Signs of Fiction in Ancient Biographies — & the Gospels

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by Neil Godfrey

writingLet’s be sure we apply the same critical standard to the Gospels as we do to other ancient literature of the day. And let’s be sure we have a fair grasp of the wider Greco-Roman literature of the first and second centuries so we can improve our chances of making informed interpretations of the Gospels. And let’s do away with these apologetic arguments that the colorful and minute details in gospel narratives are sure signs of eyewitness testimony and therefore of historical reliability!

Professor Rhiannon Ash is the author of one of the many gems in the newly published Writing Biography in Greece and Rome: Narrative Technique and Fictionalization, edited by Koen De Temmerman and Kristoffel Demoen. Her chapter, “Never say die! Assassinating emperors in Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars, examines the range of techniques the Roman biographer Suetonius employed to add verisimilitude to create “the illusion of historical accuracy.”

Suetonius in the early second century wrote biographies of a dozen Roman emperors. Sometimes he would narrate details that apparently occurred behind closed doors (and that would consequently be unknown to anybody else), sometimes he wrote about a person’s private dreams foretelling the future, often he included supernatural prodigies and sensational personal details worthy of any tabloid press today. But at the same time he did want to be taken seriously and impress readers with the diligence of his research. Thus. . . .

he generally takes some trouble to deploy devices which invest each account with verisimilitude and contribute significantly to our sense of his own auctoritas as a researcher. (p. 205)

Accordingly Suetonius rarely passed up “a chance to enhance the credibility of his account” by means of:

  • the weighty presence of numbers, times and dates“:
    • more than sixty men conspire against Caesar
    • three slaves carry Caesar’s body
    • two men initiate the conspiracy against Caligula
    • there were twenty-three, thirty, and seven wounds administered to three targets of assassination
    • Caesar sets out almost at the end of the fifth hour
    • Caesar made his will on 13th September 45 BCE
    • Caligula is undecided about adjourning for lunch on 24 January just before midday
    • Caligula left the games at midday
    • Domitian has a premonition of the last year, day and hour of his life
    • lightning strikes occur eight successive months
    • Domitian jumped from bed at midnight on the night before his assassination
    • conspirators falsely tell Domitian the time is the sixth hour when it was really the fifth — to lull him into a false sense of security
    • Caligula ruled for three years, ten months and eight days
    • Domitian was murdered in his forty-fifth year and fifteenth year of his office

This pervasive registering of time, even down to the precise hours of the day, helps to create for Suetonius’ readership the illusion of historical accuracy. . .  [In the case of Domitian] it perhaps reflects the predictable challenges of convincingly documenting a killing which happened in the emperor’s bedroom. . . . (p. 206)

Compare the specific days and hours Passion narratives.

  • habitually naming characters, even minor ones:
    • In his account of Domitian Suetonius has nine protagonists and names eight of them, and three of these are unique to Suetonius’s account of Domitian.

This abundance of names in the Domitian may again reflect Suetonius’ desire to compensate for a relative dearth of information about a murky conspiracy which culminated in a killing behind closed doors. (p. 207)

We see the same trend in successive versions of the death of Jesus until we even eventually find the name (Longinus) of the Roman who pierced Jesus with his spear.

  • accentuating that his version of events is reliable
    • after relating a story about an ancient inscription warning of dire consequences if bones were removed, Suetonius appeals directly to the audience that they should not think he was just making it up. It should be believed because the source of the account was Caesar’s very close friend Balbus. Other times Suetonius’ voice is self-confident without need for such back-up.
    • after stating that Caesar’s second of twenty-three wounds was the fatal one he cites the doctor Antistius.
    • when describing a detail about a dagger hidden beneath a pillow in a bedroom (although only the hilt of the dagger was there, the blade having been removed) he cites an attendant slave as his source.

Thus the Gospel of John assures his readers of the veracity of his most fabulous of tales by appealing to eyewitness; and Luke’s prologue, likewise.

  • picturesque details, vivid minutiae
    • describing Caesar’s corpse being carried off on a litter, he adds that “one arm was hanging down” (no other biographer describes Caesar’s body being carried off from the murder scene, let alone with the detail of the arm)
    • In Caligula’s dream the day before his assassination Jupiter kicked Caligula from heaven with the toe of his right foot
    • when Caligula sprinkled with blood during a sacrifice Suetonius tells us it is the blood of a flamingo

This technique is used widely by other writers, particularly historians, but it is still worth highlighting here. The details themselves are usually unimportant in one sense, but they enhance the audience’s sense of vividness, enargeia, and the feeling of engaging with a reliable narrative. (p. 208)

Such details are pinpointed to specifically and in any case are so bizarre that readers may be tempted to believe them. (p. 209)

Why else would the evangelist say the grass where Jesus fed five thousand was green? Surely only an eyewitness could “report” such detail! So it is seriously argued!!



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Neil Godfrey

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2 thoughts on “Signs of Fiction in Ancient Biographies — & the Gospels”

  1. I hope you are not going to suggest that Vespasian’s cure of a blind man is just fiction. We have two independent sources (Tacitus and Suetonius) for that, so it must be true.

    Mustn’t it?

  2. Suetonius had one great line in his biography of Caligula. After describing Caligula’s early life, his elevation to emperor, and his civic achievements, Suetonius wrote: “So much for Caligula as emperor; we must now tell of his career as a monster.

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