Ancient Novels and the Gospels

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by Neil Godfrey

The following notes are taken from pages 74-76 of Mary Ann Tolbert’s Sowing the Gospel: Mark’s World in Literary-Historical Perspective (1989). A wonderful collection of ancient novels can be found in Reardon’s Collected Ancient Greek Novels (1989). Chariton, Xenophon of Ephesus, Achilles Tatius, Longus and others make fascinating reading as they bring us closer to the literary culture in which our gospel authors themselves were embedded. Modern novels are about psychological motives and development. Not so ancient novels. They were about plot and action and the principles of character illustrated through the action. (Tolbert also cites Kermode, whom I feel a little embarrassed to mention again here for who knows how many times now.)

Following is a summary of the characteristics of ancient novels that must affect our views of the gospels, and after the summary I will list a few possible implications.

3 characteristics of ancient popular literature found in the Gospels

1. Historiographic form — the use of historical characters, locations, activities and groups as stereotypical set pieces. The intent was to lend verisimilitude to the story. Thus the Roman rulers, the crowds, the Galilean villages, the Jewish priests and practices, Jerusalem and its Temple, were formal representations or set pieces, not pictures of reality in the modern sense of realism. Tolbert cites Todorov, “Introduction to Verisimilitude,” in The Poetics of Prose, 81-82.

2. Epic substance — The episodic epic plot pattern used the journey to tie separate encounters and adventures together. Episodes often cluster together, not by cause and effect, but by the needs of repetition or thematic parallels.

In ancient novels there are 3 possible points where this episodic chain of events gives way to more developed and intertwined plot patterns:

  • The beginning where there is a need to introduce the divine and human levels of the story to follow;
  • The central turning point that points to the final recognition scene (this is where a distinct change begins — in the case of Mark it is the first time a human (not a demon) recognizes Jesus, and this begins the passion predictions and the journey to Jerusalem);
  • The final recognition scene/s, at the heart of which is the question of identity; these scenes extend over a period of days and are tied together with time references — as in ancient novels (influenced by Homer’s Odyssey) there is a question and answer scene where Jesus declares his identity before the High Priest; Pilate and the centurion offer backhanded recognition of Jesus; Peter in another question and answer scene denies his identity three times. To anyone familiar with the conventions of recognition scenes such a denial at the end rules out any possibility of a happy ending (p.75).

3. Dramatic content — Each of the episodes above employs techniques from ancient drama:

  • brief dialogues surrounded by narrative explication
  • monologues at crucial moments to review past adventures and reveal some internal agony (only one in Mark — the prayer in Gethsemane)
  • crowds (in novels) and chorus (in drama) are used to express general views or opinions on the action
  • most characters are minor ones who make only an appearance or two before disappearing; only the hero with a close friend or few faithful servants hold the plot together from beginning to end, “yet even they are often portrayed in a flat, stereotypical, passive, and static manner.”


What room is there for models of oral transmission culminating in authors collecting “pericopes” of “traditions” and stringing them together in loose episodic fashion when the episodic pattern is clearly seen to be a literary creation of creative authors following epic and novelistic conventions of the time?

Why make presumptions of historicity on the basis of historical characters and settings in the gospels when such appearances were common literary conventions that bore no necessary relationship to historicity at all? Especially when we see the same dramatic and epic content typical of the ancient novel genre appearing in the gospels.

The novelistic conventions ought to prompt a rethink about the point of the messianic secret in Mark.

Tolbert’s observation on Mark’s “anti-recognition” scene for Peter at the end further supports the hypothesis that Mark 16.8 was the original ending. Seen in the context of literary conventions, Peter’s emphatic denials doom him from finding a happy resolution. The young man in the tomb tells others that it is not in the tomb or Jerusalem they (including Peter) will find Jesus, but in Galilee. But Peter has already committed the sin of denying his Lord before men and is doomed to be denied by God himself. His tears, like the tears of Eurylochus in the Odyssey after he had so cowardly failed his companions, provoke audience scorn, not pity. A modern reader pities him only on the basis of wanting him to be like the Peter found in Matthew and Luke and John and Acts. Would the Paul who wrote Galatians have felt pity for his tears?

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Neil Godfrey

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