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Gospel Fictions

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Are the four canonical Gospels actual historical accounts or are they imaginative literature produced by influential literary artists to serve a theological vision? In this study of the Gospels based upon a demonstrable literary theory, Randel Helms presents the work of the four evangelists as the "supreme fictions" of our culture, self-conscious works of art deliberately composed as the culmination of a long literary and oral tradition.

Helms analyzes the best-known and the most powerful of these the stories of Christ's birth, his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, his betrayal by Judas, his crucifixion, death and resurrection. In Helms' exegesis of the Gospel miracle stories, he traces the greatest of these - the resurrection of Lazarus four days after his death - to the Egyptian myth of the resurrection of Osiris by the god Horus.

Helms maintains that the Gospels are self-reflexive; they are not about Jesus so much as they are about the writers' attitudes concerning Jesus. Helms examines each of the narratives - the language, the sources, the similarities and differences - and shows that their purpose was not so much to describe the past as to affect the present.

This scholarly yet readable work demonstrates how the Gospels surpassed the expectations of their authors, influencing countless generations by creating a life-enhancing understanding of the nature of Jesus of Nazareth.

154 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 1988

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About the author

Randel Helms

3 books2 followers
Randel McCraw Helms (born November 16, 1942 in Montgomery, Alabama) is an American professor of English literature, a writer on J. R. R. Tolkien and critical writer on the Bible.

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Displaying 1 - 18 of 18 reviews
Profile Image for John.
325 reviews8 followers
May 1, 2014
Gospel Fictions is a very informative book in which author Randel Helms takes us expeditiously through the gospels, educating his readers to the Jewish origins of the New Testament. It is always amazing to me how many individuals who claim the scriptures are the ‘inspired word of God,’ haven’t read them. And the few that have, usually have no clue as to their origins. Bart Ehrman and Bishop John Shelby Spong have written many excellent, lay-accessible works on the history and origins of the New Testament, and Spong is excellent in drilling home the point that the New Testament is essentially and absolutely a Jewish work which cannot possibly understood when read literally through Western eyes. Helms presents much of the same scholarly material in a very condensed little 150-page, fast-paced work. The only unfortunate thing about this book is the title which assures that those who need to read it won’t. The reader learns many of the essentials of New Testament history: the first books were written by Paul 20 to 40 years after Jesus left the earth. Next come Mark, about 70 CE, the shortest by far of the Gospels. Some years later Matthew and Luke incorporated virtually all of Mark into their works, editing and adding to Mark to fit their theological mandates and correcting what they saw as egregious errors by the writer of Mark. Just at the end of the first century, the book of John is written by one or more authors. While John incorporates many of the legends of the synoptic gospels, the book of John is highly theologically evolved and comprehensive, reflecting the evolved theological complexity of the early Church at the turn of the second century and proclaiming the dogma eventually accepted by the Church as orthodox (many others gospels failing to reflect this orthodoxy failed to make incorporation into the cannon).

Helms informs the reader of many of the basic facts of New Testament history which are taught in all seminaries and almost never mentioned from the pulpit. No one knows who wrote the Gospels, the book names were assigned rather arbitrarily decades and centuries later. The Gospel authors had never met Jesus (hardly possible since they were writing 40 to 70 years after Jesus departed the earth). The gospel writers possessed little or no written historical record of the life and deeds and teachings of Jesus and composed the gospels from verbal stories evolved over the early years of the church. Helms deftly shows us how each writer elucidates and conceives dramatic details of his story by going to the Greek Septuagint for inspiration. Helms marches the reader along a fast-paced exposition through the gospels in a scholarly yet no-nonsense, Joe Friday ‘nothing-but-the-facts-Ma’am’ trek. Most importantly, Helms states what is obvious to Bible scholars: the writers of the Gospels never intended to be writing accurate history, they were delivering story and legend to support a theological message.

I recommend this book for all who wish to learn more about the sources, origins and history of the New Testament. Again, Ehrman and Spong are also excellent and more detailed resources for those who wish to know the how and why the New Testament was delivered down through the past twenty centuries.
Profile Image for Jason.
35 reviews6 followers
November 19, 2017
This is a phenomenal little book that delves into the history and creation of the canonical gospels, and how competing sects of early Christianity each exerted their influence into the stories they wanted to tell from their own different, and sometimes opposing, theological perspectives. While a relatively older, shorter read, Prof. Randel Helms packs a lot of info within the 150 pages, expounding on the then popular pesher technique of reinterpreting Old Testament scriptures which the gospel authors used to create new "mash-up" fictional stories for a new theology, and detailing the methods which the various multiple authors (not just four) of the canonical gospels changed and compiled the texts accordingly. It is interesting to see how the authors of those texts awkwardly used pesher reading on the LXX texts rather than the Hebrew (given that they probably couldn't read Hebrew), producing contradictions and sometimes embarrassing results, but Randel meticulously lays out how the exact language was lifted from the Greek OT text (LXX) for the new text creation (the NT gospels). Filled with numerous examples supporting his thesis, and solid scholarship backing him up, Randel's book is an excellent read that anyone interested in gospel studies should add to their list. In a world where most people don't even realize the gospels weren't written by anyone named Matthew, Mark, Luke or John and weren't even written until nearly two generations after the alleged events occurred, Randel Helm's older book is more needed than ever. This delightful and insightful read would be an excellent compliment to Bart Erhman's, "Misquoting Jesus" and "Forged," as well as Dr. Richard Carrier's, "Not the Impossible Faith" and Dennis MacDonald's, "Does the New Testament Imitate Homer." Of course, Randel's other book on the topic, "Who Wrote the Gospels?" is an undeniably perfect pairing with "Gospel Fictions." I cannot say enough good about this book, but many others have written beautifully crafted, detailed reviews and I'll defer to those for a more in depth review. Suffice it to say, my highlighter got a workout as I read through the book.
93 reviews7 followers
August 3, 2016
Explains the similarities between all the gospels and the original Jewish old testament. Makes a strong case that a lot of them were written with the Old Testament open beside them, as they copied the stories.
Profile Image for Vince.
25 reviews8 followers
September 19, 2012
I've had this short book recommended a couple times so I decided to finally give it a read.

Helms examines the New Testament gospels from the point of view of a literary critic. His primary thesis is that before writing the New Testament the early Christians wrote another new book called the Old Testament which consisted of reinterpreting the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible as actually being a book about (or foreshadowing in "hidden" ways) Jesus. They then used this new understanding of the Hebrew Bible to either invent stories or fill in the details of stories in the New Testament. I already knew many New Testament stories were modeled on the Old Testament but it was surprising the extent to which this was so, often times even including the use of the exact same wording in both stories.

For example both Kings and Luke contain a story of the raising of a widow's son. The stories take place in Sarepta and Nain, respectively. Both begin with the phrase "and it came to pass" and end with the prophet "giving him (the son) back to his mother". Both prophets are proclaimed by one of the crowd to be validated by the miracle as a prophet of God. But, the most interesting detail they share is that the prophet is met at the gates of the city by the weeping widow. The only problem is that archaeological digs have shown that Nain, in the Luke story, didn't have any city walls, so there would not have been a gate! So whether Luke just invented this story as something a messiah would have to have done, or he had the bare bones of an oral tradition, when it came time to write it down he just opened the Old Testament and lifted the details from there.
Profile Image for Andrew.
61 reviews
March 20, 2013
Not directed at laymen, but entirely readable; Gospel Fictions is a critical look at the various writing styles, elements, and sources used in the 1st four books of the Bible. Helms states and proves that the Gospels are fiction, or myths, that have little to no historical accuracy. He's not here to debate their substance or value. The writers were human and the books reflect some very human traits.

Anyone familiar with the colorful world of comic book continuity will recognize that the Bible can create narrative knots as well as any Marvel or DC comic. It's humorous to know that each successive book in Gospel was written in order to replace the previous book.

A few terms that might put you out of your depth - paschal, synoptic, apologetic, and septuagint - are used quite often and sometimes never defined.
Profile Image for Greg.
120 reviews3 followers
February 21, 2014
Fascinating overview of the creation of much of the narratives in the New Testament gospels. Though it is a fairly short book, and only analyses a select few passages, Helms shows, how starting with Mark, these were invented based on Old Testament tales or prophecies and then expanded or altered by Mathew and Luke depending on how the Markian tale fit their theology.
Profile Image for Steve.
42 reviews1 follower
September 17, 2007
Awesome work that examines the synoptic Gospels comparatively with the original Greek of the prophetic passages in the Hebrew Scriptures, and analyzes the modern established historical context in relation to the claims made by the authors.
Profile Image for Tony.
7 reviews1 follower
August 27, 2015
Gets stale but still has great points to the complete fabrication of the New Testaments gospels.
Profile Image for Arianne X.
Author 1 book12 followers
December 21, 2022
Staggering Sweep but Stops Short

As stated by Randel Helms, p. 11, this book is an exercise in literary criticism, not a refutation of Christianity. However, this seems to beg an important question; if the documents essential to Christian theology and belief have been shown to be fictional, is not Christianity effectively refuted? Refuted at least as a historical narrative or as a guide to the world of human experience? As the author tells us, in the absence of any real evidence, the Gospels are carefully constructed literary fictions based on a beliefs in what must have been the case.

For Randel Helms, the Gospels are self-reflective in that they are about the time and circumstances in which they were written, not about the time and circumstances in which Jesus lived. The Gospel writers were not naïve, they were exercising fictive imagination. They understood full well that they were creating a fictional literary construct to aid in belief rather than writing a historical narrative. They were intentionally creating an intellectual framework to support a particular world view. The natural evolution from the ideas, practices, theology and philosophy present in the Gospel writing era explains the Gospels and thus much of the theology and beliefs of Christianity. Randel Helms shows how the Gospel narratives are a blending of faulty memories, earlier oral traditions (subject to hyperbolic memory) the Old Testament (now read as a prophecy about Jesus), the Psalms, and pagan culture practices. The Gospels are the Christian retelling of Old Testament stories mediated through the motifs of the Hellenistic world reaching as far back as ancient Egypt with themes taken from ancient religions as far back as 4500 BC. Many unrelated stories are conflated to become the Gospel narratives.

My only criticism of the book is that Randel Helms stops short of the obvious next step. Perhaps at the time of the writing, 1988, it was too outside of the academic mainstream consensus to suggest that Jesus was fictional along with the fictional Gospel literature. But with so much fiction afoot, is it not at least plausible that the person at the center of the fictional narratives was also fictional? That is, at the bottom of an extensive fictional literature is a larger-than-life fictional person. In this case, we can think of Jesus himself as just the Jewish version of a mythical dying and rising personal savior god like so many others in the ancient near east. The fact is that the oral tradition is unstable and leads to accretion, embellishment and thus to a mythical being. From the accretion of so much fictional literature there is ample reason to the think that the figure at the heart of all the fictional literature is also well, fictional. The purpose of Gospels under this theory (Mysticism) is to retroactively place the mythical Jesus into recorded history, not amplify and embellish the existence of the historical Jesus. With so much admitted fiction in the Gospels, how is it possible to separate the facts from the fiction to establish the historical Jesus as the basis for the fiction?

Under the historicist position, the one here assumed by Randel Helms, the fictionally enhanced literature of the Gospels was created to provide an existence-confirming, life-affirming, belief-enhancing account of a real person (not a divine miracle worker or savior), Jesus. That is, the existence of such an extensive apocryphal literature actually suggests the historical existence of the non-fiction person who provided the motivation for, and was the subject of, the fictional literature. This begins with an unbroken chain of an oral tradition beginning c. AD 30 leading to Paul’s letters c. AD 50 and on to the first recorded Gospel by Mark c. AD 70. The purpose of the Gospels is to retroactively amplify and embellish the existence of the historical Jesus. We have a real Jesus and a fictional Christ.

Under either theory, the Gospels are still nothing more than fictive literature for faith groups. If Jesus did not do all the miracles, then he would not be recorded in history. We can of course dismiss the miracles so either the miracles are invented to embellish the real but mundane Jesus to justify the new world view of Christianity, or a historical Jesus is invented to ground the needed metaphysics of miracles, belief and saving grace to support a new world view. The miracles and metaphysics are needed to ground the religion and the religion was a source of a new world view.

Jesus contra Troy

We have the historical example of the Homeric tradition. In this account, an extensive fictional literature is employed using accretion and embellishment with the subject of the fictional account assumed to be fictional, the city of Troy, only to later have its existence confirmed. In the case of Jesus, do we have a parallel of the Homeric tradition or do we have the contra case where that the subject of the fictional literature, Jesus, was always assumed to be historical and later found to be fictional?
Profile Image for Craine.
67 reviews2 followers
December 20, 2022
In my opinion a classic in terms of dispelling the common myths associated with the gospels and in a broader perspective the mythical accounts of Jesus. When reading the gospels or the bible in general there is often a feeling of narrative summation of events unfolding which may at first glance look historical. However, on closer inspection one realizes that there are in fact differing accounts by different disciples of Jesus's life such as his tomb disappearance or the apprehension of Jesus himself by the temple priests. Helms reiterates what he says is the historical consensus which is that the gospel of Mark is the first gospel to have been written in the new testament. One can from this vantage point see how some of the later disciple accounts of the same events try to "improve" upon the story in some way.

As an interesting example Helms points to the apprehension of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane where it is narrated that Peter cuts off the ear of a man connected to the arrest. If we look at the earlier account from the gospel of Mark Jesus is said to have made a remark along the lines of questioning why it was necessary to seek him out as they were perfectly aware of his daily routines and whereabouts. A later account tries to remedy the somewhat dismissive attitude taken by Jesus in the former account and strongly alluding to the fact that since Jesus is without sin he cannot act in such a sinful manner. The story is therefore altered to make room for a healing miracle of the ear by Jesus in the gospel of Luke, which incidentally is the only one of the four gospels where a healing occurs.

This is merely one of many questionable differing accounts of stories that are made in the gospels in the new testament lending credence to the fact that the gospels as the author puts it are " works of art, the supreme fictions in our culture, narratives produced by enormously influential literary artists who put their art in the service of a theological vision". The daunting task of figuring out what exactly transpired in the timeline cannot therefore be done using the gospels as reliable historical accounts. I agree with the sentiments of the author when he states in relation to the supposedly last words of Jesus dying on the cross where two different accounts are given to as exactly what these last words were that its not as often that we have too little information to make valid inferences, its that we have too much.

There is also the broader narrative of messiah figures not being uncommon in era of Christ which is of course hilariously parodied to great effect in the wonderful film "life of Brian". The author mentions in the introduction as an example for instance that of a somewhat later contemporary figure of Apollonius of whom it is said had followers claiming him to be "the son of God, though he called himself the son of man". One can also mention here earlier accounts such as Dionysis or Osiris.

Hopefully the book will reach a wider audience where it is especially beneficial with those holding christian faith to read the book and not dismiss the book on virtue of its polarizing book title. As the old adage goes: don't judge a book by its cover!

Note: I don't like the star rating and as such I only rate books based upon one star or five stars corresponding to the in my opinion preferable rating system of thumbs up/down. This later rating system increases in my humble opinion the degree to which the reader is likely to engage with a review instead of merely glancing at the number of stars of a given book.)
Profile Image for Eric Wojciechowski.
Author 3 books20 followers
May 24, 2017
What the Christians did, was take the Old Testament and changed it from being a book on Jewish law and history, turned it into a predictive text for Jesus the Messiah. Time and again, quotes and scenes from the Gospels are found to have their counterparts in the older books which the early Christian cult combed to show Jesus was foretold all along. What did Paul say in his letters? He didn't get anything about Jesus from any man but from the Lord himself (Revelations) and by the scriptures.

That is the general conclusion of author, Randel Helms. This is not revolutionary. Scholars have known for a long time the New Testament is a re-write of earlier stories found in Exodus, Kings, Daniel, etc. The art of mimesis was very normal and expected in literature of those days. The only thing Helms doesn't touch on is the mimicking of Homer which author and scholar, Dennis MacDonald, so elegantly showed in his work. Granted, “Gospel Fictions” predates MacDonald's work by a few years. None-the-less, the take away is that the gospels (and Acts) are not histories. They are fictive works, meant to show an allegory not record historical facts.

“Gospel Fictions” is highly recommended for two reasons. One, to demonstrate where the stories come from and why each was used and two, to show that the authors of the New Testament weren't just some literate goat herders but rather well versed in the literature of their time. The New Testament, as a work of literature, is rather impressive for its time and Helms does an excellent job showing how it came together.

For me, another thing became very clear yet again. In order to really analyze the New Testament, one must have an understanding of Koine Greek. Sometimes it comes down to a few words to understand a meaning and reference. It's that important if you want to get into this field.
Profile Image for Devin.
177 reviews19 followers
June 5, 2019
A useful overview of the gospel's using the old testament and other ancient texts - as well as each other - as sources.

Helms does not believe the stores of the Gospels are true. He makes that implicitly clear right at the beginning.

However, his method acknowledges the rhetorical and theological goals of each of the gospel writers and demonstrates many subtle shifts to accomplish those goals. Whether or not all of those shifts are strictly "fiction" is still up for debate - at least in the circles I run with.
Profile Image for Marc.
108 reviews
December 14, 2019
If you ever wanted to know where the authors of the New Testament gospels got the inspiration for their nativity, miracle, passion and resurrection stories from, with references to the originals, or why they chose to alter the existing versions of these stories, this is a good book to read.
Profile Image for Sam.
3 reviews
June 15, 2021
Very compelling.

An interesting and compelling case for the fictitious nature of the gospels. Very easy to read and yet still challenging.
Profile Image for Lee Harmon.
Author 5 books106 followers
December 6, 2011
Helms begins his book by claiming that he writes as a literary critic of the four Gospels, not as a debunker … then he proceeds with a thorough debunking.

This is a good mix of original ideas and established scholarship. Helms’ message is clear: that the Gospels are artful, fictional variations of a common theme, individualized by each author’s motives. He treats separately the birth narratives, miracles, passion story, and resurrection appearances, showing how each is often related to the Old Testament in order to lend artificial authority, or derived from pagan myths or contemporary miracle claims.

I found the book thought-provoking, though a little disturbing in tone. It’s short, not meant to be an in-depth study. Recommended as a starting point for research in the development of the Gospels.
Profile Image for Sarah.
1,172 reviews26 followers
October 29, 2011
This interesting book reveals why the gospels were written the way they were. It explains the reasons the authors of the New Testament conflicted with each other, maintaining that each author (or group of authors) represented a different branch of Christianity at a different time, and therefore each author changed and invented narratives to promote their particular sect's beliefs. Really interesting book about how we got the bible. My only complaint was that there was a lot of repetition, which made the book difficult to get through. The author made his point, and then the rest of the book was evidence for it, and the evidence all ran together after a while. Good information though.
Profile Image for Michael.
398 reviews
November 14, 2011
A very good text for understanding the narrative structures of the Gospels. The author basically pitches the idea that the books are not historically accurate in some modern sense. Instead, he treats them as narratives imbued with meaning through their radical rereading of the old testament, the mythology of the classical world, and an historical approach that has more in come with Herodotus, Thucydides and Ovid than they do with anything offering an historical record. An important book for someone interested in understanding early christianity.
15 reviews
July 2, 2023

This author has found corresponding events in the OT to events in the NT and the wording is IDENTICAL. Hypothetically, a Gospel writer could find an event in the OT and just change the names and places. I was really shocked when I read this book.
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