Ancient Historical Writing Compared to the Gospels of the New Testament

One of the subjects that first got me interested in Classics as an undergraduate was ancient historiography. I read early on the annalistic histories of Cornelius Tacitus and the historical biographies of Suetonius Tranquillus (I later completed my Master’s Thesis about Suetonius). Ancient historical prose has a very distinct style, in which the historian often would discuss the methodology of his research, the sources he consulted, the differences between multiple traditions about a person or event, and his judgment as an inquirer into past affairs. History, derived from the Greek ἱστορία (“inquiry”), is not merely a narrative about past people, places, and events, but is an investigation that one conducts in the present in order to formulate a hypothesis of what probably took place in the past, based on the available evidence.

The genre of ancient historical prose has key features that are crucial to understanding which works belong to the category and why they are more trustworthy than sources that do not. It is not enough for a text to simply talk about things that took place in the past, even when the content deals with real people and locations. A historical text must investigate and probe these matters, discussing the research process involved, so that it does not merely provide a story, but a plausible interpretation of what took place.

As someone who studies ancient historical writing in the original Greek and Latin languages, it is clear to me that the Gospels are not historical writing. These texts instead read like ancient prose novels. In all but Luke, we do not hear anything about the written sources the authors consulted (and even the author of Luke does not name them, explain their contents, or discuss how they are relevant as sources), the authors of the Gospels do not discuss how they learned their stories or what their personal relations are to these events, and even when John claims to have an eyewitness disciple “whom Jesus loved,” the gospel does not even bother to name or identify this mysterious figure (most likely an invention of the author) [1]. Instead, the Gospels provide story-like narratives, where the authors omnisciently narrate everything that occurs rather than engage in any form of critical analysis. Accordingly, the Gospels all fall short from the criteria that can be used to categorize a piece of historical prose.

So what are these criteria? The ways in which the Gospels diverge from and fall short of the historical writing of their time are perhaps too numerous to exhaustively treat here, but I will discuss TEN relevant areas of distinction that are helpful for understanding how historical writing is different.

1. Discussion of Methodology and Sources

Ancient historical works at their beginning (or somewhere else within the body of the narrative) are often prefaced with statements from the author about the period they will be investigating, the methodology they will be using, and the types of sources they will be discussing [2]. None of the Gospels, with the exception of a very brief statement at the beginning of Luke, even come close to following this convention. Furthermore, the opening of Luke is hardly substantial enough to consider it of the same caliber as actual historical prose. As scholar Marion Soards (Oxford Annotated Bible, pg. 1827) notes, “The initial four verses of the book are a single Greek sentence that forms a highly stylized introductory statement typical of ancient historical writings … After this distinctive preface, however, the narrative shifts into a style of Greek reminiscent of the Septuagint.” While Luke mimics some conventions of historical writing at the beginning, the rest of the narrative reverts into the story telling typical of the other Gospels.

Consider the very sparse information that the author of Luke (1:1) provides about his written sources (none of whom are identified in any capacity):

“Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us.”

Such a statement is not of very much help. We can tell, however, from source analysis that the author of Luke derived a large portion of his material from the Gospel of Mark (another anonymous text even more silent about where it obtained its material). Now contrast this with the introductory discussion of a real historical author, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, in how he lays out the sources that he used for his Roman Antiquities (1.7.1-3):

“Having thus given the reason for my choice of subject, I wish now to say something concerning the sources I used while preparing for my task. For it is possible that those who have already read Hieronymus, Timaeus, Polybius, or any of the other historians whom I just now mentioned as having slurred over their work, since they will not have found in those authors many things mentioned by me, will suspect me of inventing them and will demand to know how I came by the knowledge of these particulars. Lest anyone, therefore, should entertain such an opinion of me, it is best that I should state in advance what narratives and records I have used as sources. I arrived in Italy at the very time that Augustus Caesar put an end to the civil war, in the middle of the one hundred and eighty-seventh Olympiad, and having from that time to this present day, a period of twenty-two years, lived at Rome, learned the language of the Romans and acquainted myself with their writings, I have devoted myself during all that time to matters bearing upon my subject. Some information I received orally from men of the greatest learning, with whom I associated; and the rest I gathered from histories written by the approved Roman authors — Porcius Cato, Fabius Maximus, Valerius Antias, Licinius Macer, the Aelii, Gellii and Calpurnii, and many others of note; with these works, which are like the Greek annalistic accounts, as a basis, I set about the writing of my history.”

This is but a snippet of Dionysius’ extensive introduction about methodology, in which he gives an account of how he came upon his sources, how he learned the relevant languages, names his sources, and even explains why some of his readers will not be familiar with the information in his narrative taken from Roman sources that were less known in the Greek world. The Gospel of Luke does not even come close to this level of historical rigor and the other Gospels are even less substantial.

2. Internally Addressed and Analyzed Contradictions among Traditions

Contradictions among sources are inevitable when undertaking historical analysis, whether the author be Pagan or Christian. For this reason, as I explain in my article about Bible contradictions, such contradictions are not ipso facto a major reason why I am distrustful of the Gospels. Rather, it is the way that the Gospels treat contradictions that makes them less credible.

Consider the well-known contradictions between the traditions of Jesus’ birth in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke [3]. Luke 2 has Jesus’ family travel from their hometown in Nazareth to Bethlehem, because of a census ordered by Caesar Augustus. There is no room at any inn, so Jesus is born in a manger. After waiting the appropriate time required by Jewish law, Jesus’ parents take him to the Jewish Temple, perform the rituals surrounding a male childbirth, and then return to Nazareth. Matthew’s account (chapters 1-2) is very different.

In Matthew, Joseph and Mary are already living in Bethlehem, where Jesus is born in a house. A star appears in the sky that prompts Magi wise men from the East to come to Jerusalem and announce that the King of the Jews has been born. Herod summons the Magi in secret and sends them to Bethlehem, so that they can discover the identity of the child and report back to him. The Magi follow the star, which stops over the house Jesus is in (because a star can stop “over” a specific house). The Magi present gifts to baby Jesus, but then, after being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they return to their own country by another route. When Herod realizes that he has been outwitted by the Magi, he then orders that all of the infant males in Bethlehem be slaughtered (an atrocity that no outside historian corroborates). Joseph is warned by an angel to flee into Egypt in order to escape the slaughter. After Herod’s death, an angel tells Joseph that he can return, but because Archelaus is ruling in Judea, Joseph does not return to his home, but instead withdraws into Galilee and moves to the town of Nazareth.

Apologists can twist themselves in pretzels trying to reconcile these contradictions, but what is important to note is that we have strong differences between these two versions of Jesus’ birth. This is not unprecedented for other historical figures. The historical biographer Suetonius notes in his Life of Caligula (8.1-5) that there were different versions of the emperor’s birthplace:

“Gaius Caesar was born the day before the Kalends of September in the consulship of his father and Gaius Fonteius Capito. Conflicting testimony makes his birthplace uncertain. Gnaeus Lentulus Gaetulicus writes that he was born at Tibur, Plinius Secundus among the Treveri, in a village called Ambitarvium above the Confluence. Pliny adds as proof that altars are shown there, inscribed “For the Delivery of Agrippina.” Verses which were in circulation soon after he became emperor indicate that he was begotten in the winter-quarters of the legions: “He who was born in the camp and reared ‘mid the arms of his country, gave at the outset a sign that he was fated to rule.” I myself find in the gazette that he first saw the light at Antium. Gaetulicus is shown to be wrong by Pliny, who says that he told a flattering lie, to add some lustre to the fame of a young and vainglorious prince from the city sacred to Hercules; and that he lied with the more assurance because Germanicus really did have a son born to him at Tibur, also called Gaius Caesar, of whose lovable disposition and untimely death I have already spoken. Pliny has erred in his chronology; for the historians of Augustus agree that Germanicus was not sent to Germany until the close of his consulship, when Gaius was already born. Moreover, the inscription on the altar adds no strength to Pliny’s view, for Agrippina twice gave birth to daughters in that region, and any childbirth, regardless of sex, is called puerperium, since the men of old called girls puerae, just as they called boys puelli. Furthermore, we have a letter written by Augustus to his granddaughter Agrippina, a few months before he died, about the Gaius in question (for no other child of the name was still alive at that time), reading as follows: “Yesterday I arranged with Talarius and Asillius to bring your boy Gaius on the fifteenth day before the Kalends of June, if it be the will of the gods. I send with him besides one of my slaves who is a physician, and I have written Germanicus to keep him if he wishes. Farewell, my own Agrippina, and take care to come in good health to your Germanicus.” I think it is clear enough that Gaius could not have been born in a place to which he was first taken from Rome when he was nearly two years old. This letter also weakens our confidence in the verses, the more so because they are anonymous. We must then accept the only remaining testimony, that of the public record, particularly since Gaius loved Antium as if it were his native soil, always preferring it to all other places of retreat, and even thinking, it is said, of transferring there the seat and abode of the empire through weariness of Rome.”

Here, Suetonius acknowledges that there is a contradiction, but as a historical author he instead engages in a rigorous analysis of the various forms of evidence, ranging from the works of previous historians, to inscriptions, to personal letters, to public records, in order to get to the bottom of the discrepancy. He discusses his sources and methods to give context to the conclusions that he has reached.

Notice that this problem is addressed consciously within a narrative, rather than between narratives by two authors who give their own versions of events without any discussion of sources or method. Suetonius, as a historical author, is interpreting events based on evidence, rather than telling a story as religious propaganda. Furthermore, Suetonius’ account is far more plausible, as there would be little reason to invent Caligula’s birthplace in Antium, whereas both Matthew and Luke almost certainly invented Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, although he was known to be from Nazareth, to fulfill the expectations that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.

The ways in which historical sources treat contradictions between traditions is very different from that of the Gospels, and we can see clear methodology in the former category and religiously motivated forms of narration in the latter.

3. Authorial Presence in the Narrative

Notice in the two examples above that both Dionysius and Suetonius have active roles in the narrative as historians who are interjecting to discuss their sources and relation to events. We learn details of how Dionysius traveled to Rome and learned Latin, and how Suetonius was acquainted with Augustus’ own letters. The Gospel authors are silent about their identities and give context about their relation neither to their sources nor to the events they contain. The Gospel narratives instead just read like novels, told from a camera-like perspective, that omnisciently follow around the characters with minimal methodological analysis.

Even among ancient historical works in which the author does not specifically give his name in the narrative, historians very frequently discuss the relation they have to the events they are analyzing. For example, even though he does not name himself in his Histories, the historian Tacitus (1.1) describes his career and relationship to the persons and events he is documenting:

“I myself knew nothing of Galba, of Otho, or of Vitellius, either from benefits or from injuries. I would not deny that my elevation was begun by Vespasian, augmented by Titus, and still further advanced by Domitian; but those who profess inviolable truthfulness must speak of all without partiality and without hatred.”

Here, Tacitus discusses, out of the individuals he is writing about, which he knew and which he was more distanced from. He clearly discusses his role during the time period and his relation to the events within it, so that the narrator’s identity and background is clearly understood with regard to the events he is investigating. This is a hallmark of history as a genre, which is an investigation in the present of past events, rather than a mere story set in the past.

4. Education Level of the Audience

While a high school-level education in History is universally taught to inhabitants of modern Western nations (still not as well as I would like), historical writing was very exclusive in antiquity. In order to fully evaluate and appreciate historical writing, one had to be educated, literate, trained in oratory, and skilled at critical thinking. Authors writing to such an audience had to demonstrate their research ability, credentials, and methodology. As scholar Pheme Perkins (Oxford Annotated Bible, pg. 1743) explains, “Greco-Roman biographies were addressed to a social and literary elite, which may explain why the Gospels, addressed to a much broader audience, do not match them very closely.”

The Gospels in contrast are written for a far less educated and critical audience. Far from the refined prose of Greek historical writing, the Gospels are written in the rudimentary Koine dialect. For anyone who reads ancient Greek, the quality between a historian like Thucydides versus the authors of the Gospels is on par with comparing Shakespeare to Sesame Street. Historical writing was simply far more complex and analytical, whereas the Gospels read as basic stories taught to encourage the faith of people who already believed and trusted in Christianity.

5. Hagiography versus Biography

Rather than read as the unmitigated praise of a saint who can do no wrong, ancient historical works and historical biographies were far more critical of their subjects, whom they analyzed less one-dimensionally and more as complete persons. Even for a popular and well-liked emperor like Augustus, his biographer Suetonius in his Life of Augustus still did not hold back from describing Augustus’ acts of adultery (69) and lavish behavior (70). Good historians are concerned with telling the past as it really is rather than just heaping praise upon individuals as propaganda.

The Gospels, in contrast, are not historical biographies but hagiographies written in unquestioning praise of their messianic subject. As a good representation of the scholarly consensus about the aims of the Gospels, the Oxford Annotated Bible (pg. 1744) explains, “Neither the evangelists nor their first readers engaged in historical analysis. Their aim was to confirm Christian faith.” Such works, written for an audience of converts, are not chiefly concerned with being critical or investigative, but rather serve the religious agendas and ideologies of the communities that produced them.

6. Signposts about Authorial Speculation

Even when they dutifully followed the sources available, ancient historians frequently did not know the exact words spoken by individuals in famous speeches or the exact order in which things had taken place in past events. In order to provide elegant rhetorical prose, however, creative liberties had to be taken on the part of the author to retell these dialogues as they plausibly could have taken place. This does not entail direct lying on the part of the author, since the speeches were written to represent plausible versions of the original and historians would often signal that the words were approximate. The historian Thucydides, for examples, prefaces in his History of the Peloponnesian War (1.22):

“That particular persons have spoken when they were about to enter into the war or when they were in it were hard for me to remember exactly, whether they were speeches which I have heard myself or have received at the second hand. But as any man seemed to me that knew what was nearest to the sum of the truth of all that had been uttered to speak most agreeably to the matter still in hand, so I have made it spoken here. But of the acts themselves done in the war, I thought not fit to write all that I heard from all authors nor such as I myself did but think to be true, but only those whereat I was myself present and those of which with all diligence I had made particular inquiry. And yet even of those things it was hard to know the certainty, because such as were present at every action spake not all after the same manner, but as they were affected to the parts or as they could remember.”

We have no such honesty and signposts in the Gospels. The Gospels are not even written in the same Aramaic that Jesus spoke. The authors of Matthew and Luke may have had the diligence to copy certain saying from an earlier Q source, if it even existed, which is contested among scholars [4], but even then they do not signal that they are obtaining this material from a source nor do they specify how this source would be trustworthy. John is the least reliable of the Gospels, in which Jesus gives whole speeches in a prose style that is very different from the short, formulaic sayings and parables of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels. In short, the author of John probably made up a lot of Jesus’ sayings and yet did not signpost his speculation in the same way that a historian like Thucydides did.

7. Independence versus Interdependence

One thing that amazes me as a Classicist is just how interdependent the Gospels are upon each other. Matthew borrows from much as 80% of Mark’s material, and Luke borrows from 65% of the material of the earliest gospel. While John does not follow the ipsissima verba of the Synoptics, the author is still aware of the same basic skeleton and is almost certainly familiar with the earlier gospels (as shown by scholar Louis Ruprecht in This Tragic Gospel). In fact, I do not know of any other texts from antiquity that are more interdependent than the canonical Gospels. This is very bad for historical reliability, since independent attestation can be very helpful for verifying historical claims, and yet the Gospels all fail this criterion miserably.

The same is not true for ancient historical works. Consider just the four most extensive sources that we have for the life of the emperor Tiberius: Paterculus, Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio. All four authors obtain their material from a broad range of sources rather than simply copy from each other, they write in a far more diverse range of styles, and yet they independently corroborate each other’s claims. Paterculus is an eyewitness historian writing a brief universal history of the known world, which concludes with Tiberius’ military campaigns (which he took part in). Tacitus is writing a year-by-year annalistic history of the Julio-Claudian period, but rather than just copy Paterculus for Tiberius, he instead draws from a whole array of authors who wrote during the Julio-Claudian period, as well as public records and other sources. Suetonius, who is writing almost at the same time as Tacitus, does not produce a carbon copy of his Annals, but instead writes a historical biography, not in chronological order, that is very different from the earlier sources in its style, and yet independently corroborates the claims of the earlier authors. Dio, who is writing a full history of Rome from its founding in Greek prose, a different language than the earlier Latin sources, has only one part of his massive history dealing with Tiberius. Dio probably used Tacitus, but also many other earlier sources, and writes his own unique narrative that is still consistent with the other independent sources.

For the life of Tiberius we have a wide array of independent sources corroborating each other, whereas for Jesus we have sources that are all copying and redacting one another, not providing independent information or research, but repeating and adding to growing legends.

8. Miracles at the Fringe versus the Core of the Narrative

Simply because ancient historical authors conducted more rigorous research does not entail that they were skeptical of the supernatural. Unbelievable stories still crop up in the writings of Greek and Latin historians, ranging from Herodotus (8.36-41) claiming that, when the Persians attacked Delphi, its armaments came alive of their own accord and defended the temple (just like in the seventh Harry Potter movie!), to Josephus (BJ 6.5.3) claiming that a cow gave birth to a lamb as an impending sign of Jerusalem’s destruction, to Suetonius claiming (Gal. 1.1) that a single lightning bolt had, before Nero’s death, struck the Temple of the Caesars and simultaneously decapitated all of the emperors’ statues, even dashing the scepter from the hand of Augustus’ statue (that is one hell of a lightning bolt!). Of course, I do not believe such stories and their placement in these narratives does make me less trustful of their authors. But fortunately, for ancient historical authors, these ridiculous tall tales are usually at the fringe rather than the core of the narrative.

The Gospels, in contrast, simply narrate unbelievable claim after unbelievable claim about a guy who can feed whole crowds with one tuna sandwich, cause dead saints to rise from their graves, himself resurrect from the dead, and then fly into space in broad daylight. These unbelievable tall tales make up the bulk of the narrative. As philosopher Stephen Law points out, following the principle of contamination, the frequency of these unbelievable stories cast doubt on even the mundane details in the narrative. It is not as if their genre is relatively historical, but merely peppered with a few miracles here and there. Rather, the Gospels are entirely fantastical and legendary. The Gospels are so contaminated by unbelievable claims that they should be treated as untrustworthy until there is good reason for believing specific details.

Another thing that should be noted is that, while ancient historians occasionally report miracles, they often use specific grammatical structures that distance themselves from affirming the stories and make clear that they are only reporting the claims. The historian Titus Livy, for example, in reporting some of the miracle stories of regal Rome, frequently uses terms like ut dicitur (“as it is said”) or ferunt (“they claim”) to specify that he is not endorsing the claims, but only recording that they were made. One such example is when Livy (1.39) discusses the tale of how, when he was a child, the king Servius Tullius’ head caught on fire while he was sleeping, but did not harm him, as it was a sign that he would be a future king. Livy’s careful use of the verb ferunt (“they claim”) indicates that he is distancing himself from gullibly believing in this fable. The Gospels in contrast just throw out miracle after miracle, asking us to believe every single one of them, in a manner that presumes a complete lack of critical thinking on the part of the reader.

9. Important Characters and Events Do Not Disappear from the Narrative

Prior to entry in my Classics M.A. program, I wrote as a writing sample a paper about the Roman prefect Sejanus and his alleged conspiracy against the emperor Tiberius in 31 CE. Both Tacitus and Dio invest extensive portions of their narratives introducing Sejanus and explaining the steps he took in gaining power under Tiberius. Whatever Sejanus was planning, it did not come to fruition, as he was executed by Tiberius in 31 CE. Part of the accusations levied against Sejanus was that he had many allies in the Roman Senate who were helping him in the conspiracy.

Now, imagine if, after Sejanus’ death, there was no aftermath or followup and the narrative merely moved on to another subject. The sequence of events would not at all be logical and would leave many questions unanswered. Instead, both Tacitus (book 6) and Dio (book 58) spend a considerable amount of narrative space discussing the senators who were accused and condemned for being co-conspirators with Sejanus. This makes logical sense, as the event and its instigator were were both of a very important nature and we would not expect that they would suddenly disappear from a narrative in which they played crucial roles.

And yet in the Gospels earth-shaking events take place that then receive no followup and strangely disappear once they have played their symbolic role in the narrative. Take the Gospel of Matthew, for example. Jesus’ death (27:52-53) causes an earthquake that opens the tombs of saints, from which dead people resurrect and then appear throughout Jerusalem. This is an extraordinary event, indeed, and yet there is no followup in the Gospels or Acts of how the city was affected by this. Then, Pontius Pilate is so worried that Jesus’ tomb will be found empty, lest people believe a miracle had occurred (as if all of the saints’ resurrections weren’t convincing enough), that he has guards stationed at the tomb. When the guards are foiled, however, and Jesus’ body is found missing, the Jewish authorities claim (28:11-15) that the disciples stole the body. Grave robbery was a capital offense in ancient Judea, and yet, there is no followup prosecution of the disciples for this charge, even when they are brought to court on other issues. Furthermore, what happened to Joseph of Arimathea? His tomb was the one that was supposed to remain occupied, and yet, when it is found empty, he is not even questioned on the matter. Pilate had gone to great lengths to ensure that Jesus’ body did not go missing, and yet, when Jesus is claimed to have risen, he does not even undergo an investigation into the circumstances.

This sequence of events does not logically make sense, if the Gospels were narrating actual historical events. Instead, the Gospels are reporting fantastical legends, where people act in bizarrely symbolic ways and do not rationally respond to what has taken place. For this reason, as I explain in my article “Let’s Presuppose That Miracles Happen: The Gospel Resurrection Stories Are Still Unworthy Of Belief,” the Gospels are not believable accounts, even in a universe where miracles actually happen. Actual historical writing is not so abrupt, and reasonable consequences occur after events that are important to the sequence of the narrative.

10. Even Good Historical Texts Should Not Always Be Trusted

A final point, which is not so much a criterion of distinction, but rather a reason why even the lack of these difference would still not save the Gospels, is that not even the real historical works we have from antiquity should be taken at face value. Their authors still have their biases, they still speculate over past events, they had limited evidence afforded to them, and they still report a number of unbelievable claims.

I certainly do not trust miracle claims, simply because a historical text records them. Many ancient historians report miracles that are far better attested and independently corroborated than those in the Gospels. The historians Tacitus (Ann. 6.20), Suetonius (Gal. 4), and Cassius Dio (64.1) all independently corroborate that the emperor Tiberius used his knowledge of astrology to predict the future emperor Galba’s reign. These same historians likewise independently corroborate that Vespasian could miraculously cure the blind and crippled (Tacitus Ann. 4.81; Suetonius Vesp. 7.2; Dio 65.8). As I explained above, Tacitus, Suetonius, and Dio are not simply copying each other, whereas the Gospels are heavily dependent upon each other for information. This does not entail that the Pagan miracles are true, but it does show that they were not invented by the historians and most likely derive from an earlier common source (I think that most of these stories go back to roughly contemporary claims about miracles when Galba and Vespasian became emperors). In contrast, since the Gospels copy from each other, many of their miracles can very easily have no earlier source, and when one earlier gospel author invented a miracle, a later gospel could merely pass it along in telephone.

Conclusion:

The main point to take away from the analysis of the criteria above is that the Gospels certainly do not measure up to the high historiography of antiquity. Many of my Classics professors who specialize in such texts, when they read the Gospels, comment on how much more rudimentary and story-like their narratives are compared to the researched and analytical characteristics of historical writing. Even Luke only has a few brief lines at the beginning that mimic historical prose, before jumping into pure hagiography like the other Gospels.

Ancient historical texts are some of my favorite works from antiquity for their sophisticated writing style, elaborate research, and intellectual rigor in investigating past events. I cannot say the same for the Gospels, although I do think they provide interesting symbolism and allegories as novels. After analyzing the Gospels under the historiographical criteria that I discuss above, however, they must be placed in a different literary genre from the actual historical works of antiquity.

A final note about modern historical methodology is that the ancient authors of these historical prose, who demonstrate their research, have independent corroboration, discuss their methodology, and reach conclusions through critical investigation, should generally be trusted, until proven otherwise. In contrast, ancient novels, such as the Gospels, that are packed full of legends and religious propaganda, should not be given the benefit of the doubt, until there is good reason for overcoming their overall unreliability in order to trust a specific detail. I do think that there are some precious kernels of truth in at least the Synoptic Gospels, but they are few and far between.

-Matthew Ferguson

[1] For problems relating to the authorship of John, including discussion of the anonymous “beloved disciple” in Jn. 21:24-25, see my article “Why Scholars Doubt the Traditional Authors of the Gospels.”

[2] When ancient historical authors do not cite or discuss their sources at the beginning of their works, they frequently cite and discuss them elsewhere in the text. For example, Plutarch’s Life of Alexander does not cite any sources at the beginning of the biography, however, as J. Powell in “The Sources of Plutarch’s Alexander” (pg. 229) explains, “Plutarch cites by name no fewer than twenty-four authorities” elsewhere in the text. Nevertheless, none of the NT Gospels cite any of their written sources by name.

[3] For an in-depth analysis of how the chronology of Matthew and Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ birth contain irreconcilable contradictions, see Richard Carrier’s “The Date of the Nativity in Luke.”

[4] One of the leading proponents to argue that the Q source did not exist is Mark Goodacre, who provides a resource on his website here for the arguments against Q’s existence.

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49 Responses to Ancient Historical Writing Compared to the Gospels of the New Testament

  1. It must be difficult climbing out of the hole complete alienation from legitimate scholars in a field in which you have published nothing of substance or merit…and that is in reference to Carrier who at least has a PHD.

    However, your ten points will provide endless target practice and for that we should all be thankful.

    • Toasty McGrath says:

      Derek, all you seem to do is creep in and talk shit. From the looks of it, you even created a whole blog just to obsess over Mr. Ferguson’s work. I don’t know what’s wrong with you, but you need help.

      • Actually that blog has existed for about 5 years. I recently wiped it clear and decided to start writing on my relevant interests. This Barabbas episode was the first thing that caught my attention. I actually think our Matthew here has potential if he would stop grinding the axe and stick to real scholarship. He is going to find the doors of academia slammed shut and be publishing crap for Prometheus if he doesn’t jump off the Carrier bandwagon.

        • Derek, mind cleaning up the generally rude attitude and trash talking? Thanks.
          I could care less about how your bitter obsession with Carrier has led to you to now fixate on this blog. I’ve gotten a Master’s degree, I’ve done the work, I’ve defended my thesis in front of the experts, and I’ve earned a full-ride, six year Ph.D. fellowship at a Public Ivy. Come back when you can say the same, and until you do please stop wasting my time.

      • about that singular blog posting…

        [Holbyta] “We are left with a bizarre practice (custom, habit, etc.,) which is against the interests of the government. The custom portrays Pilate in direct opposition to the to the image presented by independent histories which have many other claims easily verified in other sources. Nothing offers corroboration of the alleged custom and it has a clear allegorical purpose. Other than special pleading for the historicity of the gospels contra religious texts in other traditions, the expected evidence is insufficient to raise the probability this event happened even into the 50/50 range, let alone the likely true range. The onus probandi for establishing the claim is simply not met.”

        ditto

  2. Erlend says:

    Thank you for this article. Very interesting and very well thought through. I did wonder though whether you might think that the gospel accounts are akin to philosophical biographies such as those that Diogenes Laertius records and the numerous biographical sketches that have come down to us from classical authors about Pythagoras and Socrates. This is the type of literature I think is the closest fit. Indeed many of their features (supposedly being based on a line of disciples recollections, having competing versions of sayings,and, in the case of Socrates and Cato, the climax and pivotal event through which the accounts are structured is the subject’s death, and the purpose of them to present the person as being a exemplum to others which occasionally leads to a, sometimes it seems open, fluidity in recounting events so they match the philosophical/ethical purpose that the author had etc…). it is often claim that the Gospels are theological constructs not historical biographies, of course we both know that theology in the ancient world was mainly carried out in the philosophical schools; I wondered if it is more accurate (at least classically) to say they are philosophical constructs. High historiography they are not, but I don’t think they are just low-brow myth collections either. It is something I am mulling over putting pen to paper on in a more academic setting, but do let me know what you think.

    • Hey Erlend,

      Thank you for your interesting comment. Ancient biography is indeed a rather diverse genre. A good place to start in order to get an idea of the big picture is Tomas Hägg’s The Art of Biography in Antiquity. In it he agrees that the Gospels are “biographical,” but where one fits them in the biographical tradition is rather difficult.

      Scholars such as Pheme Perkins argue that the Gospels fit most aptly in the category of “laudatory biography.” She offers a similar (though much longer and more intricately written) example with Philo’s Life of Moses. Indeed, this type of biography deals with a religious figure who has a unique relationship and role with the Jewish God, which in many respects is closer to Jesus’ profile rather than the profile of a Greco-Roman philosopher. Furthermore, Matthew’s Gospel, which relies heavily on allusions to Exodus, matches some of its conventions quite well.

      Nevertheless, it is a very interesting idea to categorize the Gospels alongside philosophical biographies. I don’t think they perfectly fit the genre, but there are a number of good parallels that you pointed out. The wrongful death of a great moral teacher, such as Socrates or Pythagoras, is certainly a similar theme shared with the Gospels. I think the parallels that you point out would be most prominent in Luke and John. Luke’s Passion narrative is unique for depicting Jesus in a state of resolved tranquility during his crucifixion, in which he accepts his death and martyrdom. I cannot help but think of Socrates’ death as being very similar. John has Jesus give the most extensive dialogues, particularly during the last supper, which has always struck me as rather Platonic.

      While I agree that the Gospels have strong biographical elements, the degree to which they align with the conventions of the ancient novel should not be understated. A good resource for this issue is Dennis MacDonald’s The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark, where he shows a number of parallels particularly in Mark’s Gospel between Jesus and Homeric hero archetypes. Also, I think it is fair to say that the Gospels are just more story-like in general than most ancient biographies. They read less like comprehensive overviews of a man’s life and more like a narrative about a great struggle and journey (in this case, Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection). Mark and John do not even have accounts of Jesus’ birth (in fact, Mark only discusses a single year in Jesus’ life). This is unusual for ancient biography, which normally begins with the subject’s birth, and even Matthew and Luke say very little about Jesus’ childhood and young adulthood. Instead, the bulk of all four narratives are centered specifically around Jesus’ ministry and crucifixion, which is more narrow than a typical biography’s scope.

      I do think though that you have a very interesting idea to explore. My advice (and take it with a grain of salt) would be to scale back the comparison just a little. I don’t think that one has to demonstrate that the Gospels align exactly with philosophical biographies to show that they have strong parallels. I definitely think that you could flesh out some very interesting comparisons between the Gospels and some philosophical biographies, which is an issue worth exploring.

    • E, Badass site dude… Thanks from us visual peeps :)

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  5. Mike K. says:

    Thank you for the informative post. I have tried to go through some of the different scholarly approaches to Mark’s genre from the early form critics judgment that it was a unique expression of Christian kerygma (proclamation) to the variety of proposals from apocalyptic (Howard Clark Kee), novel (Mary Anne Tolbert), historical monograph (Adela Collins) or bios (Richard Burridge and many other NT scholars) at http://ntmark.wordpress.com/category/genre/. My PhD was on the early Patristic reception of Mark but I would love the input of someone with a strong classics background as on the blog I settled on viewing the Gospels as a form of popular biography with Jewish as well as Greco-Roman influences (perhaps explaining their omniscient narrator and anonymity as in the biblical history books, blurring of generic boundaries, introduction of a heavy concentration on the miraculous or eschatological, etc).

    • Hey Mike,

      Thanks for reading the blog and providing your input! I’m also glad to hear that James McGrath found the blog interesting.

      “My PhD was on the early Patristic reception of Mark but I would love the input of someone with a strong classics background as on the blog I settled on viewing the Gospels as a form of popular biography with Jewish as well as Greco-Roman influences”

      That’s pretty close to my position. I do agree that there are elements of the Greco-Roman bios in the Gospels. As Tomas Hägg points out, however, the genre of biography was rather broad in antiquity. It was not limited to the historical biographies of Plutarch or Suetonius. In fact, what I found most enjoyable about Hägg’s work is realizing just how broad a genre the ancient bios was, ranging from completely ahistorical Lives of figures like Aesop to more hagiographical works like the philosophical biographies, which Erlend noted, to some of the most historically documented works that we have from antiquity (as seen in the example above of Suetonius researching the accounts of Caligula’s birth). So simply being in the category of the ancient bios does not mean that the Gospels are historical. Historical biography was just one subset of the larger biographical genre. That said, I also think that the Gospels do have some historical value, even if their genre is not historical.

      I like how you explained some of the differences with Greco-Roman biography by pointing out the Jewish and ANE influences on the Gospels. I do agree that what we probably have is an intersection of different cultures and genre. The Gospels were written by Greek-speaking authors in the Jewish Diaspora and some of the authors were probably Gentiles. However, the Gospels were also heavily inspired by the Septuagint, Aramaic oral traditions, Jewish apocolypticism, etc. They really are unique works for which it is difficult to find an exact parallel with any secular or Pagan ancient works.

      So the question of the Gospels’ genre is very complex and one upon which scholars disagree. This blog does not presume to fully solve the problem, but I do think we can safely say that the Gospels are substantially different from ancient historical biographies, like those of Suetonius and Plutarch. So the apologetic slogan that they belong to the category of high historiography is sufficiently debunked. How we decide what genre to which they do belong is a broader question for which much more can be said.

  6. David Oliver Smith says:

    Matthew,

    Excellent article. A link to it was posted to the “Christian Mythicist” Facebook page which is where I came across it. I am excited to find your blog, and I will be coming back to read other postings. I am the author of “Matthew, Mark, Luke and Paul,” and I consider myself a well informed amateur on the Synoptic gospels. I very much agree with you that the gospels are literature and not history. I was delighted to read your analysis of the characteristics of ancient histories. I learned a great deal. I also skimmed the first part of your thesis and was surprised to learn that true histories may have been written with a chiastic structure. I am very much interested in chiastic structure in Biblical literature, but I always assumed it was a mark of ancient literature and was not to be found in works of non-fiction. While Michael A. Turton has shown that essentially every pericope in Mark’s Gospel has a chiastic structure, I believe I have found several large chiastic structures in Mark. For example, I believe there is a structure where Mark 1:1-37 matches chiastically with Mark 16:8-14:35. In any case I very much enjoyed your article.

    David Oliver Smith

    • The Geek always gives you good props.

    • Thanks, David, for reading the article and providing your interesting feedback! I actually just presented a paper this weekend at the 2013 PAMLA Conference (Pacific Ancient and Modern Languages Association) about chiastic structures in Suetonius’ biographies. Part of what I discussed is that Suetonius is able to use chiastic structures without impeding upon historical accuracy, due to the non-chronological and thematic organization of his narrative. Since Suetonius arranges his material according to common characteristics, rather than according to a chronological and linear narrative, he has considerable flexibility in where he chooses to place different pieces of information without taking too many creative liberties. The chiastic structures in Mark (which Carrier also discusses), in contrast, are set in a more chronological and highly creative narrative, where the author invents material to serve his literary purposes.

      For more discussion about the historical reliability and rigor of Suetonius as an ancient source, you may be interested in a paper that I wrote during the first year of my Classics M.A. program. In it I discuss the source analysis, research, and methodology that make Suetonius a credible biographer. While I do not discuss the Gospels in the paper, it is noteworthy that the historical features that I point out in Suetonius’ works are lacking in the Gospels.

  7. Archie says:

    Fascinating and very detailed writing. Sorry for my ignorance, Where in Mathew does it state Joseph and Mary are already living in Bethlehem, where Jesus is born in a house?

    • In Matthew there is no mention of Jesus’ family living elsewhere or traveling to Bethlehem before Jesus’ birth. In Matthew 2:1 Jesus is merely said to be born in Bethlehem and Matthew 2:11 has the Magi arrive at a house. The author of Matthew has Jesus born in Bethlehem to draw a parallel with Micah 5:2,4. Before Herod slaughters the infants in Bethlehem, Joseph flees into Egypt (this is most likely to draw one of the many parallels with Moses found in the Gospel of Matthew). After Herod’s death, Matthew 2:22 states that Joseph was afraid to return to Bethlehem (his presumed original home all along), so instead Joseph withdraws into Galilee. This sequence of events explains Jesus’ homeland in Galilee as a refuge from inimical forces among the Jewish leadership in Judea. Luke, in contrast, has Jesus’ family originally come from Nazareth and instead arrive in Bethlehem due to a census. The stories when read on their own (without conflating the narratives like many Christmas plays do) provide two very different versions of Jesus’ birth.

    • Archie says:

      Then what did you mean in section 2 by stating “In Matthew, Joseph and Mary are already living in Bethlehem, where Jesus is born in a house.”?

      • In Matthew 2:11, Jesus is born in an οἰκία (“home/house”). In Luke 2:7, there is no room at the κατάλυμα (“inn/guest house”), so instead Jesus is born in a φάτνη (“manger”). So the Greek vocabulary is signaling two very different types of locations. It would be like, in English, the difference between saying “The men came to Bob’s home” vs. “There was no hotel room available, so Bob had to stay in a barn shack.” Obviously the former implies permanent dwelling, while the latter implies a temporary visit. Consistent with this is the fact that in Matthew the narrative starts with Jesus being born in Bethlehem, being driven out to Egypt by force, and only later moving to Nazareth as a refuge. Luke places his narrative in a complete reverse order when he has Jesus’ family travel from their home in Nazareth only to temporarily stay in Bethlehem and then return back to their home in Galilee. Thus, the two stories tell a very different sequence of events. Mainstream scholars agree, of course, that both stories are almost certainly fictional inventions by the authors, who had a theological need to claim that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, so that he could be descended from David, when he was actually known to be from Nazareth (at least as most historical Jesus studies agree).

        • Archie says:

          You state that “In Matthew 2:11, Jesus is born in an οἰκία (“home/house”).”. I do not see Mathew 2:11 making this statement – since it appears to be talking about after his birth. It does say “on coming to the house”. I do not see where it says he was born at the house. Can you elaborate?

          • Yes, I see now what your confusion is. The interpretation is built upon the logical inference of the Greek vocabulary and the surrounding narrative context, not a verbatim statement, if that is what you were looking for. If baby Jesus was at an οἰκία (“home”) in Bethlehem, it is very odd that in Luke his traveling family had to seek a κατάλυμα (“hotel”). This is strengthened by the fact that in Matthew there is absolutely no indication that Jesus’ family “traveled” to Bethlehem. Far to the contrary, Jesus is depicted from the beginning as being native to Bethlehem, and only later fleeing to Egypt and withdrawing to Nazareth due to unfavorable circumstances. In Luke the exact reverse is communicated by the narrative, where Jesus’ family is explicitly stated to be native to Nazareth and only temporarily travels to Bethlehem, seeking an inn for the night. There is no reason in Matthew to conflate Luke’s narrative about the κατάλυμα (“hotel”). Going off of the narrative in Matthew alone, one would first see baby Jesus at an οἰκία (“home”) right after his birth, Jesus is described as a native to Bethlehem, and the logical conclusion is that Jesus was probably born in his native οἰκία, not in a rugged manger after they could not find a temporary hotel. The difference is communicated by the vocabulary and surrounding narrative climax, which, when interpreted, entails two very different versions of events.

          • David Oliver Smith says:

            Archie,

            In addition to what Matthew (Ferguson) has written, I would think that babies were born in the home of the mother and father 2,000 years ago, so that the implication of Matthew (Evangelist) is that the home where the wise men visited Jesus is the same home where he was born. Further, literarily, the star appeared to the wise men at the time of Jesus’ birth, so when the star stops over a particular house (must have been a low hanging star), the implication is that this is the house where Jesus was born recently.

            David

  8. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James’ Ramblings and commented:
    The post is excellent, but also take a look at the comments.

  9. Craig says:

    “Luke 2 has Jesus’ family travel from their hometown in Nazareth to Jerusalem”.
    I think this was meant to read “Nazareth to Bethlehem”.

    Very interesting article about something I wish was more widely understood by the general public. Ancient writers’ access to information and their conceptions of the world were quite different (if not entirely different) to our own, and reasonable levels of education and literacy, as you pointed out, were limited to the elite. Most writings (as well as the archaeology) show that regular folk (meaning the vast majority) could and did believe almost anything (according to their own cultural contexts). Having said that, the inability to distinguish between stories/hearsay/fables and more detached/better researched writings continued well into the medieval period, and is still widespread to this day. One has to admire the effort put in by many ancient historians (and natural philosophers) to use a variety of sources and produce as reliable accounts as they could with the limited information available.

    • “Luke 2 has Jesus’ family travel from their hometown in Nazareth to Jerusalem”.
      I think this was meant to read “Nazareth to Bethlehem”.

      Yep. Thanks for catching that! I have edited the article to change it to Bethlehem.

      I agree, critical histories are a rare thing in all time periods. Even today they make up no doubt a minority of everything that is communicated in some form of media about the past.

  10. Great analysis. You may also like to know of another scholar who applied tools in literary studies to argue that (at least) the Gospel of Mark is a novel, specifically a Jewish novel like Tobit, Joseph & Aseneth, and others. Check out Michael Vines, “The Problem of Markan Genre”. I apply his work to the infancy story of the Gospel of Matthew and find a great fit as well to Jewish novels; see Adair, “The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View”.

    • Thanks, Aaron! Your comment and Mike Kok’s link discussing different scholarly views on the question of genre will be invaluable. I will be adding more citations of secondary sources in the book version of this article, so I appreciate the heads up about Vines.

      • Good to hear. I note the link mentions R. Burridge’s work on the gospels. Worth noting there is a newer second edition that came out in 2004. Responds to a fair bit of the work after him, including Vines I mentioned above. I don’t find the 1-page response effective, but you’ll have to weigh it for yourself.

  11. Just wanted to say thank you. I really enjoyed reading the blog. It is well researched and clearly explained. Wish there were more blogs like this on the web… Cheerio!

  12. Wim says:

    Hi there,

    Thank you for the interesting read. :-)

    I’ve been listening to a course on Classical Mythology on iTunesU and a common plot device is for one of the Greek gods to say to someone they can request anything of him, and the god then swears an oath by the river Styx, which commits him to following through whatever the other person asks of him. This plot device tells the reader that the god will now have to do something he doesn’t want to and something terrible is about to happen.

    I was reminded of this when re-reading ‘Mark’ and coming across the passage about the killing of John the Baptist:
    “So Herodias nursed a grudge against him and wanted to kill him. But she could not because Herod stood in awe of John and protected him, since he knew that John was a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard him, he was thoroughly baffled, and yet he liked to listen to John. But a suitable day came, when Herod gave a banquet on his birthday for his court officials, military commanders, and leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests.The king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you want and I will give it to you.” He swore to her, “Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom.” So she went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” Her mother said, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she hurried back to the king and made her request: “I want the head of John the Baptist on a platter immediately.” Although it grieved the king deeply, he did not want to reject her request because of his oath and his guests. So the king sent an executioner at once to bring John’s head, and he went and beheaded John in prison. He brought his head on a platter and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother.” (Mark 6: 19-28, New English Translation)

    Could this be another indication that ‘Mark’ is basically a novel instead of a biography?

    • Yes, you are correct that this type of dilemma comes up frequently in Classical mythology. The first example that I can think of is in Ovid’s Metamorphoses 2.1-102 when Apollo swears on the river Styx to his son Phaethon promising that he will grant any request that he asks. Phaethon then asks to ride Apollo’s chariot, which he cannot control, with the result that he ends up destroying the world until Jupiter strikes him with his thunderbolt.

      The passage you quoted has interesting parallels. Of course, the concept is general enough that it could show up in lots of literary contexts. So I don’t know if Mark is mimicking any particular episode in Classical mythology, but this is an interesting narrative device that is shared between Pagan mythology and NT literature. Seeing how both forms of literature use similar plot devices, I can see this parallel as an additional piece of evidence linking the Gospels with the ancient novel. Thanks for letting me know about this!

  13. David Oliver Smith says:

    Wim and Matthew,

    It’s clear to me that Mark took this episode on the killing of John the Baptist from Esther 5:3, 5:6 and 7:2 in each of these the king of Persia promises he’ll do anything for Esther ,up to giving her half his kingdom. Also the king of Persia is throwing a party – the “banquet of wine.” Esther then at the party accuses Haman of plotting to kill Jews, specifically her uncle Mordicai, and the king has Haman hanged. Mark used the OT a lot in his gospel.

    David

    • Wim says:

      Hi David,

      Thanks for the OT references. I’ll be sure to read those too. :)

      Wim

    • Thanks again for your input, David! Yes, this may indeed be the specific episode that Mark is referring to, which, as you note, is from the OT. Also noteworthy is that the version of Esther found in the OT was written during the Hellenistic period (probably later 4th to early 3rd century BCE) and likewise the Book of Esther is an examplum of the historical fiction novella.

      Also noteworthy is that the literary device that Wim mentioned is found both in Pagan mythology and Jewish historical fiction, both of which, either directly and indirectly, influenced the Gospel of Mark.

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  15. Blood says:

    It’s an apples and oranges comparison. The gospel writers are more sophisticated than they appear, but their talent lies in highly esoteric interpretation, exegesis, and rewrites of the Septuagint (and each other). They are creative theologians, boldly writing scriptures that they knew would be used within a religious context. This is simply a completely different animal from Livy, Tacitus, Plutarch, etc. These were political/nationalistic writers, not theologians by any stretch, not writing for a church or a religious context.

  16. Tom Shields says:

    I’m sorry, and I am not defending the truth of the story of the birth at all, but I’ve always been confused, doesn’t both Luke and Matthew say that Joseph is from Bethlehem? Since he had to return to the house of his forebears I had just always assumed he was born there. This is more of a question about where Joseph is from/living in the stories more than Jesus.

    Very well thought out piece though! As a Religious Studies undergrad I never really put the Gospels in the same stadium as Herodotus and company (I’ve read very little antiquity histories), but these are very intriguing thoughts.

    • Hey Tom,

      Luke 2:4 has Joseph travel to Bethlehem “because he was descended from the house and family of David.” Luke does not state that Joseph was born in Bethlehem and, since the connection is made to a distant, rather than recent ancestor, the verse probably means that Joseph’s ancestral family had been from Bethlehem (but the descendents had dispersed into other regions since).

      Matthew 2:22 has Joseph and Mary not return to Bethlehem (after the slaughter of the infants), because “Archelaus was ruling over Judea,” so instead Joseph “made his home in a town called Nazareth.” Thus, in Matthew, Joseph only settles in Nazareth after the birth of Jesus, whereas in Luke, he is living in Nazareth and has to travel to Bethlehem before the birth of Jesus. The two versions of events are backwards in their sequence.

      Also, Luke 2:41 has young Jesus’ family travel to Jerusalem every year for the passover, but Matthew 2:22 says that Jesus’ family was avoiding the region because of Archelaus. The two accounts simply disagree on details and the order of events.

      • Sica says:

        Hey Tom and admin,

        in Luke 2 39:40
        The Return to Nazareth
        39 And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him.

        which is in agreement with Mathew 2:23 “and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth”

        what Luke 41 says ” Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover.
        42 And when he was twelve years old, they went up according to custom”
        comes after their settlement in Nazareth, which makes sense since time of narration in verse 42 is on his Jesus age of 12 so to say time enough for “every year” form their settlement in Nazareth till Jesus 12 years birthday.(highlighted in Luke 40)

        • Hey Sica,

          Before touching on the issue of discrepancies between the Gospels, I would like you to know that, as a Classicist, I regularly work with Pagan ancient texts that scholars agree contain differences and contradictions. Normally, scholars do not attempt to harmonize these contradictions between different authors. I explain these contradictions in my article “Bible Contradictions: Why Are They There? What Do They Entail?

          If one approaches such discrepancies assuming that two biblical texts can never contradict, then there is always some scenario that one can invent to harmonize the differences. That is why I said in this article, “Apologists can twist themselves in pretzels trying to reconcile these contradictions.” The thing is that, when interpreting secular texts, scholars do not usually try to find any scenario that will remove the contradiction, but are instead open to the possibility that the two authors genuinely tell different versions of events.

          So now lets deal with the narratives of Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke:

          Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Matthew takes place before the death of Herod the Great (4 BCE). Joseph and Mary are not said to be from Nazareth, and in Mt 2:11 the location in which baby Jesus is born is described as a οἰκία (“home/house”), which implies a permanent residence. Contrast this with Joseph and Mary seeking a κατάλυμα (“hotel/guest room”) for temporary residence in Luke 2:7. After Jesus is born Herod kills all the male children in Bethlehem, and Joseph and his family flee into Egypt to avoid it (which Luke makes not mention of). After Herod dies, Joseph and his family return to Judea, but, since Archelaus is ruling in place of Herod, they instead withdraw to Galilee. There, Matthew 2:23 states: κατῴκησεν εἰς πόλιν λεγομένην Ναζαρέτ (“He [Joseph] settled/made residence in Nazareth”). This language strongly implies that Joseph and his family did not move to Nazareth until after Jesus was born, where they then “settled.”

          Now let’s discuss Luke’s version:

          In Luke 2:2 the Census of Quirinius is taking place (6 CE) before Jesus is born. Joseph and his family travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem allegedly because Joseph belonged to the house of David (meaning that Joseph was not living in Bethlehem, but instead had to go there because of an alleged ancestor). Since they do not live in Bethlehem, Joseph seeks a κατάλυμα (“hotel/guest room”), but since there is none available, Jesus is instead born in a manger. After his birth, Joseph and Mary then travel to Jerusalem to visit the Jewish Temple (in Matthew’s account, they would have avoided the area, since Herod was ruling there). After visiting the Temple, they return to Nazareth (no mention of Egypt). According to Matthew, Joseph and his family avoided Jerusalem when Archelaus was ruling. However, in Luke they visit Jerusalem every year after Jesus’ birth.

          We may note the following differences:

          What year was Jesus born?
          Matthew: before 4 BCE.
          Luke: 6 CE.

          Where was Jesus born?
          Matthew: house/home (implying permanent residence).
          Luke: manger, after there was no hotel/guest room (implying a temporary visit, which is noted in Lk 2:4, but which Matthew makes no mention of).

          Where did Joseph go after Jesus’ birth?
          Matthew: into Egypt, until Herod died, and then he and his family avoided Judea since Archelaus was ruling, and instead moved to Nazareth.
          Luke: to the Jewish Temple (which would have been avoided in Matthew’s account, since Herod was in Jerusalem) and then back to Nazareth, after which Joseph and his family visited Jerusalem every year to celebrate the Passover (no mention of Archelaus).

          Now, contradictions like these are not uncommon in ancient texts. I noted in this article how the historical biographer Suetonius dealt with contradictory accounts of the emperor Caligula’s birth (8.1-5). The difference is that Suetonius tells us that there is a contradiction and deals with it within the text. The Gospels, in contrast, tell two different versions of event, so that that the discrepancies are between the texts.

          This contrasts the Gospels with historical writings, since ancient historians, like Suetonius, often noted different versions of stories and events, whereas in the Gospels there is no such discussion of sources and methodology.

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  20. keuwai says:

    Great read! Definitely learnt a lot from it.

    A question I hear sometimes is, why would the gospels contain so many contradictions if they were copied off one another? After all their purpose was to reinforce the belief of a Christian audience. Wouldn’t it have been more convincing if the authors did it in such a way that there were less factual discrepancies?

    Thanks again for the great article :)

    • Hey Keuwai,

      One thing that is important to understand is that the Gospels in the 1st century CE were not necessarily intended to be read together or treated as harmonious/congruous accounts. They were of course viewed that way by the 2nd century CE, when church fathers like Irenaeus claimed that there must be four Gospels because there are “four pillars of the Earth.” Likewise, in terms of later manuscripts, after the 2nd century CE, the Gospels were often paired together, so that you would find the Gospels attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John paired together in manuscripts. But that does not mean that the texts were meant to go together when they were originally written in the 1st century CE.

      Scholars, like Louis A. Ruprecht in This Tragic Gospels, have argued that the Gospel of John was actually meant to supplant many of the teachings in Mark, particularly in how Jesus is depicted in the Garden of Gethsemane. Matthew is little more than a rewrite of Mark, drawing from 80% of the material in the earlier Gospel, but also making important changes and adding Jewish elements overlooked in Mark. Here is an article by Steven Carr which summarizes how the author of Matthew redacted the previous Gospel of Mark. Scholars, like Bart Ehrman in Jesus Interrupted (pgs. 64-70), have also argued that the Gospel of Luke changes the way that Jesus is depicted in the Passion scene from the Passion in Mark.

      These differences show how the canonical Gospels actually redact and change each other, which accounts for their differences. They were written by different authors expressing different opinions. Would this have undermined their purpose before their audience? No, because the Gospels were not originally meant to be read together in the 1st century CE. Each Gospel was written at a different time for a different community and audience. It was only in the 2nd century CE, when Christian texts had multiplied, that people began to worry about canon and consistency. But that was a later 2nd century concern and not something that should be anachronistically read into the Gospels’ original context in the 1st century.

      • keuwai says:

        Okay, thanks for clearing that up. This is all quite new to me, but the more I learn, the more confused I am about why Christianity is so widespread today. How can Christians have such in-depth knowledge of the contents of the Bible, and yet fail to appreciate the context in which it was written? Surely they would have to believe in most other religions if they applied the same standards of what constitutes historical reliability outside their faith.

        • “Okay, thanks for clearing that up. This is all quite new to me, but the more I learn, the more confused I am about why Christianity is so widespread today.”

          Don’t be sorry about that confusion! Ancient history is very, very different from modern history, and unfortunately few people are taught ancient historical methods in high school or even in college. Moreover, the vast majority of the global Christian community today does not apply scholarly, historical-critical methodology when reading and interpreting the Bible (when they read it at all). People raised in the church are instead taught to read passages in light of later church doctrines, rather than the original historical context.

          This is all unfortunate, since apologists like Lee Strobel and Josh McDowell publish over-simplified and often inaccurate books targeted towards lay audiences, and few of their readers have the background and skills to fact check their specious and sloppy arguments. That is why I manage a blog like this which exposes the misinformation spread by apologists (see here, here, and here).

          I was having coffee with Dr. Christine Thomas (archeologist, NT scholar, and specialist in Christian origins at UCSB) earlier last week, and she told me that if the average Christian today saw what the original Christians looked like in the 1st century CE, they would not even recognize them or their beliefs as anything even remotely close to their own. The Christians of the 1st century were a (long since extinct) apocalyptic cult that expected the end of the world in their generation (which never happened).

          “How can Christians have such in-depth knowledge of the contents of the Bible, and yet fail to appreciate the context in which it was written?”

          Simply reading and memorizing the Bible is not the same as having historical-critical knowledge about its composition (especially when people are taught to read the text inspirationally, rather than through historical-critical methodology). Moreover, many of the doctrines that Christians hold to today were established long after the NT was written (such as the Nicene Creed, adopted in the 4th century CE), which are often anachronistically read into the texts.

          NT scholar Bart Ehrman has discussed in Jesus Interrupted how, when he first learned historical-critical methodology, he was surprised that pastors and Christian leaders did not teach such information to their congregations. That’s why he wrote the book, so that the average man on the street could get caught up with common knowledge among NT scholars (such as knowing that the gospels are anonymous, redact each other, etc). If you want to learn more, I recommend getting a copy of Jesus Interrupted. Also, the Oxford Annotated Bible provides an excellent summary of mainstream scholarship on the Bible, with overviews of all the major books (including their authors and dates of compositions) and verse-by-verse scholarly commentary.

          • keuwai says:

            Thanks for the comprehensive reply!

            One thing that strikes me about history is how opinionated it is. I came from the scientific side of this debate. While it doesn’t take much effort to see that intelligent design is a load of horsecrap, it seems like the same thing can hardly be said for matters of historicity. The literature we are exposed to can influence our perspective drastically, and it scares me that people who have seeked the truth their whole lives can come to entirely different conclusions. This is not something you often see in science. It seems like the only way to navigate this minefield of fact mixed with opinion is to keep an open mind regardless of what we might believe at any one point of time, and accept the possibility that this could be a lifelong commitment. At least, this is the way that I have decided to approach it.

            As a fellow atheist I admire your work, but I also think it is important for me to consider opposing views. I am in the middle of “The Reason for God” by Timothy Keller. It is a largely philosophical book, but he does address certain issues about the reliability of the gospels. Or perhaps “dismiss” is a better word: a grand total of 10 out of 300 pages are used to rebut claims that the gospels are unreliable. I find this extremely suspicious, to say the least. After all, if the resurrection didn’t really happen, the rest of the 290 pages mean nothing. I won’t list his arguments here, but one underlying claim is that there have been recent (as of 2008) developments that undermine the “highly skeptical view of biblical scholarship that arose more than a century ago”. What do you make of this?

            Whatever the case, I think it is more productive for me to read books like these, and then analyse (or outright refute) their arguments. I’ll read Ehrman too of course, but what books would you recommend to the former end? A friend suggested Craig Blomberg, which does seem to have good reviews.

          • “While it doesn’t take much effort to see that intelligent design is a load of horsecrap, it seems like the same thing can hardly be said for matters of historicity.”

            There are a number of reasons for that. Partially it’s because ancient history can never reach conclusions that are as certain or supported as those in science, since historians have far less data to work with. In this way, we can never be as certain about past human events as we can be about the material world around us (a good reason for why we should not trust ancient reports about miracles over the empirical evidence of no miracles demonstrably in front of us today). And, on controversial topics, like the origins of Christianity, the limitations of historical methodology will naturally give rise to a wider range of views.

            Another reason is that Biology programs that would teach intelligent design at the university level would never receive accreditation. However, the same is unfortunately not true in the case of Biblical Studies. A number of evangelical universities with doctrinal statements publish articles on the topic alongside secular universities. Personally, I do not think that these universities should receive accreditation (I would feel the same about any university doing research on another ancient text that had doctrinal statements claiming its inerrancy). But, there is a lot of Christian influence in biblical scholarship (not surprisingly), which I think skews and confuses what’s out there.

            “I won’t list his arguments here, but one underlying claim is that there have been recent (as of 2008) developments that undermine the “highly skeptical view of biblical scholarship that arose more than a century ago”. What do you make of this?”

            I don’t know the context, so I’m not really sure how to evaluate Keller’s claim. But, the New Oxford Annotated Bible came out in 2010 and it still contradicts many of the claims of apologists. I don’t know what Keller means by “highly skeptical,” but mainstream scholars acknowledge that the Gospels are anonymous and have problems with their historical reliability.

            “Whatever the case, I think it is more productive for me to read books like these, and then analyse (or outright refute) their arguments. I’ll read Ehrman too of course, but what books would you recommend to the former end? A friend suggested Craig Blomberg, which does seem to have good reviews.”

            First, why think apologetics is the best representative of the other end of the spectrum?

            There are many Christian scholars who I think do excellent research and are worth reading. I would recommend Raymond Brown’s An Introduction to the New Testament and Dale Allison’s Resurrecting Jesus. Also, James McGrath’s The Burial of Jesus: History and Faith is a great short read that is worth checking out. Let me be clear that I do not always agree with these authors, but I find their research to objective and not skewed. So, before reading the apologists, I would recommend checking out some of the best Christian NT scholars who are not apologists.

            I read Craig Blomberg’s The Historical Reliability of the Gospels a couple years ago. I wasn’t particularly impressed. While Blomberg made less exaggerations in this book than he did when Strobel interviewed him in The Case for Christ (which was alwful, btw), he ultimately comes off as just wanting to dismiss the historical problems of the Gospels, rather than resolve them. He’ll mention things like form criticism, redaction criticism, and midrash, acknowledge that many scholars agree that these methods have revealed historical problems, and then just wave it away with a couple paragraphs of (unpersuasive) rationalization and dismissal. Blomberg’s arguments regarding miracles are especially unpersuasive and naive about the scientific, philosophical, and historical problems with miracles.

            If you want a book that is still apologetic, but not so obviously apologetic as Blomberg’s, I would recommend Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Let me be clear: I strongly disagree with Bauckham. But, Bauckham at least has worked for reputable universities, whereas Criag Blomberg is required to sign doctrinal statements of inerrancy. Bauckham makes similar arguments to Blomberg, but is more mainstream academically speaking.

            But, also read the criticisms of Bauckham’s work (there were a lot among mainstream scholars, and his arguments have not gained majority support). Here is an easily accessible article that summarizes much of the criticisms that Bauckham received from the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus. But I would still recommend Bauckham’s work a lot more than apologists at faith-based universities.

            But, read whatever you like to! I just offer my pinch of salt ;-)

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