Tom Verenna On Bart Ehrman, Greco-Roman Biographies

05 May

I’m pretty sure there are enough critiques of Ehrman’s recent argument for the historicity of Jesus, but here is another one. Good points overall, but I was really delighted that he tackled the whole idea that the Gospels are Greco-Roman biographies:

Due in part to the overvaluation of the Gospels as some sort of biography, the figure of Jesus, it is taken for granted, lived. All of these ‘facts’ presented by these scholars about the historical figure of Jesus come mainly from the canonical Gospels. But the error of argument here is that underlining presumption that Greco-Roman biographies were always written about historical figures. This is simply not the case.

There was no law or edict in antiquity about what one could or could not write or how they could write it. Authors emulated the parts of works they liked and were not limited by genre. Such was the process of imitation, even going back to the days of Aristotle (Poetics 1447a-b). Still, the best example one might find on a fictional hero who is historicized in biography is Lycurgus, legendary lawgiver of Spartan lore. Plutarch dedicates a biography to him, complete with genealogy; but his attestation goes well beyond this. Lycurgus gets honorable mentions and is discussed by Plato (Republic 10.599d), Aristotle (Politics 2.1270a, Rhetoric 2.23.11), Xenophon (Constitution of the Lacedaimonians 1), Polybius (Histories 4.2, 6.10), Josephus (Against Apion 2.220), Isocrates (Panathenaicus 12.152), Epictetus (Discourses 2.20), Tacitus (Annals 3.26), and Livy (History of Rome 38.34) to name a few. But it is unlikely that Lycurgus was any more real than Romulus, of whom several Greco-Roman biographies are extant (Plutarch, Romulus; also Livy dedicates his first book of From the Founding of the City to the life of Romulus); stories of his life and deeds can also be found in ancient historiographies (e.g., Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities 2). The figure of Romulus is attested in works from Ovid (Fasti), Cicero (Laws, Republic), and to Tertullian (Apology).


The Greco-Roman biography of Apollonius of Tyana by Philostratus is not one continuous narrative but, rather, the story of his life as discussed by Philostratus. Philostratus not only gives us his sources (personal letters and the will of Apollonius himself—whether real or not, reports about him located at shrines, Damis of Hierapolis, Maximus of Aegeae, and so forth), he analyzes his sources (why he chose not to use Moeragenes), debates points of Apollonius’ life against his sources (cf. 1.23-24), inserts anecdotes; there is no question that the story is being recounted by Philostratus. Most important, perhaps, is that Philostratus is not telling us the story to explain a theological point (though, as any piece of ancient literature, it is designed and rhetorically structured), but he is engaging the source material for the purpose of writing about the life of Apollonius.

The Gospels, however, present a continuous story line with no pause, no discussion of method, no discussion of sources, no anecdotes, and make appeals to theological nuances like Jesus’ divine mission (Mark 1:1-3, for example). These sorts of traits go against the grain of Greco-Roman biography. As dubious as the historicity of Apollonius may be, his biography is actually sounder and more credible than that of the Gospels precisely because (a) we know who wrote it and (b) our narrator discusses his sources, allowing us to analyze his methods.

I wrote about why I didn’t think they were in a previous post, so it’s good to see a much more fleshed out argument why they aren’t. And even if the Gospels are Greco-Roman biographies, this doesn’t necessitate that their subject is historical.

1 Comment

Posted by on May 5, 2012 in historical jesus


One response to “Tom Verenna On Bart Ehrman, Greco-Roman Biographies

  1. Ralph Ellis

    April 8, 2013 at 9:47 pm

    I would not believe a word Verenna says. Verenna makes reviews without reading the book, and writes with an agenda rather than with balance. And then when he is caught out with errors and lies, he hides behind censorship like a little child, and will not debate his mistakes.

    Tom Verenna biography:

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