A Simple Way to Check Integrity of the Gospels
Integrity of the Gospels for many is the first step in accepting its believability. Checking the integrity of the Gospels and its accounts can be as simple as comparing one Gospel account to another, a process known as “literary analysis.”
Sounds complicated and boring, even intimidating – not so! Chances are very high that literary analysis in its simplest form is part of a normal routine personal activity. It happens naturally when reading the text of a book, magazine article, blog, marketing ads, instructions, maps, etc. and mentally breaking it down to understand it better.
In the case of the Gospels, literary analysis can be as simple as comparing two or more Gospels for such things as word usage, meaning, consistency, historical accuracy, theme, etc. Performing any type of comparison or cross reference is a basic literary analysis technique.
Using the scientific methodology approach allows for repeating the process to gain confidence in the outcome or conclusion. For some, a conclusion one way or the other about the integrity of the Gospels may come quickly; for others it will take longer.
Literary analysis first requires reading what has been written (observation); then gathering information (evidence, research, intuitive analysis) to identify the premise; determining the theme (hypothesis); and finally performing an assessment to see if it all stands up to scrutiny (testing, retesting).
A very close cousin to literary analysis is known as “textual criticism,” another term that seems intimidating and boring…and it probably is for most people. For this reason, textual analysis may best be reserved for literary experts who are so inclined.
Determining the genre of the Gospels may be the biggest call to make – are the Gospels fiction or non-fiction? Consider if the content is about real people, places and events (non-fiction) vs. content that is an invented story (fiction) written often for philosophical or entertainment purposes.
Understanding the theme is a key component by determining the central idea of the writing. Fictions involve characters who are not real although they could believably be real people with resemblances to real persons. As a setting, the work may include real places, periods and events, but the story is always imaginary, artificial, not real. A big clue is the purpose of the author – was the intent to be entertaining, amusing, or enjoyable reading?
Non-fictions, on the other hand, are written with the intention to be informative about real people, places or events based on historical, geographical or biographical facts. Non-fictions may also reflect the author’s recollection of witnessing events or facts often influenced by personal experiences.
For the Gospels, is the central theme about a real person by chronicling the birth, life, trial and execution of Jesus of Nazareth in the Judean Roman province – historical? Is the theme intended to teach his message of love and forgiveness – philosophical? Or perhaps, is the theme intended to convey a belief in Jesus as the promised Messiah exemplified by fulfillment of prophecies and Resurrection – religion?
Characters in the story: who are they – their gender, background, age, personalities, strengths and weaknesses, etc.? What did these characters say or how did they behave in various situations such as adversity, conflict, competition, challenges, interaction with others, etc.? Does it ring true – are their behaviors under the various circumstances what is to be expected by a normal person?
By now, natural investigative curiosity has kicked in…that urge to verify historical, geographical and biographical information to see if it is accurate. In the case of the Gospels, there are four authors a, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John! It is a target-rich environment for literary analysis to compare and evaluate times, places and circumstances thus setting the stage for direct answerability at the highest level.
Today fact checking is very simple because of the Internet where using topical searches can be utilized to find reliable, unbiased secondary sources such as encyclopedias, bios, historical websites, university library websites, etc. Texts of antiquity can even be referenced via the Internet such as by Jewish historian Josephus, Caesar Augustus, and Roman historians Suetonius and Tacitus. The more knowledgeable about the subject matter, the better the analysis.
Copying from another source to serve as a “witness” was a respected legitimate literary protocol of the day. It was common practice to copy from another source, even verbatim, without a citation. Abuses of this practice by the Greeks were the focus of Josephus in his work, Against Apion.
Leading to another factor that comes into play with the Gospels is known as “parallel” passages. They appear, sometimes verbatim, in Matthew, Mark and Luke and are called the synoptic Gospels for this reason. Like quoting from other writings was an acceptable literary protocol of that era, so is the use of parallel passages which stems from that same practice.
Parallel passages are still cited as alleged credibility issues of the synoptic Gospels. The completely independent eyewitness Gospel of John often corroborates the synoptic Gospels making it tough to disregard the information found in the synoptics.
In the end, the conclusion will be one reached on a personal level, perhaps influenced by opinions and biases, weighed against observations, evaluation and factual accuracy. Are the Gospels fictional or non-fictional and if they are deemed to be non-fictional…are the Gospels credible?
Updated July 30, 2023.
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