No, it is not okay to just make stuff up
Gospels are sacred things. In some churches it is the custom for the congregation to stand when the gospel lesson is read. The worshippers are surrounded by stained glass windows that depict the cherished stories found in the Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—and those same stories, in illuminated manuscript form, have become works of art. When we say that something is “the gospel truth”—well, who could ask for more?
Houston, We Have a Problem
Historians, however, have played the role of spoiler. Not that this was the intention at the outset. Most of the historians who have made careers of gospel study have been (and are) devout—even ordained. But after a couple of hundred years intense scrutiny of these charter documents of the Christian faith, we can say that worship-grade adoration of the gospels is misplaced. We would have to report to Mission Control that there are, in fact, two problems:
(1) Even if there are nuggets of history buried here and there, the gospels do not qualify as history because: (a) they are totally unsupported by contemporary documentation; (b) they were created by unidentified authors decades after the depicted events; (c) we have no clue what their sources were; (d) there are clearly many themes and elements borrowed/stolen from pagan religions. I could go on, but you get the picture. Even devout scholars hem and haw about the quotient of history in the gospels, but nonetheless manage to come up with justifications for still believing in Jesus.
(2) The churches have failed utterly—and intentionally—to report these finding to the folks in the pews. The laity remains in the dark about the monumental labors of Bible scholars—and their discovery that the gospels fall outside the realm of history. Well, you can’t really blame the church, can you? Doubt is always knocking at the door, even for a lot of those who show up on Sunday morning. The last thing that the ecclesiastical bureaucracy is going to admit is that the “good news” in the gospels is pretty much fake news.
Naturally, there is a minority of evangelical and apologist scholars that cannot admit that the gospels misreport anything. They blend sophistry, special pleading, and distortion to show that the gospel writers told it like it was.
But it takes only a few examples from Matthew’s gospel (among many) to blast any claim that he wrote history—or that he even knew how to. Yes, I’m picking on Matthew here, but Mark, Luke and John are absolutely no better. So here goes.
Example 1: So, okay, I’m going first for the low-hanging fruit, the passage that nonbelievers like to quote for its sheer absurdity, Matthew’s report of what happened when Jesus died, 27:52-53: “The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.” Christians, please don’t waste any of your It’s-A-Miracle energy on this one, unless you want to push Matthew as the inventor of Halloween. It’s no use trying to turn a tall tale into anything more than that. None of the historians who chronicled the period report a horde of corpses stalking Jerusalem. Mark didn’t either, and when Luke and John surveyed Matthew for what to copy, they left it out. These two verses in Matthew are the only mention in the New Testament of this “event.” Matthew made stuff up.
Example 2: Look what Matthew does to Mark 1:13, i.e., the temptation of Jesus: “And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him.” Matthew expands this to eleven verses (4:1-11), and adds a conversation between Jesus and Satan. Where does this information come from? Clearly there could have been no eyewitnesses—and there is no hint whatever that Jesus wrote any of it down. And we find the dramatic detail that Satan whisked Jesus to the pinnacle of the Temple and to a “very high mountain.” Industrial Light and Magic™ could be hired to create the film versions of those flights. Matthew made stuff up.
Example 3: Matthew had a knack for landing on Old Testament verses that had nothing whatever to do with Jesus. The 8th century BCE preacher Hosea, reflecting on Israel’s past, wrote (Hosea 11:1), “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” As in, the Exodus. But Matthew ignored the first part of the verse, and invented the story of the baby Jesus being taken to Egypt. His only reason for spinning this yarn was to make the wild stretch that “out of Egypt I called my son” applied to Jesus. Mark had never heard of this. Neither Luke nor John—who scanned Matthew for useful material—saw fit to repeat it. Matthew made stuff up.
Example 4: After going to all the trouble, in his opening chapter, of tracing Jesus’ descendants back to King David (a crucial pedigree for claiming that Jesus was the messiah), Matthew then spliced in the story that Jesus didn’t have a human father after all. Again, he had landed on a text in the Greek version of the Old Testament that had nothing whatever to do with Jesus, Isaiah 7:14, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son” –and it was a mistranslation to boot. The original Hebrew was simply “young woman.” Did Matthew have anyone check his work? You can’t have both “descended from King David,” and “born of a virgin.” Matthew made stuff up.
Example 5: Where did Matthew get the Sermon on the Mount? Mark didn’t know about it, and John chose not to repeat it in his gospel. Luke trimmed it considerably, which must have meant that he didn’t consider Matthew’s source infallible. And he felt free to change the wording. Matthew had written, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” but Luke wrote, “Blessed are you poor.” Matthew wrote, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” but Luke shortened this to “Blessed are you that hunger now.” We can see that author tinkering played a role here, but what were the sources? Are we to suppose that the peasants and disciples who heard Jesus speak carried around pads of paper and pencils? No. Are we to suppose that the words of Jesus were handed down by word-of-mouth accurately for 50 years before Matthew wrote them down? No. Richard Carrier has pointed out that the Sermon on the Mount “…cannot have come from some illiterate Galilean. In fact, we know it originated in Greek, not Hebrew or Aramaic…these are not the words of Jesus. This famous sermon as a whole has a complex literary structure that can only have come from a writer, not an everyday speaker.” (On the Historicity of Jesus, pages 465 & 466) Matthew made stuff up.
Example 6: Do pious readers even pay attention? Matthew gets really silly in 21:7, where we read about Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem: “…they brought the ass and the colt, and put their garment on them, and he sat thereon.” He has Jesus riding on two animals! Why? Because the text that is being “fulfilled” is Zechariah 9:9, which is an example of parallelism in Hebrew poetry, i.e., restating an idea in a second line using different words: “…your king comes to you…humble and riding on an ass, on a coal the foal of as ass.” Geez, don’t take things so literally! The other gospels writers settled for Jesus riding on a colt. Matthew made stuff up.
By the way, Matthew was a blatant plagiarist as well. He copied about 90 percent of Mark’s gospel—without telling his readers he was doing so. He had no idea that his gospel and Mark’s would one day be bound together in gazillions of Bibles. Ooops.
Who would have thought that “gospel truth” would be so hard to find in the gospels?
David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published last year by Tellectual Press.