There are three types of literature that are closely related in form and style: fiction, history, and gospel. They all are narrative—that is they tell a story. The character of two of these genres is well known: Fiction, by definition, is about things that never happened, but if it is realistic historical fiction one would have to add the following to the definition: although these things never occurred, they could have happened (in the sense that the realistic action approximates conventional reality). History on the other hand, by definition is about things that did actually occur.
Gospel literature, according to critical scholarship, falls somewhere between the two definitions above—it is neither history nor fiction—or better, it is both history and fiction. Gospel literature is unapologetically propaganda literature, which is enough to compromise its reliability as unbiased history, if one pauses to think about it. Of course what we usually think of as history and fiction can also be propagandistic. In fact they often are, and are thereby rendered unreliable for the same reason. The historical character of the gospels is more akin to Eusebius' Life of Constantine, which is an encomium or eulogy (4th century) written in praise of the first Christian emperor extolling his role in establishing fourth-century orthodoxy. The encomium is not critical history, but pietistic propaganda.
I have argued in several essays that in many ways gospel narratives have more in common with fiction than history, in that gospel and fiction share many of the same techniques and conventions. For example, ancient Greek novels frequently digress into vivid and fulsome description. In handbooks of rhetoric of the 2nd century and later this phenomenon is called ekphrasis, "description." Depending on who is explaining the reason for the feature, ekphrasis either digresses from the story to enhance the enjoyment of the reader (to make the narrative more vivid) or it is used to further the plot in some way. Historical narrative, on the other hand, should not enhance data with the goal of increasing the reader's reading enjoyment, or aiding the historian's argument in some way. If it introduces description that is not actually part of the events themselves in order to enrich the reading experience, to that extent the history is compromised as critical historical narrative.
In making a story more vivid a fiction writer often uses sensory words—words that appeal to the five senses: hearing, seeing, touching, tasting, and smelling.
In the Gospel of John there are only a few meager instances of enhancing description appealing to a physical sense: seeing (4:35 white), (5:35 burning and shining), (20:5-7 purple), (21:7 naked [translations vary considerably]). In an essay on colors in the Gospel of Mark (see below) I argued such meager description in Mark was likely due to the inadvertence of the author—it was just the way the author conceived what was being written that caused him to compose as he did; the author simply wrote what was in the mind's eye, so to speak. I argued inadvertence because Mark had simply missed too many chances to enhance the reader's enjoyment with deliberate vivid language for the few color descriptions in Mark to be considered deliberate. With the exception of one other instance in John, inadvertence of the author may explain the few instances noted above. In John 12:3, however, the author deliberately passes over into description enhancing the vividness of the narrative. The entire passage is laced with vivid and sensual language: "Mary took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment" (RSV). In this instance the author of the gospel has evidentially utilized a technique of the fiction writer and appealed to the reader's physical senses of smell and touch, as well as to an economic sense by emphasizing the quality, high cost, and amount of the ointment.
The more gospel writers can be shown to use the techniques of narrative fiction, the longer will be the shadow of doubt cast over the gospels as historical narrative.
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
Hedrick, "Conceiving the Narrative: Colors in Achilles Tatius and the Gospel of Mark" Pp. 177-97 in R. Hock, B. Chance, J. Perkins, eds., Ancient Fiction and Early Christian Narrative (Atlanta: Scholars Press 1998).