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The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio

Does the aesthetic splendor of the four Gospels, when considered like works of literature, emit the ineffable whiff of something genuine? Is there a patina of truth — truth endorsed by beauty — coating the Biblical account of the Nazarene? Cahill explained the concept; Einstein flirted with the idea; C.S. Lewis, through his buddy Tolkien, was converted by it; and Julian Barnes paid it some provocative thoughts. You can decide for yourself.

From the pen of Thomas Cahill, writing in his even-handed historical survey The Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus:

What especially makes the gospels — from a literary point of view — works like no others is that they are about a good human being. As every writer knows, such a creature is all but impossible to capture on the page, and there are exceedingly few figures in all literature who are both good and memorable. Yet the evangelists, who left no juvenilia behind them — no failed novels, rhythmless poems, or other early works by which we might judge their progress as writers — whose Greek was often odd or imprecise, and who were not practiced writers of any sort, these four succeeded where almost all others have failed. To a writer’s eyes, this feat is a miracle just short of raising the dead.

As retold in Walter Isaacson’s biography, Albert Einstein had grappled with the question, too:

Shortly after his fiftieth birthday, Einstein gave a remarkable interview in which he was more revealing than he had ever been about his religious thinking. It was with a pompous but ingratiating poet and propagandist named George Sylvester Viereck… For reasons not quite clear, Einstein assumed Viereck was Jewish…

Viereck began by asking Einstein whether he considered himself a German or a Jew. ‘It’s possible to be both,’ replied Einstein. ‘Nationalism is an infantile disease, the measles of mankind.’

Should Jews try to assimilate? ‘We Jews have been too eager to sacrifice our idiosyncrasies in order to conform.’

To what extent are you influenced by Christianity? ‘As a child I received instruction both in the Bible and in the Talmud. I am a Jew, but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene.’

You accept the historical existence of Jesus? ‘Unquestionably! No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life.’

In Alistair McGrath’s biography of C.S. Lewis, there is an account of how, ultimately, the great medievalist don was swayed after studying the Gospels according to J.R.R. Tolkien’s conception of them as “True Myths”.

To understand how Lewis passed from theism to Christianity, we need to reflect further on the ideas of J. R. R. Tolkien. For it was he, more than anyone else, who helped Lewis along in the final stage of what the medieval writer Bonaventure of Bagnoregio describes as the ‘journey of the mind to God.’…

Tolkien argued that Lewis ought to approach the New Testament with the same sense of imaginative openness and expectation that he brought to the reading of pagan myths in his professional studies. But, as Tolkien emphasized, there was a decisive difference. As Lewis expressed in his second letter to Greeves, ‘The story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.

The reader must appreciate that the word myth is not being used here in the loose sense of a ‘fairy tale’ or the pejorative sense of a ‘deliberate lie told in order to deceive.’… For Tolkien, a myth is a story that conveys ‘fundamental things’—in other words, that tries to tell us about the deeper structure of things. The best myths, he argues, are not deliberately constructed falsehoods, but are rather tales woven by people to capture the echoes of deeper truths. They are like splintered fragments of the true light…

In his somberly comic study of mortality, Nothing to Be Frighted Of, Julian Barnes imagines a moment in which some unnamed future generation could look back and evaluate the history of the now-disappeared Christian religion:

It lasted also because it was a beautiful story, because the characters, the plot, the various coups de théâtre, the over-arching struggle between Good and Evil, made up a great novel. The story of Jesus—high-minded mission, facing-down of the oppressor, persecution, betrayal, execution, resurrection—is the perfect example of that formula Hollywood famously and furiously seeks: a tragedy with a happy ending. Reading the Bible as ‘literature,’ as that puckish old schoolmaster was trying to point out to us, is not a patch on reading the Bible as truth, the truth endorsed by beauty.


The painting is Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (1602).

Explore on:

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  • Lewis, Wittgenstein, and Updike address whether we can assume the existence of God
  • Cahill contrasts the Greek and Christian worldviews