Does the New Testament contain history or myth?

No Fairytale
(image courtesy ChristArt)

By Spencer D Gear

It is not unusual to hear both scholars and laity proclaim words that the Bible is not an historical document but is mythological. These are challenging days in which mythology is following a certain definition as pursued by postmodern people, whether scholars or laity.

The third edition of the Australian, The Macquarie Dictionary (1997:1425) gives this as the first definition of myth: Myth is

a traditional story, usually concerning some superhuman being or some alleged person or event, and which attempts to explain natural phenomena; especially a traditional story about deities or demigods and the creation of the world and its inhabitants.

One such scholar who pursues this understanding of myth in the Gospels is Burton Mack. He stated that

The narrative gospels can no longer be viewed as the trustworthy accounts of unique and stupendous historical events at the foundation of the Christian faith. The gospels must now be seen as the result of early Christian mythmaking (1993:10).

Please understand that this perspective contains Mack’s presuppositions about the Gospels. He admits that in the early church ‘an explosion of the collective imagination signals change’ in the creation of these new myths that formed the gospels.

These are indeed challenging days when postmodern deconstructions like these intrude into discussions about Scripture and the historical Jesus.

Using this kind of definition of myth, scholars of the Jesus Seminar or of similar persuasion, have made comments like this by John Dominic Crossan:

What happened after the death and burial of Jesus is told in the last chapters of the four New Testament gospels. On Easter Sunday morning his tomb was found empty, and by Easter Sunday evening Jesus himself had appeared to his closest followers and all was well once again. Friday was hard, Saturday was long, but by Sunday all was resolved. Is this fact or fiction, history or mythology? Do fiction and mythology crowd closely around the end of the story just as they did around its beginning? And if there is fiction or mythology, on what is it based? I have already argued, for instance, that Jesus’ burial by his friends was totally fictional and unhistorical. He was buried, if buried at all, by his enemies, and the necessarily shallow grave would have been easy prey for scavenging animals. We can still glimpse what happened before, behind, and despite those fictional overlays precisely by imagining what they were created to hide. What happened on Easter Sunday? Is that the story of one day? Or of several years? Is that the story of all Christians gathered together as a single group in Jerusalem? Or is that the story of but one group among several, maybe of one group who claimed to be the whole?…
The Easter story at the end is, like the Nativity story at the beginning, so engraved on our imagination as factual history rather than fictional mythology. (Crossan 1994:160-161).

Please understand that Crossan places a certain interpretation on the supernatural. Crossan deconstructs miracles as he does Christ’s resurrection. He says that he accepts them, but he redefines them with a new radical definition. He could affirm Jesus’ healing ministry, but then he asks:

What, however, if the disease could not be cured but the illness could somehow be healed? This is the central problem of what Jesus was doing in his healing miracles. Was he curing the disease through an intervention in the physical world, or was he healing the illness through an intervention in the social world? I presume that Jesus, who did not and could not cure that disease or any other one, healed the poor man’s illness by refusing to accept the disease’s ritual uncleanness and social ostracization. Jesus thereby forced others either to reject him from their community or to accept the leper within it as well…. Such an interpretation may seem to destroy the miracle. But miracles are not changes in the physical world so much as changes in the social world (1994:82, my emphasis).

Now to the laity: ‘The biblical texts were not historical nor scientific – they were myth…. There was never any “original” text. All texts were initially transmitted orally’.[1]

Biblical text as myth

If the biblical texts are not historical but contain myths, in what sense are they myths? By myth, does this lay person mean that they are like fairy stories that have been invented?

This is how Burton Mack explains his understanding of mythology and the Gospels:

The mythology that is most familiar to Christians of today developed in groups that formed in northern Syria and Asia Minor. There Jesus’ death was first interpreted as a martyrdom and then embellished as a miraculous event of crucifixion and resurrection. This myth drew on Hellenistic mythologies that told about the destiny of a divine being (or son of God). Thus these congregations quickly turned into a cult of the resurrected or transformed Jesus whom they now referred to as the Christ, or the Lord, as well as the Son of God. The congregations of the Christ, documented most clearly in the letters of Paul from the 50s, experienced a striking shift in orientation, away from the teachings of Jesus and toward the spirit of the Christ who had died and was raised from the dead. It was this myth that eventually made the narrative gospels possible (Mack 1993:2).

Please understand that this perspective contains Mack’s presuppositions about the Gospels. He admits that in the early church ‘an explosion of the collective imagination signals change’ in the creation of these new myths that formed the gospels and

Christians have never been comfortable with the notion of myth or willing to see their own myths as the product of human imagination and intellectual labor…. Early Christians imagined their myth as history’ and these ‘myths of origin were written and imagined as having happened at a recent time and in a specific place (Mack 1993:207).

In his book, Mack has assumed the authenticity of the historical-critical method and then proceeds to use those methodological presuppositions to drive his agenda. In fact, his book on the so-called Q hypothesis begins with these words, ‘Once upon a time’ (1993:1) and I suggest that the book should conclude with similar words, ‘Once upon a time Burton Mack imagined’, as they are Mack’s fanciful invention of what he wants the New Testament to be – a book that contains ‘myths of origin’ that were imagined to have happened by the early Christians. These, for Mack, comprise a story where ‘myths project an imaginary world in which a people are themselves reflected at a distance’ (1993:208).

Bible as history or not

The lay person and Burton Mack quoted above reflect the anti-historical views of the historical sceptical scholars of the Jesus Seminar[2] and those of similar ilk who follow the historical-critical method and its denigration of the Bible as containing history and of the historical nature of Jesus’ intervention in history.

However, there are historical Jesus scholars who disagree profoundly with this assessment. One is noted historical Jesus researcher, N. T. Wright, who claims that Mack’s proposal concerning Q

is an historical hypothesis, to be verified according to the normal canons; and by those canons it fails.[3] It does not do justice to the data: it chops up texts with cheerful abandon and relocates them all over the place, radically misreading first-century Judaism and completely marginalizing the theology and religion of Paul – which is the one body of literature we not only actually possess but which we know for certain was produced within thirty years of the crucifixion. Mack’s scheme has no simplicity of design, except in regard to Jesus himself, who is grossly oversimplified. The only area on which it seems to shed light is the analysis of twentieth-century American religion (Wright 1996:43, emphasis in original).

What an amazingly pointed and overt assessment of Mack’s thesis with Wright’s claim that it does not do justice to the data and comes to conclusions that fail.

Graham N. Stanton is another opponent of the anti-historical contingent. He states that

at least some aspects of the portrait of Jesus are essential to faith, for if historical research were ever able to prove conclusively that the historical Jesus was quite unlike the Jesus of the gospels, then faith would certainly be eroded. The gospel is concerned with history: not in that it stands if its claims could be verified by the historian, but in that it falls if the main lines of the early church’s portrait of Jesus of Nazareth were to be falsified by historical research (1974:189).

A scholar who has investigated the reliability or otherwise of the Gospels, Dr. Craig Blomberg, states that:

Biblical faith is fundamentally commitment to the God who has intervened in the history of humanity in a way that exposes his activity to historical study. Christians may not be able to prove beyond a shadow of doubt that the gospels are historically accurate, but they must attempt to show that there is a strong likelihood of their historicity. Thus the approach of this study is always to argue in terms of probability rather than certainty, since this is the nature of historical hypotheses, including those which are accepted without question…. A good case can be made for accepting the details as well as the main contours of the gospels as reliable…. Even if a few minor contradictions genuinely existed, this would not necessarily jeopardize the reliability of the rest or call into question the entire basis for belief (1987:11).

Here’s an interview with Craig Blomberg that contains some helpful information about NT reliability.

Australian Anglican historian, Dr. Paul Barnett, has written Is the New Testament History? (2003). Barnett confidently asserts as an historian who has taught history at Macquarie University, Sydney, that the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, based on these canons, judge Luke as ‘an exceptional historian’ (2003:4). The whole argument of Barnett’s book is to affirm that ‘Jesus and the first Christians are genuine figures of history and that they are faithfully and truthfully written about in the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles. These documents were written close in time to the events. They are historical and geographical in character. I am convinced that we are able to read these texts assured of their integrity and authenticity’ (2003:5-6).

Then Barnett sets out to prove his case. He has written extensively on the historicity of the New Testament. See his Jesus and the Logic of History (1997) and Jesus and the Rise of Early Christianity (1999). He has two recent volumes: The Birth of Christianity: The First Twenty Years (2005) and Paul: Missionary of Jesus (2008).

All of these volumes provide documented evidence that is contrary to the historical scepticism that ‘the biblical texts were not historical nor scientific – they were myth’.[4] Yes, there are many anti-historical hypotheses regarding the historical veracity or otherwise of the Bible that have been promoted by sceptical, historical-critical promoters. There are others who oppose the sceptical, anti-historical view. These include John Warwick Montgomery’s two volumes, History and Christianity (1965) and Where Is History Going? (1969) which refute the claims.

I do not find the sceptical, liberal theological views weigh in with substantive assessment when we investigate the historical Jesus and the reliability of the NT as historical documents.


What is a presupposition? The Australian Macquarie Dictionary (1997)  states that ‘presuppose’ means ‘to suppose or assume beforehand; to take for granted in advance’. As it relates to a thing, it means ‘to require or imply an antecedent condition’ (Macquarie 1997:1693). For Anthony Thiselton, presupposition ‘conveys the impression of rooted beliefs and doctrines which are not only cognitive and conceptual, but which also can only be changed and revised with pain, or at least with difficulty’ (1992:45). For Crossan (1998:109), by presuppositions he does ‘not mean positions beyond current debate or even future change’ or ‘theological commitments’. He means ‘historical judgments based on present evidence and requiring constant future testing against new theory, method, evidence, or experience’. He claims to have learned these presuppositions from scholarly tradition that he has studied internally and tested externally and he finds them ‘consistently more persuasive than their alternatives’. However, he rightly admits that ‘if they are wrong, then everything based on them is questionable, and if they are proved wrong, then everything based on them is will have to be redone’ (emphasis in original).

Crossan (1998:103) admits that all people must decide their ‘presuppositions about gospel traditions before reconstructing either the historical Jesus or earliest Christianity. Everyone must. Everyone does’.

I don’t submit to the kind of presuppositional or researched scepticism of Burton Mack, the Jesus Seminar scholars, J. D. Crossan and the doubting laity when there are more reliable assessments of the data.

A way out of the postmodern dilemma

How do we get out of the relativistic and postmodern quagmire of recent and contemporary historical studies into the historical Jesus? Montgomery has rightly stated that we need to transparently acknowledge ‘the subject-object distinction as the starting point for all genuine understanding of the past’. Von Wright has demonstrated by a reasoned argument that the inductive method, which presupposes the subject-object distinction ‘is the only entrée to verifiable knowledge of the external world: “its superiority is rooted in the fact that the inductive character of a policy is the very criterion by means of which we judge its goodness”‘. Montgomery’s view is that if we try to circumvent the inductive method when examining the past, we ‘destroy all objective knowledge of man’s history, and therefore … eliminate in principle a Christian philosophy of history’ (Montgomery 1969:193).


Royal Brisbane & Women’s Hospital

(courtesy Wikipedia)

Imagine trying to merge the subject-object distinction in reading the local newspaper. As I am writing this article, there is an article in the Brisbane Courier-Mail, 3 October 2011, on ‘Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital tells foreigners: Go home’. The story began:

QUEENSLAND‘S biggest public hospital has secretly banned some treatments for non-Australians in a bid to save money.

The Courier-Mail can reveal the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital recently began rejecting overseas students and visitors from certain countries, telling them to find a private hospital or go back to their own country.

The so-called “ineligible patients” are those from countries not listed among the nine nations with which Australia has reciprocal healthcare agreements allowing costs to be recovered.

Those exposed to the ban include all Asian, American and African nations and many across Europe.

Let’s adopt a reader-response interpretation of this statement. By reader-response, we mean that ‘all reading is ideological and guided by certain interests…. The text, with no aims nor interests of its own, is at the mercy of the reader. With only slight exaggeration, Mark Taylor characterizes interpretation as “a hostile act in which interpreter victimizes text”‘ (Vanhoozer 1998:28).[5]

Therefore, I, using a postmodern reader-response interpretation of the Courier-Mail article, could make it mean that authority of the state in Queensland has been victimised by multiculturalism, so the state must take a stand so that Aussies are not put on a lower pedestal. The mother country has the supreme authority and will not be held to ransom by any entity. This newspaper’s statement is an endorsement of the doctrine of the origin of human races.

If I read this newspaper article in this way, you would have every reason to send me to the mental asylum. But that is how postmodern interpreters like John Dominic Crossan deconstruct[6] the biblical text. He wrote that what he means by ‘prophecy historicized’ is that

I do not intend the apologetical or polemical use of biblical texts as prophecies about Jesus, as if such texts were uniquely and exclusively pointing to Jesus the future Messiah. Prophecy historicized means that Jesus is embedded within a biblical pattern of corporate persecution and communal vindication (Crossan 1998:521).

As a further example of Crossan’s playing reader-response with the text, he says of Christ’s conception:

My position as an historian trying to be ethical and a Christian trying to be faithful is this: I do not accept the divine conception of either Jesus or Augustus as factual history, but I believe that God is incarnate in the Jewish peasant poverty of Jesus and not in the Roman imperial power of Augustus (1998:29).

Let me transfer that kind of understanding to the Courier-Mail‘s story above: I do not regard it as an historical event that the Royal Brisbane Hospital has turned anyone away from that hospital and told them to go away. I believe it is a statement about social justice that is a fundamental in the need for hospitals to treat Aussies first and that multiculturalism goes on the back burner in the priorities of any State government in delivering medical services.

You would justifiably think that I should be assessed by a psychiatrist if that was my view, but that kind of thinking is rife within postmodern interpretation whether it is in culture in general or in the theological world. This is especially so in light of the reader-response theories of postmodernism. Kevin Vanhoozer (1998) and D. A. Carson (1996) have effectively refuted the reader-response claims in my understanding. Carson admits that ‘postmodernism has convinced many of the absolute relativity of all truth claims, not least religious truth claims’ (1996:182) and his tome successfully refutes the relativity of truth claims.

Postmodern methodology involves deconstruction which, in Derrida’s strongest form, Carson (1996:73) understands that meaning is bound permanently with the reader/knower rather than the text. Words only refer to other words, but with ‘irony and ambiguity’. Thus, the alleged plain meaning of the text ‘subverts itself’ and language cannot refer to objective reality.

By contrast, Vanhoozer maintains that ‘the author is the sovereign subject of the sign, the one who rules over meaning’ (1998:48). That is not so for postmodern advocates such as Stanley Fish or Jacques Derrida. Fish has stated that ‘it is interpretive communities, rather than either the text or the reader, that produce meanings and are responsible for the emergence of formal features’ (in Carson 1996:75). Fish (1989:4) writes that literal meaning does not exist if one wants clarity and lucidity, no matter the context and what are in the speakers’ and listeners’ minds. His view is that literal interpretation places a constraint on hermeneutics.

Following that line, I will need to meet with a group of like-minded people to decide on the meaning of that Courier-Mail article as the intent of the author and my personal reader-response cannot be used for interpretive purposes.

We truly are in dark, pluralistic days if we dare to follow postmodern, relativistic hermeneutics.


John Warwick Montgomery

I close with the assessment of leading apologist and lawyer, John Warwick Montgomery. He was in a forum discussion with opponents in the Chicago area regarding Christ’s resurrection when he made the following statements.[7]

It is fairer to compare the resurrection [of Jesus Christ] to other events of classical times, because it’s in the same general time area and therefore the amount of data is perhaps more comparable. I majored in classics in college, and to my amazement I never heard any questioning of the events of the classical period as to their per se historicity despite the fact that these are based on much less data than the resurrection of Christ. For example, the existence of Plato depends upon manuscript evidence dated over a thousand years later. If we must begin with sheer faith in order to arrive at the event-character of the resurrection, then we are going to drop out not simply the resurrection but a tremendous portion of world history, which I don’t think we’re prepared to do….

I say only that the historical probabilities are comparable to those of other events of classical times. Therefore there is an excellent objective ground to which to tie the religion that Jesus sets forth. Final validation of this can only come experientially. But it is desperately important not to put ourselves in such a position that the event-nature of the resurrection depends wholly upon “the faith.” It’s the other way around. The faith has its starting point in the event, the objective event, and only by appropriation of this objective event do we discover the final validity of it. The appropriation is the subjective element, and this must not enter into the investigation of the event. If it does, the Christian faith is reduced to irrelevant circularity….

The Christian faith is built upon Gospel that is “good news,” and there is no news, good or bad of something that didn’t happen. I personally am much disturbed by certain contemporary movements in theology which seem to imply that we can have the faith regardless of whether anything happened or not. I believe absolutely that the whole Christian faith is premised upon the fact that at a certain point of time under Pontius Pilate a certain man died and was buried and three days later rose from the dead. If in some way you could demonstrate to me that Jesus never lived, died, and rose again, then I would have to say I have no right to my faith (1965:106, 107, 108).

The Bible makes historical claims that can be verified according to the canons of historical research that are used to verify any person, thing or event from history. If Jesus’ claims have no historical verification, then what the Apostle Paul stated is profoundly true: ‘And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins’ (1 Corinthians 15:17 ESV).[8]

Works consulted

Barnett, P W 1997. Jesus and the logic of history. Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press.

Barnett, P W 1999. Jesus and the rise of early Christianity: A history of New Testament times. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press.

Barnett, P W 2003. Is the New Testament history? 2nd rev ed. Sydney South: Aquila Press.

Barnett, P W 2005. The Birth of Christianity: The First Twenty Years. Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Barnett, P W 2008. Paul: Missionary of Jesus. Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Blomberg, C L 1987. The historical reliability of the gospels. Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press.

Crossan, J D 1994. Jesus: A revolutionary biography. New York, NY: HarperSanFrancisco.

Crossan, J D 1998. The birth of Christianity: Discovering what happened in the years immediately after the execution of Jesus. New York, NY: HarperSanFrancisco.

Fish, S 1989. Doing what comes naturally: Change, rhetoric, and the practice of theory in literary and legal studies. Oxford: Clarendon.

Funk, R W, Hoover, R W & The Jesus Seminar 1993. The five gospels: The search for the authentic words of Jesus. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.

Mack B 1993. The Lost Gospel: The Gospel of Q & Christian Origins. New York: HarperSanFrancisco.

The Macquarie Dictionary (3rd edn) 1997. Macquarie University NSW: The Macquarie Library Pty Ltd.

Montgomery, J W 1965. History and Christianity. Minneapolis, Minn: Bethany House Publishers.

Montgomery, J W 1969. Where is history going? A Christian response to secular philosophies of history. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers.

Stanton, G N 1973. Jesus of Nazareth in New Testament preaching. Cambridge: University Press.

Thiselton, A C 1992. New horizons in hermeneutics: The theory and practice of transforming biblical reading. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

Vanhoozer, K J 1998. Is There a Meaning in This Text? Leicester, England: Apollos (an imprint of Inter-Varsity Press).

Wright, N T 1992. The New Testament and the people of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. (Series in Christian origins and the question of God, vol 1).

Wright, N T 1996. Jesus and the victory of God. London: SPCK. (Series in Christian origins and the question of God, vol 2).


[1] Christian Forums, Christian Apologetics, “Bible changed by scribes”, #11, available at: (Accessed 3 October 2011).

[2] See Funk et al (1993).

[3] Here Wright referred to Wright (1992:98-109).

[4] See the lay person’s example above.

[5] Vanhoozer (1998) provides a superb critique of postmodern hermeneutics.

[6] Derrida is the father of deconstruction. ‘Deconstruction explores the “textuality” at work in all forms of discourse, thereby blurring what were once hard and fast lines between philosophy and literature…. The crucial task now is not the exegetical one of saying what a given text means, but the theoretical one of describing and explaining just what interpreters are after. It follows that the literary theorist must be conscious of the broader social and cultural context of the interpreter…. Whether there is something really “there” in the text is a question of the “metaphysics” of meaning’ (Vanhoozer 1998:19).

[7] One of Montgomery’s opponents, Prof. Dr. Jules L. Moreau, professor of church history, Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, Evanston, IL, stated, ‘The current preoccupation with the facticity of the circumstances surrounding the event called the resurrection reflects a concern for historical verification which is quite foreign to the attitude of the early church. The “proof” that God raised Jesus from among the dead was the experience of the living Lord in the community’ (in Montgomery 1965:109).

[8] Suggested by Montgomery (1995:15).


Copyright © 2012 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 14 October 2015.