Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Narrative, History, and the Bible

My title is rather broad and lacks in specificity; hence, I begin with a few definitions. “A narrative is a spoken or written account of connected events; a story.”1 That is to say, a narrative is not a single event but is constituted by multiple events that are connected; it is a series of connected events. An event is “something that happens.” With respect to the definition of history two definitions are offered as the Google definition of history.2 History is (1) “The study of past events, particularly in human affairs.” (2) “The whole series of past events connected with someone or something.” Thus, by these two definitions history is either the past connected events themselves or the study of past connected events. Essential to the Google definition of history is that events (something that happened) must be connected to other events; a single event is not history. It is rather a single datum that may potentially be history if it can be connected to other past events. Hence, modern historians consider history a narrative. By this definition the event, “Caesar crossed the Rubicon” is apparently not history, since it is only a single event.

On the other hand, I think of history as what happened in the past, connected or not.3 History as the contemporary study of past events is not history unless the study happened in the past. For example, past studies of New Testament criticism I consider history because the studies happened in the past. Hence, by my definition the event in which Caesar crossed the Rubicon is history because it did in fact happen in the past.

          These two Google definitions of history (are they popular; or are they both critical and popular?) seem to regard history as showing connected events as a movement in time, whether progress or decline, as though history, as the aggregate of these events or selected events, was focused toward some ultimate goal. Hence one can identify history’s plot (its plan or main story) and write a narrative of history or of a selected history. If history is a narrative, then historians must justify their connections between events that move history forward or backward.

Let us assume that history is a narrative for the moment. Narratives may also be fictional; that is to say, the narrative may be invented, which raises the question, how does one distinguish between an invented narrative and one that is not? In some cases, it may not be possible to do so. I would test the narrative in this way. (1) Does the narrative have verisimilitude (that is does it have the appearance of being true or real)? (2) Does the narrative adhere to the reality I know (what I mean by being true or real)? (3) Are there surviving artefacts that suggest that the narrative is grounded in events that actually happened, rather than existing only in an author’s mind?

Here are three narratives that we can test with these three criteria: Gone with the Wind (1940) by the Atlanta, Georgia native Margaret Mitchell; The Civil War, A Narrative (1958, 1963, 1974), a three volume work, by the Greenville, Mississippi native Shelby Foote; and “The Death of John the Baptist” (Mark 6:14-29), a first century narrative by an unknown author.

The first narrative, Gone with the Wind, is a work of historical fiction, whose specific characters were invented and whose events never happened. Although the backdrop against which the narrative took place was historical, there are no artefacts to attest to the specific events in the narrative. The second, The Civil War A Narrative, is considered a military history of the Civil War. Foote’s characters lived during the time the events of the War took place and there are myriads of artefacts to attest that the events occurred. Thus, Mitchell’s work is shelved with other historical fiction novels and Foote’s is shelved under history, although Foote himself is a novelist.

The third narrative appears to be a mixture of historical and fictional elements. The named characters in the narrative are historical figures. That the tetrarch, Herod Antipas, killed John the Baptist is confirmed by Josephus (Antiquities 18.5.2; although Herod was not a king). That Herodias, his wife, nursed a grudge against John for criticizing her second marriage to Herod and that Herod had him (reluctantly) killed because Herodias put him in a situation where he (Herod) had to kill John is less likely than is the reason given by Josephus. The Josephus report has Herod killing John because he feared John’s popularity with the populace and thought John might foment a rebellion. Josephus’ report seems more likely to me in this regard. It is dubious that Herod would have promised half his domain to a dancer in the presence of the leading citizens of Galilee. It is also doubtful that the killing of John and the presentation of John’s head to Herodias’ daughter could have taken place so quickly, since the fortress of Machaerus, where John was imprisoned by Josephus’ account, is located in Jordan across the Dead Sea. The Capitol of Herod Antipas’ kingdom from which he governed was Tiberius in Galilee, The distance from Tiberius to Machaerus was more than a day’s journey, so the killing of John and the presentation of his head to Herodias’ daughter could not have happened with the speed suggested by the narrative in Mark.4 No artefacts, as far as I know, attest to this bizarre narrative plot, except the fortress Machaerus. On the whole, the story in Mark is at best historical fiction.5

How does it seem to you?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Google the following: “google definition of narrative.”

2Google the following: “google definition of history.” There are several other definitions; check a dictionary.

3Hedrick, “History, Historical Narrative, and Mark’s Gospel” pp. 137-40 in Unmasking Biblical Faiths (Cascade, 2019). Or an earlier version: Wry Thoughts about Religion: http://blog.charleshedrick.com/search?q=history


5See the report of the Jesus Seminar for another analysis: R. W. Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Acts of Jesus. What did Jesus Really do? (HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), 86-87.

Monday, September 6, 2021

The Fall

A principal teaching of orthodox Christianity is that human beings have the stain of “original sin” within them. “Original sin is the Christian doctrine that humans inherit a tainted nature and proclivity to sin through the fact of birth.”1 The belief that human beings are born with a proclivity to sin is not found in the Bible. It is a belief that began to emerge in the third century and was given its classic statement by Augustin of Hippo and from him it passed into orthodox Christian theology. Even the word “Sin,” as it appears in English is a religious term used by church folk to describe unacceptable behavior in human beings from a religious perspective and has been defined as follows: “In a religious context sin is a transgression against divine law. Each culture has its own interpretation of what it means to commit a sin. While sins are generally considered actions, any thought, word, or act considered immoral, selfish, shameful, harmful, or alienating might be termed sinful.”2 In the secular world the term “sin” is not used to describe unacceptable behavior. In society at large formal deviant, lawbreaker, or criminal would be terms corresponding to the term sin in a religious context, because the unacceptable behavior is a breaking of the laws of the land. We also use other terms to describe the breaking of social mores, such as informal deviance, improper behavior, or social faux pas in a social context. Social mores are different in different social contexts. Only in religious contexts is sin an appropriate word for describing human behavior.

            Christians who believe that human beings have a penchant for committing sin usually trace the origin of this human inclination to commit sin to the second of the two creation myths in the Bible (Gen 2:4b-2:24), and the story of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden (3:1-24). This account (called the Yahwistic account) focuses on man’s rebellion against God and its outcome. The Priestly account of creation (Gen 1:1-2:4a) focuses on the creation of the heavens and the earth. The rationale that human beings are stained with original sin is a product of how one reads the Bible, and the argument proceeds on the basis of ideas that Christians have about the Bible. It is not an argument made by the writers of the biblical texts themselves.

Here is one way of explaining the rationale that ties original sin to the story about the Garden of Eden and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden:

Since God made man good the tendency to sin which forms part of his inheritance must be traced back to the disobedience of the first couple in paradise, from whom all are descended. Intercourse, conception, and birth rendered individuals unclean in matters of cult [in ancient Israel, Lev 12:1f; 15:16-18], but were not regarded as sinful in themselves or able to produce the tendency to sin. We are all doing penance for the sin of our first parents by suffering and dying, since “through a woman sin had its beginning, and because of her we all must die [Sirach 25:24]…through the envy of the devil death has come into the world [Wis 2:24]; easily and logically then we arrive at the conclusion that the sin in paradise is imputed to all men as guilt and is the reason why we carry in ourselves the inclination to evil.3

It is clear from Heinisch’s first sentence his entire rationale is based on his belief system that somehow the creation myth is a historical account of how things actually were, rather than “a traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the worldview of a people.”4 It serves the Yahwist as a myth of origins of the ancient Israelite people explaining why it is that men must earn their living by the sweat of their brow tilling the soil (Gen 3:17-20) and women must suffer pain in childbearing and be submissive to their husbands (Gen 3:16). Heinish’s rationale is not mandated by the text in Genesis; that is to say, original sin is not an idea contained in the text. The passages in Genesis do not use either the word sin or the term original sin. The story becomes about original sin in Heinish’s mind.

In the Yahwist’s scheme the story deals with the deeper question of why man and woman, God’s creatures, refuse to acknowledge the sovereignty of their Creator, with the result that history is a tragic story of banishment from the life for which they were intended.5

Human beings are more complex and diverse than is allowed by the belief that they deliberately sin against divine law because it is built into the genome system inherited from the mythical characters Adam and Eve.

None of us are perfect, but some of us are worse than others.

How do you see it?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Original sin


3Paul Heinish, Theology of the Old Testament (trans. William G. Heidt; Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1955), 254. References to original sin are not usually found in the subject index to critical Old Testament commentaries.

4Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (1990), s.v., myth.

5B. W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament (3rd ed.; Prentice-Hall, 1975), 211.