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

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by Neil Godfrey

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.

I look at three novels from the early to mid second century. I believe a reasonable case can be made for dating the composition of our canonical gospels to the same era, and have discussed several studies that specifically set Luke in this period. Even the date of Mark to around 70 is based more on theological  modeling than tangible external controls.

I wrote a few posts ago that our earliest Greek novelist mimicked the opening lines of well known historians when he opened the story of Chaereas and Callirhoe. To recap those —

Chariton‘s opening sentence in Chaereas and Callirhoe:

My name is Chariton, son of Aphrodisias, and I am clerk to the attorney Athenagoras. I am going to tell you the story of the love affair that took place in Syracuse.

This introductory line follows the “my name is X and I am from Y and I am going to write about X” formula that was well known from the opening lines of two of the most influential Greek historians of this period, Herodotus and Thucydides.


These are the researches of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, which he publishes, in the hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done, and of preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians from losing their due meed of glory; and withal to put on record what were their grounds of feuds.


Thucydides, an Athenian, wrote the history of the war between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians, beginning at the moment that it broke out, and believing that it would be a great war and more worthy of relation than any that had preceded it.

Edmund Cueva in The Myths of Fiction follows Tomas Hägg in suggesting that Chariton is consciously preparing his readers to find historical characters and events in the fictional work. And as discussed recently, this novel is filled with historical characters and historical events themselves have a “tremendous effect on the behavior of the characters.” I have discussed this in more detail in a recent post so I won’t repeat it here.

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.” (p. 16)

Xenophon’s opening line of Ephesian Tale

The next novelist who appears to have written soon after Chariton is known as Xenophon. We are familiar with the Greek historian named Xenophon, but would not expect the novelist to be using this as a pen-name without some reason. Well, it may be a coincidence, or it may be a clue, but the opening line of his novel, An Ephesian Tale (Ephesiaca) follows the same pattern as does the historian’s namesake’s work, Anabasis 1.1.1

Darius and Parysatis had two sons born to them, of whom the elder was Artaxerxes and the younger Cyrus.

Unlike Herodotus and Thucydides Xenophon does not open with his own name, etc. but rather introduces the name and family of his subject. Compare, then, “Xenophon’s” opening line in An Ephesian Tale:

Among the most influential citizens of Ephesus was a man called Lycomedes. He and his wife, Themisto, who also belonged to the city, had a son Habrocomes.

History in Xenophon’s novel

Unlike the setting of Chariton’s novel that of Xenophon’s is set in a quite recent time. There are fewer specifically historical characters and events, too.

This is in keeping with the trend, discussed by Cueva in The Myths of Fiction, for novels to take on a stronger mythical flavour as they lessened the number of historiographical elements in their works. This may have significance if we think of the gospels as being composed within the time of the earliest novels, since it was the earlier stages of their development where we see a heavier use of historical characters and settings.

Xenophon’s novel refers to the office of an eirenarch, an office that we know was not instituted until the time of Hadrian in the early second century. So Xenophon’s novel does have a relatively recent historical setting.

Longus’s introduction to Daphnis and Chloe

Longus was writing later in the second century, and composed a very erudite novel for a presumably equally learned audience. The novel is a pastoral-fantasy tale of a young couple, in particular the girl Chloe, being “metamorphosed” into sexual maturity. A series of quaint origin myths or etiologies are associated with each stage of the story, and these are meant to be read as parables or metaphors through which the story of Daphnis and Chloe is to be understood. More than this, even, Longus explains at the outset that the novel is to instruct readers in an understanding of human life.

But the focus of this post is on the novelist’s use of historiographical conventions.

Longus toyed with the famous discussion by Thucydides about historical method. Thucydides opening paragraphs of The Peloponnesian War are technically known as the archaeologia.

This archaeologia of Thucydides discusses the pre-history or very early historical course of Greece, but mainly as a means for Thucydides to explain his approach to historical writing. He insists on writing only that which can be known from eyewitnesses and investigating the reports of other eyewitnesses.

Thucydides therefore says he will not include “romance” or myth in his contemporary history, but only observable facts as far as he can assess them through conflicting reports.

He apologizes for the absence of enjoyment readers may suffer by reading his work because it omits the element of romance. But he justifies his approach by saying that what he will produce will be something of value for mankind for all time. It will be a means by which they can understand their own future by understanding the past.

The absence of romance in my history will, I fear, detract somewhat from its interest; but if it be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it, I shall be content. In fine, I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time. 1.22.4

Longus the novelist takes up and partly reverses, partly imitates, these points discussed by Thucydides. What prompts Longus to write his story is not a historical event in the real world, but a picture of an idyllic pastoral scene. Upon this imaginary world Longus will seek to exercise his interpretative powers to create a story that will enable his readers to understand life, and to enjoy the experience of reading at the same time. He will fill his tale with the romance so deliberately eschewed by Thucydides. (Thucydides was very likely attacking his predecessor Herodotus by this complaint, and Longus is surely siding here with Herodotus himself.)

But the main point of Longus is his assurance that he wishes to create with his novel a possession that will be of lasting benefit to mankind. This, of course, recalls Thucydides’ intention for his work of history. From this work of fiction Longus expects readers to understand more of themselves and what to expect in the course of life, and to understand it better when it does happen.

I searched out an interpreter of the picture and produced the four volumes of this book, as an offering to Love, the Nymphs, and Pan, and something for mankind to possess and enjoy. [The Greek words in this phrase echo Thucydides, although “enjoy” was a negative trait for the historian.] It will cure the sick, comfort the distressed, sir the memory of those who have loved, and educate those who haven’t.

Longus reverses Thucydides historical structure, too. Thucydides began with brief introductory background to what was a mythical history of Greece, and from there launches into the main work that he considers to be of real worth, the true history of his own time based on what he and others he has met have seen for themselves. Longus, on the other hand, begins with what he has seen, which is the picture of the pastoral scene, and then begins his real story of myth and imagination. Longus is consciously reversing the dry reality of the work of Thucydides.

One of the most tragic episodes of Thucydides’ history is the war involving Mytilene, and war involving Mytilene is a central event in Longus’s tale. But the treatment by Longus is anti-Thucydidean. Thucydides did not write to please; the possession he was leaving for mankind was an unpleasant pill. Longus fantasizes the war into an enjoyable tale of very simple adventure that is all over a simple misunderstanding and is happily ended at the critical moment of the plot.

Thucydides goes to pains to avoid the mythical, the romance, the pleasantries of his medium. Longus takes Thucydides head-on to reverse all this, and to exalt the mythical and the romantic, and to embed it all in a most enjoyable tale for the here and now as well as being a valuable lesson for the future.

Cueva demonstrates the many points where Longus clearly makes textual and ideological contact with Thucydides. Other scholars have discussed many of the same relationships between Longus and Thucydides, too, and Cueva builds his own discussion on these.

Summing up

The more one reads and studies ancient literature from the period of the early Roman empire the more one learns to become a little cautious when reading biblical studies that seem quick to suggest the Gospels are “history” or “biography” because they contain introductions reminiscent of historical works, or include historical persons or settings and events in their narratives, speeches and dialogue. (I bypass here the study by Loveday Alexander that showed that the prologues in Luke-Acts have been found to have more in common with medical, mathematical and mechanical works than with historical ones. Most commentaries seem to take Luke’s prologue naively at face value as a signal that genuine history must follow.)

Those studies that insist that the gospels must be based on eyewitness reports because of certain graphic details in some portions of their narrative are, quite simply, ignorant of the wider literary world and what it contains.

Verisimilitude, imitation of historiographical style, historical persons and events — none of these alone are necessarily indications of the genre of a work, or indicators as to whether there is any historical ‘tradition’ as its source.

The above case-studies of novelistic works that do draw on historiography — both to imitate it and ironically to overturn it — warn us that attempting to understand any literature, in our case the Gospels, by reference to external formalities, can be a misleading adventure. These examples also warn us how sophisticated the ancients could be in their literary artifice. And previous posts have shown that novelists were quite adept at conjuring up fictional narratives and characters, including leading characters, out of a range of mythical tales and personalities, and even mixing them up with real events and historical persons.

Much literary analysis of the Gospels has tended to be naive, in my view, if it has existed at all given the traditional emphasis on breaking up narratives into subunits to study their presumed “tradition”-sources. There has been a growing interest in literary analysis of the Gospels and Acts within the wider literary context of the relevant ancient period, fortunately.

Hope to do another post or two on Cueva’s book in the future. But in the meantime I must get back to the Ascension of Isaiah.

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Neil Godfrey

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9 thoughts on “Historical Imitations and Reversals in Ancient Novels — and the Gospels?”

  1. “There has been a growing interest in literary analysis of the Gospels and Acts within the wider literary context of the relevant ancient period, fortunately.”

    Neil, do you see this growing interest in literary analysis affecting the “more traditional emphasis” in any substantial way, given the wide acceptance of a historical Jesus?

    1. It was some years ago, and over a few years, that I did the background readings for posts like these, and at that time it was clear that those scholarly publications never broached the question of historicity of Jesus, except sometimes to do a Spong-like declaration that despite everything they had written, there was no doubt in the authors’ minds about the historicity of Jesus.

      It’s as if scholars like Spong and MacDonald can sense the implications of what they have uncovered for historicity, and accordingly seem to make some sort of “faith-like declaration” to fend off any “misinterpretations” their works, or drawing the “wrong conclusions” from them.

      I have not had time to catch up with much current reading in this area, but I would be surprised if anything has changed.

  2. I meant to add earlier that there is an interesting resemblance between the Mary Ann Tolbert’s interpretation of the the function of the parables in the Gospel of Mark and longstanding interpretations of the aetiological tales/parables told in Daphnis and Chloe.

    There is a chasm separating the styles of the two works, and I am not at all suggesting anything like some sort of influence from one to the other (far from it!). But there is a plausible similarity of technique in the way parables are used to foreshadow the events in the respective stories. The parable of the sower in Mark instructs readers how to interpret the ensuing narrative, the “rocky and shallow” Peter and his band of disciples, the willing but too-too-rich rich man, the hardened and barren Pharisees and Herod, etc. Each of the four books in the novel by Longus is meant to be likewise(?) interpreted through a mythical tale told within each one.

    This technique in Daphnis and Chloe lends at least a little more support, I would think, for Tolbert’s interpretation of how the author of Mark constructed that gospel. If nothing else, it shows that such a technique was a realistic possibility.

  3. Neil, I think van den Heever is very interesting on this exact point. He feels that each novel was not just a story, but a conscious explanation of the doctrines of a given mystery sect. Leucippe and Clitophon was felt to explain the mystery of Isis. He feels Daphnis and Chloe is meant to explain the mystery of Dionysus, An Ephesian Tale Artemis and An Ethiopian Tale Helios.

    He states:

    “On one level then, Leucippe and Clitophon is the story of two young lovers buffeted by the machinations of fate/Fate, that is on the story level, as romance, as novel. On another level, the story is a Sophistic declamation through the repeated ekphraseis on three pictures of mythic themes that portray mythic rapes. Mythic rapes and murders are central to the myths of Demeter and Persephone, Dionysus, and Isis and Osiris. If the mysteries, then, are enactment of mythic narratives, this novel can, in parallel, be understood to be a declamation on a myth of rape similar to the myths underlying the mysteries. What, then, prevents us from understanding the novel as hieros logos (and perhaps, also as a first step towards mysteriosophy)?”

    1. Evan: “I think van den Heever is very interesting on this exact point. He feels that each novel was not just a story, but a conscious explanation of the doctrines of a given mystery sect. Leucippe and Clitophon was felt to explain the mystery of Isis. He feels Daphnis and Chloe is meant to explain the mystery of Dionysus, An Ephesian Tale Artemis and An Ethiopian Tale Helios.”

      That makes sense to me. Particularly with the gospel story. Particularly as the gospel story is dealing with, and has arisen from within, a Jewish culture. However much OT figures, or historical figures, have been utilized to give color to that gospel story, it is not *just* a story. It’s a story with a purpose other than entertainment. *Salvation* – however that may be defined. Of course, the literary aspects, to ins and outs of how the story was put together, are fascinating in their own right. But we can’t leave it there if it’s early Christian history we are after…

  4. Thanks, Evan. I’d like to come back to more on this topic in the future. There is so much more to be said about the novels I have already briefly touched on but I still have much more catch up reading to do. Most of these posts are from dusting off notes I made a few years ago now. So much to learn. . . . so little time. . . .

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