Imagine you find the following page that has become detached from a book in your local public library. It is a modern book page and not an ancient manuscript, just to be clear. In which section of the library would you begin looking for the book to which it belongs?
Judas Iscariot, at Jesus’ behest, informed the Sanhedrin where Jesus would be. Jesus had seen in a vision that the time had come for the kingdom to dawn, and thus it was time for him to be handed over. Either God would deliver him from his enemies on this side of death, or if he as the Messiah were to be killed, God would surely raise him, and thus the final resurrection and the kingdom of God would dawn. Judas thus played the part Jesus wished him to in this matter and made the necessary arrangements. Jesus’ other disciples, however, were kept in the dark about this – only Judas, the most trusted of his disciples, knew what was happening. After the crucifixion, Matthias, a young and brash newcomer to the Jesus movement, sought Judas out and slew him, making it look like a suicide, but not sufficiently so that a single coherent story circulated about the matter. He then took Judas’ place on the council of the Twelve…
Is the above narrative an excerpt from a work of history or fiction? Is it creative writing or historiography?
The reason why the category into which such an excerpt should be placed is not immediately clear is that writing history is more than merely listing facts about an individual, and the degree of confidence historians have in the accuracy of the information. History writing at its best and worst is creative writing. The narrative above in no way reflects conclusions that are required by the evidence we have. But neither are they necessarily incompatible with it: the motivation of Judas for handing Jesus over is, from a historical perspective, unclear, and two contradictory versions of the suicide of Judas are found in the New Testament (in Matthew and Acts), which raises suspicion about “what really happened”. Some historical writing is methodologically “minimalistic”, and extreme versions of this will refuse to acknowledge as having happened any event for which there is no clear archaeological evidence. But other historical writing seeks to incorporate those things we know about Jesus with reasonable certainty, but also to go beyond this and imaginatively integrate those facts into a portrait of Jesus’ life that makes sense of them in the context of a complete story. Since we do not have the information we would like about Jesus’ upbringing, his psychology, early influences, his time spent under the tutelage of John the Baptist, nor the order in which sayings of his should be arranged, a historian who wishes to make sense of the data has no choice but to engage in this imaginative enterprise.
A comparison can usefully be made to the realm of the natural sciences. Observing that objects attract one another (what we call gravity) is interesting enough, but science seeks also to formulate theories that can explain diverse data and phenomena as part of an integrated whole. History needs theories, but readers of history also need to understand the difference between the raw data, and the attempt to integrate that data into a full-fledged portrait of Jesus. Many have visceral reactions to attempts to make sense of the available data about Jesus in this way, either because they do not include everything in the New Testament, or because they go beyond what is written there. Reactions of this short show how poorly informed the general populace is on how historical study works. Christians, however, for whom past events are claimed to be of critical importance, historical study is of the utmost importance, and Christians ought therefore to take the time to learn about its methods and what it can and cannot do.
The above was originally posted in 2007. I have turned a significantly different variation on the snippet I gave in the post, inspired by an idea from my friend and former colleague Brad Matthies, into a full-fledged short story which I hope to publish at some point.