Review, pt 1c: How the Gospels Became History / Litwa (Looking like history?)

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from part 1b …

M. David Litwa’s opening chapter of How the Gospels Became History is an overview of ancient history-writing looked like, including its frequent allowance of myth, and how the canonical gospels fit in with this type of literature. So far we have been moving slowly as we take note of what ancient writers themselves said about the connection between history and myth, truth and fiction, with the implication that the gospels are part and parcel of the world of ancient historiography.

Not all scholars have agreed and Litwa takes up the challenge of Richard C. Miller who argues that the gospels are far removed from the genre of Greco-Roman history. I’ll quote a little more of Miller’s argument that does Litwa:

[T]he panoply of early Christian gospel texts appears more or less disinterested in conforming to any particular narrative of Christian origins and instead exhibits an all-but-whimsical freedom, an astonishing prose creativity in depiction and variance in the telling and ordering of scenes. Of the hundreds of Christian works that survive from the first three centuries of the Common Era, no reliable histories exist aside perhaps from fragments of the five books of Papias. Of these hundreds, setting aside the various epistles and apologies, thus focusing on the narratives, we find a single unifying feature: the early Christian narratives were all fictive in modality. Whether one considers the collection of early Christian gospels, the various apostolic acta, the assortment of apocalypses, or the burgeoning stock of hagiographa, until Eusebius’s fourth-century Historia Ecclesiastica, itself a myth of Christian origins, though intended to be read as a history, one encounters nothing deserving of the genus “historiography”; one finds only legends, myths, folktales, and novelistic fictions. Albeit, considering the characteristic gravitas of these texts, one would be mistaken to dismiss them merely as works of aesthetic entertainment. As all of these works exclude the requisite signals distinguishing ancient works of historiography, that is,

  • no visible weighing of sources,
  • no apology for the all-too-common occurrence of the supernatural,
  • no endeavor to distinguish such accounts and conventions from analogous fictive narratives in classical literature (including the frequent mimetic use of Homer, Euripides, and other canonized fictions of classical antiquity),
  • no transparent sense of authorship (or even readership) or origin,

the ecclesiastical distinction endeavored by Irenaeus of Lyons et alii to segregate and signify some such works as canonical, reliable histories appears wholly political and arbitrary.

(Miller, p. 133. Bolded highlighting and dot point formatting is mine in all quotations)

I have reservations about Litwa’s attempt to meld the gospels into the same apparel as ancient historiography. My understanding and recollection are that as a rule, Greco-Roman historians introduced their tales of the miraculous with “apologies” of sorts. They would comment that the tale was “what was reported” by others, or express some sympathy with readers/auditors if they found the tale hard to believe, and so forth. Only in biblical narratives (and satirical put-downs of hack Greco-Roman historians) do we find a prose history-like narrative that declares the miraculous as fact without any hint of self-conscious possibility of doubt by the author. I will present another post with examples to illustrate.

As for the evangelists being careful selectors of their material I suggest that Litwa is relying more upon conventional assumptions and interpretations than clear evidence to that effect. See, for example, various posts discussing other scholarly views of the Luke-Acts prologue.)

Litwa responds with the following objections:

  • Yet simply by writing in sober, nonpoetic forms, the evangelists distinguished their accounts from the dominant mythoi found, for instance, in Homer and Euripides.
  • They did not, moreover, need to apologize for describing miraculous events since these events were a regular feature of ancient historiography.
  • Finally, the evangelists weighed their sources in the sense that they strongly valued eyewitnesses over hearsay (Luke 1:2) and were careful selectors of material to include and exclude from previous texts.43
    • 43 Although the evangelists did not cite sources, they certainly used them and, in the case of Luke, gave the impression that they used eyewitness reports (Luke 1:2).

(Litwa, pp. 7, 228)

Litwa further claims that Miller has misunderstood the character of ancient historiography.

At a deeper level, Miller’s comments reveal a misunderstanding about how most ancient historiographies were written. Ancient historiography did not have a single form with a single set of lofty standards.

(Litwa, p. 7)

For example, Litwa explains, the “father of history”, Herodotus, was well-known for including many tall-tales and myths in his history of the free-ranging background to the Greco-Persian wars. Many later historians likewise felt free to entertain their audiences with mythical tales, too. Then there was Thucydides, known as “the father of scientific history”, who wrote a no-nonsense, straightforward, factual account of the Peloponnesian War — or so he tells us and so many believe. Thucydides certainly shunned all hint of ostensible myth. Yet, and Litwa overlooks this point, though it supports his larger argument, even Thucydides is known to have fabricated scenes of “what would have happened” and to have done so through dramatic genre and sources unrelated to historical specific events as we have seen in previous posts:

But Thucydides was different in his avoidance of the fabulous tales. Litwa is quite correct to point out that

As a genre, historiography was sometimes different from mythography more in its rhetorical conventions than in its content.

(Litwa, p. 8)

Plausibility and entertainment value were high priorities for Greco-Roman historians. At this point, Litwa appears to bring out a point I made in the above insert box that for the sake of plausibility a historian would often need to couch his account of the miraculous with some hint of an apology:

They could pass off a fantastical story as something they heard of and did not subscribe to, or they could give two different versions of a story: one miraculous, the other rationalizing.

(Litwa p. 8)

So those who wrote our first surviving narratives of the life of Jesus used a genre that was associated with genuine — believable — historical or biographical accounts even is spiced up with stories of miracles. (Another detail that Litwa may bring out later in the book is his suggestion that the historical/biographical genre was in part used to appeal to more educated people who were apparently joining the flocks.)

One caveat I have: Litwa is comparing the gospel narratives with Greco-Roman histories and biographies: that the evangelists were modelling their narratives as much on the conventions of other stories in Jewish literature, especially what we classify as their Scriptures, is not mentioned, at least not in this chapter. Yet it is that latter comparison that I find draws attention to a closer match to the rhetoric of how the miraculous events were introduced, as I have attempted to indicate above.

Sources and tropes

The first author to write a gospel (let’s call him Mark) “seems” to have relied upon “oral and written stories (or story clusters) about Jesus”, and Matthew, Luke and John followed “more successful(ly) imitating historical discourse.” (pp. 10 f)

(No mention is made at this point of another source that Mark (and those who followed) also “seems” to have used, one that compares with other historians using “sources” like Homer or Euripides to create their scenes, Jewish Scriptures.)

What of supernature events, though? How might the resurrection scenes in the gospels have come about as part of a serious-looking piece of historical or biographical writing?

Litwa suggests that what began as visions or dreams, over time, came to be described “as palpable events that occurred in space and time.” In the retellings, Jesus’ body came to take on a more flesh and blood appearance.

Eventually, Jesus’s luminous body seen in visions became more solid in the act of historiographical retellings. Despite its ability to walk through walls, the body began to be depicted as “flesh and bone” (Luke 24:39), able to be poked and prodded by eyewitnesses—including the famous “doubting Thomas” (John 20:24—28). 

(Litwa, p. 10)

There is, of course, another explanation not addressed here by Litwa. Over time evangelists took on more prominent opposing doctrines, like docetism. Could not what Litwa sees as a “historiographical retelling” be the outcome of evangelists attempting to present a Jesus who was more than just a “phantom” as we know some very early Christian groups were teaching?

Litwa identifies other “historicizing tropes” such as

  • synchrony (inclusion of famous persons in the “historical” narrative, e.g. Quirinius, Caesar Augustus)


  • syntopy (mention of real place names, e.g. Galilee, Jerusalem)


  • introduction of eyewitnesses (the “beloved disciple”?)


  • vivid presentation


  • alternative reports


  • deliberate research (e.g. Luke’s prologue)

I fear this sort of detail is a more scholarly way of saying, as apologists do, that the gospels are genuine histories because they contain the names of real people and places and have (supposedly) vivid descriptions. I don’t know what the “alternative reports” refers to (presumably Litwa will explain this later) since I can only at this moment think of inconsistent gospel accounts. All of the above (with perhaps the exception of “deliberate research”) are equally at home in the worlds of Greco-Roman fictions, novellas. (See, for example, Why New Testament Scholars Should Read Ancient Novels; on the point about “deliberate research” see various posts on Luke’s prologue.)

But granted, they are tropes found in historical works, too.

It is at this point that Litwa discusses “mythic historiography”, and it is at this point I want to step back and dig out my copies of the historians he discusses and reacquaint myself with them before continuing.

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

Miller, Richard C. 2015. Resurrection and Reception in Early Christianity. London ; New York: Routledge.

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

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24 thoughts on “Review, pt 1c: How the Gospels Became History / Litwa (Looking like history?)”

  1. Re: “They did not need to apologize for describing miraculous events since these events were a regular feature of ancient historiography.” This is a bit too facile. To take Herodotus as an example (and he is at the more accepting end of the use of miraculous detail) his habit is to select from a universe of tales, to perceive the more fictive, and to select the one that is often more plausible than the others. E.g., “There are many accounts of Cyrus’ death; I have given the one which I think most likely to be true.” (Histories 1:216; 127). When the universe of tales does not include one very likely to be true, that is not a reason to forego selection. E.g., the tale of Arion, who escapes from a pack of murderous Corinthian sailors, leaps overboard from a ship bound for Italy, and is carried on the back of a dolphin to Taenarum. He tells the story at Corinth, where Periander is “not too ready to believe it.” Nonetheless, “”[t]hat is the story as the Corinthians and Lesbians tell it.” [I:24; 49]. Then, we have the tale of Xerxes crossing the Hellespont: “After the whole army had reached the European shore and the forward march had begun, an extraordinary thing occurred — a mare gave birth to a hare. Xerxes paid no attention to this omen, though the significance of it was easy enough to understand. Clearly it meant that he was to lead an army against Greece with the greatest pomp and circumstance and then to come running for his life back to the place he started from” (7:59; 465). The event is contrary to modern science and modern historiography, but it conforms to the practice of ancient historiography of attaching a metaphoric meaning to the event which is part of the truth of the incident. Even so, in all the examples, there is a greater circumspection than one sees in the gospels, which evidently have a more didactic and evangelical purpose.

    1. Indeed. These are the caveats that accompany tales of the fantastical in historical works that surely point to the gospels being quite something else. You have jumped the gun on what I am about to post.

  2. I am still taken by the contrast between the gospels + Acts and the rest of the NT. The disciples aren’t mentioned in the epistles. Jesus on Earth is not mentioned, etc. So, the gospels are major diversions from the other books of the NT (written both before and after the gospels, apparently).

    So, arguing that the gospels contain history is one thing, but their context is another. (Plus the pruning of other documents (the Apocrypha) that might claim to be part of the gospel’s segment of the NT. So, just looking at the gospels is looking at a small fraction of the type of document claimed to “contain” history, etc. No? Should not all of the documents be examined, as well as the arguments over why some are “in” and others are “out.” (Imagine all of the Civil War histories, but before a study is done on the veracity of such histories, some are set aside as “poorly done” or “possibly fictional,” or…?

  3. Steve Ruis makes a good point, and it’s related to one that I’ve argued before, which is that the door to historicity is first opened by the church, as a matter of doctrine. The ecumenical decision to canonize certain texts and to reject others is an admission that there is an entire genre out there of fictional texts about Jesus. But the canonical texts are not only not fictional, but are absolutely and literally true, or at least highly symbolically true. Then along come the scholars, who admit that, well, they’re obviously not true, but we can find truth in them. Even so, we are not concerned with those that have already been declared fictional ex cathedra. But why aren’t we? If we can find truth in the canonical, why not in the non-canonical? Can’t we use the same criteria for the non-canonical? You can see where this goes.

  4. Hi Neil. Thank you for the ongoing review of Litwa’s book. It looks really interesting. But I have not quite understood what the purpose of Litwa’s investigation is. Does he want to show that the way the narrative of the Gospels is told ultimately led to the acceptance of the gospels as reports of historical truth? Greetings, Kunigunde

    1. Litwa writes,

      If a narrative was to be believed, then, it was important that it conform to historiographical discourse. This point is important, because even if one is not prepared to accept the gospels as histories, one can still admit that they are history-fife or designed, at least in a limited sense, to look like historiography. This is the main argument of this book. It is not that the gospels are historical (in the sense of relating what happened); it is not even that the gospels are in every way historiographical. What is argued is that the gospels look enough like historiography to be read as records of real, and thus true, events. (p. 9)

      1. This is similar to what I argue in the book I’m working on, so glad to see support for this. What I argue is that Mark was not written in this way, but that Matthew was, and it was Matthew that launched this historicizing trend, with Luke having worked from Matthew and John having worked from some set of Synoptics. Matthew was written with a conscious effort to present the material as literally true. Luke and John do the same. But I put all of this in the context of prophetic writings, and deal with things like the development of histories around Orpheus and the Sibyls, as well as the manufactured Jewish histories. It looks like from his table of contents that he’s focusing mostly on assessment of Christian writings, where I spend little time on Christian writings and focus mostly on Greek, Roman, and Jewish writings and history. But it looks like this book may provide some useful resources and analysis. Those, the claim that Mark is based heavily on “oral sources” is already dubious and troubling…

        1. But I put all of this in the context of prophetic writings, and deal with things like the development of histories around Orpheus and the Sibyls

          Have you read what Plato has to say about the Orphic prophets? This book gives a good overview of what Plato is talking about:

          “Instructions for the Netherworld: The Orphic Gold Tablets(Leiden ; Boston : Brill, 2008.)”, Alberto Bernabé Pajares, Ana Isabel Jiménez San Cristóbal

          “They adduce a hubbub of books by Musaeus and Orpheus, descendants,
          as they say, of the Moon and of the Muses, according to which
          they arrange their rites, convincing not only individuals but also cities
          that liberation and purification from injustice is possible, both during
          life and after death, by means of sacrifices and enjoyable games, to
          those which they indeed call “initiations”, which free us from the evils
          of the Beyond, whereas something horrible awaits those who have not
          celebrated sacrifices.”

          This passage mentions books of Musaeus and Orpheus, that is, written literature supposedly used in initiations intended to liberate the soul from it’s sins. Those who are with carrying out these rituals, obviously the same as those whom other sources call “Orpheotelests”, depend on the holiness of the written word; in other words, it is the possession and control of Orphic writings that confers on them their authority. We are told that initiations could be applied to individuals and to entire cities, which implies that their value was recognized and was not exclusive to one sect: the seers and reciters of oracles were specialists that could be hired by whoever needed them. We must interpret the expression “both in life and once we are dead”, in the sense that these rites claimed to project their validity to the Beyond. The accomplishment of the rites of the mysteries marks the separations between initiates and non initiates, and determines the happy destiny of the former, who will live next to the gods, compared to the suffering that
          awaits the latter:

          “It could be that those who instituted the initiations for us were not inept,
          but that in reality it has long been indicated in symbolic form that whoever
          arrives in Hades uninitiated and without having carried out the rites
          “will lie in the mud”, but that he who arrives purified and having accomplished
          the rites, will live there with the gods…and these are none other than the true philosophers.”

          By means of symbolic interpretation (which we must consider biased and invented by the philosopher), Plato seeks to modify a more elementary scheme, in which a better life is simply promised to whoever is initiated. Another testimony, likewise Platonic, also tends in the same direction:

          “In Hades, however, we will pay the penalty
          for whatever crimes we may have committed here, either we
          ourselves, or else the sons of our sons”. “But my friend”, he
          will say in a calculating way, “also very great is the power
          of the initiations and of the liberating gods, as it said by the
          most important cities and the sons of gods who have
          become poets and prophets of the gods, who attest
          for us the reality of these facts”

          “The sons of gods who have become poets and prophets of the gods” are obviously Orpheus, Musaeus, and other poets like them. Plato seems to imply that these poets and their followers (the Orpheotelests) promise liberation from the punishments of Hades without any other prerequisite than the celebration of specific practices. The definition of ??? as a religious act, the promise of a better fate after death, and the differentiation between initiates and non-initiates are also characteristic of the mysteries of Dionysus.

          The “sons and prophets of the gods” are going around initiating people for the dying and resurrecting savior god Dionysus.

          1. Indeed, yes. I address this type of stuff from the perspective of understand the ideas present in these cultures and what was viewed as believable and typical of religion, not, like some mythicists, attempting to claim that the Jesus cult was derived from these practices.

  5. Can’t wait for alternative reports. I always considered that gospels were written as alternative reports and their contradictions as a trick to confuse people that history about god cannot be written by humans (even by the supposed enlighted ones).
    A differnt aproach from the OT which tried to tell that any alternative report from the enlighted ones adds dimentions to our knowledge about god.

    Hope I will find some scholary support to me layperson theory.

  6. As a follow-up to Steve Ruis’ statement, “The disciples aren’t mentioned in the epistles. Jesus on Earth is not mentioned, etc,” it may be worth noting that it is not only in the NT texts that the “disciples” aren’t mentioned, as they are also not mentioned in the so-called Apostolic Fathers. In fact, these texts are fascinating in their complete silence concerning much of the narrative material from the canonical gospels. JB is mentioned just a couple of times (in those attributed to Ignatius, ca. 140-ish?). As for the birth narratives in Mt and Lk, there are a few passages that reference the virgin birth and “seed of David” (all in those attributed to Ignatius), but nothing concerning the prophecy of birth, Bethlehem, Magi, Hero, Slaughter of the males, shepherds, the Inn, “manger,” Joseph, escape to Egypt, return to Nazareth, presentation in the temple. Moreover, there is nothing about Peter’s recognition of Jesus as the Christos, about Jesus’ casting out demons, healing the sick, lame, and blind, calming the storm, walking on water, feeding the multitudes, the withering fig tree–nothing. There is next to nothing on Jesus’ teaching (cf. passage in Didache), nothing on the apocalypse of Mk 13 and Mt 24, on Jesus cleansing the temple, on the ‘triumphal entry, the ‘last supper, Jesus’ betrayal (except “Those who betrayed him received the punishment of Judas himself, Martyrdom of Polycarp 6.2), the meeting of the Sanhedrin, Peter’s denials, the trial, resurrection appearances, ascension, Jesus as ‘son of man’ just to mention a few of the canonical gospel narratives. While recognizing the problem of ‘arguments from silence’, it is extremely difficult to believe that the canonical gospels, as we now have them, were in circulation among these second-century authors (or perhaps even known by them?), which (at the least) suggests that the canonical gospels, as we now have them, were not yet written?

    1. I don’t think it’s safe to presume that they hadn’t been written, but certainly that they weren’t yet in wide circulation.

      But beyond that, it also, again, counters the idea that the Gospels are based on oral traditions.

      If the Gospels were based on traditions, then we should expect to see evidence of these traditions in other sources. But as you say, we don’t. If the Gospels narratives were based on traditions, then what we should see in other early 2nd century sources are alternative tellings of those traditions. Instead what we see is nothing, and then, wholesale adoption of the gospel narratives.

      One could possibly argue, as I believe Neil does, that Justin Martyr gives something like a partial indication of Gospel narratives, showing that he is familiar with a Crucifixion narrative that looks like the narrative from the Gospels, but not much more detail than that. But yeah, it seems as though everyone is familiar with some concepts about Jesus as a savior, and then everyone is familiar with the Gospels narrative as told by the Gospels themselves.

      1. But, was the crucifixion narrative that Justin Martyr knew from the Gospels?

        Could there have been other Jesus as a savior stories circulating before or concurrent to the first circulation of the NT Gospels? (Some of the Gnostic texts suggest so).

    1. Thank you for chiming in, Richard. I hope I will be fair to both Litwa and those scholars whose work he addresses in future posts. Yes, I really do wish more biblical scholars made themselves more familiar with classical studies.

        1. his heresy of unbelief

          Litwa, M. David (2019). How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-24263-8.

          Just because Jesus once lived does not mean that the Christian representations of his life describe what happened. And what happened in the external world of the past, even if it is recoverable, is not a clear measure for what is true or real. —(p. 215)
          I do not deny the historical basis for some gospel stories (notably the crucifixion); my point is that the mythic imagination transforms historical memory, and it does so in often unpredictable ways. The historical Jesus is always an imaginative creation that, to some degree, fits modern needs—otherwise, no one would make the effort to remember and (re)construct him as a believable figure. —(p. 218)

          1. At this stage I am in two minds about even discussing that chapter in Litwa’s book. It strikes me as entirely gratuitous with no relevance to what has been explained is the central argument of the book.

  7. Hi Neil.

    May I ask a favor? Will you please take down. My two comments? I’ve been asked by an editor to submit a formal review of the book. I’d prefer to save my thoughts for that essay.

    Thank you, friend.


    1. Neil, delete my comment above: his heresy of unbelief

      Richard C. Miller, please be aware that Neil publishes Vridar articles as free content work, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0). Therefore it is possible to incorporate his content in any manner (derived. redacted, etc.) and even apply a new license. You do still have to give attribution that your content incorporates content by Neil.

      So if you are not up to date on mythicism per Litwa’s chapter on Carrier. You may wish to use Neil’s upcoming review of Litwa’s chapter on Carrier.

      For an real world example see:
      “Gospel of Mark (intertextuality)”. Wikipedia.

  8. Years late to the post again, but it keeps amazing me how people seem to be completely ignorant of fiction when they make arguments like ‘there’s famous historical people in it, this makes it (more) historical’, or ‘it mentions real places, therefore (more) historical’.
    Spiderman lives in New York and has shaken the hands of Barack Obama. Twilight takes place in a real life town. Bram Stoker’s Dr. van Hellsing comes from Amsterdam, and Vlad Dracula was a real person who is placed in real towns and cities in the novel.
    Even before the novel from Charles de Coster’s, Till Eulenspiegel is born in a real place (Kneitlingen). In the novel he’s from Damme (also a real place), joins the Geuzen (a real resistance group), travels to lots of real Belgian and Dutch places, and meets several historical people (btw, he even dies and rises!).
    Anastasia and Rasputin were real people, and the Russian Empirical palace is a real place, this doesn’t make Don Bluth a biographer (obviously he drew a little from real life, but it doesn’t mean we can extract history from the movie. It is notoriously ahistorical).
    Hopefully I don’t even need to mention any examples of London, Paris or New York popping up in fiction. Putting real life stuff in your fiction is done for so many reasons, it would make this post a rambling mess to name even half of them. In fiction there’s no restrictions after all, and given that we can plainly see that ancient fictions mention real places, we have no reason to think authors in the past couldn’t do the equivalent of Spiderman in NY meeting Barack Obama.

    Vividness is also a dead end, do these scholars only read boring books perhaps? Is this why certain strands of Christianity are so against the fantastic genres, because it exposes these arguments as quite silly when you see how well people can make stuff up for the sake of a good story?

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