A Different Sort Of Speculative Fiction
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)?
I happen to write Biblical fiction myself — specifically in comic books.
One of my first projects along those lines was about the Passion week, and does exactly what the article is talking about.
I agree that the “speculative fiction” label is too narrow, and there are a few other genres that I would fit into it.
What I love is that Biblical fiction has all the marks of high fantasy, with the difference that it is grounded in our reality and history.
My favorite portrayal of Holy Week is in the hymns that guide my thoughts about it. But that’s partly because I have neither read any historical fiction set then, nor heard either of the Bach Passion settings. (If you had asked about portrayals of Pentecost, though, I recently read a very strange play by Charles Williams, “Terror of Light” …)
Speaking of Holy Week speculation, though, there’s an array of supplementary stories, traditions, and even legends surrounding the Gospel accounts. (The most obvious of which, when you prompt me by mentioning the recent Passion movie, is Veronica.) I won’t say that what the medieval storytellers developed was better than anything we could do, because we have both their stories and modern archaeology to build on, but those stories were certainly as fantastical at times as the most far-fetched modern fantasy.
(This post also made me suddenly certain that the expansion of the Holy Worlds speculative-fiction forums to include historical fiction as well as fantasy and science fiction was absolutely correct, )
Ah, music. Yes, that’s a larger influence on my experience of Passion Week. For me there’s none better than Handel’s Messiah, but Andrew Peterson’s “Behold the Lamb of God” is perhaps my favorite of contemporary Passion song. Then there is “In Christ Alone” by Krysten and Keith Getty and in a generation before, Keith Green’s “Easter Song.”
In some ways we can say all fiction is speculative fiction. I mean, historical fiction of any kind fills in the gaps–what did Rasputin say to the Czarina, why did Hitler attack the Russians before they defeated England, did Charles I have a secret marriage with a commoner, how did the sexton at Christ’s Church know how many lantern’s to hang as a signal to Paul Revere, and on and on. Speculation.
As I was reading the first part of your post, John, I was thinking about Iscariot. In many ways, Tosca Lee did in that book what she did in Demon: A Memoir which is considered speculative because of the supernatural character.
I have to say, Biblical fiction–speculating about things that took place and were recorded in the Bible–is a little uncomfortable for me. Your description of Pontius Pilate intrigues me, though.
I always feel a little strange when approaching historical or biblical fiction. Knowing that the characters were real people who really lived in this world, but that it is impossible for the author to have portrayed them exactly as they really were, kills it for me.
Ahh, Bible fanfiction! All historical fiction is just fanfiction of the period, so I love to annoy people by calling it what it is.
Years ago, there was this book by Robert Elwood called Darian: Guardian Angel of Jesus. I read it when I was really too young, and a lot of it was over my head. But it was so interesting to see Jesus’s life through the eyes of his (somewhat rebellious) young angel guardian.
Also, Ray Boltz’s songs Watch the Lamb and The Hammer haunt me at Easter. They’re story songs–Watch the Lamb is from the perspective of the dude who had to carry Jesus’s cross, and the Hammer is from the perspective of one of the Roman soldiers who nailed Jesus to the cross. They’re excellent.
Then there’s Six Hours One Friday, which is all mixed up in my mind with the Biblical account, because it provided so much “backstory” and scene-setting for what was going on in Jerusalem during that Passover weekend. And Ben Hur. And the Fourth Wiseman. And so many others.
I’m curious why you say that, though. You say you’re just “calling it what it is” but don’t explain how it fits into the definition.
I’m trying NOT to be annoyed, but at the same time it does bother me for someone to be so dismissive of an entire genre (which much of my work falls into).
Unless you have a broader definition of fanfiction than I do. But again, there is no defining what you mean . . .
I’m one of those who doesn’t feel completely comfortable with any sort of historical fiction that deals with real people – Biblical or otherwise – because, as others have mentioned, they were real people with their own unique feelings, ideas, thought processes, motivations, etc. I certainly don’t much like the idea of someone speculating on my motivations some 5,000 years after i die.
That being said, there are a lot of interesting, mysterious people in the Bible – especially (for me) in 1 & 2 Kings and 1 & 2 Chronicles. Like Jeroboam’s son, the one God said was the only member of that household in whom He found anything good, whom He put to death at a young age so that he would have a proper burial unlike the rest of his family. Or Manasseh, Hezekiah’s son, who became king at age 12 and threw himself wholeheartedly into worshipping other gods – until he was captured by Babylon and did a complete 180. Or the Shunammite woman, or Judah the son of Jacob, or the Hebrew slave of Naaman, etc., etc., etc. I think someday i’d like to write stories inspired by these people, but not actually based on them.
And Six Hours One Friday is very good.
I sort of look at it like this: ANY historical account is somewhat fictional. Even historians are applying their own interpretation of events, motives, and emotions. And if you feel like they aren’t, the reader still is.
Anytime you hear someone tell a story about something that happened at work, if the story includes someone else, it’s “historical fiction” because it ascribes motives and emotions to someone who is not the storyteller. That’s not happening 5,000 years after, but five hours. It can be malicious — warping the story to make it something it is not; but it can also be productive — trying to understand someone different than you, with a different background or agenda.
Any time your pastor or a children’s Sunday school teacher tells a story, they are doing the same thing. And again, even if they manage to avoid any interpretation and just report the facts, the people receiving the story do. It is human nature.
And the intention is to explore what those motives and emotions MAY have been. When I write the story of Anna the prophetess, for example, my job as an historical fiction writer (not a title I give myself, just a description of what I was doing when I wrote it) is to set the historical background, giving insight to the setting and the person’s place in it, and exploring what may have been going on in that person’s head as she experiences it. Why does it matter that she was a widow at such a young age? What reasons did she have for going to the temple so often? Why was seeing Christ something that would have been so important to her, as a Jewish woman living at that point in time and space?
The same things are found in Bible expositions, history books, and inspiration writings about the event — and I use all of those in my research.
The difference between a history book and historical fiction (SOMETIMES, I’ve read a number of history books that really blur the line and feel like historical fiction with lots and lots of facts surrounding the story) is in historical fiction, the writer is asking you to enter into the world — much the same way a fantasy writer is asking you to enter a world that does not exist, the historical fiction writer is asking you to enter a world that DID exist. The writer is asking you to enter into someone else’s experiences that you would never be able to experience where you are.
I always take it very seriously when I am writing about real people, to honor their reality, honestly.
Recently, I wrote a comic book about a man and woman whose village was attacked and they were separated — he ended up in hiding and on the run; she was raped and forced to marry another man and became pregnant by the rape; when they were reunited, she and the baby were rescued and are now on the run again because of laws in that country. It is a story worth telling, so readers can understand something outside of themselves. It is historical fiction, about real people. I cut out a photograph from a magazine article about them and taped it just to the side of my computer to remind me to honor their story.
So I understand your unease; and I think for many of us who write this “fan fiction” (still mulling that over) we feel it too, and take it very seriously.
Some of my favorite Biblical fiction is by Brock and Bodie Thoene–I love their AD Chronicles and am looking forward to their newest series.. Even though I know the details are invented, it helps me remember to see Biblical characters as real people.
Judas was a thief and stole from the money-bag, so money was a steady, negative motivation for him. And it’s hard to believe he was a true believer, as he may be the only person the Bible tells us is in hell.
Ben-Hur (the movie) and the book The Miracle Maker are unusually good examples of biblical speculative fiction, including of the Holy Week.
I agree. While there might have been other secondary motivations, the Bible seems to imply money was the main one.
Whether or not he was a true believer depends on whether someone can lose their salvation – and that’s a whole other discussion… 🙂
The Man Born to be King by Dorothy L Sayers. It’s actually a radio play, but the scripts are all published in a book, along with her explanations and comments to the directors/producers/actors, which are even more interesting than the play itself.
She takes a similar view of Judas (which I don’t really agree with, and I think gets too much air time).
I like the way she explores the characters and their motivations, and she has some good insights – such as the fact that when Jesus said, “One of you will betray me,” their attitude was not “Oh, that’ll be Judas,” but, “Is it me?” None of them suspected him.
I have used a lot of her ideas in illustrating the Bible. Of course, illustration is another interpretation. You have to give everyone an appearance an character, and maybe you get it wrong.
[…] all have a “what if” component, but as John Otte recently pointed out in his post “A Different Sort of Speculative Fiction,” Biblical fiction is dependent upon the same element. And so is historical fiction, and, it could be […]