What is a Gospel?
WHAT IS A GOSPEL?
By Rook Hawkins
What is a Gospel? For the last few hundred years, New Testament scholars, particularly in Germany, have been asking themselves this very question. Are they the biographies of a miraculous savior written by those who knew him and were closest to him? If that is the case, were they redacted by later Christians to include specific dogmatic and doctrinal ideals? Or, were the Gospels written up to centuries after a historical, human Jesus, by which Christians embellished his story into fictional history? And If that is what they are, do the discrepancies between the four Gospels represent the authors own theological perspectives? If so, how would one accurately determine which perspective is that of the authors and which is the perspective of the so-called real Jesus?
Since the time of the Bultmannian school, theologians have worked tirelessly, it seems, to locate the historically real behind the fictitious myth. In their eyes, and the eyes of historical Jesus scholars across the world, the legendary embellishments and indeed even literary narrative created by the authors overshadow the historical events of a real Jesus. And since the start of this ‘demythologizing’, as Bultmann put it, there have been detractors. These detractors who label themselves as apologists—Christians with the intent to defend the Gospel narratives has wholly accurate, including the miraculous parts—have published their own books relying on early Christian testimony and their so-called historical authority to prove that not only were these texts derived from those who knew and spoke with Jesus as his disciples, but also that they recorded accurately the events of Jesus’ ministry and even parts of his life.
Indeed, according to these apologists, the very reason why discrepancies exist (although some claim, falsely, that no discrepancies exist) is because eyewitness testimony could not be 100% similar across four accounts; that, had they been all copies of each other, this would have raised suspicion of their accuracy. Therefore, per these apologists, the Gospels are different and conflict precisely because they are eyewitness testimony. In response to these claims, historical Jesus scholars have accurately shown, through textual criticism, that the discrepancies do not exist through memory recall. To start, the historical Jesus scholars show that the similarities exist not because four authors recall similar events, but rather because the authors copied off each other. The discrepancies, therefore, exist because the authors altered the text of the version they copied from.
This is why there are different theological perspectives in each of the four Gospels. This is why Mark agrees with Paul and his denouncement of Jewish law, why he has Jesus changing the law, and why he has no birth narrative. This is also why Matthew, who disagrees with Paul, sought to have his Jesus condemn those who change the law to eternal damnation and hellfire, and why he includes a birth narrative resembling the narrative of Hezekiah’s found in Isaiah. It is why Luke makes Matthews birth narrative allude to the narrative of Isaac’s birth with Abraham and Sarah. He plays on multiple themes, to combine the Hellenistic Pauline theology with Matthew’s more Jewish theology. This is, according to the historical Jesus scholars, precisely why there are both similarities and discrepancies in the Gospel narratives.
But then we have an additional problem which threatens the foundations of scholarship as a whole. By attempting to pick which parts of the narratives are historically grounded, and which are not, scholars have effectively fractioned the Gospel narratives into fragmented sections or verses. A line here in this chapter may be historical, but the rest can be dismissed as fiction. The obvious problem of utilizing this method is that the narrative ceases to be looked at as a whole, and is only examined in small amounts, bit by bit. And what is examined depends entirely on which scholar is doing the examination. When one looks at the vast amount of literature that exists in scholarship on the historical Jesus, one can see that there is not one historical Jesus presented. There are as many representations of the so-called historical Jesus as there are scholars writing about him. This is because each scholar is giving us their own interpretation of what fragment of text is historical based on their own presuppositions, their own hermeneutical understanding of the text, and their own self reflections. So, what is happening is that we are getting fragmented selections of text based on a biased reason of a scholar. We are not getting a strict, underlining history based on critical observation of the whole manuscript. All that scholars can agree on, it seems, is that the events of the Gospels, as a whole, are not accurately reporting historical events. This fact is not helpful in answering the question posed in the title of this piece, it only confounds the problem. But there may still be a way to save this question, and present an answer based on the evidence presented above.
That brings us to an additional third option in an attempt to answer the original question: What is a Gospel? If scholarship is already in agreement, that fictional narrative is the functioning motif of the Gospels, why is there a broad presupposition that somewhere under this narrative exist historical fact? Hellenistic scholars outside of New Testament fields agree that Hellenistic Jews were famous for inventing fictional stories, events, characters and even whole wars to make their traditions more ‘Greek’, while reinterpreting scripture to show their cultural superiority. Is that not what the Gospels are? Are they not reinterpreted scripture, written in Hellenistic fashion? It’s a fact that no outside testimony to Gospel events are ever recorded by contemporaries. And scholarship admits that most of the “events” in the Gospel narratives relate back to reinterpreting scripture – the birth narratives, Jesus’ trial for 40 days in the wilderness, the transfiguration, the crucifixion (taken right from Psalms and Isaiah), every event that originally seemed to make Jesus appear real is nothing more than fictional restyling of scripture passages. Even the name “Jesus” (which means “savior” or “Yahweh saves”) is representative of earlier traditions where biblical patriarchs were named for their purpose (Abraham = “Father to many nations”; Isaac = “laughter”; etc…). There are twelve disciples just as there are twelve tribes, representing the instant where Moses father-in-law instructs him to find a head of every tribe for which to handle the business of their tribes – where Moses effectively sends out these twelve heads to their flock to make them straight in the sight of the lord.
So then what does that make the Gospels? If historical Jesus scholars do not view the Gospels as biographies, in the sense that they are depictions of somebody’s life, and that they are made up of fictional events created from scripture reinvention, a common method of Jewish Hellenistic writing, what is a Gospel? It seems more plausible that these narratives are probably completely fictitious in nature. That they were not, as it is commonly assumed, written about a historical Jesus, but instead these narratives were originally intended to be read as historicized fiction.
It is important to remember that the intent of this discussion is not to determine who wrote them, or for what additional purpose the narratives might have been written, although this author could certainly provide evidence for these questions. Instead, the question must be asked, and indeed, it has been asked: What is a Gospel? And the answer has to be met with criticism, in light of the exposed presuppositions mentioned above, and needs to be addressed by scholarship as a whole. Until this is done adequately, scholarship will continue to present us not the Jesus of history, nor a Gospel history, but a history fashioned entirely by the scholars themselves. Whole worlds have been—and will continue to be—created which never existed. Entire reflexive trends in Judaism have been assumed and, in a typical ad hoc manner, critiqued and presented as if they were known to Jews in the first century Common Era. Of course, they were not.
In an upcoming book, this whole hypothesis will be contemplated, and a conclusion will be reached. What exactly is a Gospel? This author will present a case for the Gospels as fiction, by which Jews drew upon and then reinterpreted scripture—a reflexive style of writing which Jews practiced and perfected throughout their history—and present a case for the development of Christian thought and practices in the late Roman period.