Inerrancy and Literary Fiction in the Bible

Posted By on September 3, 2008

In three previous posts I sketched out three principles I think are important to keep in mind for an accurate and honest statement of inerrancy. I list them here for review:

1. Taking the Bible on its own terms.

2. The idea of divine accommodation.

3. Distinguishing literary techniques in the text from a modern, empirical sense of inerrancy / errancy.

Now it’s time for a fourth: the reality of fictional content in the Bible. Here’s what I mean. Is the Bible allowed to use the vehicle of fiction (say, in the mode of a historical novel about the Civil War, for example) to convey truth? I’m not going to use debatable examples of this issue – things like whether Jonah is a parable, or whether Job is a novella (did people really sit around and talk the way Job and his friends do? Wouldn’t that sound funny?). Instead, I want to use an example that everyone acknowledges: the creation of fictional dialogue in the gospels.

This example is both simple and inescapable. Here are the bare facts:

(1) We do indeed have synoptic gospels that have conversations between Jesus, the disciples, and other people.

(2) The synoptic accounts frequently disagree as to the precise wording of the dialogue in those accounts. They cannot all reflect the ACTUAL “in real time” words of the people who speak them, since “in real time” people uttered only one set of words in any given conversation.

(3) No one was around in the first century with a tape recorder taping the conversations. As such, the gospel writers are writing down their recollections of the dialogue.

(4) The Spirit cannot be dictating the words of the dialogue since the dialogue disagrees. Aside from the fact that we’d have a schizophrenic Spirit if we insisted on the Spirit being the originator of divergent utterances in dialogue (this is yet another reason to see humans as the immediate source of the words), since the conversations occurred once in real time, there is only ONE set of precisely correct utterances that were uttered. There cannot be three, and so we cannot say the Spirit is whispering the EXACT words that were uttered into the ear or mind of EACH author.

(5) All the above can apply to ANY conversation or dialogue in the Bible. No one recorded it. We are only brought to this realization (most clearly) when we have synoptic accounts, so I use them as illustration.

What this means is that we have certain possibilities when it comes to the dialogue of the gospels:

(1) ONE of the gospel writers got every word exactly correct – he has recorded each and every word as they were uttered in real time.

(2) NONE of the gospels got every word right. That is, ALL of the dialogue in the gospels or any given passage may be simply recalled by the writer (in different ways) in a manner sufficient (to God) for giving us a faithful representation of a conversation that occurred. This is sort of “small f” fiction – since each writer is using whatever words that seemed best to communicate the conversation.

(3) The gospel writers invented some conversations to teach a specific point that was taught to them by Jesus. This would be “capital F” fiction.

For the record, believe #2 certainly occurred, and is really the norm for the gospel writers. I am not saying #3 occurred. I am merely wondering aloud if it COULD have occurred and whether that would matter. Going back to the Civil War novel illustration, we know by experience that writers often make up scenes and dialogue that they imagine happened without any actual evidence. Conversations between soldiers on the battlefield would be an example. And yet those conversations, fictional as they are, lead us to sound truth and conclusions that can be supported as factual by OTHER data found somewhere else. Would it matter if this happened in the gospels? I don’t know that it did, but it’s a literary technique known to us, and not unknown in antiquity.

But perhaps our discussion should focus on #2. “Small f” fiction is still fictional, but it is based on reliable recollection. I don’t see this as a problem for inerrancy – but this is the kind of thing not addressed in the Chicago Statement that needs careful articulation.

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4 Responses to “Inerrancy and Literary Fiction in the Bible”

  1. cwmyers007 says:

    Dr. Mike, You said:
    “but this is the kind of thing not addressed in the Chicago Statement that needs careful articulation.”

    That is simply not true:

    The Chicago statement addresses it here:

    Article XIII.

    We affirm the propriety of using inerrancy as a theological term with reference to the complete truthfulness of Scripture.
    We deny that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose. We further deny that inerrancy is negated by Biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations.


    Yes, it is brief and perhaps not as detailed as you would like, but the statement is not intended to be a scholar’s dissertation on the matter, but rather a confession of evangelical standing on its belief in the Bible. Your qualms with the gospel variation accounts is covered under “we deny that inerrancy is negated… variant selections of material in parallel accounts.”

    Furthermore, I think it is very unwise to use the term “fiction” with a big or a little ‘f’ to describe any part of the Bible. It may be ok in scholarly papers, but the general laymen or non-believing public would grasp on to that and milk it and use it for all the reasons that you never intended. Whether you like it or not ‘fiction’ carries a connotation of ‘not true.’ Something that should never be said of the Bible.

    Furthermore, although I agree wih your belief on what happened with the gospel accounts (your #2), there is a better way to articulate it. Let me SUGGEST something here:

    The variations of the gospel accounts tells us that the gospels were written in a biographical manner. Just as today, there may be 6 different biographies written by different men accounting the life of Billy Graham and surely they do not all agree perfectly and there are some discrepancies. However, these discrepancies are due to the biographer’s 1. perception of the manner (if an eye-witness) or the perception of the source he used to gather the data; 2. the intentive use of the pericope in his biographical account; 3. the purpose of the story in the overall purpose for writing; 4. etc.

    Furthermore, Dr. Mike, you have forgoten one important distinction. There is a distinction between 1. WHAT was said by the sender and 2. WHAT was heard by the receiver. You termed ‘fiction’ small ‘f’ to the gospel accounts because you are comparing them to 1 above, HOWEVER, you should be comparing them to 2. Let me explain, the gospel accounts are not accounting WHAT was said by the sender, but what was heard by the receiver. The former could only be accounted by the sender in an autobiography; the latter could be accounted by whoever received the sender’s sayings, and indeed WHAT was heard has as many TRUE, non-fictional accounts as there were receivers at the time of sending.

    These truths should cause you to desire to change your terminology.

    I hope.

    Grace be wih you, Chris

    P.S. I LOVE LOGOS! Thank you for making me a believer! It has improved my devotional life (among so many other things)! Thank you Thank you!

  2. MSH says:

    @cwmyers007: I don’t read anything about the fiction issue in Article XIII. I tend to agree with your concern about the laity in regard to the use of the word “fiction” (big or little f). That said, your paragraph about biography seems to minimize the license of the author (like it or not, the author “creates” the material – a nice way of saying he or she makes it up). I agree, though, that none of that needs to mean “untrue” – but it is contrived in an acceptable sort of way (with respect to our expectations of that literary convention).

    Here was an interesting sentence: “the gospel accounts are not accounting WHAT was said by the sender, but what was heard by the receiver.” Yes, there is truth in that, but you (along with throngs of postmoderns with varying agendas) seem to want a sharp disconnect here. To me, that’s a bit scary, since it gives too much license to the hearer to disconnect what is heard from what was said. That’s an inviting playground for a postmodernist who would be hostile to the idea or revelation. And THAT is something you’re forgetting – either way, we call this Bible thing REVELATION from God. I’d rather have the revelatory act focused upon the authors, not the hearers. Yes, the receivers “received” what was said in the real time event – but now some questions: (1) how free were they to DEPART from what was said? I’m guessing we’d both say “as far as they needed to be without distorting or bungling the message.” But (2) how is that NOT small-f fiction? How does the freedom of the receiver to depart from what was received (you’re the one who has drawn this distinction) NOT result in small-f fiction? That isn’t clear to me.

    And on Logos – you’re welcome and enjoy it; you’ll never go back to whatever you were doing.

  3. cwmyers007 says:

    Dr. Mike, You said:

    “To me, that’s a bit scary, since it gives too much license to the hearer to disconnect what is heard from what was said. That’s an inviting playground for a postmodernist who would be hostile to the idea or revelation.”

    I say that you are correct. Postmoderns have abused this. However, this distinction needs to be made for reasons that we will dicuss soon I’m sure. This subject is just like discussing the Godhead…there are unities and diversities, however it must all be held in reverent BALANCE. When you say: “I’d rather have the revelatory act focused upon the authors, not the hearers.” You imply that speaking of the authors is different than speaking of the hearers and you would be wrong.

    A little example (please do not take it personal), if I were to say, “I Love your wife.” Then it could be taken very differently from different hearers who were writing their biographies. You would account how you punched my lights out. However, a guy standing nearby who heard it and did not know us could assume that I was a relative or her brother or something (unless he saw you punch my lights out). You would be writing with a perceived hostility; the other man would write with a different perception. However, it is important to note that all of the authors who write about Jesus and his stories and account are writing what they heard and perceived of what they heard; and they are NOT writing exactly what Jesus said (nor did they intend to). Like you said: there is no tape recorders back then to even to attempt such a task.

    John even writes about what they heard from jesus and what they later perceived about it when they remembered it and saw its fulfillment.

    I agree with your answer to number one, but I answer your question 2 thus:

    It is still not small ‘f’ fiction because the authors did not intend to quote Jesus verbatim. If that was their intention that would be a different story…it would be small ‘f.’ But I believe we should not call it small f because small f implies that what is said is ‘not perfectly true’ and it implies that the authors are attempting to quote Jesus verbatim. Whether you like it or not. The gospel variations are biographical data that display the teaching of Jesus and how they were recounted and perceived by the hearers. They are not intended to display the exact words of Jesus, but rather the exact TEACHINGS. And the last time I checked there is NO variation in the teachings of Jesus between the gospel accounts.

    Maybe, if you can define your small ‘f’ better then I could agree with your definition, but I could not agree with your use of any words of the Bible with any distinction of the word fiction. This is a liberal-literary-critical use that we should not choose to adopt.

    Grace be with you,


  4. MSH says:

    @cwmyers007: Well the authors and hearers of Scripture are not the same, even if one restricts the two categories to those living in the period of incarnation. They can overlap, but they can’t be identified. I’m not sure what you mean by “perfectly true” either – it implies that fiction invariably mars truth, as opposed to being a vehicle for truth. Fiction can be a vehicle of truth without obscuring the truth or true episode it conveys. I could write a novel and have a scene in it where the Japanese surrender to the Allies to end WWII, using actual dialogue. The wider story is fictional, but the scene can be completely accurate. This is not a necessary equation.

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