Explain why we call the Gospels portraits of Jesus and not His biographies

saron mahari asks in Start a New Thread:

explain why we call the gospels [portraits] of jesus and not his biographies


I’ll be interested to see what others say, but I don’t personally find this question to be controversial (if indeed that was the intent of the post). It seems to me that an assertion that the Gospels are portraits is not necessarily an admission that the Gospels are not historical, it’s merely an assertion that their purpose is not to report all aspects of Jesus’ life or even His ministry. As portraits, they report events that are typical to Jesus’ life and ministry, for the purpose of telling us who Jesus was and what His ministry was about.


7 Responses to Explain why we call the Gospels portraits of Jesus and not His biographies

  1. D R Hood says:

    It’s a reasonable comment to make that the gospels are not intended to be a biography or historical dissertation. One can say they are intended to be a portrait or an explanation.

    That said, it doesn’t alter the question of whether they accurately describe what a particular person did, said and taught. Given that historical events are often hotly debated and witnesses don’t always agree, an evaluation of the gospels leaves a critical reader with serious doubts about whether it is substantially believable.

  2. The Atheist says:

    I don’t go as far as to say that the gospels weren’t intended to be historical; I think they were. I think the writers were compilers of oral tradition which they believed were true, and as part of the compilation process, for the purpose of weaving a coherent story out of these independent oral traditions, they ordered the stories chronologically and filled in gaps where one story transitioned into the next. Writers of that period would not have considered this process of fabrication to be non-historical as we would today. Then my point is that, even if the gospels were intended to be accurate accounts, modern readers who doubt their accuracy may still find value in them as more of a second hand (or 3rd, etc) somewhat embellished recounting of history, in other words, a portrait.

    In this light, the controversial question, “are the gospels historically accurate?” becomes “how historical are the gospels?” Most people, Christians and non-Christians alike, with the notable exception of fundamentalist Christians, would agree that the gospels are not historically accurate, that the gospel writers took liberties with the story. Most Christians and non-Christians alike (again, not fundamentalists) would also agree that the traditions that the gospel writers wrote from were also embellished as they were transmitted over time. That’s why I don’t find the question in the original post to be that controversial – it’s simply an admission of what most people already agree: that the gospels are not historically accurate.

    Most Christians and non-Christians would also agree that the gospels do contain historical elements. Obvious examples are Rome’s occupation of Jerusalem, the expectation of a messiah to liberate Jerusalem, the fall of the Temple, etc. Even those who doubt the existence of a historical Jesus would agree that the stories are probably based on accounts of various people who were thought at the time to be the messiah, but nonetheless they were at least embellished accounts about real people who really existed.

    I think you are right when you talk about “a critical reader with serious doubts about whether [the gospel] is substantially believable.” But it’s not an all-or-nothing question: either the gospel is believable or it isn’t. I can find adequate reason to believe that there really was a John the Baptist who was probably a Nazarene who was considered dangerous enough to be captured and executed, while at the same time not find any adequate reason to believe that Jesus performed miracles or rose from the dead.

  3. D R Hood says:

    Thanks for your response.

    In a sense, yes, they were were intended to be historical but the intention was more to argue a point about Jesus rather than to compile a history or boigraphy. But then, the same can be said of some histories, whether the Romans on histories of their emperors or French, British and German Historians on Waterloo. However, the bearing in mind of the purpose of the wiriting of the gospels is helpful in understanding them and to what extent they are likely to be true.

    As you say, it isn’t as simple as either/or. That said, there are some points that the Evangelists were trying to argue – that Jesus was provably divine, that he was making certain claims and did certain things that proved it (pace the apparent reluctance to give signs or evidences) and particularly that he was dead and came alive again. If those aspects are true or false, then the Gospels are, or are not substantially believable, accordingy. The
    question then is how we can decide whether those claims are true or not.

    To a certain extent, strong doubts about the claims and about other Gospel narratives that are not claims are important. That Jesus demonstrably might not have been born in Bethlehem might not, on the face of it, disprove The salient claims about Jesus referred to above. But they would cause a certain doubt about the trustworthiness of the evangelists – whether they thought their material was true or justified or not – and would also impinge on the messiahship claim.

    Fabrication of a messiahship event would imply that the messiahship is doubtful and may well have been doubtful even when the gospels were written.

    The historical setting is something to bear in mind. Yet is is not rocket science to fit a ficticious story into a historical context, with historical characters of the time. When we bear in mind that,in the gospels, Pilate and indeed, Caiaphas do not behave in ways that convincingly fit with their known or likely characters, then the historical background itself becomes another reason to doubt the gospels.

    Yes, the Baptist is not hard to believe and the Josephus reference seems to have the ring of truth. However, the claims of miracles and back – from – death healings by Jesus take a bit more proving and the Josephus references look more fake the more one looks at them.

    I might say that I have long been thinking the Messiahship claim crucial to the Gospels – whether we are talking of a divine king or a Jewish leadership post, but it has been pointed out to me recently that messiahship might only have become significant because of Paul’s messiahship thesis. I’m not too sure about that – Josephus, later, in his Jewish war history was also concerned with (Flavian) messiahship – but I’m keeping it in mnd.

  4. The Atheist says:

    I agree that one motivation of each of the authors seems to be to teach (to adherents) and to defend (from rival groups) a canonical set of beliefs about Jesus. And as you say, this kind of history writing was common in ancient times and is also also common in modern time. In addition to instructing and defending, I think there was another important motivation for gathering oral traditions from various groups into a single account: to unify the smaller, less influential communities into a larger more influential community. The smaller communities would not be inclined to accept a larger community that did not embrace or at least include the smaller community’s traditions. The smaller communities would not be eager to admit their traditions had been wrong all along.

    I also agree that understanding the writer’s motives helps to us to guess what parts of the story are likely to be true. And regarding the divine claims about Jesus, or any other claims made in the Gospels, our approach for deciding what to believe should be the same as our approach for deciding about any other claim. This isn’t meant to be any sort of complete list, it’s just a few examples that come easily to mind:

    * consider plausibility – a tree falling in my backyard is more plausible than a spaceship landing in my backyard
    * look for corroboration – it is more likely that a spaceship landed in my backyard if several people claim they saw it land
    * consider motivation (as we already discussed) – it is more likely that a spaceship landed in my backyard if people who do not believe in spaceships (that is, they weren’t trying to prove that spaceships have landed on Earth) saw it land
    * look for independent accounts – it is more likely that a spaceship landed if the people who reported the landing didn’t know that other people saw the landing; the landing is even more likely if the independent accounts are consistent
    * consider the integrity of the claim – has the claim been reported accurately? Perhaps the original claim was that a neighbor kid lobbed a toy space ship over the backyard fence and the story grew as it was retold over time.
    *consider the integrity of the witness – how truthful is he about things that we are able to independently verify?

    The evangelist claims fail miserably.

    I don’t think that fabrication of messiahship is necessarily evidence that messiahship was considered doubtful. In fact, it’s probably evidence that people were genuinely expecting a messiah and that when a messiah didn’t arrive, they had to reinterpret that past to resolve their unfulfilled belief. Maybe that’s what you meant and I read you wrong?

    That’s a good point about the presence of historical characters in the Gospel who are acting out of character. That certainly casts doubt on the integrity of the story. And you made another interesting comment about the Josephus reference, regarding the faked accounts made about Jesus that were inserted by later scribes. Why would scribes need to fake a testimony of an event that was historically true? Even if it’s plausible that the fake account was about a true event, the fact that the account was faked casts a long shadow of doubt on the integrity of that scribe.

    I don’t think it’s accurate that the idea of messiah was only important because of Paul. Throughout Jewish history, Jews expected that a messiah would rescue them any time their land was invaded or occupied. Have a look at this excellent Wikipedia reference. I think the contribution of Paul and other writers during that time was to recognize that Rome was there to stay – there would be no messiah to defeat Rome. Therefore, to reconcile beliefs about messiah with the facts at hand, Paul et al had to invent a “spiritual messiah”, a messiah that would do all the things expected of him but not in a physical realm where there was no longer any hope, but rather in a “spiritual realm”, a realm that could not be observed – and therefore the promises could not be disproved.

  5. D R Hood says:

    Thanks. Yes, I agree. extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. And, yes, some independent evidence for the gospel story would carry more weight than the Gospels, which show signs of being polemical.

    I need hardly mention that Tacitus, Suetonius etc. are no independent support for a historical Jesus, though Tacitus is the nearest to it.

    That brings up Josephus. That it was neccessary for a potted biography to be added to Josephus points up that there was no record of Jesus in Josephus though there was of the Baptist, it seems. I’m still keeping an open mind over messiahship. It certainly was important as a jewish religio – political post (I gather that kings and High Priests were all considered ‘messiahs’) and the Jewish expectation was bound up with the idea of returning Judea to the rule of God rather than by pagans.

    The messiah fabrication is what it is. The Natvitity narratives had to be invented to have Jesus born in Bethlehem (he probably wasn’t) and it doesn’t matter too much whether that is to satisfy a jewish – type messianic expectation or to support Paul’s doctrine that Jesus was messiah.

    Because I think the evidence is that the gospels were written to place Pauline doctrine in a historical context rather than Paul getting his material from some sort of proto – gospel story. You’ll probably be aware that Paul is surprisingly vague about the historical Jesus.

    I agree that Paul had to invent a ‘spiritual messiah’. I am open to the idea that his initial impetus came from the disciples. I don’t think I can tell myself that the apostles he rubbed up against never existed.
    On the other hand, his Jesus was very much his own invention and owed little to any historical Jesus which the apostles might have followed.

  6. The Atheist says:

    It is extremely doubtful that any of the alleged references to an historical Jesus, at least outside of Christian writings, are authentic. You make a good point about the need to falsify a reference in Josephus if other references were already extant. Even if we are charitable enough to entertain some of the references as possibly authentic, isn’t it still a problem that the Jesus who returned from the dead, who overturned the money changers’ tables in the temple, who was sought after by the magi, whose birth disturbed King Harod and all of Jerusalem (Mat 2:3), who was the bet noire of the sanhedrin, who frustrated Pilate publicly in front of his subjects, whose death caused the renting of the Temple Veil (!!), isn’t it still a problem that this notorious Jesus got such slight mention in non-Christian writings? And of course the silence about Jesus from the significant writers/historians, who were contemporaries of Jesus, like Pliny the Elder and Philo of Alexandria, is deafening. This is especially troubling since Pliny the Elder lived from 23ce to 79ce and wrote 37 books on natural events such as earthquakes, eclipses and healing. And Philo who lived from 15bce to 50ce, was a Greek-speaking Jewish theologian and philosopher and taught many of the same spiritual messages that are found in the Gospels, yet he never mentions Jesus.

    I never thought of the placing of pauline doctrine in an historical context as a motive for fabricating the Gospels but now that you mention it, I can see how that certainly could have been a motive. I’ve always given the authors of the Gospels the benefit of the doubt; that they didn’t set out to fabricate such a wild tale, but simply inherited the traditions that were handed down to them and then changed them enough to make them flow chronologically. I’ve even given the benefit of the doubt to those repeating (and exaggerating with each repetition) the oral tradition. We see this same kind of thing happen all the time. It can be innocent enough and happen without any malevolence or intentional deception on the part of those transmitting and expounding upon the tradition. But that all said, there could well have been more of a calculated agenda as you say.

    You are right about Paul being vague about Jesus’ life and ministry. What’s very interesting to me personally is how the story of Jesus’ life evolved over time. Paul says nothing at all about Mary or a virgin birth. Mark, who wrote after Paul, mentions that Mary is Jesus’ mother but still nothing about a virgin birth. Matthew, who wrote after Mark, finally mentions the virgin birth (Mat 1:23) by (mis)quoting a passage in the Hebrew Bible (Isa 7:14). Not until Luke, who wrote after Matthew, do we finally learn details of the immaculate conception and the birth in the manger the magi visit, etc. Details of the resurrection also evolve over time too.

    You are right that Paul rubbed shoulders with disciples like Peter, and that Paul’s Jesus was the same as Peter’s Jesus. That’s good evidence that there was at least one historical Jesus who was thought by at least some besides Paul to be the messiah (I say “at least one” because Yeshua (Joshua) was a very common name). Based on Paul’s silence, it’s possible that this Jesus was not the same Jesus who was born a virgin. The Gospel stories could have been an amalgamation of stories about various religious leaders of the day. As the oral traditions grew, the deeds of the other spiritual leaders may eventually have come to be attributed to Jesus. And thanks to Paul and to the Gospel writers, it is the traditions with Jesus as the hero (vs. traditions of other messiahs as hero) that survived. My personal belief though, is that the traditions were primarily about one historical Jesus, and that these stories were exaggerated in transmission, and maybe a few things about other leaders crept in to the story and were attributed to Jesus.

    By the way, not only were various Kings and Priests considered to be messiahs throughout Jewish history, so was Cyrus (Isa 45:1) who wasn’t even a Jew – he was king of Persia!

  7. D R Hood says:

    Thank you. Very good comments. I may say that I found about half the explanation of how the Gospels were written and why in the gospels themselves, by comparing them. It’s well enough to point upthe discrepancies and contradictions but the important thing is what we can learn from them, not just a reason to dismiss it all as rubbish.

    I think that there is something significant to be learned from considering the extant gospels – and the non – canonical ones, too. Not about What Jesus Did but about the way the Jesus icon was used. I commend that approach. Be glad to swap a few ideas!

    I firstly rather neglected Paul as he really didn’t interest me as much as did Jesus – or the Jesus debate at least. But after applying the same method and comparing Paul with Acts, it really explained a lot.

    I don’t now believe that the Gospels preceded Paul and that his writings are based on them – on what the apostles told him. I believe that the gospel – writers were Pauline Christians and their writings are intended to put historical/biographical meat, shall we say, on the bones of Paul’s mental messiah, since it is clear that the Jesus that Paul met existed only in his own head and was not the Jesus the Apostles knew. It was a Jesus that told him what he wanted to hear.

    True, there may well be oral tradition. Take the calling of the disciples at Luke 5.6 There is a miraculous haul of fish that we don’t find in Matthew or Mark, but it must be the same event. Perhaps Luke invented it or perhaps it was oral tradition that he found. That is an academic point. What matters, I think, is that it can’t be true. Similarly I don’t see how the synoptics could have ignored the raising of Lazarus or how John have overlooked the transformation, unless they were not true.

    Yes indeed, you will be aware that Josephus believed (or said that he beieved) that Vespasian was the messiah. That pretty much knocks the Flavian testament (“he (Jesus) was the messiah”) on the head.

    It’s true that Philo doesn’t mention Jesus, but it was pointed out to me that he doesn’t mention the great fire of Rome, either. Of course, Philo does mention Pilate so his interest is focussed more on Judea. Certainly a real Jesus figure couldn’t have been such a crowd – draw as Luke likes to show.

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