Historical Fiction

by Tim Chaffey on February 3, 2012
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Is it right to incorporate biblical history into fictional stories? Tim Chaffey, AiG–U.S., takes a look at this issue.

Hi, I was thinking about writing a piece of Christian fiction and was wondering what (if anything) the Bible says about it. I’ve read many message boards, articles, and opinions on the subject, but you guys always back things up with Scripture and that’s really all that matters. To give you a little more insight, my story … takes many Biblical stories and characters all the way from Genesis to Revelations and expands on them. Essentially fitting fictional puzzle pieces in between Scripture. The last thing I want to do is get people to believe things that the Bible never says happened, but at the same time there is an entire class of people out there that I feel I could reach with a “superhero/fantasy” like story.

Thanks in advance!

– C.L.

Thanks for contacting Answers in Genesis with this very interesting dilemma. As someone who has a good amount of experience in this area, I trust my comments will be helpful for you.

Is it permissible to use fiction to convey biblical truth? I certainly believe it is; otherwise, I would not have co-authored The Truth Chronicles series. Is there biblical justification for this approach? Well, Jesus and others told parables in which a fictional account was presented to drive home biblical truth. Some of the most popular passages in Scripture are parables, such as the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. A prophet named Nathan effectively confronted King David by using a fictional story (or allegory) about a rich man who took the poor man’s single lamb to prepare it for a traveler rather than taking a lamb from one of his many flocks (2 Samuel 12). Of course, this represented David stealing Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba.

You have to be extremely careful not to introduce false ideas about biblical people, places, or events.

This type of writing has been popular throughout history. Perhaps the best-known “historical fiction” is Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, written by Lew Wallace and published in 1880. The book itself was extremely popular, but its popularity was eclipsed by the 1959 film starring Charlton Heston, which won a record 11 Academy Awards. In this powerful fictional story about betrayal and redemption, a Jewish prince named Judah Ben-Hur endures a difficult and triumphant journey that crosses paths with Jesus Christ on a few occasions. Today, there are scores of books in this genre, combining fictional elements with biblical characters, times, and places.

Using fiction is very common in children’s literature. Bible storybooks are a staple in many Christian households, and few seem to have problems with including fictional elements at such a young age. Often, these books will utilize a paraphrased version of Scripture and, perhaps unwittingly, use fictional elements in the artwork. However, there is a very real danger that these books may communicate false ideas about the Bible to children.

Ancient Jewish writings have been discovered that are similar to this genre. For example, the Genesis Apocryphon is an ancient document found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Scholars have variously classified it as parabiblical, rewritten Bible, midrash, or targum, but there are difficulties with classifying it as any one of these.1 This work is more like a biblical commentary than what we know as historical fiction, but it contains fictional stories and legends about Noah and his sons interspersed with the biblical accounts.

Even in the early church, some fictional books were written to honor leading heroes of the faith. One such work is known as The Acts of Paul and Thecla. Not everyone was happy with this type of literature since readers began to believe false ideas about Paul, due to the fact that many believers did not have copies of the Scriptures with which they could compare to the fiction. In this particular case, Tertullian stated that the man who wrote the book had disgraced his office. Other works, such as the Protoevangelium of James (also called the Infancy Gospel of James) have led to the acceptance of false teachings like the perpetual virginity of Mary.

The Acts of Paul and Thecla is evidence of the danger in writing such fiction—even when the author’s motives are good. While there can be significant value in writing a creative story to teach truth, the reader must be able to discern truth from fiction. Far too often, Christians develop their theology from movies, books, and Sunday school stories rather than the Word of God. This has led to the proliferation of misconceptions about the Bible.

Although we do not often carry fiction, Answers in Genesis does sell some fiction series such as The Truth Chronicles (which I co-authored with Joe Westbrook) and the Dinah Harris Mysteries (by Julie Cave). Both sets of books include apologetic arguments to teach readers how to defend God’s Word. However, neither series is set in biblical times among biblical people, so there is little opportunity for readers to confuse the fiction in these books with the biblical accounts.

The type of fiction that you propose will be much trickier in this regard. I agree with you that there would be an audience for this type of story,2 but you have to be extremely careful not to introduce false ideas about biblical people, places, or events. Consider the following warning concerning teachers: “My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment” (James 3:1). Although your desire is to write fiction, it will still involve teaching, so you need to keep this warning in mind.

In Ben-Hur, the interactions with Jesus are very short, and two of them are taken right from the pages of Scripture: the Sermon on the Mount and the Crucifixion. Judah’s first encounter with Jesus is in Nazareth where Jesus provides him with water while he is dying of thirst. If you choose to use this approach, you may consider placing a very clear message in the front of the book to help readers unfamiliar with the accounts and characters of Scripture understand the nature of what you are writing.

Christians hold to at least three different views on these types of portrayals of biblical figures, especially when it comes to depicting Jesus. One view is that we should stay away from it due to the danger of misleading our audience. It is unlikely anyone would get the wrong impression about Christ from the brief scenes portraying Jesus in the Ben-Hur novel, so there is not as much controversy about it. However, some Christians object to any film portraying Jesus, since the viewer may “picture” Jesus as looking like the particular actor who plays Him. Some Christians believe that this is tantamount to idolatry.3

The second view is that when it comes to writing “historical fiction” set in biblical times with biblical characters, extreme caution must be exercised. The more real characters and events you include, the greater the number of opportunities to mislead your reader. If someone wants to include biblical figures in his stories, I would prefer to see them as minor characters doing things that we know they did (similar to the way Lew Wallace portrayed Christ in Ben-Hur).

The third view is that since the book is clearly a work of fiction, then the author has artistic license to include fictional elements about biblical characters because the reader should know it is simply a work of fiction. I have a friend who has written some novels that include Noah as a key figure in the time-traveling adventures of the main characters. Obviously, the conversations with Noah that take place in the books did not occur in real life. However, my friend did his best to write lines that would seem to be consistent with what Noah might have said in such a situation. It certainly was not his goal to mislead any of his readers about Noah, and he asked several people to review the book to ensure he accomplished that goal. On the other hand, I’ve also read some novels about Noah that present numerous false teachings and do not come from a biblical perspective.

As you can tell, it can be quite tricky determining what you should or should not write if you decide to proceed with your book. These are some of the ideas that you will need to prayerfully wrestle with as you decide whether or not to write your story. You should also seek counsel from godly men in your life who know your character and can help you make the decision.

Finally, let me encourage you to refrain from using the term “stories” to refer to biblical accounts. Technically, the word is fine and often refers to real events. However, when we use “story” today, many people think of something fictional like a fairy tale. By using terms like “account” or “record,” you can drive home the point that these “stories” are not myths, but actual events in history.

I hope this has been helpful. May God bless you as you strive to honor Him through writing.

Tim Chaffey, AiG–U.S.


  1. Daniel Machiela, The Genesis Apocryphon (1Q20): A Reevaluation of Its Text, Interpretive Character, and Relationship to the Book of Jubilees, Doctoral Dissertation, Graduate School of the University of Notre Dame, 2007, pp. 5–12.
  2. You should also know that covering Genesis through Revelation may reduce the size of your audience, depending on how you handle sensitive denominational issues.
  3. Interestingly, William Wyler, the director of the 1959 film version of Ben-Hur, carefully avoided showing the face of the actor playing Jesus.


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