Reading the Gospels as Informed Adults

Rise above the credulity expected in Sunday School

For many, many people, reading the gospels eyes-wide-open for the first time can prompt serious doubt—and their departure from the Christian faith. It’s awfully hard to divest the gospels of that aura of holiness promoted by the church: the gospels are the greatest story ever told—their authors were inspired by God himself. It’s not uncommon for congregations to stand when the ritual includes a reading from the gospels. 


But an adult mentality can kick in, i.e., the assumption that I can “spot a fairy tale when I see one.” For example, eleven verses into Mark, chapter 1, we read that a “voice came from heaven” announcing to Jesus—at his baptism—that he was God’s son. But very few of us believe that gods make announcements from the sky. In Matthew, chapter 1, verse 20, we’re told that an angel of the lord tells Joseph in a dream that Mary is pregnant by the holy spirit. Most of us have weird dreams from time to time, but we don’t believe they’re messages from a god.



If this adult mentality is applied to most of the stories we find in the gospels, they fail tests of logic and reason. They are not so convincing, so compelling as we have been urged to believe—since our earliest days in Sunday school or catechism. 


Even devout New Testament scholars admit that the gospels present serious challenges that diminish their status as authentic history; they fail to measure up on so many levels—and secular scholars can be blunt about it. 


Richard Carrier specializes in the literature of the ancient world, including the New Testament. Here is his analysis—I have bolded key elements—that puts the gospels into perspective:  


“Each author just makes Jesus say or do whatever they want. They change the story as suits them and neglect to mention they did so. They craft literary artifices and symbolic narratives routinely. They frequently rewrite classical and biblical stories and just insert Jesus into them. If willing to do all that (and plainly they were), the authors of the Gospels clearly had no interest in any actual historical data. And if they had no interest in that (and plainly they didn’t), they didn’t need a historical Jesus. Even if there had been one, he was wholly irrelevant to their aims and designs. These are thus not historians. They are mythographers; novelists; propagandists. They are deliberately inventing what they present in their texts. And they are doing it for a reason (even if we can’t always discern what that is). The Gospels simply must be approached as such. We have to stop thinking we can use them as historical sources.” 

(On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt, Kindle, p. 556)


Preachers, priests, and apologists also qualify as propagandists: they earn their livings by promoting their particular versions of the Christian faith (hence Catholic priests won’t promote Mormonism, Baptist preachers won’t promote Catholicism—so many of the rival Christian brands detest each other!) 


It would be such a blessing—please excuse the term—if these champions of the gospels could be honest enough to publish this long Carrier quote in the church bulletins and newsletters, under the heading: Food for Thought: Let’s Discuss. But thinking about the gospels would be lethal to their purpose. 


We find a good example of a gospel propagandist posing as historian in the opening of Luke’s gospel. Here are the first four verses:


“Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative about the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I, too, decided, as one having a grasp of everything from the start, to write a well-ordered account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may have a firm grasp of the words in which you have been instructed.


There are several problems with this text. Devout scholars have been delighted that Luke claims that his material was derived from eyewitnesses, but we have to be suspicious—and skeptical. How would that process have worked? Consider a few problems:


(1)  The author of Luke’s gospel copied so much text from Mark’s gospel (according to Encyclopedia Britannica, 50 percent) without mentioning that he had done so, which we call plagiarism. In other words, he doesn’t mention his sources. Did this author assume that Mark’s account was based on eyewitness testimony? There is, in fact, nothing in Mark’s gospel that can be verified as eyewitness accounts. It contains so much fantasy and folklore, with a heavy dose of magical thinking as well, e.g., in Mark 5 Jesus—presumable using a magic spell—transfers demons from a deranged man into a herd of swine. Nor does Luke identify the sources for his non-Marcan material. 


(2)  There is wide consensus among New Testament scholars that the gospel of Mark—upon which the gospels and Matthew and Luke were heavily dependent—was written after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 CE, i.e., during the devastating First Jewish-Roman war (this catastrophe is reflected in Mark, chapter 13). Guesses vary as to when Luke was written, perhaps ten years or more after that, i.e., a full fifty years after the time of Jesus. Would any of the eyewitnesses to Jesus-events have survived that long? Would they have survived the war? That’s a stretch. 


(3)  Maybe the eyewitnesses wrote down their experiences? How would such documents have been preserved, cared for? How would the author of Luke’s gospel, so many years later, have had access to them—after the catastrophic war? 


(4)  The author claims that he is “one having a grasp of everything from the start,” yet never identifies himself! Never cites his credentials. But we do know that he wrote propaganda for the early Jesus cult—his gospel certainly qualifies as that. Which means that it’s hard to trust his gospel as authentic history


And he gives away his game in the first two chapters of the gospel. Here we read about how both John the Baptist and Jesus were conceived and born. Since an angel is given a speaking role, right away we know we’re dealing with religious fantasy literature. Informed adults today know right away that the Fairy God Mother in Cinderella is fantasy, but it’s harder to break away from angel-fantasy learned in Sunday School and catechism. Devout folks may nod in approval as they read about the angel speaking to Elizabeth and Mary in Luke 1, but there is no evidence whatever—reliable, verifiable data—that angels are real, despite thousands of vivid depictions in religious art. 


Moreover, the propaganda element is prominent, for example, in the angel’s promise to Mary about Jesus (Luke 1:32-33): “…and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” This never happened, the angel here was dead wrong; but the author was promoting his cult theology. In Mary’s “Song of Praise” (Luke 1:46-55, as the RSV translation labels it—also known as the Magnificat), verse 50 is a description of Luke’s god: “…his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.” This god is nice to those fear him, which reflects the vindictive god of the Old Testament. 


This is a helpful exercise: read Luke 1-2 carefully, and try to identify which parts of this text could have been based on eyewitness testimony. Also ask: who was there taking notes? —upon which the story could have been based as it was written down decades later. One evangelical scholar has suggested that the author of Luke took the time and trouble to interview Mary—an idea based on no evidence whatever. His desire to make the story credible was all that mattered.


When Zechariah was alone in the temple (no eyewitnesses) he was spoken to by the angel, i.e., the promise that his elderly wife Elizabeth would conceive. And so it happened (this episode is a recrafting of the story of Abraham and Sarah), Luke 1:24-25:


“After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, ‘This is what the Lord has done for me in this time, when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.’”


If she remained in seclusion, how could there have been an eyewitness who heard what she said? Maybe she wrote a diary? Where was it archived, and how would the author of Luke have accessed it? 


Reading the gospels as informed adults requires curiosity, the willingness to question everything, as well as skepticism about documents that were clearly intended to enhance belief in an ancient cult. That’s why it’s important to ponder carefully every gospel episode. Study it, read what scholars have written about it—and don’t be satisfied with “study guides” written by preachers and apologists. They can highlight positives and deflect attention from negatives—and even be deceitful. This is how The Message Bible renders Luke 1:1-4:


“So many others have tried their hand at putting together a story of the wonderful harvest of Scripture and history that took place among us, using reports handed down by the original eyewitnesses who served this Word with their very lives. Since I have investigated all the reports in close detail, starting from the story’s beginning, I decided to write it all out for you, most honorable Theophilus, so you can know beyond the shadow of a doubt the reliability of what you were taught.


This is not a translation or a paraphrase, but rather an expression of the theology of the pretend-translator, who wants to make sure his readers get the message as he imagines it.  


It’s the working hypothesis of New Testament scholars that the Book of Acts is by the same author who wrote Luke. It too, especially in the first third, gives credit to angels and the holy spirit for things that happen. There are miracles and fantasies, such as Jesus ascending through the clouds to sit down on a throne next to god (Acts 1). Acts tells that story of the apostle Paul’s dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus (three times, in fact, chapters 9, 22, 26), which Paul himself never mentions in his letters. We suspect that Luke’s literary imagination was at work.

In an article published 9 April 2023, Do the ‘We’ Passages in Acts Indicate an Eyewitness Wrote It?, Richard Carrier goes into considerable detail regarding the difficulties these “we” passages present. Are they in fact eyewitness accounts? The “we” are never identified. Did Luke have a copy of a ship log (the “we” passages appear in accounts of sea voyages)? There are parallels in other ancient stories about trips at sea. It’s clear that the “we” passages cannot be trusted as much as Christian apologists argue they should be. 

This is the basic rule: informed readers of the gospels and Acts should want to find out what can be authenticated as history—based on reliable, verifiable data. Again, Carrier states the problem bluntly:

“Christian apologists often cite [the “we” passages] as evidence the author of Acts was one of these people and therefore “was really there” and thus a reliable source. None of that follows—liars can pretend to have been there; and people who were there can lie about everything anyway; so if we accumulate evidence that the author of Acts (traditionally said to be Luke) was a habitual liar and fabricator, the whole notion that he is reliable merely because he occasionally uses a first-person narrative falls apart anyway.” (from the 9 April 2023 article)

Modern cult leaders—such as wealthy TV evangelists—commonly lie to promote their modern version of the Christian brand. Anyone who probes the gospels with serious intent to find out what’s really there will be sorely disappointed at the level of fictionalizing and mythologizing. Propagandists rarely have much respect for the truth. 

This not all that hard for Christians themselves to figure out: they ignore the propaganda peddled by the thousands of Christian brands they don’t belong to.


David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He is the author of two books, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith (2016; 2018 Foreword by John Loftus) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). The Spanish translation of this book is also now available. 


His YouTube channel is here. He has written for the Debunking Christianity Blog since 2016.


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