Wednesday, March 28, 2018

What if the Gospels are bio-pics?

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.


Edgar Andrews said...

Thank you Lydia for this excellent statement and its perfect clarity and logic. I shall share it as widely as I can.

Lydia McGrew said...

Thank you, Edgar. I appreciate it very much!

Robert Lawrence said...

Excellent point. This has cause Christianity to concede TOO many areas recently that instead of conceding in order to keep to the points of "mere Christianity" in the end losing our best arguments for Mere Christianity, in the end, we should be arguing whether these basis should/need to be conceded!
Keep up the great writing.

Lydia McGrew said...

Thank you! Publicize it far and wide--that this is going on and that it has been responded to.

Callum said...

I've shared this on twitter

Lydia McGrew said...

Thank you, Callum!

Jason said...

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.
This seems to be the consensus concerning the historical Jesus movement as the assumption is that the Gospels the church has given us are not reliable history to tell about Jesus as he really was. If the Gospels are not historically reliable then I am not sure how we can say anything confident about Jesus – other than to embrace what the church has given us by faith. In other words, if the Gospel documents are not reliable how can we know which parts are and which aren’t – and what does it mean for our faith as Christians? Thanks for raising these questions Lydia as they are important. I’m hopeful that a fruitful dialogue will ensure about how best to understand and interpret the Gospels.

Joseph Hinman (Metacrock) said...

I have been willing to make from critical assumptions for a long time now, Yet Richard Beckham has convinced me through his works that to hold a more skeptical attitude toward from criticism. I am impressed with the arguments he makes he makes for the historicity of women at the tomb example. So please understand these comments as hypothetical and for the sake of argument.

As a prelude to making those arguments for the women, or other historically based arguments about the Gospels, I would begin with a hypothetical acceptance of form critical approach and argue that we can still claim some minimal knowledge of Jesus teachings and general historicity but we can be fairly certain about this minimal case.

Now as a methodological approach I would all of the gospels know about, weather whole, fragmentary or hypothetical (such as Q) and compile that which they all agree upon. At that level we can write off the mythers. They all portray Jesus as a historical subject. I think from this portrait we should have enough to establish that essentially there was only one Jesus story, The same basic facts are always told and never distorted beyond a basic sense of facility. Where he was born, how he died,who his major side kicks were, always the same. That is not characteristic of myth. Myth always proliferates into multiple versions.

Having established his floor of factual essence we start introducing critical assumptions that lead us to Richard Bauckham's arguments. What is fairly well demonstrated is that the community as a whole knew there were basic facts about Jesus and they were not willing to violate the truth they knew.

Lydia McGrew said...

Hmm, I would not recommend that methodological approach, though of course I think Jesus mythicists are utterly out to lunch.

Not only form criticism but also much redaction criticism is just poor history and poor reasoning.

We have robust evidence that the Gospels are reliable historical records and go back to eyewitnesses or their associates.

Joseph Hinman (Metacrock) said...

Not only form criticism but also much redaction criticism is just poor history and poor reasoning.

We have robust evidence that the Gospels are reliable historical records and go back to eyewitnesses or their associates.

That's my point. Even if you grant their assumptions the it results in a better case for belief than than they think.But then we don't have to grant it because we use those same assumptions to undermine their conclusions.

Lydia McGrew said...

Well, certainly one could reasonably reject outright Jesus mythicists even if all the nonsense of higher criticism were true.

But we need to distinguish refuting Jesus mythicism (the crazy thesis that Jesus never existed at all) from supporting the conclusion that Christianity is true.

I have to say quite honestly that if one grants the bad methodology of higher criticism, I think it's going to be very hard to get a robust case for the truth of Christianity, including a miracle like the resurrection.

Joseph Hinman (Metacrock) said...

I think the major point that I was making is that if we use non canonical gospels to expand the data base we see that there is only one story essentially of Jesus. That is indicative of the historicity of the story since myth always proliferates into multiple versos. The pewit being even if the Gospels are to written as history they still observed certain shared historical assumptions that were understood by the larger community,ie the historicity of Jesus and the events outlined in the canonical Gospels.

Lydia McGrew said...

The non-canonical "gospels" are obviously derivative and embellished. They don't really add independent attestation to even the events they share with the canonical gospels. And the "events" in question are common only at the broadest level of possible description.

We really *need* to do more.