Why the Rabbis (and Gospel Authors, too) Wrote Fiction as “True History”

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by Neil Godfrey

Chaim Milikowsky

Chaim Milikowsky gives his answer to the question in the title, or at least he answers the question with respect to rabbinical literature. I have added the connection to our canonical four gospels, and I could with equal justice add Acts of the Apostles.

I read CM’s answer in Ancient Fiction: The Matrix of Early Christian And Jewish Narrative, but I see that the author has made the same work freely available online. (Oh, and I posted on CM’s chapter five years ago this month: Why Gospel Fiction was Written as Gospel Truth — a plausible explanation. I think that first post was less technical than what I intend this time round.)

Let me begin with the conclusion this time. The answer to the question in the title is found in a work once again by one of the most influential Greek thinkers in history: Plato. We have been looking at the influence of Plato on the Old Testament writings through the works of Russell Gmirkin and Philippe Wajdenbaum, but CM sees his influence on rabbinic midrashic story telling. I suggest that the evangelists have carried through the same fundamental type of story telling.

Here are the key passages in Plato’s Republic. After deploring mythical tales of gods that depict them lying, cheating, harming others, Socrates sets out what is a far more noble curriculum for those who would become good citizens. Myths of conniving and adulterous gods had no place. God must always be shown to be pure and good. Stories depicting the gods as immoral were to be removed from society; stories that had an edifying message for their readers were to be shared widely.

For a young person cannot judge what is allegorical and what is literal; anything that he receives into his mind at that age is likely to become indelible and unalterable; and therefore it is most important that the tales which the young first hear should be models of virtuous thoughts. 

There you are right, he replied; but if any one asks where are such models to be found and of what tales are you speaking –how shall we answer him? 

I said to him, You and I, Adeimantus, at this moment are not poets, but founders of a State: now the founders of a State ought to know the general forms in which poets should cast their tales, and the limits which must be observed by them, but to make the tales is not their business. 

Very true, he said; but what are these forms of theology which you mean? 

Something of this kind, I replied: — God is always to be represented as he truly is, whatever be the sort of poetry, epic, lyric or tragic, in which the representation is given. 


(Republic, 378e-379a Benjamin Jowett trans.)

God himself will be portrayed as incapable of lying, but there will be a place for story tellers to fabricate stories that teach goodness and lead people to righteous character:

Whereas the lie in words is in certain cases useful and not hateful; in dealing with enemies –that would be an instance; or again, when those whom we call our friends in a fit of madness or illusion are going to do some harm, then it is useful and is a sort of medicine or preventive; also in the tales of mythology, of which we were just now speaking –because we do not know the truth about ancient times, we make falsehood as much like truth as we can, and so turn it to account. 

Very true, he said. 

But can any of these reasons apply to God? Can we suppose that he is ignorant of antiquity, and therefore has recourse to invention? 

That would be ridiculous, he said. 

Then the lying poet has no place in our idea of God? 

I should say not.

(Republic, 382c-d Jowett)

If you are having difficulty with the very notion of rabbinical traditions coming under the sway of Plato, you are not alone. Our author, Chaim Milikowsky, understands that difficulty, but….

As strange as this idea of “creating new myths” seems to us from our modern anthropological perspective, it seems that the rabbis did something very similar to what Plato proposed — and it worked! I am not suggesting that reading Plato was part and parcel of rabbinic culture; the idea is preposterous. Nonetheless, I do want to propose that there is some sort of a 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. Much of his cultural matter — the myths of Homer and Hesiod — he rejects out of hand, not because they are fictions, but because they are immoral fictions. As is well known, the rejection of traditional myth as a valid mode of depicting the gods spread through larger and larger segments of the population during the late Hellenistic and early Roman period. These tales, having been generally seen throughout Greek history as having ultimate moment for mankind, were now seen by many as fictions, either harmful fictions, as we saw above with Plato, or innocuous fictions, like the romances, which began to develop just about this time, or ultimate fictions, which is of course dependent upon transferring the truth value of the myth from the historical tale to some underlying sublime claim.

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.

Now notice what the rabbinic tales look like. These tales are preserved in writings some centuries after the gospels were written but it is reasonable to accept that some of them, or at least their predecessors, go back to Second Temple (pre 70 CE) times.

What Midrashic Tales Look Like

In the rabbinic literature of late antiquity we find stories (we call them “midrashic” stories) that are based on some special analysis (called “exegesis”) of some curious features in the Hebrew Bible (our “Old Testament”).

Here is an example. In Genesis 4:8 the Hebrew text can be read literally as

And Cain got up onto his brother Abel and killed him.

וַיָּ֥קָם קַ֛יִן אֶל־ הֶ֥בֶל אָחִ֖יו וַיַּהַרְגֵֽהוּ׃

That’s odd. What can it mean, “Cain got up onto his brother”? The only thing that makes sense to “me” (a late antique rabbi) is that Cain must have been “under Abel” before then. That means Abel must have had the better of him in a fight for a while, and Cain managed to somehow turn things around.

If the story had simply meant to say nothing more complicated than “Cain killed Abel” then that’s what it surely would have said. So what is it that God is trying to tell me here?


Light comes on.

Here is what must have happened: There was a fight between Cain and Abel, and Abel was about to kill Cain but Cain somehow managed to extricate himself. He must have cried out to Abel, “Have mercy, Please don’t kill me!” Abel must have moved back, and as soon as he did Cain seized the advantage and pushed his brother to the ground and killed him. (And what were they fighting about in the first place? It must have had something to do with who was going to be the heir to Adam and rule the world.)

And so the rabbi writes down the story. This is what God is telling us, he explains. Yes, the rabbi surely knows it’s just his imagination, but it makes sense, and it does make sense of the words of God in the Sacred Scriptures.

Here’s another example:

Exodus 2:14. Moses intervened to break up a fight between two Israelites. Here in English is the literal way the rabbi read this verse:

Will you kill me, you say, as you killed the Egyptian? 

What’s that “you say” doing there? Why does the Hebrew text suddenly introduce something about “saying” or “speaking” at this point? Not very in tune with identifying potential idioms, the rabbi works out an explanation as follows:

The Hebrew passage, read as is, seems to be saying that Moses killed the Egyptian by speaking. How could that be possible? Ah, he must have spoken the Divine Name, the forbidden Name of God. That must have been how Moses killed the Egyptian.

And so a new story is added to the rabbinical corpus: Moses killed the Egyptian by uttering the magical Divine Name.

And that’s how it went. That’s how so many of the curious rabbinic stories developed out of attempts to make sense of a literal reading of ancient Hebrew.

Did they believe their newly invented stories were true? Were they as much a genuine part of history as the “fact” of Adam and Eve themselves? Maybe some rabbis did believe their stories as “true”. Milikowsky reminds us of Paul Veyne’s mischievous comment about Hesiod’s intricately detailed myths of the origins of the gods:

Hesiod knows that we will take him at his word, and he treats himself as he will be treated: he is the first to believe everything that enters his head. (Veyne, Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths?, p. 29)

Wilikowsky surrenders to a theoretical and logical argument:

So, perhaps the rabbis in the same way also believed the “history” they are presenting. Though much of it was original, and not traditional material to be accepted unquestioningly, we can nonetheless sustain the position that, in various contexts, new traditions were accepted as historical facts, even by those who created them. Indeed, in a sense, this point borders on the obvious: all human cultural traditions are at one time new creations. Thus from a theoretical perspective, a good case can be made in favor of the claim that midrashic narrative was accepted as historically true by the rabbis. (p. 120)

Wilikowsky sweeps past two other scholarly views that I have addressed in other (Fehling) posts (Woodman) and won’t repeat now.

Take a step back for a moment.

At one level we can confidently say that nobody in the Judaean world questioned the truth, the historicity, the facticity, of the biblical stories. The Bible was “true” and when Josephus repeated the biblical stories he was believed to be stating “the facts of history”.

If I may interject with my own thoughts for a moment, following the arguments of Wajdenbaum and Gmirkin I would say that the reason for this confidence in the “truth of the Bible stories”, in contrast with widespread Hellenistic scepticism towards the Greek myths, is the result of the Bible narratives having in many cases re-written Greek myths and repackaged them with an ideal and eternally true and moral  god. To see some examples of this scroll through the Wajdenbaum archive.

But that’s enough for one sitting. I’ll try to complete this post tomorrow (East coast Australian time).

Milikowsky, Chaim. 2005. “Midrash as Fiction and Midrash as History: What DId the Rabbis Mean?” In Ancient Fiction: The Matrix of Early Christian And Jewish Narrative, edited by et al Jo-Ann A. Brant, Charles W. Hedrick, and Chris Shea, 117–27. Symposium Series 32. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.


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20 thoughts on “Why the Rabbis (and Gospel Authors, too) Wrote Fiction as “True History””

  1. I think this is part of the answer, but I’m re-reading Prophets and Emperors (Potter) right now in prep for my next book and it has a lot to say about this as well.

    The book talks about the role of prophecy in Hellenistic and Roman culture. The book notes that prophecy and prophets were taken as seriously in these cultures as scientists and economists are taken today. But it also notes that the primary study and focus of prophets was the past, both ancient and recent. The book explains why:

    From the opening page: “Both Plutarch and Pausanuas shared the belief of their contemporaries that a person could know if a prophecy was authentic only if it had been proven to have come true.”

    And thus, what we see in these cultures, Jewish, Greek and Roman, was the extensive writing of pseudo-prophetic stories. This is exactly what the Gospels are. They are pseudo-prophecy. And how do you write pseudo-prophecy? Obviously, you write about the past using information that you already know or you fabricate prophetic scenarios altogether. The Gospels do both. Interestingly, actually only Mark, Matthew and John do it. Luke doesn’t appear to have engaged in this, but his story still appears prophetic because he has copied from the prophetic templates.

    And the point or writing stories like this was to give them legitimacy and to give the ideas expressed in them divine power. The more a story appeared to have been able to predict the future, the more credibility and weight the story was given.

    And what seems to have happened is that whoever wrote Mark knocked it out of the park, writing (literally) the mother of all pseudo-prophetic stories. Matthew and John were in on the concept. They understood what mark was doing and intentionally built on it. Luke was naive and sincere and I think honestly fully believed these stories literally.

    Prior to Mark, 1 Enoch was probably in the lead among Jewish literature as the king of prophetic literature. It appears that Matthew used 1 Enoch as well. There are several scenes in Matthew that show dependence on 1 Enoch, which Matthew was building on because Enoch had such a reputation of prophetic supremacy.

    So the answer to the question of “why are these stories fictional pseudo-history”, is that they are pseudo-history because they are pseudo-prophecy. You have to make them appear historical in order to appear prophetic.

    1. “Luke was naive and sincere and I think honestly fully believed these stories literally.”

      What about Acts? I ask because the author of the Gospel of Luke is generally considered the author of Acts as well, and I’ve read arguments elsewhere that Luke was trying to harmonize Mark and Matthew, and that he wrote Acts with the intention of providing a chain of “apostolic authority,” which suggests that he was making things up to fit his agenda. Do you think that he believed the stories in Acts to be true as well, and if so, where do you think he learned them from?

      1. That’s a valid point. Perhaps I shouldn’t say that Luke was “being honest”, rather that Luke/Acts doesn’t appear to have the same agenda toward prophecy that Mark, Matthew and John do. Not to say that Luke is totally divorced from the idea, since of course he opens with the prophecies for John the Baptist and Jesus, but he doesn’t appear to try and craft hidden literary references the way that Mark, Matthew and John did. It may just be that whoever wrote Luke wasn’t aware of that aspect of the writing, he was taking it all at face value.

        A clear example is the crucifixion scene, where Mark clearly crafts his narrative from Psalm 22 and Amos, Matthew notices this and builds on Mark’s references and John does the same, but Luke ignores those references and changes the narrative to be less about prophecy fulfillment and more about theology.

        Mark made it appear that the events of the crucifixion had been foretold and Matthew and John piled on trying to drive the point home. Luke, meanwhile, ignored it and created a narrative about salvation and hope.

      2. The author of Acts was writing history along the same principles as some other historians of his day — with a view to entertainment as much as instruction. He manufactured his own stories out of passages in the Jewish Scriptures and other non-Jewish writings, too. Where he differs from his predecessors we see unique theological themes. He was almost certainly writing to counter Marcion’s teachings. To see some posts where these points are expanded and supported scroll through some of the following: https://vridar.org/?s=gospel+of+luke+genesis+

    2. I think your explanation raises more questions. Mark does not advertise his sources by saying “this was done to fulfill such and such a passage” as Matthew does. In fact his intertextuality with Jewish Scriptures is on a par with his intertextuality with other sources. I don’t deny the possibility of interest in a fulfilled prophecy but the evidence does not seem to me to yield totally to that as a single explanation. There seems to have been more going on than a one to one prophetic fulfillment in the narrative.

    3. Throw in that said gospel narratives will have been penned under the unerring aegis of the “Holy Spirit” and the formula is complete. The Christ makes his presence known by ‘speaking through’ apostles, prophets, “the Body of Christ” etc….

  2. Reading Plato, Philo, and Plutarch makes a lot more sense out of the NT.

    “Origen and the Platonic Tradition” by Ilaria L.E. Ramelli:

    “Drobner [62] is basically right that in the same way as philosophy formed the understanding of the Christian faith in its formative period, faith changed and molded philosophy. Just as Drobner questions the Harnackian tag “Hellenization of Christianity,”42 so did I, pointing to the “Christianization of Hellenism,” the presence of Hellenism in the Bible itself, and a reassessment of that [2]. Christoph Markschies too, who calls Hellenization an umstritten or contested category [63,64], defines the Hellenization of Christianity as “first and foremost a transformation of the Alexandrian educational institutions and their scholarly culture in the theological reflection of ancient Christianity” ([63], p. 121)

    and refers to Ramelli [2], agreeing that Scripture itself was already Hellenized ([63], pp. 119, 138).

    Kobusch ([65], pp. 26–33) is on the same line as Ramelli [2] against Harnack’s model of the Hellenization of Christianity as a denaturation of an originally Biblical Christianity supposedly not Hellenized.

  3. When you say that “in contrast with widespread Hellenistic scepticism towards the Greek myths” the Bible narratives “repackaged [Greek myths] with an ideal and eternally true and moral god” , this doesn’t coincide with my reading of many of the O.T. narratives, where God doesn’t remotely resemble an “ideal and eternally true and moral god”. Some narratives present such a transcendent being, but by no means all, or even

    While certainly not the fornicating, feuding family that is the Greek pantheon, some O.T narratives reveal a God protective of his apparently vulnerable powers (viz cherubs at the gates of Eden, the Babel affair); regrets the creation project altogether but undermines his own plan to undo it by protecting Noah, and finally promises never to do it again (like a naughty school boy); repeatedly loses his temper, and needs to be calmed down and cajoled by Moses (usually using of the universal “if you do X…what will people say” argument); describes himself as a “passionate” (aka “jealous”) god; and generally commands and demands fealty exactly as one would expect from a high king in the Levantine/Mesopotamian/Persian style).

    This God is not one that I can really imagine Plato subscribing to, or even one that would be portrayed bya single reader of Plato trying diligently to follow the Platonic blue-print.

    In passing, I note that, when one weighs up the Wajdenbaum/Wesselius argument for a single author of the entire Pentateuch (and more?), one should compare Exodus 20:5-6 with Deuteronomy 5:9-10 (which I think you may in fact have done years ago on these pages). The relationship between those two passages speaks more eloquently than anything Wajdenbaum has to say on the subject of single or multiple authorship.

    1. I think what you are addressing here is how the Bible’s characters look in the light of our values as readers today. I will never forget the time the story of God commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son first hit me in all its horror. Both God and Abraham are unspeakable characters. But that’s not how the authors intended them to be read nor the values they shared. The authors of those stories tell them as noble, even romantic, tales of idealistic heroes and a God who cheers them on, rewarding them for their faith etc.

      Thomas L. Thompson has made the point several times. We need to read the stories as the bible authors intended — as tall tales and stories, not as reality.

      1. Actually, Neil, that definitely wasn’t what I was addressing. I was considering how how the Bible’s God would look in the light of the Greek Platonic philosopher’s understanding of God. I don’t believe he would have been impressed at all.

        God isn’t “ideal” when he takes an evening stroll through the garden of Eden. He isn’t “eternally true” if he gets riled up about something, then, when badgered by a mortal Moses, changes his mind. And as to “eternally moral”, even the bible itself is worried by the morality of Ex 20:5-6, so that in Deut 7:9-10 [apologies, I mis-referenced in my previous post] “punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me” is replaced by “those who hate him he will repay to their face by destruction; he will not be slow to repay to their face those who hate him” – a bit of a U-turn.

        I agree that these narratives aren’t as dodgy as Zeus turning himself into a Swan to indulge his carnal appetites with Leda (etc etc), but I think these examples are still inconsistent with the Platonic notion of the ideal god, and were not written with Plato in mind.

        These passages don’t suggest to me that the writers (I use the plural intentionally) were following a Platonic project at all.

        certain moral fluidity in these passages that is impossible to is why I don’t buy the argument that the laws and narratives of the Pentateuch can in their entirely fit in with the “Platonic project” that is put forward by Russell Gmirkin etc,

          1. Plato never suggested educators and mythmakers introduce the philosophical ideal of Plato’s “god” into mythical stories and that’s not what Gmirkin suggests, either. Plato proposed myths to instill fear to disobey the laws, and to convince the citizens the laws were of divine origin. Now Plato himself clearly rejected any suggestion that such a god was the “real god”, and he certainly knew the laws he was proposing were not of divine origin: he was making them up himself.

        1. This discrepance caused the emergence of pre-Christian Gnosticism, and it still influenced the church-fathers such as Justin the Martyr. The ideology of trinity solves some of the problems.

    2. Your last paragraph here, Austendw. For or against? I have to equivocate myself; it could be the same author or a direct lift centuries later. I have to agree with you though that Yahweh is hardly a Platonic god. Frankly, the Wadjbaum/Gmirkin idea is laughable: Yahweh EVOLVES; positing a single author or group of authors writing at one time is akin to saying God planted the fossils to kid everyone or Satan created a whole series of prior religions that pre-empt Christianity to lead us into perdition.

      1. I don’t recall you tackling the evidence in the posts setting out Gmirkin’s case. That’s how the conservatives have generally dealt with new hypotheses that undermine conventional wisdom: ridicule and insult the ignore. Nor do I know of an argument about the so-called evolution of god that is not circular.

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