Thursday, September 23, 2021

Do the Gospels Contain Legendary Embellishments?


In Investigating the Resurrection of Jesus Christ: A New Transdisciplinary Approach, author Andrew Loke offers 4 reasons why he believes skeptics who claim that the later accounts in the Gospels (e.g. the young man at the tomb in Mark becomes an angel accompanied by earthquakes in Matthew) contain legendary embellishments are in error.  

He writes:

"First, the amount of details does not seem to follow a consistent pattern when we compare the later accounts with the earlier ones.  For example, following the argument for embellishment, one might expect a larger number of eyewitnesses and resurrection appearances in the later accounts compared to the earlier ones, but the opposite is the case: Paul's account in 1 Corinthians 15, which is the earliest, contains the greatest number of eyewitnesses ('more than five hundred brethren') and the largest number of appearances.  It is more likely that the authors took into consideration the needs of the audiences when they decided the amount of details to include.  Second, some of the details can be understood as clarification rather than embellishments.  For example, the inference that the 'young man' in Mark 16:5-7 is an angel can be justified by the context, which describes him as dressed in white and conveying divine revelation.  He does not simply report what he found, but gives it an authoritative explanation and goes on to convey a message from Jesus himself, recapitulating what he had said privately to the Twelve in Mark 14:28, and conveying not comment but command (France 2002, pp. 675-679; compare the use of 'young man' for angel in Tob. 4:5-10, 2 Macc. 3:26, 33, etc., see Gundry 1993, p. 990).  Thus, the latter account in Matthew can be understood not as an embellishment but a clarification; in other words, Matthew merely makes the identification of the young man as an angel more explicit.  Third, the inclusion of more details does not have to be regarded as embellishment, rather, it 'could simply be a matter of a later writer adding new and truthful traditions that were known to his own community, purposely filling in the gaps' (Habermas 2013, p. 477).

Concerning the apparent lack of agreement, Wright notes that first-century writers who intended to tell others what actually happened took for granted that they were not obligated to mention every event or every detail of an event.  (Wright (2003, pp. 648-649) observes, for example, 

'when Josephus tells the story of his own participation in the various actions that started the Jewish-Roman war in AD 66, the story he tells in his Jewish War and the parallel story he tells in the Life do not always correspond in detail.' 

Many of the differences between the Gospels can be explained by literary devices which were also employed by other ancient historians, such as Plutarch (c. AD 45-120) (Licona 2016).  In several biographies Plutarch frequently covers the same ground, thus creating a number of parallels and editing his materials in ways similar to the writers of the New Testament Gospels, compresses stories, sometimes conflates them, inverts the order of events, simplifies, and relocates stories or sayings (Evans, in Licona 2016, p. x).  When it comes to the editing and paraphrasing of the words of Jesus, the authors of the Gospels were far more conservative than the compositional practice of Jewish Scriptures (ibid.).  Indeed, a comparison of the paralleled periscope of Jesus' aphorisms and parables shows a high degree of stability and reliability of transmission (McIver 2011)."1

So, if Loke is right, these are at least 4 plausible explanations for some of the differences we see in the later accounts in the Gospels.

Courage and Godspeed,

1. Andrew Loke, Investigating the Resurrection of Jesus Christ: A New Transdisciplinary Approach, Kindle. 

Related Posts

What about the Differences in the Resurrection Accounts?

New Testament Scholar Craig Blomberg on the Gospels

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