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.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful examples.

I can think of dozens of quotations for this topic, but I’ll settle on one: In a letter to Oliver Sacks, poet Thomas Gunn wrote, “I think we all live in a swirl of anecdote....We compose our lives into narratives."

The anecdotes, what you refer to as events, Charlie, are the “who, what, where, when” of the story; the narrative we compose usually contains the “why.” The narrative is what gives our lives meaning.

Mark Twain facetiously blamed Sir Walter Scott for the American Civil War, and I’ve often thought Margaret Mitchell bore much of the responsibility for American’s view of the antebellum South, slavery, the Civil War and its aftermath. Are you asking if I think the stories as told in the Bible are factual? Short answer: “no.” Longer answer is another question: What is Mark”s purpose in telling this story? Is it to warn the reader of the danger of hubris or to remind the reader of the steadfast faithfulness of a believer or something else all together?

A good story is a powerful tool.


Anonymous said...

That is a timely subject for me. I’ve been studying fictive elements in ancient “historiography.” Regarding ancient literature, secular or religious and whether it is thought of as “history,” I look at it largely through writing elements. I seek fictive portions from within the writing from elements including omniscience, the story’s use of dialogue, the author’s commentary, foreshadowing, eponymy, repetitions of motifs to intensify the theme(s), type-scenes (recurring patterns), ambiguity in setting (time/place), to point toward a story being primarily fictive. Obviously, that places the Biblical stories generally in the realm of fiction (a story primarily formed by author, alluding to the etymology), as opposed to history (verifiable events in the past). They generally reflect life/society when the narratives were written, not necessarily the time about which they were written. They are creating or passing along “tradition” in the way the author sees it and wants it heard, from his experience.

The most striking example of fiction for me is use of dialogue, which is surely contrived. It is a way to compare and contrast the “internal” (cognitive, emotional) and social intricacies between characters. This, in turn, moves the action much swifter and decisively than a commentator’s “report.” It was (and is) more engrossing to those who heard the speakers’ interaction than the author speaking “about” it.

A criticism of the preceding paragraphs is that I have overlaid a modern view of fiction onto ancient texts many considered “divinely revealed history” and the that view of history has changed since the literature was written. Assumptions about literature and history are not the same as they once were. If history was thought of as “... external manifestations of constant, timeless realities” ancient historians were not looking so much at “facts” as what reality meant (Armstrong, “The Battle for God,” introduction). Therefore, the biblical authors were allowed to interject “meanings” into their versions of the traditions, probably creating most of them. It is just viewing them not as the “divine revealed,” as many in the past believed, but ”humanity uncovered.”

Dennis Dean Carpenter
Dahlonega, Ga.

Anonymous said...


Marcia wrote: The anecdotes, what you refer to as events, are the “who, what, where, when” of the story; the narrative we compose usually contains the “why.” The narrative is what gives our lives meaning.

Below is a possible/probable why? for the Jesus story, in fact the predominant one in the biblical literature, that I don't recall ever hearing or seeing discussed (Have you?). It could be one if not the greatest self-deception in history, since, like John the Baptist, Jesus rejected the temple as the means of access to God the Father. (e.g., Mark 1:4, 9; 11:11-33)

Hypothetical history: Ironically, The most influential of the earliest converts to the Christ movement were Jewish priests!

Evidence: The interpretation of Jesus' death as a blood sacrifice for sin is pervasive and universal in the written interpretations of his life:

"This is my blood of the (new) covenant, which is poured out for many (for the forgiveness of sin)"(Mark 14:22; cf. Matt 26:28, Luke 22:20). "Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life."(John 6:54)

"the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own son" (Acts 20:28)

"whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood"(Romans 3:25)

"we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses" (Ephesians 1:7)

"the blood of Christ who offered himself without blemish to God will purify our conscience to worship the living God" (Hebrews 9:14)

"You were ransomed with the precious blood of Christ from the futile ways inherited by your ancestors" (1 Peter 18-19)

"the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sins" (1 John 1:7)

"the accuser of our comrades, they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb" (Revelation 12: 10-11)

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa.

Elizabeth said...

Yes shedding of blood was part of the narrative... why was that? Bloodshed doesn't seem like a very effective way to inspire fruity behavior. But it makes for a very attention grabbing narrative one could argue.

So which God is more merciful- the Jewish God who required sacrificial atonement of bulls and goats? Or the Christian God who demanded the bloodshed of an innocent man, a human being? Human sacrifice or animal sacrifice? Christians pride themselves that their God is a God of mercy... while the Jewish God demands and eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. (Which is not literal by the way in the oral Torah) Human sacrifice doesn't make a strong case for mercy and forgiveness.

2 Chronicles 7:14 makes no mention of any bloodshed whatsoever. Why do Christians ignore it? Not the scripture itself but the fact that God forgives without any shedding of blood: "If my people will repent and change their ways I will forgive them and cleanse them of their sins and heal their land." Sorry, that's not exact, I quoted from memory.

Where's the blood- doesn't someone have to pay the price? Someone's gotta pay the price! That narrative is held very dearly by most Christians... but where's the mercy and forgiveness in that? If you went before a judge because your child had amassed a huge debt and you were trying to work out a way to pay it back... which judge is the more merciful one: the one who demands you pay off your son's debt because someone has to pay the price? Or the one who forgives the debt without anyone paying a price?

The Jewish God forgives. The Christian God settles debt. What are your thoughts about blood- is it important to you? The reason I ask is because of all the scriptures you listed. Elizabeth

Elizabeth said...

PS: To clarify- forgiveness shouldn't be mistaken for consequences of certain actions. In other words, there are consequences when one behaves without integrity. "Paying the price" has to do with the NT assertion that sin cannot be forgiven without the shedding of blood. Hope that makes sense.

Anonymous said...

Elizabeth, I'm not sure what you're trying to say. My point is:(1) the main interpretation of Jesus' death in the scriptures is an approach that he himself rejected during his life. (2) How ironic it is that prejudiced mainstream Christianity may owe the core of its faith to the Jewish priestly tradition.

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa.

Elizabeth said...

Hmm, ok... then I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about. I'm just not seeing any connection between the scriptures listed and Jewish priests tradition. Sorry I just don't get it. Elizabeth

Anonymous said...

Interesting exchange, but I wonder what was the purpose of the story regarding the beheading of John the Baptist.


Elizabeth said...

When it comes to narratives, history is just like anything else... It is used as a weapon to accumulate power and control of the "facts."

When it comes to stories, the power lies in the eye of the beholder. We never know how a story will be interpreted or perceived. Jesus made no effort to control his followers' interpretation of his parables. He let the stories speak for themselves. John the Baptizer is recognized by Jewish teachers in the following way:

"John’s teachings were summarized by the Hellenistic Jewish historian Josephus Flavius, as follows:

[T]his good man, who commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, righteousness towards one another and piety towards God. For only thus, in John’s opinion, would the baptism he administered be acceptable to God, namely, if they used it to obtain not pardon for some sins but rather the cleansing of their bodies, inasmuch as it was taken for granted that their souls had already been purified by justice. Now many people came in crowds to him, for they were greatly moved by his words."

I would love to learn more about the concept of "Baptism" and the teachings of Judaism. Does baptism have any role or function in the practice of their faith? Good question. Elizabeth

PS: One of the great storytellers of our time was Pamela Travers of Mary Poppins fame... the depth of her wisdom and insight is equal to the creative genus with which she captured the imagination & attention of readers across the globe:

"As PLT well knew, stories do not explain themselves but they can explain us to ourselves, although always indirectly." (Wow- I agree)

PLT explained in 'About Sleeping Beauty:' "And to not explain is to set up in the hearer or the reader an inner friction... in which one question inevitably leads to another and the answers that come are never conclusions. They never exhaust the meaning. The living story, like the living beings who tell and hear it, are inconclusive; incomplete beings whose manifold aspects and changeablilty may be revealed through the story's many dimensions.... How can a final answer be given to an incomplete being? "It is enough," PLT wrote, "that we ponder upon and love the story and ask ourselves the questions."

I agree wholeheartedly.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the story of John’s death in Mark, here are a few uncommon thoughts I had...

It made sense for Mark to tell the story of John’s death. The writer of Mark is using a known figure, John the Immerser, so it is possible the audience knows his fate. At some point a religion was even formed with John as their prophet (the Mandaens). Mark has also given him the job of Malachi’s Elijah as the one who will herald the beginning of a messianic age, to star Jesus. Neither happens in the story, nor can they happen in Mark’s zeitgeist, which included a war that destroyed the world of the author. John the Immerser is “arrested” as surely as Jesus will be “handed over,” and as sure as the temple will fall because of the wrong-headedness of the opposition. The opposition has eyes, but can’t perceive, though the figure of the prophet. The verb that is used in Mark is used to mean the “arrest” of John, paradidōmi, that is also translated as “handed over” (3.19, 9.31, 10.33), the apocalypse of ch. 13 (an omen of the “death” of the temple, prophecy after the fact), and “betrayed” speaking of Jesus in ch.14 also links these together. As an ‘editorial word,” (leitwort?) the meaning seems to intensify as I think can be seen in translation, from John’s “arrest,” to people, even relatives being “handed over” for beatings & death, to Jesus as protagonist being “betrayed” and crucified. (That is, however, based on my thought of use of the Greek word.)

Jesus, has taken the mantle of Elijah/Elisha, the staff of Moses, and is leading his people through the “wilderness/desert,” another word serving as a motif for Mark, which begins with the “prophecy” and setting for John the Immerser. The story of the beheading of John also has Antipas associating John with Elijah. According to Mark 9.9-13, Mark has Jesus implying that John was Elijah “come again,” which helps the reader in retrospect also associate Antipas & Herodias with Ahab & Jezebel, who had Elijah running to the wilderness in fear for his life (1 Kg. 19). It is the idea that to the ancients, “history” tended to repeat itself, with theme more important than details (or “facts”), especially in the propaganda (“good message”) of Mark. John was remembered as being a figure in the thirties, so his life and death at the hands of Antipas helped cement the author’s setting. I suppose there were other characters from whom the author could have chosen (as forerunner), but John the Immerser seems a good choice.

Dennis Dean Carpenter
Dahlonega, Ga.

Marcia said...

Thank you for such thoughtful replies to my questions. As I’ve often told Charlie, I hesitate to comment because I don’t have the background, training, education, etc., of most of his followers. But I do have a sense of curiosity, and I have always been fascinated by how religion affects ordinary people. I thought the story of John’s beheading might be foreshadowing or an attempt to tie a contemporary event to an earlier event to give the story more credibility, but I don’t know enough Bible to back up either idea.

Elizabeth, I find it interesting that you use “weapon” as a descriptor for narrative, because in my first post, I originally wrote, “A good story is a powerful weapon,” then changed “weapon” to “tool.” I think Most people would rather be persuaded than beaten over the head.

Another term that jumped out at me, this from you, Charlie, is “historical fiction” about a Bible story. What else can we call it? My evangelical friends and family could never accept that, and I think using it would end all conversation. They think “myth” is synonymous with “lie.” The worst thing about monotheism is not that there is only one God, but that there is only one way to think about God.

One last remark about “history.” I have heard that the Hebrews were the first people to think of time as progressing in a linear fashion; previous cultures thought of time as cyclical. That would certainly change how a people thought about history and their place in the world, wouldn’t it?

I’ll leave “human sacrifice” for another day, but I’m glad to see someone else thinks about that.

Elizabeth said...

I'm glad to know someone else thinks about human sacrifice too! I had never thought of the barbarity of it until I heard a rabbi speak about it. With the days getting shorter, my daily walks have been moved up... Will write more later tonight or tomorrow about Hebrews and time progressing in a linear fashion- that's a very interesting question and my husband just happens to be reading a book which pertains to that subject. I don't have time to go into it now, but hopefully tomorrow I can describe what he has read so far. Till then, thank you... Elizabeth

Elizabeth said...

Regarding the the Hebrews being the first people to think of time progressing in a linear fashion, I don't personally know whether or not they were the first... If they were, that would for sure impact their thoughts about history and their place in the world. I do know that time being "cyclical" in nature was indeed taught in the early Jewish "Inner Teachings." Just as it was in the early church inner teachings... The book my husband is currently reading was written in 1908 and describes how Justin Martyr, Augustine, and of course Origen believed that time was cyclical... Origen also wrote about the pre-existence of the soul and and reincarnation. These ideas were also present in an early Jewish mystic sect preceding the birth of Christ- the order of the Essenes, who taught reincarnation as well.

The early Church Councils put the kibosh on such teachings, naturally, but were they the first to do so? I'd be interested to know. Thank you for asking that question Marcia, Elizabeth

Anonymous said...

It might be important to look at what I meant about “history repeating.” That referred to themes, not to “time,” per se, but the reiteration of certain stock ideas in the Bible, like population transference, critique of primogeniture, “good king, bad king,” the song for a poor man, the figure of the prophet, obedience... Story generally has a beginning, middle and end. This is as linear as one’s life. As long as humans have observed life they have been aware time is “linear.” What the Bible does is reiterate themes considered timeless in its fiction, thus exposing what the author thought as “eternal dimensions” of life. This is done through story in the Bible with the recurrence of certain themes in different stories. Just as surely as the sun “rises” and “sets,” certain patterns will repeat.

Story in Mesopotamia, as well as in Greece preceded the biblical writers unless one takes a fundamentalist view of the Torah (written by Moses, with dates of the rest of the Bible as near contemporary to the events). That is not credible.

Robert Alter (The Art of Biblical Narrative) shows that “prose fiction is the best rubric for describing biblical narrative” (p. 27). Thomas Thompson points out (The Mythic Past, p.34), “It may perhaps appear strange that so much of the Bible deals with the origin traditions of a people that never existed as such.” Finkelstein & Silberman (The Bible Unearthed, Table Two) show there is no archeological evidence of David’s conquests or of Solomon’s buildings. Jerusalem wasn’t even an important city until around 700 bce, when evidence for literacy in the area first appears (F & S, p. 273). (It is interesting to note that Herodotus said nothing about “Jerusalem” or Judah, in the 5th c. bce., just that the area was “Palestinian Syria,” so it wasn’t important enough for him to even name.) It’s a mistake to look at the foundation mythos of ancient “great nations” as verifiable history.

Dennis Dean Carpenter
Dahlonega, Ga.

Charles Hedrick said...

Hi Elizabeth,
Here was my attempt to address the issue of circular versus linear concepts of time:

Marcia said...

Thank you, Dennis. Of course, we see our lives as having a beginning and an ending, and even in our so-called “modern age,” we say history repeats itself. (I’m pretty sure people in every age thought of themselves as “modern.”)

Charlie, I found your June 1, 2019, column, “Time-does it move forward or in Circles?” The link didn’t work, but I was able to find it using the search icon in the upper left corner of your blog. A perfect tie-in with your current entry!

Elizabeth said...

Marcia, I read the blog entry on time moving forward or in circles as well... Didn't answer much, and also didn't get an answer on who was the first to see time moving in a linear fashion as opposed to a circular fashion. Was it the Hebrews? Still no answer. Hopefully it will be forthcoming! Till then, keep checking in and chiming in... Nice to have another female voice added to the fray! Elizabeth