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The Gospels as Supernatural Histories

In order to explain the view I started having about the Bible after I had come to realize that it was filled with discrepancies, contradictions, historical errors, and other mistakes – and yet remained a committed Christian – I have to set out my understanding at the time of the Bible as “myth.”  And to do that I have to give a very brief (though this will take a few posts) history of scholarship on the New Testament itself, specifically the Gospels.  (What I say about the Gospels can be applied more broadly to the Bible, as I’ll explain).

When I was preparing to write this post I *thought* I was simply going to be able to copy and paste this explanation from something I had written before.  But I’ve looked everywhere, and I can’t find that I’ve ever written about it in any context whatsoever, books, articles, blog posts, nada.   How strange.  I lecture on this all the time.

The history of Gospel scholarship is, of course, extraordinarily complex.  There are hundreds of scholarly books and articles written on the Gospel of John every year probably.  If you wanted to read literally everything on John written since, say, 1975, it would probably take you until 2025.  Assuming you had nothing else to do.   A *complete* history of scholarship would be impossible.  But there have been major trends in the field, and what I want to do is explain in the most broad and basic terms possible the major shifts that happened in the field.  Two major shifts, in a field that has experienced lots of shifts.

I will do so by explaining three major views of what the Gospels are.   Are they historically accurate biographies of Jesus?  Are they fairy tales?   Are they something in between?  What exactly? The three major views I’ll sketch, as it turns out, can be traced chronologically: first there was this view, then there was that view, and then there was this other view.  BUT I have to give a proviso.  I do NOT mean …

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The Gospels as Natural Histories
How Does A Book Become A Bestseller? Readers’ Mailbag April 21, 2017

17

Comments

  1. Avatar
    rburos  May 22, 2017

    You talk about this in your Great Courses series–free plug for a great course!

  2. Avatar
    bradseggie  May 22, 2017

    Isn’t is disingenuous to say that when scholars say “myth,” they don’t mean it’s untrue?

    I remember seeing a show on PBS. The local evangelical community was upset that the public school was saying that the creation accounts in Genesis are myths. The local rubes, the PBS narrator said condescendingly if compassionately, thought that the word “myth” meant it wasn’t true.

    If a story is historically and scientifically false, then its untrue in every way that matters. To claim that there’s a kernel of truth in every falsehood, or that urban legends often reflect valid feelings and concerns, doesn’t change the critical truth of the matter.

    I don’t believe the creation stories in Genesis were intended as nothing but stories to convey a truth about human existence without addressing the origins of life and the universe. I believe people have always wondered where everything came from and those stories are one people’s answer to that question.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 23, 2017

      The people who make this distinction are not simply playing with words. They are scholars who have devoted their lives to understanding what myths are. I’ll explain more in my next post.

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  May 26, 2017

        and what about the parables of Jesus? Even fundamentalists agree that these are fictional narratives. Does that make them false in every sense that matters? I would say they are true in the only sense that matters.

        • Bart
          Bart  May 28, 2017

          A literalist would say that these are *meant* to be fictions, unlike the Gospels themselves.

  3. Avatar
    hasankhan  May 22, 2017

    Now this post and the subsequent posts will help me understand the meaning of the word “myth” used by scholars and the basis for calling some event as such. Thank you. This is very helpful in understanding your perspective.

  4. Avatar
    bmartin027  May 22, 2017

    Hi Dr. Ehrman,

    I am reading your book, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. You do indeed talk about this very thing in this book.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 23, 2017

      Oh my god — you’re right! Many, many thanks — you have saved a couple of hours for my life! (Not sure why none of my searches turned it up: I tried several things, thinking that I *must* have covered this in writing *somewhere*…)

  5. Avatar
    Tony  May 22, 2017

    I suggest you add a fourth way of looking at the Gospels:

    • The Gospels as fabrication

    Myth apparently being taken, but that’s of no consequence as the gospels fabrication is based on a myth.

  6. Avatar
    Jason  May 22, 2017

    This sounds like the Great Courses “Scholars Look at the Life of Jesus” and maybe “Fact and Fiction in the Gospel” If memory serves. Do you have lecture notes/transcriptions of those to paste?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 23, 2017

      For the lectures I used simply an outline and winged it from there. But someone else has noted that I do talk about the matter in my book on Jesus, luckily for me!

  7. Avatar
    Alfred  May 23, 2017

    Hi Bart. Do we (I mean you, of course) know why people made written scriptures? Were they to be read by individuals, or read aloud, or to serve as an archive for reference, or simply an exercise in devotion? How do we know? Thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  May 23, 2017

      My sense is that no one at the time thought they *were* writing Scripture — they were simply writing books: histories, letters, biographies, and so on. But yes, they planned for these to be read out loud by the literate to those who could not read.

  8. DestinationReign
    DestinationReign  May 23, 2017

    What you said at the opening is very interesting. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the recent “Mandela Effect” phenomenon, but certain aspects of history seem to be getting supernaturally changed or “rewritten.” What you said about finding it strange that you thought you had written something that doesn’t actually exist reminds me of that. John Lamb Lash (present day Gnostic speaker and author who I believe you are familiar with?) has an excellent ongoing series on YouTube analyzing the Mandela Effect right now. He is adamant that an old Gnostic text (I don’t recall which one) that he has written about in the past has actually CHANGED. And not only that, when he went back to look at HIS OWN analysis of that text, his writing changed as well, and it now matches what the text says!

    • Avatar
      SidDhartha1953  May 26, 2017

      I think he must have read “The Kugelmass Episode” by Woody Allen.

  9. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  May 26, 2017

    Does supernatural history have nothing to do with the question of whether the writings are free of factual error, something that a fallible human author could not escape, even when writing about supernatural events that happened decades earlier?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 28, 2017

      The people talking about the Gospels like this were not focusing on the question of divine inspiration.

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