Excellent Historical Fiction or Poor History?

Richard Carrier’s talk about the Acts of the Apostles seems to slip back and forth between two claims. One is that the work is historical fiction. The other is that it is trying to be history but failing.

The actual evidence complicates this claim. Carrier mentions Colin Hemer’s classic study of Acts, Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History. That work shows that the background information in Acts about individuals and local details are frequently accurate where there is evidence available to verify them.

And so if Luke was aiming to write historical fiction, he did a fantastic job, providing accurate background to the fictional tale that he was telling.

However, Carrier regularly makes slants and snide remarks about the author of Acts, suggesting that he doesn’t actually think that Luke was writing historical fiction.

But if Luke provides such accurate general information where he can be confirmed, and was actually trying to write history, then where does that leave things?

It leaves them where most mainstream scholars suggest. Luke seems to have some clear ideological biases, smoothing over conflicts between divergent views, reinterpreting people and events. And so Luke is neither non-history nor pure history, but ideologically-driven history. It is, in other words, like most history in the ancient world. Very often histories were written by people who were patrons of rulers or other powerful people, and slanted things accordingly.

And so if Acts is at the very least mediocre history, or even not particularly great but not appalling history, then what does that suggest about his first volume, and consequently about Richard Carrier’s view of it?

Of related interest, see Wayne Coppins’ post on “Jens Schröter on the Differences between Historical and Literary Narratives.”

  • David Hillman

    I read Carrier’s claim as being that Luke is writing fiction pretending to be history, not actually trying to be history. If I remember rightly does not Hemer claim Luke’s books were written in 67 (and based on the personal memories of Mary the mother of God and other close kin and acquainiances of J.C.). This can not be true since Josephus’ books were not published yet and much of his so-called history depends on using Josephus as reference (but getting things wrong in ways that make sense when you read J himself. I’ve wondered sometimes if Luke was actually trying to write convincing history since it is a bit of a puzzle why he contradicts his own stories when he has occasion to repeat them (such as who heard the voices and who saw the light on Jesus’ manifestation to Paul, or indeed the resurrection/ascension stories) and wonder if anyone has ever explained this.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Mary the mother of God?!

      If Carrier meant what you suggest, then “historical fiction” is a misleading term.

      • David Hillman

        I thought you’d pick up on that. I’m afraid I can not help being a bit facetiously frivolously provocative on occasions, as it is a bind to be always serious. But yes Hemer thought there was a Jesus whose mother was really called Mary (there must have been many such) who told him stories – presumably of the miraculous nativity, Getting lost in the Temple (like Josephus didn’t) and so on.

      • http://norwegianshooter.blogspot.com/ Mark Erickson

        Only if you are using “historical fiction” the way a modern bookstore does. Since we know nothing about the author (and editor(s)) of Luke-Acts and have a very wide range of possible dates it was written (and edited), we can’t use the modern definition of historical fiction. The author could have written the modern version, which was known to the first readers, but time (and editing) could have eroded the realization of that purpose. Or the original version could have been straight history and legendary material was added later. Or the reverse. We just don’t know.

        But since all but fundamentalists know there is both history and fiction in Luke-Acts it is entirely appropriate to call it historical fiction. Perhaps the point would be clearer if it was called fictive history. Is that okay with you, James?

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          I think I can be happy with any number of terms, provided clarification is offered as to how they are being used and what is meant by them.

  • David Hillman

    And as historical fiction pretending to be history, I’d rate it above Geoffrey de Monmouth and Saxo Grammaticus, but not quite as moving as the books of Samuel.

    • stuart32

      I agree. I find Paul to be an excellent fictional character.

  • Wayne Coppins

    Thanks for the link James!

  • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

    This is an astonishing set of claims from an actual professor!

    Firstly the claims rest on the fallacy of the false dichotomy.

    Secondly it indicates the author has very little acquaintance with other ancient historiography.

    Thirdly, it demonstrates the author has never dealt with the arguments of his mainstream peers who specialize in Acts and arrive at quite contrary positions.

    Fourthly, it demonstrates a gob-smacking failure in fundamental logic and general familiarity with other ancient literature. Even ancient fiction, including, yes, ancient “historical fiction”, was all very good at getting historical places and names of historical persons just right — and sometimes wrong (why does our professor omit the glaring mistakes by Luke here if he is an honest scholar?) — just like Luke does.

    Of course Luke was writing a work to look something like history, but the gulf between his work and other ancient historiography. My reading and posting on Luke and Acts is NOT about mythicism but with an honest attempt to understand the real nature and origins of the founding Christian documents. I am currently reading a book that has almost persuaded me that there might have been a real historical Jesus. So don’t let anyone try to throw that mythicist nonsense at me. I am not at all interested in arguing that way — but only in trying to understand how to explain the evidence as it stands according to the light of the most up to date scholarly research. See http://vridar.org/category/literary-analysis/luke-acts/

    An honest scholar would at the very least clearly inform his readers that his views are challenged by other scholars and give his readers a chance to investigate and learn for themselves.

    I further invite our good professor and his students to learn a little about how ancient historiography worked by following up the scholarly literature discussed at http://www.vridar.org/category/historiography/ancient-historiography/

    • Chris S

      Hey Neil, don’t leave us in the dark! What book are you reading that is offering the nearly-persuasive case for historicity?

      • Neko

        Bart finally got to him. : )

    • Matt Brown

      Neil, since when were you an authority on ancient history and the historical method? You don’t even believe Jesus existed, nor do you believe that the historical method is reliable. How can you say that Acts is fiction when it has tons of evidence to support it?

  • Matt Brown

    I’m so tired of Carrier’s lame arguements. It’s funny that most historians of classical history agree that Acts and Luke are historically verifiable books, but Carrier on the other hand has to deny their veracity, and say that it’s not really historical fact, but fiction..even though we have evidence to verify both books..lol.

    There’s a reason why mythicism is not held by virtually any historian and scholar..simply because it’s false.

    • Psycho Gecko

      We’re going to need some evidence that “most historians of classical history agree that Acts and Luke are historically verifiable books,” seeing as that seems to be at odds with pretty much every historian of that time period.

      • Matt Brown

        What are you talking about? I’m talking about historians today… What historian would have wrote about Acts other than the first hand eyewitnesses?

      • stuart32

        Something seems to have been overlooked here. We already know that Acts *is* history. Acts is largely about Paul and we know that Paul existed. We also know that in spite of a few discrepancies there is broad agreement between Acts and Paul’s letters. So the only question is over the extent of the reliability of Acts.

        • David Hillman

          Don’t you see that your argument is like saying that Sir Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe” is history because it includes real characters like prince John and king Richard, with their authentic titles, includes English Jews and Templars in actual historic towns at the right times, and outlaws and sheriffs who might easily have existed ? Except this time the author tells us how he made up the name of the hero. (And no – no-one pounce on this thinking I suggest that Luke made up the name of Paul please as there has been enough nitpicking at misunderstood small points which seem to afford a point of application for an avoidance of facing the real arguments, yea?)

          • stuart32

            I have no objection to the idea that Acts and the Gospels are historical fiction. If all books on the English monarchy disappeared and we were only left with the novels of Philippa Gregory it would be unfortunate but we would still have a lot of historical information.

            Remember the context of the discussion. Richard Carrier wants us to believe that Jesus never existed. How does the novelistic style of the Gospels and Acts help him to make his case? I don’t see that it does. In the absence of other information I tend to assume that the Gospels are as reliable a source of information about Jesus as Acts is about Paul.

            • Matt Brown

              Even though I would disagree with you on the possibility of the Gospels and Acts being mostly historical fiction. I would strongly agree with you that we should assume the Gospels and Acts as “historically reliable” because well…. they are.

              The fact that they are corroborated by evidence and other sources adds to their historical weight. The burden of proof is on the skeptic to show why we should doubt these books.

              However, I think virtually all or most historians agree that Acts and the Gospels are somewhat overall “Reliable”. They may disagree with certain texts in Acts or the Gospels, but overall they would agree it is historical gold.

            • http://norwegianshooter.blogspot.com/ Mark Erickson

              “In the absence of other information”. That’s quite an absence you’ve got there. You might even think it was evidence of something.

              • stuart32

                In the case of someone who lived 2000 years ago, an absence of information is what you would expect. It just so happens that the information we do have points to his actually having existed.

                The wrapper said “incisive comment” but inside it looks awfully like a fatuous one to me.

                • http://norwegianshooter.blogspot.com/ Mark Erickson

                  Fatuous is as fatuous does.

            • muchcomprehension

              “Remember the context of the discussion. Richard Carrier wants us to believe that Jesus never existed”

              This has got to be a joke…Carrier himself in that talk basically says “let’s assume Jesus historicity for the sake of this talk.”

              • stuart32

                Can we assume, then, that the arguments Carrier presented will have nothing to do with his mythicist case?

          • Matt Brown

            Are you serious? “Luke made up Paul”… when we have Paul’s epistles and his body buried in Rome…smh

            • David Hillman

              Ha ha!

              • Matt Brown

                What are you haha-ing about?

                • David Hillman

                  Because you have pounced on the point I was exactly careful to say I was not making. Read my email.

                  • Matt Brown

                    Okay…sorry I’m a little confused here

                    • David Hillman

                      O.K. perhaps it is partly my fault. I was using Scot’s “Ivanhoe” as an example of a fictional work (whose stories can not be taken as history, but which he filled with historical characters and historical colouring. I pointed out that the name of the main character was made up (and Scot explains in his preface where he got the name from) so that it is obviously fiction not history. The point is that Acts too could be fiction, and its use of historical characters and historical colouring does not make it history. O.K.? Parenthefically historical fiction is useful to historians – but only for learning about some of the ideas of the time of the author. Then I got worried that dogmatic historicists would attempt to score points by twisting my words to make it seem I was sayng Luke made up the name of Paul so I explicitly said I did not believe this (indeed it is extremely likely Luke used and distorted Paul’s letters). Yet you misunderstood exactly the point I was (and I thought somewhat unnecessarily) trying to avoid anyone misunderstanding. Apologies if it was due to my language not being clear. All the more reason to get by to Carrier;s original blog – for he talks with much more clarity and wit than I do.

                    • Matt Brown

                      There’s no reason to doubt Acts is fiction when it’s corroborated by evidence. The burden of proof is on you the mythicist or skeptic to prove that. Carrier is automatically going to deny Acts, despite the consensus because he’s a mythicist.

                    • stuart32

                      You may be impressed by Carrier but I’m more inclined to see him as the academic equivalent of a used-car salesman. Just consider what Carrier is trying to sell you: according to him the first Christians thought of Jesus as a celestial being. So one day Peter woke up and said, “Guess what everyone. Something incredible has happened. A man has risen from the dead.”
                      “That’s amazing! Where did it happen?”
                      “In outer space.”
                      Now, I’m not disputing that people might have claimed to receive revelations from a celestial realm, but that isn’t the issue. The issue is this: people believed that something extraordinary had happened, something that turned their world upside down. What is more likely, that this event had happened entirely in some unobservable celestial realm, or that the event had at least some contact with the real world? Or, to put it another way, why did people care about what had happened? If Jesus had never lived on earth would people really have been so interested?

                    • Matt Brown

                      lol, Hey Stuart, I just thought of something. Carrier’s arguments sound like something from the Book of Mormons. Mormons, I think, believe that Jesus was a celestial being before his incarnation to earth. And that he was conceived by a celestial Mary before he came to earth as a human. That’s very easy to disprove because the Book of Mormons is a genre of mythology.

                      So it almost sounds like Carrier is trying to re-write factual biblical history, and turn into something like out of the Book of Mormons.

                      In my opinion, I think he and Joseph Smith have a lot in common. Joseph Smith liked to tell tall tales. Richard Carrier loves to tell tall tales about Jesus of Nazareth. Joseph Smith thought all Christian denominations were an abomination, and that every Christian who belonged to them were wrong. Richard Carrier thinks all biblical scholars and historians of classics today are wrong, and that he’s got the right method, which he recieved from his head.

                      Maybe Carrier is secretly a Mormon since that what he seems to be advocating here:)

                    • stuart32

                      Hi, Matt. I think you may be on to something! Have we been getting Carrier wrong? Perhaps he isn’t really an atheist; he just wants to guide people away from false religions and to the true religion, the religion that has Richard Carrier himself at the centre! He is the one who is receiving divine revelations that everyone is else is too blind to understand :-)

                    • Matt Brown

                      Hahaha yes! maybe. Here is a banned mormon cartoon that describes Joseph Smith: See if you can spot the similarities between Joseph Smith and Richard Carrier haha https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n3BqLZ8UoZk

                    • stuart32

                      Remarkable! So it really does fit, then. I hadn’t thought about it before, but it seems clear that Carrier has used Mormonism as a model for explaining the origin of Christianity. He may not even realise that this is what he’s done.

                      In fact, Mormonism actually shows why his theory doesn’t work. As I mentioned before, there is no doubt that people can claim to receive revelations from a divine source, but when this happens it works very differently. For one thing the cult tends to focus on one charismatic individual – Joseph Smith, in the Mormon case. For another thing, the focus isn’t on a single event that has supposedly happened in the celestial realm but just on the fact that it is possible to receive messages in general from the celestial realm. None of this resembles early Christianity.

                    • Matt Brown

                      Yes! We’ve solved the pieces of the puzzle. I wonder how Carrier were to respond on his blogpost if someone said you’re re-hashing much of mornomism to fit the factual origins of Christianity. I wouldn’t be surprised if not only atheists bought his book, but mormons as well. Carrier like Joseph Smith is lying to his congregation of internet infidels.

        • Psycho Gecko

          You have to remember that past historians weren’t always worried about trying to objectively determine or write about what happened. They would romanticize things in order to provide what they felt was a better narrative. A good example that you might be able to understand because it isn’t related to your religion is the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Contains historical information, but also features magic and exaggerations. A Yellow Turban/Scarves rebellion? True. The leader of it having magical powers? Not true.

          To quote one historian, who was talking specifically about Acts: “There is widespread agreement that an exact description of the milieu does not prove the historicity of the event narrated.”

          And there were several historical errors that prove that the writing was not firsthand or secondhand.

          • stuart32

            Thanks for making allowances for my limited powers of understanding :-) See my reply to David Hillman above.

          • Matt Brown

            I don’t think that’s the opinion of most historians today who have studied or investigated acts. Your probably quoting someone from 60-100 years ago. Acts is historical gold for the historian today. There may be certain parts of it disputed, but overall, it’s highly accurate. It gets names, cities, people, towns, rulers, temples, Jews, events, etc. accurate.

            • busterggi

              So do the Illiad & the Odyssey – Zeus lives!

              • Matt Brown

                You seriously don’t think Jesus didn’t exist………………………………………………………………………………..lol and the Holocaust never happened.

                • busterggi

                  The Holocaust is incredibly well documented.
                  Jesus, not so much.
                  Don’t appreciate the implied racism BTW.

                  • Matt Brown

                    First off, I wasnt being racist. Second, you would have to be delusional or lying to yourself to think that there is not enough documentation to confirm Jesus of Nazareth’s existence. There’s a reason why virtually no ancient historian or biblical scholar denies his existence……

                    • busterggi

                      Yeah, its unacceptable to deny the existence of the completely contemporaneously undocumented Jesus for the most part but that is changing as religious institutions lose the power to destroy those who question them.

                    • Neko

                      Whaaa? The historicity of Jesus is a scholarly issue; of course the churches don’t contend with it (in public)! Mythicism is nothing new. The academy grappled with it in the nineteenth century. Mythicism has been rejected.

                      Richard Carrier’s confidence that he can demolish the status quo is just delightful. I’m open to being convinced–after an editor has taken a hatchet to Carrier’s book. (My hat’s off to those who have the forbearance to negotiate his blog. Life is short.) But…I’m dubious. Because I remember when Thom Stark, some guy I’d never heard of from some church I’d never heard of, drank Carrier’s milkshake.

                    • stuart32

                      I think the question of contemporaneous documentation is irrelevant in this case. If you want to understand a complex political situation then it’s good to have accounts that were written at the time, but if you want to know whether someone existed you don’t need such accounts.

                      We have contemporaneous evidence of a Jesus movement. All we have to decide is whether the movement consisted of people who actually knew Jesus when he was alive, or whether they were followers of an imaginary being. It doesn’t require the oppressive power of religious authority to convince people that the latter is less plausible than the former.

                    • Matt Brown

                      What are you talking about? No one is questioning whether Jesus existed. Virtually no professor of classics or biblical scholar doubts or denies that Jesus of Nazareth existed. As Neko pointed out, Mythicism was laid to rest over 100 years ago. The only ones who affirm it are less than probably 1%. Also there is contemporary evidence. THe evidence is not written, but through oral tradition that was then passed down to the gospel writers.

                      It’s no different than Young-Earth Creationism when you really look at it. God bless YEC’s, but they’re wrong. Mythicists and YEC’s use the same tactics and try and say that the data we have is not good enough. And that our methods for finding this data are un-reliable.

                      I hope I wasn’t being too mean. I apologize if I was

                    • busterggi

                      Arguements from authority don’t mean squat to me. There may have been a person named Jesus but there is no good evidence that convinces me. And I’ve seen plenty of evidence to support the Jesus-myth theory.
                      “Also there is contemporary evidence.” None that I’ve seen.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      I would be very interested to know what sort of positive evidince for mythicism you have in mind.

                    • Matt Brown

                      What is this “supposed” evidence you have for mythicism?

            • GearHedEd

              So does The DaVinci Code.

              • stuart32

                The argument cuts both ways, you know. A novel about Henry VIII, for example, might get all the essential details about his life right, including the fact that he existed. In the case of Acts we already know that the central character – Paul – existed. If we regard the Gospels and Acts as being the same kind of literature then it would be reasonable to assume that Jesus also existed.

                • GearHedEd

                  I’m OK with Jesus being a historical human being. It’s all the magical accretions attached to the hJesus that claim supernatural stuff is real and that hJesus = Gospel Jesus, the fictional superhero Son of God.

                  hJesus wouldn’t recognize that guy if they bumped into each other on the street.

                  • Matt Brown

                    Or maybe that’s because Human Jesus and Supernatural Jesus are one in the same….. since Jesus claimed and proved to be God through his death and resurrection.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      At least use the actual expression, “one and the same” – even though, however much that may be your faith stance, it is not something that historical study can demonstrate. And historical study does not support the view that Jesus claimed to be God.

                    • Matt Brown

                      My bad…I meant “One and the same”…haha:)

              • Matt Brown

                The DaVinci Code is not historical fact but historical fiction. And it does not get a lot of things right.

  • Ignorantia Nescia

    Carrier’s presentation of Acts is a fake history.

    * Lacks key markers of being a real history (Does not reference the primary sources precisely, does not explain his methodology. He reveals his name, but so does Dan Brown so that says nothing. Does mention some qualifications on occasion.)
    * Has all the markers of being a fictional novel (The lecture sounds like one of those ridiculously long, dreary monologues from poor novels and other pulp fiction. Contains lots of hyperbole reminiscent of biblical stories.)
    * Lies about the historical facts / makes key mistakes (Paul gets resurrected? Not in Acts 14. Jesus flew into outer space? What moon rock fell on ya?)
    * Narratives are historically implausible (“Gerazim” becoming “Galileans”, all references to Jesus in Tacitus and Josephus being completely interpolated.)
    * Invents stories according to literary needs (See Paul’s resurrection or Mythicists in 2 Peter.)
    * Copies other fake stories (even his own) (He copies John the Baptist, Jesus’ resurrection and the word eutheia. No evidence of copying his own stories, though the presentation is full of references to them.)

    Something with this level of fancy may be called historical fiction, but it is seriously down-market stuff!


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X