Literary Criticism and Historical Accuracy of the Gospels

Literary Criticism and Historical Accuracy of the Gospels

C. S. Lewis, Jesus, Boswellʼs Johnson, and the Usefulness/Uselessness of Literary Criticism to Nail Down Historical Truth

By Edward T. Babinski

See points A) and B) below along with “The Word About the Growing Words of the Resurrected Jesus.”

  1. No matter how creative and lifelike a character an author creates, that says NOTHING about whether or not such a character actually existed, nor whether that character said and did everything its author wrote about that character doing. People can identify with, even fall in love with, characters both fictional and non-fictional, based on the authorʼs writing talents—regardless of how true such stories may be or not be historically, they still become “real” to certain readers. So literary criticism of a work primarily acknowledges literary talent. It constitutes no proof of historicity.

    A few related points to ponder…

    Question: Whatʼs the difference between a trained psychologist and a born again Christian?
    Answer: A trained psychologist can read a person like a book, but a born again Christian reads a book like itʼs a person.

    Many evangelical Christians boast that they have a “personal relationship” with Jesus. What makes it so “personal?” Well, they say, we have the words attributed to Jesus in the four Gospels. But there are so few of them, a couple thousand. You could fit all of Jesusʼs words into a small 16-page booklet. And they are subject to interpretation.

    Well, they say, there are “answered prayers.” But again, that is a matter of interpretation, because no matter what happens, an evangelical Christian interprets it as “Jesusʼs will,” even when bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people.

    Whenever I have a “personal relationship” with someone it does not consist of a few thousand words spoken two thousand years ago, recorded accurately (or inaccurately) by someone else, and which require interpretation from third parties for me to “truly” understand them (especially when the third parties disagree concerning the meaning and intent of those words).

    Neither should a “personal relationship” depend on me having to interpret the results of every prayer uttered. And the range of interpretations covers every conceivable outcome: “strongly positively answered,” “weakly positively answered,” “strongly negatively answered,” “weakly negatively answered,” or even, “try again later when you have more faith.”

  2. The Gospel of John, if viewed as primarily an historical document, must be examined Primarily via the criteria of historical scholars, not literary critics. And historically it is the last of the Gospels, the one that overtly displays the greatest theological development, and the one that depicts Jesus and John the Baptist both proclaiming the same highly developed theology of the bookʼs author from start to finish.

    Whereas the Synoptic Gospels, especially the earliest Synoptic Gospel, Mark, presents Jesus as speaking in shorter logia that the author has strung together; responding to the question of “how to inherit eternal life” in a more Jewish fashion; not given to calling himself “The Messiah” nor even calling himself “good,” but telling his disciples and those he has healed to keep that knowledge hidden; and speaks of apocalyptic “the son of man” in the third person. The Fourth Gospel arrived late on the scene after FAR more developed theological reflection on the part of its author, and features a Jesus who is by all historical criteria more a product of its authorʼs creation. The prayers and speeches of both John the Baptist and Jesus have grown in length, filled with sacramental lessons on how to gain eternal life, and filled with metaphorical spiritual code words.

    In fact the number of words allegedly spoken by the post-resurrection Jesus grows as the four Gospels are compared in chronological order, and hence parallels that order. So the story of what Jesus “said” kept growing over time (just as right at the end of the Fourth Gospel it is acknowledged that tales concerning the words and actions of Jesus were continuing to multiply).


The Word About The Growing Words Of The Resurrected Jesus

There are very few if any words of the resurrected Jesus in the earliest New Testament writings. The number of words attributed to the resurrected Jesus grew over time, as most legendary embellishments concerning people whose followers remained intensely curious about them, would have done.

  1. The earliest mention of Jesusʼs resurrection in 1st Corinthians (if those verses are not the result of editing nor a later interpolation) says that Jesus “appeared,” an allusion to a visible presence, or even a dream, but not where the appearances took place nor any other details, let alone words.

  2. The next earliest writing is the Gospel of Mark, and one that unlike the corpus of Paul, contains a fair amount of logia allegedly spoken by Jesus of Nazareth, but it contains NO tales of post-resurrection appearances nor any words of the resurrected Jesus. Most scholars agree that Mark breaks off with “the women were afraid and told no one.” So the church tacked on no less than Three Different known endings to the Gospel of Mark, all found in later copies of Mark—because I suppose, the story of speechless women who “told no one,” and no records of any post-rez Jesus talk, just wasnʼt convincing enough, hardly what the faithful demanded.

    (The most widely known last chapter added to Markʼs mute tale, featured commands/promises such as, “Ye shall take up serpents and drink poison and they shall not harm you,” along with, “He who believes not shall be damned.” Cute additions made by early Christians who it appears were always ready to put words in their post-rez saviorʼs mouth. Three times in the case of Mark, since three late added end chapters are known.)

    So both of our earliest resurrection writings, Paul in 1st Cor., and the Gospel of Mark, fail to feature words spoken by the risen Jesus. Such words only begin to appear in print in the last three Gospels—with the number of words increasing as the date of their initial composition grows. Why should it require time for post-resurrection words to finally surface and then begin to grow more numerous in such a numerically incremental fashion unless we ARE in fact dealing with a growth in legendary tales?

  3. The Gospel of Matthew (chapter 28) contains a mere 79 words of the resurrected Jesus. So we have finally gone from zilch to 79. I place Matthew prior to Luke chronologically as others have argued. In this case I do so because Matthewʼs resurrection story (unlike Lukeʼs) parallels the story and wording in Mark closely. Matthew agrees with or copies Markʼs message at the tomb that “He has gone before you unto Galilee, There you shall see him,” while Luke, though agreeing with Mark in other respects, altered the message of the angel at the tomb, and added a significant new number of post-resurrection stories, moreso than Matthew did. So here are Matthewʼs words of the post-resurrected Jesus, the earliest “take,” the sacred 79:

    “Greetings. Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
    “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

    Reading the sacred 79, one can see how they mirror what the early church had begun to teach new converts, a sort of catechism in brief, but written backwards in time and into the post-resurrection mouth of Jesus. Hardly convincing to a skeptic. (Matthewʼs Gospel also ends with a very brief tale about people claiming to see the raised Jesus on a mountain in Galilee, “but some doubted.”)

  4. The Gospel of Luke (chapter 24) contains 191 words of the resurrected Jesus, more than double the number found in Matthew. And besides those 191 words, Luke adds a story about the raised Jesus (traveling incognito) and delivering a long lecture of an untold number of words during a walk to Emmaus, a lecture about where “the Christ” was mentioned in “all the Scriptures.” So Luke alludes to the raised Jesus being so talky that he gave an impromptu seminar “…beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” (Luke 24:27) Unfortunately not one word is preserved today that the post-rez Jesus spoke during the seminar. But here are all the post-rez words that do appear in Luke:

    “What are you discussing together as you walk along?… What things?… How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?”

    “Peace be with you. Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have. Do you have anything here to eat?This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms. This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

    Those are all the words of the post-rez Jesus in the third Gospel.

  5. However, the Gospel of Luke was also part of a combination work, i.e., The Gospel of Luke-Book of Acts. (There is debate as to whether Luke wrote the Book of Acts, or whether a later writer edited Lukeʼs notes/work and finished it in Lukeʼs name. For instance there is evidence in Acts of some verses that appear to suggest the latter view may be nearer the truth. See Bart Ehrmanʼs latest edition of his bestselling textbook, The New Testament for a discussion of which verses in Acts raise such questions, and how scholars reply to each other over this issue.)

    According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus appears to the apostles right after being raised, eats at little to prove heʼs not a spirit but has flesh and bone, and then “led them as far as Bethany” to a mount near Jerusalem, and rose into the sky. But the Book of Acts expands the time that the physically resurrected Jesus remains on earth to a period of “40 days” before he takes leave of them and rises into the sky. That means that the Book of Acts alludes to far more post-rez talking going on between Jesus and the disciples, more than any previous N.T. sources allude to. So the story of the number of words spoken by the post-rez Jesus keeps growing, even just from Lukeʼs Gospel to the Book of Acts.

    Just as in the case of the so-called “prophecy seminar on the road to Emmaus”, nobody recorded and preserved the words of the “40 day” preaching sessions of the post-rez Jesus in Acts either, except for the very last ones with which Acts begins:

    “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit… It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

    Is anyone supposed to believe that the apostlesʼ memories—from Peter (whom early church fathers claim told Mark what to write in his Gospel), and Matthew (whom early church writers allege got his stories from apostles as well), and Luke, ALL turned up blank pages when it came to remembering or wishing to record a host of post-rez addresses by Jesus? (Maybe they couldnʼt produce such alleged dialogue because the Scriptures Do Not speak in unequivocal fashion about how “the Christ must die and then after three day arise?” There are no clear Scriptural proofs concerning a Christ who must die and then must rise after three days.) Is anyone supposed to believe that it was only in such a Late Gospel as Luke that people first remembered tales of specific wordy dialogues with the raised Jesus like on the “road to Emmaus,” or during the “forty days” mentioned in Acts? Note that these same Gospel authors cribbed from one another, relying mostly on Markʼs and Qʼs collection of logia, to form the later Gospels, Matthew and Luke. And the latter two Gospels differ most in the very sections where they could not follow Mark, including post-rez tales that Mark lacked. But what these later two Gospels lacked, they apparently tried to made up for in imagination and via imaginative allusions to so-called unrecorded conversations with the post-rez Jesus that allegedly answered everyoneʼs Scriptural questions.

    By the way if I lived back then I think that the words of anyone who was dead and came back, and whom I got to spend several weeks with, would stick with me a bit more. Same thing goes for all the lost words of other Biblical folks who allegedly returned from the dead, like the Gospel of Matthewʼs “many raised saints who entered the holy city and appeared to many,” or like the rich man named Lazarus in the Fourth Gospel who allegedly returned from the dead. Cat got their tongues?

    It should be noted that Acts does feature some added post-rez Jesus words that I havenʼt mentioned yet. They were words that were heard allegedly by Paul on his trip to Damascus, and later written down by Luke in Acts. But Paul himself in his letters never mentions hearing so many words. And they read like a late expansion or legendary elaboration that partisan religious believers of all sorts are prone to—in order to “spell it out” for the reader. I mean just look at how much preaching a pastor can squeeze out of only half a verse in the Bible even today. Here is the preachy version of what Paul allegedly heard, not as recorded in Paulʼs own letters nor even in Paulʼs own words, but as told in the book of Acts, chapter 26:

    “‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting’. ‘Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you. I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’” (117 words) Total number of words of the post-rez Jesus in the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts combined? 397 words (depending of course on your particular English translation).

    But minus the long didactic speech of Jesus to Paul on the road to Damascus: 280.

  6. The Gospel of John, the final Gospel written, contains 283 words of the resurrected Jesus. Thatʼs 92 more words of the resurrected Jesus than appeared in the Gospel of Luke, and 204 more words than in the Gospel of Matthew. Here are the words of the post-rez Jesus per the Fourth Gospel: “Woman, why are you crying?. Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?. Mary. Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

    “Peace be with you!. Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you. Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” “Peace be with you!. Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe. Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

    “Friends, havenʼt you any fish?. Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some. Bring some of the fish you have just caught. Come and have breakfast. Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?. Feed my lambs.. Simon son of John, do you truly love me?. Take care of my sheep. Simon son of John, do you love me?. Do you love me?. Feed my sheep. I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go. Follow me!. If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.”

The Gospel of John ends with these words by its author(s):

“And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written, every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen.” (John 21:25) “I suppose that the world could not contain…” “I suppose?” Is that any way to end an inspired Gospel, with mere “supposition?” As for the supposition itself, that the “world itself could not contain the books,” the books we do have that tell of “things Jesus did,” consist of only four slim “Gospels,” not one of them over forty pages in length. Two of them, Matthew and Luke, even repeat over 90% of what appears in Mark including incidental phrases and passages in Greek. So the four Gospels that tell of “things Jesus did,” minus the overlapping portions shared by two or more Gospels, would be even slimmer. (And speaking of the “world” being unable to “contain the books,” the Fourth Gospel writers were apparently not granted the ability to foresee that one day we might be able to store whole libraries in a laptop computer).

Among those “many other things which Jesus did,” some of them can no doubt be found in the bevy of other Gospels and Acts that believers continued to write over time. One of which (The Gospel of Nicodemus) expanded on the incident in Matthew of “the raising of the many” (identifying them as “Adam and Eve” and some Hebrew prophets like “Isaiah”). Other such Gospels told about miracles Jesus allegedly performed in his infancy and youth. And one (the Gospel of Peter) even told about Jesus stepping out of his opened tomb followed by a talking cross. The fact that the last Gospel of the four had the longest number of words of the resurrected Jesus, and ended with a statement about “many other things Jesus did,” and the “books” they could fill, only provides evidence of the fourth Gospel being written later when legends were increasing.

What is “missing” is anything convincing about the resurrection sayings of Jesus. In the Gospels they grow from no sayings (Mark) to increasingly more wordy statements (Matthew, Luke, John), and they seem like statements that devout church leaders could and would have put into the resurrected Jesusʼ mouth to suit the early churchʼs belief in its own heavenly centrality and broadening missionary ideals. Like when Matthewʼs resurrected Jesus says, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Or when Lukeʼs resurrected Jesus says, “Repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” Or when Johnʼs resurrected Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you. Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Why? Why are those blessed who believe without seeing? Because credulity pleases God Almighty? Then we should also believe the creation accounts too, as written, right? Because Jesus mentioned Adam and Eve and Noah like they were genuine folks and related to genuine events that God had a hand in, right? Where and when exactly does “not believing” or asking questions become a virtue? Instead, I believe it is unfortunate that “Religions promise a reward for excellence of the will or heart, but none for excellence of the head or understanding.” (Arthur Schopenhauer) “I do not believe that the same God who endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect had intended for us to forgo their use.” (Galileo)

“The silly fanatic repeats to me that it is not for us to judge what is reasonable and just in the divine Being. That His reason is not like our reason, that His justice is not like our justice. Eh? How, you mad demoniac, shall we judge justice and reason otherwise than by the notions we have of them? Do you want us to walk otherwise than with our feet, and speak otherwise than with our mouths?” (Voltaire)

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