One Difference Between a “True” Biography and a Fictional (Gospel?) Biography

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

With the gospels in mind and thinking of them (for sake of argument) as biographical accounts of Jesus, how can we know if an ancient biography is about a genuinely historical person or if it is about a fictional character?

Let’s leave aside for now the claims of postmodernists who argue that there is no essential difference between histories and novels, between autobiography and fictional works. Enough historians and scholars of literature, at least to my satisfaction, have knocked these arguments down.

Many of us are familiar with the analysis of Richard Burridge that concludes that the gospels are of the same genre as ancient “bioi” (I’ll use the familiar term “biography”). The responses to Burridge’s arguments by Tim and me are collated here.

Before we take up the explanation, let’s look at some extracts from ancient biographers.

Biographer #1

Here is a passage about Socrates by Diogenes Laertius:

It was thought that he [Socrates] helped Euripides to make his plays; hence Mnesimachus writes:

This new play of Euripides is The Phrygians; and
Socrates provides the wood for frying.

And again he calls Euripides “an engine riveted by Socrates.” And Callias in The Captives:

a. Pray why so solemn, why this lofty air?
b. I’ve every right; I’m helped by Socrates.

. . . . . 

According to some authors he was a pupil of Anaxagoras, and also of Damon, as Alexander states in his Successions of Philosophers. When Anaxagoras was condemned, he became a pupil of Archelaus the physicist; Aristoxenus asserts that Archelaus was very fond of him. Duris makes him out to have been a slave and to have been employed on stonework, and the draped figures of the Graces on the Acropolis have by some been attributed to him. . . . . 

He was formidable in public speaking, according to Idomeneus; moreover, as Xenophon tells us, the Thirty forbade him to teach the art of words. And Aristophanes attacks him in his plays for making the worse appear the better reason. For Favorinus in his Miscellaneous History says Socrates and his pupil Aeschines were the first to teach rhetoric; and this is confirmed by Idomeneus in his work on the Socratic circle. . . . .

The significance of the highlighted phrases is that they indicate that the author is writing from the perspective of an outsider attempting to interpret and draw conclusions from and piece together pre-existing sources speaking of the past. The author’s narrative is constrained by the information that has already long been in existence.

Notice especially the caution expressed in the first line: we know that the author is not going to bet his life on the information being true because he tells us that the information is “thought” to be true on the basis of inference from the documents.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that such features in writing are a foolproof indicator of the factualness or genuine historicity of the subject. Obviously such phrases can be invented — and sometimes are invented — for the sake of creating verisimilitude for a fictional narrative. And such a presentation alone does not tell us with complete certainty that the person found in the sources was truly historical.

What we can establish from these literary indicators, however, is that on the face of it the author presents his work as an effort to relay to readers what is purported to be historical; furthermore, the author opens up to readers the means by which they can verify what he writes.

As I wrote in another post recently,

In her book Autobiographical Acts, Bruss formulates a number of interrelated “rules” . . . The rule that applies to this communication process on the author’s side reads:

“Whether or not what is reported can be discredited, . . . the autobiographer purports to believe in what he asserts.”

On the reader’s side, the rule-abiding expectation that the report is true implies a freedom to “check up” on its accuracy by way of appropriate verification procedures. 

In this perspective, the truth claim or autobiography in no sense implies the actual truth of an autobiographer’s statement. (Dorrit Cohn, 1999, The Distinction of Fiction, p. 31, italics original, my formatting)

So it is worthwhile asking why we find no comparable expressions in the earliest gospels, the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. I should say “any of the canonical gospels” since the prologue to Luke and the eyewitness claims in John create special problems that have been discussed in other posts. Moreover, we will see that all four canonical gospels, on the contrary, are replete with perspectives and expressions that indicate fiction.

Biographer #2

Next, a few details about the famed Pericles of Athens, by the biographer Plutarch. Plutarch wrote his biographies for the same reasons parents taught children that Washington confessed to chopping down the cherry tree: to inspire ethical behaviour by holding up moral exemplars. So we can expect much myth in his reconstructions. Nonetheless, take a look at these extracts.

When Pericles, in rendering his accounts for this campaign, recorded an expenditure of ten talents as “for sundry needs,” the people approved it without officious meddling and without even investigating the mystery. But some writers, among whom is Theophrastus the philosopher, have stated that every year ten talents found their way to Sparta from Pericles, and that with these he conciliated all the officials there, and so staved off the war . . . . . 

Now, since it is thought that he proceeded thus against the Samians to gratify Aspasia, this may be a fitting place to raise the query what great art or power this woman had . . . . .

However, the affection which Pericles had for Aspasia seems to have been rather of an amatory sort. . . . .

So renowned and celebrated did Aspasia become, they say, that even Cyrus, the one who went to war with the Great King for the sovereignty of the Persians, gave the name of Aspasia to that one of his concubines whom he loved best, who before was called Milto. She was a Phocaean by birth, daughter of one Hermotimus, and, after Cyrus had fallen in battle, was carried captive to the King,  and acquired the greatest influence with him. These things coming to my recollection as I write, it were perhaps unnatural to reject and pass them by. . . . .

But to return to the war against the Samians, they accuse Pericles of getting the decree for this passed at the request of Aspasia . . . . .

The Samians retaliated upon the Athenians by branding their prisoners in the forehead with owls; for the Athenians had once branded some of them with the samaena.  Now the samaena is a ship of war with a boar’s head design for prow and ram, but more capacious than usual and paunchlike, so that it is a good deep-sea traveller and a swift sailer too. It got this name because it made its first appearance in Samos, where Polycrates the tyrant had some built. To these brand-marks, they say, the verse of Aristophanes made riddling reference :—

“For oh! how lettered is the folk of the Samians!”

XXVII. Be that true or not, when Pericles learned of the disaster which had befallen his fleet, he came speedily to its aid.

Ephorus says that Pericles actually employed siege-engines, in his admiration of their novelty, and that Artemon the engineer was with him there, who, since he was lame, and so had to be brought on a stretcher to the works which demanded his instant attention, was dubbed Periphoretus. Heracleides Ponticus, however, refutes this story . . . . .

But as he came down from the bema, while the rest of the women clasped his hand and fastened wreaths and fillets on his head, as though he were some victorious athlete, Elpinice drew nigh and said :

“This is admirable in thee, Pericles, and deserving of wreaths, in that thou hast lost us many brave citizens, not in a war with Phoenicians or Medes, like  my brother Cimon, but in the subversion of an allied and kindred city.”

On Elpinice’s saying this, Pericles, with a quiet smile, it is said, quoted to her the verse of Archilochus . . . . .

Well, then, whatever the original ground for enacting the decree,—and it is no easy matter to determine this,—the fact that it was not rescinded all men alike lay to the charge of Pericles. Only, some say that he persisted in his refusal in a lofty spirit and with a clear perception of the best interests of the city . . . . .

. . . . . At any rate, this tale is told in the schools of philosophy.

The amount of this was fifteen talents, according to those who give the lowest, and fifty, according to those who give the highest figures. The public prosecutor mentioned in the records of the case was Cleon, as Idomeneus says, but according to Theophrastus it was Simmias, and Heracleides Ponticus mentions Lacratides.

As with Diogenes Laertius, we see again here turns of phrase that inform the reader that the author is writing at arms length from his subject, that his subject is “out there”, in pre-existing records, distant from the author’s imagination. Prima facie we can say that the author is not making up the story from his own creative mind. He is working within limits that his sources impose.

But notice here something else. In several of the extracts we read about Pericles’ feelings towards the courtesan Aspasia and about his motivations as they relate to her. A person’s inner feelings and motivations are not accessible to outsiders unless they are explicitly advertised in some way. And as a rule of thumb outsiders would do well to distinguish between explicit statements about a person’s feelings and what is truly happening inside a person’s mind and body.

That is, no-one can really know what is going on in the minds of anyone else. We always rely upon actions, on reports, interpretations of which can often be open to dispute.

Only God and authors of fiction can write about a person’s inner thoughts and motivations. Historians and biographers, if honest and not slipping into fiction, can only write about reports, actions, what “seems” to have been the case.

Notice also how Plutarch qualifies his claim about the “quiet smile” that came upon Pericle’s face with “it is said”.

Such are the little indicators that the author is relying not on his imagination to create characters (at least not all the time in the case of Plutarch) but is writing what he believes to be genuine historical information as far as the data available allows him to do so.

Biographer #3

Suetonius on Nero:

It was strange how amazingly tolerant Nero seemed to be of the insults that everyone cast at him, particularly in the form of Greek and Latin lampoons. Here are a few examples of verses posted on city walls or current orally:

Alcmaeon, Orestes, and Nero are brothers,
Why? Because all of them murdered their mothers,


Count the numerical values Of the letters in Nero’s name,
And in ‘murdered his own mother’:
You will find their sum is the same. . . . .

He may have been impervious to insults of this sort or he may merely have pretended not to care, for fear of encouraging others to be equally witty; at any rate, he did no more than banish Datus and Isidorus. . . . .

At last a series of insulting edicts signed by Vindex must have made some impression on him: in a letter to the Senate he urged them to avenge himself . . . . .

At the first news of revolt Nero is said to have formed several appalling, though characteristic, schemes for dealing with the situation. Thus, he intended to recall all army commanders and provincial governors, and execute them . . . . .

By now we are getting the idea, I trust. Suetonius is the notorious Fox Channel reporter of his day: his “reports” are in the main a collation of the most salacious gossip going around, all reported as true. But even Suetonius lets his guard down occasionally and betrays the fact that even he is to some extent limited by the sources before him and that he is not totally free to compose of Nero anything at all from his imagination.

Hence Nero only “seemed to be” tolerant; Suetonius relies upon the action of Nero (or rather his failure to act) to indicate a number of possibilities that might be inferred about his attitude towards public mockery.

Then when Nero did act in response to insults from Vindex, Suetonius does not say that Vindex really riled him, but that Vindex “must have” riled him. The qualifier is a sign that the author is struggling to get into the mind of Nero; he is not, like a novelist, free to simply make up his emotional response.

Similarly in the last quotation Nero’s “intention” is derived from what was “said to have formed” in his mind.

(By the way, I confess I am relying entirely upon English translations. If the originals do not support my argument then I will of course need to withdraw them as illustrations of my argument.)

Gospel fiction

Contrast the above instances with the following from the Gospel of Mark (NIV). Notice that the author writes of things seen and heard, of feelings and motivations, from a perspective that could only be known to the central character himself. That is, the author gives us “no reason to doubt” (TM) that he “made them up”.


Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.

This is an omniscient “God’s eye” account. We are told what Jesus alone saw and heard; and what “the Spirit” did to him; and what he experienced when alone in the wilderness.

Naturally apologists seek to add a subtext to such a narrative and assert that Jesus told his disciples all these things and the disciples told others and eventually word got to the author of the gospel who wrote it down. Given the miraculous nature of the report it is a wonder that the author did not, therefore, seek to establish the credibility of the account for any sceptical readers by indicating the source(s) of the story.


Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.

No-one knew this was happening except Jesus and God — and eventually the author of the gospel. We may like to imagine that Jesus subsequently told his disciples how early he arose and why and we may like to imagine we are reading some other kind of genre than the one in fact before us.


When Jesus saw their faith


He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts


At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him


He was amazed at their lack of faith.


After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray. Later that night, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land.


Jesus looked at him and loved him.


Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit.

We then come to the Passion Narrative. The entire gospel is written from the position of authorial omniscience. The author is free to create the events and sayings and feelings as he sees fit. He indicates no interest in revealing his sources leaving open the possibility that in its entirety the gospel is the product of the author’s imagination.

We know the author had sources, though. We see evidence of them throughout the gospel and that evidence is most abundant in the Passion Narrative. Those sources, other texts, certainly inspired the author’s creative imagination.



The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

45 thoughts on “One Difference Between a “True” Biography and a Fictional (Gospel?) Biography”

  1. Worthy subject. A bit of caution though on the dismissiveness when it comes to postmodernism. Sure, the postmodernism that comes to us from minor academics amounts to sloganeering and a lot of empty intellectual posturing. By the time it becomes accepted in the university it’s already second- or third-hand – indeed, you could argue this is the only way anything becomes generally accepted by academics: it has to be watered down and reduced to nonsense. But the two assertions above – that postmodernism amounts to a fad and its arguments have been ‘knocked down’ – don’t stand up. For one, it’s been around now in the US/UK for nearly fifty years. That’s a hell of a long time for a fad. Second, its essential insights – too numerous to mention, but including the death of the author, irreducible gap between signified and signified, emphasis on aporia and ambiguity – not only are not going away, they’ve already been incorporated and accepted. Postmodernism has opened up new fronts for things like Biblical studies to be done.

    Of course, it goes without saying that most of the lower-level academic product that can be called postmodern or orients itself in that direction is garbage.

    1. I accept I was amiss when I called it a fad and I have since deleted that line in response to your comment. I do not accept the arguments that history and fiction are essentially the same, however.

      1. Like anything else, what we’re calling here ‘postmodernism’ comes in two varieties: critical and dogmatic.

        The critical variety comes from the real thinkers who emphasize the ways in which, for example, history and fiction are the same. But their goal is to change the way history and fiction are both seen with the net effect of shaking loose some of the old orthodoxies and creating a more complex picture.

        The dogmatic variety, which is what you find among academics who didn’t come up with the ideas themselves and who are trying to make a name for themselves, is meant to obliterate the obvious, meaningful differences between, say, history and fiction; and instead of creating a more complex, self-aware, and nuanced picture, replace the old distinction(s) with a simplified one meant to obfuscate. Pick up any academic journal where ‘postmodern’ thought has now taken hold, and you’ll find this same totalitarian gesture of trying to send older, meaningful distinctions down the memory hole and replacing them with new awkward and ridiculous-sounding ones clothed in euphemisms that don’t make any sense.

  2. There’s a distinction I’ve seen made between “official” biographies and the Gospels: the one is written for the equivalent of academics and the upper classes, who were not only the only people literate enough to consume them but also the only people with the money to buy them or the time or training to copy them.

    The Gospels, however, were written for the lower classes, who were mostly illiterate and who, even if literate enough to read a classical biography, wouldn’t have access to the resources needed to verify the information in them.

    This is, I think, a significant difference that needs to be taken into account: it’s what modern writers mean when they ask: “who’s your audience?”

    1. The Gospels, however, were written for the lower classes, who were mostly illiterate and who, even if literate enough to read a classical biography, wouldn’t have access to the resources needed to verify the information in them.

      Perhaps you espouse the Goulder/Spong hypothesis, that the gospels were crafted to be read aloud to the ecclesia in conjunction with the jewish liturgical cycle?

      The four canonical gospels clearly had four different audiences. The crucial questions is: ‘who was the original audience of the original Mark‘? I don’t believe that audience was the ‘illiterate lower classes’.

  3. Hmm. I read the “life” and passion of the stuff-of-legend focal figure of a widespread ancient religious cult, founded by the figure’s survivors who professed that he had ascended into the heavens after his bloody death by Roman hands. The life-and-passion was written many years after the events, and not by an eyewitness.

    In estimating whether the story refers to actual people and events, should I take special note that the author never distracts his audience’s attention from the progress of the story with recitals of why he thinks the specific depicted incidents may be true?

    I know for a fact that the work in hand is a crafty, but not merely imagined, story of actual people and events. Therefore, I read William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar critically. For example, I probably should have more confidence that a historical Brutus conspired to kill a flesh-and-blood Julius than that Brutus “betrayed” him, in any sense where the historical Julius would overtly express surprise on seeing it.

    Historical and fictional writing lie on a spectrum, not squat at opposite poles. This spectum of products reflects the side-by-side existence of consumer markets for both scholarly and popular tales of the past.

    At 1:22, Mark says plainly what he thinks it takes to serve the popular market. “They were astonished at his teaching because he taught like someone who has authority, and not like the grammarians.” That’s how Mark wrote. I think the Bard may have read that sometime in his youth, too.

    1. If all we had were Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and all other ancient records were lost, we would have no reasonable grounds for believing Shakespeare’s work was based on historical persons and events. And rejecting the historicity of Julius Caesar in that case would be legitimate.

      Even with the ancient records there are no reasonable grounds for reading Shakespeare’s play “critically” for historical information. It has no function as a historical document.

      It is the idea of a single continuum between fiction and history that I cannot accept.

    2. @Neil

      > And rejecting the historicity of Julius Caesar in that case would be legitimate.

      As would accepting it, or doing neither. That’s not the issue your post places before us.

      > Even with the ancient records there are no reasonable grounds for reading Shakespeare’s play “critically” for historical information.

      I disagree. I may reasonably read critically any text which _may_ include possible fact-claims.

      > It has no function as a historical document.

      That depends on the level of historical knowledge I’m already operating at, and the level I aspire to. Lots of people seem interested in Julius, with no thought of professionally advancing the body of knowledge about him. Like me. I could watch the play again, it’s on youtube, and get something out of it. Getting something of it is a function.

      Ultimately, we’re going to apply any conclusion from this discussion to Gospels. Getting something out of them looms large among their functions. Reading them critically is conducive to getting something out of them, especially the possible fact claims.

      > It is the idea of a single continuum between fiction and history that I cannot accept.

      Then issue is joined; I find the alleged dichotomy between fiction and history false. In particular, there is such a thing as popular history (as there are analogous things for many other academic fields, even mathematics), which ideally would read like good fiction or drama, and contain justifiable fact claims about the human past, but would tolerate speculations, “over” simplifications, incomplete source inventories, irregular forms of argument, …, which wouldn’t be tolerated in formal writing for a professional audience.

      1. Shakespeare is not writing to pass on historical information. I can get something out of reading and studying Shakespeare’s plays but I would never study them in preparation to write a historical essay on Julius Caesar. Shakespeare’s JC is irrelevant to any historian studying the historical JC.

        The popular history you speak of does not contradict the fact that there is a clear distinction between fiction and nonfiction. As your comment indicates, you can identify the two elements when they appear in a genre that combines the two. If you see them muddled up (as in a historical novel) you know that you are reading a mix of the two – and that history per se is not the same as the fiction. A historian can identify when a statement is fiction and when it is nonfiction. They remain two clearly different entities. This has always been the case and understood to be among the many different ways many writers play with fiction and nonfiction. Many teachers in fact teach their students how to tell the difference in texts set before them.

        1. > Shakespeare is not writing to pass on historical information.

          Neither of us knows what Shakespeare intended, nor have we natural means to find out. Since Shakespeare did in fact impart some historical information in the play, it is at best speculative that that happened contrary to his intention, or independently of it.

          Also, Julius Caesar is just shy of 20,000 words (~30% longer than KJV GMark). Shakespeare might well have acted upon more than one intention over that span, including distinct intentions in different scenes. It’s not a haiku, and even a haiku can serve compound or conflicting intentions.

          Julius in time
          turned and saw their blades, too late
          to hear any sound.

          > Shakespeare’s JC is irrelevant to any historian studying the historical JC.

          Personal study isn’t the only professional use academics make of documents. Some academics teach, for example. Potential for teaching use has some relevance to the application of a hypothetical reliable fictive-historical classifier to the Gospels.

          > As your comment indicates, you can identify the two elements when they appear in a genre that combines the two.

          Yes, I can sometimes locate actual examples of literary performances on a spectrun between hypothetical polar extremes. That doesn’t contradict my position; it restates it.

          Or is your claim only that _some_ polar examples exist, and that one or more Gospels are provably among those examples? In which case, I apologize. I thought your goal was a classifier that worked at least somewhat generally, which could be applied not only to the Gospels but to much else besides… but it seems I’ve erred:

          > Many teachers in fact teach their students how to tell the difference in texts set before them.

          Nobody disputes that easy examples exist, suitable for teaching novices about what the problem is. I’m sorry to have detained you from showing that any of the Gospels is among these easy beginner’s level examples.

          1. Neither of us knows what Shakespeare intended, nor have we natural means to find out. Since Shakespeare did in fact impart some historical information in the play, it is at best speculative that that happened contrary to his intention, or independently of it.

            He wrote plays for theatre, not histories. Genre by definition is a guide to an author’s intention — or at least to what he wants readers to believe is his intention. He drew upon sources useful to him to construct those plays: imagination and his wider reading of the “classics”. That doesn’t make his work useful for “history” of ancient Rome. It will be useful for the history of literature, but not for Julius Caesar.

            Also, Julius Caesar is just shy of 20,000 words (~30% longer than KJV GMark). Shakespeare might well have acted upon more than one intention over that span, including distinct intentions in different scenes. It’s not a haiku, and even a haiku can serve compound or conflicting intentions.

            Julius in time
            turned and saw their blades, too late
            to hear any sound.

            There is a difference between coincidence and intentional mimesis. To read unfounded significance into the former is called “parallelism” by some.

            > Shakespeare’s JC is irrelevant to any historian studying the historical JC.

            Personal study isn’t the only professional use academics make of documents. Some academics teach, for example. Potential for teaching use has some relevance to the application of a hypothetical reliable fictive-historical classifier to the Gospels.

            My point stands — and it applies to more than just “personal study”. We can use Shakespeare’s plays as a source to address history of literature, or to address the history of the story of Julius Caesar through the ages and various cultures, etc …. but never in order to study the actual history of the original Julius Caesar in Rome for the sake of understanding the past.

            > As your comment indicates, you can identify the two elements when they appear in a genre that combines the two.

            Yes, I can sometimes locate actual examples of literary performances on a spectrun between hypothetical polar extremes. That doesn’t contradict my position; it restates it.

            There is no single line spectrum. There are two lines, and sometimes they overlap in a work. But history remains history and fiction remains fiction. Fiction and nonfiction can be creatively mixed but we can always analyse which is which.

            1. > Genre by definition is a guide to an author’s intention

              Say what? What happened to

              > Only God and authors of fiction can write about a person’s inner thoughts and motivations.

              On that basis, I had expected you to agree that “Neither of us knows what Shakespeare intended, nor have we natural means to find out.” Given that we don’t agree even on that, and that I appreciate whose blog this is, I sense that I have consumed more than my fair share of your time.

              Thank you for your replies to my comments on this post.

              1. You overlooked the second half of my sentence:

                — or at least to what he wants readers to believe is his intention.

                For example, someone can write a diary posing as a famous person in order to deceive readers.

                Many people write novels. At one level their intentions are clear: to entertain readers in some fashion; but at a deeper level we cannot know the inner psychology of what drives each of them to want to entertain and leave creative works for readers, or always why they choose the themes and motifs they use.

                Many write histories. Their intention is obviously to “do history” as distinct from write novels. But the inner reasons they have chosen history as their vocation are generally unknown to most.

                Postmodernist thought should be aware of all of these subtleties and levels of meaning.

                I don’t mind the exchange at all. It is good to try to air our reasons and try to understand alternative perspectives.

              2. I don’t think it comes down to degrees of scepticism so much as having different perspectives, different arguments concerning the same phenomena. But I do enjoy and profit from civil exchanges of differences of viewpoints — something not found often enough on the web, in my experience.

        2. Shakespeare did in fact impart some historical information in the play

          Yes, but you only know that because other, historical sources exist to confirm that. Were a play our only source on Julius Caesar, we’d need to concede we’d have no measure whatsoever to discern fact from fiction.

          1. Correct. I thought I made that point. It doesn’t matter if we have a zillion references to Julius Caesar in Renaissance and subsequent literature if we have no primary or even secondary evidence for a historical Julius Caesar. I am always reminded of my high school maths teacher failing us even if we got the right answer at the end — if our method leading up to that answer was in error.

            Just hitting on a right answer by luck is not a justifiable method any more than buying lottery tickets is a rational way to earn an income.

      2. Last night I watched ‘This is Spinal Tap’ for the first time. As I watched, something that came to mind was a comment by Tom Dykstra in his ‘Mark, Canonizer of Paul’:

        ‘ Before the late twentieth century, scholars generally saw the gospels as an essentially new genre. Later came recognition that this stand is untenable: new genres can develop out of existing ones, but no author can create a genre from scratch, as if he were writing in a generic vacuum. As Michael Vines puts it, “Genre functions as a conventional bridge between author and reader, therefore an utterly new genre would be either incomprehensible, or at least seriously prone to misinterpretation.” (165)’

        Afterward I read up on it, and on Wikipedia one of the principal actors said that for years, many people continued to be convinced that there was a ‘real’ band called Spinal Tap. Probably to this day there are some who think ‘This is Spinal Tap’ was a real documentary without giving it any further thought.

        Now, I think Dykstra’s point was in a way misplaced: there *are* new genres that simply appear, though it is also true that they appear to be new to the extent that they are incomprehensible or seriously misunderstood.

        The gospels are proof of that. The fact that an apparent majority of tenured scholars still believe the gospels are just slightly garbled historical accounts means that the gospel genre is, indeed, being totally misinterpreted today because as a genre it is incomprehensible.

        Now, taking the case of ‘This is Spinal Tap’: if you didn’t know better and were for some reason fooled by the film – maybe scholars looking back a thousand years from now will be – you would identify it as belonging to the documentary film genre. That’s because it’s shot as a straight-up documentary film. In fact, its adherence to documentary genre rules is impeccable.

        As contemporary viewers, however, we have two basic reasons for knowing the film to be a ‘mockumentary’, a new genre that even with repeated successive examples (e.g. The Office) is still barely established compared with the documentary genre: a) we have access to factual information that tells us it is. This includes knowledge that the actors have appeared in other mockumentaries, in other comedy films and TV shows; that you can’t go to the record shop and buy all of Spinal Tap’s albums, etc., not to mention that you can look up ‘This is Spinal Tap’ online and read all about how it’s a mockumentary. But b) the less tangible part is that many of us, for recognizing and reacting to the lines of dialogue and the situations with laughter, and seeing that there are simply too many laughs for it to be ‘real’, become immediately doubtful that it’s ‘real’ – if we have any intelligence. But for all these lines and situations to be funny, we have to inhabit a certain cultural space and have access to certain cultural information. Not everyone would, and you might show this film to people in China, for example, with subtitles – and while they may laugh, they may never land on the precise conclusion that it’s fake.

        This example has a bearing, I think, on Neil’s insistence on a distinction between history and fiction. Insisting that there is a distinction is not enough. You can upset and problematize the distinction, and the more worthy work in what is presently called ‘postmodernism’ did that successfully decades ago. But as I tried to point out in a recent comment, only a fool (i.e. mean-spirited academic) would take the fact that a distinction can be problematized to mean that no distinctions of any kind can ever be made. Rather, the more intelligent conclusion is that such distinctions are provisional, tentative, and always open to question. And that just because we may find a distinction to be meaningful doesn’t mean it exists ‘out there’. After all, how can you distinguish between ‘This is Spinal Tap’ and a real documentary? At the objective level of both form and content, it’s indistinguishable from a ‘real’ documentary: everything from the editing to the pacing of action to the interviewer’s questions and the style of answers is precisely what you might see in a real documentary about that kind of band. In fact, it’s only because it is so identical to the documentary genre that it’s so successful as a film.

        Now, some might insist that ‘This is Spinal Tap’ is a mockumentary simply because it is. But this is begging the question. After all, at issue is not what this genre is, but whether there’s *ultimate* criteria for distinguishing it from another, e.g. documentary. The problem is that whatever defines the difference is not on the side of the object (i.e. the film) but on the side of the viewer. Again, does this mean we should throw all distinctions out the window? No, it’s a matter of putting the cart and the horse in the proper order. Pointing out that – at bottom – fiction and history might be built of the same material is not meant to shut down all thought, disappearing into a fog of obscurantism. Rather, it’s meant to add complexity and subtlety to our thinking – breaking our reflexive habit of believing that because our distinctions are meaningful that they are also a priori objectively real.

        1. There is a difference between the concept of a “new genre” in the sense Vines meant (I am going by memory here) and authors mixing different genres in new ways. Authors have always been doing the latter. The example of a mockumentary is one such case: it combines a documentary genre with spoof. We recognise both genres in the film (from what I understand about it in your comment.)

          The “mockumentary” is comprehensible as a combination of recognised genres. That is, it is not some alien genre no-one has ever heard of before.

          The gospels do mix a number of genres. Luke comes closest to trying to make his romance look like history.

          1. I agree. It’s a matter of emphasis. I would stress that the reader/viewer effectively decides the genre. The fact that only in recent decades has the true ‘genre’ of the gospels started to be understood (we think) has meant that for just as long they were thought to be a wholly new genre. And to that extent they were.

        2. When SPINAL TAP was first made, they pre-screened it to audiences of young people, many of whom believed it was an actual documentary about a real band.

          1. Goes to my point. A ‘genre’ has to encompass the writer and the reader (or filmmaker and viewer). If it doesn’t, you either end up with the view that something belongs to a totally ‘new’ genre or have it being mistaken for another (e.g. gospels mistaken by secular apologist scholars as historical accounts).

            1. I had a client lend me an history book. It turned out to be a novel about the matriarchal Cimmerians fighting the patriarchal Scythians. That she thought it was history was her failing of ignorance. (She also lent me the The Chalice and the Blade just to give you an idea.)

              Both historical fiction and mockumentaries have numerous ‘markers’ or ‘tells’ allowing a reasonable, informed, and open-minded observer to determine they are fictional. The teenagers who believed SPINAL TAP were ignorant of Rock history. My client — a former runaway who’d spend her adult life among homesteading, raw-food-eating, chemtrail-fearing hippies — had very few reference points to lean on.

              Though the author consciously and openly was writing fiction, that book — bought at a yard sale — was circulating among the hippies who accepted its contents as veracious. The ‘this is fiction!’ markers went unregistered, partly due to general ignorance, partly because the novel coincided with that community’s belief system. A not dissimilar milieu to the 2nd/3rd Century church trying to make sense of Mark

              1. I’m particularly interested in how the crucifixion itself may be non-historical.

                There is no real reason to suppose Pilate had anything to do with Jesus’ death, any more than there is to think that the census of Census of Quirinius described in Luke had anything to do with Joseph’s family.

                The first Christians may have discovered a celestial Christ was crucified through an allegorical reading of Deuteronomy 21:22-23:

                (1) 1 Corinthians 15:3

                3For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,

                (2) Galatians 3:13-14New King James Version (NKJV)

                13 Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written in Deuteronomy 21:22-23, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”), 14 that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.

                Also, there is the implicit piercing of hands and feet (Mark 24//Psalm 22:16b).  The Septuagint has ωρυξαν χειράς μου και πόδας (“they have dug my hands and feet”), which some commentators argue could be understood in the general sense as “pierced”.

              1. It won’t let me reply to your comment directly. Thread too long?

                In answer: no, that is not the question – in my view. Or rather, what are being confused here are two questions that I would submit you are asking simultaneously. First, whether there is an ultimate difference between fiction and non-fiction per se; that is, whether a distinction objectively exists on the side of the object of literature. Second – and this is how you reframed the question with your reply, which is important in my view – whether they can be ‘distinguished’. That is to say, whether one can be read against an external set of facts and based on their agreement be judged ‘nonfiction’.

                The second is trivially true. If a piece of literature describes a set of external facts and does not depart from those facts in any significant or meaningful way – sure, by this comparison that you as a reader has undertaken, you can deem what you are reading ‘nonfiction’.

                However, and this makes all the difference: the process whereby something is judged nonfiction takes place on the side of the reader and involves an external set of facts from which the object (in this case literature) remains independent.

                I could write a three-stanza autobiographical poem that makes references to certain names and dates, and that walks the reader through a brief experience. I could take the same poem, change the names and dates, but keep everything else the same. To a reader who knows nothing of the external facts on which the poem is based, do these names and dates make a difference? Names can be evocative and dates less so, but as they impact the total reading experience, these facts may make no difference whatsoever, yet from a different perspective they may all the difference between it being fiction or non-.

                The point here is that you can ‘distinguish’ between fiction and nonfiction in a work if you choose to do so. But this is a process that the reader undertakes to a greater or lesser extent. Lesser, if by agreement or genre convention, a reader is told it is nonfiction and doesn’t verify every apparent fact. Greater if you are at first unsure about the actuality of each event described and then must go about verifying.

              2. What I meant by whether fiction and nonfiction can be distinguished is whether it is possible for the competent reader to do so. If so, then there is a clear ontological demarcation between fiction and nonfiction. That some people don’t care or are confused does not change that. Or am I missing your point?

              3. If the question is whether or not fiction and nonfiction are distinguishable, then the answer will apply to whatever genre that carries them. Historical novels are classified as fiction, but they contain nonfictional elements.

              4. Ugh. I’m afraid you’re simply repeating yourself, and nothing I’ve mentioned is getting addressed. If the distinction between fiction and nonfiction depends on a competent reader, and therefore takes place in the mind of the reader, you can hardly say the distinction has some ontological status outside the reader in the text.

              5. The competent reader uses independently grounded methods and supports etc external to the text.

                (Appreciate your comment: I thought I was addressing your points but obviously I wasn’t. So we apparently have different understandings/perspectives of the same words.)

  4. The beginning of the Gospel of Mark says: “1This is the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, THE SON OF GOD.”

    If we don’t try to read Matthew and Luke back into Mark, “Son of God” means Jesus was destined to become a leader or example to the Jews in some sense. This is what Mark’s account explains.

    For instance, in the Hebrew scriptures, we read:

    (1) “I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name; and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me (2 Sam. 7:12-14).”

    (2) In Psalm 89, in which the psalmist indicates that David was anointed by God (that is, literally anointed with oil as a sign of God’s special favor; v. 20), he is said to be God’s “firstborn, the highest of the kings of earth (v.27).”

    (3)God says to the king: “You are my son; today I have begotten you (Psalm 2, v. 7)

    In the same way, prefacing his account with identifying Jesus as the “Son Of God,” Mark is trying to show how Jesus acted as a “Son of God” for the Jews.

    If “Son of God” was intended in a different sense (like in Matthew and Luke), Mark certainly would have needed to explain it in this different sense, due to strict Jewish Monotheism.

    1. Jesus was the “Son of God” in Mark, not in the sense that he overthrew the Romans and restored the Davidic line, but rather that what he accomplished put him on par with any Jewish king (Son of God).

    2. Huh, what?

      Mark 1:10-11 (NRSV)

      “And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from the heaven, “You are my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

      This is not a reference to what people expected of Jewish kings. It’s the basis of what’s usually called an adoptionist theology, that is, God adopted Jesus as His son. Since this occurs at the beginning of his ministry, it can hardly be based on his accomplishments – unless Mark has the chronology wrong, which was a common comment from the Church Fathers.

        1. It’s an example of Mark’s use of irony. By identifying Jesus as the Son of God at the start of his ministry, it would make the reader think he would become king of the Jews, when in fact Jesus becomes something else entirely – although still on par with, and greater than, any of the Jewish kings.

          By the time of Mark’s writing, it was well established that Jesus had died an atoning death (1 Corinthians 15:3-8). Mark symbolizes the reconciling of God with man by the tearing of the temple veil, and the reconciling of the Jews with the gentiles by the words of the centurion:

          38And the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. 39When the centurion standing there in front of Jesus saw how He had breathed His last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”… (Mark 15:38-39)

          The centurion calling Jesus the “Son of God” shows that what Jesus accomplished made him greater than any previous Jewish king because Jesus broke down the barrier between man and God, and Jew and gentile.

          At least, that’s what Mark’s reader at the time would have understood. I don’t believe any of it for the same reason I don’t believe in unicorns. lol

    3. The manuscript evidence does not allow us to be confident that “son of God” was original to Mark 1:1. Ehrman concludes in Orthodox Corruption of Scripture page 75:

      Scribes would have had little reason to delete the phrase “the Son of God” from Mark 1:1, but they would have had reasons to add it. Just as was the case in the other variant readings previously considered, it may have been the orthodox construal of Mark’s Gospel that led to the corruption of the text. Mark entitled his book “The Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” and proceeded to narrate that first significant event of Jesus’ life, his baptism and the accompanying revelatory experience. In order to circumvent an adoptionistic reading of this inaugurating event, early orthodox Christian scribes made a slight modification of Mark’s opening words, so that now they affirm Jesus’ status as the Son of God prior to his baptism, even prior to the mention of John the Baptist, his forerunner. Now even before he comes forward to be baptized, Jesus is understood by the reader to be the Christ, the Son of God.

      1. “Son of God” occurs in Mark at the key points of (a) the inception of Jesus’ ministry, and (b) the culmination of Jesus’ ministry with the words of the soldier symbolizing the reconciliation of man and God, and the reconciliation of Jews and gentiles through Jesus’ atoning death. It is perfectly reasonable to suppose this key theme would appear in Mark’s title.

        1. We know “son of God” appears elsewhere in the gospel, but it is not safe to make a case based on its appearance in 1:1. Significant manuscripts do not have it in that verse, and the simplest explanation is the one Ehrman sets out.

          1. Regardless of whether “Son of God” appeared in 1:1, I still think “Son of God” in Mark means Jesus, although he didn’t become king of the Jews, was still considered on par with the greatest Jewish kings and was even greater than them for what he accomplished (not “Son of God” in the sense used in Matthew and Luke).

            Recall: the Centurion said Jesus “was” the Son of God, not that Jesus “is” the Son of God, implying the title was given to Jesus in life, not being applicable after he died.

  5. This reminds me of a long thread of comments some time ago on McGraths blog. I don’t even remember the full jist of the exchange, I just remember asking “What did you do to determine that the Gospels weren’t fiction before analyzing them?” His response was “Isn’t that putting the cart before the horse?” It was as if the thought had never occured that these accounts might just be fictional, they’ve just “always” been analyzed and taken for “history”. If you don’t know you’re analyzing fiction, you’re naturally going to come to all kinds of erroneous conclusions.

  6. One more comment and then I need to go.

    I was recently reading some about Our Virgin of Guadalupe, and was struck by how what “actually” happened, got, well, completely ignored and mythicized very shortly after the life of those who partook in events. The real shocker is that the peasant “Juan Diego” with almost certainly never existed, but is simply a prop. The event was mythologized shortly after the Bishops death and pretty much passed into assumed history. The only way we know this is because there are written records still Extant. Could Jesus have been a similar prop? Were the Gospels specifically written in a way to make them nearly impossible to prove or dissprove? I meant there were ton’s of “Jesus’s” running around, and tons of messianic prophets. I just thought it was interesting that we have a pretty clear case of myth making that incorporates both real people and fictional characters and miraculous acts.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading