Biblical History, Biblical Fiction

Posted By on February 7, 2011

I thought I’d post two items that I have my ancient Israel class read each year. Both are from V. Philips Long’s important book, The Art of Biblical History. The first is the book’s introduction, which uses a painting and its interpretation as an analogy to the enterprise of the historian. It’s quite helpful. The second is Long’s second chapter, entitled “History and Fiction:  What is History?” It’s an excellent introduction into the fact that the biblical story is at times just that — story — but without losing historical value. The chapter makes the difference between “historicized fiction” and “fictionalized history” clear — and notes that the choice of which is the adjective and which is the noun in those phrases is important.

Whether we realize it or not, the Bible employs fiction. My favorite example is dialogue in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Between them we get two, and sometimes three, versions of the same story, with dialogue included. The dialogue is typically very similar, but always different in some way, whether by word choice (vocabulary) or things like tense and case for verbs and nouns.  Let me illustrate why this matters.  Let’s say we have a story where Jesus is speaking to Peter in each gospel. The dialogue in all three synoptics is as follows (for one verse):

Matthew: Jesus said to Peter, “Let us go to the temple and preach the gospel.”

Mark: Jesus said to Peter, “Come, let us go to the holy place and preach the gospel.”

Luke: Jesus said to Peter, “Let us go and preach the good news.”

In *real time* (had the statement been recorded), Jesus only said one set of words.  We have to conclude that either one of the gospels got the words exactly right, or none did, or they all got some of the words right. But there was no tape recording. All three writers made up the dialogue to re-capture the event, and they all did so faithfully. We cannot say the Holy Spirit flawless gave each writer the words, since that would have the Spirit “flawlessly” recalling Jesus saying three different (though ultimately synonymous) things. Why would the Spirit do something like that when He would actually know what was actually said?  To be cute? Capricious? Playful? Makes no sense. But deferring to human memory and creativity makes complete sense here. They could all be contrived, yet faithful to the event.

Long’s material goes much deeper than this. The issues involved are more complex.

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10 Responses to “Biblical History, Biblical Fiction”

  1. Mike Johnson says:

    Wow, to call that ‘fiction’! History is not history only when it is verbatim – and it is not fiction in those instances where it is not recorded verbatim.

    • MSH says:

      it’s fiction if it was not recorded – that is, at least part of it had to be made up or (at best) recollected. And since not all the recollections are identical, the dialogue is in part (and perhaps substantially) contrived — but no harm in it in my view.

      • Mike Johnson says:

        I think ‘fiction’ is the wrong word (and I am guessing that you chose it because it is more provocative that other, more fitting words). Most of us hear the word ‘fiction’ and think of something that is invented or imagined. The evangelists were not imagining or inventing they were recalling, and it is not fiction just because their recollection was not verbatim.

        • MSH says:

          you’re right about what most people think when they hear the word – which is precisely why I included the readings. That popular conception of the word needs an overhaul.

          But since only one set of words was uttered in real time, if the gospel writers fail to recall any of those words and substitute others, then words that did not exist at the event of utterance were written as though they did. They are thus fictional — but, again, faithful to the content of the utterance that did occur.

  2. haibane13 says:

    Is it fiction or fabrication ? I don’t think the biblical writers imagined what Jesus said as though they weren’t there but I can see them fabricate something because they knew what Jesus said even if they don’t remember the exact words he said . How many different ways can you say “Let us go to the temple and preach the gospel” and get the same context ? The biblical writers knew what he said even if the exact words might not be there .

    • MSH says:

      The point is not that they made something up that had no relation to reality. The point is that, in the absence of a real-time actual record of what was said, the dialogue is at least in part artificial — but that this need not undermine its faithfulness to the event in which the dialogue occurred, or that the dialogue itself failed to capture the essence (content) of what was actually said. If you read Long’s second chapter, fiction refers to “craft” in this trajectory.

      But again, in the absence of the actual recorded words, we cannot claim that all the gospels (or necessarily any) have a word-for-word record of such dialogue.

      I brought this up before (way back) in the discussion of what we mean (or ought to mean) when we talk about “verbal inspiration” (and more specifically, how the “automatic writing” view of inspiration that most evangelicals espouse or presume completely fails here).

      • haibane13 says:

        “The point is not that they made something up that had no relation to reality.”

        but isn’t that the point of fiction ? I understand that by definition and in the point of the post we can call it fiction but in regards to the point of the bible you can’t . If the point of this post was fiction then more power to it, if it was the bible then no I don’t agree . I don’t think anything said here was meant to divorce the bible from it’s history but I just fear the word “fiction” can be misused or misinterpreted in this topic very easily . As I did .

  3. Arklen says:

    I’ll put a “purely” fictionalized example as to express what I believe the point of what your saying is. But let’s say it is based off a real historical event.

    Caesar said “Centurion, place the siege works here”

    Caesar turned to a Centurion and said “This location is right for building fortifications”

    After considering the location for the defenses; Caesar said to a Centurion “Right here is Good”.

    Each one is different in wording, but the main elements of historical truth are in all three. The main point of historical truth is: Caesar told a Centurion to place defenses in a certain location.

    If the Gospels are slightly different in wording but reflect the same truth in means, then it still tales of a true historical event.

    Just because the situation is not recorded “word, for word”, it does not mean it didn’t happen.

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