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).
‘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.