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The Differences Between the Gospel Writers and Greco-Roman Historians

16 Mar

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Plutarch

I wrote a post a few years ago detailing my observation about the difference between the Gospels and actual Greco-Roman biographies. Two other bloggers who are much more well read than myself have made similar (and better) observations than I did.

Tom Verenna writes, critiquing both an atheist and a Christian:

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… Many scenes from Mark are re-imagined, become a parable, are marginalized, or disappear from other canonical Gospels. When there are multiple stories of a similar account, yet are usually different, one should be suspicious. This is an example, not of memory recall nor of concise and careful source-use, but of authorial intent; purposeful, deliberate altercations of a narrative.

[…]

It is also worth mentioning here that some Greco-Roman biographies are based upon completely fictional figures, like Plurtarch’s biography of Theseus. There were no laws or edicts in antiquity about what one could or could not write or how they could write it (such laws do exist today, though mainly in confessional institutions). Authors emulated the parts of works they liked and were not limited by genre, per se. Such was the process of imitation, even going back to the days of Aristotle (Poetics 1447a-b).

Neil Godfrey writes, in his critique of Craig S. Keener’s The Historical Jesus of the Gospels

But then Keener steps outside of New Testament studies and makes a very odd analogy. He points out that classicists recognize the weaknesses of their sources — and in a footnote he draws special attention to Livy and Josephus — without being overly sceptical. So Livy is known to be uncritical but classicists don’t throw his work in the bin because of that. Keener believes historical Jesus scholars “are at their best when they follow the same approach.”

He wants readers to approach the Gospels with the same balance between faith and scepticism that they would bring to a reading of Livy and Josephus.

Something interesting happens, however, if we ask Livy or Josephus what they might think of the admonition that the Gospels should be read in the same way as their own historical works.

Livy indeed tells us what he does think of such an idea on the opening page of his history:

The traditions of what happened prior to the foundation of the City or whilst it was being built, are more fitted to adorn the creations of the poet than the authentic records of the historian, and I have no intention of establishing either their truth or their falsehood. This much licence is conceded to the ancients, that by intermingling human actions with divine they may confer a more august dignity on the origins of states.

So works like the Gospels that mingle human and divine actions (miracles, spirits, prophecies) should be read like poetry, not history. Not even Livy would read such works as if narrating true events or false, but as something quite different from history.

It may be objected that Livy is confining his view to the stories inherited from long ago. But Livy, and likewise Josephus, rarely if ever writes of a supposed miracle or divine intervention without either expressing some reservation or appealing to reported eyewitnesses to justify his account. So after relating the miraculous accounts of the death of Romulus, and in particular of the report of his “post-resurrection appearance” to a follower, Livy remarks:

It is [marvelous] what credit was given to this man’s story, and how the grief of the people and the army was soothed by the belief which had been created in the immortality of Romulus.

The Gospels speak of miracles with a matter-of-factness characteristic of ancient novels and myths (e.g. While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” — Luke 24:36), a frequent difference being that the Gospel miracles can be explained as theological metaphors so they are not offered the benefit of narrative realism even by ancient standards

So if I were to summarize the differences between the Gospels and ancient Greco-Roman historians:

  1. Greco-Roman historians talked about and critiqued their — many times multiple — sources
  2. Greco-Roman historians named themselves and their motivations for writing who/what they’re writing about
  3. Gospels are written/presented to the reader as one narrative whole
  4. Gospels uncritically include supernatural elements; Greco-Roman historians also included supernatural elements, but many times were skeptical of them
  5. Even if the Gospels were of the genre of Greco-Roman history, there was no law in antiquity that mandated the genre of Greco-Roman history to be of only non-fictional persons
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