[With this I begin a series where I share with you some responses I am making to students’ questions and forum posts.]
A student asked about the implication made by some authors we were reading that the Gospel of Matthew contains fictional elements.
Coming from a conservative background, the student was bothered by the possible unreliability of Gospel, but also wanted to hear more about why scholars might say this and also why they might find it to be, in general, not completely problematic. Below is my all-too-brief response:
I wonder if the category of “fiction” is perhaps both anachronistic and also (because of that) misleading when talking about the Bible generally and the Gospels particularly. Certainly the Gospel writers did not think they could simply make up episodes and pass them off as things that had happened.
But we have things like the parables which are certainly “fictional” stories (none of them happened as far as we know) and yet they are counted as true. To recognize that ancient people had a more fluid idea of what was an acceptable way to report an event is simply to accept the Bible that we actually have–one where the boundary between a true parable and a true historical event was not as sharply delineated or enforced as we would have it.
For example, when we read in a few weeks the story of Jesus healing two blind men just before entering Jerusalem, I will ask you to note that in Mark’s version of the story, there is only one blind man. So, on strictly historical grounds, either Mk or Mt is untrue. Now, if we have very strict categories about these things, then this will cause a problem–but that would be imposing our 20th and 21st century ideas onto to the Bible in a way that probably would have seemed odd to the biblical authors.
For them, an event could function like a parable. (Think back to the prophets like Ezekiel and Jeremiah who often did particular actions in order to metaphorically convey a message.) In the same way, it was not considered deceitful to change some details of an event to make the meaning and importance–the parabolic message, if you will–of that event clear.
So then you have to ask, what message, what truth, is being conveyed beyond the mere historical occurrence. That doesn’t mean Jesus didn’t walk on water or didn’t miraculously feed thousands, but if we get fixated on trying to suss out what actually happened, we’ll miss what the Gospel writers are trying to say about Jesus and God and us and how those all relate.