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


  1. There's interesting food for thought in this blog, which lawyers would take for granted. In the Court system, a historical narrative could well be taken by the Court as inadmissible hearsay—irrelevant in determining the reality of past events subject to determination. A narrative regarding auto accidents, criminal behavior, and/or other past events and/or circumstances related to the subject of a trial is only admissible after a foundation has been established as to the narrator's first hand knowledge of the subject, his objectivity and biases, and his ability to accurately construct the narrative.

  2. Your question about what constitutes history presents, for me, a philosophical challenge. I agree to your extension of its meaning, but I am more concerned about the limitations of your extension than the substantial extension you propose beyond the common concept of history. Inherent in any worthy history is the proposal of a certain causal chain. Perhaps the term “history” should be limited to phenomena—what is or was observable by human senses at some point in time. But history then cannot be fully informative of causation, at least not from the biblical theological standpoint that the origin of all phenomena is beyond the world of matter, that is, beyond the power of sensory observation.


  3. Lovely piece! I should note, however, that dictionaries differ in the order in which they give definitions. The American Heritage Dictionary, for example, opens with the most common meaning of a word. But Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged (or Third New International) and Collegiate, like the Oxford English Dictionary, order their definitions chronologically. The Unabridged says in its preface (4a), “Webster’s Third New International, Preface, 4a: “In definitions of words of many meanings the earliest ascertainable meaning is given first. Meanings of later derivation are arranged in the order shown to be most probable by dated evidence and semantic development.” The only precedence this dictionary gives to its first definition of history—a narrative of events, etc.—is one of time.
    Alison P.

    1. Hi Ed,
      My major point is that history is the lived past. Historical narrative is a particular author's attempt to reconstruct aspects of the lived past, and should not be conceived of as history but as a reconstruction of history. Historical narrative is a given writer's interpretation of what happened in the lived past from a later perspective. There were causal chains in the lived past at the time events played themselves out but the causal chain in the later narrative is an attempt to state what that author supposes to have been the case in the earlier lived past. If we do not keep the distinction clear between the earlier lived past and the later narrative reconstruction of the lived past we tend to give too much deference to the narrative, which may or may not have provided the reader a reliable reconstruction. Too much deference elevates the narrative to the status of a Master Narrative by which we tend to live our lives. In short, don't confuse "history" with what "historians" say. A good example of this statement is provided in the "history" of Jesus as reconstructed by Mark, Matthew and Luke, and John.