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
Missouri State University