I know that the Speculative Faith site is all about speculative fiction, which in this case is defined as science fiction, fantasy, counterfactual history, allegory, all those fun genres populated with fantastical stories and odd creatures. But today, on the Wednesday of Holy Week, I’ve been musing on a different form of speculative fiction, one that most people wouldn’t put under this particular umbrella.
Wait, stop laughing. I’m being serious here. In many ways, Biblical fiction is just as speculative as anything that has elves or space marines.
This is something that I learned first hand a number of years ago. After watching The Passion of the Christ, I started musing over the role of Joseph Caiaphas in the trial and death of Christ. Specifically, I couldn’t get past the idea that everyone thinks that he or she is the hero of his or her own story. Caiaphas, in putting Jesus on trial, wasn’t twirling a waxed mustache and chortling over how great it was that evil was triumphing. No, he was doing what he believed was right.
So it got me to thinking: what would a story with Caiaphas as the hero look like? What might have been going through his head while he dealt with the Jesus question? What forces would have led him onto that collision course with history?
It was a fascinating idea and something that I wanted to explore. So I started doing some research into what we knew about Joseph Caiaphas. I had heard about the Caiaphas ossuary, but that was about it. So I did some digging and came up with . . . well, not a lot. There are some traditions in the rabbinical literature about the House of Annas (Caiaphas’s father-in-law). Flavius Josephus has a few details about the man also. But there were a lot of large gaps in the record. So I expanded my research into the historical time period, reading about how the Roman Empire interacted with the leadership in Jerusalem during that time period, about the various rebellions that occurred when Archelaus succeeded his father, and so on.
And as I studied, I started coming up with interesting questions: how would Caiaphas have reacted to those rebellions? Why was Caiaphas able to hold on to his office as chief priest as long as he did when his predecessors were being replaced by the Roman governors on a yearly basis? How might Caiaphas have reacted to Caligula’s decision to install a statue of himself in the Temple? Just what was the relationship between John the Apostle and Caiaphas and how did it develop? In short, there was a lot of fodder for a fun book only I hit a problem.
I didn’t know the right answers to any of those questions. If I was going to answer them, I would have to fill in the blanks with my best guesses.
In short, I’d have to speculate.
Now I realize that you’re probably rolling your eyes. But let’s be honest, that’s what Biblical fiction authors have to do. Yes, they can turn to historical and archaeological research to help them make those guesses, but by and large, when presented with gaps in the story, they have to start speculating on what might have happened. If they’re really skillful, it’ll be hard to tell where the facts stop and where the guess work begins. But it’s still a form of speculative fiction.
Take Judas Iscariot, for example. Why did Judas betray Jesus? What were his motives? Was he only in it for the money? Or did he have a deeper motivation?
Now, personally, I’m not sure that Judas was just in it for the money. If he was, he wouldn’t have repented and tried to return the money. I certainly don’t think he’d have hung himself. Instead, it’s my belief that Judas was a true believer, who desperately wanted Jesus to be the Messiah. But when Jesus was acting Messiah-like enough, Judas tried to back Him into a corner. He wanted Jesus to prove He was the real deal by using His power to defeat His enemies. When that didn’t happen, Judas freaked out.
Am I right? I have no idea. And I know that other people don’t agree with that theory. For example, in Tosca Lee’s book, Iscariot, she presents a much different picture of Judas, one that was born from years of research. The picture that she presents of Judas is similar to my theory, but with some key differences. I won’t get into it now. Spoilers and all that. Needless to say, it makes for fascinating reading but it still is speculation on Lee’s part, just as my theory about Judas is speculation on my part. It very well could turn out that Judas was only in it for the money but then had a sudden and violent attack of conscience. We won’t know this side of eternity, but it’s still fun to speculate.
Or how about another example. Pontius Pilate is a pretty big figure in the story of Jesus’ death. What motivated the Roman governor to do what he did? What do we actually know about Pilate?
Well, the historical record is pretty quiet about him. We know of a few other incidents involving Pontius Pilate, ones that are recorded in Josephus and by the Jewish philosopher Philo. But those are only a few small threads.
But they were enough for Dr. Paul Maier to write what I consider one of the best Biblical fiction stories out there, namely Pontius Pilate. Dr. Maier is an expert on that time period and he pulled together a number of extra-Biblical sources to piece together as much of Pilate’s life and career as possible. He even set a pretty high standard for himself: he would stick to the historical record as much as humanly possible. He’d keep his artistic license to a minimum. He even has extensive end notes in the book to explain his reasoning for why he portrayed certain incidents the way he did. For example, both Lee and Dr. Maier depict what happened when Pilate built an aqueduct for Jerusalem, but they disagree on how Pilate secured the funding for the project. Personally, I find Dr. Maier’s explanation the more plausible one.
In spite of that caution, though, Maier still had to speculate on a lot of it. There are gaps that had to be filled in. I think he did an exceptional job doing so, but it’s still extremely educated guesswork.
So do I think we should expand our scope a little? No, a lot of this has been tongue-in-cheek. The Biblical fiction authors I’ve met would probably be horrified to be lumped in with us. But maybe it’s okay to get out of our own wheelhouses from time to time and see what else is out there. I know that both of the books I mentioned helped me understand Jesus and what He did better. And on a Wednesday during Holy Week, maybe that’s the story we should focus on more.
I’ll leave you with this question: What’s your favorite fictional portrayal of the events of Holy Week (in book, audio, or movie form)?