The Gospels Don’t Read Like A Fairy Tale

Most people when they get into discussions about God and Jesus end up having to try and prove God’s existence or argue about creation and evolution.

I think these are important, but they miss the point. You can believe both of the above and still reject the bible. And if you can’t trust the bible, then telling people about Jesus is going to go nowhere. You’ve got to get people to trust the bible.

One of the most helpful classes I took in college was called “Jesus’ Life & Ministry” taught by Jon Lunde. For 1/3 of the school year we spent dissecting and combating the arguments against the historical reliability of the New Testament Gospels. Aside from the fascination I have with this, I cannot think of one class that has had a more profound effect upon how I look at the bible apologetically and as a trustworthy historical document.

This class helped me to understand that the bible attests (or bears witness) to its own historical authenticity. That is, the bible demonstrates in its own right that it is a trustworthy historical document. It doesn’t need anything else to prove it is truthful. As I have ruminated on this for over two years, my trust in the historical accuracy of the biblical documents has grown significantly.

Most people, when they want to know if they can trust the bible, ask if there are “external witnesses” to Scripture – things like other ancient historical documents that match up or witness to what happened in the bible. There are many things wrong with this kind of thinking – 1) It unwarrentedly presupposes that the biblical historical data has been tampered with; 2) It unwarrentedly presupposes that all data outside of the bible is always trustworthy, accurate and has not been tampered with; to name a few.

What is most important in establishing the credibility of an historical document is not whether it is testified to outside of itself, but what is known as “Internal Coherence” – that is, whether the document give sufficient evidence in its own right to its historicity. There are many documents that are clearly rejected because they are not “coherent” – they are beyond what is reasonable to suppose actually happened.

The New Testament Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) all present a curious picture of the man Jesus. What is strange is their almost ambivalence to Jesus’ miracles. Yes, these make up a large portion of what Jesus actually did (as opposed to what he spoke), but their approach and presentation of the miraculous is strange.

In essence, they don’t read like a fairy tale.

The Gospels present the data of Jesus miracles as bare-facts occurrences. They are almost ‘unspectacular’. When Jesus exorcises demons he doesn’t do chants and spells, he doesn’t do a dance and stand praying for 40 days, meditating until some mystical superpower descends upon him. He simply speaks at the demons and they leave. It’s that simple.

When Jesus calms the storm, he stands up and talks at it. There’s no embellishment going on. The wind doesn’t start talking to Jesus and say, “Hey, who are you crazy man talking to me? Don’t you know I’m the wind and that I go where I wish?” Nature acts just as nature does – it is inert. It just simply stops, just as one would expect if a person had complete dominion over nature.

The reactions of people to the miracles are fascinating. The bible actually records people who even doubt their occurrence, just as you would expect in modern day if someone changed water into wine. After Jesus casts the demons out of one guy and sends the demons into a bunch of pigs, the people of the town beg Jesus to leave. Strange, I would have thought they would have immediately recognized him as the Son of God incarnate and bowed down to worship him…

Or how about when Jesus calmed the storm. Check out Peter’s response. It’s what you think would happen. Peter isn’t standing there thinking, “Well duh! He’s GOD…” He’s shocked. Peter doesn’t understand how Jesus, a man, can do the things that he’s doing. His response is natural, not made up or contrived. If you were in a boat with someone and you were about to capsize because the storm was so crazy then some dude comes strolling out of the boat and yells, “Chill Out!” and then everything goes still, I’m sure you’d be pretty freaked out and wondering who the heck this man is.

Even the times when Jesus’ miracles are more ‘mystical’ in appearance, they really aren’t. When Jesus heals the blind man at the pool of Bethsaida by spitting into the dirt and smearing mud on his eyes, when the man doesn’t see immediately, Jesus isn’t shocked. This is because when you read the context, you see that Jesus is teaching his disciples something about their own blindness. If Jesus can cast out demons and calm raging storms and seas then for him to have difficulty giving sight to a blind man would be massively inconsistent.

When you read through the New Testament, especially the Gospels and Acts (because they are specifically recording history, not showing the implications of History like the Epistles do) you are struck with a rather ordinary man who does extraordinary deeds. But what is even more curious is that Jesus himself condemns people for only trusting in his miracles. You would think that a document that is trying to portray miracles as historically accurate wouldn’t include the performer of them telling people they are foolish for looking only at the miracles.

The reaction of the Pharisees to Jesus is one of the most important things in establishing the internal coherence of scripture. Here we have people who witness Jesus’ miracles but argue against him for them. The Pharisees, Jesus’ greatest enemies, don’t write his miracles off as a facade. They know better than that, they could see with their own two eyes. The Pharisees assume Jesus’ miracles. What they are concerned with is not whether or not he’s actually doing miraculous things. What they are concerned with is how he is able to do miraculous things.

The Pharisees refuse to believe, even when they see the miracles. The Gospels show that Jesus knows that his miracles aren’t even what will do the trick. Just look at Thomas, one of Jesus’ disciples. He had seen everything that Jesus did and still doubted. When Jesus died and the disciples told him that Jesus was alive, Thomas refused to believe. Why would he refuse? He saw all that Jesus did, didn’t he? He spent 3 years, watching Jesus heal the sick, give sight to the blind, cast out demons, command nature, etc.

The bible’s coherence is very apparent when we see that it even shows the doubts about the power of miracles to generate belief. If the bible was trying to prove itself true, then it would be the sole voice. It would simply state the events from one single point of view. But the bible, just like other historically accurate documents, presents a comprehensive picture of events, not a monoptic one. Not everyone changes because they saw miracles.

We trust historical documents not merely because someone says they are true, but we can read for ourselves and we can see that they are not tampering with the evidence – they just present the facts. This is why so many people have become Christians simply from reading the bible. They can see that it is true simply by reading it. They don’t need someone else to say, “Hey, this book is true, you should read it.” It stands on its own two feet.

Having “external witnesses” is certainly helpful, but if the bible’s trustworthiness stands or falls on whether other historical documents say its true, then we’ve gone a massive step in the wrong direction. We are implicitly assuming that we really can’t trust the history presented to us. The bible forces us to change our position. It’s not the bible that must be proved by other witnesses, but, in fact, the other witnesses must be proved by the bible.


2 thoughts on “The Gospels Don’t Read Like A Fairy Tale

  1. WordPress linked a blogpost of mine to yours, and I find your argument very strange. Basically because the Bible is coherent (a claim I’d contest) and because it doesn’t read like a fairytale (it wouldn’t if it was written to sound convincing), that makes it a reliable historical document? Did you learn anything more convincing in this class?

    The 4 gospels included in the Bible are included because they are more or less consistent both with each other and with the dominant theology of the time. Try looking up the gospels that weren’t included and tell me if they’re coherent.

    • Thanks for the comment, I enjoy a good discussion/debate.

      I guess I have some preliminary questions for you in return. What do you believe qualifies a document to be historically reliable? By what standards would you judge something to be a trustworthy piece of historical documentation which, as, far as we can see, accurately portrays the events it describes?

      1) I believe coherence is a massive issue in establishing the historicity of a document. I would be very interested to hear your reasons for why the bible is not coherent. Internal and external coherence are fulcrum issues in supporting or else denying a document’s historical validity. I think there are sufficient evidences to show that the bible is at least a reliable historical document, and at best, the most historically accurate document that we have from the ancient era.

      2) I did learn other things from this convincing class, I would be more than happy to share that information so we might discuss it further and debate the finer points of it. We might help each other. I’m not a massive historicist, but I have had a little education in the matter, especially regarding the bible, since is was my area of study.

      3) As for the 4 gospels: I treat them generally separately – The Synoptics together: Matthew, Mark & Luke, since they all presuppose the same original source. I look at the Gospel of John independently because John is vastly different in its style, wording, and presentation as well as the events presented, though I would say it doesn’t undermine or contradict the synoptics.

      3A) My question for you is, would you say that the Synoptics (Mt, Mk, Lk) are primarily consistent or inconsistent with each other, and would you also say that the Synoptics and John are also consistent or else inconsistent with each other.

      3B) You said that these gospels are consistent with the dominant theology of the time. What would you answer be to the question, “what was the dominant theology of the time?” I do not ask this to be pedantic but so that I may know what base of knowledge we are working off of so that we don’t assume things that each other doesn’t know. It will better help us respond to each other. I would agree in some sense, but I think the Gospels are largely if not completely divergent from the dominant theology of the time, at least in the Jewish/Palestinian culture/religion of the time (Jews and Samaritans primarily). Certainly in comparison to say the contemporary Chinese religion, Christianity (as purported in the NT) was consistent with the dominant Jewish theology of the day. But in terms of Christianity in comparison with the contemporary Jewish theology itself, Christianity was significantly different. This is a difficult question to fully answer in a few sentences because Christianity asserts to be the fulfillment of the Jewish religion and so of course they are going to have massive amounts of agreement and consistencies. So maybe you could help me and define your assertion and be a little more specific as to what the dominant theology was (I don’t know what reference point you’re working off of).

      4) I did visit your blog and noticed you posted something quite similar (though in contradiction) to what I wrote here. I am not sure if you posted this before or after you read. I did enjoy reading what you wrote, You’re articulate and well thought out (which is nice for a change, I get tired of people who disagree but use conjecture and hearsay, seriously, we’ve graduated from high school, as much fun as using South Park arguments is, there’s infinitely better resources). We obviously have some major disagreements about the bible and it’s validity and value, but I think we certainly have both spent some time thinking about these more than the average person, so I’m intrigued, and will probably spend some more time reading and responding to some of the stuff you’ve written.

      Thanks for taking the time to disagree

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