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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  • GubbaBumpkin

    Working from the other end of the stick: An account written 2000 years later does not necessarily suffer from a time problem more than a 40 year later account. Today we would expect a competent historian to find, read and analyze the primary sources – and to cite them. If a work appearing only 40 years later did not cite its sources and had a strong bias influencing its analysis, we might well expect it to be inferior.

    • Returnality

      Yes, today we expect sources, but back then it was very rare that sources were cited like they are today. They had no concept of plagiarism like we do now (although things like forgeries were still very much looked out for and frowned upon).

      Also, what do you expect in a holy text? Of course they don’t have a secular person writing their holy scriptures. Of course it’s going to be bias to an extent (can you imagine someone writing their holy text and giving some writing space to a skeptic?), but I think there is a decent amount of honesty throughout the Gospels. Enough to where we can distinguish the valid passages from the phony ones, and enough to say at least that the earliest Christians believed what they preached.

  • baal

    I was hoping for the musician Beck vs the messianic lion. I have to wonder if Beck and friends understand the risk they are running with going for the Velveeta cheese spread of arguments rather than the right cheese for the occasion(s).

    • GubbaBumpkin

      Velveeta has its place. It has superior melt properties to cheddar. Melt a slice of cheddar and you get a grease blob.

    • lawrence090469

      “In the time of chimpanzees I was a monkey.” is clearly meant to establish young Earth creationism.

  • PsiCop

    I particularly love how fundies view the first 4 verses of Luke as though that gospel were some kind of investigative journalism. If so, it was written some 19 centuries before there was any such thing as investigative journalism. Fundies are just so laughably anachronistic, it’d be hilarious if it weren’t so sad.

  • Nicholas Joseph

    You know, you’re right, Glen. How *are* we supposed to take a book seriously 2000 years later if 40 couldn’t get it right?

  • Antitory

    “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.”

    You are not familiar for example with Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the
    Eyewitnesses, nor Robin Lane Fox’s opinion in The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible that the gospel of John was written by the apostle?

    • VorJack

      I am familiar, that’s why I said “almost.” But they haven’t yet managed to convince a large portion of the scholarly world. Bauckham, for example, is regarded as far too speculative.

      Maybe in time things will change. Consensus is always in flux. But I can only give my impression of the current consensus.

  • vulfhild

    “The line between history and literature was not clear in the ancient world,”
    That depends on the writer and the culture, more than the age of the written work. There were many who wrote about historical events with “spin” for political purposes. I doubt that there were many who were so besotted with their subject matter that they did not know they were embellishing, distorting, or obscuring facts. I don’t think it’s appropriate to compare the writers of the Gospels, who were consciously constructing myth, to Pliny the Younger’s account of the eruption of Vesuvius. The Library of Alexandria housed works of history and fiction as separate categories.

    Also, I believe you mean the line between history and fiction. Completely factual writing also qualifies as literature.