Category Archives: greco-roman biography

The Differences Between the Gospel Writers and Greco-Roman Historians



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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Posted by on March 16, 2013 in greco-roman biography, historiography


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.
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).
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