When literary analysis trumps historical analysis

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by Neil Godfrey

The concluding paragraph of the first chapter of Mandell’s and Freedman’s The Relationship Between Herodotus’ History and Primary History is worth framing. The principle it addresses would, if applied to New Testament studies, relegate to the scrap heap a good deal of scholarship investigating oral sources behind this or that detail in the Gospels.

Since the entire work is a literary artifice, we cannot use any part of it to confirm the orality of the . . . author’s sources. Consequently, the theory that the errors in History prove that the . . . author’s sources were primarily oral is not verifiable. Other hypotheses based on statements within the narrative . . . such as the commonly accepted belief that the . . . author relied on rumor and report must also be discarded. . . . The real author is after all a literary artist, not an historian . .  . . (p. 80)

Oral sources not verifiable? I have never read this objection among Gospel scholarship, though I am sure it must have been made at least a few times, surely, yes?

I have posted on the geographical errors in the Gospel of Mark, for example, showing how an unrealistic itinerary of Jesus makes perfect sense as an imitation of the geographic coordinates of a prophecy in Isaiah. So there goes out the window any discussion based on this detail about the provenance of Mark itself.

Two of the so-called bed-rock historical facts about the life of Jesus (the temple cleansing or action and the baptism of Jesus) are also entirely explicable as literary artifices. It is scarcely possible to read the Gospel of Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism without being struck by how unhistorical the whole scenario is. The Baptist functions exclusively as a literary introduction to Jesus and disappears from the scene the moment Jesus emerges from the water. He is not even privy to the heavenly pronouncement that Jesus is God’s Son. Both this scene and the “Temple cleansing” are extensively drawn from Old Testament motifs and function seamlessly as literary plot devices.

Dare we even say that the crucifixion and resurrection are also most evidently literary plot and theological motifs?  The narratives of Jesus are all aimed at explaining in literary ways the theological significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus, not at recording historical information about his life for its own sake, as is evident from the willingness of each evangelist to change “historical” details for apparent theological agendas and to describe the events exclusively within the framework of a theological literary tradition.

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0 thoughts on “When literary analysis trumps historical analysis”

  1. Neil, the same evidence and simple logic that cause us to doubt the verifiability of the oral tradition apparently have had the opposite effect on some scholars. Rather than see the documents themselves as primary literary expressions of the authors’ doctrinal beliefs, they construe them as “representing one performance of the story.”

    Their unshakable belief in the “vibrant” oral tradition leads them, for instance, to posit that “the story Mark knew continued beyond 16:8, irrespective whether his written Gospel once did.”

    It’s entirely conjecture but a useful fantasy — this process of historical events reflecting an oral tradition that starts with witnesses trying to make sense of what they saw and heard. Yet it’s necessary to hang onto this fantasy in order to “prove” the historicity of the character at the heart of the story.

    One more quote from the quote mine, and then I’ll reveal the source. It seems to us as modern readers that the Gospel of Mark ends abruptly. However, scholars who have a rich imagination believe that Mark and the community of Christians for whom he wrote knew a much larger corpus of stories — an oral tradition of Jesus.

    So we think there’s a lack of closure, but we just don’t see the whole picture. “This lack of closure may perhaps have seemed less problematic in the context of early Christian communities in which visions of the risen Christ were part of their religious experience. It also needs to be placed in the context of a vibrant oral tradition that was both the author’s and the readers’ primary mode of contact with stories about Jesus. There can be no doubt that, even if the written Gospel of Mark ended at 16:8, the story known to the author and his readers did not.”


    I don’t doubt that early Christianity depended on visions of the risen Christ, but I’m not so sanguine about Mark’s role as a mere compiler of oral tradition (or bungling copier of wax tablets). We just don’t know how much is literary invention and how much (if any) is a transcription of oral tradition.

    Funny thing about that phrase — “there can be no doubt.” It always reminds me of the run-up to the Iraq War. Powell and Cheney told us there could be no doubt that Saddam had biological weapons and other battlefield-ready weapons of mass destruction. It seems the more someone protests that we shouldn’t doubt, the more we ought to be suspicious.

    But maybe that’s just me.

    1. ‘ It also needs to be placed in the context of a vibrant oral tradition….’

      That’s the trouble with people who think the entire work of ‘Mark’ might not be intended as history. They don’t put things in context.

      Everybody already knew every single detail of all of the stories that Mark was transcribing,thanks to this vibrant oral tradition. That is why Mark even included the bits that were embarrassing because people already knew all about them, so he dared not leave them out.

      And that is why Paul leaves all of these stories out. People already knew all of them,thanks to this vibrant oral tradition.

    2. I knew where your quote was coming from — had read it at the source 🙂

      I found the article so profound it was jaw-dropping. The author seemed proud enough of it to advertise it in my comments not too long ago. I distinctly recall restraining myself from saying something in my reply along the lines of “If a mythicist presented an argument so lacking in evidential support and so reliant upon supposition and speculation . . . “. (The profundity that dropped my jaw was in the realm of the depths of self-deception and of projection of one’s own sins onto others.)

      1. It is truly amazing just how deep is the lack of any evidence for anything McGrath writes and just how clear it is that this lack of evidence had absolutely no effect on the essay. The lack of evidence had less relevance than what font was selected.

        ‘There can be no doubt that….’

        Gosh, who would have thought that a historian could be so free from doubt. According to the Bible, the disciples doubted the words of a Son of God, but nobody can doubt the words of a McGrath.

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