With the gospels in mind and thinking of them (for sake of argument) as biographical accounts of Jesus, how can we know if an ancient biography is about a genuinely historical person or if it is about a fictional character?
Let’s leave aside for now the claims of postmodernists who argue that there is no essential difference between histories and novels, between autobiography and fictional works. Enough historians and scholars of literature, at least to my satisfaction, have knocked these arguments down.
Many of us are familiar with the analysis of Richard Burridge that concludes that the gospels are of the same genre as ancient “bioi” (I’ll use the familiar term “biography”). The responses to Burridge’s arguments by Tim and me are collated here.
Before we take up the explanation, let’s look at some extracts from ancient biographers.
Here is a passage about Socrates by Diogenes Laertius:
It was thought that he [Socrates] helped Euripides to make his plays; hence Mnesimachus writes:
This new play of Euripides is The Phrygians; and
Socrates provides the wood for frying.
And again he calls Euripides “an engine riveted by Socrates.” And Callias in The Captives:
a. Pray why so solemn, why this lofty air?
b. I’ve every right; I’m helped by Socrates.
. . . . .
According to some authors he was a pupil of Anaxagoras, and also of Damon, as Alexander states in his Successions of Philosophers. When Anaxagoras was condemned, he became a pupil of Archelaus the physicist; Aristoxenus asserts that Archelaus was very fond of him. Duris makes him out to have been a slave and to have been employed on stonework, and the draped figures of the Graces on the Acropolis have by some been attributed to him. . . . .
He was formidable in public speaking, according to Idomeneus; moreover, as Xenophon tells us, the Thirty forbade him to teach the art of words. And Aristophanes attacks him in his plays for making the worse appear the better reason. For Favorinus in his Miscellaneous History says Socrates and his pupil Aeschines were the first to teach rhetoric; and this is confirmed by Idomeneus in his work on the Socratic circle. . . . .
The significance of the highlighted phrases is that they indicate that the author is writing from the perspective of an outsider attempting to interpret and draw conclusions from and piece together pre-existing sources speaking of the past. The author’s narrative is constrained by the information that has already long been in existence.
Notice especially the caution expressed in the first line: we know that the author is not going to bet his life on the information being true because he tells us that the information is “thought” to be true on the basis of inference from the documents.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that such features in writing are a foolproof indicator of the factualness or genuine historicity of the subject. Obviously such phrases can be invented — and sometimes are invented — for the sake of creating verisimilitude for a fictional narrative. And such a presentation alone does not tell us with complete certainty that the person found in the sources was truly historical.
What we can establish from these literary indicators, however, is that on the face of it the author presents his work as an effort to relay to readers what is purported to be historical; furthermore, the author opens up to readers the means by which they can verify what he writes.
As I wrote in another post recently,
In her book Autobiographical Acts, Bruss formulates a number of interrelated “rules” . . . The rule that applies to this communication process on the author’s side reads:
“Whether or not what is reported can be discredited, . . . the autobiographer purports to believe in what he asserts.”
On the reader’s side, the rule-abiding expectation that the report is true implies a freedom to “check up” on its accuracy by way of appropriate verification procedures.
In this perspective, the truth claim or autobiography in no sense implies the actual truth of an autobiographer’s statement. (Dorrit Cohn, 1999, The Distinction of Fiction, p. 31, italics original, my formatting)
So it is worthwhile asking why we find no comparable expressions in the earliest gospels, the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. I should say “any of the canonical gospels” since the prologue to Luke and the eyewitness claims in John create special problems that have been discussed in other posts. Moreover, we will see that all four canonical gospels, on the contrary, are replete with perspectives and expressions that indicate fiction.
Next, a few details about the famed Pericles of Athens, by the biographer Plutarch. Plutarch wrote his biographies for the same reasons parents taught children that Washington confessed to chopping down the cherry tree: to inspire ethical behaviour by holding up moral exemplars. So we can expect much myth in his reconstructions. Nonetheless, take a look at these extracts.
When Pericles, in rendering his accounts for this campaign, recorded an expenditure of ten talents as “for sundry needs,” the people approved it without officious meddling and without even investigating the mystery. But some writers, among whom is Theophrastus the philosopher, have stated that every year ten talents found their way to Sparta from Pericles, and that with these he conciliated all the officials there, and so staved off the war . . . . .
Now, since it is thought that he proceeded thus against the Samians to gratify Aspasia, this may be a fitting place to raise the query what great art or power this woman had . . . . .
However, the affection which Pericles had for Aspasia seems to have been rather of an amatory sort. . . . .
So renowned and celebrated did Aspasia become, they say, that even Cyrus, the one who went to war with the Great King for the sovereignty of the Persians, gave the name of Aspasia to that one of his concubines whom he loved best, who before was called Milto. She was a Phocaean by birth, daughter of one Hermotimus, and, after Cyrus had fallen in battle, was carried captive to the King, and acquired the greatest influence with him. These things coming to my recollection as I write, it were perhaps unnatural to reject and pass them by. . . . .
But to return to the war against the Samians, they accuse Pericles of getting the decree for this passed at the request of Aspasia . . . . .
The Samians retaliated upon the Athenians by branding their prisoners in the forehead with owls; for the Athenians had once branded some of them with the samaena. Now the samaena is a ship of war with a boar’s head design for prow and ram, but more capacious than usual and paunchlike, so that it is a good deep-sea traveller and a swift sailer too. It got this name because it made its first appearance in Samos, where Polycrates the tyrant had some built. To these brand-marks, they say, the verse of Aristophanes made riddling reference :—
“For oh! how lettered is the folk of the Samians!”
XXVII. Be that true or not, when Pericles learned of the disaster which had befallen his fleet, he came speedily to its aid.
Ephorus says that Pericles actually employed siege-engines, in his admiration of their novelty, and that Artemon the engineer was with him there, who, since he was lame, and so had to be brought on a stretcher to the works which demanded his instant attention, was dubbed Periphoretus. Heracleides Ponticus, however, refutes this story . . . . .
But as he came down from the bema, while the rest of the women clasped his hand and fastened wreaths and fillets on his head, as though he were some victorious athlete, Elpinice drew nigh and said :
“This is admirable in thee, Pericles, and deserving of wreaths, in that thou hast lost us many brave citizens, not in a war with Phoenicians or Medes, like my brother Cimon, but in the subversion of an allied and kindred city.”
On Elpinice’s saying this, Pericles, with a quiet smile, it is said, quoted to her the verse of Archilochus . . . . .
Well, then, whatever the original ground for enacting the decree,—and it is no easy matter to determine this,—the fact that it was not rescinded all men alike lay to the charge of Pericles. Only, some say that he persisted in his refusal in a lofty spirit and with a clear perception of the best interests of the city . . . . .
. . . . . At any rate, this tale is told in the schools of philosophy.
The amount of this was fifteen talents, according to those who give the lowest, and fifty, according to those who give the highest figures. The public prosecutor mentioned in the records of the case was Cleon, as Idomeneus says, but according to Theophrastus it was Simmias, and Heracleides Ponticus mentions Lacratides.
As with Diogenes Laertius, we see again here turns of phrase that inform the reader that the author is writing at arms length from his subject, that his subject is “out there”, in pre-existing records, distant from the author’s imagination. Prima facie we can say that the author is not making up the story from his own creative mind. He is working within limits that his sources impose.
But notice here something else. In several of the extracts we read about Pericles’ feelings towards the courtesan Aspasia and about his motivations as they relate to her. A person’s inner feelings and motivations are not accessible to outsiders unless they are explicitly advertised in some way. And as a rule of thumb outsiders would do well to distinguish between explicit statements about a person’s feelings and what is truly happening inside a person’s mind and body.
That is, no-one can really know what is going on in the minds of anyone else. We always rely upon actions, on reports, interpretations of which can often be open to dispute.
Only God and authors of fiction can write about a person’s inner thoughts and motivations. Historians and biographers, if honest and not slipping into fiction, can only write about reports, actions, what “seems” to have been the case.
Notice also how Plutarch qualifies his claim about the “quiet smile” that came upon Pericle’s face with “it is said”.
Such are the little indicators that the author is relying not on his imagination to create characters (at least not all the time in the case of Plutarch) but is writing what he believes to be genuine historical information as far as the data available allows him to do so.
Suetonius on Nero:
It was strange how amazingly tolerant Nero seemed to be of the insults that everyone cast at him, particularly in the form of Greek and Latin lampoons. Here are a few examples of verses posted on city walls or current orally:
Alcmaeon, Orestes, and Nero are brothers,
Why? Because all of them murdered their mothers,
Count the numerical values Of the letters in Nero’s name,
And in ‘murdered his own mother’:
You will find their sum is the same. . . . .
He may have been impervious to insults of this sort or he may merely have pretended not to care, for fear of encouraging others to be equally witty; at any rate, he did no more than banish Datus and Isidorus. . . . .
At last a series of insulting edicts signed by Vindex must have made some impression on him: in a letter to the Senate he urged them to avenge himself . . . . .
At the first news of revolt Nero is said to have formed several appalling, though characteristic, schemes for dealing with the situation. Thus, he intended to recall all army commanders and provincial governors, and execute them . . . . .
By now we are getting the idea, I trust. Suetonius is the notorious Fox Channel reporter of his day: his “reports” are in the main a collation of the most salacious gossip going around, all reported as true. But even Suetonius lets his guard down occasionally and betrays the fact that even he is to some extent limited by the sources before him and that he is not totally free to compose of Nero anything at all from his imagination.
Hence Nero only “seemed to be” tolerant; Suetonius relies upon the action of Nero (or rather his failure to act) to indicate a number of possibilities that might be inferred about his attitude towards public mockery.
Then when Nero did act in response to insults from Vindex, Suetonius does not say that Vindex really riled him, but that Vindex “must have” riled him. The qualifier is a sign that the author is struggling to get into the mind of Nero; he is not, like a novelist, free to simply make up his emotional response.
Similarly in the last quotation Nero’s “intention” is derived from what was “said to have formed” in his mind.
(By the way, I confess I am relying entirely upon English translations. If the originals do not support my argument then I will of course need to withdraw them as illustrations of my argument.)
Contrast the above instances with the following from the Gospel of Mark (NIV). Notice that the author writes of things seen and heard, of feelings and motivations, from a perspective that could only be known to the central character himself. That is, the author gives us “no reason to doubt” (TM) that he “made them up”.
Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.
This is an omniscient “God’s eye” account. We are told what Jesus alone saw and heard; and what “the Spirit” did to him; and what he experienced when alone in the wilderness.
Naturally apologists seek to add a subtext to such a narrative and assert that Jesus told his disciples all these things and the disciples told others and eventually word got to the author of the gospel who wrote it down. Given the miraculous nature of the report it is a wonder that the author did not, therefore, seek to establish the credibility of the account for any sceptical readers by indicating the source(s) of the story.
Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.
No-one knew this was happening except Jesus and God — and eventually the author of the gospel. We may like to imagine that Jesus subsequently told his disciples how early he arose and why and we may like to imagine we are reading some other kind of genre than the one in fact before us.
When Jesus saw their faith
He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts
At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him
He was amazed at their lack of faith.
After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray. Later that night, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land.
Jesus looked at him and loved him.
Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit.
We then come to the Passion Narrative. The entire gospel is written from the position of authorial omniscience. The author is free to create the events and sayings and feelings as he sees fit. He indicates no interest in revealing his sources leaving open the possibility that in its entirety the gospel is the product of the author’s imagination.
We know the author had sources, though. We see evidence of them throughout the gospel and that evidence is most abundant in the Passion Narrative. Those sources, other texts, certainly inspired the author’s creative imagination.
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