Beck vs. Aslan

No, not Glenn Beck versus a messianic lion. Glenn Beck is just weighing in on the Reza Aslan controversy:

Beck takes issue with a quote from Aslan, in which Aslan argued that the gospels “are not, nor were they ever meant to be, a historical documentation of Jesus’ life. These are not eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds.”

I’m not sure I agree with the first part. The line between history and literature was not clear in the ancient world, so I’m not sure we can say that the authors did not believe that they were creating a record of what actually happened during Jesus’ ministry. But it’s probably correct to say they aren’t history, because the authors clearly had theological points that they were trying to get across and were allowing that to shape the narrative.

The second part, that the gospels are not eyewitness accounts – the memoirs of the apostles as some of the church fathers put it – is correct and almost universally accepted. Beck fudges the meaning a bit by citing the opening to the Gospel of Luke:

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. [Luke 1:1-4]

Problem is, a report on an eyewitness account is not itself an eyewitness account unless it was written by the eyewitness. Even if Luke were personally interviewing the eyewitnesses, unless he’s transcribing those interviews then he’s synthesizing those eyewitness accounts into his own narrative. That narrative becomes a secondary source. Aslan is exactly correct.

And we also have no idea who Luke talked to. We do know that he read the Gospel of Mark, because he reproduces chunks of it in his own gospel. Does Luke believe that Mark was an eyewitness? We don’t believe that today, but it’s very possible that is what he meant.

And anyway, you have to have some skepticism towards claims like this, or else you’re stuck accepting that the Gospel of Peter, which claims to have been written by the apostle Peter himself, should be the starting point of all historical Jesus studies. That’s the one with the giant talking cross. Have fun with that.

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