Narrative, Historicity, and Verisimilitude in the Passion Narratives; or, What I Learned from “Big Fish” About Reading the Bible

By Daniel A. Smith
Faculty of Theology
Huron University College, London, Ontario
February 2012

I recently watched Tim Burton’s film Big Fish (2003) again. I must have first seen it around the time that Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004) came out. Although these films are now several years old, the issues they raise are illustrative for how we understand ways of reading the Bible, especially where claims about the historicity (what “really happened”) or the verisimilitude (the appearance of being true or real) where biblical narratives are concerned. Where The Passion tends to use its own narrative to concretize abstract theological concepts (for example, the medieval notion of the superhuman suffering of Christ) or to historicize familiar moments from the history of Christian piety or art (for example, Jesus’ encounter with Veronica), Big Fish sees the relationship between narrative and history in a much more ambivalent way. For the characters in the film, narrative is foundational for community and relationship in spite of troubling questions about truth and verifiability.

Big Fish tells the story of a young journalist, Will Bloom (Billy Crudup), who feels that he only knows his father, Edward (Ewan McGregor; Albert Finney), as a character in his tall tales.1 With Edward facing death, Will returns home to spend a few final days with him. Meanwhile, Edward tells the tall tales of his life to Will’s wife, Josephine – stories of his life in the circus, his romance with Sandra (Will’s mother), his heroism in the Korean War, and his recurring encounters with the mythic catfish in the Ashton River. Josephine is captivated by Edward’s stories, and she asks Will why he never told her how his parents met. “They met at Auburn,” says Will. Josephine says, “What about the details? How they fell in love. The Circus. The War. You never told me any of that.” “That’s because most of it never happened,” Will replies.2 Yet as Will goes through old papers and tracks down old friends and acquaintances of his dad, he is surprised to learn that there often was a kernel of “truth” to some of the stories. Later, at the funeral, Will is able to recognize Edward’s characters in the very real people who come to pay their respects.

In a touching final scene, Will is at his father’s side in the hospital, and he knows the end is near. Edward asks him to tell him the story of his death – a story which he had long insisted he knew because he had “seen it [his own death] in the eye” of the neighborhood witch when he was a kid. “I don’t know that story, Dad. You never told me that one,” Will says.3 But Will enters into his father’s role as story-teller and narrates Edward”s death as a harrowing escape from the hospital in his classic Dodge Charger; they go down to the river, where all the characters from his stories are gathered together for his big send-off. What Will realizes in this last moment is that for Edward, “the story of my life” really is made up of the relationships which his stories both narrate and nurture. The viewer, of course, has already seen this, in the devotion of Sandra, Josephine, and others to Edward, and in how they see his stories as a way of knowing him, rather than as an impediment to finding the real Edward. The stories are fantastic, but they reveal how Edward sees himself, his loved ones, and the world.

I have had reason lately to return to the debate which took place now about fifteen years ago, between John Dominic Crossan and Raymond E. Brown about the historicity of the canonical passion narratives. Even though Crossan styled his popular Who Killed Jesus? as a “counter-book” to Brown’s massive The Death of the Messiah, it was not actually much of a debate, since to my knowledge Brown never responded to Crossan on the matter.4 At issue was not only the historicity of individual details or incidents in the passion narratives, but also their general reliability as accounts, and the complications that arise when affirming the “historicity” of a biblical text becomes an ethical problem. In describing his own approach to the texts, Crossan used the expression “prophecy historicized,” by which he meant that the details in the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and execution – apart from a few exceptions – originated not in reminiscences of historical events but in reflection on biblical texts (such as Psalm 22).5 In contrast, Brown’s approach was to see in the texts “history remembered” (again, this was Crossan’s characterization).

Mark Goodacre has more recently argued that the literary process is better explained with the term “scripturalization,” by which he means that “the multiple echoes of biblical themes and the varied allusions to scriptural precedent can be explained on the basis of intimate interaction between the tradition and the scriptural reflection.”6 In other words, the tradition has been shaped by reflection on the Scriptures, and the historicity of the detail cannot be dismissed simply because it is told in scriptural language. Goodacre raises the example of Mark 15:40-41, in which women are named who watched the crucifixion “from a distance” (Greek, apo makrōthen): although Crossan thinks this detail is historical, he failed to see that it was reported in biblical language (the expression is found in Ps 38:11 LXX).7 In a similar way, Edward Bloom’s stories of his own life are shaped by the narrative and generic tendencies of the stories themselves – ribald joke, haunted house tale, fish story8 – but this does not necessarily mean they are entirely invented, as Will discovers.9 With the passion narratives, however, how would we ascertain the historicity of Mark 15:40-41? The most that can be said is that it does not seem implausible, or that there is no real reason to think it had been invented, even if the language is drawn from the Scriptures. Of course, we are on different ground in these narratives when it comes to the miraculous (darkness covering the whole land) or the fantastic (Edward’s confrontation with the werewolf) or the obviously symbolic (the raising of the holy ones in Matt 27:52-53).

Although Brown’s approach to the historicity of the passion narratives is much more akin to what Goodacre calls scripturalization than to what Crossan calls history remembered, and although he recognized that often questions about historicity can often go no further than claims about “plausibility” or “verisimilitude,” he was generally unwilling to say outright that a detail was fabricated. Quite often, as Crossan documented, Brown would claim that an episode was based on an earlier tradition and could have had its origins in a historical event, however much biblical language or theological reformulation was present. This becomes especially problematic when Brown comments on the notorious “blood-curse” in Matt 27:25: “Then the people as a whole answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’” (NRSV). Although most scholars would say that this is a Matthean fiction, meant by its inventor to offer a theological explanation for the fall of Jerusalem,10 Brown said it was based on “a popular tradition reflecting on the theme of Jesus’ innocent blood and the responsibility it created,” and claimed that there may be a “small historical nucleus” at its origin.11 The same kind of reasoning seems to have been behind Gibson’s inclusion of the infamous line in The Passion (although it was only in the spoken Aramaic, and not shown in the subtitles): it would have been historically dishonest, he thought, to omit it.12

Crossan saw Brown’s treatment of Matt 27:25 as a failure to admit outright that this verse – whose history of interpretation has been horrific – is entirely a fiction. Claims about earlier tradition or historical plausibility can shift or evade blame when it comes to anti-Judaism: if the text simply reports what happened, where does the blame lie? At stake here, thus, is the question of whether or not a biblical text, regardless of whether some may value it as canonical and revelatory, can or should be implicated in its own Wirkungsgeschichte (its interpretive history, or better, the “history” of its “effects”), especially when that history is ugly. In an instance such as Matt 27:25, in my view, it can and it should. As many would, I judge the text a fictional creation of Matthew. Readers concerned to salvage from the text some kind of revelatory meaning, because of its canonical status, could perhaps begin with what it and its history reveal about the tendency of Christians as human beings to cast blame, slander, vilify, ostracize, oppress, and murder.13

In Big Fish, Will’s intuition that the story of Edward’s life was largely fictional was rooted in his deeper insecurities about his father’s fidelity to his mother and himself. In the end, however, Edward’s fidelity is proven, and his tall tales turn out to be more or less benign. Not only that, but Will could look through his father’s things and hunt down old acquaintances, or chat with them at the funeral, and gain some sense of how the stories of Edward Bloom overlapped with the actual events of his life. The character of the passion narratives, and indeed of many texts in the Gospels, is such that beyond the barest of details not much can be said with any certainty about their relation to the historical events they purport to convey. Of course, this is not only the fault of the texts, but also of the available methodologies, which themselves are based on modern notions about the nature of historical certainty. In my view, the best way to read the passion narratives is not for the access they can grant to the historical events, but for what they reveal about those who wrote them and those who have read (and misread) them.

The bare facts, even if we had access to them all, do not have the formative power of narrative, as Will found out in Big Fish. That power has not always been a positive thing, however. Where Edward’s tales were for the most part harmless flights of fancy, the passion narratives – both in the narrative world they create, whatever the basis in history, and in the interpretations they have spawned – have not often been harmless. At times the contemporary reader is compelled to say, “This did not happen,” but saying this does not erase the text itself or its interpretative history. Readers, especially Christian readers, must still try to account for the narrative and theological dynamics of the texts and to own up to their effects.


1 Screenplay by John August, based on Daniel Wallace, Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions (Chapel Hill NC: Algonquin, 1998).

2 John August, Big Fish: The Shooting Script (New York: Newmarket, 2004), 79-80. Available online at American Film Scripts Online, (accessed February 22, 2012).

3 See the final scene at (accessed February 22, 2012).

4 John Dominic Crossan, Who Killed Jesus? Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995), 8 (for the expression “counter-book”); Raymond E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah, From Gethsemane to the Grave: A Commentary on the Passion Narratives in the Four Gospels (2 vols.; ABRL; New York: Doubleday, 1994). Brown died in 1998.

5 For his definition, see Crossan, The Birth of Christianity: Discovering What Happened in the Years Immediately After the Execution of Jesus (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), 521.

6 Mark Goodacre, “Scripturalization in Mark’s Crucifixion Narrative,” in The Trial and Death of Jesus: Essays on the Passion Narrative in Mark, ed. Geert Van Oyen and Tom Shepherd (CBET 45; Leuven: Peeters, 2006), 33-47, here 40.

7 Goodacre, “Scripturalization,” 41. Goodacre also shows that scripturalization is present in Mark 14:50, Crossan’s basis for assuming there were no eyewitnesses present during Jesus’ arrest, trial, and execution.

8 See August, Big Fish: Shooting Script, 51-53 (joke, some of which was not included in the film), 12-17 (confrontation with witch), 2-5 (fish story).

9 In a scene not included in the final version of the film, Will finds among his father’s things the key to the city that formed part of Edward’s story about his adventures with the giant (August, Big Fish: Shooting Script, 121). Perhaps the director left this out, thinking too much verification would not be a good thing, and preferring instead to end with the thought how “a man tells his stories so many times that he becomes the stories. They live on after him. And in that way, he becomes immortal” (ibid., 123).

10 See also Matt 23:29-39, esp. vv. 35-36, 37-38. For major commentaries judging Matt 27:25 to be a Matthean creation, see Ulrich Luz, Matthew: A Commentary (Hermeneia; 3 vols.; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001–07), 3.501-03 (“an unhistorical fiction”), and W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison Jr., The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (3 vols.; ICC; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1988–97), 3.592 (“an aetiological legend which explains the tribulations of Jerusalem and its environs during the Jewish war”).

11 Brown, Death of the Messiah, 1.833; Crossan, Who Killed Jesus, 154-59.

12 In a September 2003 interview for The New Yorker, Gibson said, “I wanted it in. [...] It happened; it was said, but man, if I included that in there, they’d be coming after me at my house, they’d come kill me.” Quoted in Peter J. Boyer, “The Jesus War,” The New Yorker 79/26 (Sept. 15, 2003), 58-71.

13 For an overview of origins and development of the deicide charge and its effect in the history of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism, see Jeremy Cohen, Christ Killers: The Jews and the Passion from the Bible to the Big Screen (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).

Comments (4)

Brilliant post (and movie, apparently)

The interesting thing to me is that Will was incapable of making sense of Edwards tales without discovered the actual history behind them. Only then did the stories reveal truth about Edward's life and relationships. It's all about context. Who knew?!

So where does that leave us? Do we labor to ferret out the original contexts of the evangelists or do we seek the details underlying our own lives that will bring out the truth in the Gospel tales?

#1 - Scott F - 02/28/2012 - 15:34

That's exactly the quandary. Readers of the gospels are not in a position, typically, to verify things as Will could. This is not to say there are no facts in the gospels, of course ... only that there are better ways of reading them than as fact-carriers, and that sometimes claims about historicity are problematic (as I say in the essay).

So to answer your question, Scott: I think we must pay attention (1) to the literary and narrative dynamics of the texts, in relation to their composition and original reception; (2) to how the texts have been used and misused, because that (especially for Christians) is part of our history as readers or as Westerners; and (3) to the contemporary ethical (and, for Christians, theological) implications of reading one way or another. That's my perspective, anyway.

#2 - Dan Smith - 02/28/2012 - 16:12

How far does it get us off the hook if we say that the blood curse is fabricated? It was surely regarded by other gospel writers (if they knew Matthew's work) as a rhetorical excess, if not a fiction.
However, something of the kind is still implied by the main Passion narratives, even if not made explicit. We can't expurgate the narrative to the point of not making it say that there was a crowd of Jewish people which displayed at very least wicked indifference to the prophet, and more than a prophet, who was before them. And of not making it imply that the events of 70 were divine punishment for this.
We can deny the narrative and reconstruct another one (but this is never terribly plausible) or say that the whole story of Jesus has been so fictionalised that we just can't retrieve anything by way of fact.
We can deny the whole idea of divine punishment for the death of prophets but that is to move away from both Jewish and Christian tradition.

#3 - Martin - 03/01/2012 - 21:08

Long reply, sorry. My point was about this particular verse, which has been the source of the idea in Christian tradition that all Jews are cursed for all time because of the crowd's declaration. Matthew's intent (and we probably would be wrong to assume that the other gospel writers saw the verse in Matthew and omitted it, by the way) was to offer a theological explanation for the destruction of the temple. The idea of divine judgment for the rejection of prophets is in Matthew's Scriptures (2 Chron 36:11-21; see also 2 Chron 24:17-22) and probably also in one of his sources (Matt 23:37-39 par. Luke 13:34-35 = Q). Christians in the following centuries and for a long time thereafter read the verse as a timeless and universal curse, covering 70 C.E. and 135 C.E., and justifying (or mandating) the persecution of Jews in their own time.

Crossan's point, and mine I guess too, is that there is something useful in saying this verse is not historical, particularly given that the reasons for thinking it historical or even traditional, rather than Matthean, are not strong. That said, the earliest Christian texts and traditions remember (and narrate) the end of Jesus as involving both Jewish and Roman authorities. In my opinion, this is historical, and any attempt to expurgate the passion narratives from Jewish involvement would do justice neither to history nor to early Christian memory.

Where I think we run into difficulty is focusing on questions of historicity, rather than on the narrative and theological interests of the evangelists. In the context of Matt 27:25 we have other details whose historicity is difficult to prove – Pilate offering a prisoner for release, and a crowd opting for Barabbas rather than Jesus. With these, and most other details, we are forced to say “probable” or “plausible” or “implausible” or “impossible,” based on what we can know about the historical background rather than the particular event. So my point is that we do better to ask questions such as, What difference does it make for Matthew (and Mark before him) to tell the story this way, rather than that way? And what effect has the story had? Probably the evangelists were constrained somewhat by “the facts,” and more so by early Christian “memory,” but often the facts lie beyond our ability to prove one way or another. The narrative (and the memory), on the other hand, we have direct access to ... even if in the end memory shaped narrative and vice versa.

#4 - Dan Smith - 03/02/2012 - 03:20

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