Why Gospel Fiction was Written as Gospel Truth — a plausible explanation

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by Neil Godfrey

Some New Testament scholars have difficulty with the term “midrash”. Goulder stopped using it because of this, though his student Spong has not followed his lead here. I continue to use the term as generally as Spong does because Jewish scholars themselves, especially a number who are specialists in midrashic and Jewish literary studies, use it the same way as Spong and likewise refer to the Gospels as examples of midrashic literature!

There are different types of midrash. Midrash Halakah is a narrow legalistic type of interpretation; Midrash Haggadah can be expressed in creative and imaginative ways, including extended story-narratives not unlike the narratives found in the Gospels. See:

If, as some argue, the Gospels were really only parables (e.g. Crossan) or midrash (e.g. Goulder/Spong) about Jesus and not “true” histories or biographies, why is it that, as far as we know from the oldest surviving evidence, they have always been read as literal histories or biographies of Jesus? (I am not saying they were universally read as literal biographies of Jesus since we simply don’t know how the first readers interpreted any of them.)

In my previous post I suggested that a simple explanation for the Gospels being a mix of history and fiction is something quite different from the standard view that they are narratives that have been based on oral traditions stemming from historical events and that over time were piously exaggerated. If they are indeed “Jewish novels” not unlike so much other historical-fiction so popular in the Hellenistic era, then how was it that they appear to have been so quickly read as historical “reports”?

Chaim Milikovsky
Chaim Milikovsky

An interesting light has been thrown onto this question, I think, by Chaim Milikowsky in “Midrash as Fiction and Midrash as History: What Did the Rabbis Mean?” a chapter in Ancient Fiction: The Matrix of Early Christian and Jewish Narrative. Milikowsky explores the question of the “truth status” of midrashic narratives compared with the “truth of the Bible”. If the Gospels are midrashic literature as Jewish scholars specializing in ancient Jewish and midrashic studies say they are, then Chaim Milikowsky’s chapter may be relevant to how we understand their early history, too.

In the side-box I have linked to some posts where I illustrate some of the narrative forms of midrash and to instances where Jewish specialist scholars describe the Gospels as midrashic literature. For convenience in this post I will illustrate a narrower (and more well known) form of midrash for those of us to whom the term is quite new.

Three examples of midrash

We know the Biblical story of Cain killing Abel. A midrash says that prior to this murder, it was actually Abel who overpowered Cain and was about to kill him when Cain cried out for mercy. Abel relented, giving Cain the opportunity to turn the tables and kill Abel instead. What was the source of this midrashic tale? The Hebrew says literally, in translation, that Cain “got up onto his brother”. The rabbis reasoned that for Cain to have “got up onto” Abel he must have first been “under” Abel.

Another midrash says that Moses killed the Egyptian (recall the story of Moses killing the Egyptian overseer before being forced to flee into the wilderness) by pronouncing the holy unspeakable name of God. We don’t read that in our versions of Exodus. But when the Israelite who was chastised by Moses threw back in Moses’ face the fact that he was known to have killed the Egyptian, the Hebrew narrating the Israelite’s words literally means “Will you kill me, you say, as you killed the Egyptian?” Rabbis thought it a bit confusing that there was this extraneous reference to “saying” there, so they interpreted it as meaning that Moses killed the Egyptian by word of mouth — and the only word with the power to kill would have been the divine name.

One final example. The book of Genesis tells us that Jacob was embalmed and buried. A midrash, however, says Jacob never died. The rationale? When describing the deaths of Abraham and Isaac the Bible uses the words “expired” and “died” and the phrase “was gathered to his people”. When Genesis comes to the Jacob’s demise, however, it only uses the word “expired” (“died” is not found) and “was gathered to his people”.

The question

The question Chaim Milikowsky asks is this:

Did the rabbis themselves believe these midrashic stories? We have reason to believe they did believe the Biblical narratives absolutely and literally (with only a few exceptions such as the Book of Job). Did they believe their midrashic creations were just as absolutely and literally true in history?

Milikowsky’s answer is unequivocal. No. I won’t repeat here the arguments. But we can see that there would be something amiss if they could believe both the biblical account of Jacob being embalmed and buried and the midrash that he did not die.

So what are we to make of the midrash that Jacob did not die? What is its “truth” status?

The rabbi who is declaring that Jacob did not die explains to his interlocutor who knows Jacob was embalmed and buried so can’t understand how it can be said he did not die:

I am engaged in Bible elucidation.

He then cites Jeremiah 30:10

Therefore fear thou not, O my servant Jacob, saith the LORD; neither be dismayed, O Israel: for, lo, I will save thee from afar, and thy seed from the land of their captivity; and Jacob shall return, and shall be in rest, and be quiet, and none shall make him afraid.

The rabbi explains:

Israel (=Jacob) is compared to his seed; just as his seed is alive so too is he alive.

Recall the slight variation in wording between the account of Abraham’s and Isaac’s deaths on one hand and Jacob’s on the other. Milikowsky explains:

For the midrashist, the absence of any verb from the root . . . “to die”, in the description of Jacob’s death cannot be by chance, but must be understood as communicating to us the Bible’s message that Jacob did not die. (p. 125)

So the Bible provides the cue for the midrashist to be alert for a spiritual message or additional meaning at a higher level than the “historical data” being narrated.

The “truth” of the matter

Midrash is the rabbis’ reconstruction of God’s word to the Jewish people and not the rabbis’ reconstruction of what happened in the biblical past.

So what is the rabbi who is midrashically arguing that Jacob did not die wanting his hearers/readers to understand? Milikowsky channels what he believes is the thinking of this midrash-making rabbi:

“You have misunderstood me; my statement that Jacob did not die is not to be understood as a literal-histoircal depiction of historical facts, but as midrash.”

Milikowsky continues in his own voice:

Midrash comes to tell us a story placed in the biblical text by God, having no necessary relationship to the actual historical events, but whose purpose is to give us a message from God. That message is being explained . . . by [the rabbi citing Jeremiah and saying Jacob did not die]. God’s exclusion of any mention of Jacob’s death is a promise found midrashically in Genesis and explicitly in Jeremiah: for [the midrashist rabbi], Jacob’s nondeath is a promise that his seed shall exist forever. (p. 125, my bolding)

That is, midrash is quite distinct from, in another dimension from, in a parallel universe to, the historical-literal narrative of the original scriptures.

Midrash is the rabbis’ reconstruction of God’s word to the Jewish people and not the rabbis’ reconstruction of what happened in the biblical past. (p. 125)

Why the rabbis (and evangelists?) used fiction

So Chaim Milikowsky is convinced the rabbis at no time doubted the “Bible Truth” of their Scriptures. They were historical and literal facts about the past. So why should they use fiction (as in midrash) to narrate the “truth” of God’s messages and deeper meanings to them?

Milikowsky compares their rationales with those of Plato. In his Republic (Book 3), Plato, through Socrates, explains that poets like Homer have been the most unworthy mythmakers because their myths attributed to gods many bad deeds. Myths, or lies, or fictions, do have a place, but they must be created and administered by those who are worthy and true. To the Greeks these were the philosophers; to the Jews post 70 CE, the rabbis. Myths, fictions, potentially embodied worthy and noble spiritual and moral truths for the good of their hearers. No-one could really know what happened in days of old — only God knew — so worthy individuals, like physicians caring for the health of their clients, had a duty to teach virtues through the most effective ways known. And what better way to teach a lesson than to tell a good story! (And at least one of these myths is still believed among a fair number of people today — the myth of Atlantis.)

The rabbis appear to have done their own version of the Greek creations of new myths. Not that Milikowsky is suggesting that Plato was in the warp and woof of rabbinic culture.

Nonetheless, I do want to propose that there is some sort of relationship between the subject of Plato’s discussion and the beginnings of rabbinic narrative midrash. Plato had a problem: he recognized that a culture needed stories that portray ultimate meaning in various ways. (p. 126)

The birth era of Christianity coincided with an emerging view that the traditional myths of the Greek gods were either immoral and harmful or simply harmless. Some salvaged them by means of allegories. The same period (late Hellenistic and early Roman) saw the development of fictional romances. The rabbis were finding deeper spiritual truths through midrashic interpretations of the Scriptures. The Christians . . . ?

These various ways of judging and valuing the traditional stories of myth were widespread and popular and very plausibly penetrated rabbinic culture in Palestine. I would like to suggest, therefore, that the rabbinic presentation of their responses to ultimate issues by means of fictional tales — that is, their creation of midrashic narratives — developed in consequence of the broad identification of large segments of Greek traditional tales as fiction. From the Greek world, the rabbis took the basic idea that fiction is a valid way of projecting and proclaiming one’s beliefs and practices. (p. 127)

In place of “fiction” Chaim Milikowsky would prefer the term “creative mythology”.

Relevance for the Gospels?

We know that the authors of the Gospels were creatively re-writing passages in the Jewish Scriptures. We know they created characters and places whose names were clearly puns on the narratives associated with them. We know they were writing in the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple when old identities must have been shattered for many and new ones sought — in tandem (and not without controversy) with the emergence of rabbinic Judaism.

Were the Gospels created to serve the same function as rabbinic midrash? Are the Gospels the evangelists’ reconstruction of God’s word to the Jewish people? Were they really reporting on Jesus? Or were they each creating their own view of Jesus as the epitome of the new word of God for a new time?

It was true in the sense that it was God’s new message for his people. It did not contradict the “literal history” of the Old. But would the distinction between the truth of the historical past (Adam, Moses, Titus, etc) and the truth of the new message from God (now being told through “creative mythology” and midrash) have clearly registered in the minds of most ordinary hearers for very long?


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18 thoughts on “Why Gospel Fiction was Written as Gospel Truth — a plausible explanation”

  1. Neil asks:

    “The rabbis were finding deeper spiritual truths through midrashic interpretations of the Scriptures. The Christians . . . ?”


    “Were the Gospels created to serve the same function as rabbinic midrash?”

    I think an answer to the first question depends on how you define “Christians,” and since for me this means the Dead Sea Scrolls sect, and while their pesher method of interpreting scripture that is similar to rabbinic midrash (there is even a reference to a “final midrash” at the end of the age), it is unique enough to be seen as a genre of its own.

    In this light, I think an answer to the second question is that the gospels were created to serve the same function as the pesharim, to show that the time period and figures of the sect were foretold in scripture. This is the same method used by Hegesippus regarding James.

  2. Milikowsky’s answer is unequivocal. No.

    I think that the First Gospel, Mark, is an Allegory of destruction of Jerusalem (if not of other historical events and figures, for example, you can see Roger thesis or Sid Martin thesis about Mark).
    Then Mark knew that his Gospel was false for a letteralist view, but ”true” in an allegorical meaning.

    The Protocols of the Elders of Zion are pure anti-semitic propaganda.
    Only the ignorant people believe to its verity.
    But I remember that a anti-semitic crypto-nazi, Julius Evola, said that the Protocols, though a proved forgery, were however ”true” if viewed as allegorical portrayal of bad things of Jews, ecc. Then, for him, it’s like if that forgery was ”true” at the end.

    I think that for ”Mark” also, his Gospel is true History only about his claims about the negative (and propagandistic) picture of followers of ”Jesus” and Jews. Because it’s evident that ”Mark” is Pauline and anti-Judeo-Christian. And that any attempt to explain Mark 4 as not an allegorical contrast between insiders (and their secrets) and outsiders is an apologetical harmonization.

    I don’t know if for ”Matthew” his Gospel was true History. I don’t know if ”Matthew” was judeo-christian or proto-orthodox.

    I am more sure that ”Luke” claimed the Historical verity to his Gospel, and then I am inclined to move ”Luke” in II°, like his Church.

    Then for me the problem is how to interpret the relations between Mark and Matthew.
    ”Matthew” corrects ”Mark” (taking Mrs Zebedee instead of his 2 sons, for example) because is enemy of Paulines? Or because he wants only rehabilitate the judeo-christians? I’m opened to all possibilities.

    1. This is about right, I think.

      I am still reading and learning more about ancient historiographers, including Jewish ones and the notion of “revealed history”, and will write more when I complete this self-imposed assignment. Till then, I think it is safest to see the evangelists as “prophets” — they are constructing treatises to expound the will of God for the new conditions of the community post 70 CE.

      In Mark, Jesus is absent for his readers; he is yet to “come” as the judge. Meanwhile, they are to suffer persecutions from Jews and even some authorities. (This actually leads me to think he may well be writing closer to the time of the Bar Kochba war, but that’s another subject.) Matthew’s understanding of God’s will is that Jesus “will be with you always” and that he has not deserted them. And so forth . . . .

  3. “In Mark, Jesus is absent for his readers; he is yet to “come” as the judge. Meanwhile, they are to suffer persecutions from Jews and even some authorities.”

    This could also describe the letter of James, which speaks of the Judge standing at the “door” (cf. Hegesippus, where James is asked about “the door of Jesus”), the coming of the Lord, and counsels patience in the face of suffering and persecution from authorities.

    I think the only “difference” between these writings (aside from being different languages and genres) is that one is pro-James/Jewish Christianity, the other is pro-Pauline.

    I wouldn’t refer to the Dead Sea Scrolls so much if I didn’t think they fit into early (actually earliest) Christianity so well, and the idea of the “coming” of the messiah is also prevalent in the DSS, particularly the Damascus Document, in addition to its OT citations being found throughout earliest Christian writings, inculding Mark (e.g., “strike the shepherd”). It’s worth noting that a reference to Abraham as a “friend of God” is also found in James and the Damascus Document.

    I really do think the DSS are the place to look for earliest Christian origins, so I hope you can pardon me if I sound like a broken record on this issue.

    1. The description of Abraham as a “friend of God” in James 2:23 and the Damascus Document is also found in Jubilees 19:9, another writing used by the Dead Sea Scrolls sect, and another indication of the close connection between the DSS and Jewish Christians, as these are the only writings that refer to Abraham this way.

      As far as I know, Jubilees is not cited in rabbinical literature (and even if we assume they knew of it and used it, it was not canonized). So the question is, where did James 2:23 get this idea from if not Jubilees, a writing that evidence indicates was known only to the DSS sect (pre-70) and post-70 Christians?

      1. Surely the survival and transmission of Jubilees as we know it is evidence that it was known beyond the DSS sect, yes? Otherwise we should only know of it in some scraps in the Qumran caves and nowhere else.

        1. Neil,

          I did say that it was known to post-70 Christians, and the only sect we know that used it pre-70 was the DSS sect, and this indicates that the line of transmission began with the DSS sect.

          But however it may have been, the use of Jubilees is another commonality shared between the DSS sect and Jewish Christianity. At what point, in your view, would the many parallels that exist between the two become convergence? Let’s recap some of the basics (off the top of my head):

          1. Both were called “the Way”
          2. Both practiced “the New Covenant”
          3. Both were known as “the poor”
          4. Both were associated with a place called “Damascus”
          5. Both were messianic, and used the same scriptural proof texts
          6. Both were led by a man called “the Righteous One”
          7. Both of these leaders were executed
          8. Both leaders were said to have revealed the hidden secrets of the OT
          9. Both kept their doctrines secret from outsiders
          10. Both were at odds with a man who preached against observing the Law
          and founded his own congregation
          11. Both believed they were living in the “Last Days”
          12. Both believed that scripture foretold the people and events of their time
          13. Both had a “works and faith” doctrine
          14. Both used writings that were known only to the DSS sect (pre-70)
          15. Both believed that the messiah had revealed the Holy Spirit to them
          16. Both were at odds with the Pharisees, and used the same writings that the Pharisees did not use
          17. The person who executed the Righteous Teacher and the person who executed James “the brother of Jesus” in Josephus were killed by violent extremists and their bodies were desecrated

          Josephus found this event to be so appalling and shocking that it would be odd if it had to someone else in a different time and no one noticed it.

          I could keep going, but lets consider these only few things for now. Is it really satisfying to you to think that these things are only parallels, or not worthy of more serious attention?

          1. I don’t accept the DSS link but I can’t reject it out of hand, either. It is something I have not looked into in any depth so I can’t argue the point either way. What I would need to study is the data itself, or the evidence upon which each of the claims listed are based.

            Even then, I don’t know that we know enough for certain about the Qumran community or who or what was responsible for the collection of writings there.

            The points you list are only a small part of what the Gospels are about. I have no doubt the Gospels owe much to earlier Jewish sectarian ideas. Maybe we see some of these in the DSS. But that doesn’t explain for me why or how the Gospels as we have them originated.

            1. Fair enough.

              I’d be more than happy to elaborate on any and all of those points, and many others not listed.

              In the meantime, I’d like to give you some background on me and my understanding of the DSS.

              I came to the Scrolls from a Jewish history, OT-only background, and actually read them long before I ever opened an NT. Gaster was by-chance introduction (and in retrospect, that’s not a bad place to start).

              I used to be like “you,” in the sense of not knowing what to make of the Scrolls or the various theories about them, and I just shrugged and let them sit on my mental shelf gathering dust for a few years until I stumbled upon Eisenman. I’d never heard of him before, so I was unaware of his “kook” status (and I’ve read some kooky DSS stuff), and I also had no idea who “James the brother of Jesus” was.

              Eisenman is the only person I’ve ever read, to this day (it’s been about twenty years), who makes compelling sense of the DSS.

              He is not at all a kook. Far from it. In fact, I’m a little miffed that even Carrier feels this way, and I’m mentally sharpening my swords for any “showdown” with him, should he ever like to do that, because I could use a guy with his brains to get on board with this, like Robert Price.

              I think the problem has more to do with Eisenman’s wrting style and tendency to speculate about every little detail undert he sun (over and over and over), but that’s the nature of Christian origins -there will always be unanswered questions and attempts to guess the answers to them, and Eisenman does this in his one-of-a-kind way.

              I think people tend to get lost in the woods of these speculations, to judge from the objections people seem to always have about these endless and various little details.

              I’m more interested the things he says that rest on a firm foundation, such as what the DSS actually say and his unsurpassed grip on the original Hebrew.

              I’m way beyond trying to prove that the DSS are Jewish Christian, as far as my own thinking goes. It’s time to ramp things up a notch, because I don’t think anything else is more important in the realm of Christian origins, including whether Jesus was real person or not.

              So I thank you for allowing to post these kinds of things here.

  4. Midrash is kind of interesting…but I think in Mark’s case we should be thinking more in terms of Plato.

    I’m reading something at the moment that pulls in Celsus, Origen and one or two others who looked at Mark not so much using Midrash as Platonic concepts.

    That wouldn’t surprise me considering Philo…

    Something else I read posited Mark as fulfilling a liturgical use emulating the Exodus.

    1. Speaking of Plato, what should I come across while reading a book about contemporary and historical Jewish ideology (“Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years” by Israel Shahak) just now? —

      Several scholars, of whom the most important was Moses Hadas . . . claimed that the foundations of ‘classical Judaism’, that is, of Judaism as it was established by the talmudic sages, are based on Platonic influences and especially on the image of Sparta as it appears in Plato. According to Hadas, a crucial feature of the Platonic system, adopted by Judaism as early as the Maccabean period (142-63 BC), was ‘that every phase of human conduct be subjected to religious sanctions which are in fact to be manipulated by the ruler’. There can be no better definition of ‘classical Judaism’ and of the ways in which the rabbis manipulated it than this Platonic definition. In particular, Hadas claims that Judaism adopted what ‘Plato himself summarized [as] the objectives of his program’, in the following well-known passage [from Plato’s Laws]:

      The principal thing is that no one, man or woman, should ever be without an officer set over him, and that none should get the mental habit of taking any step, whether in earnest or in jest, on his individual responsibility. In peace as in war he must live always with his eyes on his superior officer . . . In a word, we must train the mind not even to consider acting as an individual or know how to do it. (942 ab)

      If the word ‘rabbi is substituted for ‘an officer’ we will have a perfect image of classical Judaism. (p. 15)

      The same culture, I think, can be said to have applied to certain Christian bodies, ancient, medieval and even today.

      1. Curious you should mention this, Neil.

        I remember that one of the non-canonical books of the Macabees mentions an association or ancestral link between the Jews and the Lacedaemonians (who effectively are the Spartans).

  5. There is a debt of some kind to Plato in Mark (direct or indirect), as we see, for example, in the metaphor of physical blindness (representing spiritual blindness) and son of Timaeus. But there is also considerable Jewish-style metaphorical reinterpretation of the Jewish scriptures, as in the case of Isaiah 22:16 and the hewn-out rock being the tomb of Jesus that spelled the doom of the Temple of Jerusalem. I don’t think we need to insist on Mark being either-or. Both-and still works.

    How about telling us the works of interest you are referring to?

    1. Neil, that Bartimaeus character would not, then, be accidental.

      And what you’re saying still sounds like the Hellenic Judaism of Philo, who was based in Alexandria.

      Seems Alexandria still has some input in the earliest manifestation of the whole Christian (or Chrestian) story.

      Mark is always traditionally thought of as founding the Alexandrian church, and if so…it is no surprise that every major Christian associated with Alexandria up to Demetrius (a Roman-imposed patriarch of Alexandria and outsider) is always a leader of Gnostic thought.

      This would mean Mark is a lot closer to Hellenic Judaism if we really think about it.

  6. I don’t know of any reason to think the Lacedemonian were historically linked with Jews of that day. There were many genealogical and etiological myths then to justify various political ends. Many reasons to treat the claim as suspect historically. I’m not sure that Plato’s influence was necessarily a direct one on the development of rabbinic Judaism. Broad systems of thought (and “rationalizations” of certain practices) can be traced back to various thinkers, one of whom is Plato — without any need to think reading Plato directly was a factor in rabbinic Judaism.

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