(images courtesy Openclipart)
By Spencer D Gear
I asked a fellow on a Christian forum on the Internet: ‘Why are you not taking Jesus seriously and the challenge of what happens at death?’
His reply was: ‘I don’t take fairy tales seriously’.
When I asked him to provide evidence that The Bible contains fairy tales, there was a total silence. He likes assertions but not evidence.
Secularists think that way
That is not an uncommon response from unbelievers. There’s a webpage that asks, ‘What is your favorite bible fairy tale?’ On this page, people name their favourite Bible fairy tales as including: ‘An all-powerful perfect being creates the world, but he screws it up so bad, he wipes it out with a flood and starts over’; Noah’s Ark, creation, Daniel & the lions, those who live to be over 600 years old, Jesus lets people kill him, and unbelievers tossed into the Lake of Fire. Another is titled, ‘Fairy tales in the Bible’.
How does one know if the Bible contains fairy tales or is of some other genre?
How to assess the Bible as history
This is how I responded to the fairy tale assessment:
With that kind of statement, you obviously do not know how to study history. I’m writing my PhD dissertation on an aspect of ‘the historical Jesus’ – not an aspect of the ‘fairy tale Jesus’. I’ve had to develop an entire chapter on methodology for investigating history and that included what is in the NT.
When you get out of your presuppositions and into an examination of how to do historical study, then we’ll have an opportunity to examine the Scriptures from an historical perspective.
Dr Paul Barnett (photo courtesy Patheos)
Ancient historian and Christian exegete, Dr Paul Barnett, who has taught history at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia, has written:
Provided that we accept the limitations in the Gospel of Mark, in its brevity and single focus, we have good reason to believe it provides a historically credible account of Jesus’ activities in Galilee, the regions of Tyre and Sidon, Ituraea-Trachonitis, and the Decapolis. The words of Jesus, which are weighty and wise, are singularly applicable to the pericopes in which they occur. The parables in Mark as well as in Matthew and Luke are arguably authentic, based (in particular) on the cogent double criteria of similarity and dissimilarity. In any case, we argue that the gospel writers would neither invent nor omit a word of the Lord, though they felt free to adapt a word appropriately.
The narrative of Mark and the synoptics is set within the complex jurisdictions of the thirties, but not those as they would be altered in the decades following. As the narratives unfold we note the inconspicuous ways in which Jesus’ movements cohere with the political realities of those times. Furthermore, Jesus’ own path crossed the paths of the notables of that time, whether John the Baptist, the tetrarch Antipas, the high priests Annas and Caiaphas, or the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate. In the course of the narratives we encounter those who were eschatologically excited (‘the men of violence’) as well as the ‘sinners’ with whom Jesus aligned himself as a lawbreaker. Furthermore, we see Jesus as the worker of mighty deeds, including in those towns where most of his mighty works were done.
In brief, we have in Mark a gospel that is a useful source of information about Jesus’ words and actions in Galilee and adjacent regions in the north (Barnett 2009:247).
I’m sticking with the assessment of a long-time university ancient historian (and a Christian to boot) who knows his product about ancient history and how to assess historical documents.
And I’m not going with Matt and his throw-away line, ‘I don’t take fairy tales seriously’.
What qualifications do you have to assess any historical document? I find it disappointing that you are the one engaging in trifling mass media style sensational lines, instead of an examination of the biblical documents from an historical perspective – using historical criteria.
Jesus, logic and history
Paul Barnett, in examining the logic regarding Jesus and history, has stated that there are at least two senses in which Christianity is a historical religion. These include firstly, ‘that it has been continuously part of world history for a long time’, and secondly, because ‘Jesus was a real man who was born, lived and died at a particular time and place’ and this can be demonstrated by the same methodology used to investigate other significant persons from history (Barnett 1997:11).
Jesus’ resurrection as myth, fairy tale or history
There has been academic and popular controversy over whether the resurrection of Jesus should be regarded as an historical event. Should the NT records of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus be regarded as historical or of some other genre?
At the popular level, there are people like Joel Hoffmann who have written for The Huffington Post,
Some stories in the Bible were meant to be history, others fiction. But modernity has obscured the original distinction between the two kinds of biblical writing, depriving readers of the depth of the text.
Perhaps surprisingly, this confusion lies at the heart of the History Channel’s miniseries “The Bible,” which continues the pattern of blurring history and fiction, and thereby misrepresenting the nature of the Bible to its viewers (Hoffmann 2013).
Notable German, liberal, Lutheran theologian Rudolph Bultmann, had this view that was a supposed academically respectable way of evading the historicity of the resurrection:
If the event of Easter Day is in any sense an historical event additional to the event of the cross, it is nothing else than the risen [sic] of faith in the risen Lord, since it was this faith which led to the apostolic preaching. The resurrection itself is not an event of past history. All that historical criticism can establish is the fact that the first disciples came to believe in the resurrection. The historian can perhaps to some extent account for that faith from the personal intimacy which the disciples had enjoyed with Jesus during his earthly life, and so reduce the resurrection appearances to a series of subjective visions. But the historical problem is not of interest to Christian belief in the resurrection. For the historical event of the rise of the Easter faith means for us what it meant for the first disciples – namely, the self-attestation of the risen Lord, the act of God in which the redemptive event of the cross is completed (Bultmann 1953).
However, another German theologian, Wolfhart Pannenberg, took a very different view. He claimed that Jesus’ resurrection needed to be investigated as a historical event. He stated that ‘whether or not Jesus was raised from the dead is a historical question insofar as it is an inquiry into what did or did not happen at a certain time’ (Pannenberg 1967:128). Craig Nessen’s assessment of Pannenberg’s view was,
Wolfhart Pannenberg powerfully contends for the historical character of Jesus’ resurrection based on the sources that commend it, both the testimony of original witnesses to the risen Jesus and the tradition of the empty tomb. Jesus’ resurrection has more credible historical evidence than many ancient events whose occurrence we don’t question, for example, some incidents in Julius Caesar’s life (Nessen 2004).
Leading NT historian and scholar on Jesus’ resurrection, N T Wright, considered that ‘we can and must discuss the resurrection as a historical problem’ and that there is no reason in principle why what happened at Easter ‘cannot be raised by any historian of any persuasion’. His view was that even from a Christian perspective, it ‘does not mean that there is no access to Jesus and his death and resurrection in the public world. Peter did not need to appeal to Christian writings when reminding the crowd of what they already knew about Jesus’ – see Acts 2:22 – and Wright suggested that ‘historical knowledge about the resurrection’, without presupposing the Christian faith, ‘cannot be ruled out a priori’ (Wright 2003:14, 21-22).
For a fuller explanation of the historical nature of both Old and New Testaments and how to establish their historical credibility and reliability, I recommend:
- Craig B Blomberg 2009. The historical reliability of the Bible, 2nd edn. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press.
- Walter C Kaiser Jr. 2001. The Old Testament documents: Are they reliable & relevant? Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press.
- K A Kitchen 2003. On the reliability of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan / Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
See my other articles on Christianity and history:
Those with a flair for the sensational and speculation may call the Bible a book of fairy tales.
Those like Bultmann who are committed to a liberal and sceptical worldview do not want to acknowledge the Bible as history but a metaphorical event.
Nevertheless, there are substantive Christian theologians and historians such as Pannenberg, Barnett and Wright who are prepared to conclude that the Bible can be investigated as an historical document.
Barnett, P 2009. Finding the historical Christ. Grand Rapids, Michigan / Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Barnett, P W 1997. Jesus and the logic of history. Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press.
Bultmann R 1953. The mythological element in the message of the New Testament and the problem of its re-interpretation Part 2. In Bultmann, R (and five critics), Kerygma and myth (e-book). Tr by R H Fuller. London: SPCK. Available at religion-online: http://www.religion-online.org/showchapter.asp?title=431&C=293 (Accessed 17 September 2013).
Hoffmann, J 2013. The Bible isn’t the history you think it is. The Huffington Post (online), 3 April. Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-joel-hoffman/the-bible-isnt-history_b_2803409.html (Accessed 15 March 2014).
Nessen, C L 2004. The reality of the resurrection. The Lutheran magazine, Augsburg Fortress, beliefnet (online), available at: http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/Christianity/2004/03/The-Reality-Of-The-Resurrection.aspx (Accessed 15 March 2014).
Pannenberg, W 1967. The revelation of God in Jesus of Nazareth, in Robinson, J M & Cobb Jr., J B, New frontiers in theology: Discussions among Continental and American theologians, vol 3, 101-133. New York: Harper & Row.
Wright, N T 2003. The resurrection of the son of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. (Series in Christian origins and the question of God, vol 3).
 Christian Fellowship forum, The Fellowship Hall, ‘Why I avoid discussing life after death’, ozspen #267, March 10, 2014, available at: http://community.compuserve.com/n/pfx/forum.aspx?tsn=261&nav=messages&webtag=ws-fellowship&tid=122769 (Accessed 15 March 2014).
 Ibid., Matt #268.
 Ibid., ozspen #270.
Copyright © 2014 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 1 August 2016.