Fiction in ancient biographies, histories and gospels

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by Neil Godfrey

the Gelati Gospels MSS
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If the Gospels were written as “biographies” of Jesus, or were meant to be read as “history”, does this mean that we can expect to find only factual details in them? Or if not entirely factual, must we give the benefit of the doubt that beneath a certain amount of exaggeration there must have been some kernel of literal truth?

It ain’t necessarily so.

Dale C. Allison M. Grable Professor of New Testament Exegesis and Early Christianity at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. In his recent book, Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History, he includes a discussion of recent scholarship on the genre of the gospels and what genre means for the question of whether we can expect to find fictional tales in the gospels.

The question has force, says Allison, because the gospel authors appear to have been “far more interested in the practical and theological meanings of their stories than in literal facticity.” (p. 442)

Pervo and MacDonald on Acts

Allison begins by noting that some scholars have “recently decided that the guild has long misconstrued the genre of Acts, and that the book contains features more typical of light fiction than ancient historiography.” He is referring specifically to the work of Richard Pervo, “Profit with Delight“, which I have covered in detail in a series of posts here. Here also points to Dennis MacDonald’s “Does the New Testament Imitate Homer? Four Cases from the Acts of the Apostles“.

Allison concedes “perhaps they might be right” but he personally doubts it. Nonetheless, he does cite Thomas E. Phillips who wrote: “In the eyes of most scholars, it [Acts] is history — but not the kind that precludes fiction.”

If Acts, what of the Gospels?

“In recent years, several scholars have called attention to possible affiliations between the canonical Gospels and Hellenistic romance, or between the Gospels and Homer.”

Again Allison cites Pervo and MacDonald.Pervo argues that the activity of shaping various independent stories into a coherent narrative involved the same compositional strategies we find in the Alexander Romance, the Life of Aesop or Philostratus’s novel about Apollonius of Tyana. (The Novel in the Ancient World, ed. by Schmeling.)

Many are more aware of MacDonald’s The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark. Allison repeats the common criticism that Mark’s narrative is set in recent times, unlike the stories found in ancient epics. I personally think this criticism is questionable if we apply rely primarily on external controls for dating Mark, in which case it becomes possibly a mid-second century work. Further, the point of the Jesus narrative is to depict a hero at the end of the age, not at the beginning.

The state of play with respect to these studies?

It is perhaps too early to know whether this recent take on the Gospels will lead to a dead end to or a new world of profitable discourse. In the latter case, we will have to rethink much, and perhaps the proposition that the Gospels contain in part or in whole “purely metaphorical narratives” will become not just credible but blindingly obvious. (pp. 442-3)


One will sometimes read a scholar proclaiming dogmatically to lay readers that the Gospels are “biographies” and will be referred to Richard Burridge’s “What Are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography”. The intent of this dogmatic assertion is to convince others that the Gospels do not contain fiction but genuine “biographical” information.

Any scholar who declares this as a “fact” is abusing his status as a scholar and betraying his lay audience. It is more intellectually honest to say, as does Allison,

In the meantime, many scholars remain persuaded that the Gospels are a subspecies of Greco-Roman biography. What would acceptance of that classification imply for the thesis about “purely metaphorical narratives?

But even if we were to think of the Gospels as belonging to the biography genre, we are no closer to establishing the ‘literal truth’ of their contents.

Greek and Roman biographers and historians were quite capable of handing on stories that they did not consider factual or about which they had doubts. Often, however, they made this clear. Plutarch told one version of the conception of Alexander the Great, after which he added: “There is another version of this story.” Having then related that second account, he added that Alexander’s mother, Olympia, repudiated it (Alex. 2-3). In this way, Plutarch signaled to his readers that they were not on firm historical ground. The Gospels, however, offer nothing remotely similar. No evangelist confronts us with differing versions of the same story that push us to ask which is true.

Is that last section of what Allison says true? I hardly think so. It is only true to the extent that within their own gospels they presented the reader with but one viewpoint. But the evangelists were clearly aware of different versions of a number of stories, and they clearly had to choose between them. Most scholars see Matthew and Luke using Mark as a source, and they sometimes make significant changes to Mark’s story. Mark spoke of a demon possessed man possessed with “Legion”. Matthew spoke of two such men in the same episode. Examples abound.

One is reminded of Origin of the History of Israel by Wesselius. Wesselius compares Primary History (Genesis to 2 Kings) with Herodotus’s Histories. He remarks on the habit of Herodotus to often place varying stories side by side and briefly comment on which one he favoured as the more likely. Wesselius compares this with the habit of the author/s of Primary History to also place contradictory stories side by side, with the difference that the authors did not intrude to make their own comments, but left it to readers to decide. Examples are the two accounts of the creation of man and the rise of King David.

By the time we reach the Gospels, we find authors reading one version of a story (say in Mark) and replacing it with another, without comment. Later Christians were comfortable enough with collating these contradictory narratives into a single canon.


Allison then refers to Ulrich Luz’s commentary on Matthew 1-7 to illustrate the idea of some scholars that the Gospel authors modeled their compositions on the historical books of the Hebrew Bible.

But Allison reminds us that Jews were often sceptical about the pure historical authenticity of the Bible. Talmudic writings suggested that Job was a parable and never historically existed. Philo sometimes discarded the literal meaning of the Bible. Origen and Gregory of Nyssa spoke of “apostate Jews” who considered Genesis contained myths, “which raises the possibility that some who thought of themselves as faithful Jews did likewise.” Allison is focussing on what the ancients themselves believed, but it is also goes without saying that much of Genesis and Exodus is plainly nonhistorical, as is the first book of Histories by Herodotus. Herodotus opened up his history with tales of Io and Europa, Jason and Paris.

Allison argues that the Gospel authors believed that they were writing genuine history or biography. Clearly he rejects the view of John Shelby Spong that I have addressed in recent posts. So in future posts I hope to cover some of the criticisms of Spong’s views.

Meanwhile, we see from Allison’s discussion that genre alone cannot be a sure measure of whether or not a narrative contains outright fiction or not.

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25 thoughts on “Fiction in ancient biographies, histories and gospels”

  1. I’ve always felt that MacDonald was one step removed — the gospels are not directly under the influence of Homer, but under the influence of popular historical fiction that in turn was under the influence of Homer.

    1. I’ve had similar thoughts. Further, some of the textual similarities may well be sourced from familiarity with certain episodes (via schooling, other cultural sharing and talk). Some of the features MacDonald singles out as Homeric epic influences are also characteristic of novels and drama — which admittedly probably were themselves influenced by epic literature.

      One little detail that the gospels, let’s focus on Mark, do share with fictional literature such as epic and drama especially is anonymity. It is the rule that ancient biographies and histories began with the author introducing himself. This is not the case with epic and drama, although the format of drama makes it awkward to know how a playwright would introduce himself. Some novels also begin with the author’s self-introduction. Epics do not, however. Not making a big thing about this. Just a passing observation.

  2. It seems a bit off that Allison did not mention the study of Michael Vines “The Problem of Markan Genre”. Vines argues that Mark in particular is a novel, specifically a Jewish novel like Tobit and Joseph and Aseneth. I guess he just wasn’t familiar with it, since his books have so many sources he cannot have read everything. Nonetheless, it is a recent study that is in line with MacDonald and Pervo.

  3. I think this is a better tack for those wanting to remove the Gospels from historical consideration. The theories of Mark as extended parable, allegory, or Midrash falter, at least as I have seen, on the lack of works of this nature, approximately contemporary with the Gospels, that resemble the Gospels. The Greek Bios do, and also the Jewish stories of prophets, and some of these we know are nearly pure fabrication. if you know of a extended parable, allegory, or Midrash that might make a good comparison to the gospels let me know.

    I think you might find more support for a mythical Jesus in the tales of prophets. For example, Daniel, I think, is likely a name taken from a off hand remark in Ezekiel, the meaning of which was lost to later generations(the Canaanite hero Dan’el) wrongly assuming this was a prophet contemporary to Ezekiel, later Jews began creating legends of his activities, possibly attaching the tales of figures(possibly real), not mentioned in any revered books, to Daniel.

  4. Greek Bios resemble the Gospels? Have you read them? Here are the biographies that Burridge cites for genre comparison. (Burridge is the authority usually cited by those who repeat this conclusion with apparently little critical awareness of B’s actual arguments)

    Isocrates on Evagoras: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0144%3Aspeech%3D9

    Xenophon on Agesilius: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0210%3Atext%3DAges.

    Nepos on Atticus: http://www.attalus.org/old/atticus.html

    Philo on Moses: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/yonge/book24.html

    Tacitus on Agricola: http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/tac/ag01010.htm

    Plutarch on Cato the Younger: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Lives/Cato_Minor*.html

    Suetonius on the Caesars (e.g. Julius Caesar): http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Suetonius/12Caesars/Julius*.html

    Lucian on Demonax: http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/luc/wl3/wl302.htm

    Philostratus on Apollonius: http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/aot/laot/index.htm

    Have a look at those (or even Burridge’s own book, “What are the Gospels?”) and then we can discuss Burridge’s argument in a more informed manner.

  5. I have read the following; Lucian on Demonax, Philostratus on Apollonius, Suetonius on the Caesars, Philo on Moses, along with Life of Secundus. I will look at the others from the sites you provided. It was in fact the reading of the these works that confirmed for me the common conclusion that the Gospel is a a type of Bios. This of course has bearing in other discussion on history. For instance, I’ve seen the argument that outside Lucian, there is no evidence for Demonax, and he may have made this person up. But that Lucian choose this particular style to portray Demonax, I would say counts as evidence of his historicity, though it can hardly be confirmed. That the Gospel writers choose this format is evidence that they thought the subject is a historical person and would likely include elements that they thought were historically true of the subject. Thus it would be foolish to assume a literary origin for aspects not reasonably confirmed to be historical or literary. I haven’t read Burridge, but instead Christopher Bryan.

    1. The style of the this and other recent comments you submit has changed considerably.

      Your comment is quite correct to say “it would be foolish to assume a literary origin for aspects not reasonably confirmed to be historical . . .” It should be clear I have made no such assumption. I have followed the methods of scholars such as Spong who reasonably confirm the literary origin for aspects of the narrative by showing the source and derived passags side by side.

      There is one fundamental difference between the Greek and Roman biographies and the Gospels. The former are clearly about their central character. The Gospels are about the Gospel, and Jesus is the lead character in each Gospel. Burridge attempts to argue that the Gospels are “about” Jesus by doing a comparative statistical analysis of verb subjects. Such statistics miss the meaning of what we are reading. We are reading a theological message and come away with a theologically charged and appropriately very impersonal portrait of Jesus. The personal focus of biographies is further underscored by their first person narration.

      Though Burridge in his second edition responds to critics such as Tolbert, one surely finds such critics engaging more meaningfully and extensively with the texts than Burridge’s statisitical analysis can achieve. The Greco-Roman biographies demonstrate a clear interest in the persons (and personal details, motives, habits) of their topics. The gospel authors demonstrate an exclusively theological interest in Jesus. They are closer to many of the theological narratives in the Jewish scriptures than the Greek and Roman biographies. A comparison of the conflicting narratives about Jesus among the Gospels highlights the way theology, not biographical interest, is the focus of each author.

      1. “The style of the this and other recent comments you submit has changed considerably.”
        How so? No doubt it has, but your analysis would be appreciated. Should we suspect interpolation or psuedographia? Just a joke of course.

        I was in the process of looking at Mark as compared with some of the bios in more detail, and I’ll get back to you on what I turn up. I’ll pay close attention to the presentation of personal details, motives, habits. Could you suggest some ancient works might be more comparable too? I’ve suggested Jewish Prophet stories, Bryan feeling that the depiction of Moses is the closest fit (since we follow Moses from birth to death, as Matthew/Luke do for Jesus). I’m not sure if that would constitute an actual genre, because they are rather diverse in purpose and time, though no doubt Mark would have been familiar with these works. I would, however, expect that the nature of the author and the audience would affect the presentation of the “bios”. If Lucian thought Demonax was the holy Son of God, it may affect how he presents Demonax.

        I hope not to take long before revisiting the subject, but class has started again, and none of them touch on the New Testament, but they do discus some modern Indian Gurus, so that may be somewhat enlightening on the current topic.

      2. Neil, have you considered the novel? I was reading about a ancient Greek novel, Callirhoe, and something about the description hit me(not the work, unfortunately I cant find an online version in English)it was described as a “penny dreadful”. When you think of it, the target audience of the Gospel may very well have been the same audience of those works; semi-literate urbanites. That is the impression I get of early Christians. Urban and under educated. I imagine this would have been more prevalent earlier than later (my premise being that new religions are most attractive to the marginal rather than the established or traditional.) It seems to me That tone of the main differences in Mark is its Narrative style. It does roll of as a “story” rather than Biography. What do you think?

        1. Yup.

          One of my first blog posts was titled “Ancient Novels and the Gospels” with particular focus on Mark: http://vridar.wordpress.com/2007/02/18/ancient-popular-novels-the-gospel-of-mark/

          I later posted on “Popular Novels and the Gospels” with particular reference to John: http://vridar.wordpress.com/2009/12/27/popular-novels-behind-the-gospels/

          And in between something on Acts being in the novel genre: http://vridar.wordpress.com/2008/01/21/the-literary-genre-of-acts-9-the-ancient-novel/

          I have devoured ancient novels or novellas from Aesop to Xenophon and find many interesting crossovers between them and the Gospels.

          I am not saying they are therefore of the novel genre. The Gospels share much in common with a variety of genres. I keep coming back to the synoptics being a minitiarized version of some of the Old Testament narratives.

          1. Thanks, I’ll have to comb the library for Greek novels. Part of the problem for finding comparisons for Mark is that it does seem to be an unusual book for the period. I can understand those that wanted it to be a unique genre, the Gospel. I would suppose that would have a lot to do with it’s origin.

            I don’t know of many holy man stories written by the Hellenistic Jewish, out cast group that revered the holy man. Even Appolonius was covered by a well educated man commissioned by an empress (though his sources have all the same problems associated with the gospels).

            It is, I suppose, note worthy that that Justin Martyr refers to gospels as memoirs, so it would seem that some people then might have taken them for that sort of literature.

            1. It is, I suppose, note worthy that that Justin Martyr refers to gospels as memoirs, so it would seem that some people then might have taken them for that sort of literature.

              Justin does not explicitly state that the gospels are memoirs. He may imply this, and there is some evidence that he might be referring to the gospels by the term “memoirs”, but I do not know how we can be certain that he had our gospels in mind.

              1. I only know Justin in English.
                ” For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, “This do ye in remembrance of Me, this is My body;” and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, “This is My blood;” and gave it to them alone” LXVI first apology

                I’m not sure what the Greek they translate to be “memoir” but there are some works, that I saw translated as “memoir” also, as in Xenophon’s memoir of Socrates. There seems to be an indication that was a category of literature, so the word was used in the translation of Justin Martyr was a specific and deliberate choice. I would have to ask a classicist to be sure.

                As to what works he was referring to, the word translated “gospels” is the Greek word typically used, as in Marks, intro or Paul’s gospel. We of course can’t be certain what he was referring to, but if the word used, “memoir” is close to an accurate translation of the word, we should dismiss works like “The Gospel of the Truth, since they don’t have the appearance of a memoir, nor gospel as Paul understands it.

                We should imagine they are works like G.Mark, G.Luke, G. Thomas, G.Peter, etc. as they could be construed as a memoir, and in the case of G.Thomas, implicitly state they are the words of Jesus as written by an apostle. G.Peter likewise puts Peter as the writer of the text.

                Of course, the authors them selves don’t call the works gospels, and the designation seems to come from Mark’s opening line, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ”, it is a story of the gospel, not a gospel. Contrast that with the “Gospel of Truth”, which is a gospel, and not a story of the gospel. As mentioned earlier, it would be hard to describe it as a memoir. That Mark opens with the line about the gospel, and it is the source of at least two other works, It seems possible that the opening line of mark was taken as a title, and other similar works were labeled the same.

                Given the content, though brief mentioned, it seems he is either paraphrasing a known gospel(possibly in conjunction with 1 Co 11:24-25, or simply the practice of his own congregation during the Eucharist, independent of any known account), or some work either derived from Mark, or from which Mark is derived(if I’m not mistaken, of known works, it seems very close to Luke’s version, the quote he uses).

                I doubt Justin’s gospels include none of the gospels, canonical or otherwise, that we are familiar with. It is even less likely that these are a set of works unknown to us (and hence all other known early Christian writers) and unlike any of the known gospels. Suggestions that this is so have a large absence in evidence to overcome.

                It is possible, and likely that gospels were written and used in only a limited circle, and thus were never mentioned by of the early Christian writers before falling out of use and disappearing, for instance Egerton, or the Gospel of Mary. Works with either a limited geographical range, or used by groups outside the developmental trajectory of modern Christianity, and not well known enough to outsiders to mention. It is doubtful that Justin has a a set however of only books used by “heretics’ since he is otherwise so in line with and well regarded by, orthodox tradition, or that his particular area would have developed a set of gospels used no where else, and gospels used by some one as popular as Justin would be of no interest to the outside Christian world.

                It is of course possible, but without a strong argument for his using only unknown gospels, I don’t see a lot of need or reason to entertain it or expect it.

              2. Thank you for the link, I’ve added it to my tool bag. Do you recall how close the word order is for many of the passages? I wonder how likely it is that he has those specific works in mind, vs. the probability that he is just referring to things he has heard about Jesus independent of reading those works. I,ve only started adding anti-Nicene fathers to my library and I’m not very familiar with Justine, though he apparently is one of the most important early witnesses, not simply from the volume of his work, but also the subject matter.

              3. My table only shows points of contact in ideas/thoughts/episodes. It makes no claims about Justin’s (not his sister’s) knowledge of specific gospels. It is a data table only, not the argument itself.

  6. JW:
    Regarding Greco-Roman Biography (GRB) as historical evidence we need to rightly divide between GRB with historical sources and GRB without historical sources as the common criteria consist mainly of Form. A GRB could have all the form sign posts of biography, birth, background, character and death, and still be complete fiction. GRB without historical sources has no evidential value. The key to the potential historical value of GRB is not what the author expected regarding her audience (how to take it) but what the author KNEW regarding SOURCES.

    “Mark” is the only potentially useful Gospel for historicity since it is the original and all near contemporary Gospels use it as a base. As the original, this author KNOWS:

    1) The Jewish Bible is a primary source for wording and context

    2) Paul is a source in the same way

    3) Josephus is a source in the same way

    4) There was no historical witness used for his Impossible Jesus

    5) His theme is to discredit supposed historical witness

    6) Q is rejected as a source because it was thought to have a source of historical witness

    Specifically for “Mark” it lacks the form of GRB anyway. No birth, no real death, tragic ending, failure of the main character and character is subservient (so to speak) to PLOT. “Mark’s” Gospel is one continuous plot. All fitting Greek Tragedy. The objective of “Mark’s” Jesus is to promote his Passion and Resurrection but only an anonymous messenger believes he was resurrected. This author has inverted every common Marker for GRB based on historical witness and made it anti-GRB (Revelation). “Matthew” and “Luke” try to convert “Mark” to GRB but if their base is anti-GRB, what good are they as evidence.

    Have not read Burridge but if he fails to make the observation that having a base of “Mark”, which has such good parallels to Greek Tragedy, greatly reduces the potential evidential value of “Matthew” and “Luke”, which parallel better with GRB compared to “Mark” than the real question is just like it is for W with respect to WMD. Is he dishonest or just stupid.


    1. JW, given the post that proceeds it, it is ironic that you would question whether Burridge is “dishonest or just stupid”. Isn’t this a bit of the pot calling the kettle back? I haven’t read Buridge either, but I would be willing to wager you couldn’t hold a candle to him in either ethics or intellect.

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