Are the Bible stories about Christ literally true? Probably most are not. To insist they are is to miss the point about who Jesus was and what he has brought to the world
IN THE EARLY second century, the Roman writer Suetonius wrote an account of the life of Augustus in which he describes the emperor’s unusual conception. His mother, it seems, made a visit to the Temple of Apollo where she dreamed that she was visited by a snake as she slept (the snake being the symbol of Apollo). The next morning she noticed a snake-shaped mark on her body, and soon after found herself pregnant with the future emperor.
Did Suetonius believe this story? He was a highly educated man, a lawyer and a top civil servant at the imperial court. Although he liked to pass on gossip, he was not a credulous fool and took pains to note that he got the report from an earlier source. What, then, are we to make of this strange tale?
Ancient historians were well aware of the differences between things that actually happened and those that did not. They knew that some sources were more reliable than others, that eyewitness testimony was often to be trusted (except when the eyewitness in question had an axe to grind), and that certain things stretched credulity too far.
And yet they also lived in a world where ‘truth’ could be expressed in other ways, from the great founding myths of ancient Rome to poetry and drama. They lived in a world inhabited not only by a variety of gods but also by demons and spirits, where astrology was highly prized, and where practising magic was a criminal offence. It was also a world that believed in the healing powers of the god Asclepius, where entrails were consulted before battle, and where the emperor was worshiped as a God.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the ancient world and our own times is our post-Enlightenment sense that only what is historical can be ‘true'. Put differently, if something didn’t actually happen, its value for us is diminished. We are hard-wired to trust only what can be proved to have taken place - and to be suspicious of anything else.
But even here there are strange inconsistencies. We can accept that great works of art – poetry, music, paintings - might convey a profound sense of the divine, even of transcendence. We can also accept that gospel parables hold timeless meanings, whether or not they actually happened (did a younger son ever ask for his inheritance? And would it matter if he didn’t?) We can hear a dramatic sketch performed in church, perhaps an imaginary dialogue between Peter and Jesus, and simply accept the point it is trying to make (how many people would seriously accuse the minister of ‘fabricating’ gospel stories in such a context?) And yet we seem willing to accept ‘real’ gospel stories only if we think they are historically true.
Perhaps the difficulty lies in the way that we read the gospels. We assume that they are intending to tell us historical truths. To some extent, of course, they are. But much more importantly their purpose is to bring us to faith, to show that Jesus is the Messiah of Jewish expectation, the Son of God, even the Saviour of the World.
It’s widely accepted by biblical scholars that both Matthew and Luke used Mark’s gospel as a source. Both depended on the earlier gospel quite substantially, but both added to it, particularly with the birth stories at the beginning. And although a good case can be made for the broadly historical nature of most of the narrative, the same cannot be said for the birth stories. Both are very different (Matthew has magi, Herod and echoes of Moses; Luke has shepherds, women and echoes of Jewish prophets). Attempts to reconcile them always end in failure, and for one very good reason – these chapters were never designed to be read as ‘historical’ incidents.
Like other Roman biographers, Matthew and Luke have prefaced their (broadly) historical accounts of Jesus’ ministry with birth stories which highlighted the significance of their central character. Matthew wants to show that Jesus is a second Moses, to underline that he is a King, to whom visitors come from the ends of the earth. Luke wants to situate Jesus within the line of Jewish prophets, whose message will be to the poor and needy. Each one uses the birth stories to provide an overview of the gospel, to use picture language to show what kind of man Jesus would become. In all probability, neither evangelist had any information whatsoever about Jesus’ early years, but that didn’t matter. The Jewish Scriptures provided a vast store of texts, images and ideas that together could provide a fitting opening for this God-sent Messiah.
And that brings us back to Suetonius. He idolized Augustus, regarding him as the greatest of the line of Caesars. The story of Augustus’ mother shows that the emperor was ‘descended’ from Apollo, and that the gods looked on the new imperial dynasty with favour. Suetonius goes on to give eighteen other portents at the birth of Augustus – a number which makes the birth stories surrounding Jesus look rather insignificant. Did this highly educated Roman think that they had all actually happened? It’s hard to say, but my guess is that he would have shaken his head in exasperation and told us that we were missing the point.
My personal view is that the birth stories aren’t historical, but I’d also argue that our modern obsession with whether they actually happened is misguided. These opening chapters sweep up the audience into a world of theological mysteries so intense and unfathomable that only poetry and pictures can begin to express their meanings. How else can we comprehend the idea that Jesus is the Son of God? How else can we understand him as a prophet greater than Moses?
These stories are profoundly, theologically true. Insisting that they should also be ‘historically true’ is at best a distraction. At worst, it’s simply missing the point.
Professor Helen Bond is Director of the Centre for Christian Origins at Edinburgh University.