I thought I’d post two items that I have my ancient Israel class read each year. Both are from V. Philips Long’s important book, The Art of Biblical History. The first is the book’s introduction, which uses a painting and its interpretation as an analogy to the enterprise of the historian. It’s quite helpful. The second is Long’s second chapter, entitled “History and Fiction: What is History?” It’s an excellent introduction into the fact that the biblical story is at times just that — story — but without losing historical value. The chapter makes the difference between “historicized fiction” and “fictionalized history” clear — and notes that the choice of which is the adjective and which is the noun in those phrases is important.
Whether we realize it or not, the Bible employs fiction. My favorite example is dialogue in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Between them we get two, and sometimes three, versions of the same story, with dialogue included. The dialogue is typically very similar, but always different in some way, whether by word choice (vocabulary) or things like tense and case for verbs and nouns. Let me illustrate why this matters. Let’s say we have a story where Jesus is speaking to Peter in each gospel. The dialogue in all three synoptics is as follows (for one verse):
Matthew: Jesus said to Peter, “Let us go to the temple and preach the gospel.”
Mark: Jesus said to Peter, “Come, let us go to the holy place and preach the gospel.”
Luke: Jesus said to Peter, “Let us go and preach the good news.”
In *real time* (had the statement been recorded), Jesus only said one set of words. We have to conclude that either one of the gospels got the words exactly right, or none did, or they all got some of the words right. But there was no tape recording. All three writers made up the dialogue to re-capture the event, and they all did so faithfully. We cannot say the Holy Spirit flawless gave each writer the words, since that would have the Spirit “flawlessly” recalling Jesus saying three different (though ultimately synonymous) things. Why would the Spirit do something like that when He would actually know what was actually said? To be cute? Capricious? Playful? Makes no sense. But deferring to human memory and creativity makes complete sense here. They could all be contrived, yet faithful to the event.
Long’s material goes much deeper than this. The issues involved are more complex.