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Are the Gospels historical?

August 21, 2014

I am the host of Logos Live, a new radio show recorded in front of a live audience in the CBD of Melbourne (Australia). We are currently in the middle of a series: Myth or Truth? Where we have six experts come to talk about six big claims of Christianity. Last week I interviewed Dr. Mike Bird of Ridley Melbourne on the question, ‘Are the Gospels historical?’ It was a great discussion.

I put to him a question, ‘Myth or Truth? Are the Gospels historical?’ This was his answer. I think it was the best short summary of Gospel genre I’ve ever heard.



This is very helpful and helps us understand the nature of the history we are reading when reading the Gospels. I think this also helps overcomes some objections raised against the Gospels by some skeptics e.g. by Richard Carrier. He proposes that because the Gospels are complex pieces of rhetoric, they are not meant to be historical.

Yet Mike Bird disagrees. He proposes that the Gospels are historical through the conventions of the time and also through their specific genre. Hence the Gospels are a slightly different ‘type’ of history to other ancient ‘histories’, they are more akin to a ‘documentary drama’. They are a ‘dramatic representation of historical evidence according to historical conventions’.


From → Bible, History

  1. Steven Carr permalink

    What historical conventions?

    Plagiarising each other and the New Testament, refusing to name authors or alleged sources, or provenance are not the work of historians.

    Even the unknown author known to us as Luke could not find one single date in the ministry of Jesus (he gives a date for John the Baptist)

    As my web page,htm shows, the Gospels use the same frauds and lies that religious people of all faiths use.

  2. Ed Atkinson permalink

    If we accept that the “Gospels are historical through the conventions of the time” that doesn’t help us at all.

    If a medical cure was correct according to the medical conventions of the time, does that mean that we should follow it today?

    • Thanks for the comment Ed. Just wondering if that is a sufficient analogy?

      I think Mike is trying to say that we can accept the Gospels as historical, on the terms it is trying to tell us. Hence to force it to try to say something it’s not ever intending to say is a violation of the original intent.

      • Ed Atkinson permalink

        I want to force the gospels to say whether the events recorded in them actually happened. If they are dramatic representations of what people a few decades later hoped had happened, but these authors did not really know, then they are of less use to be as history.

      • Ed. Thanks for the comment, but I think that you’ve twisted a little of what Mike Bird said. It isn’t that they were dramatic representations of what they hoped happened, they were dramatic representations of what they believed actually happened. Hence in that sense they are still historical.

      • Ed Atkinson permalink

        Yes, sorry, I did misrepresent him. Even my own view is that the gospel authors believed they were telling actual events, with an element that they hoped they were right, but could not be sure.

    • James Garth permalink

      I’m not sure if that analogy holds; you are comparing (i) the efficacy of an ancient medical procedure compared with a modern one which we can assess by conducting repeatable experiments in the present-day, with (ii) a document which purports to record historical events which we cannot assess by conducting repeatable experiments in the present-day (all ancient history falls into this category). Given this, I think it’s more sensible to make analogies based on comparing the gospels with other similar documents; ie. other ancient ‘bioi”. When we conduct some genre comparison and calibration and examine the structure and composition of these comparative documents, I think Dr Bird’s assessment stands.

  3. Baptist Joshua permalink

    If The Man In The Interview Is Saying: Just Because The Gospels Give More Information Than “Just The Facts, Ma’am,” Doesn’t Make Them A Fairy tale, Then He Is Correct. If He Is Saying That The gospels Are Not 100% accurate, But Are Dramatized Versions, Employing Artistic License, Then He Is Wrong. They Are 100% Accurate.

    If You Are Upset By Me Knowing That The Gospels Are 100% Accurate, Just Think, Do You Really Want To Talk To A Wishy-washy Religious Person Who Doesn’t Know What They Believe?

    • Glad You Typed That With Upper Case Letters At The Start Of Each Word. It Makes Everything You Say All The More Compelling.

  4. Baptist Joshua permalink

    Robanddi > “they were dramatic representations of what they believed actually happened.”

    The things listed in the gospels did actually happen.

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