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Gospel Fictions
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on 19 November 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,
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on 18 March 2009
Probably not, even if you knew he was "said to have worked miracles of goodness, casting out demons, healing the sick, raising the dead" and that he was thought to be a son of God. "Accused of sedition against Rome, he was arrested. After his death, his disciples claimed he had risen from the dead, appeared to them alive, and then ascended to heaven." Randel Helms begins this tremendous book with a startling demonstration of how these familiar biographical details belong not just to you-know-who. Even non-Christians tend to concede that there is a remarkable and unique historical figure at the centre of Christianity, Jesus of Nazareth, and few wonder why the teacher and wonder-worker Apollonius of Tyana did not inspire a world religion. This little-known parallel between Apollonius and Jesus is the aperitif before the tasting menu of typologies that follow.

The simplest view of the New Testament is that it is the oral tradition written down. Scholars argue over the details of the selection process and the scribal copying leading to our earliest surviving manuscripts. Believers may take an interest in such matters, but in the end can always beg the question by asserting that, because God was in charge, the end result is the Gospel truth. Helms reminds us of a more sophisticated view and the significance of that familiar phrase - "according to the Scripture" - which means that "typology, not history, is at work here." The early Christians did not "conduct the kind of historical research that might be done by a modern to find information about Jesus; they had a divinely certified source already in their possession - the Jewish Bible". In an important sense, they created the Old Testament as "a book about Jesus" and Helms shows that time and time again, when they wanted to know what Jesus must have said or done, they went back to Kings or to the Psalms or to Micah.

Consider, for example, the story of Jesus' agony in the garden of Gethsemane, "one of the most moving fictional creations in the New Testament." By now (if not before), many Christians will have tossed the book aside in disgust at the use of the "f" word. But even they must grant that this "account is obviously fictional, since there could have been no witnesses to Jesus' agony in the garden after he left his followers; they were all... asleep." Helms argues that "Jesus' emotional agony was part of the typological fiction" and traces the story back to "Elijah's fleeing from Ahab and Jezebel". Luke's version reveals "in its vocabulary a dependence on Septuagint III Kings and thus the origins of the story".

As for one of the most important events described in the canonical Gospels, not only do we not know when Jesus died - was it "the afternoon before Passover or the afternoon after"? - we cannot know what his dying words were. It is "not that we have too little information, but that we have too much." Helms cites three candidates from the four evangelists: "each narrative implicitly argues that the others are fictional." Luke, for example, "knew perfectly well what Mark had written as the dying words of Jesus" but "he created new ones more suitable to his understanding of what the death of Jesus meant".

At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus is said to have been baptized by John, but again the accounts vary in interesting ways. Mark simply presents Jesus as no different to any other repentant sinner seeking baptism. Matthew and Luke find this unsatisfactory and "set about rewriting and correcting" the first Gospel. By the time their Gospels were being composed, Mark's theology was already old-fashioned and even smacked of the adoptionist heresy. Developing theology drove the creative process. Matthew invents a dramatic scene not present in Mark: when Jesus "came to John to be baptized by him, John tried to dissuade him." Matthew also reads Mark "with a close critical eye" and drops the verse from Malachi that Mark wrongly attributes to Isaiah. Such editing was permitted since Mark "was not yet accepted as canonical Scripture and thus could be changed at need."

This excellent work deserves to be read by believers and non-believers alike. Common responses to its title - "Well, obviously!" and "Typical militant atheism!" - will unfortunately keep its appeal for either group limited. This is not about how we can all enjoy a well-turned phrase or an instructive parable even if we reject the supernatural claims of the Bible, and it's not dismissing the Bible as a pack of lies. By fiction Helms means "a narrative whose purpose is less to describe the past than to affect the present" and so, since literature can create meaning all the way from the frivolous to the profound, there is meaning in the Bible open to all. Where believers suffer for their faith is in mistakenly thinking that if their beliefs are not historically true then they can have no meaning.

Christians today - given the multiplicity of their sects - are well aware of the perils of interpretation and probably wish they could return to a pristine age before heterodoxy took hold. But there never was such an age, and the remarkable fact is that interpretation is at the core of their religion, not just one evangelist interpreting another but also interpreting scripture itself to write fiction. Call it revelation if you like, this is still the literary instinct at work. The difference between the postmortem careers of Jesus and Apollonius lies in the literary artists who wrote down the stories. Left as words in the air the stories about Jesus would have long since vanished from this earth. The crime of faith has always been to interpret such fiction as fact.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 10 January 2010
This 1988 publication - from the pioneering stable of Prometheus Books - provides a very good 'primer' for readers who are serious about understanding the Bible and its true origins.

Helms is never savage or disdainful toward the faithful and this book isn't an attack on religion per sè. His task is to seek out and explain the deepest origins of the four Gospels.

In doing so, of course, he ably demonstrates that there is nothing 'divinely inspired' about them or the 'truths' that they supposedly contain.

His analysis is entirely convincing. Indeed, the great Bart Ehrman's books over a decade after this one cover much the same ground and reach the same, inevitable conclusions.

The Bible is just 'another' book. It contains fables, history, politics, law and, above all, myriad contradictions and mistakes. Add to this the human emotions, hopes and fears and it becomes patently clear that it was written by men for men.

Read Helms and you'll begin to see and understand.

Great book!

Barry
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
This is a succinct, carefully researched work that hits home in every line. Entirely free from tedious, academically inspired waffle, it wastes no time in convincingly revealing the truth about how the four canonical gospels came to be written. This careful analysis clearly shows that there were deep divisions in Christianity right from its earliest beginnings. The multiplicity of divisions in modern Christianity are very much in keeping with its confused origins.

Randel Helms' brilliant interpretation is set before the reader in a kind hearted, non-judgemental fashion devoid of denigration. Interested only in revealing the truth, he sets it before the reader in a plethora of factual analysis. He sees the four gospels in the clear light of honest research, not least into their historical background. On pp 80 and 81 he makes the connection between earlier Buddhist stories and some of Jesus' teaching. Asoka, the great Buddhist Emperor of India during the Third Century BCE, sent Buddhist emmissaries to Athens, Damascus and Alexandria. Many of the stories about Jesus such as walking on water, calming the storm and feeding a multidude had all been told about the Buddha who lived nearly 600 years before the time of Jesus. Although Buddhist teaching has never required anyone to believe such tales, Christianity has always made a big thing of miracles, which Randel Helms clearly shows to have been mere fictions. Parables such as that of the Prodigal Son were circulating in India hundreds of years before the time of Jesus and were subsequently developed and used by Siddharta Gotama, known as Shakyamuni Buddha, who also composed his own original parables.

Randel Helms' expertise in expoisng the spurious relationship between fictitious Old Testament miracles and those alledgedly performed by Jesus is particulary convincing. Those of us who have been distressed by Jesus' apparent cruelty to animals when he cast demons into innocent pigs causing them to drown to death in the Sea of Galilee need be distressed no more. It's just another cock and bull, or should that be 'pig and water', story? He certainly wouldn't get away with it today. The RSPCA would be after him with a heavy fine or even a prison sentence as a result. Thank you Randel Helms for writing such a readable book with happy and liberating truths packed into every line of it.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
HALL OF FAMEon 23 February 2005
As part of a new wave of biblical commentary, Helms provides readers with an overview of the Christian gospels' origins and production. The opening chapter sets the tone by referring to the gospels as "theology as fictional narrative". Fiction, of course, is a departure from "journalism" or "history" as has been taught for almost two millennia. Designed as an introduction to the topic, "Gospel Fictions" isn't an academic study, although it's built from a solid text analysis and historical base. Hopefully, it's not a bad joke to refer to this book as "synoptic".
Opening with a reminder that "divine origins and powers" for certain individuals were common myths in the Near East of two millennia ago, Helms notes that many of the gospel texts were based on widespread oral traditions. Incorporated into written accounts, sometimes bodily, legends were given greater substance by appearing in written form. Add some further authenticity by seeming to record actual dialogue, and a "gospel" is thus given an easy birth. While Helms offers the usual disclaimer that he intends no "quarrel with Christian faith", it's clear that by the time he's finished, divine "origins" or "inspiration" for these writings will have no basis.
Helms asserts that understanding these books must begin with the order of the writings. Mark, not Matthew, should be the first in the stack. Both Matthew and Luke [and possibly John] directly derived their stories from his. Helms notes how many "standard phrases" in the Roman world were adopted into Gospel writings, later to be mistakenly viewed as from divine origins. Mark, Helms notes, "did not have to work in an intellectual or literary vacuum". Greek philosophy, Roman poetry, Jewish tales and, of course, legends from Egypt, Persia and Assyria all provided material for someone constructing a narrative.
Instead of a strict stanza by stanza analysis of Mark and his followers, Helms uses a topical approach. After explaining "How to Begin a Gospel", he then analyses the Nativity Legends, the miracle fictions and the use of a heroic death and resurrection to enhance the protagonist. Mark, who left the "rising from the dead" issue hanging, is improved by his two followers who fleshed out the story with more detail - yet another two generations after the fact. It made thrilling reading, of course, when the final product was launched. One assumes that the original Markan text was discussed over dinners, debated in congregations and disputed by scholars. How many notes, commentaries and proposed changes were disposed of before "the bible" was put together two centuries later will likely remain unknown.
One thing remains clear, the "gospels" can only be fictional accounts given the distance in time from the events. These fictions are clearly derived from many sources and skillfully assembled into readable narratives by their putative authors. Taught as dogma, the stories have had immense impact on Western society. Reading Helms may be a start in the process of dismantling the thrall our culture is held in by how these stories are imparted. Try him and see if you don't agree. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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on 10 June 2014
The thesis of the book is an exploration of the sources used by the Gospel writers for the four Gospels, with explanation as to how and why these sources were used. It makes for a fascinating read and may change forever the way you think about Christianity and religion in general. For devout Christians, I predict this book will only enhance their belief in Christ rather than chip away at it. Why so? Because Abrahamic religions use circular reasoning to prove that their dogma is inerrant.
The author basically posits that the early christians accepted the old testament as simply an oracle for the coming of Christ, prolifically using verse scattered in the old testament (primarily Daniel and Kings) to detail his birth, life, passion, death and resurrection. Each phase of his life is plucked out of the OT and fleshed out to make the story of Christ's life flow from one OT prophesy to next.
You will also learn that the Gospel of Mark was written before the other Gospels (though after Acts) and was seen by Matthew and Luke as a first stab that needed correcting. Marks Gospel was not profound enough and lacked understanding of where the theology had to go in order for it to be more effective especially when evangelizing to non-Christians.
It is very interesting trying to figure out who knew, what when and why. It is a great who dunnit mystery that the author tries to untangle.
It is a small book but there is a lot of information to take in so I will have to read it again.
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on 9 July 2012
Randel Helms is a professor of English par excellence. Read this and you will be able to laugh to yourself when you hear Christian English teachers waffling away about the gospel as if there were never any other interpretation than 100% literal, eye witnessed truth. Helms gives reasons to think that many parts of the gospel stories are rewritings / parallels of the Old Testament stories. The writers of the gospels thought that the O.T. contained prophetic messages about a saviour who would come in the future so they raked through the texts looking for anything that might tell them what Jesus might have been like or what sort of things he probably would have done. They didn't consider their writings to be deceitful or false but rather they thought they were finding great truths about the Christ from the Old Testament texts.
Randel Helms doesn't mock Christanity, just presents a different possibility.
I think higher criticism of the Bible makes it more interesting. Maybe Christianity is more about supporting each other in aiming to live a decent, caring, ethical, successful life and warning about the pitfalls of poor decisions. Maybe Christianity would be more popular if it freely admitted to a fallible Bible, though I suppose it has other more nuanced ways of disarming and forgetting troublesome bits of it.
For other great scholars on the same vine try Robert M. Price
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on 26 June 2013
This is definitely worth reading if you're at all interested in what we can know of the history behind the gospels. It covers a lot of ground and is an easy and fairly quick read. My only criticism is that the author is more than a little too sure of himself; he writes as if he knows for sure what really happened and as if no other interpretations are plausible or even exist. I'd recommend Robert M Price's "The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man" for a somewhat more thoughtful treatment from a similar perspective.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 3 May 2010
This book certainly makes an interesting read. It provides an alternative to the orthodox view of how the Gospels were written. I don't find some of the arguments particularly compelling but at least they seem plausible. It's quite a short book and well worth the read.
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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 8 December 2013
This book shows how over centuries Christianity formed their bible. Very analytical and informative. It shows how they picked verses from old testament scriptures and turned them into prophesies to agree with the new testament.
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