What are the Gospels?

The Revd Professor Richard Burridge is Dean of King’s College London and Professor of Biblical Interpretation, and a leading expert on the gospels. He has written the standard academic work on the gospels entitled: What Are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography (2004, Cambridge University Press).

He says:

‘Some modern studies assume that if there is ‘fiction’ in the gospels, then they are inauthentic or unreliable. However, closer attention to literary criticism shows that no one wrote a classical biography to provide a documented historical text as we might capture something with a tape recorder, but rather in an attempt to get ‘inside’ the person.

Thus, John’s stress on ‘truth’ is not about documented fact but the higher truth of who Jesus is, which is why he writes in a biographical format. For him, Jesus is ’the way, the truth and the life’, so his Jesus says these words (John 14.16). To ask whether Jesus actually ever spoke these words is to miss the point completely. This is neither a lie nor a fiction; it is simply a way of bringing out the truth about the subject which the author wishes to tell the audience.’

pp 67-68 in Jesus Now and Then published by SPCK 2004.

I disagree with Dr Burridge when he says: ‘To ask whether Jesus actually ever spoke these words is to miss the point completely’. I believe that if we wish to do responsible Jesus research then this is precisely the kind of question we must ask. For Muslims the challenge is a familiar one: in our use of hadith the first question to be asked is, is it authentic? Have these purported words of Muhammad been reliably transmitted through known chains of narration? Not all hadith will pass the test. Likewise we must test the authenticity of words attributed to Jesus.

We will note that the Christians’ own eminent experts on the four gospels have reached unsettling conclusions about their historicity.


Categories: Bible, Gospels, Hadith, Jesus, New Testament scholarship

3 replies

  1. You’re 100% correct Paul. For as long as certain Christians do not check on authenticity of their own gospels then they have absolutely no right to challenge Muslim scholars or anyone else for debates. The statement by Revd Professor is like me saying as an example quote “to ask whether the Earth is flat is missing the point completely, my friend Sebastian the flat earther is the author who wishes to tell the truth to the audience and therefore Sebastian is the way the truth etc” (apologies to any Sebastiens out there)…
    In contrast, at the least, in Islam, they have a whole science dedicated to chain of narrations and how to thoroughly check for authenticity to the extent you can question and then research individuals and events and language of narrations and come to conclusions after gathering evidence after evidence followed by the final step on whether you want to believe it or not. We are very lucky to have had such great scholars from the beginning to now, had there been such cautious and dedicated scholars during the time of Christ (alaihissalam) and onwards, then Christians todays would be as lucky as Muslims on these issues.
    It is never too late for them to join us so we can become one.

    • May I add if the isnad of Hadith cannot be challenged by Christians (who do not have such a system in place of their own), it will be useless for Christians to try challenge the 100% reliability of the Quran and those who believe it. Which is why the New Testament is all over the place mixing some truth with a lot of uncertainty.
      Such is the privilege Muslims have to have had companions at the time ready and strict for the preservation of our holy book and the teachings from day 1.


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