I recently finished one of the famous stories of horror, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, an appropriate story for this time of year. I had seen the 1931 and 1992 movie versions of the story with Bela Lugosi and Gary Oldman respectively, as well as the silent version Nosferatu. I think the 1992 version, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, is great and represents the novel in some ways better than the novel represented itself. There is, I think, an underlying sexual element that isn’t expressed overtly with its Victorian sensibilities by Stoker, but it is quite explicit in the Coppola version. (Though it still amazes me the next movie he made was Jack. What in Seven Hells?)
But this had me think about another story of the dead come to life, the Gospel stories of Jesus Christ. Now, it is hardly the case that the narrative style and themes are anything similar between the 19th century novel and the early Christian narratives of the life of Jesus (assuming he existed), yet there is something interesting: the use of sources.
A big theme in New Testament studies is determining the sources used by the authors for their narratives about Jesus, especially because of the uncanny similarities between Gospels as well as their differences. This has been going on for centuries, largely because, unlike histories or biographies even in antiquity, sources are not stated. Oh, how much easier would source criticism be if the authors just said who they chatted with or read?
But there is a feature of Dracula that should make one think twice. The structure of Dracula follows a formula established to some degree in this genre by another famous piece of fictional horror (but not horrible fiction!), Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. This is the epistle style (or epistolary form), the author piecing together the story with various sources, such as letters, dictations, and so on. Dracula in particular tries to make this structure work, including the use of dates and giving the sources their provenance and plausibility of being recorded by whom. For example, Mina Harker shouldn’t be writing diary entries when she is supposed to be weak or asleep, and Stoker uses the change in source to reflect the state of characters such as Mina. A clever move, I must say. And even when sources are supposed to be destroyed by the Count, the characters note how they are lucky to have copies in a safe.
Now, imagine if the Gospels were something like this: dated letters by identified people with plausible ways of how the information could have been gotten from the event to the document in question (was the person an eye-witness or talked to someone). Then we wouldn’t have to create crap arguments about Jesus being better attested than Roman Emperors (which he isn’t by a LONG shot).
However, that wouldn’t necessarily make the Gospels authentic history/biography. Why? Well, as noted, Dracula has these very features, but we have not a second thought calling this book a novel and complete fiction. (The same can be said with another horror classic that used this epistle narrative form: H.P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu.) And it’s not (just) because it has the supernatural; there are histories from the Middle Ages that have supernatural tales, and the same in antiquity, but they aren’t complete fictional works either. Symmetrically, The Call of Cthulhu is naturalistic (aliens instead of supernatural forces), yet again we call it fiction without much thought (well, at least for most). So having an accurate background of the world the story tales place (pretty much true for both Dracula and the Gospels, though less for the latter), and well-specified sources are not enough to make something fiction or nonfiction. And it also puts things into perspective: why aren’t the stories of Jesus better sources in form than those of a clear fiction?
If we really want to figure out what the Gospel authors are doing, it’s going to take more work that the surface reading of what sources they use (especially since those sources are often other Gospels). This is basically a question of what genre the Gospels are. So far, the best study I have found on that with a theoretical background is from Michael Vines, The Problem of Markan Genre. He argues that the best fit is the ancient, Jewish novel (and yes, novel is a similar understanding to our own). Is he right? Let’s talk about this later. Now I need sleep, and strange ideas come at these times.
Example: I haven’t seen Hotel Transylvania with Adam Sandler playing Dracula, but I have a great idea of who should play the count: Rick Moranis!