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?
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.