Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Dr. Timothy J. William's "Using Fiction to Vindicate the Gospels"

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. [...]

Paradoxically then, the greatest works of pure fiction can impart a sense of “reality” during the act of reading. [...]

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. [...]

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. [...]

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. [...]

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.


Source: Dr. Timothy J. Williams, "Using Fiction to Vindicate the Gospels," Crisis Magazine, Janurary 20, 2014, accessed March 19, 2014,

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