Timothy Keller: “The literary form of the gospels is too detailed to be legend.”

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by Neil Godfrey

This post relates to an earlier one on Keller here.

Timothy Keller in The Reason for God makes an astonishing claim meant to reinforce the argument that the gospels could not possibly be fictional:

The literary form of the gospels is too detailed to be legend.

Modern fiction . . . contains details and dialogue and reads like an eyewitness account. . . . In ancient times, romances, epics, or legends were high and remote — details were spare and only included if they promoted character development or drove the plot. . . . In modern novels, details are added to create the aura of realism, but that was never the case in ancient fiction.

The gospel accounts are not fiction. In Mark 4, we are told that Jesus was asleep on a cushion in the stern of a boat. In John 21 we are toldthat Peter was a hundred yards out in the water when he saw Jesus on the beach. He then jumped out of the boat and together they caught 153 fish. . . . None of these details are relevant to the plot or character  development at all. If you or I were making up an exciting story about Jesus, we would include such remakrs just to fill out the story’s air of realism. But that kind of fictional writing was unknown in the first century. The only explanation for why an ancient writer would mention the cushion, the 153 fish . . . . is because the details had been retained in the eyewitnesses’ memory. (pp. 106-107 — underlining is my emphasis)

Timothy Keller has clearly never read any (or certainly very very little) ancient fiction from the Greco-Roman period spanning the time of the gospels.

Unfortunately my own collection of ancient Greek novels (spanning b.c.e. to c.e.) is back in Australia, but there is still enough translated content online to give anyone interested the ability to assess Keller’s assertion that the gospels, because they include realistic details that do not advance the plot, are unlike any ancient fiction and therefore can only be understood as records of eyewitness testimony.

More than a match for Mark’s “cushion in the boat” detail

If one wants an ancient fictional counterpart to the detail in Mark of Jesus sleeping on a cushion, how about this description concerning a famous Greek hero who went to sleep on a boat:

As he spoke he crossed the threshold, and Alkinoos sent a man to conduct him to his ship and to the sea shore. Arete also sent some maid servants with him – one with a clean shirt and cloak, another to carry his strong-box, and a third with grain and wine. When they got to the water side the crew took these things and put them on board, with all the meat and drink; but for Odysseus they spread a rug and a linen sheet on deck that he might sleep soundly in the stern of the ship. . . .Thereon, when they began rowing out to sea, Odysseus fell into a deep, sweet, and almost deathlike slumber. (Homer’s Odyssey, 13.63)

“In modern novels, details are added to create the aura of realism, but that was never the case in ancient fiction”? I submit that a spread out rug and linen sheet in the stern of a ship beats a mere cushion for realistic detail in any age.

The identities and the voyages of the Argonauts

From the ancient romance of Jason and the Argonauts in their quest for the golden fleece, by Apollonius

Book 1 of this novel (the Argonautica) begins with a list of not just 12 names who will follow the hero, Jason, but with 50 – and each of the 50 names is described with some unique detail that in most cases will have nothing whatever to do with advancing the plot. Apollonius is a master of infusing his narrative with “realistic details”. One example of his love for detail that serves no purpose other than to encourage the audience to sit back and picture the events unfolding “realistically” in their minds’ eye:

And straightway the misty land of the Pelasgians, rich in cornfields, sank out of sight, and ever speeding onward they passed the rugged sides of Pelion; and the Sepian headland sank away, and Sciathus appeared in the sea, and far off appeared Piresiae and the calm shore of Magnesia on the mainland and the tomb of Dolops; here then in the evening, as the wind blew against them, they put to land, and paying honour to him at nightfall burnt sheep as victims, while the sea was tossed by the swell: and for two days they lingered on the shore, but on the third day they put forth the ship, spreading on high the broad sail. And even now men call that beach Aphetae of Argo.

On meeting a companion

Some web filters would block much detail from Petronius’s Satyricon, but enough can be salvaged to publicly belie Keller’s fatuous claim:

After running about almost over the city, I caught sight of Giton, as it were a fog, standing at the corner of an alley close to the door of our inn, and hurried to join him. I asked my favorite whether he had got anything ready for our dinner, whereupon the lad sat down on the bed and began wiping away the tears with his thumb. Much disturbed at my favorite’s distress, I demanded what had happened. For a long time I could not drag a word out of him, not indeed till I had added threats to prayers. Then he reluctantly told me. . . .

He didn’t just see Giton, he saw him “at the corner of an alley” and “close to the door” and not just any door, but the one “of our inn”. And the two didn’t just begin to speak — that is all the plot would have required, and the character development — but he spoke while he “sat down on the bed”, etc etc etc. . . .

Can this ancient account, so rich in detail that was never the case in ancient fiction (Keller!), really have no explanation other than being derived from eyewitness testimony?

On getting off his horse

Another any reader can consult online is The Golden Ass by Lucius Apuleius. (The translation is 16th century but I have updated the spelling.)

As I fortuned to take my voyage into Thessaly, about certain affairs which I had to do (for there my ancestry by my mothers side inhabits, descended of the line of that most excellent person Plutarch, and of Sextus the Philosopher his Nephew, which is to us a great honour) and after that by much travel and great pain I had passed over the high mountains and slippery valleys, and had ridden through the cloggy fallowed fields; perceiving that my horse did wax somewhat slow, and to the intent likewise that I might repose and strengthen my self (being weary with riding) I lighted off my horse, and wiping the sweat from every part of his body, I unbridled him, and walked him softly in my hand, to the end he might piss, and ease himself of his weariness and travel: and while he went grazing freshly in the field (casting his head sometimes aside, as a token of rejoycing and gladness) I perceived a little before me two companions riding, and so I overtaking them made a third. . . .

Riding through slippery valleys, cloggy fallowed fields, wiping the sweat from the horse’s body, letting his horse have a piss, seeing its head shake from side to side. . . .

And Thomas Keller claims in a best selling religious tract that the ancients did not use realistic detail to portray fiction!

The story of Atlantis by Plato

This, by Keller’s lights, is the truest of all, since it not only recreates an ancient civilization in amazing detail, but is introduced with many assertions that it really is indeed a true story. And the richness of the detail in how the story came to be known by Critias has convinced many even today that the tale really does have a verifiable lineage. It doesn’t, of course. Plato in the same and other books regularly makes up myths to teach his philosophy.

In Timaeus it is declared of Atlantis:

Listen then, Socrates, to a tale which, though passing strange, is yet wholly true, as Solon, the wisest of the Seven, once upon a time declared.

The details are saved for a subsequent volume: Critias 114ff

. . . but it was the eldest, who, as king, always passed on the scepter to the eldest of his sons, and thus they preserved the sovereignty for many generations; and the wealth they possessed was so immense that the like had never been seen before in any royal house nor will ever easily be seen again; and they were provided with everything of which provision was needed either in the city or throughout the rest of the country. For because of their headship they had a large supply of imports from abroad, and the island itself furnished most of the requirements of daily life,—metals, to begin with, both the hard kind and the fusible kind, which are extracted by mining, and also that kind which is now known only by name but was more than a name then, there being mines of it in many places of the island,—I mean “orichalcum,” which was the most precious of the metals then known, except gold. It brought forth also in abundance all the timbers that a forest provides for the labors of carpenters; and of animals it produced a sufficiency, both of tame and wild. Moreover, it contained a very large stock of elephants; for there was an ample food-supply not only for all the other animals which haunt the marshes and lakes and rivers, or the mountains or the plains, but likewise also for this animal, which of its nature is the largest and most voracious. And in addition to all this, it produced and brought to perfection all those sweet-scented stuffs which the earth produces now, whether made of roots or herbs or trees, or of liquid gums derived from flowers or fruits. The cultivated fruit also, and the dry, which serves us for nutriment, and all the other kinds that we use for our meals—the various species of which are comprehended under the name “vegetables”— and all the produce of trees which affords liquid and solid food and unguents, and the fruit of the orchard-trees, so hard to store, which is grown for the sake of amusement and pleasure, and all the after-dinner fruits that we serve up as welcome remedies for the sufferer from repletion,—all these that hallowed island, as it lay then beneath the sun, produced in marvellous beauty and endless abundance. And thus, receiving from the earth all these products, they furnished forth their temples and royal dwellings, their harbors and their docks, and all the rest of their country, ordering all in the fashion following.

First of all they bridged over the circles of sea which surrounded the ancient metropolis, making thereby a road towards and from the royal palace. And they had built the palace at the very beginning where the settlement was first made by their God and their ancestors; and as each king received it from his predecessor, he added to its adornment and did all he could to surpass the king before him, until finally they made of it an abode amazing to behold for the magnitude and beauty of its workmanship. For, beginning at the sea, they bored a channel right through to the outermost circle, which was three plethra in breadth, one hundred feet in depth, and fifty stades in length; and thus they made the entrance to it from the sea like that to a harbor by opening out a mouth large enough for the greatest ships to sail through. Moreover, through the circles of land, which divided those of sea, over against the bridges they opened out a channel leading from circle to circle, large enough to give passage to a single trireme; and this they roofed over above so that the sea-way was subterranean; for the lips of the landcircles were raised a sufficient height above the level of the sea. The greatest of the circles into which a boring was made for the sea was three stades in breadth, and the circle of land next to it was of equal breadth; and of the second pair of circles that of water was two stades in breadth and that of dry land equal again to the preceding one of water; and the circle which ran round the central island itself was of a stade’s breadth.

One can read the rest — the detail becoming ever more baroque — at http://tinyurl.com/ogzgg6

Given the suffeit of detail in the Atlantis account, by Timothy Keller’s claims we have far more reasons to believe Atlantis was a fact than anything in the gospels.

Letters as fiction with many touches of realism

Another form of ancient fiction was letter writing, including the creation of collections of letters to form a kind of novel. I have made my notes on Rosenmeyer’s discussion of this ancient fiction available at Ancient Epistolary Fictions on this blog.

In this work Patricia Rosenmeyer discusses in detail how budding authors were taught the art of creating realism in their fictional works by the inclusion of incidental and personal details.

The Gospel of John with novelistic features

Keller cites the 153 fish detail in the Gospel of John as reason to believe this gospel is not fiction. Scholar Jo-Ann Brant would disagree. She has written a study demonstrating the novelistic motifs throughout this Gospel.

Again I have notes from her work on this blog: Novelistic plot and motifs in the Gospel of John.

A woman weeping at a tomb

For the sake of a little irony it is appropriate to round this post off with another passage from Petronius’s Satyricon (ch.13). Here is a narrative incorporating little details that don’t seem to advance the plot or add to character development, but is about a widow weeping over her cadaverized husband in a tomb, with two crucified bodies still hanging outside nearby, and a Roman soldier. In the end the corpse is no longer found in the tomb but back on a cross.

So deep was her affliction, neither family nor friends could dissuade her from these austerities and the purpose she had formed of perishing of hunger. Even the Magistrates had to retire worsted after a last but fruitless effort. All mourned as virtually dead already a woman of such singular determination, who had already passed five days without food.

A trusty handmaid sat by her mistress’s side, mingling her tears with those of the unhappy woman, and trimming the lamp which stood in the tomb as often as it burned low. . . .

Meantime, as it fell out, the Governor of the Province ordered certain robbers to be crucified in close proximity to the vault where the matron sat bewailing the recent loss of her mate. Next night the soldier who was set to guard the crosses to prevent anyone coming and removing the robbers’ bodies to give them burial, saw a light shining among the tombs and heard the widow’s groans. . . .  Accordingly he descended into the tomb, where beholding a lovely woman, he was at first confounded, thinking he saw a ghost or some supernatural vision. But presently the spectacle of the husband’s dead body lying there, and the woman’s tear-stained and nail-torn face, everything went to show him the reality, how it was a disconsolate widow unable to resign herself to the death of her helpmate. He proceeded therefore to carry his humble meal into the tomb, and to urge the fair mourner to cease her indulgence in grief so excessive, and to leave off torturing her bosom with unavailing sobs. . . .  But the lady, only shocked by this offer of sympathy from a stranger’s lips, began to tear her breast with redoubled vehemence, and dragging out handfuls of her hair, she laid them on her husband’s corpse.

Given that this was written in ancient times when, supposedly, “adding little details for realistic effect was unknown”, would the little details here — the number of days without food, the mistress trimming the lamp as it burned low, the particular night in question, the good-looks of the woman, the pulling her hair out and laying it on her husband’s corpse — prove this to be an eyewitness report?

Re-reading some of the ancient fiction for this post I was reminded of another classic description of the most fabulous detail and famous throughout so much of antiquity — the description of the shield of Achilles. The details on this shield were popular enough to be emulated by Virgil for Aeneas, and by Apollonius for his cloak of Jason. A partial translation and summary of the details can be read at this Wikipedia article.

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Neil Godfrey

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13 thoughts on “Timothy Keller: “The literary form of the gospels is too detailed to be legend.””

    In Mark 4, we are told that Jesus was asleep on a cushion in the stern of a boat.

    The only time Jesus is shown sleeping in the NT is in a tiny boat in the middle of such a severe storm that experienced fishermen were frightened for their lives.

    Possibly Jesus was just a heavy sleeper….

    In Jonah the sailors and Jonah are in a boat during a dreadful storm just as in Mark 4 the disciples and Jesus are on a boat. The sailors look for Jonah and find him asleep. The disciples look for Jesus and find him asleep.

    A best selling commentary on Matthew in the UK is by J.C.Fenton, who was Principal of Lichfield Theological College. He says about Matthew 8:24 ‘but he was asleep recalls Jonah 1:5, Jonah …was fast asleep.’

    He says about Matthew 8:25:- ‘they went and woke him, saying, Save (soson), Lord (kyrie), we are perishing. (apollymetha) Cf Jonah 1:6, So the captain came and said to him, What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call upon your God (Kyrie)! Perhaps your God will give a thought to us. (Greek ‘save us’ diasose), that we do not perish (apollometha). He says about Matthew 8:27 ‘And the men (hoi de anthropoi)… Are they an echo of Jonah 1:16 -Then the men (hoi andres) feared the Lord exceedingly.?’ When else does Matthew call the disciples ‘the men’?

    Mark also is quite aware that the story comes from Jonah, as he also draws heavily upon it.

    In both Mark 4 and Jonah the witnesses after the sea-calming miracle are portrayed as afraid and awe-struck. In Mark 4 ‘feared with great fear (ephobethesan phobon megan)’. In Jonah (LXX) ‘feared the men with great fear’ (ephobethesan hoi andres phobon megan)

    And Keller claims this is too detailed to be fiction?

    1. CARR
      The only time Jesus is shown sleeping in the NT is in a tiny boat in the middle of such a severe storm that experienced fishermen were frightened for their lives.

      Possibly Jesus was just a heavy sleeper….

      Ah, but the disciples gave him his due pay-back by sleeping their heads off for him in Gethsemane!

  2. Robert M. Price, in _The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man_ (pg. 158), notes that the story of the miraculous draught of fishes in John 21 is probably borrowed from legends about the life of Pythagoras, who performed a similar miracle that hinged on his being able to accurately predict the number of fish in a catch (if he predicted correctly, the legend goes, the fishermen agreed they would return the fish to the water unharmed — Pythagoras was a vegetarian).

    As Price notes, “John’s version retains unassimilated marks of the Pythagorean original, namely, the fact that the fishermen counted the fish as well as the specific number of them, 153. Can one really picture these men carrying on inventory as usual if they now realized their crucified master had risen from the dead? ‘The rest of you fellows go have breakfast with the resurrected Son of God. I’ll count the fish.’ Not likely. The element of counting the fish makes sense only in the Pythagorean original, where the vegetarian sage’s supernormal wisdom enabled him to intuit the exact number.”

    Price goes on to note that while no specific number is cited in the Pythagorean legend, the number 153 in the Johannine story is a Pythagorean “triangular” number (see for a description), i.e., numbers that are the result of the formula n x (n +1) ÷ 2 (hence 153 is a triangular number because 17 x 18 ÷ 2 = 153).

    So given the unlikelihood that the apostles would have bothered with trivially counting fish when faced with Jesus’ momentous resurrection, plus the Pythagorean nature of the number 153, if anything the Johannine story seems to go out of its way to include details demonstrating that it is a FICTION rather than an eyewitness historical account. Tim Keller is a such a boob!

  3. I see the URL I included in the 3rd paragraph of my post didn’t show up! Cf. the Wikipedia entry for “Triangular number”, and follow the first external link at the bottom of the page to the site “cut-the-knot” for an easier to follow explanation. You know, because math is hard!

    Also read “when faced WITH Jesus’ momentous resurrection” in the 4th paragraph.

    1. Have fixed this for you.

      Glad you took the time to explain that 153 number. The point is reinforced by the fact that the Gospel of John is replete with passages that show an author fascinated with working with numerical patterns — whole pericopes structured so that a key thematic word appears dead set in the exact numerical middle of the passage, etc. — Numerical Literary Techniques in John. This sort of playing with numbers — and we know numbers so often have a mystical significance among ancient philosophers — also makes the gospel even more uncomfortably close to some of the gnostic texts than it already is with its long revelatory mystery discourses.

  4. My problem is that I can only really seriously read 1 book at a time so Helms has been sitting on my shelf since I can’t remember when. But with that comment of yours I must look at it soon.

    I think in many respects MacDonald’s arguments have been too much underrated and misrepresented as some sort of fatuous parallelomania. One thing that sets the Gospel of Mark apart from the rest is its sophisticated weaving of sources Jewish and gentile at levels of both plot and subtext.

  5. Drat, pa2rick beat me to the punch. Yeah, RMPrice did show how much of the gospel narrative is taken from stories well known in the greek speaking world in the first century. I’d also like to point out that Dennis MacDonald suggests that GMark is inspired by the epics of Homer. And Randel Helms, in his book Gospel Fictions, shows how much of the Gospels is taken, even word for word, from the Septuagint.

  6. I’m not saying you should read it right away. 🙂 Richard Carrier praised Helms’ methodology by showing, instead of just drawing parallels, how the Gospels copied the Septuagint. It makes me want to learn koine greek (but I need to master english first).

  7. I think what Keller is saying is that ancient fiction didn’t use details to give a “reportage” type effect like modern fiction does.
    Greek myths, (like The Odyssey and Jason…), were not believed by people to actually be true, even when they were written.
    The Gospels however were written as actual history and were believed, (by Christians), to be true at the time. The inclusion of details like “Jesus was asleep on a cushion in the stern of the boat”, was unheard of in HISTORY writing, not fiction writing. Thus some feel that gives the Gospels more credibility.
    A WIKIarticle on the Gospel of Mark has a whole paragraph on the new literary genre created with the Gospels.

    1. Rick_H “I think what Keller is saying is that ancient fiction didn’t use details to give a “reportage” type effect like modern fiction does.”

      Neil: Keller says no such thing. Your rationalization of what he is “saying” is wishful thinking. I have quoted word for word what he said, and if you can find any other quotation to qualify it then go ahead.

      Rick, where on earth did you hear that ancient people did not believe their myths? In what context? With what evidence? Sure there were a few here and there who from time to time expressed doubts, but as for the people in general, no way.

      Fact: Plato wrote extensively in his Republic and elsewhere how people believe their myths all too well, and it was his hope to give them more refined myths to believe in their place; Herodotus wrote historical narratives where people where fooled into believing they had seen their mythical gods in the flesh, having come down from heaven; other inscriptions inform us that people made long pilgrimages to temples for healings based on faith in the “myths” of their gods; how many made sacrifices for something they “knew wasn’t true”? Was Alexander inspired by what he believed was a myth of the Iliad he kept beside his be each night? The Book of Acts even tells us how strongly the pagans believed their own myths when they were on the brink of declaring Paul and Barnabas to be Zeus and Hermes.

      Ancient historians did indeed use descriptive details to add colour to their histories — Herodotus, Josephus, Polybius, Livy etc. See an earlier discussion where this point of ancient histories is discussed at http://vridar.wordpress.com/2007/11/27/the-literary-genre-of-acts-4-historians-models-comparing-josephus/

      But if as you (not Keller) suggests that they were used to seeing descriptive detail in fiction then surely they would simply assume that the gospels were fiction, yes?

      The Wikipedia article on the gospel correctly says “Some have suggested that the author created a new, mixed genre . . . ” and cites one scholar in support. Charles Talbert, in “What is a Gospel”, demonstrates the ways the gospels fit in with certain types of cult biography genres.

      It sounds like you are relying entirely on what apologists are saying and what they want you to believe (and probably what they believe too, since it appears few if any have ever really looked at the facts). I encourage you to read a few ancient histories for yourself and see just how knowledgable or ignorant their claims really are. Ancient rhetoricians taught that all writing, even histories, needed descriptive colour to maintain the interest of audiences. I have posted many posts here illustrating how this was accomplished in both historical and fictional genres.

  8. Agreed. Keller was wrong.
    My statement on Greek myths was probably something I read by an apologist. But Timothy Jay Alexander, author of three books on Hellenistic thought and administrator of website: http://hellenismos.us said-

    “The Ancient Greeks generally saw Greek myth as allegory, even if it spoke of historic events. We definately do not want people seeing Greek myths in the same literal sense as Christians do their own. That would be unreasoned and very “unGreek”. Additionally many ancient Greeks wrote on the subject of Christians believing their myths to be literal, and saw this as a weakness in their thinking. Stooping to the level of Christians provides no benefit.”

    1. Timothy Jay Alexander’s profile on Amazon.com says:

      Timothy Jay Alexander, author of several books on modern Hellenismos, has been a practicing “Pagan” since 1985. He began his personal spiritual journey as a Solitary Wiccan, but found the religion did not truly reflect his spiritual beliefs. Beginning in 1991, Timothy started to self-identify as an Eclectic Pagan until in 2001, when he found his true spiritual path as a Hellenic Polytheistic Reconstructionist.

      Timothy A is preaching what he believes to be true according to his own personal (Wiccan) beliefs about the pagan myths.

      Against Alexander’s claim you quote we have the facts demonstrating that ancient Greeks did indeed believe their myths. The confusion comes from the fact that the Hellenistic world spanned multiple centuries and classes of peoples. There was in later antiquity a movement among some of the more highly educated Greeks to allegorize their myths. This for a time coincided with Christian tendencies to allegorize the stories of the Old Testament in order to make them refer to Christ or higher spiritual principles. But as I pointed out in my earlier post, even the Book of Acts tells us that the pagans believed their myths, so much so that they were willing to offer sacrifices to Paul and Barnabas as pagan gods having returned again to visit their city.

      1. Excuse me, but I am not a Wiccan. I am a practitioner of Hellenismos (the name used to identify the revived traditional polytheistic religion of Ancient Greece).

        My out of the box statement regarding myth is:

        ‘The myths are a great source for gaining an understanding of the Gods. We must appreciate though, that Hellenismos and the ancient Greek religion are unique in that the Gods are not their myths. The versions we read today were the versions written from the perspective of a specific author. As Socrates said, “The poets are only the interpreters of Gods.” Mythology is not (and was never) considered religious creed; they are incorporated into hymns, but have little to do with actual worship. In myth, imagination was not limited by any concerns regarding religion or morality. Also, the list of beings worshiped in myth does not exactly coincide with those in regular worship. There are the primary Gods in both lists, but many of the “inferior” beings like nymphs, satyrs, and centaurs are and were (if ever) rarely worshiped. Myths also exclude many “lesser” spirits honored by specific locations or they are rarely mentioned. Finally, where the list of Gods in myth and religion do match, myth presents them as literary archetypes with the exclusion of their many roles and complex nature.’

        Essentially, there was nothing that even comes close to be called scriptural canon, and myth cannot be (and was not) used for establishing doctrine or defining practice.

        I realize it is difficult to understand after 1500+ years of Christian dominance, but the fact is myth is not creed within the Hellenic religion. I recommend reading “Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths?” by Paul Veyne as an introduction to this subject.

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