Saturday, January 25, 2014

John’s Gospel, History, and Fiction

There are three types of literature that are closely related in form and style: fiction, history, and gospel.  They all are narrative—that is they tell a story.  The character of two of these genres is well known: Fiction, by definition, is about things that never happened, but if it is realistic historical fiction one would have to add the following to the definition: although these things never occurred, they could have happened (in the sense that the realistic action approximates conventional reality).  History on the other hand, by definition is about things that did actually occur.

Gospel literature, according to critical scholarship, falls somewhere between the two definitions above—it is neither history nor fiction—or better, it is both history and fiction.  Gospel literature is unapologetically propaganda literature, which is enough to compromise its reliability as unbiased history, if one pauses to think about it.  Of course what we usually think of as history and fiction can also be propagandistic.  In fact they often are, and are thereby rendered unreliable for the same reason.  The historical character of the gospels is more akin to Eusebius' Life of Constantine, which is an encomium or eulogy (4th century) written in praise of the first Christian emperor extolling his role in establishing fourth-century orthodoxy.  The encomium is not critical history, but pietistic propaganda.

I have argued in several essays that in many ways gospel narratives have more in common with fiction than history, in that gospel and fiction share many of the same techniques and conventions.  For example, ancient Greek novels frequently digress into vivid and fulsome description. In handbooks of rhetoric of the 2nd century and later this phenomenon is called ekphrasis, "description."  Depending on who is explaining the reason for the feature, ekphrasis either digresses from the story to enhance the enjoyment of the reader (to make the narrative more vivid) or it is used to further the plot in some way.  Historical narrative, on the other hand, should not enhance data with the goal of increasing the reader's reading enjoyment, or aiding the historian's argument in some way.  If it introduces description that is not actually part of the events themselves in order to enrich the reading experience, to that extent the history is compromised as critical historical narrative.

In making a story more vivid a fiction writer often uses sensory words—words that appeal to the five senses: hearing, seeing, touching, tasting, and smelling.

In the Gospel of John there are only a few meager instances of enhancing description appealing to a physical sense:  seeing (4:35 white), (5:35 burning and shining), (20:5-7 purple), (21:7 naked [translations vary considerably]).  In an essay on colors in the Gospel of Mark (see below) I argued such meager description in Mark was likely due to the inadvertence of the author—it was just the way the author conceived what was being written that caused him to compose as he did; the author simply wrote what was in the mind's eye, so to speak.  I argued inadvertence because Mark had simply missed too many chances to enhance the reader's enjoyment with deliberate vivid language for the few color descriptions in Mark to be considered deliberate. With the exception of one other instance in John, inadvertence of the author may explain the few instances noted above.  In John 12:3, however, the author deliberately passes over into description enhancing the vividness of the narrative.  The entire passage is laced with vivid and sensual language: "Mary took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment" (RSV).  In this instance the author of the gospel has evidentially utilized a technique of the fiction writer and appealed to the reader's physical senses of smell and touch, as well as to an economic sense by emphasizing the quality, high cost, and amount of the ointment.

The more gospel writers can be shown to use the techniques of narrative fiction, the longer will be the shadow of doubt cast over the gospels as historical narrative.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Hedrick, "Conceiving the Narrative: Colors in Achilles Tatius and the Gospel of Mark" Pp. 177-97 in R. Hock, B. Chance, J. Perkins, eds., Ancient Fiction and Early Christian Narrative (Atlanta: Scholars Press 1998).


  1. Hi Charlie,

    Although the Gospel of John deserves to be thought of as rife with fictional and false narrative, from my viewpoint its writer did get certain points of history correct that were omitted from the other Gospels. The short list of these below comes from comparing John against the Talmud Jmmanuel (TJ) -- that document discovered in 1963 of which a lengthy portion of its translation survived. As you may know, I’ve been studying it and its provenance and discoverer for many years; since its original Aramaic rolls/scrolls didn’t survive due to their heresies for Judaism and Christianity (for one reason), no “reputable” scholar will spend any time on it or discuss it or mention it seriously. So, FWIW by NT scholastic standards, here are its points that it got right:

    In the Gospel of John these items occur in redacted form and/or out of context of the TJ:
    Jn 6:71, 13:26 and elsewhere: The father of the betrayer of Immanuel was named Simon (or Simeon)
    Jn 13 indicates that the last supper occurred a day before it does in the Synoptic gospels; the latter were incorrect because the writer of Matthew made an inserted indicating it occurred on Passover. Hence John has it right that Immanuel spent 3 days and nights in the tomb, not just two.
    Jn 13:29 Judas Iscariot was the treasurer.
    Jn 19:34 Blood & water flowed from his pierced side (occurs also within certain manuscripts of Matthew, now relegated to a footnote).
    Jn 20:17 The warning to Mary Magdalene not to touch or hold the “angel” (made plural in John and then transformed supposedly into “Jesus”)
    Jm 20:26-28 The doubting Thomas episode (only occurs once in the TJ)
    Jn 21:4-12 The huge haul of fish (also utilized by the writer of Luke but early in his gospel)

    It appears that the writer of Matthew held primary custodianship of the TJ source, the writer of Luke was later allowed to borrow it and copy pieces from it not utilized in Matthew, and the writer of John would seem to have had a reader’s acquaintance with it. Mark’s writer, presumably in Rome, did not did not have access to the TJ scrolls. Quite likely the writer of the Gospel of Thomas, and certain other potential Gnostics had brief access to the TJ before it fell into the hands of the writer of Matthew.

    I would speculate that the writers of Matthew and Luke did not mention Judas’s role as treasurer because they felt that such a villain should not have been entrusted with the money box.

    The main substance of it all can be found in my website: .The left-hand column concerns the TJ’s discovery and its co-discoverer’s credibility as a Swiss UFO contactee. Many websites exist detailing the reality of the evidence he was allowed ro collect about his contacts. The middle column concerns the comparison of the TJ against the Gospel of Matthew as to which was derived from the other. The right-hand column concerns the evidence that the Gospel of Matthew in Hebraic form preceded the Gospel of Mark, and reasons why many scholars went astray the past 150 years in placing Mark first.

  2. HI Jim,
    With regard to your comment that no "reputable" scholar will discuss it. I note that it is not even mentioned in the usual dictionaries. So here are a series of questions for me and my readers: 1. In what language is the surviving translation written? 2. What is the date of the handwriting? 3. Where can photographs of the surviving manuscript be accessed.

  3. Hello Charlie,

    I had some trouble following your three questions. Would one look for the title of a book in a dictionary? The TJ’s earliest copyright is 1978, self-published by Eduard Meier, 8495 Hinterschmidrüti, Schweiz (Switzerland). It has oodles of entries in Google, lots of them being hoaxes, false debunking or distortions.

    The surviving translation was written in German (1978), having been translated from Aramaic between about 1963 and 1970. First authorized English translation: 1992, latest in 2007. I don’t know into how many other languages the German has been translated that have been approved by Meier.
    The date of the handwriting? Do you perhaps mean of the original? It was written over many years’ time, starting possibly while on the Silk Road to India (~40 CE), or perhaps not until after the party of three or four had reached India. It terminated upon Immanuel’s death in India ~112 CE. These dates are uncertain estimates. That Immanuel survived the crucifixion is another reason NT scholars won’t touch it, although as you may know there are quite a few writings indicating he had first been in Damascus incognito, later traveled around Asia Minor before going via Silk Road to northern India, and later there and in Srinagar.

    Or did you mean possible (handwritten?) text that its translator, Isa Rashid, sent to Meier ~1970? We don’t know if it was hand written or typed, but probably typed I would think. But none of the pre-book text was saved by Meier. He was way too busy then having frequent UFO contacts and soon after each one recording its conversations.

    There is no surviving manuscript, just the printed text versions of the TJ in German, and further later translations in English and probably other languages. The German text stems from the translation of the first of apparently four rolls/scrolls of the original Aramaic. The remaining three scrolls told of Immanuel’s life and travels and teachings in northern India, and/or perhaps along the Silk Road, and these did not survive the destruction of the originals in Lebanon in 1974.

    So you see why reputable scholars won’t touch it. They assume hoax unless it can be proven otherwise. No matter how heretical and dangerous it was to Judaism and Christianity, no matter how many puzzles within NT scholarship it solves, those who have anything to say about it assume that any assertions that religious authorities would have ordered it destroyed are mere statements of convenience (How convenient!).

    The reason my website exists is so that questions like yours can be answered as far as is presently known. Perhaps one of the first files you should read, if interested, is

  4. Good snowy morning Jim,
    Yes we do go to a dictionary to find out the current critical status of a given question in biblical studies. We now have three competent extensive Bible dictionaries in English: Anchor Bible Dictionary, Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, and The New Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible. There is not an entry on TJ in any of them. The reason is likely two-fold. First your TJ "original" exists only in a modern German translation, which is a purported translation from an Aramaic original made as you say between 1963 and 1970, and for some reason the Aramaic text is no longer around to consult. Biblical scholars are interested in ancient texts. The second reason is due to the UFO associations with the TJ manuscript. While many people believe in UFOs that association is enough to scare off any (as you put it) "reputable" scholar. In general TJ requires too many "suspensions of disbelief" to incorporate a study of the text into a critical study of the Bible. There are just too many ancient texts whose historical pedigree can be validated to the satisfaction of a majority of scholars to spend time trying to substantiate another hypothetical text (Q)--Q at least is a study of texts whose provenance is abundantly established as being sometime before the third century.