Review, pt 1b: How the Gospels Became History / Litwa

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by Neil Godfrey

In the first post we cited ancient authors on the meaning of myth.  Two more authors that M. David Litwa cites:

A fable (mythos) is a fictitious story giving an image of truth . . .

Aelius Theon, 1st C CE (Kennedy 2003. Progymnasmata)

A myth aims at being a false tale, resembling a true one; therefore it is far removed from actual events, if a tale is but a picture and an image of actuality, and a myth is but a picture and image of a tale. And thus those who write of imaginative exploits lag as far behind historians as persons who tell of deeds come short of those that do them.

Plutarch, On the Fame of the Athenians, 348.4

Let us hope that Fable may, in what shall follow, so submit to the purifying processes of Reason as to take the character of exact history. In any case, however, where it shall be found contumaciously slighting credibility, and refusing to be reduced to anything like probable fact, we shall beg that we may meet with candid readers, and such as will receive with indulgence the stories of antiquity.

Plutarch, Life of Theseus, 1.5

Continuing from part 1a …

M. David Litwa’s interest is exactly what I was hoping for. As he explains (p.3),

Whether or not the evangelists did report actual events is a separate question and is not my concern.

Good. It is the history-like narrative of the gospels themselves that interests me. Why are they written that way? He continues:

Evidently they thought they did. At any rate, my focus is on how the evangelists used historical tropes to convince readers that they spoke of real—and thus “true”—events.

Some readers might quibble over that way of expressing the problem. Can we really know the thoughts of unknown authors? But the task can be reframed as an exploration of what makes the gospels function as history-like narratives.

Since the line between myth and history can often look quite blurry at times Litwa makes the excellent point that the two genres are in reality “ideal types”. As an “idea”, “pure history” only relates actual events, and “pure myth only “mythical/fantastical/impossible/unhistorical” events so are not always found in their pure, or “ideal”, forms:

In actual literature they mixed and blended without apology or sense of contradiction. 

(For a more detailed explanation of the technical term ideal type see the post On (Dying and Rising Gods and) IDEAL TYPES).

Certainly our earliest accounts by Christians make it clear that they did not consider their beliefs to be mythical. Litwa cites Origen’s Contra Celsus (2.58; 3.27) in which Origen declaims that the resurrection is certainly historical and “proves” the point by reminding us that disciples died for that belief, after all. Further, we even have New Testament epistles:

For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. (2 Peter 1:16)

They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. (2 Timothy 4:4)

. . . pay no attention to Jewish myths . . . (Titus 1:14)

and so on. Myths stood opposed to Christian truth.

Truth and history

So what of history, or the writing of history, the practice of historiography?

The quotations here are from classicists cited by Litwa (Luce, Woodman) but the quotations are my selection.

All bolded highlighting is my own.

One meaning of “truth” for the historian in ancient times was what we would call objectivity. If the historian could claim to be writing neither to flatter nor to unjustly condemn, but to be free from such biases, then his account could be considered “true”. T. J. Luce in an article in Classical Philology explains:

The Greeks and Romans usually spoke of the absence of favoritism or hatred. Today the desideratum is often given as a positive and particularized virtue, “objectivity” or “impartiality,” for which the ancients had no special vocabulary, speaking simply of the “truth,” . . . . What historical truth was, and how it could be attained, were questions seldom addressed (Polybius is the chief exception), partly because, no doubt, the concept of historical truth seemed obvious, and partly because the concept was so often couched in negative terms: when favoritism and hostility are removed, truth is the residuum.

(Luce, p. 17)

In T. P. Wiseman, another classicist discussed elsewhere on Vridar, explains of ancient historiography:

Being ‘like the truth’, veri similis, was one of the three qualities required of narratio in the rhetorical handbooks. (The others were clarity and brevity.) Plausibility was what mattered. Even if the orator’s narration w׳as true, he must still make sure that it sounded plausible, and not open to any a priori objection on grounds of inherent improbability; if his facts w׳ere invented, of course, this was all the more necessary. 


But [the fictitious stories of] Popillius the parricide and blinded Metellus were accepted as historical fact within two generations of their invention in the schools [of rhetoric], and acceptance was even faster when the fiction originated with an historian who could be cited as if he were a real authority.

(Wiseman, p. 34, 33)

In other words, as Litwa makes clear,

It is only the persistent rhetoric of truth telling that is important for my purposes. This rhetoric is enough to show that the ancients generally wanted historiography to function in their culture as a discourse coded as “true.”

(Litwa, p. 6)

Next post we’ll take a closer look at how ancient Greco-Roman historians worked.

To order a copy of How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths at the Footprint Books Website with a 15% discount click here  or visit www.footprint.com.au

Please use discount voucher code BCLUB19 at the checkout to apply the discount.

Litwa, M. David. 2019. How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Luce, T. J. 1989. “Ancient Views on the Causes of Bias in Historical Writing.” Classical Philology 84 (1): 16–31.

Wiseman, Timothy Peter. 2010. Clio’s Cosmetics: Three Studies in Greco-Roman Literature. Bristol: Bristol Phoenix Press.

. . . .

Aelius Theon from Kennedy, George Alexander. 2003. Progymnasmata: Greek Textbooks of Prose Composition and Rhetoric. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.

Plutarch from Project Gutenberg and Archive.org




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Neil Godfrey

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4 thoughts on “Review, pt 1b: How the Gospels Became History / Litwa”

  1. Interesting, because this is very similar to the approach I’m taking on my book, though from a bit of a different direction because I’m looking at everything through the lens or prophecy and prophetic narratives, but there are a lot of similarities to the approach, so I’m very curious about this.

  2. The historicity of Jesus is becoming less important to me in some respects, like the insignificant grain of sand that eventually turned into a beautiful pearl. Who cares about that grain of sand ? The point is that pearls do not reproduce and have no origin from their own kind. While I am mythicist (I assign a probability of about 90%) my focus is on the Roman propaganda machine. Now that Robert M. Price and Joseph Atwill have collaborated, I am tipping that the Roman origins hypothesis will grow, limited to the funding problem due to outrage by the institutions that could enable objective research to thrive. And I’m glad that the late Acharya S. had the opportunity to confer with both RMP and JA and share her insights with them.
    So while I do see all the Judaistic theology, Greek myths and works and the influences of the multitude of the mystery religions as ingredients of Christian origins, it’s the head cook that I’m focusing on. The kitchen in the Vatican today still has all the old recipes locked away in their chambers. They’ve been dishing it out to their subjects for 2,000 years now.
    I heard another episode of the RMP and JA interviews on Mythvision Radio (Milwaukee, US, I think) and Neil you got a mention too !

  3. Apparently the gospel writers lacked faith in “the truth” if they “tried” to make what they were writing “sound true.” Not surprising, I guess. But again, what the gospel writers wrote was vastly different from what the other writings of Christianity were providing, so the operative question is, as Lasater points out, why did they write the way they did?

    I am reminded of conversations relayed in writing that were witnesses by none. Any time someone relates an historical conversation, I want to see the references/sources of that information. Just framing something as a conversation makes it sound as if the writer has intimate knowledge. In addition, in many places, the gospels quote Jesus (and the other characters), yet none of these “sayings” appear in the rest of the canon. Where did they come from? (I would accept Q is a fragment of it existed, but it the absence of any real evidence, Q is too convenient to be acceptable–it can be assumed to have contained anything). Why would the writers of the gospels who “wanted the appearance of truth” not name sources if they had them, e.g. “as the disciple Timothy has said…,” as that would only add to the truthiness of the presentation, no?

    Is great puzzlement and beyond the capacity of this bear with very little brain.

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