ABC Religion and Ethics article
Did the early Christians believe their myths? Like most ancient—and modern—people, early Christians made efforts to present their myths in the most believable ways.
In this eye-opening work, M. David Litwa explores how and why what later became the four canonical gospels take on a historical cast that remains vitally important for many Christians today. Offering an in-depth comparison with other Greco-Roman stories that have been shaped to seem like history, Litwa shows how the evangelists responded to the pressures of Greco-Roman literary culture by using well-known historiographical tropes such as the mention of famous rulers and kings, geographical notices, the introduction of eyewitnesses, vivid presentation, alternative reports, and so on. In this way, the evangelists deliberately shaped myths about Jesus into historical discourse to maximize their believability for ancient audiences.
“In this book Litwa introduces the category of “mythic historiography” and shows that it is a compelling description of what the Gospels are. He rightly argues that these narratives make truth claims about individual events. At the same time, many of the events cannot be accepted in our culture generally as historical fact. The qualifier “mythic” grasps this cultural situation while indicating the deep existential importance of the Gospels that engages many readers.”—Adela Yarbro Collins, Yale Divinity School
“Litwa offers a philosophically sophisticated yet immanently accessible explanation of the relationship between history and myth in the early Christian gospels. He provides a creative contribution to the question of gospel genre, for which the central takeaway is that collapse of myth and history in the Four Gospels procures a protective benefit: should the interest in myth fade, the narrative’s history will carry these texts until, by whatever force, a mythic desire rekindles.”—Clare K. Rothschild, author of Paul in Athens
“In this remarkably clear and learned work, David Litwa shows himself once more to be one of the best scholars working today in the intertextual terrain that lies between Greco-Roman literature and the New Testament.” —William Hutton, College of William & Mary