Using Fiction to Vindicate the Gospels

Recently, I reconnected with a friend from long ago, one of those “reunions” made possible, though impersonal, by the Internet. In the course of catching up with each other, one Facebook message at a time, he revealed that he had abandoned his once vibrant Christian faith because he could not overcome doubts provoked by the “obvious inconsistencies” recorded in the Gospels. In my fragmented replies to this, I surprised my friend by acknowledging the discrepancies he mentioned, and enumerating quite a few more he had not noticed.

But then, I tried to explain to him that the anomalies were actually evidence of authenticity, proving that the Gospels most decidedly do not belong to the realm of imagination. Pointing as they do to each writer’s human limitations and modest intentions, the variants assure us that what we are reading, though at times quite dramatic and beautiful, is not some work of creative fiction.

Any good student of literature can recognize the hallmarks of great fiction. It is nothing if not consistent, conceived as a whole, seamless and artful, thus artificial. Every detail of the work is determined and arranged by the author, and has purpose and relevance. And even if the author decides to include extraneous details, these non-sequiturs are only apparent, for they too play a role in revealing the author’s overarching esthetic stance. The analogies, the metaphors, the similes are all crafted and positioned just so, to reinforce motivation and action, to move the story inexorably toward a predetermined conclusion. If a writer’s intention is too obvious, too heavy-handed, too clumsy, too cliché-ridden, we relegate his works to second-rate status. But all writers follow more or less the same creative procedures.

By way of example, consider the literary opus of Honoré de Balzac, the great nineteenth century French novelist. Balzac created an entire society of fictional characters in La comédie humaine, a massive creation of interrelated novels and essays numbering more than ninety books. When we immerse ourselves in La comédie humaine, the characters come alive for us because of the genius of their creator. It is as if we actually meet Rastignac, and Goriot, and his daughters, and we are swept along in their story, moved to pity, or anger, or disgust by their conduct. But this emotional involvement with literature is only possible to the extent that the reader is able, however fleetingly, to forget that he is experiencing something wholly imaginary.

Thus, a great writer like Balzac seeks absolute consistency, constantly revising the many pages of his lengthy works, attempting to conceal the artistic process, crafting transitional passages so as to hide the “seams” in the work, to make the major events appear like a natural progression, rather than a rational, creative choice. He checks and double-checks the chronology of events, the complicated parentage of characters, the geographical indications, and so on. In a well-crafted work of fiction, we notice nothing out of place, and this very lack of anomalies helps to avert any suspension of belief.

Paradoxically then, the greatest works of pure fiction can impart a sense of “reality” during the act of reading. But when we put the novel down for the evening, we quickly return to our “real” world, without any thought that Balzac’s characters are in any sense our spiritual or cultural ancestors. Though we may still be impressed by the “believability” of a Balzacian story, we certainly do not expect to encounter anyone claiming to be the long lost, great, great grandson of old Goriot. Fiction belongs to the realm of the imagination, and there it remains.

When the human capacity for vivid storytelling spills over into real life, the results are the exact opposite of an artfully convincing tale. Imagine for a moment a courtroom proceeding in which four successive witnesses take the stand to testify to their knowledge of a complex series of interconnected events. The witnesses viewed the events from different perspectives, and it seems fairly certain that none of them could have witnessed the entire affair from beginning to end. The four are not all of the same ethnicity, and they do not all possess the same language as their native tongue. The first witness relates what he knows of the events, in clear and convincing testimony. His version seems very plausible to us, even though we are surprised at how smoothly and confidently he speaks. Then the second witness is sworn in, but his declaration turns out to be nearly a repetition of what the first witness said. Already, something seems quite amiss. This was wholly unexpected. And then the third witness repeats virtually verbatim the story we have just heard twice before. The jurors begin to cross their arms and glance furtively at each other. The judge is not amused by what is going on in his courtroom. By the time the fourth witness is sworn in, we already suspect some subterfuge and can guess what is coming next.  And when this final witness continues with essentially the same narrative, we no longer have any doubts. The testimony has surely been rehearsed in advance and none of these four witnesses retains any credibility. It has all been too perfect, too consistent, with almost every detail in each testimony corroborated by all the others. Somebody is lying, and probably everybody is.

The Gospels, on the other hand, are living documents, each a specific but incomplete testimony of something true, not a work of the imagination. The chronicles are episodic, the seams show everywhere, and the authors are not concerned with creating a smoothly flowing narrative, because what they have experienced or investigated is too powerful, too immediate, too real to require or permit any artful recasting. The Evangelists do not hesitate to interrupt their own narratives with extraneous events and details, including things whose significance they themselves do not seem to understand. They are obviously afraid of adding anything uncertain, or omitting anything known. This is the hallmark of reliable testimony, of four different people telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, without concern for how the testimony appears or is received.

Just look at the Gospel of Luke, for example, whose intentions could not be more removed from those of a fiction writer. When a great novelist writes, no matter how committed he is to the artistic integrity of his craft, he has an audience in mind and shapes his narrative to best retain those readers. He harbors a desire to be widely read, and perhaps a hope of earning a substantial reward from his efforts. And he certainly wouldn’t mind a literary prize or two along the way. Luke, on the other hand, views himself as just one of many common believers “who have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished” in a small corner of the world. (Luke 1:1). He has absolutely no idea that his text will become one of the founding documents of a new civilization, that it will be read, studied and prayed for many centuries. The very thought would have astonished him. Like each of the Evangelists, he writes down only what he believes to be certain or nearly so, only what he has personally witnessed, heard on good authority, or discovered after personal investigation. The result is a text that overwhelms with its authenticity.

The Gospels also contain that other mark of honest testimony, the odd non sequitur that leaves you wondering why more was not said, or more left out. The classic example is the narrative of the adulterous woman about to be stoned to death, and Jesus’s composed distractedness before he disarms the crowd with a few words of astonishing simplicity and revolutionary morality. In the most ancient manuscripts of the fourth Gospel, John tells us twice that Jesus “bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground” (John 8: 6, 8) but he does not tell us why, nor what Jesus wrote, nor whether we should even care about this odd gesture at a moment of great anticipation.

Writers as diverse as Chesterton and Tolstoy have viewed this simple detail as another internal proof that the Gospels are not fiction, but are a truthful narrative. No great writer of fiction, nor even a mediocre one, would ever have mentioned this detail without telling us what Jesus wrote in the sand. Indeed, the well-intended “corrections” found in later manuscripts but ultimately excluded from the Bible – namely that Jesus wrote “the sins of each of them” – merely point out what is humanly unsatisfying in the passage. We are accustomed to every detail in a story being ordered towards its telling, its ending. Quite simply, these “loose threads” in a story bother us, and inevitably, someone comes along to try to tie the threads together.

The New Testament is a document of conversions, of encounters with Jesus of Nazareth, and every figure speaks of Christ in a different way, because every person comes to Christ via a different path. It is impossible to tie all the loose threads together, to weave into an artfully seamless whole the many stories a man capable of fascinating and converting both Luke the Greek, the learned physician, and Saul of Tarsus, the militantly anti-Christian Jew. That is why the multifaceted nature of the Scriptures surpasses in realism the very greatest works of fiction.

Timothy J. Williams


Timothy J. Williams is Professor of French and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He graduated cum laude from the University of Kansas with a doctorate in French and holds Master’s degrees in French and Music Theory. He is the author of Desire and Persecution in Thérèse Desqueyroux and Other Selected Novels of François Mauriac (2007). In 2010, Dr. Williams retired from the Ohio National Guard with the rank of Major.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Attempts had harmonizing the four gospels go back to Tatian’s Diatessaron, in the latter part of the 2nd century.

    That the Evangelists do not necessarily record events in chronological order has no bearing on the historical accuracy of their account.

  • Blah Blaah

    “Every detail of the work is determined and arranged by the author, and has purpose and relevance…. The analogies, the metaphors, the similes are all crafted and positioned just so, to reinforce motivation and action, to move the story inexorably toward a predetermined conclusion. ”

    Clearly you haven’t read Huckleberry Finn lately (especially the chapters after the Shepherdson/Grangerford feud). A great novel… but as flawed artistically as its author was personally.

    • Dr. Timothy J. Williams

      You are correct. I haven’t read it lately. But I am not sure I would consider Samuel Clemens a great writer. A great satirist, perhaps, but with rather limited range. (Uh oh… I will have set off a new controversy here, no doubt!)

      • Blah Blaah

        Twain was more of a ‘yarn-spinner.’ He didn’t really plan out all his books or stories in exquisite detail, but just let them ‘come’ somehow. There was a game his kids played with him: they’d line up random objects on the mantle-piece and he had to spin a yarn using each item, in order, as part of the story. And the stories just tumbled out, no matter how disparate the objects his girls collected together. His characters would start talking and doing things in his head and he’d just have to get it out on paper. There are complicated reasons why Huck Finn stumbles badly toward the end, but the clues are in Twain’s biography.

        However, it is a great novel if we define a ‘great’ novel in any culture as one that somehow ‘puts its finger’ on aspects of the writer’s culture that make readers feel, ‘Yes, this story is typical of us and our experience.’ Huck Finn is the grand-daddy of all those ‘road’ movies and ‘buddy-buddy’ movies. It’s got the ‘escape to the west’ theme as well which is so deeply woven into the American (US) experience.

        The greatest of all literary works – the ones that span all cultures – manage to ‘put their finger’ on elements of the human experience or character that allows anyone in any time or place to empathize with the characters or feel that the action resonates with their experiences of the human condition. And this makes sense, going back a bit to your theme. There can only be one religion that could ‘work’ for every person, resonating with the human condition in every aspect of our human experience, in every time, place, condition and state of life – because the religion was made by God for man who was made by God. Likewise the greatest stories ‘work’ for people across times and cultures, because they most closely reflect the truth about the human condition (rather than just the American experience or Italian experience or Japanese experience or the feminine experience, etc.).

      • Ausonius

        “To string incongruities and absurdities together in a wandering and sometimes purposeless way, and seem innocently unaware that they are absurdities, is the basis of the American art.” – Mark Twain

        I do not know if Twain knew anything about Nietzsche’s *Birth of Tragedy,* but in this definition Twain gets to have his Dionysian pie neatly sliced with the knife of Apollo.

  • poetcomic1

    Short Zacchaeus climbing up in a tree to get a glimpse of Jesus. Somehow that was my moment of certainty of the historical soundness of the Gospels. If one wrangles one’s life away synchronizing Gospels, one hasn’t made the single act of faith:
    “The act of Faith must then be a SINGLE act not a series of logical (and conditional) acceptances. If a contemporary of Jesus heard him and then said “I believe what he says but I can’t guarantee that I’ll believe what he says tomorrow…” then he is not a believer
    because he has not made the full and single act of faith.
    -Monsignor Gilbey

  • hombre111

    Scripture study 101: the Gospels are theological in intent, biographical in origin, but not biographies. In my day, the best author on this discussion was the Sulpician Ray Brown.

    • cestusdei

      I suggest Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth.

      • hombre111

        I would agree. It is a beautiful book. But he reflects the biblical scholarship of people like Raymond Brown.

  • brotherrolf

    Good subject but you need to get rid of excess words.

  • Matt

    William Peter Blatty’s “Dimiter” mentions the problem with Jesus writing in the sand, as well. There is also a surprisingly convincing take on the two-fold healing that Jesus performed on the man who had been blind since birth. Well worth checking out.

  • Bills1225

    I like to think of it all as fiction with a more important purpose than just recounting true historical events.

    • Dr. Timothy J. Williams

      Well… he lives in California, so he has a lot of issues to overcome!

  • ColdStanding

    Don’t leave us hanging! What happened when he heard your response?

    • Dr. Timothy J. Williams

      Well… he lives in California, so he has a lot of issues to overcome!

  • Nick_Palmer3

    JRR Tolkien, and his son, Christopher, wrote extensively about the re-writes necessary to bring the earlier book, The Hobbit, into line with Lord of the Rings — timelines, the “riddle game,” etc. Even with that, Tolkien hinted at remaining inconsistencies. As the reader ventures into the world of The Silmarillion, the problems multiply
    As a story gets more complex the ability to ensure complete consistency becomes impossible.
    Dr. Williams’s use of Jesus writing on the ground is a great point. I remember being taught in high school that every element in a short story matters. Biblical writing seems to have an awful lot of “appendixes.”

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