127 of 137 people found the following review helpful
on September 27, 2000
The first of the Gospels (Mark) was written some 40 years after the death of Jesus (about 70 A.D.). Some thirty years later, Luke and Matthew separately updated, expanded, and edited the first document (using another unknown source as well). And after that, an anonymous writer put together the "Fourth Gospel", that of John. In Gospel Fictions, Randel Helms painstakingly, parable-by-parable, verse-by-verse, even word-by-word, analyzes the four Gospels. His thesis is: "The Gospels... are largely fictional accounts concerning an historical figure, Jesus of Nazareth, intended to create a life-enhancing understanding of his nature," A simple instance: After reading this work, one will not only be reminded that each Gospel quotes Jesus's last words on the cross differently, but -- one will have a better idea why each writer put different words into His mouth. This book will disturb those (like myself) who assumed that the Gospels were substantially historical, with minor differences of fact and emphasis. Helms paints a compelling picture of the exact opposite: almost none of the parables happened in fact, many stories were borrowed from the Old Testament, and the authors had little interest in leaving any record of facts. The only way to grasp the scope of Helm's challenge is to read this book. It will leave you a more informed person, if a somewhat disillusioned one.
70 of 74 people found the following review helpful
on February 1, 2003
This is a short simple little book. Anyone who is familiar with the Christian Gospels knows that they vary from each other in various details. This book provides and explanation why and in the process explains how they came to be written.
The first Gospel to be written was that of Mark. It however from a doctrinal point has some problems. There is no mention of the Virgin birth, Mark in quoting a number of prophecies in the Old Testament misunderstands and misquotes them, the description of Jesus?s Baptism suggests that he only becomes the Son of God at that point and not at his birth and lastly the women who observe the resurrection tell nobody.
Helms suggests that the Gospel of Luke attempts to deal with these issues by providing details about the birth, it quotes correctly from the Old Testament and it tries to make sense of the baptism of Jesus and gives a different account of the resurrection. The process of working out the events of Jesus life rather than coming from a historical narrative are often constructed by looking at Old Testament prophecies and then creating events which mirror these prophecies. Helms gives as an example of this Mathew?s use of a prophecy in Isa 7:14-16 to predict the Virgin Birth. It is clearly a passage which illustrates a suggestion that King Pekah of Israel will not reign for long. Mathew has misunderstood the nature of the prophecy.
The writing of the Gospels has thus not come about from an inquiry into the historical Jesus but rather as a result of the Gospel writers creating a legend that fits in with their communities view of the personality and nature of Jesus. Helms refers to the large number of other Gospels which were in circulation `such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Phillip, the Secret Gospel of Mark, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene which have been disregarded from the Cannon. The survival of the current Gospels reflects their acceptance by the church as reflective of acceptable doctrine.
The chapter on the biblical miracles is perhaps the best in the book. A number of these, especially the raising of the dead are borrowing?s from the Old Testament. Again it is shown how Mark presents a view of Jesus using clumsy magic like tricks whilst in the later Gospels the magic is replaced by Godlike power. However there is a discussion about the story of Jesus arrest and the cutting of of the ear of the servant of the high priest. This starts off as a simple story but the later Gospels tease out a miracle with the curing of the ear.
The source of the miracles is shown clearly to be a number of Old Testament stories which have been copied closely. This book also shows the different treatment of miracles in the Gospels. In John they are proof of supernatural power and a reason to believe. In the other Gospels they are the result of the faith which Jesus inspires in people,
Unlike some authors, Helms believes in the existence of a historical Christ. He believes that the crucifixion and the baptism by John the Baptist were both inconvenient stories whose inclusion can only be explained by the fact that they happened. He suggests that a good deal of work has been undertaken by the writers of the Gospels to incorporate these stories in such a way that it fits in with Jesus divine nature. The story of the Baptism is the clearest example. Baptism was aimed at removing sin from a person. Why then was Jesus baptised? The later Gospel writers have incorporated dialogue from John the Baptist suggesting to Jesus that his Baptism was unnecessary as a means of dealing with this dilemma.
All in all an easy to read and interesting little book
42 of 45 people found the following review helpful
on December 18, 2005
This book is a great introduction to a study of the four works of myth or fiction that we call the gospels.It is a short book and it is very well written and an easy read.It is not loaded down with long drawn out arguments that make reading a chore - this book was a pleasure to read.
Helms begins by giving the description of a man who lived in the first century and"taught the worship of one true god...the practice of charity and piety and the shunning of hatred and emnity...leading his followers to claim he was the son of God".
The similarities to Jesus go on and on including his death and resurrection,then we find out that we are learning about Appolonius of Tyana,who died around 98A.D. Claims such as these were not uncommon in the ancient world, and they certainly were not exclusive to Jesus.
In Helms' view the gospels were not written as historical biographies but as narratives "whose purpose is less to describe the past than to affect the present".In following the consensus of biblical scholars that Mark was the first gospel written, he shows how Matthew and Luke used it as a source for there own gospels.Each of the four gospels was written for a specific religious community with different theoligical purposes behind the writing of each one.When they are held to be inspired of God in makes no sense that they contradict one another,and not only in small details.When one realizes that they were never meant to be a literal recounting of historical events,and that these types of writings were a common form of religious literature,they make much more sense.
This is certainly not the last word on new testament scholarship,but it is a great place to start.I was a Jehovah's witness for eighteen years and took the bible as God's inspired word.If my blind faith can be shaken and I can begin to think for myself anyone can.I highly recommend this book.Others may dispute some of Randell Helms' claims,but he doesn't claim to be inspired of God.
33 of 35 people found the following review helpful
on November 19, 1998
This book, valuable to the informal reader as well as the researcher, highlights the (seemingly intentionally) embellished nature of the New Testament, and notes the unconvincing arguments of Gospel defenders. With clear and convincing reasoning he exposes various discrepancies in the gospels, indicating how history was exaggerated to satisfy prophecies. Writing as literary critic the author does not pick an argument with the Christian faith and acknowledges the value of the Gospels as works of art, but strips the religious baggage from the New Testament books. Chapters address the fictional nature of theology, nativity legends, miracles, passion narratives and resurrection accounts. The book's non-emotional style shouldn't offend the believer who is brave enough to question dogma, yet the well-researched and uncompromising text should arm the skeptic with large-bore ammunition in arguing with Bible-defenders,
26 of 29 people found the following review helpful
on September 9, 2005
It's ironic that Christian fundamentalists feel qualified to question the science of evolution when the historical validity of the Bible itself has been so thoroughly refuted. In the past, intelligent people could persuade themselves that the Bible was an historical record of supernatural events, despite its internal contradictions and often bloodthirsty morality. Today, science and scholarship have shown that the Bible's stories of creation, the flood, Babel, and the Exodus are all fictions cobbled out of Egyptian, Near Eastern, and Greek myths to make the Israelite's god competitive (Greenberg, 101 Myths of the Bible). The stories of the patriarchs and the conquest of Canaan are fictions supporting the centralized temple-state in 6th century BCE Judah (Finkelstein and Silberman, The Bible Unearthed; Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible?).
In Gospel Fictions Randel Helms shows that the Christian New Testament gospels are also fictions. He uses literary analysis, rather than archeology, to demonstrate that there is no real biographical information about Jesus in the modern sense. Decades after Jesus' death, the gospel writers needed to come up with a biography and all they had to go on was their belief that the messiah's coming must have been predicted by the prophets of Israel. Scouring the texts for anything that could be construed as a such a prediction, including parallels to the lives of the patriarchs and King David, they cobbled together narratives of what the life of the messiah, whom they now considered to have been Jesus, must have been like.
Helms explicates these fictions with exacting care, verse by verse. He shows how in many cases the first gospel, by "Mark", was unaware of the scriptural roots and implications of the stories he captured on paper, but Matthew and Luke were fully aware of them and revised or elaborated on them accordingly. His book nicely complements Burton Mack's Who Wrote the New Testament? which lacks the specific analyses that Helms provides but gives a broad historical and contextual account of the creation of all of the books of the New Testement and the works of the second century Church apologists. Gospel Fictions is detailed but coscise, devastatingly logical, and free of distracting rhetoric.
This book is a sharp nail in the coffin of Christian claims of the historical truth of their faith. Thus the New Testament is a house of cards built upon the other house of cards that is the Old Testament. Virtually the entire Judeo-Christian epic is fictional.
Thoughtful, mature Christians who value honesty must face the fact that the historical basis of their spiritual system is illusory. But Mack's Who Wrote the New Testament? shows that Christianity filled a need in the confusion that arose from the mini-globalization that was occuring in the wake of Greco-Roman empire-building. It was a synthesis of Jewish ethical thought and Greek philosophy that captured the imagination of people throughout the Mediterranean world and beyond. We can learn from the history of that time. Perhaps, in the confusion brought about by today's globalization and the purging effect of science and scolarship on all religious systems, we are in the same situation. But this time merely forging a new mythology, a new fiction, is not an attractive option. Faith that ignores facts is fantasy.
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
Having taken Randel Helms' class Bible As Literature at ASU, I knew I wanted to read more from his previous research. He has a very succinct way of presenting his research without casting his opinion or making judgments unto others. In fact the book begins with his statement for what his intentions are:
"This is a noble intention, and it is not my purpose here to articulate a quarrel with Christian faith, or to call the Evangelists liars, or to assert that the gospels have no historical content; I write as literary critic, not as debunker."
And he does just this as he analyzes the four gospels as you would any other work of fiction. He quickly shows how the gospels intended to create their story, which was to use the already known and familiar Hebrew Bible (or Tanakh) to give their stories credibility. Helms shows this over and over again with an abundance of quotes and references that show how well versed he is in biblical scholarship. In fact most everything that was written about Jesus was either taken or copied directly from the Old Testament or the prophecies of Psalms were forced to fit the mold that is Jesus.
An example, in the Hebrew Bible there is a Book of Jonah, where Jonah was in a sea monster's belly for three days and nights. Likewise, Jesus was then encased in his tomb for three days and three nights. It is the same story except transposed onto Jesus in order to give it credibility. Another is the use of common myths of the time to make a connection with Christianity's believers. Christian Jews saw Jesus born unto Mary by man and was adopted as the son of God. But Matthew did not see it this way and mistranslated "young woman" as "virgin woman", thereby coupling that with the standard belief of the time by pagans that deities regularly coupled with women. Combining the two essentially created the myth that the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus, son of God.
In the end Helms does a wonderful job in explaining and showing why the New Testament is nothing more than a work of fiction, which was based of yet another work of fiction that was older by far, the Hebrew Bible. I would recommend this to anyone looking for a close analysis of the New Testament and would like to understand their religion more in doing so.
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on October 4, 2004
Let me explain the odd title of my review...
Randel Helms makes his case in a compelling manner, and does it so clearly and effectively that before I was halfway through the book, I figured that he'd already completely vanquished the delusion that the New Testament is a history text.
While some parts are open to debate, the preponderance of evidence would be utterly devastating to Biblical literalists who actually read "Gospel Fictions" instead of tossing it aside the moment it makes them uncomfortable.
And it will indeed make them uncomfortable. In the course of the exposition, Helms provides examples of blatant contradictions in the gospels, doing so in an disarmingly off-hand manner, since that's not his main focus. (When I was younger, I studied the Bible intensely for nearly a decade and somehow missed all those contradictions. I wasn't looking for them; I wasn't told they were there; and above all I didn't WANT to see them.)
Before reading this book, the few Biblical criticisms I'd read struck me as somewhat circular. For example, "So-and-so must have written this after the fall of Jerusalem because the text predicts it will happen." That presupposes that the text is NOT inspired, so that line of reasoning did not strike me as rigorously logical.
However, when Helms demonstrates how the gospels took much material from the Septuagint -- including mistakes contained therein -- he takes things to a whole new level. He also clearly illuminates the themes that each gospel writer strove to emphasize -- and de-emphasize. This makes the provenance of each story much easier to understand. (I particularly enjoyed Helms's comment that Mark liked emphasizing the inadequacy of the disciples. Even when I was a Christian it struck me that those guys seemed like the stupidest people on the face of the planet. How many miracles do you have to see before you "get" that Jesus isn't just some guy?)
This book is not a easy, breezy read, but it is well worth the effort. Just as "Who Wrote the Bible" (by Richard Elliott Friedman) helped me understand the provenance of the Old Testament, so too does this book help me understand the evolution of the New Testament.
18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
There are many good scholarly accounts of the "historical" Jesus and of Biblical textual criticism. It would be hard to say that any one of them is the "best," but this one is definitely unique. The themes are twofold:
1. The gospels are literary works of art each servicing a different theological point of view and are among the supreme fictions of our culture. "If anything is historically true in the Bible, it is there not because it is historically true but for different reasons."
2. They are fictions because the goal of each verse is to either reflect something that was "prophesied" about Jesus in the Septuagint Greek version of the Old Testament (the most common reading material for 1st century Christians) or to further a theological position.
This is not to say the New Testament has NO historical content - just that the authors' sources were not eyewitnesses and that the sources were decades (sometimes over a century) old. Unlike the scientific historical research of today, oral tradition, written records (mainly Septuagint), and especially in the case of Paul, personal revelation, were considered definitive. The authors of the gospels were not concerned about accurate history, but they were dead serious about their theology, and they specialized in redefining the OT as a book about Jesus.
Mark's was the first popular gospel in wide circulation largely because of its heavy reliance on correlation with the Old Testament. The thing that gave Christian writings of the day credence was their successful connection of Jesus to Septuagint scripture. Numerous church members saw flaws in Mark's Biblical scholarship or theology and decided to improve upon it. Not having access to Wikipedia - Matthew, Luke, John, and others worked on their versions independently of one another, reflecting the theological preferences of their regional brand of Christianity.
Matthew was a much better OT scholar than Mark. He recognized that Mark had unknowingly used and misused sources from the OT that came 2nd or 3rd hand from elsewhere. Verse by verse, Helms dissects and analyses, showing how the gospels were piecemealed together from verses from the Septuagint, non-canonical books, and pagan mythology. He compares the English and the Greek, side by side from the revelant sources, and compares the four gospels, showing how each of the 3 other canonical authors independently tried to improve on and correct Mark's effort.
Zeroing in on the sensitive areas - nativity legends, miracles, the passion, and the resurrection - Helms shows how the irreconcilable differences amongst the gospels were inevitable. "The resurrection narratives in the last chapters of the four gospels are effective stories that have given solace and hope to millions of believers who have not read them carefully. Anyone who does read them carefully finds multiple reasons to change them. This is what happened when each gospel writer read an earlier narrative."
This is a superb book. May I caution you that it is too detailed to speed read, but once I was hooked on the detail, I couldn't put it down. "Gospel Fictions" is a gold mine for the serious student of the New Testament.
16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on December 15, 2006
This is more a response to Art Scholar than anything, because I feel he gives an unfair review based on his religious bias.
He quotes a lot of apologetic arguments, which are just as tenuous as the very gospels they claim to uphold.
For example, he shoots down the author for quoting "questionable" sources because they simply don't adhere to his position. This would be tantamont to an atheist shooting down a biblical scholar's sources because they are biased to the oposite position. You can't claim someone's work is invalid simply because it belongs to one camp or the other. That is attacking the person, not the argument, which is a logical falacy. It would be like saying the President is wrong because he used influence to stay in the guard. Whether that is true or not has no logical bearing on any arguments he may present.
In addition, Art Scholar makes the logical mistake of using gospel to prove gospel. A verse from Luke can not possible be used to prove that Luke is perfectly correct. That would be like me writing a book and writing a verse in it saying, "This is divinely inspired, so accept it". If that were the case, then EVERY writing about Jesus would have an equal chance of being "inspired" even apocraphal works that the church has deemed false.
He also launches into age old apologetic arguments which are weak and tenuous at best. For example, he quotes the old Ramsay line that "Luke is a historian of first rate". This argument is totally lame at best. I'm a computer scientist, but if I say C++ is the best language in the world, it does not make it so. Ramsay was commenting on the geographical accuracy of Luke's descriptions, which does not make his THEOLOGICAL asserts accurate. I could write a gospel of how Jesus visited southeastern kansas and describe every town and county and structure and it does not make it inspired.
I personally think Art simply had an axe to grind with this book because it grates against his own principles, which is fine, but to pull it off as a critical review is weak. If he said simply, it did not convince me, that would be one thing. But he uses as reasons age old apologetic arguments which, contrary to his claims, do not prove anything. They attempt to explain away inconsistencies in awful ways that sound like a child trying to get out of being punished for lying.
So, read this book, form your own opinion. Do not let anyone convince you away from what you believe one way or another unles you personally think they're right. If your faith is strong enough, it will stand. If your faith cannot stand, perhaps your faith was wrong to begin with.
I was a Christian for a long time, and encouraged to read the bible daily, which I did. The more I read it, the more i spotted the very same inconsistencies and inacuracies. Old Testament and New Testament are really night and day and do not meet and worse yet, contradict both themselves and each other. But if you read enough of them both, you'll form your own opinion.
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on July 25, 2003
I found this book outstanding for two simple reasons. One, it explains the origins of a great number of the myths we find in the gospels as being anti-types of Old Testament stories that conform quite convincingly to their previous models. And secondly, it is short and easy to read; it can be read in a few hours.
Helms doesn't just point out the sometimes obvious and sometimes not-so obvious contradictions among the gospels, but he explains where the myths most likely originated and WHY the details of the individual stories change from one gospel to another. I didn't agree with him on a few of his explanations, as I was not completely convinced; however, on the whole his arguments are extremely persuasive and very logical. I had become aware of the absurdity of the stories as well as the contradictions, but only wondered how they had come about. Now I know, thanks to this book. I now understand what Paul means when he says in 1 Corinthians that he is revealing the gospel "according to the scriptures".
The book covers the nativity legends, numerous miracle stories, the crucifixion stories, and the resurrection myths. Things I had not seen before became obvious to me thanks to its elegant explanation.
I rate this book up with Thomas Paine's Age of Reason. If you find a copy, by all means purchase it.