The "literary device" theory that I have written so much about in the past year holds that it was culturally accepted for the gospel authors to alter facts for either literary or theological purposes. Suggestions to this effect range from altering who said what within a scene to changing the year in which the cleansing of the Temple occurred by a full three years to inventing entire incidents.
At times the debate on whether this is a problem can become mired in the ethics of it: Would it be morally wrong for the Gospel authors to do this?
My brief answer is "Yes, it certainly would be." But I'm concerned that another point, perhaps equally important, not be lost sight of.
Those advocating the "literary device" theory will attempt to deflect any ethical judgement against the Gospel authors on the grounds that this was socially accepted, so it was not morally wrong, since everyone sort of tacitly understood that at any given moment an author of a so-called "bios" might be doing such a thing. In this respect, they will say, the Gospels are like movies that are based on true events. Nobody thinks that it is morally wrong for someone to make a bio-pic or a partially fictional movie, because it's just understood that it might be partially fictionalized. The makers of Chariots of Fire are not lying because they crafted a scene in which Jennie, the sister of runner Eric Liddell, expresses concern that he is too devoted to his running and that this may be taking away from his commitment to God. I have heard that the real Jennie, who was still alive when the movie was made, was a little unhappy that she had been portrayed in this way, since no such conversation ever took place. But oh, well, many would say: We all ought to know better than to take everything in a movie to be non-fictional. In other words, non-naive people just know to put a question mark over most things in a dramatized, partially fictionalized bio-pic, and that's why its makers aren't doing something ethically wrong.
But there is now an epistemic problem. What if the only source we had about that period in the life of Eric Liddell were Chariots of Fire? What if we knew that it was partially fictionalized, that its makers had "taken liberties" with what happened, but we didn't know how far that had gone? What if we had no way to check out the specifics?
Perhaps the most we could then conclude would be that Eric Liddell existed, that he probably won some major Olympic victory (maybe a gold medal, though that might have been "transferred" from a silver medal--you never know), that he lived approximately in the period after WWI, that he was deeply religious, and that there may have been some kind of perceived conflict between his religious scruples and his athletic competition. In the movie it is that he would not run on Sunday. And in real life, we can check out the fact that that was true in real life. But suppose we couldn't check it out, but we knew that the movie was fictionalized. Then we'd have only a vague thought that maybe Liddell was asked to run at such a time or in such a way that he perceived it as conflicting with his religion. Or heck, maybe the conflict was something quite different (diet?).
It would be extremely difficult to be confident about anything much, and even in that previous paragraph I am, to no small extent, making up as I go along what we could be confident about and what we couldn't, and how qualified the whole thing would have to be. After all, bio-pics can vary pretty widely in how much liberty they take.
So if the Gospels were like bio-pics, this would mean that from a factual point of view they are not good sources for the life and teachings of Jesus. To no small extent we would be guessing as far as trying to figure out just how "big picture" we would have to go before getting to the far more minimal historical facts that we could glean from them. There would be a great deal we could not know, as the redactive fog descends.
Now, that would be a pretty big deal, especially since we're being asked (if we're Christians) to be ready to die for Jesus and to commit ourselves to a variety of creedal propositions, even if we just restrict ourselves to so-called "Mere Christianity."
The Gospels are our primary source documents for the life, ministry, and teachings of Jesus. We don't have other sources in which we can look things up to separate fact from fiction if the Gospels are like bio-pics.
So it would be a pretty radical thing to decide that the Gospels are like bio-pics. I therefore propose that people try to examine the arguments that are given for this type of liberty that the Gospel authors supposedly had. Do those arguments hold up? I've argued at length that they do not.
Please do this instead of spending your time arguing that it wouldn't matter anyway. And please don't distract yourself into arguing that it wouldn't matter because it "wouldn't be unethical." Whether it would be unethical or not, since it would greatly reduce the amount that we can know with any degree of justification about Jesus, we need to figure out whether the Gospels are accurately characterized in this way.
It is astonishing to me, and somewhat disheartening, that it is this hard to get people even to look through the telescope. It seems to me that those spending endless amounts of energy (e.g., on Facebook) arguing that this would be no big deal are apparently determined to let go or let slide the thesis that this is what the Gospels are like. Hey, if it's no big deal, why should we bother finding out if it's true or not?
Wouldn't your time be better spent trying to find out if it's true or not? And at a minimum, wouldn't it be better epistemically if the Gospels, as historical sources, are not like bio-pics, are more reliable than that? So let's try to figure that out. Because there is no good reason to think that they are. See the series.