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Evaluating the Internal Evidence

By:  Erick Nelson
Last Updated: 
July 28, 2003



The issue if using internal evidence, in this case, is a fascinating one - for the "internal evidence" is simply the gospel accounts themselves.  And that is what is being debated.  How can we pull out arbitrary passages and use them as evidence?  Anything we can produce would itself be in need of proof!

Sure, one might want to say, "Look, Thomas touched Jesus' wounds.  It says right here that Jesus was born in a particular place at a particular time; he went to this place and not that place; he died by crucifixion, under Pilate's authority, at a specific time and place.  This shows that these stories were meant factually."  But all of these are part of the story!  In themselves, they no more point to factual intent than do the many details of Lord of the Rings.  Is there any way to resolve this?

Anticipating the Modern Novel?

One approach would be analyze the form of the stories from a purely literary perspective.  Do they have the characteristics of factual reportage?  There are indeed several instances of interesting detail - The grass is "green grass" in Mark, the number of fish caught, etc. - that have been discussed in respect to this issue.  

One way to counter these questions is to appeal to verisimilitude - "The writer wanted to increase the sense of realism, and so he added little realistic touches."  And so ... Why the "green" grass?  Verisimilitude.  Why the exact number of fish?  Verisimilitude.  This can be the response to every such question posed.  In fact, any material that really is factual reportage could be explained away in just this manner, one item at a time.

But perhaps the cumulative effect of these details can be considered.  C.S. Lewis, discussing such stories as the Samaritan woman at the well, the healing of the blind man at the pool, and the woman caught in adultery, points out how remarkable the details and the dialog must be if they are made-up tales.

I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life.  I know what they are like.  I know that not one of them is like this.  Of this text there are only two possible views.  Either this is reportage - though it may no doubt contain errors - pretty close to the facts; nearly as close as Boswell.  Or else, some unknown writer in the second century, without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic narrative.  If it is untrue, it must be narrative of that kind.  The reader who doesn't see this has simply not learned to read. (p 281, Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism; Collected Works)

How could this be countered?  I have to admit that I know little about the kinds of fiction that was actual, or possible, in the ancient world, and so it's difficult to evaluate Lewis' very strong declaration.  But, if we take his expertise at face value, and agree that the realistic details must have their roots in eyewitness experiences, it does not necessarily follow that all of the material, or even most of the material is derived from those sources.  

Yet, to counter this, one could always say that the redactors incorporated some actual stories into their work, yet invented many others, and even embellished these.  In fact (just to take one example) that's exactly what's said about Luke's use of "we" and "they" in Acts.  Rather than implicitly claiming to have been there in the "we" sections, some critics say he was just using a travel diary.

I believe that this is a valid approach, but will leave it alone here.

Narrative Criticism - Transitional Cues

It is rarely contended that the four gospels are complete fiction.  Usually it is assumed by MG proponents that historical narrative and fictional stories have been combined in some way.  How can we determine which is which?  In the case of parables, which are essentially fictional stories, it is pretty simple.  (1)  The narrator puts the parables on Jesus' lips, rather than simply mixing them with other accounts; (2)  The form of the story often lets you know that this is a parable ("There was once a king ..."); and (3) He often explicitly says that it is a parable.

Mark Allan Powell makes the excellent point that the narrator does not give us these kinds of clues about which gospel accounts are to be taken factually and which metaphorically.  He discusses this in terms of Narrative Criticism, and concludes: 

When any one of the Gospels is read as a unified narrative, there is no literary reason to identify the episodes Spong cites as belonging to a different genre than the work as a whole.  if the Gospels are viewed generally as relating narratives about historical persons, situations, and settings (and they are), there is no reason why implied readers would be expected to think that these narratives shift periodically into a purely metaphorical style of storytelling (regarding events with no basis in history) and then back again.  (Powell - article in the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, V1.2, July 2003, "Authorial Intent and Historical Reporting:  Putting Spong's Literalization Thesis to the Text"

This is a strong argument, but I believe it can be countered.  One might simply concede this point, and agree that the first readers were not provided the transitional cues that would distinguish between factual and metaphorical content.  But, one might continue, the first readers didn't care primarily about what was factual and what was metaphorical - it was the meaning of the stories that mattered to them.

In fact, Marcus Borg points out something very similar to that:

". . . the Bible does not come with footnotes that say, "This passage is to be read literally; that passage is not."  Reading the stories of creation or the stories of Jesus' birth literally involves an interpretive decision (namely, a decision to read them literally) equally as much as does the decision to read them metaphorically.
    Thus any and every claim about what a passage of scripture means involves interpretation.  There is no such thing as a noninterpretive reading of the Bible, unless our reading consists simply of making sounds in the air.  As we read the Bible, then, we should ask not, "What is God saying?" but "What is the ancient author or community saying?"  (p 27-28)

Again, I believe this is a valid approach, and Powell does an excellent job of following up these points in his Journal article.  But I will leave it alone here.


Spong, Borg, and Crossan all speak with authority - the authority of contemporary New Testament scholarship.  Borg seems to me to be the humblest of the three (just personal opinion), and even he is quite sure that his views are not only consistent with, but the product of the best N.T. scholarship over the last 200 years.

The basis for this mind-boggling realization was the understanding of the gospels that has developed over the last two hundred years of biblical scholarship. I learned that the gospels are neither divine documents nor straightforward historical records. . . . Nor are they eyewitness accounts written by people who had accompanied Jesus and simply sought to report what they had seen and heard.

Rather, I learned, the gospels represent the developing traditions of the early Christian movement. Written in the last third of the first century, they contain the accumulated traditions of early Christian communities and were put into their present forms by second- (or even third-) generation authors. Through careful comparative study of the gospels, one can see these authors at work, modifying and adding to the traditions they received. (Borg, Meeting J, p8-10)

Their picture is so convincing that I myself accepted that N.T. scholarship had, as a whole, taken a hard turn to the left, and that the F.F. Bruces and Donald Guthries of the world had been replaced by the Jesus Seminar.  Mark Allan Powell strongly corrected that impression in an email to me:

I want to add some important caveats about seminary education, however, and I hope that I do not come off as too defensive in doing so (being a seminary professor myself). The theological professors who I know do not present these points as “assured results” or even as “commonly accepted scholarship.” Any professor who did so (and, unfortunately, there probably are some who do) would be regarded as irresponsible by his or her peers. The issue, rather, is to present such points as “matters of debate,” and to challenge students to engage in theological discourse regarding them.    

It was only after I had written several drafts of this paper, for instance, that I started to read N.T. Wright.  Wright turns out to be truly a world-class scholar, former Chair of the Historical Jesus Section of the SBL, on a par with Crossan, who vigorously disagrees with the Metaphorical Gospel Theory.  In fact, he has written three large, densely argued volumes (from 1996 to 2003), presenting a methodology and conclusions which directly contradicted the MG Theory on the way to establishing an impressive Theory of his own.  

I have written down several quotes from his first volume:  The New Testament and the People of God (Vol 1 of "Christian Origins and the Question of God") Fortress Press, Minneapolis 1992.

See N.T. Wright Quotes
See Wright and Borg Quotes

And so, another approach would be simply to say "Read N.T. Wright's books" and leave it at that.  Wright has the background to convincingly argue, against Spong for instance, that the Jewish mind-set would produce documents talking about God's action on behalf of his people in history, not myth-making 'midrash.' (following Goulder).

But what is the non-specialist to do?  Spong/Goulder say that the Jewish world-view is X, and Wright just as confidently says it is Y.  We could simply pile up quotes from one scholar against another - a kind of Point/Counterpoint, but for many people this would just wind up in a draw.

And so, while this is not only a valid but an excellent approach to purse, I will leave it alone here.

"Meta-Gospel" Statements

And so, a straight appeal to the gospel stories themselves leads to something of an impasse.  We need to move outside the stories.  Perhaps we must give up and go right to the External Evidence.  But is there yet Internal Evidence that will give us this needed "Archimedes' Lever"?  I believe there is.  They are what may be called the "meta-gospel" statements:  statements within the New Testament that are about the gospel accounts. 


So, "Meta-gospel" statements are statements in the gospel about the gospel?  To be more precise, they are statements in the New Testament about the meaning and intent of the gospel message.  Meta statements have been an interesting field of discussion in analytic philosophy.  To acquaint the reader with the "meta" statement idea (which is not to be confused with "metaphorical"), I'll give an example.

Take this statement (we'll call it Sentence A):

"At yesterday's class, I saw the professor's point."

Some "meta-statements" about this statement would be:

You see, this is our Archimedes' Lever.  Archimedes once made a famous statement that he could move the world if you gave him the right place to stand.  Meta-gospel statements, in a technical sense, are not part of the story as such.  They are commentaries about the story, statements about the story.

How do we apply meta-statements in our investigation?  We can look for statements about the intent of the gospel stories, and meaning of the gospel claims, within the New Testament itself to see if they support or contradict the Metaphorical Gospel theory.

For instance, are there any places in this body of literature where the author says "Now, don't think - as some common people do - that these stories actually happened. They are intended spiritually, from faith to faith." Or, "the mature Christian understands that Jesus and the Christ are not the same person. For who would worship a mere man? The Christ is our eternal, abiding presence. We worship the Christ, not the man Jesus." Or, "Those who twist the scriptures to mean that Jesus' body came back to life are carnal and not spiritual." Or, something of the sort.

Or perhaps we might find writings that say the opposite, "These stories are not something that was made-up, they are not myths, but they are events which really happened." Or, "Those who deny that Jesus and the Christ are identical are wrong, and you shouldn't listen to them."  Or, we might find statements that only make sense if they are construed literally.

A Few Words About Methodology

My first caution would be not to expect to find many of these crucial indicators.  In fact, it's entirely possible that the entire New Testament could have none!  After all, it wasn't written primarily with this topic in mind.

This takes a certain amount of detective work - reading through a lot of material to find just the right kind of statement.  (But detective work is just what N.T. scholars love to do the most; that is how they manage to develop the new theories that they do.)

1.  The first thing I did after I had made sure I understood Spong's, Borg's, and Crossan's views about the MG Theory (even as I read their books) was to just sit and think.  Immediately, I thought to myself, "Wait - doesn't 2 Peter say something about not following cleverly devised stories, but eyewitness accounts?", and "Luke sure seems to lay it out in his prologue - he investigated the matter thoroughly, back to the eyewitnesses themselves, and write up on orderly account about what happened."  I started thinking about the deity and resurrection passages to see if there were any clear, unequivocal statements that would force a 'literal' interpretation.

2.  Next, I tried to gather together any positive reasons for thinking the MG Theory was true, and spent some time considering them and writing up my thoughts.

3.  At about the same time, I decided to read quickly through the N.T. from start to finish, looking for my detective clues.  To do this, I tried to read everything as if the MG Theory were true.  For page after page, I would see something and then remark to myself, "Oh, that's just part of the story.  That's not definitive." - and constantly thought about the level of detail one finds in fiction stories such as Lord of the Rings.  Every once in awhile, I'd run across something that made me stop, then seemed to pose a genuine problem.  (It wasn't until I had read several times through that I noticed what now seems obvious, the editorial aside in Matthew about the disciples stealing the body.) 

I made a list of 'problem texts.'  Then I threw out any for which I could come up with an answer from the MG viewpoint.  Then, I wrote up my findings in a first draft.  I continued to quick scans of whole books from time to time, in search of more clues.  I published what I had found on my web site and asked people for feedback.  I adjusted as necessary, creating version after version of the web article.

I have to confess that, for all my searching, I never did find any texts that clearly and unambiguously make statements that favor the Metaphorical Gospel Theory.  I must also admit that perhaps I'm just not tuned in enough to spot those, and haven't perhaps corresponded with the right people.  I hope that those who favor the MG Theory will give me more ammunition.

Eventually, I have come to the point where I proposed the eight strongest passages (or sets of passages), those which most clearly refutes the MG Theory.

4.  In my first several drafts I simply quoted the passages and made brief comments.  It was more of a "hey, look at this" approach.  I really expected that I would dialogue with people via email, and that they would outline objections.  I would consider the objections, and either overcome them or withdraw the passage.  Thus, the whole presentation would be refined over time.

However, such dialogues were rare, and no substantial detailed objections were forthcoming.  I finally decided that I needed to provide a more detailed discussion.  I began by going to the standard commentaries to see what they might say.  For this purpose, I selected three for primary usage, although I looked at other commentaries and books as well.  Recommended to me were:

I call these "the commentaries" in the text.  Word is certainly a large commentary (many large volumes), has entries by leading scholars, and goes into great detail.  It would be considered, I think, conservative-to-moderate.  Jerome, on the other hand, is considered more liberal (it states, for instance, that Paul's speech on the Aereopogus was a pure invention), and would possibly be a good source supporting the MG view.

And so, I integrated these discussions into the text.

5.  Objections and Answers.  Then the hardest job.  Partly from cues in the commentaries, and partly from my own thinking, I came up with some Objections.  I sat there and said, "What could an MG proponent possibly say to counter this evidence that seems so solid to me?"  And, of course, I then had to answer the objections (especially since one of my criticisms of the MG Theory is that it doesn't answer objections very well!). 

For the purposes of reading, I would not necessarily recommend reading through all the Objections and Answers unless that is your interest!  Just read the main portion, skim the Objection titles, and drill down if you thing the Objection is interesting.

If you think that these Objections are pathetically weak, I assure you that I do too.  But they are not weak because I intentionally create a straw man.  They are weak either because (a) the evidence truly is so solid that there are no good objections; (b) my mastery of the material is limited, and I just don't understand what the proper objections ought to be; (c) I'm just not smart enough to think of good ones.  I welcome better Objections and will try to deal with them as they come!

Common Sense Philosophy

One of the things that was impressed upon me was how tedious, and sometimes difficult, it can be to always be defending the obvious.  I thought of G.E. Moore, the "Common Sense Philosopher", who argued in works like "A Defense of Common Sense" (1925) against the prevailing trends in philosophy, especially idealism.  It is sometimes absurd to be forced to prove that a statement actually means what it obviously says - but a worthwhile endeavor nontheless.

On to the evidence.