What the Gospels Share with Fanfiction
The desire of the later Gospel writers to take up the pen parallels the contemporary phenomenon of fanfiction.
Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj
By Jade Sylvan
The “synoptic problem” refers to how biblical scholars explain the close literary interrelationship between the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Based on the material that is shared in them, scholars believe that Mark is the earliest of the three synoptic Gospels, written around 60 CE, and that the writers of Matthew and Luke had access to Mark (as well as to another source, “Q”) when they were penning their own versions about 30 years later.1 As a divinity school student new to biblical scholarship, I’ve found it interesting to notice what the later authors kept, sometimes verbatim, from the earlier work. But I’ve found myself more compelled to look at some of the content that was added, and at how the desire of the later Gospel writers to take up the pen parallels the modern phenomenon of fanfiction. While I think that fanfiction may exist as a contemporary descendant to scriptural writing, I’m not necessarily equating fandom with religion. Rather, I’m suggesting that the impulses and processes of fanfic writing and scripture writing may be similar, and that looking at these similarities may be enlightening. I hope doing so will also help make the actions of these millennia-old authors more relatable to current audiences.
So, what is fanfiction? It’s a relatively new (less than 50 years old) category of writing that has, by and large, existed outside “respectable” (that is, traditionally published) literature. I have been an occasional reader and creator of fanfiction for over 20 years, but I became dissatisfied with much of the writing about the phenomenon. Good-faith attempts to define the movement arrived well into its existence and were often made by interlopers. Now, however, more and more fanfiction writers and readers are defining themselves. In 2017, fansplaining.com took a community poll to come up with a crowdsourced definition of the term. While opinions varied widely on many aspects of what makes a work fanfic, the one category that 73 percent of readers agreed is required for something to be true fanfiction is that it must be written by someone other than the author of the original (canonical) work.2 What the poll didn’t need to specify, perhaps, is that this other author is something called a “fan”—that is, someone who loves the original work that is being appropriated and changed.
Fanfiction actively appropriates aspects of existing narratives and ideas in order to create avenues to complex, frequently alternative understandings. Additionally, fanfiction is often created to fill in the “gaps” left by completed canonical works.
This means that fanfiction is inherently dialogical. Fanfiction actively appropriates aspects of existing narratives and ideas in order to create avenues to complex, frequently alternative understandings. Additionally, fanfiction is often created to fill in the “gaps” left by completed canonical works. Probably the most cited “intro to fanfic” example is Kirk/Spock slashfic. (Slash, or slashfic, is a genre in which same-sex characters who are not romantically or sexually involved in the canonical work are written as romantically or sexually involved.) In Star Trek, Kirk and Spock share a strong bond that stops at deep platonic friendship. Kirk/Spock slashfic imagines a romantic or a sexual side to their connection, changing the relationship’s implications while still honoring and exploring a true aspect of the original work.
Likewise, what Matthew and Luke do with the “gaps” in Mark sometimes alters the meaning, while deepening or broadening the reading of the “original” work, as can be seen in the contrasting infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke. These narratives don’t come into play at all in Mark, where Jesus is introduced as an adult. Both of these later synoptic Gospels, however, state that Jesus is born to a virgin named Mary (pointing possibly to some other shared oral tradition). Matthew skips the biological details and focuses on Jesus’s birth to a virgin as a fulfillment of the words of the prophet Isaiah,3 trying to emphasize that Jesus is the Messiah (Matt. 1:23, 2:6, 2:18).4 Luke, on the other hand, shares a detailed narrative of the divine insemination of the mother, focusing on Jesus’s divinity in a way that would be understandable to a largely Greco-Roman population familiar with stories of demigods, as well as with Jewish accounts of special births like that of Isaac (Luke 1:26–38). Because of differences such as these, some scholars speculate that Matthew was writing to a congregation that included a large number of Jews, while Luke was likely writing for a mostly gentile congregation.5 Thus, additions found in later works may give us clues into the interests not only of the authors of Matthew and Luke but of the audiences they were written for.
This phenomenon of later authors taking up the reins to fill in or extend completed works has considerable precedent in the ancient world. J. Lee Magness discusses the nature of suspended endings in ancient literature, pointing specifically to those in the Iliad and the Odyssey. These hanging endings led later authors to write the Epic Cycle to fill these pregnant gaps. Magness goes on to list five assumptions about the ending of the original works that arise from the existence of this later, other-authored Epic Cycle:
- that the ending, by pointing to the future (the imagined fate of Hector’s fatherless son) encourages speculation about what happened next;
- that the ending is open enough to allow attempts at closure;
- that the tradition offered the general parameters within which any projections could be suitably made;
- that the text supplied anticipatory clues about future events that later readers/poets could supplement the narrative in a way that convinced succeeding generations of its originality and authenticity; and
- that readers of the truncated original no doubt adequately supplied the necessary resolutions, given the demands of the text and the demands of custom, even before the attachment of the sequel.6
In this conception, the story itself exists within an open-ended dialogue between the author and the reader/listener. The exaggerated suspension of the endings in these specific works highlights the fact that suspension, in some sense, is a feature common to almost all endings.
Karen L. King brings Magness’s argument back to the synoptic Gospels in her exploration of the notably suspended ending of the Gospel of Mark, which concludes when the only witnesses to the empty tomb run away and tell no one what they had seen. King writes:
. . . [B]y requiring readers to finish the story, the open [ending] of the Gospel of Mark effectively turn[s] readers into authors. Arguably all suspended endings have this potential to turn readers into authors and even characters. They can, for example, take up the narrative where the literary author left off and compose their own (diverse) endings. Such an ending could be a literary composition, merely extending the narrative by penning a few more lines, such as we see for the longer and shorter endings of the Gospel of Mark. Or authorship might lead to more extensive literary activity, by adding episodes, filling out the fate of characters like Peter and the other apostles, or by wholesale rewriting. . . .7
King expands the purview of these pregnant gaps, saying, “this potential is of course not limited to stories with suspended or open endings, but belongs in various modes to the ‘gapped’ and dialogical character of all literature, art, and other forms.”8 Every unshown moment or possibility in a work is, in a way, an invitation for creative discourse with the reader.
But why take up the pen? Why not simply fantasize about your personal narrative alternatives while washing dishes? One possible answer may lie in how Benjamin Sommer sees the revelation at Sinai to be “collaborative and participatory,” involving “active contributions by both God and Israel.”9 Jewish tradition, he says, is the result of their dialogue. He goes so far as to say that God’s revelation was supralingual and, as such, must necessarily have been “translated” by human beings in order to convey its true meaning. But, of course, “[n]o translation is perfect.” Because revelation can be misunderstood, it can be dangerous. As a result, Sommer argues that “the Bible’s propositional statements and its allusive, associative discourse constitute the beginning of a discussion.”10 Early Christian authors, too, may have taken up the call to continue the scriptural conversation.
Another answer to the “Why write it down?” question could be that some additional salience is needed when a written work is shared with a specific community. Francesca Coppa, one of the founders of the vast fanfiction website archiveofourown.org (called “AO3”), begins her book The Fanfiction Reader with her own list of what fanfiction is and is not. In addition to noting that fanfiction “rewrites and transforms stories currently owned by others,” she makes a point to distinguish fanfic as “fiction created outside the literary marketplace” and as “fiction written within and to the standards of a particular community.”11 Fanfiction is creative work outside the current mainstream model of monetary reward, but it is very much embedded within (sub)cultural needs and wants of its particular communit(y/ies). I, a queer Star Trek fan, want and need to see Kirk and Spock in an erotic embrace. The largely gentile audience of Luke perhaps wanted and needed to hear the Jewish Jesus assuring them that God’s message was for everyone in the world (though early Christianity was a subcultural movement, it should be noted that gentiles were the majority hegemonic group at the time).12
Coppa states that fanfic writers create their works as “gifts” to their communities. Because of this, she argues that “fanfiction is made for free, but not ‘for nothing.’ ” Many fanfiction authors have gone on to successful, commercial careers as professional fiction writers, yet continue to write fanfic for their community, out of what Coppa calls “love.”13 This seems to be the final distinction for Coppa. After all, plenty of commercial properties are taken up and professionally authored by new writers after the original author dies or retires or gets bored, but she argues that these are not examples of true fanfiction. Fanfiction is created not for money but for love—of the original work, of the community, and of the creative act itself.
If scripture is seen as a dialogue, it stands to reason that it would require being embraced and reimagined by different authors in different times and places—even by authors with different points of view. As I have learned about Luke’s pagan slant (e.g., the divine insemination) and Matthew’s messianic additions and how their calculated redactions suited their unique conditions writing in the Roman Empire during the first or second century, I have wondered if we might also see the synoptic Gospels as creations of authors who loved and respected the traditions that came to them. They were taking up the story and filling in the gaps to find the truths that their specific communities want and need. (This is not to deny other, more difficult, motivations and consequences. Many scholars have written about the context of tension and strife in which the synoptic Gospels were produced and about the anti-Jewish tones and polemics that can be found in these texts.)
Likewise, in contemporary fanfiction, authors reimagine stories and texts to find the truths their communities need. In doing so, they feed the subculture so that it might grow strong enough to become self-sustaining, to upset the mainstream, to remake the world.
- Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 4th ed. (Oxford University Press, 2008), 92–101.
- See Flourish Klink, “Towards a Definition of ‘Fanfiction,’ ” Medium, May 30, 2017. In modern fanfiction, the word “canon” denotes works produced by whoever owns the rights to the story, whereas the biblical canon as we know it wasn’t even an idea when Luke and Matthew were writing.
- “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel”; Isaiah 7:14 (New International Version). Here lies another layer of fanfiction, given the large number of quotations and references from the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible—in the New Testament.
- Ehrman, The New Testament, 102–103.
- Ibid., 118–119, 128.
- J. Lee Magness, Sense and Absence: Structure and Suspension in the Ending of Mark’s Gospel (Scholars Press, 1986), 28–29.
- Karen L. King, “Endings: The Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Judas,” in Early Christian and Jewish Narrative: The Role of Religion in Shaping Narrative Forms, ed. Ilaria Ramelli and Judith Perkins (Mohr Siebeck, 2015), 64–65.
- Ibid., 65.
- Benjamin D. Sommer, Revelation and Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition (Yale University Press, 2015), 1–2.
- Ibid., 235–236, 218.
- Francesca Coppa, The Fanfiction Reader: Folk Tales for the Digital Age (University of Michigan Press, 2017), 2–12.
- Ehrman, The New Testament, 121–139.
- Coppa, The Fanfiction Reader, 14–16.
Jade Sylvan, a first-year MDiv student at HDS, is a superfan of most religions and lives with their wife and smelly dachshund in Cambridge, Massachusetts.