Why the Gospels are Historical Fiction
by Neil Godfrey
|A recent book by Jacob Licht, Storytelling in the Bible
(Jerusalem, 1978), proposes that the “historical aspect” and the
“storytelling” aspect of biblical narrative be thought of as entirely
discrete functions that can be neatly peeled apart for inspection —
apparently, like the different colored strands of electrical wiring.
This facile separation of the inseparable suggests how little some Bible scholars have thought about the role of literary art in biblical literature. (Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, p. 32)
.By “historical fiction” I mean a fictitious tale, whether it is a theological parable or not, set in a real historical time and place. Authors of “historical fiction” must necessarily include real historical places and real historical persons and events in their narrative or it will be nothing more than “fiction”. Ancient authors are known to have written “historical fiction” as broadly defined as this. We have the Alexander Romance by Heliodorus that is a largely fictitious dramatization of the person and exploits of Alexander the Great. Of more interest for our purposes here is Chariton’s tale of Chaereas and Callirhoe. These are entirely fictitious persons whose adventures take place in world of historical characters who make their own appearances in the novel: the Persian emperor, Artaxerxes II; his wife and Persian queen, Statira; the Syracusan statesman and general of the 410s, Hermocrates. There are allusions to other possible historical persons. Sure there are several anachronisms that found their way into Chariton’s novel. (And there are several historical anachronisms in the Gospels, too.) Chariton even imitated some of the style of the classical historians Herodotus and Thucydides.
In this way Chariton imitates the classical historians in technique, not for the purpose of masquerading as a professional historian, but rather, as Hagg (1987, 197) suggests, to create the “effect of openly mixing fictitious characters and events with historical ones.” (Edmund Cueva, The Myths of Fiction, p. 16)A word to some critics: This post does not argue that Jesus did not exist or that the there is no historical basis to any of the events they portray. It spoils a post to have to say that, since it ought to be obvious that demonstrating a fictitious nature of a narrative does not at the same time demonstrate that there were no analogous historical events from which that narrative was ultimately derived. What the post does do, however, is suggest that those who do believe in a certain historicity of events found in the gospels should remove the gospels themselves as evidence for their hypothesis. But that is all by the by and a discussion for another time. Surely there is value in seeking to understand the nature of one of our culture’s foundational texts for its own sake, and to help understand the nature of the origins of culture’s faiths.
This post is inspired by Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative. Alter believes that the reason literary studies of the Bible were relatively neglected for so long is because of the cultural status of the Bible as a “holy book”, the source of divine revelation, of our faith. It seems gratuitously intrusive or simply quite irrelevant to examine the literary structure of a sacred book. So the main interest of those who study it has been theology. I would add that, given the Judaic and Christian religions of the Bible claim to be grounded in historical events, the relation of the Bible’s narratives to history has also been of major interest.
But surely the first rule of any historical study is to understand the nature of the source documents at hand. That means, surely, that the first thing we need to do with a literary source is to analyse it see what sort of literary composition it is. And as with any human creation, we know that the way something appears on the surface has the potential to conceal what lies beneath.
Only after we have established the nature of our literary source are we in a position to know what sorts of questions we can reasonably apply to it. Historians interested in historical events cannot turn to Heliodorus to learn more biographical data about Alexander the Great, nor can they turn to Chariton to fill in gaps in their knowledge about Artaxerxes II and Statira, because literary analysis confirms that these are works of (historical) fiction.
Some will ask, “Is it not possible that even a work of clever literary artifice was inspired by oral or other reports of genuine historical events, and that the author has happily found a way to narrate genuine history with literary artistry?”
The answer to that is, logically, Yes. It is possible. But then we need to recall our childhood days when we would so deeply wish a bed-time fairy story, or simply a good children’s novel, to have been true. When we were children we thought as children but now we put away childish things. If we do have at hand, as a result of our literary analysis, an obvious and immediate explanation for every action, for every speech, and for the artistry of the way these are woven into the narrative, do we still want more? Do we want to believe in something beyond the immediate reality of the literary artistry we see before our eyes? Is Occam’s razor not enough?
If we want history, we need to look for the evidence of history in a narrative that is clearly, again as a result of our analysis, capable of yielding historical information. Literary analysis helps us to discern the difference between historical fiction and history that sometimes contains fictional elements. Or maybe we would expect divine history to be told with the literary artifice that otherwise serves the goals and nature of fiction, even ancient fiction.
The beginning of the (hi)story
Take the beginning of The Gospel According to St. Mark. Despite the title there is nothing in the text itself to tell us who the author was. This is most unlike most ancient works of history. Usually the historian is keen to introduce himself from the start in order to establish his credibility with his readers. He wants readers to know who he is and why they should believe his ensuing narrative. The ancient historian normally explains from the outset how he comes to know his stuff. What are his sources, even if in a generalized way. The whole point is to give readers a reason to read his work and take it as an authoritative contribution to the topic.
The Gospel of Mark does indeed begin by giving readers a reason to believe in the historicity of what follows, but it is has more in common with an ancient poet’s prayer to the Muses calling for inspiration and divinely revealed knowledge of the past than it does with the ancient historian’s reasons.
As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger . . . .That’s the reason the reader knows what follows is true. It was foretold in the prophets. What need we of further witnesses?
Yes, some ancient historians did from time to time refer to a belief among some peoples in an oracle. But I can’t off hand recall any who claimed the oracle was the source or authority of their narrative. I have read, however, several ancient novels where divine prophecies are an integral part of the narrative and do indeed drive the plot. Events happen because a divine prophecy foretold them. That’s what we are reading in Mark’s Gospel here from the outset, not unlike the ancient novel by Xenophon of Ephesus, The Ephesian Tale, in which the plot begins with and is driven by an oracle of Apollo.
Note, too, how the two lead characters in the opening verses are introduced. The author tells us nothing of their backgrounds, their families, their origins, and we are even left wondering about what they were doing at the time they begin their action on-stage. No, John and Jesus are introduced directly and bluntly as fulfilments of prophecy and nothing more. They have no historical background in this narrative.
Notice: Mark (let’s call the author Mark) begins with a prophecy that concludes with:
The voice of one crying in the wilderness. Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.Then notice the words that immediately follow that:
John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance . . .Mark has placed John’s introduction in apposition to the prophecy. That is all the background the reader needs to know about John. He comes out of the divine oracle. That is his origin. And this is reinforced, as we well know, by his subsequent appearance as the new Elijah, that greatest of all prophets till that time. (We also know that the details about the nature of his baptism, and the chronology of his appearance and imprisonment, are all in contradiction with other — debatable — testimony in Josephus.)
Scholars have not been satisfied with Mark’s introduction of John to the extent that Mark does not give us an historical account. He is creating a fulfilment of the prophecy. So what Mark was doing is set aside and scholarly imaginations take over and seek to flesh out the account with historical imagination and recreation. That’s fine as long as we keep in mind that this are imaginative recreations and that they have nothing to do with what Mark has given us.
Then look at how Jesus is introduced. John is finishing his speech. (Notice that Mark does not write an historical account of the what John was preaching; he does not explain his themes, his program, his agenda. Rather, he is depicted uttering a dramatic narrative that directly answers to the oracle. Yes, ancient historians did put speeches into the mouths of historical persons, but not like this. Thucydides tried to imagine what Pericles would have said; but Mark is creating dramatic dialogue to fulfill the prophecy.)
I indeed have baptized you with water,; but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost.Again, there is no historian or biographer here to introduce us to Jesus as a historical figure. There is no interest in the background of Jesus, who he was personally, the life setting he came from (he only came from Galilee — the “Nazareth” in the texts is very likely not original to the text). Indeed, the identity of Jesus throughout this gospel is going to remain a theological mystery. That is, Jesus is not presented as an historical figure at all. He is presented, like John, as the direct fulfilment of a prophecy, of John’s prophecy. The literary apposition could not be more stark. The message of the artifice is clear.
And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Galilee and was baptized of John in Jordan.
Readers are taken from the beginning into a mystery narrative. We begin not with real-life accounts of two notable figures of the past, their families, how they came to be where they were and what they were doing in the broader scheme of things. No. We are introduced to two prophecies and the immediate and direct fulfilments of those prophecies. That is the nature of John and Jesus and all we need to know. It is all the author knows. It is what the scene the author is creating.
Much, much more could be said about the sources of the other details — how they are derived from 1 Kings, from Isaiah, from Exodus, and so forth — and so much has been about those sources for this scene both here and in many other places. We know the sources for the baptism and John’s dress and the voices and the wilderness are all literary. I won’t repeat the abundant evidence here. I will only observe how the scene closes with a neat book-end. Just as John was introduced as the messenger (“angel”) who was not worthy to serve Jesus as his shoe-lace fastener, the scene closes with other messengers from God (“angels”) serving Jesus in the wilderness. This is imaginative literature with style. How lucky, many would say, that it just happens to also be derived from the author’s knowledge of real events.
I posted recently on the artificiality of the call of the first disciples and their surreal responses. It is most evident that the scene is entirely literary, theological, without any point touching reality. I won’t repeat the arguments here. A reminder is enough.
Who is this Jesus, really?
But let’s look at the literary nature of Jesus as an exorcist. Many scholars say that one of the indisputable facts about Jesus is that he performed exorcisms. I submit that their evidence is based entirely on creative (theological) fiction. Take the first exorcism scene in chapter 1:
And they went into Capernaum; and straightway on the sabbath day he entered into the synagogue, and taught.Again, we are given no idea what Jesus taught. He had to say more than “The Kingdom of God is at hand”. Mark is not interested in telling us what Jesus taught because that is not his point. What he wants to show readers is that this Jesus is the Son of God. He has the authority of God. And that’s what makes him a mystery. All that is important about Jesus’ teaching here is the reaction of the crowds. They are astonished at the mysterious authority of Jesus.
And they were astonished at his doctrine: for he taught them as one that had authority, and not as the scribes.
And there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit; and he cried out,
Saying, Let us alone; what have we to do with thee, thou Jesus of Nazareth? art thou come to destroy us? I know thee who thou art, the Holy One of God.
And Jesus rebuked him, saying, Hold thy peace, and come out of him.
And when the unclean spirit had torn him, and cried with a loud voice, he came out of him.
And they were all amazed, insomuch that they questioned among themselves, saying, What thing is this? what new doctrine is this? for with authority commandeth he even the unclean spirits, and they do obey him.
And immediately his fame spread abroad throughout all the region round about Galilee.
Again, there is no hint that Mark is relaying to readers information that has been handed down from eyewitnesses who knew something of what Jesus taught and how various people really came to respond over time. The scene is entirely artificial. It is the scene of a deity or holy spirit from God himself possessing a man in such a way that crowds respond not to the (historical) person but to the divine presence. The crowds are mystified and awed as is appropriate when in the presence of the divine, of God or the Son of God himself.
Then look at the artful dialogue that follows. Someone looking for history and reality cries out to know what Jesus was saying and the details about his appearance and voice that made him so awe-inspiring. Mark’s imagination (and his supposedly historical or eyewitness source) fails them in that respect, though. Instead, readers are regaled with the ravings of a madman.
The man possessed is given an extended dialogue to convey his fear and torment. The dialogue could in translation amount to at least five sentences.
Move past Jesus for the moment and notice the dialogue that follows the exorcism. Again we have an extended series of direct speech statements. And they all express mystery, awe.
And in the middle of torrents of words mindlessly expressing fear and awe? The simple, calm, few words of a commanding Jesus.
The dialogue is fictitious. It is also effective literary artistry. It conveys the towering supremacy of Jesus through a dramatic scene. He stands a man of few words, but words empowered by divine authority, in the midst of human and demonic fear and trepidation.
The narrative concludes with a claim that Jesus was not, as so many scholars looking for history want to say, just one more of many exorcists wandering around Syria-Palestine at the time. No, Jesus was singular. This exorcism was nothing comparable to the exorcist tricks we read about in other literature of the era. Jesus merely uttered a commanding word and suddenly he was famous throughout the entire region. He was God speaking. And the literary artistry conveys this well.
The author, Mark, is inspired by his theological and literary imagination. If he is working with materials from eyewitnesses or purveyors of oral traditions he has subsumed his material so well as to be no longer recognizable as having any independence at all from his literary art.
Later “Luke” will attempt to impose some historical verisimilitude to Mark’s narrative. He will introduce the preaching of John with a Josephan chronological formula. Like Chariton he tries harder to imitate the historians with this, and his preface. At the same time, however, he adds more theological tales such as the miraculous tale of John’s birth that sounds very much like the miraculous births of patriarchs and heroes in Genesis and Judges. Luke tries harder to create a narrative that runs more fluently from the magical tales of the patriarchs and judges.
One could write a book covering the literary artifice that makes up the Gospel of Mark. I have of course only scratched the surface of a few verses. The entire gospel could be analysed in such a way to reinforce the same conclusion.
So I’ll conclude with something Robert Alter wrote in relation to his literary analysis of tales from Genesis:
From this distance in time, it is impossible to determine how much of this whole tale was sanctified, even verbally fixed, tradition; how much was popular lore perhaps available in different versions; how much the original invention of the writer. What a close reading of the text does suggest, however, is that the writer could manipulate his inherited materials with sufficient freedom and sufficient firmness of authorial purpose to define motives, relations, and unfolding themes, even in a primeval history, with the kind of subtle cogency we associate with the conscious artistry of the narrative mode designated prose fiction. (p. 32, my emphasis)