Mainstream scholars struggle trying to explain why the Gospel authors included clearly symbolic — nonhistorical — tales about Jesus in their gospel narratives.
Marcus J. Borg, Mark Allan Powell, Dale C. Allison, Roger David Aus, John Dominic Crossan, John Shelby Spong and Robert Gundry are some of the scholars who acknowledge tales such as the virgin birth, Jesus walking on water, the transfiguration, the miracles of the loaves, the resurrection appearances are fabrications, metaphors.
(So much for that argument that there were enough surviving eyewitnesses or people who knew eyewitnesses to keep the evangelists honest!)
Marcus J. Borg writes of stories like Jesus and Peter walking on water, the turning the water into wine at the Cana wedding, and the virgin birth:
Purely metaphorical narratives . . . are not based on the memory of particular events, but are symbolic narratives created for their metaphorical meaning. As such, they are not meant as historical reports. (p. 57, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary)
Dale C. Allison informs us that Borg is not alone in this view. He names Robert Gundry and John Dominic Crossan as two scholars on opposite sides of an ideological continuum sharing it. (I have linked their names to their Wikipedia entries where some examples are cited.) Allison quotes Crossan flatly rejecting the nature miracles as historical reports and insisting they were originally intended to be read as parables to illustrate the spiritual power of Jesus in believers’ lives.
Allison also quotes Roger David Aus arguing a point very similar to what we read in Spong’s books, that the Gospels contain much haggadah whose metaphorical meanings were lost when the church became predominantly gentile. And far from ridiculing Spong’s status as a scholar when he argues the same point as some scholars do, Allison epitomizes his arguments in a lengthy footnote in the same context here. Before I address a reviewer of Spong whom Allison also cites, note Allison’s own acceptance of the fact that the Gospels contain unhistorical details:
So even though I concur with Borg that there are unhistorical stories in the Gospels, he has not, in my judgment, established that the evangelists were, on this matter, of the same mind. I am still left asking, What reasons might one have for supposing that, on this or that occasion, the authors of the canonical Gospels knew themselves to be writing a sort of edifying fiction, to be recounting things that never really happened? (p. 441 of Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History)
Mark Allan Powell in his review of Spong’s thesis accepts that many of the Gospel narrative details had metaphorical meanings, but he does not accept Spong’s argument that the first readers of the gospels knew they were symbolic tales. He sees the gospels written in such a way as to indicate that readers were expected to believe the stories they contained as true events. The scriptural references attached to the stories were added to reassure readers that God was acting in familiar ways, Powell reasons.
This poses a problem and Powell raises it bluntly. If the authors told metaphorical tales in a way that they expected them to be believed as historical, knowing they were not historical, then the authors were lying or foolishly self-deceived and guilty of encouraging many others to believe things that cost them dearly.
Why would the authors do such things? Powell’s suggestion is that they must have felt that it would be easier for audiences to accept the deeper spiritual or metaphorical meanings of the “Easter event” if they could first believe in “simpler” events like a literal series of miracles such as raising the dead and walking on water.
In short, I believe that the poetic, metaphorical function of the biblical stories may indeed have expressed the evangelist’s primary and ultimate intent (as Spong, Borg, and others insist). Nevertheless, a referential, historical function was also deemed significant precisely because it was the means to that ultimate end. Why did Matthew tell the story of Jesus (and Peter) walking on water (Mt. 14.22-33)? Was it his intention to convince people that these two historical persons literally did walk on water at a specific place and time? Yes, but getting people to accept that historical fact was surely not his ultimate intent. He wanted to persuade people to believe that faith in Jesus would help them to rise above the storms in their life and keep them form being subdued by that which they feared. Matthew hopes that his readers will be assisted in believing that the post-Easter [Jesus] will do this for them by believing that the pre-Easter Jesus did something analogous to this (but in an observable, literal way) for Peter. Mere acceptance of the historical, referential sense of these narratives is only part of what the evangelists wanted; it is, however, part of what they wanted, if only because it is what they assumed would facilitate the fuller acceptance. (pp. 244-45, Authorial Intent and Historical Reporting: Putting Spong’s Literalization Thesis to the Test. JSHJ 1.2 (2003), 225-249, my emphasis)
I can’t think of a more apt example of the “noble lie“. “Pious fiction” has such a tawdry ring to it.
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43 thoughts on “Explaining the noble lies (or pious fiction) in the Gospels”
I don’t think NT scholars ‘struggle’ to explain the metaphorical bits. Many scholars understand that it is the most natural thing in the world that the historical gets mixed with the non-historical. Even your good friend James McGrath accepts this and does not struggle with it one bit.
The question here, though, is did the authors of the gospels and their earliest audiences understand the non-historical passages as such. And, if so, what stopped them from understanding the entire narratives as symbolic fictions? McGrath may not struggle with the idea that the non-historical and the historical can be “mixed” in the same narrative. But he struggles mightily with the critiques of the criteria by which he maintains we can tell the difference. And if he doesn’t struggle with the question of how such stories as Jesus walking on water were received then I suppose it follows that he can answer the question?
Borg, Powell and Allison certainly struggle with understanding how authors could present symbolic stories in a way that they would be read as historical fact. Powell is the most blunt though Borg and Allison write pages struggling to find an answer, too. Allison even raises the question of whether scholars are right in thinking of the Gospels as biographies. Ancient biographies also include fables about historical persons but the authors make it clear when they are writing fable or if they have doubts about the genuineness of the story. Allison acknowledges that this is not the way the Gospels are written.
I find Allison, Borg and others much more stimulating reading than anything McGrath says. McGrath is black and white and simply withdraws from debate and returns to his original contention whenever he can no longer reply. His attacks on mythicism are an unfortunate distraction from the much more nuanced works of bigger names in the field of historical Jesus studies and whose works are much more deserving of time and discussion.
I should add that much of their struggle is expressed in often lengthy speculative discussions attempting to save the ethics of the authors — searching for plausible rationalizations for how the authors came to write historical falsehoods in ways that were quickly if not immediately understood as historically true.
Sure some scholars will say there is no problem when addressing sceptics. But read what they are saying in their own discussions among themselves and you soon see they are not so confident they know the answers after all.
On April 22, 2002, Pat Tillman was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan. Tillman had given up a lucrative career in professional football to enlist in the U.S. Army. The Army reported that Tillman had been killed by enemy fire.
I’m guessing that the Army didn’t think that it was reporting Tillman’s death symbolically. I suspect rather that they felt the invented story somehow represented the quality of Tillman’s character and sacrifice more truly than the real story.
By the same token, I suspect that the authors of the gospels truly believed that the stories they told accurately reflected Jesus’ character and the meaning of his mission. I doubt that the question of what really happened even entered their minds.
When the stories were created, everyone in the religious community understood that they were fictions. They all understood that Jesus Christ descended down through the Heavens to the Firmament, where he went through a crucifixion, death, burial and resurrection and then ascended back up into the Heavens. That was the basic story about which they all agreed. They all agreed that Jesus Christ never descended to Earth and never interacted with human beings there.
Nevertheless some of the community’s members began to make up stories about what would happen if Jesus Christ did descend to Earth and interact with human beings. However, all the people telling the stories and all the people reading or hearing the stories understood and agreed they were fictions. Since they were fictions, they might include miraculous deeds, but nobody wasted any time or effort thinking or arguing about whether the deeds were possible. After all, the deeds were fictions!
Many decades later, especially after the war with Rome, this tiny religious community was dispersed far and wide.
Then, one group of far-flung members (I think in Antioch) came to think that some of these old stories were really true. Jesus Christ really had descended to Earth and interacted with human beings.
Only then and among this group did the miracles become an issue that had to be analyzed and resolved. Which of the old stories were fictions and which were true?
What was the nature of Jesus Christ when he descended to Earth? If he was essentially a human being on this visit to Earth, then he could not do miracles. If, on the other hand, he was essentially still a deity while on Earth, then he could do miracles. The need to resolve the issue of Jesus Christ’s nature on Earth was the reason why the Docetism debate raged in Antioch, where (I think) this belief about some of the stories being true had become established.
Eventually, the men who assembled the gospels — Matthew, Luke and John — believed that Jesus Christ descended to Earth, where he had enough of the nature of a deity that he was able to do miracles. These men believed that their selected stories were true, historical events — not allegories — that really had happened about a century before their own time.
Based in Antioch, which was dominated by a prosperous and capable aristocracy of Christians who were able to commission the copying and distribution of these three works (Matthew, Luke and John), this new religion spread very quickly through Antioch’s Christian diaspora and also quickly penetrated into the Roman aristocracy. Of course, all the people who came to believe these new compilations of stories about a historical Jesus Christ really believed that the stories really were true — that Jesus Christ really had descended to Earth and interacted with human beings and done lots of miracles that only a deity being can do.
I think that the stories about Jesus and Peter walking on water might have originated in the mystical visions about the events on the Firmament. The ground in the Firmament is crystalline and so looks like a motionless ocean of water. Furthermore, this crystalline ground might have been covered by a thin layer of water.
Therefore, when the first Christians climbed to the top of Mount Hermon, from where they were able to see events on the Firmament, they saw a scene where the ground looked like an ocean of motionless water. When Jesus or anyone else on the Firmament walked around, it looked like they were walking on water.
These visions also might have included a few incidents where Peter too was seen walking around on this crystalline surface that looked like motionless water.
Did any of this fabled ‘oral tradition’ include pious lies or non-historical tales? Or were such things restricted to writings?
For we know that if any Gospel author references anything which might have come from ‘oral tradition’, then we are on the trail of authentic data….
Marcus Borg tries valiantly to rescue historical fact from mythical accretion by means of multiple independent attestation. So if it’s found in Q and some other early layer we know we have traversed from the noble liar evangelist to the fearless reporter in search of the facts and nothing but the facts. No, he’s not really so naive. I’m exaggerating a little. But he does wear the assumption that an earlier account is more likely to be more historical. The historical Jesus model rules. The possibility that it’s mythical turtles all the way down never dawns.
But Borg does know that the earliest strata of evidence is mythical. It is at the bedrock layer that he knows we find Jesus being the “Son of God” and the “Wisdom of God”.
But even the facts do not turn on the lights. And how can they? Marcus Borg’s personal identity is enveloped in Jesus — if I understand his discussion in “Meeting Jesus Again for the Fist Time”.
So when you write “NT scholars struggle…..” you mean that a couple of NT scholars appear to struggle…”. Ok, got it. I have spoken to many liberal scholars and none of them “struggle” to explain the non-historical.
NT scholars should be credited for taking seriously the possibility that anything in the Gospels could be historical or non-historical and for doing their best (however hard this may be) to separate the two. There is much sensible work between the two extremes of the conservative Christian “everything is historical” and the atheist skeptic “everything is non-historical”.
You seem to be missing the struggle that I am addressing. It is what was going on in the minds of the authors that is the struggle. I suggest many who don’t struggle with this don’t even stop to think deeply about the issues involved. Read Borg and Allison and Powell and co and you will find many many pages of struggle of which your contacts and many others are blissfully unaware.
And I don’t accept that one must somehow default to somewhere between polarities. I see no reason to think that rational inquiry should take us somewhere in the middle of supposed extremes, or how rational inquiry can a priori assume that certain positions are extremes. Let the journey go where reason and evidence leads. Forget what others set up as extreme positions or middle spaces. That’s all artificial construct. It’s not about left or right or middle. It’s about learning and evidence and thinking things through regardless.
I don’t dismiss scholars for a rational approach to their studies. That’s good. I learn a lot from so many of those scholars, too. I wouldn’t bother to write so much about so many of them if I didn’t — and you will find I have written far more often about biblical scholars whose works I respect or learn much from than about those I criticize.
But I think there are legitimate criticisms to be made and I think my view also has a place — that of one looking at the struggles (not apparent ones, and more than two) as an outsider looking in. I am not a Christian and feel no need to say only nice things about Christianity or Christian points of view and to always be pointing out how well-meaning they are. And they are, no doubt, many and most of them, very well meaning and well-intentioned. But they also, I believe, have faults that they as a whole simply don’t recognize and that they would reject. But I’m not addressing those people and feel no obligation to avoid offending those people at all costs. This blog was often among the top ten of the biblioblogs but no-one congratulated its success and they subsequently changed the rules to exclude it altogether from their rankings, so they are clearly not my audience. I write from the benefit of my own experiences and interests to share with others whose journeys sometimes touch the paths where I have been or still am.
Evidence? So what evidence do you have that everything in the Gospels is non-historical?
What evidence do you have that everything in the collected stories regarding Sherlock Holmes is non-historical?
I am responding to Neil’s claim that he is just going where reason and evidence lead. So if the suggestion is that everything in the Gospels is non-historical I’d like to know what evidence leads to this view.
Bill it’s a serious question and your non-response is telling. You seem to think that non-historical people leave evidence. They don’t. They didn’t exist, and therefore don’t leave any evidence. So a person like Sherlock Holmes is widely believed to be a fictional character. What evidence do you have that he is non-historical?
Sherlock Holmes was a non-historical person who happens to get mail nearly every day from people who appear to be convinced that he really existed (or still exists).
Holmes apologists might call Doyle a liar, but perhaps they should step back and ask themselves whether they’ve misapprehended the genre of the stories.
Nobody is dogmatically asserting that this is the case. Rather, the point here is the contortions mainstream NT scholars go through to avoid giving the idea (non-historicity) a fair hearing. Stay on topic: if everyone outside of conservative apologists can agree that there is much that is non-historical in the gospel narratives, how and why was the non-historical developed, how was it initially received, and what forces, cultural, literary, liturgical, etc. caused the material to be understood not very much later by patristic writers (and, one presumes, their contemporaries) as the literal, historical and biographical reports of eyewitnesses and intimates? Hypotheses that posit total non-historicity may provide answers to these questions. What is the answer provided by the “mixed history and non-history” hypothesis?
So there is no evidence that everything in the Gospels is non-historical? Ok, thank you.
Don’t be such a jackass. I said that nobody was dogmatically asserting that. The evidence for the possibility is manifold, and a goodly percentage of the posts on Neil’s site that deal with the gospels discuss the evidence. Do try to keep up. You’re just asking to be spoon-fed a soundbite on an incredibly complex topic, and then acting as if the failure to comply with such an intentionally unreasonable request has any significance. It’s creationist-grade pseudo-argumentation.
Do you have any evidence there is any good reason to feed a troll who’s making a straw man argument?
“This poses a problem and Powell raises it bluntly. If the authors told metaphorical tales in a way that they expected them to be believed as historical, knowing they were not historical, then the authors were lying or foolishly self-deceived and guilty of encouraging many others to believe things that cost them dearly. Why would the authors do such things? Powell’s suggestion is that they must have felt that it would be easier for audiences to accept the deeper spiritual or metaphorical meanings of the “Easter event” if they could first believe in “simpler” events like a literal series of miracles such as raising the dead and walking on water.”
I’m not familiar with Powell’s book and am wondering if he at all considers the possibility that the first gospel was written by a Gnostic? I know that with only a very few exceptions (e.g. Walter Bauer, “Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity”) mainstream scholars don’t give much consideration to the possibility that Gnostic Christianity arose earlier than proto-orthodoxy, but I thought I would ask anyway. A Gnostic provenance for the original written gospel could explain why its author intended its true character to be misunderstood. I’m thinking, for instance, of someone like Basilides, who wrote what is arguably the earliest gospel and yet boasted that “Not many can know these doctrines, but one in a thousand and two in ten thousand.” Basilides was supposedly a Simonian, and secrecy appears to have been characteristic of Simonians from the beginning. Francis Legge, in his “Forerunners and Rivals of Christianity,” noted that “the very essence of Gnosticism was secrecy for all but the initiated, and if we may judge from the words of the ‘Great Announcement’ (Simon’s ‘Apophasis Megale’)… the Simonians took abundant care when they committed any of their doctrines to writing that the result should be unintelligible without a good deal of previous instruction” (p. 200). So, as I see it, if one is going to investigate why the author of the earliest gospel may have deliberately written in a way that would be misunderstood, a promising place to start would seem to be with the early Gnostics who did not want to be understood by “those on the outside” (Mk. 4:11).
You’ve been reading my mind — or more likely I’ve been reading yours!
I finally decided to splurge and order Walter Bauer’s classic, “Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity”. Neil, have you read this? It could be an interesting book for review at some point.
Free text for the frugal — http://web.archive.org/web/20131031215046/http://jewishchristianlit.com:80/Texts/Bauer/
Thanks very much, Tim! I don’t think I’ll cancel my order, though, for this one. I like having a book (or Kindle) in hand for some of my longer readings. 🙂
Thanks, Pearl. Yes I have read it and it was certainly most interesting. But I have also heard or read that the scholarship has been superseded in places — so I’d like to read it again and follow through some of the ideas that have evolved over time. But in this field it is soon becomes clear that some arguments are simply ignored rather than refuted. So I don’t know what the situation with this work is.
I’d like to read it, too, in relation to evolved ideas, and specifically to those tied to any textual discoveries since his writing that possibly might apply. It’s difficult bypassing concepts like “orthodoxy” and “heresy” to a time before they became prevalent in cultural discourse. But I think it’s an important road to take.
What I’d particularly like to come back to in Bauer is the evidence for early Christianity — in particular the form it took — in Syria. To what extent are Luke’s accounting of Damascus and Antioch an attempt to reclaim for orthodoxy the real seat of visions, Paul’s mission, and the very word “Christian” itself?
Thanks, Neil. I’ll keep that in mind.
Bill — you asked me what evidence I have that everything in the Gospels is non-historical. What I see in the gospels is evidence of narrative creativity on the one hand and no evidence for historicity on the other.
To me the evidence that a story like the raising of the daughter of Jairus is a re-working of a miracle by Elijah is overwhelming. The story makes no sense as a historical event (e.g. telling the parents to not tell anyone about the miracle when half the town was clamoring outside to see what Jesus would do?) Two of the most historically bedrock events in the Gospel of Mark according to E. P. Sanders are John the Baptist’s scene and the cleansing of the Temple, but I have posted in detail what I believe are very solid arguments that even these are crafted entirely from Old Testament passages. I have also posted what I believe are very plausible reasons that some scholars have declared as motives for early Christians making up the scene of Jesus being baptized by John.
I am hard pressed to think of any detail in the Gospel of Mark that cannot be attributed to derivation from the Old Testament scriptures.
I see no episode in Mark that could be considered “too embarrassing” for early Christians to make up. Jesus’ rejection by his family and desertion by his followers and being thought mad are typical motifs that had long served as battle-scars of a “man of God” — they are all certainly part of David’s story.
I see Mark artificially creating metaphorical scenarios — such as when he brackets the two mass feeding miracles with healings of a blind man, and when that second healing is a two-fold action following other doublet actions in which the disciples’ ongolng blindness is the critical issue. This is not the stuff of historical record but of symbolic fiction.
Even the names are symbolic — both personal and topographical, as I have shown often enough.
And Mark says the whole point to the story is that no-one understood Jesus. A teacher who is not understood yet who attracts massive followings — and whose itinerary now matches the travels of Moses and now the famous verse in Isaiah 9? It doesn’t make historical sense but it is a fascinating piece of fiction.
And all the while it is filled with more miracles per page than anything one will find in any genuine biography or history. But the miracles are told matter of factly as if they are real — but they are all meant to be symbolic and mysteriously understood — as when the disciples cannot fathom how the miracle of 12 and then 7 baskets of leftovers relates to Jesus’ ability to walk on water.
The whole tale from 1:1 to 16:8 “screams parable” (Crossan’s words). It screams fiction.
Now scholars like Borg and others read a story of the miraculous and say that if they remove the miraculous they can imagine that there might be something of historical memory in there. But on what basis do they do that? Once you remove the miraculous you have lost completely Mark’s entire point. Mark’s Jesus has no meaning without the miraculous or the mystery.
So we have external evidence that the narrative is literary creativity — that is we can see evidence that Mark has drawn on other literary sources such as the OT.
We have internal evidence that the narrative is fiction and I’ve given some examples above.
It is still possible that there was a historical Jesus and Mark chose to ignore pretty much everything he knew about him and write the above story anyway.
But to know if a story is true or not, or at least based partly on fact, we need something outside the story to give us that confidence. That’s how we can know we can trust just about any and every other piece of ancient biography or history that we do trust as a historical source. We have nothing comparable to help us share the same kind of confidence in Mark.
There may be a Jesus there somewhere, but Mark chose to ignore him. And the other evangelists picked up from where Mark left off, and they were troubled enough by Mark’s clear symbolisms and unnaturalness that they (Matthew and Luke) re-wrote much of his gospel to make it more literal and realistic.
Thanks for your serious reply Neil. I’m pleased to see that not everybody turns to name-calling and insults when I ask a question (not even addressed to them) they do not like.
Yes, many agree there is much symbolism in the Gospels. You say you are hard pressed to think of any detail that cannot be attributed to derivation from OT scriptues. Well, scholars claim there are many details that do not fit the OT scriptures. I’ll have to look up a few examples later when I have the time and then perhaps you could respond.
‘Yes, many agree there is much symbolism in the Gospels. You say you are hard pressed to think of any detail that cannot be attributed to derivation from OT scriptues. Well, scholars claim there are many details that do not fit the OT scriptures. ‘
Isn’t a bit like saying that a certain painting is not a forgery?
OK, in many places the paint is still wet, but scholars have found other places where the paint is dry….
Steven, by your analogy the romantic fiction in the Titanic movie implies that the Titanic did not actually sink. Perhaps only certain core elements in the Gospels are historical, such as Jesus being crucified under Pilate, and the early Christians were primarily concerned about the theological significance of the death (and presumed resurrection) of Jesus. We still see this at the time of Paul. As time passes we see more and more fiction being created to develop a fuller picture of their Christ.
‘Steven, by your analogy the romantic fiction in the Titanic movie implies that the Titanic did not actually sink.’
There is historical stuff in the Gospels. Yes, folks, Jerusalem really did exist, just like the Titanic really did exist.
Even now, trained historians are studying Leonardo Di Caprio’s performance because we are assured that historians get information from fictional movies, because they contain historical elements, just like the Gospels contain historical elements.
And the Hitler Diaries aren’t fake after all, because they do contain some real history.
After all, nothing is fake if it contains some real history somewhere.
Isn’t that how things work, Mr. Warrant? Nothing is a fake if it contains some real history?
I’m glad you agree that your analogy is rediculous.
No, it was you who made the analogy of the Gospels to the movie Titanic, declared that the Titanic existed, and so claimed that the Gospels contained historical elements, just like a Hollywood movie.
Which shows the level you are operating on..
Raise your game, and stop this ludicrous charade that something which contains historical facts can’t be rejected out of hand as fiction, leading to the your ludicrous claim that everything must be shown to be non-historical before you can consign the Hitler Diaries , sorry the Gospels, to the rubbish bin.
Do scholars sift through apocryphal works, looking for historical nuggets? Not that I’ve seen. They more often than not assume there’s nothing of historical value in non-canonical works.
It’s only canonical works that get special treatment. By “special” I mean there is overwhelming consensus that the gospels and the epistles conflict with one another and themselves, that they are unprovenanced and anonymous, and that they contain pious fiction. Some scholars might even admit that they are late. However, they also claim to know that there must be little nuggets of truth in there somewhere. How do they know? Because they are sophisticated. Only extremist fools believe it’s all true or all fiction. Cool guys who wear tweed jackets with patches on the elbows, smoke pipes, and pepper their speech with Latin phrases know the truth always lies somewhere in the middle.
“Why would the authors do such things?”
Because they could? Because it was commonplace? Because it was easy? Because it made for better reading? A better question might be: “Why would they not do this?” Is there evidence that entire tracts got rejected for being too fantastic?
On a science blog a while back, the topic of the use of the word “unicorn” in the Bible came up, and it was defended as a “mistranslation” by a Christian apologist. I asked him how the words for “auroch” and “unicorn” might be so linguistically confused as to cause a “mistranslation”. He didn’t clarify.
Here we have, with the term “unicorn”, not a mistranslation but an interesting rhetorical embellishment. Unicorns were believed to exist, and although no one had seen one, (obviously) they were included in Greek natural history. The change of the text from the Hebrew “auroch” to Greek “unicorn” was approved by ecclesiastic counsel and remained in approved editions for over one thousand years. It certainly made for better reading, and didn’t become embarrassing for a millennium. Since about 1850, most editions of the Bible no longer use the term.
In a world where erudite Greek naturalists and ecclesiastic councils believed in unicorns, by what mechanism would any fantastic claim by any gospel author possibly be challenged?
It’s a tangential point, so I won’t belabor it, but we don’t have any solid information to go on as far as choosing between mistranslation and rhetorical embellishment. It may be that the Hebrew re’em was obscure to the Greek-speaking Alexandrian Jews responsible for the Septuagint translation, and that they simply understood it from the context to mean “a powerful, untameable wild animal”. If they knew the Hebrew words for all the commonplace examples, bulls, stallions, lions, bears, etc. they may have picked monoceros in the sincere belief that the Hebrew text was referring to the unicorn, in which case I think we have to allow that mistranslation would be an accurate characterization of the discrepancy.
In a world where erudite Greek naturalists and ecclesiastic councils believed in unicorns, by what mechanism would any fantastic claim by any gospel author possibly be challenged?
Again, briefly, I think we need to be clear on what we mean by “believed in unicorns”. The medieval depictions of a horse with a horn in its forehead was a later development. The Greek naturalists’ bit of exotica was probably based on garbled descriptions of the rhinoceros. They “believed” in a strange creature living in India with a horn on its head; and they were not entirely incorrect in that belief, just confused as to what the creature looked like exactly, and prone to exaggeration.
The Augustan History (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augustan_History) is generally considered worthless as history though it tells many tales about known historical figures. It does even contain some “historical nuggets” in it but these are really incidental to its primary theme. It would be a bit like using the Gospels as a source to establish that Pilate was governor of Judea and Herod was a king or tetrarch at the same time further north and that Galileans spoke with an accent that was quite distinct to Judean ears. This is similar to using ancient fiction to find out the historical facts about the way ancient people lived, the relations between masters and servants, the gender roles, the threats of brigands, etc.
Ancient “novels” and “historical fiction” were no different from modern counterparts in that they include references to real people and places and customs. See, for example, http://vridar.wordpress.com/2011/02/19/ancient-novels-like-the-gospels-mixing-history-and-myth/ Verisimilitude is necessary for fiction to work.