Category Archives: Greco-Roman Biography


How and Why Plutarch Expanded His “Lives”

by Tim Widowfield

In his recent book, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?, Michael Licona struggles to show that we skeptics make far too much of the differences in the canonical gospels. Many of these differences, he argues, result from ordinary compositional devices typically used by authors of Greco-Roman biographies.

This volume will pursue the identification of several techniques employed in the writing of ancient history and biography that can be gleaned from compositional textbooks and inferred from observations of the differences in how Plutarch reported the same events in nine of his Lives. We will also observe how the employment of these techniques by the evangelists would result in precisely the types of differences we often observe in the Gospels. (Licona, 2017, Location 268, Kindle Edition)

Licona’s methodology, such as it is, invites us to concentrate our attention on actions as mere techniques. Imagine, for example, watching a large truck barreling down a multilane highway at great speed, then swerving for some reason. Now imagine a bicyclist riding down a country path, then swerving for some reason. Since NT scholars “know” that a bicycle is really just a truck, can we infer that swerving is just some sort of “driving technique” employed by all truckers?

Motiveless motion?

Perhaps not. Maybe the key is not to focus on the act, but on the motives. When we ask the truck driver, he may tell us that he was trying to avoid a deer, while the bicyclist may explain that she hit a rock lying in the path. Our superficial concentration on the event with the truck tells us nothing of consequence with respect to the adventure of the solitary cyclist. read more »


One Key Difference between Gospels and an Ancient Biography

by Neil Godfrey

I post here a reply, slightly edited, that I offered in response to a comment by Chris S on Tim’s recent post, What’s the Difference Between a History and a Biography? I think it addresses an important difference that I think is commonly found to exist between our canonical gospels and many ancient biographies. So thanks to Chris S for opening up the opportunity for this discussion.

Ancient histories and biographies are topics I continue to study and learn more about each year and there are recent scholarly publications on ancient biographies I am still trying to catch up with. So I will confine myself in this comment to just one aspect of Chris S’s point. He poses as the Devil’s or God’s Advocate, and I like that. He wrote, in part:

For example, I’m looking at the life of Camillus in my “Great Books” volume of Plutarch. I can’t find a single source identification whatsoever. I see at one point Plutarch begins an anecdote with “Some say…” At another point (p. 116) he provides two different versions of a conflict, in which he names no sources, begins the second by saying that “the general stream of writers prefer the other account,” and makes no personal judgment on whether he agrees with the majority opinion. Not especially rigorous the handling of sources in this case.

And regardless of what we might ultimately conclude the Gospels actually are, IMHO leaving out the scholarly apparatus makes total sense on the hypothesis that they were intended as biographies for mass consumption. (my formatting)

There are abundant indicators of fictional embellishment in Plutarch’s life of Camillus, but there is something else with no counterpart in the canonical gospels until we reach Luke 1:1. Unlike the evangelists, Plutarch frequently drops in casual hints that he is indeed relying upon sources for his narrative, either oral or written. I realize I am copying English translation (Project Gutenberg’s) so do correct my references if their originals are not accurately represented or if there are expressions in the gospels lending themselves to equivalent translations. Examples:

Among the many remarkable things that are related of Furius Camillus . . .

During his censorship one very good act of his is recorded . . .

as great a prodigy as the most incredible that are reported . . .

It is said that the prince of the Tuscans was at that very time at sacrifice . . . But this may look like a fable. . . .

and the statue, they say, answered in a low voice . . . Other wonders of the like nature, drops of sweat seen to stand on statues, groans heard from them, the figures seen to turn round and to close their eyes, are recorded by many ancient historians; and we ourselves could relate divers wonderful things, which we have been told by men of our own time, that are not lightly to be rejected; but to give too easy credit to such things, or wholly to disbelieve them, is equally dangerous . . .

The Gauls are of the Celtic race, and are reported to have been compelled by their numbers to leave their country . . .

He that first brought wine among them and was the chief instigator of their coming into Italy is said to have been one Aruns . . .

The question of unlucky days, whether we should consider any to be so, and whether Heraclitus did well in upbraiding Hesiod for distinguishing them into fortunate and unfortunate, as ignorant that the nature of every day is the same, I have examined in another place . . .

Thargelion was a very unfortunate month to the barbarians, for in it Alexander overcame Darius’s generals on the Granicus; and the Carthaginians, on the twenty-fourth, were beaten by Timoleon in Sicily, on which same day and month Troy seems to have been taken, as Ephorus, Callisthenes, Damastes, and Phylarchus state. . . .

Plutarch cites no sources for what are surely well-known events from the world of “historical memory”, Alexander’s defeat of Darius and Timoleon’s defeat of the Carthaginians. But when he introduces a detail from the Trojan war Plutarch changes tack and introduces sources to back up a claim that might otherwise be questioned for its provenance in the world of gods and mythical heroes.

I am not ignorant, that, . . .

One could reckon up several that have had variety of fortune on the same day. . . . But I have discussed this more accurately in my Roman Questions.

Some write that . . . . Others say that . . . . The most common opinion was, that . . . others say that . . . . telling a story how that . . . . But they who profess to know more of the matter affirm that . . . . However it be . . . .

if, indeed, it can be supposed probable that an exact chronological statement has been preserved of events which were themselves the cause of chronological difficulties about things of later date. . . . Heraclides Ponticus, who lived not long after these times, in his book upon the Soul, relates that a certain report came from the west, that an army, proceeding from the Hyperboreans, had taken a Greek city called Rome, seated . . . . Aristotle the philosopher appears to have heard a correct statement of the taking of the city by the Gauls, but he calls its deliverer Lucius. . . . But this is a matter of conjecture.

Notice again that Plutarch introduces sympathy with the reader who might question the historical accuracy of something that might seem to be too neat to derive from reality. read more »


What’s the Difference Between a History and a Biography?

by Tim Widowfield


Because so many NT scholars desperately want the gospels to be both Greco-Roman biographies and reliable histories, we could almost forget that these two forms of literature are not the same. You don’t have to take my word for it. Here’s what Plutarch said:

It being my purpose to write the lives of Alexander the king, and of Caesar, by whom Pompey was destroyed, the multitude of their great actions affords so large a field that I were to blame if I should not by way of apology forewarn my reader that I have chosen rather to epitomize the most celebrated parts of their story, than to insist at large on every particular circumstance of it. It must be borne in mind that my design is not to write histories, but lives.

And the most glorious exploits do not always furnish us with the clearest discoveries of virtue or vice in men; sometimes a matter of less moment, an expression or a jest, informs us better of their characters and inclinations, than the most famous sieges, the greatest armaments, or the bloodiest battles whatsoever.

Therefore as portrait-painters are more exact in the lines and features of the face, in which the character is seen, than in the other parts of the body, so I must be allowed to give my more particular attention to the marks and indications of the souls of men, and while I endeavour by these to portray their lives, may be free to leave more weighty matters and great battles to be treated of by others. (Plutarch’s Alexander [emphasis and reformatting mine])

We could boil these comments down into the following points. A biography: read more »


Michael Licona Asks, “Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?”

by Tim Widowfield

[Edit: When first published, this post credited Michael Bird instead of Michael Licona for this book. I can’t explain it, other than a total brain-fart, followed by the injudicious use of mass find-and-replace. My apologies to everyone. –Tim]

We have to dig deep to find something nice to say about Michael R. Licona’s new book, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? Perhaps the best thing I can come up with is that he didn’t insert the word apparent to soften the blow. Other apologists will tell us why we needn’t worry about “apparent differences” or “seeming contradictions.” Not Licona. He acknowledges the differences and says he wants to find out how they got there.

Poor Ancient Historians

In his foreword, Craig Evans notes the variations among the evangelists and asks:

How is this to be explained? Should these discrepancies be regarded as errors? Were the Gospel writers poor historians? Have they told the truth about Jesus?

Such is the strange and mysterious world of NT scholarship. How can we explain these bizarre questions?

According to some of today’s most prolific writers in biblical scholarship, the evangelists — the authors of the canonical gospels — were historians and writers of Greco-Roman biographies. They reach these conclusions via embarrassingly obvious cherry-picking, which leaves them with a pile of incongruous evidence, which they feel compelled to explain away. read more »