Tag Archives: Chariton

Why the Gospels are Historical Fiction

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A recent book by Jacob Licht, Storytelling in the Bible (Jerusalem, 1978), proposes that the “historical aspect” and the “storytelling” aspect of biblical narrative be thought of as entirely discrete functions that can be neatly peeled apart for inspection — apparently, like the different colored strands of electrical wiring.

This facile separation of the inseparable suggests how little some Bible scholars have thought about the role of literary art in biblical literature. (Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, p. 32)

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By “historical fiction” I mean a fictitious tale, whether it is a theological parable or not, set in a real historical time and place. Authors of “historical fiction” must necessarily include real historical places and real historical persons and events in their narrative or it will be nothing more than “fiction”. Ancient authors are known to have written “historical fiction” as broadly defined as this. We have the Alexander Romance by Heliodorus that is a largely fictitious dramatization of the person and exploits of Alexander the Great. Of more interest for our purposes here is Chariton’s tale of Chaereas and Callirhoe. These are entirely fictitious persons whose adventures take place in world of historical characters who make their own appearances in the novel: the Persian emperor, Artaxerxes II; his wife and Persian queen, Statira; the Syracusan statesman and general of the 410s, Hermocrates. There are allusions to other possible historical persons. Sure there are several anachronisms that found their way into Chariton’s novel. (And there are several historical anachronisms in the Gospels, too.) Chariton even imitated some of the style of the classical historians Herodotus and Thucydides.

In this way Chariton imitates the classical historians in technique, not for the purpose of masquerading as a professional historian, but rather, as Hagg (1987, 197) suggests, to create the “effect of openly mixing fictitious characters and events with historical ones.” (Edmund Cueva, The Myths of Fiction, p. 16)

A word to some critics: This post does not argue that Jesus did not exist or that the there is no historical basis to any of the events they portray. It spoils a post to have to say that, since it ought to be obvious that demonstrating a fictitious nature of a narrative does not at the same time demonstrate that there were no analogous historical events from which that narrative was ultimately derived. What the post does do, however, is suggest that those who do believe in a certain historicity of events found in the gospels should remove the gospels themselves as evidence for their hypothesis. But that is all by the by and a discussion for another time. Surely there is value in seeking to understand the nature of one of our culture’s foundational texts for its own sake, and to help understand the nature of the origins of culture’s faiths.

Cover of "The Art Of Biblical Narrative"

Cover of The Art Of Biblical Narrative

This post is inspired by Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative. Alter believes that the reason literary studies of the Bible were relatively neglected for so long is because of the cultural status of the Bible as a “holy book”, the source of divine revelation, of our faith. It seems gratuitously intrusive or simply quite irrelevant to examine the literary structure of a sacred book. So the main interest of those who study it has been theology. I would add that, given the Judaic and Christian religions of the Bible claim to be grounded in historical events, the relation of the Bible’s narratives to history has also been of major interest.

But surely the first rule of any historical study is to understand the nature of the source documents at hand. That means, surely, that the first thing we need to do with a literary source is to analyse it see what sort of literary composition it is. And as with any human creation, we know that the way something appears on the surface has the potential to conceal what lies beneath.

Only after we have established the nature of our literary source are we in a position to know what sorts of questions we can reasonably apply to it. Historians interested in historical events cannot turn to Heliodorus to learn more biographical data about Alexander the Great, nor can they turn to Chariton to fill in gaps in their knowledge about Artaxerxes II and Statira, because literary analysis confirms that these are works of (historical) fiction.

Some will ask, “Is it not possible that even a work of clever literary artifice was inspired by oral or other reports of genuine historical events, and that the author has happily found a way to narrate genuine history with literary artistry?”

The answer to that is, logically, Yes. It is possible. But then we need to recall our childhood days when we would so deeply wish a bed-time fairy story, or simply a good children’s novel, to have been true. When we were children we thought as children but now we put away childish things. If we do have at hand, as a result of our literary analysis, an obvious and immediate explanation for every action, for every speech, and for the artistry of the way these are woven into the narrative, do we still want more? Do we want to believe in something beyond the immediate reality of the literary artistry we see before our eyes? Is Occam’s razor not enough?

If we want history, we need to look for the evidence of history in a narrative that is clearly, again as a result of our analysis, capable of yielding historical information. Literary analysis helps us to discern the difference between historical fiction and history that sometimes contains fictional elements. Or maybe we would expect divine history to be told with the literary artifice that otherwise serves the goals and nature of fiction, even ancient fiction.

The beginning of the (hi)story

The great Latin poet, Virgil, holding a volume...

The Latin poet, Virgil, holding a volume on which is written the Aeneid. On either side stand the two muses: “Clio” (history) and “Melpomene” (tragedy). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Take the beginning of The Gospel According to St. Mark. Despite the title there is nothing in the text itself to tell us who the author was. This is most unlike most ancient works of history. Usually the historian is keen to introduce himself from the start in order to establish his credibility with his readers. He wants readers to know who he is and why they should believe his ensuing narrative. The ancient historian normally explains from the outset how he comes to know his stuff. What are his sources, even if in a generalized way. The whole point is to give readers a reason to read his work and take it as an authoritative contribution to the topic.

The Gospel of Mark does indeed begin by giving readers a reason to believe in the historicity of what follows, but it is has more in common with an ancient poet’s prayer to the Muses calling for inspiration and divinely revealed knowledge of the past than it does with the ancient historian’s reasons.

As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger . . . .

That’s the reason the reader knows what follows is true. It was foretold in the prophets. What need we of further witnesses?

Yes, some ancient historians did from time to time refer to a belief among some peoples in an oracle. But I can’t off hand recall any who claimed the oracle was the source or authority of their narrative. I have read, however, several ancient novels where divine prophecies are an integral part of the narrative and do indeed drive the plot. Events happen because a divine prophecy foretold them. That’s what we are reading in Mark’s Gospel here from the outset, not unlike the ancient novel by Xenophon of Ephesus, The Ephesian Tale, in which the plot begins with and is driven by an oracle of Apollo.

Note, too, how the two lead characters in the opening verses are introduced. read more »

Historical Imitations and Reversals in Ancient Novels — and the Gospels?

Daphnis et Chloé

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If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, but doesn’t quite quack like a duck, then maybe it is not a duck. Just because we see one or even a few features in the gospels that we recognize from historical or biographical writings, we cannot assume that the gospels are therefore history or biography. Formal features can be easily copied from one genre and applied to another.

Mere formalities of style — word-choice, content, syntax — that appear to be trademarks of one particular genre can and often are copied and re-used in other genres for special effects.

There can be no such thing as a completely new genre emerging on the scene. No-one would know how to understand any such beast. New genres emerge through borrowing one or two elements at a time from other genres and repackaging them into another genre so they convey new meanings.

To understand the gospels it is a good idea to have a reasonable grasp of the wider literary world of the gospels. How else can we evaluate a study that purports to argue that the gospels are “ancient biographies” by means of drawing attention to certain formal features in common? I suggest the reason Burridge’s Are the Gospels Really Biography has apparently won widespread acceptance among biblical scholars is that relatively few such scholars have given much time to studying ancient literature. What accord hath Christ with Belial?

This post looks at how ancient Greek novels — fictional narratives — borrowed some of the literary formalities of well-known works of history. It is worth keeping such examples in mind whenever one encounters arguments that the gospels themselves are some form of history on account of similar formal resonances with non-fiction literature of the day.

As in the preceding posts, much of the following draws upon Cueva’s The Myths of Fiction, although Cueva does not himself discuss biblical literature at all. Those comparisons here are mine alone. read more »

Novels like Gospels (3) : How a Hero is Created from Myths and Meets Historical Persons

The previous post covered some of the indications that the heroine of Greek novel Chaereas and Callirhoe was modelled on Ariadne of Theseus and the Minotaur fame. This post looks at the way the author Chariton has constructed his hero, Chaereas, from cuts of other mythical and legendary figures, in particular from Achilles.

Once again, of equal significance is that these fictional characters whose creation was inspired by mythical figures interact with real historical characters in the novel. This is similar to what we find in the Gospels: fictional characters and events modelled on Jewish and Greek stories interacting with historical persons such as Pilate, Caiaphas and Herod. read more »

Ancient Novels Composed Like Gospels continued (2)

Relief of Ariadne and Theseus in the Parc del ...

Image via Wikipedia

This continues the previous post that introduced Edmund Cueva’s study in the way our earliest surviving Greek novel was composed by combining historical persons, events and settings with fictional narrative details and characters that were inspired by popular myths.

Cueva is not comparing these novels with the gospels, but I do think it is important to compare them. There are quite a few studies that do argue that many of the details in the gospels narratives, even some of the characters, were copied from older stories found in both the Old Testament and in popular Greek literature. This would mean that the gospels are not unlike some popular Greek novels to the extent that they are stories that combine both historical and fictional characters and events in their story, with those fictional characters being conjured up by imaginative extrapolations of mythical characters.

In the previous post I focused mostly on the historical characters and events that are major players in Chariton’s novel Chaereas and Callirhoe.

In this post I outline some of the evidence that the heroine of the novel and her adventures were imaginatively inspired by popular Greek myths, especially those about Ariadne and Theseus. (I do so with apologies to Cueva, too, because what I include from his discussion is necessarily a savage simplification of his arguments for mimesis. Cueva includes in his discussion verbal echoes between Chariton’s novel and Plutarch’s Life of Theseus, and discusses more characters than just the heroine, Callirhoe.) read more »

Ancient Novels Like the Gospels: Mixing History and Myth

Statue of Sleeping Ariadne in the Vatican Museums.

Image via Wikipedia

The earliest ancient novel we have is a tale of two lovers, Chaereas and Callirhoe, by Chariton. A summary of its plot can be found here. It is dated to the early second century.

I have discussed or alluded to this novel in the various posts found on this page as a comparison to the Gospels, and this time I will show that its characters, plot and setting are drawn from a mix of historical and mythical sources.

Not a few scholars today who specialize in literary analysis of the Gospels have argued that this is how the Gospels were also constructed: from a mix of history and myth. Most recently along these lines I have posted a few times on Spong’s arguments that Gospel characters like Judas, even the “Twelve Disciples”, Jairus’s daughter who was raised from the dead, blind Bartimaeus, and Zechariah and Elizabeth (the parents of John the Baptist) are all cut from literary fictions. The character of Jesus himself is based on Moses in the Gospel of Matthew and on Elijah in the Gospel of Luke. At the same time, however, we have obviously real people — e.g. Herod and Pilate — appearing in the Gospel narratives.

Some criticisms of these posts have been along the lines of saying that ancient authors did not write stories with historical characters mixed up with fictional characters whose creation was inspired by mythical tales.

Well, that particular criticism is wrong. Chariton is evidence that ancient authors did indeed make up stories that included a mix of historical persons, events and settings along with character and plot details drafted from popular myths and older fictional literature.

This post draws its details from The Myths of Fiction: Studies in the Canonical Greek Novels by Edmund P. Cueva. read more »

Popular novels and the gospels

This post is a sequel to Another Empty Tomb Tale.

The Gospel of John has the most sermonizing or serious philosophical tone to it with its many figurative speeches of Jesus. It is natural for anyone not familiar with the literary world in which it was produced to remain unaware that it also reflects many features of the popular love stories of its day. That is, in fact, the point of most interest to me: in order to really understand the nature of the gospels one must understand the literary culture in which they were created.

I recently posted an extract of an empty tomb scene from Chaereas and Callirhoe that can scarcely fail to remind a modern reader of the scenes surrounding the empty tomb in the gospels, particularly the Gospel of John. In the Chaereas and Callirhoe love novella the empty tomb scene appears early in the plot and is the gateway to the main action that follows.

Crucifixions

Continuing with the same Chariton novel, one finds that even an unjust crucifixion of a main character serves to add dramatic tension.

The hero (Chaereas) and his friend (Polycharmus) are falsely condemned as murderers and unjustly sentenced to crucifixion. The condemned are portrayed as carrying their own crosses to their doom. Chaereas’ nobility of character is demonstrated by his patient silence in the face of this injustice and suffering. (As in the earlier post, the extracts are from Reardon’s Collected Ancient Greek Novels.)

Some of the men in Chaereas’s chain gang . . . broke their chains in the night, murdered the overseer, and tried to escape. They failed . . . Without even seeing them or hearing their defense the master at once ordered the crucifixion of [all] the men . . . They were brought out chained together foot and neck, each carrying his cross — the men executing the sentence added this grim public spectacle to the inevitable punishment as an example to frighten the other prisoners. Now Chaereas said nothing when he was led off with the others, but Polycharmus, as he carried his cross, said: “Callirhoe, it is because of you that we are suffering like this! You are the cause of all our troubles!” . . .

Polycharmus is then whisked off to the governor who ordered the crucifixion, Mithridates, in the expectation that he can reveal more about names associated with the murder. In the course of the interrogation before the governor, Polycharmus said:

“. . . Now we put up with our misfortune patiently, but some of our fellow prisoners . . . broke their chains and committed a murder; and you ordered us all to be taken off and crucified. Well, my friend [Chaereas] didn’t utter a word against his wife, even when the execution was under way . . . . Sir, please tell the executioner not to separate even our crosses.”

This story was greeted with tears and groans, and Mithridates sent everybody off to reach Chaereas before he did. They found the rest nailed up on their crosses: Chaereas was just ascending his. So they shouted to them from far off. “Spare him!” cried some; others, “Come down!” or “Don’t hurt him!” or “Let him go!” So the executioner checked his gesture, and Chaereas climbed down from his cross . . .

Mithridates [the governor] met him and embraced him. “My brother, my friend!” he said, “Your silence almost misled me into committing a crime! Your self-control was quite out of place!(pp. 67-69)

The silence of Jesus in a similar predicament is generally read as an astonishing holiness of character. So it is instructive to see the same motif applied to the hero of a popular novel from around the same era.

Other novels likewise contain scenes of miscarriages of justice and crucifixions of the hero, or apparent scenes of sure death of the heroine, and which turn out happily nonetheless.

Here is one more example. This is from another love story, An Ephesian Tale by Xenophon ‘of Ephesus’, translated by Graham Anderson.

When the prefect heard the particulars, he made no further effort to find out the facts but gave orders to have Habrocomes taken away and crucified. Habrocomes himself was dumbfounded at his miseries . . . The prefect’s agents brought him to the banks of the Nile, where there was a sheer drop overlooking the torrent. They set up the cross and attached him to it, tying his hands and feet tight with ropes; that is the way the Egyptians crucify. . . . But Habrocomes looked straight at the sun, then at the Nile channel, and prayed: “Kindest of the gods, ruler of Egypt, . . .  if I, Habrocomes, have done anything wrong, may I perish miserably and incur an even greater penalty if there is one; but I have been betrayed . . . .”  The god took pity on his prayer. A sudden gust of wind arose and struck the cross, sweeping away the subsoil on the cliff where it had been fixed. Habrocomes fell into the torrent and was swept away; the water did him no harm . . . . (p. 155)

Innocent heroes, betrayals, unjust judges, crucifixions, patient endurance, empty tombs, faith in the gods to deliver . . . . They are all as much the stuff of ancient popular fiction as they are of the canonical gospels.

The focus on the character, not the pain

Another interesting detail that the gospels and these novellas have in common is their focus on the nobility of character of the hero through his unjust treatment and crucifixion. A modern reader expects a portrayal of crucifixion to convey the physical agony involved, that that is something quite absent from both the ancient novels and the gospels. (Mel Gibson fulfilled an obvious modern demand for that sort of detail with his The Passion of the Christ movie.)

Other novelistic motifs

Jo-Ann A. Brant is one academic who has published studies in the novelistic motifs and art in the Gospel of John. I have discussed some of her work in some detail previously. Here I will just point to some of the main ideas that she explains. The following are extracts from my earlier post Novelistic plot and motifs in the Gospel of John.

Abandoned child

The true father of Jesus, God himself, chose to leave his infant son in the foster care of humble parents from Nazareth. By doing this he was knowingly leaving his son to become a victim of false accusations, envy, abuse and death. But his motive was entirely good — it was done out of love and not any desire to see his son die. All blame for mistreatment falls on those who carry it out, and the father bears no responsibility for what his son suffers.

That the hero or heroine was abandoned by their parents and left to face death, and raised by others of a very lowly status, was a common theme in ancient mythology and novels: . . . .

(See Novelistic plot . . . for more details)

Wanderings and signs

Novels would commonly begin with an opening conflict that led to a series of episodes in which the main character wandered from adventure to adventure, facing death, danger, conflict and temptation at every turn. The hero would also carry signs of their true parentage, and these signs would themselves often be the focus of the movement of the story. Some would be in awe of the signs (whether they were something about their physical appearance or tokens or some form of wealth) and want to protect the hero; others would be envious or greedy and want to kill them.

(See Novelistic plot . . . for more details)

The first love scene

Can’t have a good novel without good love scenes. The gospel of John plays with some of the standard ones.

“There is near consensus among literary critics that the scene at Jacob’s well follows conventions of the betrothal type-scene found in Hebrew narrative.” (Husband hunting, 211)

(See Novelistic plot . . . for more details)

The second love scene

At the commencement of the story of Lazarus the author informs readers that the Mary he is to refer to is the one who will later in the gospel anoint Jesus’ feet with perfume and her hair. Thus we are given a motive for Mary’s later act — she loves Jesus out of gratitude for raising her brother from the dead.

Then Mary took a pound of very costly oil of spikenard, anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil. (12:3)

The reader knows that the woman is preparing Jesus for burial, but the actors in the narrative do not know this. Rather, the scene is heavy with sensuality, and suggestive of a prenuptial ritual. At the level of the textual narrative (apart from its symbolic meaning) it appears that Mary is attempting to court Jesus, even asking him to marry her.

(See Novelistic plot . . . for more details)

The resolution

At the end the main character must reconcile his own desires with those of his father. Jesus does not wish to die but acknowledges that that is the reason the father has left him to face the world (12:27-28). His obedience to the father’s will ultimately confirms that he truly is the obedient son of God.

Similar motifs are at work in An Ethiopian Story: a trial at the end, a daughter who must prove her obedience to her father, a father who feels obliged to sacrifice his daughter for the sake of the people — although in this case the crowd calls out for her to be set free, contrary to the demands of the crowd in the gospel.

(See Novelistic plot . . . for more details)

Death and marriage, a popular couplet

In the opening miracle in the Gospel of John, there is again a strong association between marriage and death. The Cana miracle took place at a wedding, but the miracle itself, with its imagery of blood, pointed to the death of the bridegroom Jesus. Again in the Gospel of John we see the same ironic association when Jesus is anointed. The reader knows the sensual scene, one that ostensibly borders on a proposal of marriage, is in fact (and unknown to the characters involved) a preparation for the death of Jesus.

The metaphoric link between marriage consummation and an untimely death is common enough. Another example of it in ancient novels from the cultural era of the gospels is the second century novel by Achilles Tatius, Leucippe and Clitophon:

And when will you marry, my son; when will I make the offerings to sanctify your wedding, O groom and bridegroom — unconsummated bridegroom, unlucky chevalier. Your bridal chamber is the grave, your wedlock is with death, your wedding march a funeral hymn, your marriage song this dirge. (p. 186)

What a resplendent wedding: your bedroom is a prisoners’ cell; your mattress is the ground; your garlands and bracelets are hawsers and wrist ropes; the bride’s escort is a brigand sleeping at the door! Instead of the wedding march we hear a funeral song. (p. 214)

(From Reardon’s Collected Ancient Greek Novels)


Another Empty Tomb Tale

Just how unique are the empty tomb narratives in the gospels really?  Here is a narrative of a fictional empty tomb story from the same period, possibly slightly earlier, as the gospels.

Note the graphic details, the similarity of actions, settings and feelings to those found in the gospels; and even the conclusion that the missing corpse was a sign that the one buried had  been a divinity in the flesh, and was now a goddess in heaven.

It is from the story of Chaereas and Callirhoe by Chariton, translated by B. P. Reardon

The tomb robbers had been careless in closing the tomb – it was night, and they were in a hurry.

At the crack of dawn Chareas turned up at the tomb, ostensibly to offer wreaths and libations, but in fact with the intention of doing away with himself; he could not bear being separated from Callirhoe and thought that death was the only thing that could cure his grief.

When he reached the tomb, he found that the stones had been moved and the entrance was open. He was astonished at the sight and overcome by fearful perplexity at what had happened. Rumor – a swift messenger – told the Syracusans this amazing news.

They all quickly crowded round the tomb, but no one dared go inside until Hermocrates gave an order to do so. This man who was sent in reported the whole situation accurately.

It seemed incredible that even the corpse was not lying there.

Then Chareas himself determined to go in, in his desire to see Callihroe again even dead; but though he hunted through the tomb, he could find nothing.

Many people could not believe it and went in after him. They were all seized by helplessness.

One of those standing there said, “The funeral offerings have been carried off – it is tomb robbers who have done that; but what about the corpse – where is it?”

Many different suggestions circulated in the crowd.

“Which of the gods is it, then, who has become my rival in love and carried off Callihroe and is now keeping her with him – against her will, constrained by a more powerful destiny? That is why she died suddenly – so that she would not realize what is happening.

That is how Dionyus took Ariadne from Theseus, how Zeus took Semele. It looks as if I had a goddess for a wife without knowing it, someone above my station.

From pages 54/5 of Collected Ancient Greek Novels ed by B. P. Reardon, 1989

Of the date of this novel, Reardon writes that it was “written in the archaizing Greek fashionable from the late first century A.D. onward . . . and Chariton has been placed as early as the first century B.C. My own guess at his date is about the middle of the first century A.D.”  (p. 17)

Any study of the gospel empty tomb stories ought to be aware of the remarkably similar sorts of stories that were popular at the time.

For anyone not so familiar with the gospel narratives, the phrases I have highlighted are echoed in the following details of the gospels:

  • the women mourners coming early morning to the tomb of Jesus
  • to complete their mourning tasks
  • on reaching the tomb they are astonished to find the (stone) door open
  • and to find the tomb empty
  • in the Gospel of John Peter arrives first at the tomb but does not go inside
  • another disciple arrives soon afterwards and does go inside the tomb
  • and he sees for sure that there is no body
  • people (disciples) could not believe it
  • the empty tomb is a sign that Jesus was indeed divine and had returned to his place in heaven as a divinity