What does “historical” mean when it comes to the Gospels?

When I was doing my Ph.D. on Matthew I remember having a conversation with my supervisor Markus Bockmuehl, I think it was in the accompany of others, about the question of historicity in the Gospels, particularly the Transfiguration. Markus has a high view of Scripture, but holds it critically. I was thankful for a mentor who, by example more than by explicit advice, gave me a way to hold on to the historicity of the Gospels while dealing with them honestly and critically, a manner that in the words of Tom Wright let’s the Bible be the kind of book it is. By the way, if you’ve never read Wright’s article “How Can the Bible Be Authoritative” I can’t recommend it more highly (you can find it here).

At the time when I had this conversation with Markus, I was still quite naive, to be honest, about such questions. His response was one that I’ve never forgotten and have since  continued to mull over and develop. This year I’ve taught a course on Jesus which I inherited from Scot McKnight when he left North Park for Northern Seminary – perhaps the only advantage of his departure. In this course, I’ve been able to think more about these issues and the attempt to harmonize the discrepancies between the Gospels.

Markus’s comment to the question of the historicity of the Transfiguration was “It depends on what you mean by historicity”. This is in fact the crucial question. What do we mean when we label something “historical”? Is there one blanket, one size fits all, way to think about the historicity of the events in the Gospels? Robert Gundry (Matthew, a Commentary on His Literary and Theological Art) brought this point home to Evangelicals in the early eighties in his Matthew as Midrash approach, which, by the way, remains a very significant evangelical work even if his application of redaction criticism seems slightly dated now. Further, today we can appreciate just how much of a pioneer Gundry was at the time. Because of his views, he was ostracized at the time by the Evangelical Theological Society, but now it is hard to find an evangelical gospel scholar that would reject Gundry’s approach outright.

Here’s the question: Can we say an event like the Transfiguration is historical, even if we conclude that it didn’t actually happen the way described by the gospels? Would, for example, Matthew and his readers have assumed the same definition of “historical” as we do? Would they have read the story with the same criterion we use? Is there any historical precedent for “embellishment”?

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  • scotmcknight

    Here’s how I would define “historical” when we are talking about the events and sayings of Jesus in the Gospels: “demonstrable according to the criteria agreed upon by historians” or “demonstrable according to the canons of historiography.” It is one thing for something to have happened; it is another thing to be able to prove something happened. When historical Jesus scholars are talking “historical” they mean “demonstrable.” I miss you brother.

  • Brian Scarborough

    The real question is not “what is historicity” or, at least, it shouldn’t be. It should be whether or not the gospels are accurate depictions of what happened. God does not inspire error no matter how ancient writers might have viewed things. These kinds of discussions betray a foolish attitude toward the scriptures as if they were only human documents or that God just inspired the ideas instead of the scripture itself. What we have here is the blind leading the blind, or in this case, the blind following in the footsteps of the blind mentor.

  • Thanks for the great post. How would you distinquish between hagiography and history in this instance, and more generally regarding a “theological intrepetation” of this presumably “theological embellishment”? Thanks again.

  • Nate

    As an evangelical (with absolutely no biblical training outside what I read on blogs) I don’t have a problem saying that certain events in the gospels have been interpreted, because of the resurrection.

    Social memory seems to be gaining popularity lately on the historical Jesus front. I wonder how much of the gospels are just the popular recollections of Jesus and how much are based on eyewitness accounts. I would like to think that much of the Gospels are based on eye witness testimony and first hand writings.

  • JD

    I am big fan of Markus Bockmuehl having had him as one of my tutors as an undergraduate. Always thoughtful and perceptive, clearly very learned, but, as you say, he has a high view of Scripture. It was refreshing being taught by him.
    I have no problem with historical embellishment/interpretation. Was it 4000 or 5000 people that Jesus fed? Either way it is remarkable. Did Jesus ‘cleanse’ the Temple at the beginning or end of his ministry. For me, almost certainly the end, but either way it would be foolish to deny the event altogether. I would be reluctant to say ‘the Gospels are history’ outright though. The Gospels are their own unique genre of literature.