content for Jesus’ dying speeches are rooted in the Psalms, for example. Randel Helms has pointed out that the NT frequent interpolation of OT text, utilized to supply an intended meaning, is an element of literary creation, observing:
In the language of literary criticism, the Gospels are self-reflexive; they are not about Jesus so much as they are about their own attitudes concerning Jesus…. The Gospels are Hellenistic religious narratives in the tradition of the Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament, which constituted the “Scriptures” to those Greek-speaking Christians who wrote the four canonical Gospels and who appealed to it, explicitly or implicitly, in nearly every paragraph they wrote. (Randel Helms, Gospel Fictions, p.16)
7) Lack of Authentic Jesus Sayings
What’s more, many of the self-reflexive elements also appear to be anachronistic reflections of the evangelist and not the original teachings or sayings of Jesus. In Mark 8:35 Jesus said: “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whoesoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it.” How could Jesus have said this when there was no actual gospel text when he lived? The Gospels, which are about Jesus, did not appear until after his death! So this verse must be anachronistic, or, if Jesus was prophesying about the future, surely one of his followers would have raised an eyebrow and asked, “Rabbi, what the bloody hell is a “gospel”? (The point being the word ‘gospel’ comes from the Greek euangelion, or ‘good news’, and would not have been used by Jesus who spoke Aramaic—therefore this is a literary term incorporated by a Greek author and not the original sayings of Christ—see: http://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G2098&t=KJV).
If, on the other hand, the term gospel here simply refers to the coming Kingdom, as Jesus frequently intended, then the salvation theology of this quote seems to be derivative of the “good news” of the evangelist (Rom. 1:1-2; 1:16) rather than falling in line with the “good news” of an apocalyptic preacher (Mark 1:15). I know the subtle difference here may go over some readers head, but just to clarify, “repent and be saved” is distinctly a different type of ‘gospel’ than ‘take up your cross, follow me, and be saved.’
Interestingly enough, in the very next chapter Jesus follows up his salvation speech with his most famous failed prophecy (Mark 9:1) which, coincidentally enough, happens right before a meeting with the divinely reincarnated corporeal forms of Elias and Moses—which the Apostles beheld (Mark 9: 2-9) which, in turn, gives itself away as a literary creation when in verse nine the author of Mark has [Jesus] “charge them that they should tell no man what things they had seen, till the Son of man were risen from the dead.” Oddly, none of them stop to ask, “But Rabbi, are you going to die and bodily come back to life like Moses and Elias—whom we just met?” Again, if they just assumed they would see Jesus again in the coming Kingdom, then this whole affair seems rather pointless, but in Mark 9:31 Jesus restates the point, adding details of the crucifixion (so important as it cannot possibly be forgotten and so needs reiterating), but here Mark simply has the disciples cower in fear and confusion stating, “But they understood not that saying, and were afraid to ask him (Mark 9:32). This bodily resurrection theology and strong emphasis on the importance of the resurrection (not the coming Kingdom), again, fits with the evangelical author and not with the original teachings of an apocalyptic prophet. That’s the distinction readers should be keen to keep in mind.
8) No Aramaic or Hebrew Source
Now it is well known that there is no Aramaic or Hebrew source for the synoptic tradition, something which Christians never seem to think twice about, but such a fact should cause us to pause. Randel Helms goes on to outline a case of further literary embellishment via the use of language and how an original Greek phrase in the Gospels will get changed to Aramaic to sound more authentic, but then the Aramaic would be changed to Hebrew as an apologetics ploy to avoid linguistic confusion which would arise through use of the Aramaic. In fact, this is such an important point in exposing the Gospels as works of fiction that I must quote a large section of Randel Helms’ work at liberty since he explains it far more judiciously than I could. Again, we come back to the last words of Christ.
Mark presents these words in self-consciously realistic fashion, shifting from his usual Greek into the Aramaic of Jesus, transliterated into Greek letters: Eloi eloi lama sabachthanei (My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?—Mark 15:34). Mark gives us no hint that Jesus is “quoting” Psalm 22:1; we are clearly to believe that we are hearing the grieving outcry of a dying man. But the author of Matthew, who used Mark as one of his major written sources, is self-consciously “literary” in both this and yet another way: though using Mark as his major source for the passion story, Matthew is fully aware that Mark’s crucifixion narrative is based largely on the Twenty-second Psalm, fully aware, that is, that Mark’s Gospel is part of a literary tradition (this description would not be Matthew’s vocabulary, but his method is nonetheless literary). Aware of the tradition, Matthew concerned himself with another kind of “realism” or verisimilitude. When the bystanders heard Jesus crying, according to Mark, to “Eloi,” they assumed that “he is calling Elijah [Eleian]” (Mark 15:35). But Matthew knew that no Aramaic speaker present at the Cross would mistake a cry to God (Eloi) for one to Elijah—the words are too dissimilar. So Matthew self-consciously evoked yet another literary tradition in the service both of verisimilitude and of greater faithfulness to the Scriptures: not the Aramaic of Psalm 22:1 but the Hebrew, which he too transliterated into Greek—Eli Eli (Matt. 27:46)—a cry which could more realistically be confused for “Eleian.” Matthew self-consciously appeals both to literary tradition—a “purer” text of the Psalms—and to verisimilitude as he reshapes Mark, his literary source. The author of Mark was apparently unaware that his account of the last words was edifying fiction… but Matthew certainly knew that he was creating a linguistic fiction in his case (Jesus spoke Aramaic, not Hebrew), though just as clearly he felt justified in doing so, given his conviction that since Psalm 22 had “predicted” events in the crucifixion, it could be appealed to even in the literary sense of one vocabulary rather than another, as a more “valid” description of the Passion.
Continuing on, Helms identifies similar literary emendation in Luke, observing:
Luke is even more self-consciously literary and fictive than Matthew in his crucifixion scene. Though, as I have said, he knew perfectly well what Mark had written as the dying words of Jesus, he created new ones more suitable to his understanding of what the death of Jesus meant—an act with at least two critical implications: First, that he has thus implicitly declared Mark’s account a fiction; second, that he self-consciously presents his own as a fiction. For like Matthew, Luke in 23:46 deliberately placed his own work in the literary tradition by quoting Psalm 30 (31):5 in the Septuagint as the dying speech of Jesus: “Into your hands I will commit my spirit” (eis cheiras sou parathesomai to pneuma mou), changing the verb from future to present (paratithemai) to suit the circumstances and leaving the rest of the quotation exact. This is self-conscious creation of literary fiction, creation of part of a narrative scene for religious and moral rather than historical purposes. (Helms, Gospel Fictions, pp.16-17)
9) The Gospels were Written by Greek Authors Wholly Unfamiliar with Jesus
Knowing that there was no Aramaic or Hebrew source, and having evidence which shows this to be an incontestable fact, we are left with one last startling revelation: the Gospels were written by Greek authors living hundreds of miles away from where the purported events took place, and they wrote down their versions of these events from (most likely) hearsay and oral tradition, but themselves had not been witness to the events they pretend to report. Furthermore, they were unfamiliar with the basic geography and archeology of the region. On top of all this, each author employs literary methods of storytelling thereby making their writing self-reflexive.
10) Confidence in the Literary Hypothesis as the Best Inference to the Truth
Finally, we must be brave enough to face the facts, and the fact of the matter is all the evidence we have alludes to the reality being that the Gospels are conspicuously works of fiction (read the aforementioned Gospel Fictions by Randel Helms). Thus, the only estimation of Jesus we can make is that he may have been a real historical figure (see The Jesus Dynasty by James D. Tabor), but all the evidence points to the contrary (I expound on this point further in my forthcoming book Deconversion: Why I am Not a Christian). In fact, unless Christians can satisfactorily address all of these points clearly and without conjecture—then we can be confident that the literary hypothesis, or more accurately the mythicist view, has a higher probability for being the correct depiction of how the Gospels came about and at the same time accounts for the discrepant information we find within the Jesus narrative and tradition (see The Empty Tomb: Jesus beyond the Grave ed. by Robert M. Price, Not the Impossible Faith by Richard C. Carrier ).
In conclusion, there is nothing to suggest the Gospels were not intended to be historically realistic fictions (see The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics by Christian theologian and scholar Hans Frei), on the other hand, there is a surplus of evidence to show they are ahistorical, discrepancy filled, inharmonious texts (see Life of Jesus Critically Examined by David F. Strauss). This fact casts doubt on any theoretical model which would try to make them literal accounts of authentic history. This much we do know—they could not possibly be literal accounts of history (read The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man by Robert M. Price, Does the New Testament Imitate Homer? by Dennis R. MacDonald, Lost Christianities and Misquoting Jesus by Bart D. Ehrman, and Who Wrote the New Testament?: The Making of the Christian Myth by Burton L. Mack just for starters).
We know enough about the time, the era, the history of our immediate past to know the Gospels are egregiously poor written “historical” reports at best, and at worst they are the religious fictions, by men who knew nothing about the real Jesus and who lived and wrote several decades after the purported events ever took place (read Jesus Interrupted by Bart D. Ehrman). Therefore any theory which contends that the Gospel and NT account of Jesus is historically accurate needs to put on their analytical thinking caps and re-read their Bibles (read Sources of the Jesus Tradition ed. by R. Joseph Hoffmann).
I think it’s fairly safe to assume any such theory which tries to claim the Gospel Jesus as a purely historical Jesus can be readily dismissed as the evidence demands it. Rather a new dominant theory must emerge which makes sense of both the historical as well as the literary elements, and the best theory I know of which includes both and leaves nothing out is the literary hypothesis of Jesus which comes out of the mythicist view held by a wide variety of scholars and historians (e.g., Charles Francois Dupuis, Constantine-Francois Volney, Bruno Bauer, Arthur Drews, John M. Allegro, G.A Wells, Alvar Ellegard, Robert M. Price, Earl Doherty, Richard Carrier, Thomas L. Thompson, and R. Joseph Hoffmann). It currently appears to be the best inference to the truth, and until other competing theories can explain as much while accounting for all the areas of interest such as archeology, history, literary, etc., then it seems to me that it the mythicist view becomes the preeminent representative view of Christian history.