The difference between frogs turning into Princes and Jesus turning water into wine
A little while back world famous atheist Richard Dawkins spoke about the place of fairy tales. Responding to suggestions that he thought that fairy tales were ‘pernicious’ and should perhaps be banned he spoke on a BBC interview where he clarified his thinking. Dawkins’ position is still a little puzzling as he appears to have changed his mind on the value and place of fairy tales.
Yet in this interview Dawkins made some interesting comments on the difference between fairy tales and belief in God. He said that it ‘fascinates me how to make the distinction between frogs turning into princes and Jesus turning water into wine on the other.’ Dawkins claims that there is ‘no evidence for either’.
So how do we make a distinction? Is Dawkins’ right in asserting that there is no evidence for either’?
There are a few ways in which we can make a distinction between fairy tales and Jesus’ miracles. This basically revolves around ‘genre and context’. The genre and context of the New Testament documents indicate that they are intended to communicate events that the authors intended to be understood as historical.
1. The genre of Gospels is cognizant with historical documents (bioi). The Gospels are written in the style of an ancient bioi, which is a biography of an historical character. Bioi and the Gospels present continuous prose narratives comprising stories, anecdotes, sayings and speeches focused on the main character. Understanding Gospel genre this way means that they are treated historically like other ancient biographies. Yet the genre of fairy tales is one of fiction. When you read the line ‘Once upon a time’, we are transported into the timeless world of the fairy tale. Which is in stark contrast to ‘In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea’ (Luke 3:1)
2. The Gospels were all written within a lifetime of the events. The Gospels were not the end result of years of countless improvements and embellishments. They were written between 40 to 60 years after the events they purport to record, which corresponds to the time the key eyewitnesses began to die out. This suggests that the early church were trying to preserve the memory of Jesus and the events of his life. This stands in stark contrast to fairy tales for which the timing of when they were written is irrelevant.
3. The Gospels were interpreted as historical events by those reading them. The early church certainly believed that these events really happened. They were always interpreted as documents outlining real historical events. It is very rare for fairy tales to have ever been interpreted as historical events. They may have been satirical e.g. Gulliver’s Travels, but I doubt anyone ever thought there was a real land called Lilliput.
4. Eyewitnesses of these events were still alive and were likely to be guarantors of the fidelity of the story. The work of Richard Bauckham is very important here. He makes the case in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses that through the mention of named characters in the Gospels, we have hints of the original sources of the information about Jesus and those who guarantee its credibility. These ‘hints’ root the Gospel narratives in history, something which true fairy tales never attempt to do.
Dawkins makes the unfortunate assumption that because something is ‘supernatural’ then it must be automatically false.
I spoke to my five year old daughter on this topic. She loves fairy stories with giants and fairies and magic. I asked her if the fairy tales were true and she said no. She is also aware of the miracles of Jesus and she believes that they occurred. When I asked her why she believes that she said, ‘The Bible’. It seems that even a five year old can understand the difference between the genre and context of the Gospels and fairy tales, when we tell both to her regularly.
Hence Dawkins claim is not exactly true – there is evidence for Jesus. Unfortunately Dawkins has chosen to overlook and reject the evidence. The reason that we we grow out of one and not the other is that there are some good reasons based on genre and context. Dawkins complains that we can’t explain it. Well, here is a starting point.
My five year old daughter can see the difference, I’m puzzled why an Oxford professor can’t!