Shelf Rating: Top shelf

Did the Gospel writers deliberately alter or invent some of the events they report? Is such a practice acceptable, and can we still trust the Gospels if their authors modified history to support their theological agendas? If you are a New Testament scholar who has bought into the increasingly popular view that the Gospels follow Greco-Roman biographies in using “fictionalizing literary devices,” the answers to those questions are yes, yes, and yes. The rest of us, however, now have an excellent resource responding to these claims: Lydia McGrew’s newest book, The Mirror or the Mask.

Mcgrew’s background in analytic philosophy plays a large role in this book and shines throughout as she provides clear evidence the gospel writers didn’t use fictionalizing literary devices in the Gospels, and examines the implications such devices would have on Christian belief (particularly their relationship to inerrancy) if they were present. Her writing is clear and direct, and at the end of each chapter she has helpfully provided a summary of the chapter’s main ideas. Copious footnotes provide further discussion and references for readers who want to learn more.

The book is divided into four parts of several chapters each. In Part I McGrew demonstrates the extent of the problem by providing long quotations from prominent Christian scholars who espouse the fictionalizing view of the Gospels. The chapter “Bushel of Quotations” in particular helps build the case and background of the other parties that are creating this new and strange picture of the Gospels. She also carefully defines her terms so as to prevent confusion. If you are new to this issue, the first few chapters will be helpful in understanding recent trends in New Testament studies.  

Having laid the groundwork in Part I, in Part II McGrew critically evaluates the “Mask,” or the purported use of fictionalizing literary devices. She first challenges the prevalent belief (put forward by priest and Bible scholar Richard Burridge) that the Gospels belong to the Greco-Roman genre of bioi (biographies), thus undercutting the relevance of bioi writing conventions to the Gospels. However, even if the Gospels were bioi, McGrew argues, this would not automatically imply that the Gospel writers made use of fictionalizing literary devices. Furthermore, such fictionalizing devices may not even be as common in Greco-Roman biographies as has been supposed. On the contrary, through numerous quotes from Plato, Thucydides, and other ancient writers, McGrew shows that ancient writers held accuracy and truth in high esteem – contrary to the claims of Richard Burridge. She then turns to the question of whether it is even reasonable to believe that the Gospel writers were introduced to fictionalizing devices by Greek textbooks. She rounds out Part II by distinguishing fictionalizing devices from discrepancies and mere differences – three literary phenomena which ought not be conflated.

In Part III McGrew expounds her “reportage” model: that the Gospel writers intentionally report accurately on the events they describe, rather than masking the history and conforming it to their own theological purposes by using fictionalizing devices. McGrew emphasizes that the Gospel writers strove for accuracy, and she provides evidence that they succeeded. She revisits the Argument from Undesigned Coincidences (from her first book, Hidden in Plain View) which strongly supports the reportage model over and against the fictionalizing device model. Other hallmarks of accurate reporting – unexplained allusions, unnecessary details, reconcilable variation, and the consistency of personalities throughout the four Gospels – establish multiple lines of evidence for the reportage model. 

Regrettably, despite the robust case for accurate reporting, literary device theorists exhibit tunnel vision in their rush to explain differences in the Gospels using fictionalizing devices. This has resulted in them making a variety of erroneous and bizarre claims regarding some events – even the resurrection – reported in the Gospels. In Part IV McGrew targets some of the most prominent and problematic of these claims, showing how they result from hasty/poor reasoning, overreading, and a bias towards fictionalizing devices. On the other hand, the challenges or so called that cause difficulty for literary device theorists can easily be reconciled when one keeps in mind the general trustworthiness of the Gospels engendered by the reportage model. Part IV is devoted entirely to examples that show scholars overlooking a lot of simple explanations for that they believe are fictionalizations of the Gospels.

There are many avenues I could take to describe how informative and thorough this book is. With the first few chapters devoted entirely to setting up her arguments with baseline information, as well as ensuring her terms are understood, I was impressed right from the beginning at her dedication and thoroughness. She provided many quotes as well which I did find helpful in seeing the examples for myself. The writing itself was very clear and concise. The content in particular was well understood and you can see from the outside looking in that it is a great benefit to have a strong background in philosophy as she speaks out on this subject. She lacked nothing in her ability to provide the content on the historicity of the Gospels, but her argument itself in sound reasoning was the great weight that held it up. I particularly enjoyed the creative metaphor that framed the book’s outline with the mirror and the mask. As far as any negatives, as hard as I tried, I could not find any. I do highly recommend this reading as it is a very important subject. The Gospels are the very foundation to our faith. If they cannot be trusted, could anything at all we believe be trusted?

One thought on “The Mirror or the Mask: Liberating the Gospels from Literary Devices by Lydia Mcgrew

  1. I love the Gospels and have spent a large part of my life studying them. I am so happy with your well written review. Now I hope to look at the book because I honestly didn’t know anything about this new controversy.


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