What Does a “Life of Jesus” Look Like?

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by Neil Godfrey

"This worthless slave has learning?" asked the gardener. Aesop laughed and said to him, "You should talk, you miserable wretch!" "I'm a miserable wretch?" exclaimed the gardener. "You're a gardener, aren't you?"
“This worthless slave has learning?” asked the gardener.
Aesop laughed and said to him, “You should talk, you miserable wretch!”
“I’m a miserable wretch?” exclaimed the gardener.
“You’re a gardener, aren’t you?”

I have in the past argued that our canonical gospels are not really about the life and person of Jesus but rather they are a dramatization of core theological beliefs of the early Church. Jesus is a personification, a mouthpiece and a role constructed to play out this dramatization. One could say I have sided with Adela Yarbro Collins when she expresses doubts about the gospels really being biographies of Jesus when she writes:

With regard to the gospel of Mark at least, one may question whether the main purpose of the work is to depict the essence or character of Jesus Christ. (Collins 1990, p. 41)

The fundamental purpose of Mark does not then seem to be to depict the essence or character of Jesus Christ, to present Jesus as a model, to indicate who possesses the true tradition at the time the gospel was written, or to synthesize the various literary forms taken by the tradition about Jesus and their theologies. (Collins 1990, p. 44)

The gospel begins with a reference to Jesus Christ [son of God], not out of interest in his character, but to present him as God’s agent. . . . (Collins 1990, p. 62)

That was yesterday. Today I am being pressured to re-think that viewpoint. The reason is chapter 2, “Civic and subversive biography in antiquity” by David Konstan and Robyn Walsh in Writing Biography in Greece and Rome: Narrative Technique and Fictionalization, edited by Koen De Temmerman and Kristoffel Demoen. [In the interests of disclosure I must confess that this book cost me an arm and half a leg so one may suspect that I am motivated by a need to justify my extravagance by an over-willingness to be persuaded by its contents.]

Konstan and Walsh begin by proposing that there are two types of ancient biographies. (I’ll call them biographies even though that term carries more rigorous understandings of how one should write seriously about a life of a person than were applicable to their Greco-Roman counterparts. These ancient “lives” or “biographies” are usually called “bioi” (Greek) or “vitae” (Latin) to remind us of their often quite different attributes.)

Type 1: civic biographies

These are the universally acknowledged great and good, the pillars of society, whose lives shine as exemplars for us all to emulate. They

highlight the virtues of their subjects, often great statesmen or military heroes who exemplify justice and courage, or else brilliant thinkers and writers, the philosophers and poets whose lives might serve as models . . . (Konstan and Walsh 2016, p.28)

Type 2: subversive biographies

For Socrates, see Xenophon’s Memorabilia; for the Life of Aesop, see Lawrence M. Wills translation from page 177 in Amazon’s preview of Quest for the Historical Gospel.

Others endow their subjects with extraordinary abilities of a different kind — super powers, we might call them — that involve magic or other sorts of wonderworking. This latter type often emphasizes as well the ready wit of the protagonist, whose clever ripostes and wise sayings, sometimes in the form of parables, catch their opponents off guard and turn the tables on them. Such lives tend to feature, in a rather picaresque fashion, a figure who is an outsider or marginal member of society, often of a low class and hence an underdog who must prove his worth to the more powerful people he (occasionally she) encounters. (Konstan and Walsh 2016, p. 28)

The Gospels

Given the above two options it’s not hard to work out which one describes the Gospel narratives of Jesus. The only aspect one might balk at is categorizing Jesus as a picaresque character, but we don’t have to pause long before remembering that he mixes with the sinners, the Zachaeus figures, the Simon Peters, the James and Johns — whose faults we indulge on account of their enthusiastic good intentions when they meet with Jesus.

But wait; there’s more. And the following insights are the ones that are making me wonder if the gospels can be classified as a form of ancient biography after all.

With the counter-cultural and outsider heroes of the “subversive biographies” (e.g. Aesop, Socrates) we do not find anecdotes selected by the author to demonstrate their fine qualities of character. (We find that sort of life in the civic biographies.) Rather,

the moral excellence of the biographical subject is assumed, but it is not illustrated by an illumination of the classical virtues, as in the civic type, which seeks by this means to delineate character. The focus is rather on how the protagonist demonstrates his superiority in spite of his humble or precarious position. (Konstan and Walsh 2016, p. 41)

Jesus certainly does see his reflection in Socrates and Aesop insofar as they “challenge conventional values and the character traits that underpin them.”


Collins, A.Y. 1990, Is Mark’s Gospel a Life of Jesus? : The Question of Genre, Marquette University Press, Milwaukee, Wis.

Konstan, D. & Walsh, R. 2016, “Civic and subversive biography in antiquity”, in K. De Temmerman & K. Demoen (ed.), Writing Biography in Greece and Rome: Narrative Technique and Fictionalization, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.


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Neil Godfrey

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16 thoughts on “What Does a “Life of Jesus” Look Like?”

  1. Jesus is a personification, a mouthpiece and a role constructed to play out this dramatization.

    Couldn’t agree more. Jesus is a metafictional tool. Metafiction is a clever narrative tool used to expose the ‘truth’ through illusion by implanting a work of fiction inside another work of fiction, like Will Ferrell’s character Harold Crick in the movie, Stranger than Fiction. The purpose of this method is to draw the audience deeper into the story in the hope they will get more out of it. It’s a layered effect, a technique of immersion which until recently was believed to have only first been used in the 20th Century. That, however, has proven to be incorrect. Leeds University’s Owen Hodkinson has demonstrated the tool was not only known to the ancients but was in use throughout the eastern Mediterranean well before the 1st Century.

    Importantly, as a tool or method of storytelling, a metafictional story does not seek to hide the fact that it is fiction. Instead it intentionally reminds the audience that they are participating in a fictional story and quite purposefully draws attention to itself. In fact, it shouts out “Look at me, I’m fiction!” and that’s the method’s genius. The function of this devise which deliberately jogs the audience’s mind to remember they’re experiencing fiction (like Emma Thompson’s voiceover narration in Stranger than Fiction) is to encourage the individual to engage the ‘truth’ at a deeper level.

  2. I would be a bit skeptical about this proposal:

    The focus is rather on how the protagonist demonstrates his superiority in spite of his humble or precarious position.

    we are talking of surprising events (events not strictly sequential): the protagonist does x while we wait y. This continue surprise works better as allegory of something other. This is still far from the Gospel being a ‘life of Jesus’.

  3. The article “Civic and subversive biography in antiquity” by David Konstan and Robyn Walsh is good as far as it goes, and in arguing (against Adela Yarbro Collins) that the gospels are a subversive biography like Xenophon’s Memorabilia, but Konstan and Walsh miss the mark on the essential character of both Memorabilia and the Gospels, neither of which aim at being simple biographies. Both are Apologia in a biographical format. Both Xenophon and Plato wrote essays called Apologia (“Defense”) which contain their memories of the legal defense speech of Socrates at trial. Xenophon’s Memorabilia was basically a biography written to support Socrates’ defense against the various formal accusations made against him at trial. Likewise the gospels defend the historical figure of Jesus against various accusation made against him, both the formal accusations at trial (a rebel king) and various other accusations circulating about him (illegitimate birth, a cheap magician, winebibber, associated with prostitutes, etc.). I will write more extensively about the gospels as Apologia in my mostly-finished book Josephus and the Historical Jesus (although I have three other books to complete first). Sorry, mythicists!

  4. “Likewise the gospels defend the historical figure of Jesus against various accusation made against him, both the formal accusations at trial (a rebel king) and various other accusations circulating about him.”

    If memory serves me well, Plutarch did the same to Romulus. Didn’t seem to help.

  5. Thanks for the above comments. Many of the points made, along with a refresher of what Memorabilia and Life of Aesop look like, have kept me from going over the edge (of thinking of the gospels as biographies/bioi) that I was looking at.

    1. I think I’ve been on the edge of something most of my life, and the scariest plunge was when I took a leap back into what I expected and hoped would be back into the mainstream (leaving a cult to join the normal world). But to go another step back by sharing a view that is widely accepted simply because it is “consensus” among a field so stifling, reactionary, fundamentally unprofessional, pseudo-scholarly and ideologically driven as is way too much of biblical studies is, well, very scary indeed! 🙁

      1. I understand 🙂
        But contemplating an existing, biographically documented, Jesus, who nevertheless is quite different from the person of the “widely accepted consensus” view, would that also be scary?

  6. I’m reading the third chapter now which is about the Life of Aesop and am reminded just how many points of can be found in common between that work and the Gospel of Mark.

    But then I’m reminded of Burridge’s list of points in common between the gospels and ancient biographies and how they completely miss the point of what the gospels are all about.

    Points in common can in fact be a quite superficial means of comparisons and no match against analysing deeper “structures” (if that’s the right word). In other words, they fail to explain or describe.

    I’ve also recently completed Claude Calame’s Myth and History in Ancient Greece: The Symbolic Creation of a Colony and was reminded of my earlier (only partially fruitful) attempts to use structural analysis of myths as a tool on the gospels. Calame further introduced me to Greimas who appears to be the indispensable follow up to Levi-Strauss and Propp. Much much more yet to learn!

    If anyone knows of others who who have explored the Greimasian route in relation to biblical literature please do let me know.


  7. gMark is way too blunt in allegory so its hard to believe that its some sort of Biography just look at its portrayal of disciples always acting in unison failing on all fronts, most of the time their purpose was seems to be just serve the underlining allegory like in Judas Betrayal and some episodes look straight-up allegorical like Jesus Barabbas and Paschal pardon, IMO Mark is a allegorical three-act drama.

  8. How does one write a “biography” of a man (The Anointed Savior, no less) who becomes a god?

    Or, for that matter, The Jewish God who makes himself a man-god who looks like a man but knows he is a god, and dies like a man but is resurrected like a god, except now he is triune? Is that the “biography” of which we speak?

    1. All of that is in the Gospel of Mark? I think not.

      If the Jesus figure is modelled on Paul and a representative of Paul’s teachings — which is a possibility — then one can see a biography of sorts that is not unlike other biographies that ancient authors crafted out of the teachings of some famous person. They invent stories (invent a life) to illustrate the teachings of a philosopher, for example.

      1. Do you think it is helpful to invent new definitions of what a “biography” is if they include a sliding scale of fictionalization from a nominal amount to 100% fiction? Especially in the field of J.C. historicity, of all places?

        1. No, it would not be helpful in the least, but I think we have a misunderstanding here since there is no new definition of biography involved, least of all for the gospels. What I described in the previous comment is an attempt to place a gospel in the context of what passed for biographies (or “bioi”) among Greeks and Romans at that time. The book I am reading is about “techniques of fictionalization” in ancient biographies. There really is a “sliding scale” there. The author of the chapter on the Life of Aesop begins by pointing out that we are not even certain if Aesop was a historical person. Plutarch did write biographies of mythical persons as well as historical ones. Ancient biographers really did sometimes fictionalize lives of a famous philosopher or poet by creating stories about them that sounded plausible on the basis of what they wrote in their philosophical treatises or poems.

          The main interest in ancient historical and biographical writing (apart from entertainment) was to produce something useful, especially something useful in the realm of moral example or piety — though I’m taking this point from another work, one by Calame discussing the “sliding scale” between ancient myth and history.

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