Are the Gospels Best Understood as Creative Nonfiction?


I was listening to the mythicist blogger Richard Carrier on “Unbelievable,” the UK Christian radio show and podcast that brings together Christian and non-Christian thinkers to debate various issues related to faith.

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Carrier, who has a Ph.D. in ancient history and is a very bright fellow, is one of the few credible members of the mythicist community, those who believe that Jesus of Nazareth never even existed at all and was simply a “myth” invented by early Christians, especially by the apostle Paul, and modeled on various Old Testament and mythological figures of that time.

Few historians or Biblical scholars take the mythicists seriously.  Even agnostic skeptics such as Bart Ehrman, who wrote an entire book debunking the movement, find most of their arguments silly.

And here’s an argument that Carrier made that I, as a popular writer, found implausible.  On “Unbelievable,” Carrier argued that the Gospels should not be taken seriously as history because they don’t “critically evaluate their sources” and, in effect, fail to provide footnotes for their assertions.

This is a remarkable claim… that only a Ph.D. academic like Carrier would make.  This is a personal issue for me because I, too, wrestle with the issue of footnoting.

My new book The Dawn of Christianity is coming out in March.  It’s a journalistic retelling of the first 20 years of the Jesus movement based on recent archaeological discoveries and new developments in New Testament studies.

The editors and I had an interesting debate on footnotes.  I argued that many popular histories and biographies are entirely devoid of footnotes — such as Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm — yet they are very much striving for historical accuracy and are definitely not fictional.  They belong to the genre of “creative nonfiction.”  They avoid footnotes and the “critical evaluation of their sources” mostly because they want to be read by ordinary people — and nothing turns ordinary people off more than the kind of academic writing Carrier specializes in that says, “Von Hartman claimed this in his 1899 monograph… yet his views were refuted by Gelman who argued…” (I’ve done some of this myself and know it just makes people’s eyes glaze over.)

There is a place for such writing — “peer reviewed journals” read by six or seven scholars in obscure universities — but not if you want to get your story told.  In any event, my editors and I compromised:  I have endnotes but we kept them to a minimum in the interests of readability.

ThePerfectStormAnd this brings me back to Carrier:  The Gospels were meant to be read… not by academics… but by ordinary people.  And that does NOT disqualify them as being historically accurate — no more than it disqualifies Sebastian Junger’s excellent book, The Perfect Storm, from being historically accurate.  (The Perfect Storm tells the story of the sinking of the six-man fishing boat Andrea Gail in 1991 based on interviews with people who knew the crew.)

It dawned on me that this is actually a great description of what the gospels actually are:  creative nonfiction, history told in a novel-like format, the way The Perfect Storm is told in a novel-like format and based on interviews with real people and about real people.

It’s fine for Ph.D. historians to criticize popular histories like The Perfect Storm for a lack of footnoting or for failing to “critically evaluate” or even name their sources, but it’s simply not true that the genre of popular history itself means a work is not historical or not meant to be taken as historical.

The Perfect Storm is about real events and real people — just as the gospels are about real events and real people.

Of course, it’s fine for academics and others to challenge alleged facts or incidents in either the gospels or The Perfect Storm.  In both cases, the authors may have taken liberties with the facts… reordered events to make the story move smoother… or embellished certain aspects of the story for dramatic effect.  (I’m not saying either Sebastian Junger or the evangelists did this, only that it’s possible.)  It’s fair and legitimate to question any of that.  This is what academic historians do… and what New Testament scholars do with the gospels.

My only point is that the sheer readability of the gospels, their lack of footnoting or “critical evaluation of sources,” do not, in and of themselves, disqualify them as history.  It simply means they were intended for a large audience.  One definition I’ve read of creative nonfiction is that it’s “true stories, well told.”  Indeed.



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