Where does the border run between history and fiction? Sometimes it runs through a single work. There have been interesting discussions about topics along these lines, such as whether Luke is a reliable historian, and how we know what we know historically, on April DeConick’s excellent Forbidden Gospels blog, and whether there are a wider range of genres in the Bible than many assume on Parchment and Pen.
The subject is a complex one, and best illustrated first with contemporary examples, before discussing whether Biblical literature reflects a similar situation. Is a movie like Braveheart or JFK history? Is it fiction? Would a hybrid category like “historical fiction” adequately capture it? The situation seems to be that of a spectrum, rather than one that a threefold typology can do justice to.
On one end, we can have sources that are the primary sources of history. An individual’s memoirs and writings about their own experiences would fall into this category. Note that this does not mean that such works are completely accurate historically. Is there no one who doubts the extent to which Confessions of a Dangerous Mind reflects reality? It may provide accurate information, but this cannot simply be assumed.
On the other end of the spectrum we have ‘pure fiction’. Even this can provide important types of useful historical information. It is easy to dismiss Harry Potter as pure fantasy. But what if it were one of the few works of literature from our time to survive into the far distant future? Historians might debate whether there really was a platform 9 3/4, not to mention the details of wizarding practice, but there are certainly places that are alluded to even in such a fictional work that a historian could use, if other more useful ones were not available.
In between, we have a number of different types of historical works. An example of historical fiction might be The Crucible. Once again, if a historian had only such a source, they still might be able to glean useful information. Historical traditions have been compared to a palimpsest, and The Crucible is a wonderful example. It tells a story set in the past, but precisely because it is felt to parallel a story currently running its course in the present. Others, like the movie Pearl Harbor, are similar inasmuch as they deal with fictional characters in the midst of actual events.
Even in movies that consist primarily of characters who were real people, the disclaimer tends to be added: Some persons and events have been dramatized. In telling a story about historical events, there is a difference from a list of dates and events. Some think the latter is “history”, but the events we are living through now will one day be “history”, and they aren’t mere dates, places, names and numbers. History, it may be argued, cannot be separated from storytelling.
If we consider the New Testament Gospels, it is quite possible that some events of a particularly traumatic character (such as the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus) may have been fixed well in the minds of the disciples, a phenomenon referred to today as “flashbulb memory”. But there is little evidence (the case made in Richard Bauckham’s recent book not withstanding) that the New Testament Gospels were written by eyewitnesses. They are thus not individual memoirs but something else, and not necessarily all the same thing. Some may be based on the deposit of information shared by one particular Christian community. Others may have been based on research and information gathered from many places.
What they share in common, however, is that none seems to have had the chronological concern of modern historians. Events and stories about Jesus, as well as sayings, are set in plausible contexts in the narrative. In our attempts to reconstruct the life of Jesus as historians today, we do very much the same thing. We may be able to feel certain that Jesus engaged in a symbolic action in the Temple. But when he did so is less clear and involves a historical judgment (even if many – but by no means all – historians feel it is a relatively straightforward one). Placing it early or late in Jesus’ career may influence, or be influenced by, one’s understanding of how Jesus related to his mentor, John the Baptist. In trying to assemble the pieces into a chronological narrative, history involves an element of creative writing.
Even novelistic sources from a later time, like the Acts of Thomas, include details that can be historically confirmed. This does not mean that the entire story is trustworthy: it simply means that it isn’t all made up. In no literary work can a historian, on the basis of confirmed historical details, assume on that basis that all the details are accurate. In particular, words placed on the lips of characters may reflect things that it is plausible for them to have said (following Thucydides), but in very few instances can they be regarded as anything even close to verbatim accounts. In many instances the conversations themselves may not have actually occurred, for all we know.
In short, there is nothing that can bypass the need for a historian to evaluate each and every detail on its own terms. The reasons are that even fictional works can make historical references, that even excellent historians make errors and fill in gaps with informed speculation, and that in any historical work it is possible that “some persons and events have been dramatized”. Also, as the conclusion to the Gospel of John indicates, historical accounts involve selecting from information available (or sometimes working with piecemeal evidence) and presenting it selectively. As historians working on the historical figure of Jesus, for example, we have a choice similar to that which confronted the author of the Fourth Gospel, between focusing on particular incidents we think were important, and writing a comprehensive magnum opus that we will probably never finish and which few people if any will ever read.
For those interested in treating the Biblical literature in a serious historical fashion, these principles of critical inquiry are important. They are also useful when watching movies.