Note: This is the second of two columns on historicity and scripture. Part one is "Historicity and the problem of 'getting at' the past" and can be found online at deseretnews.com/article/865621380/Historicity-and-the-problem-of-getting-at-the-past.html. In a future column, we’ll discuss the questions of accuracy and inconsistency in ancient texts and scripture.
J.R.R. Tolkien presented his “Lord of the Rings” to the world as fiction, and, thus, it’s “authentic” because it’s exactly what it claims to be — a fictional tale describing imaginary people, events, objects and places.
The book of Deuteronomy, by contrast, presented itself not only as history, but as inspired history. If the story of Moses and the Exodus is fiction, the book of Deuteronomy is inauthentic — that is, it’s not what it claims to be.
It’s often very difficult to understand the authorial intent of an ancient text; most are anonymous. It’s equally difficult to determine how a text was understood by its ancient audience.
If, for example, Joseph Smith had presented the Book of Mormon to the world as an inspired fictional parable, it could be considered as fictional scripture. Fiction can be scripture, of course: For example, Jesus’ parables are fictional inspired scripture; there was, very likely, never a specific, historical good Samaritan or prodigal son.
On the other hand, both Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon presented the book as a historical account of real people and places: the claim is that the resurrected Jesus really did appear to real Nephites in the New World. If the Book of Mormon is fictional, then it’s necessarily inauthentic because it’s not really what it claims to be. Jesus’ parables, on the other hand, can be authentic, inspired and scriptural, even though they're fictional, because they were originally presented as fiction.
It’s important to realize that not all the books of the Bible present themselves as history. The Bible includes poetry, proverbs, moral exemplars, etc. The book of Job may very well be a work of fiction — a parable of sorts, or a proto-philosophical dialogue. But Job doesn’t present itself as history (though some modern readers have assumed it to be such). That is, if Job is a work of fiction, it’s still authentic, because it makes no internal claim to be historical.
Likewise, in the Book of Mormon, the allegory of the olive tree in Jacob 5 isn’t historical; it presents itself as inspired fiction. The book of Kings, on the other hand, clearly presents itself as authentic history, though it makes no internal claim to inspiration or revelation.
Now, it’s possible for modern readers to assert historicity for an ancient book that never claimed historicity for itself. This is a problem for the “Iliad,” for example. Was there really an Achilles who died besieging the city of Ilium? Or is Homer just telling a great story? The most problematic example is the “Alexander Romance.” Although the ancient world left four authentic biographies of Alexander the Great, the most widely read Alexander biography of all was the essentially fictional “Alexander Romance” by Pseudo-Callisthenes. This text was far more popular than the authentic biographies, and it survives in Greek, Latin, Armenian, Syriac, Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, Ethiopic, Turkish, Bulgar, Mongolian, Italian, German, Old Norse, Spanish, Middle English, Old French, Old Slavonic and Scottish.
The fact that fictional stories about Alexander the Great proliferated throughout the medieval world — and were more widely read than his accurate biographies — has absolutely no bearing on the question of the historicity of Alexander. People in antiquity wrote fictional tales about historical figures, just as people do today. The historicity of Alexander isn’t undermined by the vast number of false stories circulated about him, although those false stories might undermine our modern ability to know accurate information about Alexander. That, however, is an epistemological question concerning our ability to know the past, not a question about the reality of the past itself.
The opposite problem is also possible. If modern scholars reject the historicity of an ancient text that claims to recount real history, that requires rejection of its authenticity, since the text claims to be authentic history but isn’t. Accordingly, its author must have been either mistaken, delusional or fraudulent. Many “minimalist” biblical scholars maintain that the historical books of the Bible and the Gospels are related to historical reality in much the same way that the Alexander Romance is related to the “Alexander of History.” They are, they maintain, fictional or false stories about (possibly) real people. Biblical “minimalism,” though, is a controversial and very debatable position.
Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.