Were the Gospel Writers Trying to Tell Historically Accurate Stories?

They were not. And how do we know they were not? Because the concept of "historical accuracy" is a modern concept, not available for the gospel writers to adhere to even had that been their goal... which it could not have been, since the concept did not exist yet!

Don't believe me? Consider the two greatest historians of the ancient world, Herodotus and Thucydides, the closest we come to modern historians in that time. Well, both of them were quite happy to simply make up a speech and stuff it into the mouth of one of their characters. They might even invent an entire dramatic meeting without any real evidence that such a meeting took place. Of course, they did not make up just any old speech or scene: they made up a speeches and scenes that they thought would convey the essence of what had gone on. They were worried about the spirit of the matter, and not about the details. They simply did not possess the modern concept of historical accuracy. What they wanted to do was convey a socioogical or moral or political point to the reader by means of stories from the past -- and if making up a speech or scene helped get the point across, then make it up! Herodotus and Thucydides were not lying. They were telling enlightening stories, not badly failing to adhere to a standard of which no one had yet conceived.

How much more would this be so for those spreading the good news of the incarnation? If someone in the audience had started complaining about, "Well, did Mary and Joseph go to Egypt next, or to Jerusalem? Which is it?" the speaker probably would have smacked him upside the head and asked, "Are you paying attention? God became incarnate in Man! This is not a British railroad-timetable murder mystery!"

UPDATE: PSH has convinced me that I have put my point badly. What I should have said was, "Ancient writers did not have modern standards of historical accuracy." Of course, Herodotus cared whether it was the Persians or the Eskimos or the Chinese who had invaded Greece. Of course, when he says a battle was at Salamis, he thought it was at Salamis. But the standards of modern, critical history did not exist until the 19th century. PSH actually backs the point I meant to make in the quote he chooses from Thucydides: "so my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said."

Exactly. He is trying to get the general sense of what went on, and is more interested in that than he is the modern "historical accuracy."


  1. My response is too long for a blog comment, so I turned it into a blog post of its own. It can be found here.

  2. "He is trying to get the general sense of what went on, and is more interested in that than he is the modern 'historical accuracy.'"

    Fair enough. I would just put it a bit differently: Ancient historians wanted to make their works edifying as well as accurate. Hence they sometimes thought it appropriate to fill in—or even rework—the details of the events they described if doing so would make for a more compelling "portrait" of what transpired. But this "historical license" was always limited, and different authors drew the line in different places.

  3. Anonymous11:35 PM

    This is such an amazing blog post, I wonder why your blog doesn't get more hits, at least for this alone.

    Would you consider a proposal to expand this idea to a full length essay or article, and publish it as a column to some major opinion site - Huffington Post or somesuch?

  4. Thanks very much, Prateek.

    Are you proposing to be my agent in this venture?


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