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The Difference Between The Gospels and Actual Greco-Roman Biographies

I hear from layman Christians and Christian apologists all the time that the gospel narratives are a form of “ancient biography”. One can tell that they've never read any ancient biographies when they make this claim, because I think there is a fundamental difference between actual ancient biographies and the gospels.
 
The most important difference is that other ancient biographers almost always tell us who their sources are. The gospels never do anything like this; they read more along the lines of a Jewish novel (i.e. the book of Joshua) than a Greco-Roman biography. For instance, take the first few lines of the biography of Apollonius of Tyana:
And I have gathered my information partly from the many cities where he was loved, and partly from the temples whose long-neglected and decayed rites he restored, and partly from the accounts left of him by others and partly from his own letters. For he addressed these to kings, sophists, philosophers, to men of Elis, of Delphi, to Indians, and Ethiopians; and in his letters he dealt with the subjects of the gods, of customs, of moral principles, of laws, and in all these departments he corrected the errors into which men had fallen. But the more precise details which I have collected are as follows.
 
There was a man, Damis, by no means stupid, who formerly dwelt in the ancient city of Nineveh. He resorted to Apollonius in order to study wisdom, and having shared, by his own account, his wanderings abroad, wrote an account of them. And he records his opinions and discourses and all his prophecies. And a certain kinsmen of Damis drew the attention of the empress Julia [Domna, wife of Septimius Severus] to the documents containing these documents hitherto unknown.
 
Now I belonged to the circle of the empress, for she was a devoted admirer of all rhetorical exercises; and she commanded me to recast and edit these essays, at the same time paying more attention to the style and diction of them; for the man of Nineveh had told his story clearly enough, yet somewhat awkwardly.
 
And I also read the book of Maximus of Aegae, which comprised all the life of Apollonius in Aegae; and furthermore a will was composed by Apollonius, from which one can learn how rapturous and inspired a sage he really was. For we must not pay attention anyhow to Moeragenes, who composed four books about Apollonius, and yet was ignorant of many circumstances of his life.
 
That then I combined these scattered sources together and took trouble over my composition, I have said; but let my work, I pray, redound to the honor of the man who is the subject of my compilation, and also be of use to those who love learning. For assuredly, they will here learn things of which as yet they were ignorant.
 
Notice what Philostratus does here. He tells us where he got his stories from and why they're credible to him. He doesn't just jump into the narrative out of nowhere as though it were the dictate of a god. There's also Plutarch and his Lives where he writes of Romulus:
Moreover, even those writers who declare, in accordance with the most authentic tradition, it was Romulus who gave his name to the city [of Rome], do not agree about his lineage.
 
2 For some say that he was a son of Aeneas and Dexithea the daughter of Phorbas, and was brought to Italy in his infancy, along with his brother Romus; that the rest of the vessels were destroyed in the swollen river, but the one in which the boys were was gently directed to a grassy bank, where they were unexpectedly saved, and the place was called Roma from them.
 
3 Others say it was Roma, a daughter of the Trojan woman I have mentioned, who was wedded to Latinus the son of Telemachus and bore him Romulus; others that Aemilia, the daughter of Aeneas and Lavinia, bore him to Mars; and others still rehearse what is altogether fabulous concerning his p95origin. For instance, they say that Tarchetius, king of the Albans, who was most lawless and cruel, was visited with a strange phantom in his house, namely, a phallus rising out of the hearth and remaining there many days.
 
4 Now there was an oracle of Tethys in Tuscany, from which there was brought to Tarchetius a response that a virgin must have intercourse with this phantom, and she should bear a son most illustrious for his valour, and of surpassing good fortune and strength. Tarchetius, accordingly, told the prophecy to one of his daughters, and bade her consort with the phantom; but she disdained to do so, and sent a handmaid in to it.
 
5 When Tarchetius learned of this, he was wroth, and seized both the maidens, purposing to put them to death. But the goddess Hestia appeared to him in his sleep and forbade him the murder. He therefore imposed upon the maidens the weaving of a certain web in their imprisonment, assuring them that when they had finished the weaving of it, they should then be given in marriage. By day, then, these maidens wove, but by night other maidens, at the command of Tarchetius, unravelled their web. And when the handmaid became the mother of twin children by the phantom, Tarchetius gave them to a certain Teratius with orders to destroy them.
 
6 This man, however, carried them to the river-side and laid them down there. Then a she-wolf visited the babes and gave them suck, while all sorts of birds brought morsels of food and put them into their mouths, until a cow-herd spied them, conquered his amazement, ventured to come to them, and took the children home with him. Thus they were saved, and when they were grown up, they set upon Tarchetius and overcame him.
 
7 At any rate, this is what a certain Promathion says, who compiled a history of Italy.
 
3
 
But the story which has the widest credence and the greatest number of vouchers was first published among the Greeks, in its principal details, by Diocles of Peparethus, and Fabius Pictor follows him in most points…
 
Again, Plutarch gives a variety of reports about the birth of Romulus and then goes with the story he feels is the most credible one. This is noteworthy because in comparison to Jesus, there is a much higher probability that Romulus is entirely mythical. The constant “some say… some say… others say…” while reading these sorts of ancient biographies gets kind of tedious. But at least these ancient authors have a concern over epistemology (i.e. how they know what they know). The closest we get to this sort of “some say… other say…” discourse in early Christian material is in the gospel of Luke. Once in the very short introduction, and next at Luke 3.23: “He was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph“.
 
Of course, Luke is not writing history, or basing his gospel on “eyewitnesses” like he says in Luke 1, because his gospel (1) shares about 65% of his material with the first (non-eyewitness) gospel Mark and its derivative Matthew, and (2) is probably written to re-Judaize Marcion's gospel. Luke never actually tells us who or where he gets his information from other than “eyewitnesses” (which, itself, is probably false). The appeal to eyewitnesses is actually a marker of 2nd century provenance since this was the time period that “Apostolic Succession” was being bandied about to refute the various heretics (the Gospel of Thomas and the last chapter of John also fall into this time period). Earlier written works/gospels did not appeal to eyewitnesses or an apostle since they weren't yet seen as authorities. The influence of Marcion is probably what began the appeal to apostles or eyewitnesses, since he is the earliest Christian to use that line of argument.
 
Like I wrote about earlier, the character “Barabbas” was more than likely invented by Mark. Thus any gospel that uses that character also more than likely used Mark as a source or used a source that used Mark as a source. This ostensibly includes Luke.
 
Most notably, the earliest witness to the Theophilus introduction in Luke comes from the time period of Theophilus of Antioch (c. 180 CE), who seems to be ignorant of the Jesus story even though he called himself a Christian. In other words, no Christian prior to the late 2nd century knows anything about a gospel addressed to a Theophilus, even though they might quote from what we later know of as “Luke” (like Justin Martyr and Marcion). I have a hunch that Irenaeus (c. 180 CE) wrote the prologue in this gospel (and also in Acts of the Apostles) to his contemporary.
 
Another lesser point of departure from other ancient biographies is that, after reading the gospels, we don't know anything more about Jesus' character than we did before we read them. For most modern readers, we know that Jesus did a bunch of miracles, healed some people, and gave some moral dictates. Other than that, we don't know anything about Jesus' personality. We don't leave the gospel with more personal information about Jesus than what we went into it with. Before reading the gospels, we know that Jesus is the [son of the] god of the Jews and died for your sins. After reading the gospels, we know exactly the same amount of information.
 
What did Jesus look like? Was he tall, short, or average height? Did he have a beard? Did he have a bull-neck or was he somewhat effeminate-looking? What kind of clothing did he wear? Oddly, we get a bit of personal information about John the Baptist; he wore clothes made out of camel's hair and a leather belt around his waist. And he also ate locuts and wild honey. I can only think that this sort of personal detail was included for theological reasons, and not because the author (i.e. Mark) was actually interested in JtB's personal effects. To that point, it's interesting to note that the Ebionites claim that JtB ate cakes (εκρις) — instead of locusts (ακρις) — and wild honey. This change was made by the Ebionites for theological reasons.
 
The only time we get a description of Jesus' physical appearance is during the transfiguration scene, and it seems to be a mirror of Moses' own “transfiguration” after going up the mountain to receive the initial 10 Mitzvot (as an aside, I suspect the transfiguration in Mark has something to do with the law [Moses] and the prophets [Elijah]. And there may be a relationship between the original Exodus story with Moses and Joshua [Gk: Jesus] going up the mountain to receive the law).
 

Marcion, Luke, and Justin

So I was thinking about how late Luke might have been written. In my view, it seems as though our current Luke is a reaction to Marcion’s possible correction of Matthew. If Luke is after Marcion, then who is the earliest witness to things in the gospel narrative(s) that are unique to Luke? This would be Justin Martyr.

There are a few clues that Justin was aware of Luke (courtesy of a table put together by Neil Godfrey).

1. Elisabeth is mother of John the Baptist (Dialog with Trypho 84) / Luke 1:57
2. Gabriel’s announcement to Mary; “Be it according to thy word” (DT100) / Luke 1:38
3. Census under Quirinius (DT78) / Luke 2:2
4. Circumcised 8th day (DT23,67) / Luke 2:21
5. Sweats drops of blood (DT103) / Luke 22:44
6. Appears to disciples in Jerusalem (DT 51) / Luke 24:36 [the other gospels have him appear in Galilee, the more Gentile of the two]
7. Ascended to heaven (Firs Apology 51, 46) / Luke 24:51

Justin also seems to be aware of the Protevangelium of James:

But when the Child was born in Bethlehem, since Joseph could not find a lodging in that village, he took up his quarters in a certain cave near the village; and while they were there Mary brought forth the Christ and placed Him in a manger, and here the Magi who came from Arabia found Him.

The bolded part — Joseph and Mary taking residence in a cave to give birth — is only to be found in the gospel of James:

17. […] And they came into the middle of the road, and Mary said to him: Take me down from off the ass, for that which is in me presses to come forth. And he took her down from off the ass, and said to her: Whither shall I lead thee, and cover thy disgrace? for the place is desert.

18. And he found a cave there, and led her into it; and leaving his two sons beside her, he went out to seek a midwife in the district of Bethlehem.

The gospel of James is dated to around 150 – 200 CE.

One thing to point out is that Justin never refers to any gospel names as we know them (according to Matthew, etc.), he just refers to them as the Memoirs of the Apostles and it seemed like some sort of gospel harmony. If this is the case, then it was probably a compilation of the most popular gospels written by then; one of which more than likely included Marcion’s.

Here is a nice rundown of Marcion’s gospel vs. Luke’s:
http://webspace.webring.com/people/ou/um_6968/wait2.htm

In my opinion, Marcion must have been active a lot earlier than what’s traditionally ascribed by his enemies as his period of activity (140s CE). They had a vested interest in showing that heresy started “late” and orthodoxy started “early” (this is also the time period when gospels start getting names of those assumed to be “orthodox”; which is also after Marcion). There had to have been enough time for Marcion’s influence to spread all across the Roman empire by the time Justin is writing in the 150s. Of course, I could be wrong, but for the sake of argument, I think Marcion wrote his gospel – and began spreading it around – in the 130s. This is enough time for Mark’s gospel to have been written in the late 1st century (as I argued there), Matthew to make corrections that start getting circulated, Marcion becoming aware of both, and them him writing his correction of Matthew.

Sometime between Marcion and Justin, the current Loukan birth narrative was added, one that’s independent of Matthew’s, but still feeding on traditions of a miraculous birth. What Greco-Roman hero didn’t have a miraculous birth in antiquity? Of course, another line of evidence would be the portion of Luke that’s not the birth narrative that shows evidence of being aware of Matthew. Courtesy of Mark Goodacre:

The same phenomenon of editorial fatigue occurs also in double tradition material, where the evidence suggests that Luke is secondary to Matthew. In the Parable of the Talents / Pounds (Matt 25.14-30 // Luke 19.11-27), Luke, who loves the 10:1 ratio (Luke 15.8-10, Ten Coins, one lost; Luke 17.11-19, Ten Lepers, one thankful, etc.) begins with a typical change: ten servants, not three; and with one pound each (Luke 19.13). Yet as the story progresses, Luke appears to be drawn back to the plot of the Matthean parable, with three servants, “the first” (Luke 19.16), “the second” (Luke 19.18) and, remarkably, “the other” (Luke 19.20, ο ετερος). Moreover, the wording moves steadily closer to Matthew’s as the parable progresses, creating an internal contradiction when the master speaks of the first servant as “the one who has the ten pounds” (Luke 19.24), in parallel with Matthew 25.28. In Luke, he does not have ten pounds but eleven (Luke 19.16, contrast Matt. 25.20).

Possible evidence that Luke (or Marcion) depended on Matthew. On top of that, this also gives time for the author of Luke to utilize the (relatively) recently published works of Josephus.

One last point, and back to Luke 22:44. Ehrman argues in “Misquoting Jesus” that all throughout Luke, Jesus seems completely in control – never becoming emotional. It’s only at Luke 22:44 where Jesus seems to show any emphatic display of emotion. This might be a sign of interpolation; and if it is an interpolation then this means it happened before Justin since Justin is aware of it. Jesus — as the Good God of Marcion — being in control, showing no emotion, and knowing what will happen seems to be a staple of Docetic Christologies. Lk 22:44 might have been inserted as anti-Marcionite along with the rest of the birth narrative.

 

Are the Gospels Historically Reliable?

1. None of the gospels were written by eyewitnesses (they were written in third person). This is the conclusion of a vast majority of NT scholars. The earliest witness to gospels with names attached to them comes from Irenaeus c. 175 CE. The earliest witness to any gospel narrative period is Marcion c. 135. No one prior to Irenaeus says “the gospel according to Matthew” or any other such similar phrase.

Even if they were written by eyewitnesses, eyewitness testimony is dishearteningly unreliable.

2. Matthew and Luke are not independent accounts. They are reimaged versions of Mark, since the authors did not like Mark’s low (adoptionist/separatist) Christology. Why would an eyewitness (supposedly Matthew) copy almost verbatim huge swaths of a non-eyewitness (Mark) in his gospel? (for Luke, “Theophilus” was also the name of a Christian in the late 2nd century who appears to not know about the Jesus story – so it makes sense that it would be addressed to him [Theophilus, to Autolycus]).

3. Mark has John the Baptist doing baptisms specifically for the cleansing of sin. Josephus has John the Baptist specifically not doing baptisms to cleanse someone of sin, “but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 18.5.2).

4. Mark has Jesus being insanely popular, drawing insane crowds everywhere he goes and renowned all throughout Galilee and Judea. Jesus’ popularity of this magnitude is not corroborated by any other contemporary Jewish writer (Photius, Bibliotheca 33). Jesus’ popularity seems to be a plot device.

5. Mark has Jesus being stalked by the Pharisees everywhere he goes, implying that the Pharisees were the ruling class of Jews prior to 70 CE. The ruling class of Jews during Jesus’ lifetime were the Sadducees, the Pharisees didn’t gain power until the fall of the temple. Meaning that this is a post-70 conflict between Christians and Jews projected into the past.

6. Mark has Jesus go to Gerasa to evict the demon “Legion” from someone and into a herd of pigs, where they stampede into the sea. Gerasa is about 30 miles from the Sea of Galilee so it would have taken over an hour for them to run that far.

7. Mark says that the Pharisees and “all the Jews” had to wash their hands before eating. This only applied to priests.

8. Mark has Jesus clear out the temple of the money changers and singlehandedly preventing anyone from bringing any merchandise through the temple court. The temple wasn’t just some run of the mill temple, it was also a military fortress. There’s no way he would have been able to do this singlehandedly without being immediately arrested (or without a lot help, which would have looked like an insurrection).

9. Mark has Jesus call Daniel a prophet. Daniel is not a prophet according to Judaism, as he wrote (c. 165 BCE) after the time period that prophecy had ended.

10. Mark has the Sanhedrin giving Jesus a trial on a Friday night, during Passover. Trials could only be held on Mondays or Thursdays, not at night, and definitely not on high holy days like Passover. Mark also has the Sanhedrin convicting Jesus for claiming to be the messiah. Claiming to be the christ is in no way blasphemy. There were multiple characters with the title “christ” in the LXX.

11. Mark has Pilate give Jesus a fair trial. Pilate was actually known for executing troublemakers without trial, as he was impatient and hot-headed (Philo, Embassy of Gaius 38.301-303). Not only that, but Pilate presumably gave Barabbas a fair trial as well. Pilate then releases one prisoner because it was a Jewish holiday. Pilate actually had no respect for Jewish customs and almost started a rebellion due to his disrespect. Mark then has Pilate being afraid of the Jewish mob (who for some reason have done a complete 180 in how they view Jesus), when in actuality Pilate had no qualms about assassinating a mob of complaining Jews (Josephus, Antiquities… 18.3.2). Pilate was eventually recalled back to Rome for massacring a bunch of unarmed Samaritans who were following a messiah claimant on Mt. Gerizim.

12. Barabbas is Aramaic for “son of the father”. It just so happens that Jesus — the supposedly real son of the father — meets his polar opposite and his opposite is released, which seems to mimic the scapegoat ceremony of Leviticus 16, where one goat is released and the other goat is sacrificed for sin (some manuscripts of Matthew actually have Barabbas’ given name as “Jesus”).

13. The entire crucifixion scene quotes numerous times from Psalm 22. The Psalms are not prophetic, thus these lines must have been purposefully lifted from that Psalm.

14. All four canonical gospels have emphatically conflicting Easter narratives; consider the Easter Challenge. There’s also no tradition of any “empty tomb” prior to Mark’s gospel. And most common tombs did not have circular stones in front of them that could be “rolled away” (16:3) prior to 70 CE.

15. For some reason all throughout Mark, only demons, the reader, and people who are not named know that Jesus is the messiah. Everyone who is “known” doesn’t know. This makese sense as literature or entertainment, not history.

16. John, who according to tradition, was the son of Zebedee and apostle, was a fisherman. Fishermen in antiquity weren’t widely known for their literacy. John calls Jesus “the Word”:

(205)[…]And the Father who created the universe has given to his archangelic and most ancient Word a pre-eminent gift, to stand on the confines of both, and separated that which had been created from the Creator. And this same Word is continually a paraclete to the immortal God on behalf of the mortal race, which is exposed to affliction and misery; and is also the ambassador, sent by the Ruler of all, to the subject race.

(206) And the Word rejoices in the gift, and, exulting in it, announces it and boasts of it, saying, “And I stood in the midst, between the Lord and You; neither being uncreated as God, nor yet created as you, but being in the midst between these two extremities, like a hostage, as it were, to both parties: a hostage to the Creator, as a pledge and security that the whole race would never fly off and revolt entirely, choosing disorder rather than order; and to the creature, to lead it to entertain a confident hope that the merciful God would not overlook his own work. For I will proclaim peaceful intelligence to the creation from him who has determined to destroy wars, namely God, who is ever the guardian of peace.”

Oh wait, that’s not from John’s gospel… that’s from Philo’s (20 BCE – 50 CE) “Who is the Heir of Divine Things”. How could an illiterate Aramaic speaking fisherman from the first century read Philo’s work (in Greek, not Aramaic), and say that Jesus was Philo’s “Logos”, who Philo himself reappropriated from the Stoics?

17. John has Christians being kicked out of synagoges during Jesus’ lifetime. This doesn’t actually happen until after the council of Jamnia c. 90 CE.

18. John has Jesus being seen as “the messiah” for a group of Samaritans on Mt. Gerizim. The Samaritans reject Davidic authority and thus would not have seen a Jew as their messiah (Jews destroyed their temple on Mt. Gerizim c. 110 BCE).

19. John has Jesus philosophizing about his own awesomeness in long winded discourses throughout this gospel, which is contrary to the shorter speeches in the synoptics. There’s no way anyone who was a witness to any historical Jesus c. 33 would have remembered these long speeches for nearly 70 years. Thus they must be an invention of the author.

20. John has Jesus claim to be god himself, and the only way towards salvation. This would have gotten Jesus arrested and stoned immediately for claiming equality with YHWH. The Jews almost went to war with Rome c. 41 because Caligula declared himself a god in the flesh and wanted a statue of himself erected in the temple. And Jesus claiming that he’s the only way towards salvation would have been nonsense to Jews while the sacrificial system was still functioning.

21. John has Jesus say “your law” when refering to the laws of Moses as though he’s not Jewish.

 
 
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