April 10, 2022

Gospel Stories through the Lens of Historical Fiction

 Here are 1400 words (sans footnotes) from my current work in progress. Comments are closed but feel free to e-mail me with any responses.

     A more specific comparison which is useful to my purpose is the “classic model” of historical fiction, according to Georg Lukács [The Historical Novel, 1962 (1937)] and Hamish Dalley ["Temporal Systems in Representations of the Past" in Historical Fiction, Kate Mitchell, Nicola Parsons, et al., 2012], which defines a specific framework for understanding how narrative storylines often integrate specific historical background events, like the death of Herod and the accession of Archelaus.[1] Although some works of historical fiction have featured major world figures as central protagonists (e.g., Shakespeare’s Henry V or Stephen Spielberg’s 2012 film, Lincoln), Georg Lukács observed that most historical novels have instead centered around fictional persons whose personal lives are dramatically affected by famous historical events.[2] Examples of the classic paradigm include Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace and James Cameron’s 1997 film, Titanic. In each of these works we can observe what Dalley calls a “bubble of contingency” within which the author’s chosen protagonists can express agency and generate chains of consequence but only within their own lives.[3] Tolstoy’s characters struggle to deal with Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and Cameron’s characters fight to avoid death in the freezing Atlantic. In each case, “the membrane between the protagonist’s private world and the world of public history can be crossed in only one direction” because the major world events creating “large-scale historical change” remain “in the background.”[4] Naturally, this background excludes the main characters and plot points which occupy an author’s primary focus and central storyline, all of which we may henceforth refer to as foreground.

     When the foregrounded story elements are set against a familiar historical background, astute audiences can perceive dramatic irony by correctly anticipating future developments which the characters cannot, and knowing the history in advance creates a teleological pull upon audience expectations.[5] For example, Cameron’s Jack and Rose are unknown figures of no great consequence whose heroic struggle to determine their own humble destines is suddenly and severely curtailed by the famous iceberg, but this impending disaster is expected by knowing audiences from the opening of the film. According to Dalley, it is this kind of dramatic irony, along with the richly depicted historical setting, which allows historical fiction to convey the “historical distance” of the background material while still generating suspenseful developments in the foregrounded narration.[6] Thus, the classic model allows historical fiction writers to construct the historical past using a hybrid form of representation, depicting the human condition and the historical past, both in meaningful ways, while simultaneously “differentiating human agency from historical processes.”[7] Such a narrative can tell its own story in the foreground without deviating from history in the background. This paradigm provides certain storytelling advantages which are not available in other models of historical fiction (e.g., Spielberg’s Lincoln and Shakespeare’s Henry V) which depict the lived experiences of powerful historical figures.[8]

     With respect to these differences, we should observe that various historical figures in the rest of GMatt can be found serving either foreground or background at different points in the narrative.[9] In the story of the Magi, King Herod is introduced as a character with grave ambitions and petty emotions whose agency drives the central plotline (2:1-8, 16). Despite being a famous historical figure, we see that Herod’s mood and plans can be altered by the Magi (2:3-8, 16). Because the membrane between history and storytelling is not in evidence, the classic model of historical fiction does not apply to Herod’s role in GMatt 2; at least, not until the king dies (a point to which I return further below). Reversing that sequence, GMatt 3 introduces John the Baptist as a historical figure who creates a widespread cultural impact while exhibiting no choices or personal desires (3:1-12). In other words, John enters the story as expositional background; the narrator explaining how John’s prior preaching made things ready for Jesus to begin perfectly befits the model of “one way membrane” between background and foreground. Upon Jesus’s arrival, however, the baptizer moves somewhat into the narrative flow, surprised by his interaction with Jesus (3:14). Likewise, we see that Jesus affects John in prison when the baptizer expresses a personal need for reassurance (albeit via messengers; 11:2-3). Thus, John begins as a fixed point of factual history but that “one way” bubble of contingency effectively disappears after Jesus arrives. For a third example, GMatt’s Antipas exhibits agency in the episode where his stepdaughter dances (14:6-11), reacting and interacting with others at his party, and reacts with superstitious confusion to reports about Jesus (14:1-2). In these moments, the text portrays Antipas as a character in the foreground. Immediately thereafter, however, GMatt depicts Jesus traveling on the outskirts of Galilee as if trying to avoid Antipas’s jurisdiction.[10] Thus, like Herod and John, Antipas becomes most impactful as an unseen historical presence; his unstated reach reflected in Jesus’s itinerary between GMatt 14 and 19.[11] Finally, consider Pontius Pilate. Although the magistrate’s personal agency is clearly pivotal at the climax of GMatt’s drama (27:11-26), Pilate ultimately declares himself to have no choice (27:24) before condemning Jesus to his famous and ultimate fate (27:26). As any educated audience knows in advance, the historical fact of the crucifixion is the author’s pre-ordained denoument.[12] Thus, Pilate’s hand washing moves him from foreground to background, his final effect upon Jesus becoming every bit as cruel, as impersonal, as unalterable as Tolstoy’s Napoleon or Titanic’s iceberg.

     In all these examples we find a wide variety of temporal constructions, all by the same writer, within the same work, with presentations of historical figures that alternately do or do not adhere to the classic model, a la Lukács and Dalley. Nevertheless, as often as the Gospel mentions a historical figure merely to provide background context, or when that figure indirectly impacts or restricts the narrative options of the foregrounded characters, then in those cases the classic model of historical fiction can direct our interpretive efforts to understand the text as a narratological hybrid. In those passages, we can observe foregrounded story dynamics being determined by powerful forces in the narrative background. In each case, the story’s protagonists have their options severely curtailed by famous historical actions, such as Herod dying, John preaching, Antipas executing, and Pilate crucifying. Those events in GMatt qualify as background context because they are either framed as historical context by the narrator or recognized as “historical” by a knowing audience, or both. Lots of people were impacted by Herod’s death, by John’s preaching, by John’s beheading, and by the power of Roman magistrates to execute condemned persons, but in each case the Gospel evokes these famous events to show how each one affects the story of Jesus in a more specific way. What these hybrid narrative/history moments provide for the text of GMatt is the opportunity to tell a story about how our protagonist pushed forward in his endeavors, responding heroically as necessary to each historical challenge as it arose. The alternate model (Herod and the Magi, John and his doubt, Antipas and Salome, Pilate and his wife) allows the implied author of GMatt to explore those characters and situations in interesting ways. The classic model (or should I say the natural pattern of storytelling which happens to align with the classic model) allows an author different opportunities. Either pattern of storytelling can be put to different rhetorical and narratological purposes, and it seems clear the text of GMatt presents us with examples of both storytelling patterns at different points along the way.

     I contend that the classic model best explains what we find in the micronarrative at GMatt 2:22, which clearly relies on Herod’s death and Archelaus’s accession as the fixed points of Judea history to which Joseph and Mary must respond. In addition, as I argue in section 2.4 below, the text further evokes and relies upon audience knowledge about a third major historical occurrence, namely Augustus’s decision to separate the Herodian territories. However, before I can show how the narrative does this, we must first establish a base of historical knowledge for the given historical period. As promised above, for the sake of this reader response exercise, I now present the shared view of selected historians about the transition after king Herod’s death. For the inevitable critic who winds up disagreeing when I defend this select view in due course, I submit for the moment that any given history can illustrate how to read in historical context, as per the paradigm detailed above, and that task remains the primary goal of this chapter.

*Footnotes deleted from this draft excerpt copy

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