After centuries of analysis, many biblical scholars now tell us that the gospels cannot be taken as gospel. Why is this so?
First, scholars explain that the gospels were created as documents of faith, not documents of history. They were not written as accurate historical biographies of the human Jesus who lived and died in the first century of the Common Era (CE). The gospels are more a record of the early church’s beliefs about Jesus than a true historical record of what Jesus actually said and did. They were written to present the message of the early church—its teaching and preaching about Jesus—and to give an overview of Jesus’ life and death to people who already believed that Jesus was the son of God and savior of the world.
The author of John’s gospel states plainly that his purpose is faith, not history.
But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. (John 20:31)
Each gospel has a particular way of seeing Jesus. The gospel writers were not objective reporters (in fact, scholarly consensus is that none of the writers were eyewitnesses), but instead they were creative theological editors one or two generations removed from the events. They took elements that were handed down to them and told the story in a particular way to make a particular point. Each gospel presents a particular interpretation of Jesus: his identity, message, and mission. For these editors, their faith in Jesus as their savior colored their interpretation of his stories and sayings. In other words, their theology preceded the story. And their theology shaped the story.
In front of every person is an invisible belief window through which he or she views the world and life’s experiences. Each of us tends to think that we see things as they are—that we are objective. But this is not the case. In a statement often attributed to writer Anaïs Nin (1903–1977), “We see the world not as it is, but as we are.” In other words, we see the world only as we perceive it to be. We therefore need to distinguish the difference between “what happened” and “our interpretation of what happened.” The New Testament writers present an interpretation of Jesus’ words and actions that have been filtered through the authors’ belief window and that of the communities of faith that passed along a specific tradition and viewpoint to the writer.
Second, according to scholars even if these had been intended as historical documents, the notion of history and how to record it was very different 2,000 years ago. Accurate historical accounts that meet modern standards of precision simply weren’t written. Biographies of famous people such as Alexander the Great and various Roman emperors were usually filled with legends and miraculous events, intended to set the subject apart from common people. A first-century biography of a great person often included a story of a miraculous birth and a heroic death or martyrdom. The stories about Jesus were embroidered in a similar fashion.
We must recognize that an oral tradition preceded the written gospels by several decades. For nearly half a century the church recounted the stories and sayings of Jesus through storytelling, preaching and teaching. As time passed, legends and tales began to attach themselves to the stories of Jesus. Although many of these myths were not included in the four canonical gospels, some were. The authors included some of these myths to make a point.
Third, as stated before, mainstream scholars generally believe that none of the gospels were written by eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life and death. The gospels are religious testimonies produced 40 to 70 years after Jesus’ death by second and third generation Christians. They are reflections of convinced Christians who collected and edited stories and sayings from historical events that most probably occurred before their birth. They relied on the tradition of an early church community to get their information.
Beliefs about Jesus shaped the message of the early church. And the message of the early church in turn shaped the written life of Jesus. Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus reshaped his life and words to conform to both Old Testament prophecies and to the life situation (sitz im leben in German) of the early church. The oral process embellished the historical Jesus to a point that the image we now have of him is no longer an accurate representation of his real life and teachings.
Furthermore, between the historical Jesus and the four gospels stands the theology of Saint Paul. The earliest missionary writings of Paul predate the gospels by at least 20 years and greatly influenced the shape of the belief window of first century Christians. Paul’s belief that Jesus’ death brought about a fundamental change in our relationship to God shaped the theology of the early church. Paul began a process of transformation of the life and meaning of Jesus that evolved in the church for the next three centuries until Jesus was finally declared to be God by a convocation of bishops at the Turkish city of Nicaea in 325 CE. Subsequent ecumenical councils reinforced this image of Jesus. In other words, the Jesus Christ we know today was the creation of memories, legends, distortions, embellishments, interpretations and church decrees.
The gospels are simply not accurate historical records of Jesus. His identity, his mission, and his message must be carefully sifted from the written record. The result is that the Jesus of history is not the same Jesus that we find in the gospels (the canonical Jesus). Nor is the Jesus of history the same as the Christ of faith which the church professes as a product of early ecumenical church councils and their resulting creeds and dogmas.
Obviously, the critical scholarship of mainstream biblical scholars is not well-accepted in fundamentalist and evangelical churches, colleges, and seminaries because the findings point out differences and inconsistencies in the gospels. Because they desire to believe that the Bible is the literal Word of God, fundamentalists fear the scholarship of higher criticism and evangelicals largely ignore it. Many liberal and progressive Christians are more comfortable with the widespread academic skepticism about the literal truth of the New Testament stories. But most Christians, who are biblically illiterate, are largely ignorant of all of this scholarship and usually take the gospels at face value.