2020-02-06

Review, conclusion #1: How the Gospels Became History / Litwa

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by Neil Godfrey

M. David Litwa’s concluding chapter is “The Myth of Historicity” and with this post I address the first half of that chapter. I have found the book, How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myth, most interesting, even though it has been a mixed journey, one that started more critical of the earlier chapters than of the later ones. Something of the same mix will be found in this final post as I sum up my responses to Litway’s thesis.

Litwa has identified in the previous chapters ten main tropes that serve as signals that the gospels were written to be read as historical narratives. He has noted that each of these ten is found in other Greco-Roman historical writings so it is reasonable to conclude the gospel authors, in deploying these tropes, likewise intended the gospels to be read as history. I list the ten here (from p. 210) with excerpts from the main text as illustrations. I follow with my review and thoughts on the points raised.

1. objectification (describing individually experienced phenomena as if they were fully knowable and observable by others)

A good example of objectification is the description of Jesus’s resurrection appearances. In origin, these appearances were perhaps visions experienced by early Christians either individually or in a group setting. Yet these visions came to be described as palpable events that occurred in space and time. 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). (p. 10)

2. synchrony (noting well-known persons or occurrences);

There are other historicizing tropes that increase the “reality effect” of the gospels.57 Synchrony, for instance, is the mention of famous persons who lived at the same time as the depicted hero. The third evangelist, for instance, mentioned the governor of Syria, Quirinius, as a contemporary of Jesus (Luke 2:2). This author wrongly dated the rule of Quirinius by about a decade, but the very mention of him as a well-known ruler (along with the then universally known “Caesar Augustus”) increased the realism of his tale. (p. 10)

3. syntopy (mentioning known places on the map);

A similar trope might be called syntopy, the mention of real and familiar places. The evangelists placed Jesus in Galilee under the administration of a historical Jewish king (Herod Antipas). The third evangelist intentionally clarified elements in an earlier evangelist’s topography (Luke 8:26 and Mark 5:1; Luke 4:31 and Mark 1:21) and added a travel narrative showing a discrete move from Galilee to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51-19:28). (p. 11)

4. straightforward, matter-of-fact presentation (which often frames the description of fantastical or anomalous events);

Likewise, Jesus’s sea-stilling miracle is stated in the matter-of-fact tone of historiography: “Jesus got up, rebuked the wind and said to the sea: ‘Shut up, be muzzled!’ Then the wind died down and there was a great calm” (Mark 4:39).11 In fact, Jesus seems rather grumpy after being awoken— another peculiarly human trait. His sea-stilling is fabulous, to be sure, but within the range of possibility for the “son of God” (Mark 3:11). Wind and sea are rebuked, but they are not personified. The timing is precise: Jesus calms the storm in the evening after a long day of weaving parables. The route can be traced on a map: Jesus sails across the Sea of Galilee to the region of the Gerasenes (Mark 5:1). It does not matter that Gerasa (modern Jerash) is thirty-seven miles southeast of the Sea of Galilee (no one but scholars seem to notice); what is important is that the geographical marker is there. The temporal and chronological markers generate a historical frame, a frame that soothes the turbulence of the miracle and fosters the calm of astounded belief. (p. 144)

5. vivid presentation (which includes the addition of random and circumstantial details) and the rhetoric of accuracy akribeia, which includes . . .

There are other vivid details in John that could easily be thought to go back to historical reminiscence: John the Baptist was baptized at Aenon near Salim (John 3:23); the lame man lay for thirty-eight years at the pool of Beth-zatha (5:3 —5); the slave whose ear was cut off was named Malchus (18:10); Peter stood at a charcoal fire outside Annas’s house during Jesus’s trial (18:18). The biblical scholar Paul N. Anderson claims, ‘John has more archaeological, topographical, sensory-empirical, personal knowledge and first-hand information than all of the other gospels combined.” Such vivid presentation (what the Greeks called enargeia) was a known technique of historiographical discourse. (p. 203)

6. . . . the introduction of literary eyewitnesses (such as the Beloved Disciple);

Despite the unlikelihood of the evangelists being eyewitnesses, at least one of them indicates that he based his material directly on an identifiable eyewitness who appears as a character in his story. Late in the fourth evangelist’s account, he introduces an unnamed figure whom he refers to as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” This disciple, who appears nowhere else in gospel literature, is portrayed as one of Jesus’s most intimate companions. At the Last Supper, the Beloved Disciple rests his head on Jesus’s breast (John 13:21-25). This posture represents a privileged, intimate relationship mirroring Jesus’s own relationship with his Father, in whose bosom he abides (John 1:18). (p. 196)

7. staged skepticism among the eyewitnesses (as in Matt. 28:17; John 20:25);

The author of Matthew noted that some of Jesus’s eleven disciples doubted the resurrection even when they saw him physically present (Matt. 28:17). (p. 191)

Thomas had declared, “Unless I see the nail wound in his hands, thrust my finger into the nail wound, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.” A week later, Thomas was staying in a locked room when Jesus walked through the walls. Admittedly, this was not a good way to prove Jesus’s materiality. Still, the hero approached Thomas and said, “Thomas, place your finger here; observe my hands, then bring your hand and thrust it into my side” (John 20:25-27). Thomas instantly realizes that Jesus is not a ghost but a god (John 20:28). (p. 184)

8. alternative reports (as in Matt. 28:13);

Despite the added story of Jesus’s appearance, reports of fraud arose. The disciples were rumored to have stolen the body (Matt. 28:13). In Matthew, this report is implicitly belittled since the disciples would have needed to subdue the well-trained and heavily armed Roman guard. (p. 174)

9. stated links of causation (as in Matt. 28:15); 

In providing this alternative tradition, the Matthean evangelist used the language of historical causation. The conniving Jewish leaders created the theft story; hence it continues to persist. Although this evangelist preferred to explain the missing body by narrating resurrection appearances, the fact that he offered an alternative report is significant. Providing such a report was a common historiographical technique. Offering the reader a choice between the reports gave the (albeit fleeting) impression of objectivity. (p. 175)

and . . .

10. . . . literary traces of a past event (such as tomb tokens).

Contrary to the suspicion of modern skeptics, they do not go to the wrong tomb. They recognize the right tomb by the presence of Jesus’s personal items, namely, the linen wrappings that formerly covered his body and a neatly folded cloth that covered his face (John 20:5-7). These details undercut the supposition that the body was stolen, since robbers would presumably not have taken the time to carefully fold Jesus’s face cloth. (p. 176)

Not unique to history

As discussed in the earlier posts these techniques are not exclusive to works of ancient history and biography but are also found in mythical-poetic works and even in fictional novellas, both “historical” and “erotic (=love stories)”.

One more — the everyday human setting

An elaboration can be made to some of Litwa’s above ten: e.g. the “objectification”, the “straightforward, matter-of-fact presentation”, as well as the references to “well-known persons” and “places on the map”, are brought to bear in very ordinary, everyday human life contexts, such as inviting guests in for a meal. The “vivid presentation” is not always there (not even the crucifixion of Jesus is described as graphically as it could be) but the “random and circumstantial details” are part and parcel of the miraculous or mythical events taking place as “by the way” events in mundane human settings.

One difference — no room for doubt

So yes, the way the miraculous events of the gospels were told does coincide in many, but not all, respects with the way they were told in ancient histories and biographies. The exception: ancient historians and biographers generally related the miraculous events with some authorial distance, expressing in various ways a concession that readers were free to doubt the truth of miraculous events. Not so the gospels.

“Alternative reports” compared with different biblical narratives

As for “alternative reports”, I think Litwa has overstated his case here. Yes, the Gospel of Matthew does introduce an alternative explanation for the missing body but this is done within the narrative world itself and is denied, declared to be a false report through dramatic dialogue and character action. In Greco-Roman historical works the alternatives are introduced from the perspective of the (implied) author himself and addressed to the reader directly. They are not self-contained within a narrative world that tells readers the alternatives are “fake news”. The audience of the Gospel of Matthew has no option but to discount the alternative narrative that denies the resurrection. That is not the way alternatives are handled by Herodotus or Livy.

Yet the four gospels are surely “alternative reports”. The alternatives we read in them, though, are not between belief and disbelief, but in details surrounding the miraculous. Scholars have identified different theological perspectives in each of the gospels and it is these theological themes that may account for the different ways some miracles are told. For example, one sees an interest in demonstrating that the resurrected Jesus was in bodily form in the later gospels.

Even in the Old Testament there are “alternative reports”. We see alternative narratives of the creation of humans in the first two chapters. The story of David’s rise to Saul’s attention is told in two contradictory narratives side by side. So the idea of different narratives to explain a common subject has its precedents even in the Jewish Scriptures. Greco-Roman historians, on the other hand, go further and announce some room to deny a miraculous event took place, sometimes by offering a naturalistic explanation for the events. Jewish and Christian scriptures do not allow for doubts like that, as far as I recall.

The difference is surely significant. Readers’ imaginations are captured as they seek to find ways to reconcile contradictions and fill in gaps found within the varying biblical narratives just as Greek imaginations were captured by the same sorts of questions that arose over the different versions of their myths.

The gospel myths, like the stories in the Jewish Scriptures, were told as “authoritatively” as Greek myths were told in their poems and religious rituals. In this respect they are not told in the same manner as miraculous or mythical stories were often presented in Greco-Roman histories and biographies.

Another reason the Greco-Roman and gospel myths were believable

Greek and Roman myths were widely believed and the historians who introduced certain doubts represented a more sophisticated or highly educated class of society. The gospels were written “so that you may believe”, as we read in the Gospel of John. Greco-Roman myths were believed because of the ways they were told not only by historians and biographers but also in the poetic and religious narratives themselves. Some explanation for this difference in Greek myths may be found in their removal from magical functions. Recall Johnston’s discussion: Egyptian myths, for instance, had a direct “magical” role in effecting some change (e.g. healing) in the believer. Greek myths were more allegorical, metaphorical, and open to different applications in the lives of the people (e.g. celebration of crops, hope for a better after-life). Greek myths also were found piecemeal as if there were many episodes, sometimes contradictory, to be somehow reconciled.

The gospels were writing a kind of historical narrative that was more like those of Jewish Scriptures and consistent with the way Greek and Roman myths were presented more generally and not only in works of history and biography.


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


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10 thoughts on “Review, conclusion #1: How the Gospels Became History / Litwa”

  1. John 20:5-7 New International Version (NIV)
    “5 He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 7 as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen.”

    Wouldn’t item 10 and John 20:5-7 discredit the Shroud of Turin?

  2. I’m not totally clear on what your conclusion is. I think you are saying you disagree with his conclusion.

    I certainly do. I think first of all it is always a mistake to talk about “the Gospels”. These are four separate works, written by different people with different motivations and intentions. In addition, of course, there were more than just these four, and we really need to consider the others as well, such as the Gospel of Peter, which is likely the Gospel that Justin Martyr knew.

    I’m very confident that the Gospel of Mark was not intended to be taken literally as history. I think Luke and John definitely were intended to be taken literally as reliable accounts. I’m unsure about Matthew, but I think there is a strong case that Matthew was also intended to be taken literally as a reliable account.

    As for why these accounts were believed, it again comes back to what the early Christians tell us. They tell us exactly why they believed these accounts. They state it clearly over and over again. They believed these accounts because of the relationships between the stories and the Jewish scriptures. The evidence for prophecy fulfillment is what convinced them of the truth of the accounts.

    When we look at other stories and accounts from this period we of course find many examples that are not written as history but which are nevertheless widely believed. Even when we look at many of the accounts that are eventually recorded by “historians” such as Suetonius, Livy or Varro, many of these tales started out as accounts along the lines of the Gospels.

    So the idea that the only thing anyone ever believed was the work of “historians” is just simply not true. There are countless legendary tales and prophetic works that were widely accepted as true. And furthermore, it wasn’t scholars who played the important role, it was the political elite who did. The political elite believed many things that were not believed by scholars. Augustine was deeply superstitious. Be truly believed deeply in astrology. He died with an astrological map on his person. He made major decisions at the direction of astrologers and according to various works of prophecy. You didn’t have to convince Cicero or Pausanias (though Cicero was himself of course an important political figure).

    But anyway, I think there is a very compelling case that Mark was not written with the intention that it be taken as literally true, while the other Gospels were intended to be taken as literally true.

    1. Mark was not written with the intention that it be taken as literally true, while the other Gospels were intended to be taken as literally true.

      Yes, and the historizing trend of Canon after (and reliant on) gMark is clear.

      • So do scholars suffer from cognitive dissonance when presenting the relationship and attributes of gMark and “Canon after (and reliant on) gMark”. I no longer recommend using the term “Gospels” since it promotes an endless game of “Three-card Monte” where one gospel is used to prove another gospel.

  3. R.G. Price commented “As for why these accounts were believed, it again comes back to what the early Christians tell us. They tell us exactly why they believed these accounts. They state it clearly over and over again. They believed these accounts because of the relationships between the stories and the Jewish scriptures. The evidence for prophecy fulfillment is what convinced them of the truth of the accounts.” I remember a book (details lost but I could probably find it again) which argued that if you took all of the scriptural allusions out of the Gospel of Mark, there wouldn’t be a coherent narrative left. This seems to align with the many, many claims that the gospel writers were mining scripture to make sure that the characters portrayed reflected established Biblical figures or Biblical prophecies so as to be believed by a Jewish audience. This is supported by the fair number of these things that turn out to be bogus (e.g. … and he will be named Imanuel …). No?

    1. Steve notes people have argued or claimed, “if you took all of the scriptural allusions out of the Gospel of Mark, there wouldn’t be a coherent narrative left. This seems to align with the many, many claims that the gospel writers were mining scripture to make sure that the characters portrayed reflected established Biblical figures or Biblical prophecies …”

      I think both those claims -in the two sentences- are likely.

      I think the literary environment of the time (the mid-late first century and soon after) – reflected in the works preserved, especially Philo and Josephus – is likely to have had an influence eg. both Philo and Josephus narrate history and theology (each narrates one of those categories more than the other)

  4. Neil writes in this post, “Litwa has identified in the previous chapters ten main tropes that serve as signals that the gospels were written to be read as historical narratives. He has noted that each of these ten is found in other Greco-Roman historical writings so it is reasonable to conclude the gospel authors, in deploying these tropes, likewise intended the gospels to be read as history.”

    IMO, this “reasonable conclusion” is an apologetic maneuver by Litwa. RG Price says above, “The idea that the only thing anyone ever believed was the work of “historians” is just simply not true.”

    I also note that the original gospels have been edited to enhance their historicity (e.g., Mk 1:9, 1:24). The editors participated in the same literary culture as the authors, and used the same set of tropes to legitimize their edits. Therefore, we shouldn’t attribute all of the history-affirming tropes in the gospels to the authors.

    1. Danila wrote “IMO, this “reasonable conclusion” is an apologetic maneuver by Litwa.”

      I agree: “historical narratives” might be Neil’s paraphrasing, yet, even if it is, it would be an accurate reflection of Litwa’s [attempted] portrayal of the gospels. But, “historical narratives” is an oxymoron.

  5. “When we look at other stories and accounts from this period we of course find many examples that are not written as history but which are nevertheless widely believed. Even when we look at many of the accounts that are eventually recorded by ‘historians’* such as Suetonius, Livy or Varro,* many of these tales started out as accounts along the lines of the Gospels.”

    and Josephus (who’s veracity I am beginning to doubt ie. I wonder if he is a pen-name with an embellished personal history – essentially a made-up character ).

    (and, I presume r.g.price meant ”Augustus was deeply superstitious … believ[ing] deeply in astrology..”)

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