Thursday, April 12, 2018

Do the early Christian Gospels contain Fake News?

As with everything else pertaining to religion, the short answer is: it depends on who you ask. Fake news is defined this way: “Fake news in a neologism [new expression] often used to refer to fabricated news. This type of news, found in traditional news, social media, or fake news websites, has no basis in fact but is presented as being factually accurate.”1 The word “fact” I define as an actual occurrence or information having objective reality.

            Someone may object that it is unfair to compare the Bible to “fake news,” since it is an ancient document and “fake news” is a contemporary expression. Nevertheless, biblical scholars do make distinctions, for example, between factual information (ideas grounded in historical event) and nonfactual information (ideas not grounded in historical event). Here is why it may be appropriate to ask this question about the Bible: the gospels parade themselves as “good news” (translation of euaggelion), so it does not seem inappropriate to inquire about the factual character of that “news.” Luke, for example, claimed that he was going to set the record straight and present an “orderly” account to ensure that Theophilus would “know the truth” (Luke 1:3-4). Hence Luke seems to claim that his good news is “factual data.” Yet Luke uses mythological language and legends in telling his version of the story of Jesus.

            The birth narrative in Luke clearly uses mythological language (1:26-38; 2:1-20)—specifically the following verses: 1:26, 32-33, 35; 2:9-11, 13-14.  Myths, although they may inform us about human existence, are essentially stories about gods that people have celebrated and still celebrate in recitation and ritual but such stories have nothing to do with objective reality other than that the ideas about the gods are celebrated in ritual. Plato, for example, regarded what he described as “myths” to be fictional stories about the gods.2

            Scholars in general describe the story of Jesus in the temple at age twelve (Luke 2:41-52) as a legend. Legends are stories about holy people and religious heroes told “for the purpose of inspiration, instruction and religious edification.”3 While a legend may be historically based (as in this case it is told about a historical person), the details of the narrative belong to hagiography (idealizing or idolizing biography).4 For other hagiographic tales of Jesus’ childhood at ages five, six, eight, and twelve see The Infancy Gospel of Thomas.

Some scholars, however, describe this Lukan story about Jesus as a pronouncement story rather than a legend5 since the category “legend” is problematic—the term suggests fraudulent and pious fantasy. In short the designation “legend” suggests that such stories are not historical accounts.

            What do you think? Should the early Christian gospels be described as comprised in part of “fake news” rather than “good news”? The Jesus Seminar published a report in 1998 that found that only 16% of the 176 events they studied in the early gospel literature probably occurred, and the story of Jesus in the temple was not among the 16%.6

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

2C. Hedrick, Wry Guy Blog, “The Sibyl’s Wish,” June 26, 2016.
3K. Nickle, Synoptic Gospels (2001), 28.
4C. Hedrick, Wry Guy Blog, “Are there Legends in the Bible,” August 1, 2016.
5See J. Fitzmyer, Gospel According to Luke I-IX (1970), 134-39.
6R. Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Acts of Jesus. The Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus (1998), 1, 524.