Sunday, December 22, 2013

History, Historical Narrative, and Mark’s Gospel

I begin at the beginning: what is the definition of history?
The definitions of history in Random House College Dictionary read as follows: history is (1) “The branch of knowledge dealing with past events”; (2) “a continuous systematic narrative of past events as relating to a particular people, country, period, person, etc., usually written in chronological order”; (3) “the aggregate of past events”; and (4) “the record of past events, especially in connection with the human race.”  Basically these break down into three ways of viewing history: it is a branch of scientific inquiry; it is everything that happened in the past; it is a narrative reconstructing what happened in the past.  Webster’s Third International Dictionary (unabridged) agrees with these three ways of defining history but in its listing of options gives precedence to the idea that history is a narrative of events or a systematic written account comprising a chronological record.  The idea that history is principally a narrative of past events can threaten the independent reality of the lived past.
At a recent conference (Society of Biblical Literature) one panel speaker claimed: “History is only available in narrative”—I objected claiming that history was a reality in its own right completely apart from all historical narratives.  Narratives change as new information and insights become available, but the lived reality that was history is what it was, whether we can recover it or not.
History is all the millions and billions of things that have ever happened in the past—significant and insignificant, public and private, natural and arranged, remembered and forgotten, personal and impersonal, seemly and unseemly, etc.  Narratives about that aggregate of the lived past are attempts to reconstruct it—not in its aggregate totality but in what the historian considers its more significant aspects.
Bits and pieces of the aggregate that was our historical past actually survive apart from the historical narrative in the residue, artifacts, residua, and relics of the past.  These odds and ends are the raw data of history, remainders of a lived past before it was codified into the Master Narrative of a given reconstructed history.  For example, remainders of the lived past of the Battle of Gettysburg survive in such things as official lists of the dead and wounded, anecdotal reports of the battle from observers or participants, military dispatches, photos, maps, prisoner lists, scattered equipment from the battlefield, etc.  Historians rely on these bits and pieces of the lived past as well as on their imaginations to fill in gaps in the data.
History itself is something far different than historical narrative.  History consists in billions of events themselves as played out at the time—momentarily present but they then immediately become part of the lived past.  The reality that was the living moment as it was actually lived can never be recaptured, but its scattered bones (artifacts and memories) can be gathered, catalogued, and analyzed.  The historian aims to revive a given living moment by making connections between bits of data and imagining how things might have played themselves out given the data at the historian’s disposal.  Thus the historian codifies the lived past into historical narrative.  But a given historical narrative is no more “history” than a corpse is a human being.
A narrative cannot be historical if it is not informed by the residua of the lived past.  And hence a historical narrative cannot be “history” as such, but it is only an attempt at reconstructing the lived past through its residua.  A narrative about the lived past is historically reliable as a reconstruction only to the extent that it conforms to the residua of the lived past, and only to the extent that the historian’s imagination corresponds to a critical sense of what is actually real.
This way of looking at history and historical narrative has significant implications for the historical character of the Gospel of Mark, our earliest gospel in the view of a majority of modern scholars.  No residua of the lived past informs Mark’s narrative except unconfirmed oral reports, which scholars assume that Mark had at hand when composing the narrative.  Mark’s imaginative composition of the story, however, does not conform to a modern critical sense of what is real, or even to that represented by the finest history writing of the ancient past, such as is represented, for example, by Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War (5th century BCE).  Mark’s historical narrative turns out to be pious historical fiction written for the purpose of informing the reader about the origins of the gospel (Mark 1:1) preached by the Markan community in the latter half of the first century.
Many contemporary scholars, however, routinely treat Mark as though the narrative and the lived past are as Mark imagined it—in other words what Mark says happened, actually happened that way.  Thinking of history as lived past and historical narrative as an attempt to reconstruct that lived past puts Mark in its place as a questionable reconstruction of the events of the lived past of Galilee and Judea in the first third of the first century.
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Tuesday, December 3, 2013


Truth is: the ideas by which each of us decides to govern our lives. Hence truth is multiple.  I think of truth as comprised of Big Truths and little truths.  A Big Truth is the primary, or organizing, principle around which we organize our lives.  Little truths can be moral, ethical, or practical, but little truths are not the consuming passion of one's life; under the right circumstances little truths can easily be modified.  Particularly the little truths make it possible for us to live comfortably in community.  The Big Truths, however, divide us.
            Everyone does not hold the same Big Truth, and hence they often disrupt life in community.  The Big Truths are usually moral and ethical in the extreme and can be classed in the following categories: political, religious, economic, cultural, social, racial, etc.  Some examples of Big Truths are: that big government is bad for the economy—which leads in the extreme to sequestration and government shut down; or that there is only one true religion, which leads in the extreme to prejudice, persecution of minority religions, and pogroms; or that racial minorities are lesser human beings than persons in the dominant group, which leads in the extreme to economic exploitation of minorities, persecution, and pogroms.
Little truths have not escalated (and may not) into an all consuming Big Truth.  And to some extent they are negotiable depending on the circumstances.  For example, consider the little truth "honesty is the best policy": if you run a red light, you will be fined (but only if you get caught); or if you plagiarize the work of another, it will damage your reputation (but only if you get caught).  The little truth "when in Rome, do as the Romans do," if disregarded in London (where they drive on the left-hand side of the road) will result in an accident for Americans who disregard it (but not if they are lucky).  The moral truth "human life is precious" if interpreted against under Roe versus Wade, which is thought by most Americans to best consider the rights of all citizens, can result in harm to the fetus (but only if you choose that option).  All little truths and their applications are subject to change and modification; Big Truths are not so easily modified.
The Big Truth of whatever variety inevitably brings every other truth under the driving force of the belief that my Big Truth is absolutely True, and that person who has found this absolute Truth will judge all other truths, Big and little, in its light.  Some of those current cultural Big Truths in today's society are, for example: abortion is murder; marriage is between one man and one woman; homosexuality is a sin; sexual acts are only for the reproduction of the species.  Big Truth-finders are unable to appreciate the circumstances and truths of others who don't share their Big Truth.
            The poet, Wallace Stevens, expresses the idea of giving up the truth and discovering the diversity of the world like this:
It was when I said,
"There is no such thing as the truth,"
That the grapes seemed fatter.
The fox ran out of his hole.
You . . . You said,
"There are many truths,
But they are not parts of a truth."
Then the tree, at night, began to change . . . . ("On the Road Home")
In short, we hold different truths in varying degrees!  But holders of a Big Truth will dismiss the value of every other truth if it conflicts with the prime insight that their Big Truth is absolutely true—hence the only way to find the diversity of truth is by giving up the Big Truth.  Big Truth-finders are myopic and cannot see the manifold nature of truth.
It does happen, however, that from time to time people give up their Big Truths.  Paul, the apostle of Christ, for example, gave up the Big Truth of Judaism only to replace it with the Big Truth of the Christ.  But, on the other hand, some also give up the Big Truth of Christianity for other truths.  Demas, the close companion of Paul (Philemon 24), is accused by a later writer of deserting Paul, "because he loved the present world" (2 Timothy 4:10).  The distinguished New Testament historian, Robert W. Funk, who held a Bachelor of Divinity and a Masters degree from the Disciples of Christ Butler University and its affiliated Christian Seminary gave up the Big Truth of the Christ for the practical truths of historical and literary criticism; and later founded the Jesus Seminar.
There is no one single Truth, no matter how Big, that can accommodate all truths by which people live.  The truth is we decide what truth is.
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University