Ancient vs. Modern Biographies: Didn’t Bultmann Know the Difference?

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Tim Widowfield

While reading Michael Licona’s recent book, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?, I came upon this little nugget.

[Richard] Burridge and [Graham] Gould say Bultmann was correct in asserting that the Gospels do not look anything like modern biography. What Bultmann neglected to observe, however, is that neither do any other ancient biographies. Differing from modern biography, which is a product of the nineteenth century, ancient biographical conventions provided authors a license to depart from the degree of precision in reporting that many of us moderns prefer. (Licona 2016, p. 5, emphasis mine)

Is that true? Did Rudolf Bultmann really not know the differences between a modern biography and an ancient biography? Further, did he embarrass himself in public by confusing the two while no one until the late twentieth century dared to speak up? And finally, is it possible that Vizzini was smarter than the classical Greek philosophers?


If you’ve read a lot of modern scholarship, you might think that. Still, you may have a lingering, nagging suspicion that Bultmann might have known better. After all, students of his generation would have read Greek and Latin classics while attending the gymnasium. And it seems hard to believe he wouldn’t have had a passing familiarity with the longstanding debates around historiography, and the fact that ancient authors of βίοι had far different goals in mind compared to modern biographers.

The source of this rather odd accusation seems to go back to Charles H. Talbert, who made a bit of a splash in 1977 with his book, What Is a Gospel? The Genre of the Canonical Gospels. In it, Talbert claimed that the consensus before the twentieth century held that the gospels were obviously biographies. But along came the form critics and their assumptions, and everything changed.

Part of this argument of [David Friedrich] Strauss, [Rudolf] Bultmann, and their followers [that the gospels are not biographies] is clearly problematic and derives from a confusion between modern and ancient biography. [Russell 1973, p. 101] Modern biography is certainly developmental; ancient biography was not. [Russell 1973, pp. 102, 115] D. R. Stuart puts it well.

The ancient biographer was . . . chiefly interested in the man as he was when he had emerged a finished product. The chronicler tended to see in character and personality static things that it was his task to analyze and describe, but with the evolution of which he was only incidentally concerned. [Stuart 1928, p.178]

Granting this fact, the essence of the first foundation pillar consists of the contention that whereas biography describes a human subject, the gospels speak about Jesus in mythical terms as a divine being. (Talbert 1985, p. 3, bold emphasis mine)

Richard A. Burridge continued the criticism of Bultmann, first in What Are the Gospels?, but even more pointedly in his paper, “Biography as the Gospels’ Literary Genre,” [warning: PDF] in which he wrote:

Thus, our understanding of modern biography grows and develops throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Therefore, it should be no surprise that Bultmann looked at the gospels and said they do not look like biography, or at least biography as it was understood in the early twentieth century. However, Bultmann made a simple category error and should have compared the gospels instead with ancient biography, which was very different. (Burridge 2013, pp. 14-15, emphasis mine)

Before we address the mistakes Burridge and Talbert made with respect to Bultmann (and, by extension, to K. L. Schmidt), we should note a stranger error, one even more difficult to explain. In The Historical Jesus in Recent Research, James D. G. Dunn treats us to this howler.

Bultmann led questers up another false trail by his strong assertion that “There is no historical-biographical interest in the Gospels.” The influence of this view, that the Gospels are not biographies of Jesus, persists to the present day. However, it is too little recalled that on this point Bultmann was reacting against the liberal questers confidence that they could penetrate back into Jesus’ self-consciousness and could trace the development of his self-understanding as Messiah (messianic self-consciousness). Kähler had already responded to the Liberal questers by observing that the real sources for such attempts were the questers’ own imaginations, an unfortunate extension of the historical principle of analogy. The point was, as Kähler makes clear, that the original questers were attempting to write biographies on the model of the nineteenth century biography, with its interest in the personal life and development of the biographical subject. So what Bultmann was actually decrying was the attempt to write a modern biography of Jesus. (Dunn, McKnight 2005, p. 173, emphasis mine)

That’s obviously wrong. In the first decade of the twentieth century, scholars such as William Wrede and Albert Schweitzer had already demonstrated the futility of trying to write a modern biography of Jesus — a state of affairs now rather obscured by two facts: (1) The overly dramatic English title of Schweitzer’s book misleads the reader away from its true purpose of describing the “Geschicte der Leben-Jesu Forschung” (History of Life of Jesus Research), and (2) nobody reads Wrede.

We can confirm Dunn’s error by doing something daring and radical. We can actually read what Bultmann said in its original context. Here, Dunn is quoting from History of the Synoptic Tradition, p. 372. But he could have started reading on p. 371 to get the full context. Let’s try it and see what happens. After describing the peculiar nature of Mark’s gospel — its focus, structure, purpose, and themes — Bultmann wrote:

Matthew and Luke strengthened the mythical side of the gospel at points by many miracle stories and by their infancy narratives and Easter stories. But generally speaking they have not really developed the Mark type any further, but have simply made use of an historical tradition not accessible to Mark but available to them. There was no real development of the type of Gospel created by Mark before John, and there of course the myth has completely violated the historical tradition. 

Are such observations adequate, or must we look around for analogies to the explanation of the form of the Gospel? What analogies can be suggested? There are none in the Greek Tradition [italics original]; for there is no point in considering either the Memoirs which Justin (Apol., I, 66) might have been thinking with his reference to ἀπομνημονεύματα [memoirs], or the Hellenistic biography. There is no historical-biographical interest in the Gospels, and that is why they have nothing to say about Jesus’ human personality, his appearance and character, his origin, education and development; quite apart from the fact that they do not command the cultivated techniques of composition necessary for grand literature, nor let the personalities of their author appear. (Bultmann 1994 (orig. 1931), pp. 371-372)

Concurring with K. L. Schmidt, Bultmann insisted there were no true analogies to be found in ancient Greek biographies. He was not referring to modern biographies. Such blunders occur when today’s scholars quote-mine past works. The mistakes go unnoticed, and the myths persist, because their readers will never read the works from which they were mined, even if their student-assistants provide page numbers.

Essentially, Bultmann was restating what he had already written earlier in the second edition of Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart in his article on the gospel form. Although written in 1928, the English translation didn’t appear until 1969 in the collection, Twentieth Century Theology in the Making, Volume 1: Themes of Biblical Theology. The book holds a special place in my library, not simply for the value of its contents, but because a well-known scholar, M. Eugene Boring, once owned it.


Besides writing books on the New Testament, Boring has translated several German works into English. It’s a wonderful coincidence that Boring, a competent translator, owned this copy of Twentieth Century Theology, and I’m about to argue that a less-than-accurate translation in that book may have led recent English-speaking scholars astray.

We find the passage that I’m talking about on p. 87 in Bultmann’s “The Gospels (Form).”

They cannot be included in the category of biographies, which did not exist in Judaism, but were highly developed by the Greeks. For the gospels show no interest in historical or biographical matters; they contain no account of Jesus’s human personality, his origin, education or development, or his appearance and his character. (Pelikan 1969, p. 87, emphasis mine)

Twice now I have tried to purchase the source for this material: Die Religion in Geschichte Und Gegenwart Bd. 2 E-H (Second Edition), sometimes referred to as “RGG 2.” The first time, the seller sent me a volume from the third edition. The second time, a different seller sent me the fifth volume (S-Z). Neither of these, of course, contained the articles I wanted. I’ve ordered it again from yet a third dealer, and I hope to see it sometime in September.

Nonetheless, here is what I believe the original German looked like in RGG 2, based on nearly identical material in Die Geschichte der synoptischen Tradition. (I’ll let you know in September how close I was.)

Sie berichten deshalb nichts von Jesu menschlicher Persönlichkeit, seiner Herkunft, seiner Bildung und Entwicklung, seiner Erscheinung und seinem Charakter.

Here’s the original from Die Geschichte:

Den Evangelien fehlt das historisch-biogra­ph­ische Interesse, und sie berichten deshalb nichts von Jesu menschlicher Persönlichkeit, seiner Erscheinung und seinem Charakter, seiner Herkunft, seiner Bildung und Entwicklung.

Bultmann has listed all the missing items missing from the gospels that we would expect to find in a Greco-Roman biography. Here’s a more literal translation:

They report nothing of Jesus’ human personality, his origin, his education and development, his appearance and his character.

The key to the problem here is the missing possessive pronoun, “his,” between “education and development.” In German, these two words frequently occur together and in that order. We would be mistaken if we considered these as separate items in Bultmann’s list; rather, they form a lexical duo. In this particular case, the word pair refers to the education and development of individuals as they grow up and enter into society as adults.

Possibly because the translation in Twentieth Century Theology placed an “or” between education and development, Talbert, Burridge (and their unquestioning followers) jumped to the conclusion that Bultmann was referring to the developmental nature of modern biography. That is to say, they thought Bultmann must not have known that ancient biographers believed that people didn’t change.

However, Bultmann was clearly referring to the “education and development” of a biographical subject before he attains adulthood, a critical item for Plutarch. For as we saw in a previous post, he needed to invent a childhood for Coriolanus. He needed to explain the tragic Roman’s anger (οργή) and how his Roman education and development failed either to mitigate his rage or channel it into more productive ventures. As D. A. Russell put it:

[Plutarch] can excuse the savage Coriolanus on the ground that he never had the chance of acquiring Greek civilization. (Russell 1972, p. 103)

In any case, Burridge misunderstood Stuart’s line about ancient biographers seeing “character and personality [as] static things.” That does not mean people are slaves to their natures. At least for Plutarch (whom, you will recall, Licona wishes to compare to the gospel authors), a man’s education and development, along with his determination to practice good habits and self-discipline, can help blunt the effects of innate character defects.

I defer to Russell once again.

We are apparently liable to be punished for tendencies to vice which we have inherited but concealed all our lives. Yet there is a possibility of escape: habit, right opinions, the observance of the conventions of a healthy society, may wipe away the taint altogether. (Russell 1972, p. 87)

And here’s the clincher:

It follows that the all-important thing is the proper use of education and environment, not of course to conceal evil but to strengthen the good tendencies and eradicate the pernicious. How the heroes of history succeeded or failed in this is a main subject of the Lives. (Russell 1972, p. 87, emphasis mine)

Given the evangelists’ understanding of Christ, we should not be surprised that they have no interest in what Jesus learned from others or how his environment and culture shaped his understanding of the world. Only the author of Luke makes a half-hearted attempt at inventing a story from Jesus’ youth, and in it he’s answering questions posed by the teachers in the temple. We’re told his answers astonished everyone. Jesus cannot be the receiver of knowledge, training, education, or culture; he is the source.

In later works, Burridge expanded on his mistake and accused Bultmann of expecting a true biography to contain modern psychoanalysis. In Jesus, Matthew’s Gospel and Early Christianity, he writes:

. . . Bultmann may be correct to note that the Gospels contain no psychological analysis of Jesus’ personality, nor sociological setting of his life within the major events of the period, nor does ancient biography; these are the concerns of modern biography, building upon the insights of Freud, Jung, Marx, Weber and so forth. The ancients were much more interested in character, especially moral character and a concern for the typical rather than the individual. (Burridge, 2011, p. 7)

Just to recap, Bultmann never said any of that. He wrote that the following key features in a Greco-Roman biography were missing from the gospels’ stories of Jesus:

  1. His human personality (not “Freudian analysis,” but “What was he like as a person?“).
  2. His origin.
  3. His education and development.
  4. His appearance.
  5. His character.

Burridge is right about one thing: the ancients did care much more about moral character. In fact, Plutarch cared about little else. The historical figures he wrote about served as object lessons in morality. Where are the descriptions of Jesus’ character in the canonical gospels? Bultmann says, “Nowhere.”

Why did Burridge embellish upon Bultmann’s words? Who knows? But we shouldn’t be surprised. Nobody actually reads Bultmann, so who’s going to find out?

Bultmann did know the difference between modern and ancient biographies. He also knew what set the gospels apart from Greco-Roman biographies. But the myth that he was ignorant of these basic concepts and that he had committed a “simple category error” proved so useful to those who wanted to change the consensus that it has continued unchallenged until now.

Burridge, Richard A.

What Are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography, Eerdmans, 2004
“Biography as the Gospels’ Literary Genre.” Revista Catalana de Teologia 38.1, 2013, pp. 9-30.
Jesus, Matthew’s Gospel and Early Christianity: Studies in Memory of Graham Stanton, Bloomsbury, 2011

Dunn, James D. G. and McKnight, Scot

The Historical Jesus in Recent Research, Eisenbrauns, 2005

Pelikan, Jaroslav, ed.

Twentieth Century Theology in the Making, Harper & Row, 1969

Russell, D. A.

Plutarch, Bristol Classical Press, 1972

Stuart, Duane Reed

Epochs of Greek and Roman Biography, University of California Press, 1928 (You may be able to read this book at the HathiTrust Digital Library. It depends on what country you live in.)

Talbert, Charles H.

What Is a Gospel?, The Genre of the Canonical Gospels, Mercer University Press, 1986


  • Blood
    2017-08-02 23:12:51 UTC - 23:12 | Permalink

    Basically, a good rule of thumb is that when any modern American Bible scholar tries to claim that Bultmann was “confused” about something, it is actually *they* who are confused, and an investigation of the original source, in the original language and context, will reveal their foolishness. The blind leading the blind.

    • Tim Widowfield
      2017-08-03 00:32:43 UTC - 00:32 | Permalink

      I wish this weren’t true.

  • Matt Cavanaugh
    2017-08-04 02:52:48 UTC - 02:52 | Permalink

    Despite the absent seiner, given the context of the other items on the list, it’s a baseless error to interpret Entwicklung to mean literary development of a character. The same holds in translation. One can only chalk up such a wild stretch to the feverish and desperate straw-grasping of the apologist’s subconscious.

  • Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *