History and Verisimilitude: “Real” vs. “Realistic”

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by Tim Widowfield

Yet Another Ehrman-Evans Debate

In a recent Bart Ehrman blog post, he referred to a debate he had with Craig Evans on the reliability of the New Testament, which took place back in January of 2012. If you watch it (perhaps you already have) and you’re familiar with these guys, don’t expect to see or hear anything new. I’ve come to realize that whenever Bart starts a sentence with, “I tell my students at Chapel Hill,” he’s going to tell a story I’ve heard at least ten times already.

However, Evans did say something that caught my ear. If you click on the start button on the video below, it should cue up to the 14:04 mark, at which point Evans says . . .


Second, New Testament scholars, historians, and archaeologists view the gospels as essentially reliable, because they exhibit verisimilitude, a Latin word that means “they resemble the way things really were.” That is, the contents of these writings match with what we know of the place, people, and period described in the document.

Their contents cohere with what is known through other written sources and through archaeological finds. Their contents give evidence of acquaintance with the topography and geography of the region that forms the backdrop to the story. The authors of these documents exhibit knowledge of the culture and customs of the people they describe. Ancient narratives that possess these characteristics are used by historians and archaeologists.

The New Testament Gospels and Acts exhibit a great deal of ver-ee-similitude. They speak of real people — Pontius Pilate, Herod Antipas, Annas, Caiaphas, Herod Agrippa I, Herod Agrippa II, Felix, Festus — and they speak of real events — the death of John the Baptist, the death of Agrippa I. They speak of real places — villages, cities, roads, lakes, mountains — which are clarified and corroborated by other historical sources and by archaeology.

He continues with more examples, and then compares the canonical gospels to later non-canonical gospels.

In contrast to the verisimilitude of the New Testament Gospels and the Book of Acts, . . . stand the gospels and gospel-like writings of the second century, such as the gnostic gospels and Syria’s Gospel of Thomas. These writings do not exhibit verisimilitude, at least not verisimilitude with early first-century Jewish Palestine.

“You keep using that word . . .”

I was not aware of any serious modern historian who takes the “appearance of reality” in a literary work as a criterion of historical reliability, so I searched the web for references. Not surprisingly, I found mostly citations for works by Biblical scholars, along with a surprising number of Mormon-related hits. Apparently, there’s been a lot of recent discussion regarding the “realistic” portrayals of people in the Book of Mormon and whether that means that we can accept its general reliability.

If Evans were speaking extemporaneously, perhaps we could shrug it off. In the heat of the moment, we could imagine that he simply misspoke and used a word that refers to something that merely has the appearance of reality. But no, he was reading from a prepared text, so we have to conclude that he has erroneously confused a narrative device — i.e., telling a story (whether fictional or non-fictional) in a believable way — with a sign of historicity.

However, as Neil wrote in his recent post on the Stoning of Stephen:

Ancient historians (and novelists) prided themselves on their ability to convey stories with touches of verisimilitude. Accordingly there can be no real way for us to sift such a narrative of theirs between “core historical events” on one side and “creative embellishments” on the other.

The historicity of the Book of Esther

Scholars of the Old Testament generally appear less susceptible to delusions brought about by the anxiety of historicity that plague so many NT scholars. But even in OT scholarship, we run across reminders (often unheeded) that the appearance of reality does not prove historicity. In “The Book of Esther and Ancient Storytelling,” (JBL, Vol. 120, No. 1), Adele Berlin writes:

On what grounds is a story to be judged fictional? Because it is easier to accept a patently unrealistic story, fictionality was sometimes determined by whether or not the events of the story could have happened or by whether the story seemed realistic. But to judge a story’s historicity by its degree of realism is to mistake verisimilitude for historicity. Verisimilitude is the literary term for the illusion of reality. Just because a story sounds real does not mean that it is. Realistic fiction is just as fictional as nonrealistic fiction. Among the leading arguments for Esther’s historicity are that its setting is authentic and that its knowledge of Persian custom is detailed and accurate. But this realistic background proves nothing about the historicity of the story, as our aforementioned commentators were well aware. (p. 4, emphasis mine)

Esther is chock-full of references that have the air of reality. At least they seem to correspond with what we know from other sources. But so what? Let us say, for the sake of argument, that Esther “looks like history.” Does that mean that it is history? Berlin writes:

But alas, the perception of historiography, like the perception of reality, is an illusion. The author of Esther was not writing history; he was imitating the writing of history, even making a burlesque of it. Historiography is not a comic genre, and Esther is very comic. (p. 7, emphasis mine)

Berlin’s investigation into the genre and the implied intent of the author led her to conclude:

It is a literary convention to say that your story is true and to offer proof. And I dare say that an author is just as likely to invoke this convention for a fictitious story, if not more so. The author of Esther is imitating the history writing of the book of Kings not because he wants his story to sound historical, but because he wants it to sound biblical. Esther, like other Diaspora stories, draws extensively on biblical themes and style because it wants to create strong ties with preexilic Israel and with the traditional literature that had been or was in the process of being canonized. The burden of Diaspora stories is to provide Jewish continuity in the face of the overwhelming dislocation of the Jewish community. A good way to provide this continuity is to link the present with the past, and the new literature of the Diaspora with older, traditional literature. Moreover, by sounding biblical, Esther increases its chances of being perceived as traditional and authoritive [sic], which was essential for a book that is providing an etiology for a new, non-Torah festival. (p. 7, emphasis mine)

“The story you about to see is true . . .”

Rarely do we read works from HJ scholars that seriously contemplate the notion that the author of the Gospel of Luke felt compelled to write his prologue not because he knew he was passing on eyewitness accounts, but for precisely the opposite reason — because he knew he was not. By sounding historical, he increased his chances of being accepted as authoritative. Instead, we read over and over in excruciating detail exactly what each word in the prologue meant. I am less interested in the meaning of αὐτόπται (autoptai) than I am in Luke’s ultimate purpose.

Perhaps Luke really did interview eyewitnesses and really did read firsthand accounts (now lost), but I doubt it. The point is that the work in question cannot verify itself. And it is astonishingly naive to suggest that because something sounds realistic and seems to comport with what we know about a given time and place that it is probably true or, in Evans’ words, “essentially reliable.” And that goes for other ancient writings as well.

Berlin writes:

What does it mean to call Herodotus a storyteller? It does not necessarily deny that he was a historian. It means that when a storyteller tells a story — be that story historically true or not and be that story intended as historiography or not — he (or she) uses narrative forms and conventions. That is what [classical historian Arnaldo] Momigliano had in mind when he said that many features of the book of Esther can be explained in terms of international storytelling. The use of the same narrative form and often the same type of material for true stories and for imaginative ones is what makes it so hard to distinguish between historiography and fiction. (p. 8, emphasis mine)

Returning to the word, verisimilitude, again, we need to recall that its use as a narrative convention is especially important in speculative fiction, which takes ordinary people with recognizable emotions and reactions, and places them in extraordinary situations. Quoting the Encyclopedia Britannica:

The concept implies that either the action represented must be acceptable or convincing according to the audience’s own experience or knowledge or, as in the presentation of science fiction or tales of the supernatural, the audience must be enticed into willingly suspending disbelief and accepting improbable actions as true within the framework of the narrative.

Similarly, in the gospels, where miracles and wonders take place continually, it’s important to have reasonably believable characters moving about in a recognizable landscape. It’s also important to back up those stories with emphatic declarations such as Luke’s prologue and John’s protest-too-much statement in 19:35:

He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth—that you also may believe. (ESV)

We must conclude that the verisimilitude in the gospels along with the emphatic protestations of their authors that they’re telling the unvarnished, eyewitness truth would be present whether they were authentic or not, and that’s because they are conventions of narration, not indicators of authenticity.

“. . . I do not think it means what you think it means.”

I had contemplated finishing this post with the mock conferral of the annual Inigo Montoya Memorial Award for the improper use of the word verisimilitude to Dr. Craig Evans, but it seems rather late now. And I’m starting to think maybe we’ve reached the saturation point on Princess Bride references.

Wait . . . What am I saying? That’s inconceivable!”



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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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13 thoughts on “History and Verisimilitude: “Real” vs. “Realistic””

  1. This is a particularly good post for this blog, and one whose contents should be comprehended by every Biblical scholar, whether Old or New Testament. For determining a narrative’s factuality, the origin and purpose of a narrative should be seen as at least as important as a narrative’s realism.

  2. I see.

    So the Gospels claim that many people rose from the graves and appeared to many in Jerusalem.

    They claim that the sun went dark for three hours.

    The Gospels claim that Jesus walked on water and raised people from the dead, and that Moses returned from the grave to speak to Jesus.

    And New Testament scholars tell us that the Gospels reek of ‘versimilitude’ ,and that even the bits which contradict the other bits ‘match with what we know of the place, people, and period described in the document.’

    1. Mark seems to know of place names in Galilee, but his itinerary doesn’t make sense. Evans touts the first point, but ignores the second.

      All four gospels know of Pilate, but none of them present a portrait that matches the description of the man described by Josephus and Philo. Evans is delighted by the former, ignores the latter.

      You might call it cherry-picking, but NT scholars would insist that they’re following well-established methodologies that just happen to give them the answers they want. And just look how many other scholars agree with them!

      1. The crazy thing is that scholars do know this stuff but they pigeonhole this and that detail so it cannot impinge on the main model they work with. So we have one scholar showing his peers back in 2009 that that crazy itinerary of Jesus is very likely based not on oral traditions from topographically challenged guides but straight from Isaiah 9. The argument is outlined in my post “Mark: failed geography but great bible student”.

  3. In Acts 14, Paul is stoned by a crowd to the point where his body is dragged out of the city by people who thought he was dead.

    The very next day, Paul gets up and walks away.

    Is this reality? Don’t New Testament scholars know how stones work?

    Why, the last time I was stoned, I needed a whole week for my internal injuries to heal. The broken leg only took a couple of days to heal, but there was no way I could have walked on it in just one day.

    In reality, Paul would have needed at least 48 hours to recover from being stoned by a crowd of people to the point where they assumed he was dead.

  4. “But alas, the perception of historiography, like the perception of reality, is an illusion. The author of Esther was not writing history; he was imitating the writing of history, even making a burlesque of it. Historiography is not a comic genre, and Esther is very comic.” (Adele Berlin)

    That sums up the issue rather nicely. Biblical writers are pseudo-historians; they imitate the writing of history rather than actually practice it. They have an interest in history, yes, but their main purpose is to write theology. They thought that effective verisimilitude made for the most effective theology.

  5. “That is, the contents of these writings match with what we know of the place, people, and period described in the document.”

    You only live twice seems to fill those requirements reasonably well, so James Bond must be real.

    1. ‘“That is, the contents of these writings match with what we know of the place, people, and period described in the document.”’

      No, what Evans means is that as somebody living in the 21st century, he can verify the places, people and period of the first-century Middle East, something that would have been utterly impossible for anybody writing in the second century AD.

      So the Gospels must all have been written in the first century AD, and are therefore realistic and so true.

      There are several holes in this logic, beginning with the fact that if Evans can find out where Malta was, then so could the author of Acts.

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