Synthetic cells spark intriguing questions about the nature of life. Projects such as BaSyC (Building a Synthetic Cell) aim to build an entity that mimics how living cells work. But what kind of entity would a synthetic cell really be? I assess this question from a philosophical perspective, and show how early fictional narratives of artificial life - such as the laboratory scene in Goethe's Faust - can help us to understand the challenges faced by synthetic biology researchers.