Category Archives: Hagg: Art of Biography in Antiquity


Jesus at Thirty: Four Canonical Portraits (Evolution of the Gospels as Biographies, 3)

by Neil Godfrey

Tomas Hägg

Tomas Hägg (The Art of Biography in Antiquity) rightly notes that the four canonical gospels give us “four distinctive, if overlapping literary representations of Jesus.”

Yet comparatively little seems to have been written from a literary point of view to define by what means of characterization these four portraits emerge, and what the main characteristics are of each of them…. In spite of recent advances in the study of characterization in the New Testament, the general tendency seems to be to shun the figure(s) of Jesus himself and to focus on Paul, Peter, Judas, or lesser characters in the stories. In Bible commentaries one sometimes meets short, tantalizing characterizations, but nowhere (to my knowledge) any sustained comparative analysis. (p. 180)

Tomas Hägg explains that his discussion is intended to offer “just a few hints of possible approaches” to the character study of Jesus across the four gospels, “no full portraits.”

He begins by noting two “rather different” character interpretations of the Jesus in the Gospel of Mark:

To Joel Marcus, the Jesus in the Gospel of Mark is

  • dynamic
  • abrasive
  • intensely emotional, “a passionate instrument for the advent of the dominion of God”

To Richard Burridge, on the other hand, the Markan Jesus is

  • enigmatic and secretive
  • rushing around doing things “immediately”
  • a miracle worker, yet one who talks about suffering and dies terribly alone and forsaken

Burridge then discusses Matthew’s Jesus but without mentioning a single “actual character trait”: Jesus is a “new Moses”, but no particular personality or character is addressed. Next, for Burridge, is the Lukan Jesus who cares for the outcasts, the lost, the Gentiles, the women, the poor.

From Mark, then, we get the temperament; from Matthew, the theology; from Luke, the ethics — no contrasting portraits, just different angles. (p. 181)

Where the difficulty evidently lies

The evangelists do not offer any direct characterization of Jesus. This is not what we normally find in other biographies. Biographers are generally only too keen to use adjectives to describe their subject, to tell us the sort of person he (how many ancient biographies are there of women?) was. In the case of the gospels, however, read more »


Reading the Classics and the Gospels Differently

by Neil Godfrey

Aesop in Life was portrayed as physically misshapen so that most people despised or mocked him on first seeing him.

Recently we talked about the Life of Aesop, a biographical novella of the fabulist written around the same time as the gospels: Aesop, Guide to a Very Late Date for the Gospels?Aesop / 2, a Guide to a Late Gospel of Mark DateDid Aesop Exist?

This post singles out one more point in Tomas Hãgg’s chapter in The Art of Biography in Antiquity.

Only two of the thirteen stories told by Aesop in the Life are known to have existed before the Roman Imperial period as ‘Aesopic fables’. This, in all likelihood, means that most of the stories were created for use in the particular situations narrated in the novel, or at least adapted for the purpose. . . . [O]ur story is first and foremost a Life, and the fables are narrated not to conserve them or explain them as originating in certain situations, but the other way round: in order to characterize the hero. (pp 116f, my bolding)

Surely the same must be said about the stories told about Jesus in the gospels. It is evident that they are not narrated for conservation purposes. Each evangelist clearly feels free to change many of the sayings and deeds found in, say, the Gospel of Mark.

But there is one detail that is not the same in the stories told about Jesus. That the anecdotes appear for the first time in the gospels is not taken as an indication that they were created for use in the particular situations in the gospels, but that they had an untestable and unverifiable origin as oral traditions. Perhaps classicists should learn from biblical scholars how to generate more scholarly papers about hypothetical origins and traditions.

One classic (I think) illustration of just how neatly tailored a story of Jesus is for the sake of the gospel’s plot was written up in Why the Temple Act of Jesus is almost certainly not historical. That episode has an indisputable narrative function. It is how the synoptic gospels account for the arrest of a man who otherwise provides no reason for his arrest given that he is in every way good and perfect. The Gospel of John removes it as the reason for Jesus’ arrest but has to replace it with the story of the raising of Lazarus to make up for the plot function that would otherwise be lacking. Yet most biblical scholars, devout as most of them reportedly are in their own respective ways, treat the “cleansing of the temple” as one of the most certain of historical episodes in the life of Jesus. The story was passed on through oral tradition.

What would Tomas Hãgg think if that sort of argument was published about the stories in the Life of Aesop? But why aren’t classicists more ready to assume new fables appearing in a first century Life of Aesop were taken from otherwise unrecorded oral tradition? Why are so few biblical scholars apparently willing to think that stories appearing for the first time in the gospels serving each author’s narrative — and theological — interests willing to accept that the stories were made up or at least adapted for those specific interests?


Evolution of the Gospels as Biographies, 2

by Neil Godfrey

The previous post on this topic ended with the following:

The first genuinely biographical detail of Jesus arrives when Jesus is twelve years old facing the wise men in the Temple. We learn about the parents’ very natural and everyday concerns and the “adolescent arrogance” of Jesus, his separation from this world, his first signs of superior wisdom, and his return to “the expected filial obedience”.

This is the kind of characterizing anecdote that every biographer wishes for, a child demonstrating extraordinary gifts and a behaviour that anticipates his grown-up persona. It is, however, the only one told about the young Jesus in the canonical gospels. (p. 171)

It’s not much, only two childhood episodes to occupy thirty years. But that’s the start.

Hägg turns to examine how two “apocryphal” gospels picked up on Luke’s beginning. . . .

Tomas Hägg (The Art of Biography in Antiquity) then relates an observation that is worth pausing over:

All four evangelists proceed in continuous narrative from baptism to death and resurrection, each giving his own picture of Jesus’ public life within a common framework . . . . Paradoxically, their alternative accounts of Jesus, composed within the short span of some thirty years, thus came to be offered between the same covers, probably a unique biographical situation. (p. 172, my bolding in all quotations)

It seems we really do need to keep in mind that the gospels really are not like other biographies, that there is indeed something, or a number of things, “unique” about them. read more »


Evolution of the Gospels as Biographies, 1

by Neil Godfrey

Before putting aside for a while Tomas Hägg’s The Art of Biography in Antiquity I must address his chapter on the canonical gospels. It’s most interesting to have a set of non-theological eyes from an outside field (classics) examine their literary art as “ancient biographies” while nonetheless engaging with what biblical scholars have learned.

I have said several times that I have a problem thinking of at least the first written canonical gospel, the Gospel of Mark, as being “about Jesus” as a person, which is to say a “biography of Jesus”. My point is that Mark (as I’ll call the gospel’s author) presents us with a Jesus who is little/no more than a theological mouthpiece and actant, teaching, symbolizing and representing theological principles — a theological cipher — rather than as a “genuine person” of interest as a personality and human character. (I suspect that this symbolic nature of Jesus is the reason he can be embraced by such wildly diverse interest groups, even faiths, throughout history and today.)

Hägg on Burridge’s study:

[I]t turns out that there is a great diversity within each of the two groups, the four gospels and the ten ancient biographies; and it is this very diversity … that makes it possible always to find a parallel in one or several of the ten Loves for each feature occurring in one or more of the gospels. What is proven is that the investigated features of the gospels are not unique in ancient biographical literature; but no control group is established to show which features may be regarded as significantly typical of this literature, in contrast to the biographical writings of other times or cultures.” (p. 154)

But as Hägg himself points out, whether or not we define a gospel as a biography really comes down to how we define the term biography.

[M]ost discussions of the generic question are dependent on how one defines ‘biography’. (p. 152)

Works of the type of Burridge and Frickenschmidt are important, not for ‘proving’ that the gospels ‘are’ biographies — that remains a matter of definition, no more and no less — but for studying them as literature in context. (p. 155)

Fair enough. Hägg himself discusses the gospels as ancient biographies. Even so, I find his conclusion striking, and in some ways supportive of my own view: in discussing one scholar’s observation that the Jesus in the Gospel of John may speak about love but actually demonstrates very little of it in his own relationships with those close to him, Hägg writes:

The observation is pertinent, but the apparent coolness may rather be attributed to the ascetic narrative style that dominates all four gospels, as soon as it comes to the description of persons and their character traits, not to speak of their physical appearance, physiognomy as well as facial expressions. That the protagonist himself is no exception in this respect reduces markedly the gospels’ character of biographies, even by ancient standards.105 (p. 185, my bolding in all quotations)

Amen. But what does footnote 105 say?

105 Burridge 2004 passim (seen Index s.v. ‘characterization, methods of’), in his insistence that the gospels are close to Graeco-Roman bioi in all respects, misses the nuances; the gospels are rather extreme in this respect. 

Amen again.

One of the chapter’s epigraphs is interesting:

‘Jesus: A Biography’ is always an oxymoron.

Harold Bloom

Tomas Hägg’s chapter “What were the gospels?” does

not set out to prove anything about their ‘proper’ classification; [his] object is simply to read them as biographies. (p. 155)

His focus is

to trace the gradual ‘biographizing’ of the Christian message. 

read more »


Did the ancient philosopher Demonax exist?

by Neil Godfrey

If the Life of Aesop is riddled with obvious fiction yet it is concluded that Aesop really existed, what does Tomas Hägg (The Art of Biography in Antiquity) do with the question of the historicity of Demonax, a figure whose biography contains only sober and believable accounts and is said to have been written by an eyewitness? Ironically, Hägg is far less confident that Demonax is historical than he is about Aesop!

You can read the Life of Demonax by Lucian at the sacred-texts site. (It is fewer than 4000 words.)

To begin Hägg addresses doubts among some scholars that Lucian was the real biographer. Life of Demonax does not have the same cutting, satirical tone as his other biographies, but actually approaches Demonax reverentially and creates an idealized portrait. However, on the strength of the attestation Hägg accepts Lucian as the genuine author.

Lucian states that he has two reasons for writing about Demonax:

This time I am to write of Demonax, with two sufficient ends in view:

  • first, to keep his memory green among good men, as far as in me lies;
  • and secondly, to provide the most earnest of our rising generation, who aspire to philosophy, with a contemporary pattern, that they may not be forced back upon the ancients for worthy models, but imitate this best–if I am any judge–of all philosophers.

Continuing with Hägg:

Demonax’ background is rapidly sketched . . . His ‘urge to noble things and innate love for philosophy from early childhood’ is stated, but there is no actual account of that childhood; nor is his physical appearance described here or elsewhere in the Life. His blameless life and exemplary honesty are lauded, as is his excellent education in literature, philosophy, and rhetoric. As a philosopher, he is a professed eclectic. He has most in common with Socrates and Diogenes of Sinope . . . but is described as an unchangingly polite and social person who lacks both Socrates’ irony and Diogenes’ exhibitionism — in short, we are made to understand, a godlike (isotheos) man. . . . (p. 295)

Certainly an idealized portrait. And short on specifics to demonstrate the idealized qualities.

The first description of a specific event in Demonax’s life comes three pages in, with his trial:

It starts in the same mode: ‘So it was that all the Athenians, from the populace to the magistrates, admired him tremendously and never ceased regarding him as a superior being (tina tōn kreittonōn)’; but then some critical words are unexpectedly heard. Like a second Socrates, Demonax is brought to court because he has caused offence to and incurred hatred from the common people . . . through his Cynic . . . ‘freedom of speech’ or ‘licence’, and his . . . ‘independence’. Men similar to Anytus and Meletus (the accusers in Socrates’ trial) charge him with not taking part in the sacrifices or letting himself be initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries. He manages, however, to refute the accusations by using his habitual outspokenness and wit . . . and the Athenians, who had first been prepared to stone him, ‘from that time showed him honour, respect, and eventually admiration’. (pp. 295f)

One sees in the above account several features that may well justify our asking questions about the genuineness of the narrative: the evident influence of the trial of Socrates, again the idealizing portrait and the most remarkable turnabout of the Athenians from being ready to execute him to admiring him.

The literary structure of the Life is also addressed: read more »


Did Aesop Exist?

by Neil Godfrey

Short answer, the one I would give if I had to bet my house on being right: I don’t know.

Short answer, but one I would offer at no risk of damages to myself if I am wrong: Probably.

In two recent posts I was commenting on thoughts arising as I was reading about the Life of Aesop in Tomas Hägg’s The Art of Biography in Antiquity (2012). I first learned about the Life of Aesop in another work, one exploring the origins of gospel genre, The quest of the historical gospel: Mark, John, and the origins of the gospel genre by Lawrence M. Wills (1997): Wills does not suggest that the Gospels of Mark and John (the two canonical gospels most similar to Life) borrowed from or were influenced by the Life of Aesop, but that the gospel genre was derived from a type of narrative about hero-cults of which Life and the gospels are examples. Both kinds of literature told the tale of a hero founder of a cult who

  • is introduced to the narrative as an adult (no birth or childhood details)
  • undergoes a dramatic change in personal identity or abilities and role (baptism and the Holy Spirit; being miraculously given the gift of speech)
  • tells a long tale of short episodes in which the hero challenges those about him and “turns the world upside down” with his superior wisdom and parables or fables
  • is often described through the literary technique of inclusio or sandwiching one story between two parts of another
  • travels to the site of a major national temple (Jerusalem, Delphi)
  • offends hearers by his “truth telling”
  • utters parables or fables to convey lessons for his audiences, some of them condemning his hearers
  • is condemned for blasphemy and arrogant claims
  • was such a help to others with his wisdom but cannot save himself
  • is condemned to execution, and so dies

After the deaths of both Jesus and Aesop many people are remorseful and a cult was established in honour of the wronged hero. Both Life and the gospels are believed to have been written around the same time — the first century CE or possibly second century CE.

It is little wonder, then, that Wills begins his discussion with

The most important novelistic biography for the comparison with the gospel genre is the anonymous Life of Aesop. (Wills, 1997. p. 23)

If we are doing comparisons one question that will interest many of us will be just how historical the respective narratives are. I won’t attempt to discuss that question in relation to the gospels and Jesus in this post for obvious reasons, so let’s look at Aesop. Wills is looking at origins of gospel genre but Tomas Hägg gives us a more comprehensive survey of Life as an ancient biography so from this point on I rely upon Hägg. read more »


Aesop, Guide to a Very Late Date for the Gospels?

by Neil Godfrey

Is it possible that our canonical gospels, even the apparently pioneering Gospel of Mark, were really composed well into the second century? The possibility has been argued by a few and I don’t discount it. I often find myself suspecting it is true although very often for the sake of argument I will assume that at least the Gospel of Mark was written relatively soon after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE. There are reasonable arguments in favour of a first-century date, after all, but it is also undeniable that an early date for Mark “just happens” to favour orthodox Christian beliefs and traditional models for the sources and general reliability of the Gospels. It does not hurt to keep in mind the fundamentals for dating any text (see Scientific and Unscientific Dating of the Gospels) and that we ought always to start first with where we have the most secure evidence for the existence of a work, not from where we have the least.

Although it has become a standing procedure in the study of the [Bible’s books] to begin where we know the least and to end at the point where we have safe information in order to explain what is certain by reasons uncertain and from an unknown past, it is obvious to almost everybody else that this procedure has no claim to be called scientific. We should rather and as a matter of course start where we are best informed. Only from this vantage should we try to penetrate into the unknown past. (Lemche, N. P. (2001) “The Old Testament — A Hellenistic Book?” in Lester L. Grabbe (ed) Did Moses Speak Attic? Sheffield Academic Press, Sheffield. p. 294)

The earliest evidence that anyone knew of passages that appear in our canonical gospels are the writings of Justin Martyr from around 140 to 150 CE. I have posted a table cross-referencing Justin’s writings with Gospel content at (The table needs updating because I’ve since found a few mistakes in it, but overall it is useful for getting a general idea.)

Now it “just so happens” that Justin was writing at a time when there was a strong interest in the life and writings of the apostle Paul although you would not know it if you read only Justin. Paul is conspicuous in Justin’s works by his complete absence. Presumably the reason for Justin’s silence (despite the evidence we have for volcanic debates erupting over Paul all around him) is his refusal to acknowledge the apostle who was reputed to be the pillar of “the heretics”.

This interest in Paul is the point of this post’s argument for dating the gospels as I’ll explain.

But before I do, note the evidence for this strong interest in Paul in the second century. It was at this time that a canonical collection of Paul’s letters first appears. Since it happened to be the “heretical” Marcionites who produced this canon the “proto-orthodox” writers took hold of the same writings and accused their opponents of editing out the bits they did not like. And so the battle raged over what, exactly, the original texts of Paul’s letters looked like. Before the second century we have no record of any interest being shown in Paul’s letters.

It was also in the second century that we find stories being written about Paul and his career as an apostle. One of these is our New Testament book of Acts. There was another “Acts” of Paul that took a very different view of him and his message, “The Acts of Paul and Thecla”, which apparently proved to be very popular despite being condemned by Tertullian.

Moreover, we have Pastoral epistles falsely claiming to be by the apostle Paul — 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus — also being produced in this era. And there is 2 Peter with its concluding reference to widespread controversy over Paul’s letters likewise being written (or forged under Peter’s name) in the second century.

Some readers have no doubt jumped ahead and know where I am headed with how this point relates to the date of the gospels.

If the Gospel of Mark was influenced by the letters of Paul, then it is reasonable to date it to a time when there was clearly known to be strong evidence for an interest in Paul’s letters.

And not a few scholars have argued for the Gospel of Mark’s indebtedness to Paul. We have over 300 pages of debate in Mark and Paul, Comparative Essays Part II. For and Against Pauline Influence on Mark. Many of us know about Tom Dykstra’s Mark, Canonizer of Paul. There is also Alan Cadwallader’s The Struggle for Paul in the Context of Empire: Mark as a Deutero-Pauline Text and many more likeminded publications.

I was reminded of all of the above as I completed reading a discussion by Tomas Hägg in The Art of Biography in Antiquity about the Life of Aesop (by Anonymous) composed probably in the first century CE. Addressing the time the Life appeared and the context of its emergence, Hägg writes

The biographical interest, in turn, is no doubt a result of the renewed actuality of the ‘Aesopic’ fables in the first two centuries of the Roman Empire. This is the time when Phaedrus, a slave of Thacian origin who became a freedman of Emperor Augustus, wrote his well-known fables in Latin iambic verse . . . ; when Babrius, . . . ‘a hellenized Italian living in Syria, or somewhere near by in Asia Minor’, published his two books of Mythiambi, versified Aesopic fables in Greek; and when Plutarch, who in his works often refers to Aesopic fables, invites the fabulist himself to take part, as an outsider, in his Banquet of the Seven Sages to debate with Solon and others. The author of the Life [of Aesop] was evidently part of this vogue and set out to answer the question of who the legendary first inventor of the popular prose genre really was. . . . . (Hägg, p. 127. My highlighting)

So can we likewise say that the author of the Gospel of Mark was evidently part of this vogue of interest in Paul, a second century development?

It would surely be more logical to assume that the author was writing at a time when we have strong awareness of Paul’s writings than at a time when we have no other evidence for even knowledge of Paul’s letters. Obviously I cannot prove any of the above. But it is suggestive, is it not? It would be unusual to date the Life of Aesop to a time when there was no other interest in Aesop if it can be safely dated to a time when Aesop was the vogue of the day.


We saw a very similar argument expressed by Lemche concerning the date of the Old Testament writings:

How Does One Date the Old Testament Writings?