There are many, many of us who think that the Gospels are best understood as historical fictions. I am less comfortable with this genre designation than others because this category projects too much baggage onto ancient texts. I am more comfortable calling the Gospels “ancient biographies”. Please note that ancient biographies act a whole lot like what we would now call “historical fictions”. And if you think that your favorite Bible professor or pastor has a different view, ask him and her about the genre of John’s Gospel.
Unlike many of my colleagues, I think that every word in the Gospels reflects historical memory (except καί; all of those conjunctions were added by the Judaizers). I think that bracketing out the “fictive” portions of the Gospels is a deletion of valuable historical information. Even if we were to label the Gospels “revisionist history” from Matthew 1 to John 21, we would still have four extremely valuable narratives that guide us toward a reconstruction of the historical Jesus. Revisionist histories provide us with extremely valuable historical data. I would point you to Dale Allison’s comments on the temptation narratives in this book.
For example, let’s look at an example from contemporary American presidential politics. In 2011, Mitt Romney spoke openly about Obama’s “timetable for withdrawal” of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Romney called this Obama’s biggest blunder in office: "In Afghanistan, the surge was right, announcing a withdrawal date was wrong. The Taliban may not have watches, but they do have calendars." No less than a year later, Romney adopted this very policy, claiming to withdraw troops in 2014.
Now, without a doubt, the dissemination of this kind of information is always rife with agenda. I have my agenda, George Will does, Rachel Maddow does. We all contextualize, select, omit, spin (well, all of us except Bill O’Reilly). Placing a quotation within any narrative is an act of “revision”. But, and this is crucial to my argument, bracketing out the Bill O’Reilly or Rachel Maddow versions of the story is counterproductive to the historian’s task.
One might say: “Romney flopped again!” Another might say: “Romney, as educated people often do, changed his mind upon further consideration”. Still others might say, “I’m not familiar precisely with exactly what I said, but I stand by what I said whatever it was.” What the responsible historian does is to assess all of the information available and postulate the most plausible relationship that explains it. It would be folly to begin by attempting to decide which Romney is the “fictive” Romney, because every version of Romney is a fiction.
One could point to similar contradictions in the stories told about Obama. My version of the story is that Obama and Bush are almost identical when it comes to both tax cuts and unilateral strikes against Islamic states. This Obama is remarkably different from the Obama who campaigned for office in 2008. I am fully aware that I’m offering a revisionist history of Obama. But is my narrative any less valuable than David Axelrod’s narrative?
Every historical memory that is narrativized contributes to revisionist history. So to say that the Gospels are revisionist does not diminish their value for historical construction. This claim is just further proof that these narratives were driven by the vehicles of human memory.
Now, I know all too well what the next jab will be from my biblicist friends. “But if the Holy Spirit was involved, the corruptions of human memory do not apply!” Fine, have it your way. But isn’t the inclusion of 1 and 2 Chronicles an indication that revisionist histories have a place in the inspired Word of God? Is not Luke explicitly stating that he is revising in his prologue?
Not only would I say “yes”, I would argue that all histories are revisionist.
Part II is here.