One Key Difference between Gospels and an Ancient Biography

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by Neil Godfrey

I post here a reply, slightly edited, that I offered in response to a comment by Chris S on Tim’s recent post, What’s the Difference Between a History and a Biography? I think it addresses an important difference that I think is commonly found to exist between our canonical gospels and many ancient biographies. So thanks to Chris S for opening up the opportunity for this discussion.

Ancient histories and biographies are topics I continue to study and learn more about each year and there are recent scholarly publications on ancient biographies I am still trying to catch up with. So I will confine myself in this comment to just one aspect of Chris S’s point. He poses as the Devil’s or God’s Advocate, and I like that. He wrote, in part:

For example, I’m looking at the life of Camillus in my “Great Books” volume of Plutarch. I can’t find a single source identification whatsoever. I see at one point Plutarch begins an anecdote with “Some say…” At another point (p. 116) he provides two different versions of a conflict, in which he names no sources, begins the second by saying that “the general stream of writers prefer the other account,” and makes no personal judgment on whether he agrees with the majority opinion. Not especially rigorous the handling of sources in this case.

And regardless of what we might ultimately conclude the Gospels actually are, IMHO leaving out the scholarly apparatus makes total sense on the hypothesis that they were intended as biographies for mass consumption. (my formatting)

There are abundant indicators of fictional embellishment in Plutarch’s life of Camillus, but there is something else with no counterpart in the canonical gospels until we reach Luke 1:1. Unlike the evangelists, Plutarch frequently drops in casual hints that he is indeed relying upon sources for his narrative, either oral or written. I realize I am copying English translation (Project Gutenberg’s) so do correct my references if their originals are not accurately represented or if there are expressions in the gospels lending themselves to equivalent translations. Examples:

Among the many remarkable things that are related of Furius Camillus . . .

During his censorship one very good act of his is recorded . . .

as great a prodigy as the most incredible that are reported . . .

It is said that the prince of the Tuscans was at that very time at sacrifice . . . But this may look like a fable. . . .

and the statue, they say, answered in a low voice . . . Other wonders of the like nature, drops of sweat seen to stand on statues, groans heard from them, the figures seen to turn round and to close their eyes, are recorded by many ancient historians; and we ourselves could relate divers wonderful things, which we have been told by men of our own time, that are not lightly to be rejected; but to give too easy credit to such things, or wholly to disbelieve them, is equally dangerous . . .

The Gauls are of the Celtic race, and are reported to have been compelled by their numbers to leave their country . . .

He that first brought wine among them and was the chief instigator of their coming into Italy is said to have been one Aruns . . .

The question of unlucky days, whether we should consider any to be so, and whether Heraclitus did well in upbraiding Hesiod for distinguishing them into fortunate and unfortunate, as ignorant that the nature of every day is the same, I have examined in another place . . .

Thargelion was a very unfortunate month to the barbarians, for in it Alexander overcame Darius’s generals on the Granicus; and the Carthaginians, on the twenty-fourth, were beaten by Timoleon in Sicily, on which same day and month Troy seems to have been taken, as Ephorus, Callisthenes, Damastes, and Phylarchus state. . . .

Plutarch cites no sources for what are surely well-known events from the world of “historical memory”, Alexander’s defeat of Darius and Timoleon’s defeat of the Carthaginians. But when he introduces a detail from the Trojan war Plutarch changes tack and introduces sources to back up a claim that might otherwise be questioned for its provenance in the world of gods and mythical heroes.

I am not ignorant, that, . . .

One could reckon up several that have had variety of fortune on the same day. . . . But I have discussed this more accurately in my Roman Questions.

Some write that . . . . Others say that . . . . The most common opinion was, that . . . others say that . . . . telling a story how that . . . . But they who profess to know more of the matter affirm that . . . . However it be . . . .

if, indeed, it can be supposed probable that an exact chronological statement has been preserved of events which were themselves the cause of chronological difficulties about things of later date. . . . Heraclides Ponticus, who lived not long after these times, in his book upon the Soul, relates that a certain report came from the west, that an army, proceeding from the Hyperboreans, had taken a Greek city called Rome, seated . . . . Aristotle the philosopher appears to have heard a correct statement of the taking of the city by the Gauls, but he calls its deliverer Lucius. . . . But this is a matter of conjecture.

Notice again that Plutarch introduces sympathy with the reader who might question the historical accuracy of something that might seem to be too neat to derive from reality.

Of this war two different accounts are given; I shall begin with the more fabulous. They say that . . . .

But the general stream of writers prefer the other account of this war, which they thus relate. . . .

it is stated . . .

(From the Project Gutenberg etext)

Plutarch’s life of Camillus reads to me like an historical or biographical account rich with fictional embellishments. It is possible that the above phrases I have quoted in which Plutarch expresses a reliance upon various written and/or oral sources are themselves inventions, but my point is that we have nothing comparable in the earliest of the canonical gospels.

What we do have in those earliest of gospels is the possibility of a series of strong arguments that each pericope, or most of them at least, have been “midrashically” or “intertextually” reconstructed from Jewish Scriptural narratives and passages, with a blend, even, of adaptations from bodies of other literature.

Plutarch’s narrative of Camillus, on the other hand, appears to be built around a series of chronologies and events that are drawn from chronicles of various who’s who in what time of office, etc, and upon a well-known “historical memory”.

And when Plutarch does introduce details that appear to border upon the “historically unlikely” he goes out of his way to express sympathy for the less gullible of his readers, and he makes sure he introduces sources to support the historicity of his reference to an event that is drawn from the world of Homeric epic and days of the mythical heroes. (Other historians did consider Homer to be a historian and the Trojan War to have been historical, but at the same time, given the setting of divinities and half-divine heroes involved, the events appear not to have been in exactly the same “historical class” as the invasion of Rome by the Gauls.

As for the conclusion of our Advocate from an Alien Dimension, I think we have strong grounds for disagreement. I suggest that where a story is not well known (and does not Mark’s conclusion point to an apologetic explanation for why it is being made known only “now”?) source verification is of paramount necessity in the telling. Justin certainly thought so and goes to pains to demonstrate that we “know” certain things happened in the life of Jesus because that’s what the Jewish Scriptures foretold. That’s his authority to demonstrate the truth of his claims.

The Gospel of Mark, on the other hand, was not considered an historically authoritative document in our sense of what that means — as is clearly evidenced by the way subsequent evangelists felt themselves at liberty to change its details and characterizations.

Ancient historians, when confronted with various accounts in the sources, seem to have presented the different accounts (as we see in the above lines from Plutarch) and would either comment on their agnosticism or on their preference for one or the other.

For some reason the author of the Gospel of Mark, unlike Plutarch in even his vaguest of examples wrt Camillus, gives us no explicit reason to believe his narrative is derived from oral or written sources. Later the evangelist responsible for Matthew indicates more strongly that biblical prophecy is the source. In Luke we read the indication that previous anonymous gospels are the source. John reports the eyewitness to miracles (enough said!). Justin says Scripture is the source of what we know about Jesus.

And the verification for Scripture as the source of information about the gospel Jesus is the clear literary indebtedness of the various pericopes to OT passages.

Just one more thing

One other detail I will address briefly:

The only time I see (at a glance, only, I admit) of Plutarch’s indebtedness to sacred literary source for his writing of the life of Camillus is the following line:

Thus, like Achilles, having left his imprecations on the citizens, he went into banishment . . . .

And even here, of course, we see a clear distinction between “the historical Camillus” and his “mythical counterpart”. That’s not how the evangelists present Jesus as a “new Moses” or a “new Elijah”. Jesus was not presented as doing things in a manner “like” the biblical heroes did them. He was not imitating them. On the contrary, the evangelists drew some literary DNA from those biblical figures and genetically engineered a superior version of that DNA. Jesus didn’t do things in imitation. He was the very emulation and transvaluation of the inferior, even shadowy, forms of Israel, Joseph, Moses, David, Elijah or Elisha.




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Neil Godfrey

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6 thoughts on “One Key Difference between Gospels and an Ancient Biography”

  1. Maybe Mark wanted to write a narrative piece of eschatological or apocalyptic writing depicting historical figures he knew like John The Baptist, Pilate, and Jesus caught up in events at the end of time.

      1. Neil said: “Any thoughts on how to test this possibility?”

        Nope. It’s equally as likely as the speculation that it is the Jesus of mythicism that we find in the Gospel of Mark.

          1. Thanks for sharing the links. In one of them you said:

            “Richard Pervo (Profit with Delight) compares Acts with ancient novels and finds striking resemblances. We tend to resist finding the thrill of novelistic adventure and humour in the books of the Bible. Holy books are supposed to be read with much gravitas, after all. But Pervo’s comparison with ancient novels has persuaded him that Acts shared their particular qualities that excited and entertained his audiences. I have read many ancient novels over recent years — and many ancient historians over a longer period of time — and fully agree with him.”

            This comparison to ancient novels reminds me of a connection Robert M. Price makes between the empty tomb pericope in the Gospel of John and ancient novels. Robert M. Price writes: “Just compare the empty tomb scenes in John’s Gospel and Chariton’s ‘Chaereas and Callirhoe’ and tell me if they are not astonishingly similar.”

            I think the Gospels are mostly fiction. The question is, in the Gospel of Mark, (1) did Mark write a narrative piece of eschatological or apocalyptic writing depicting historical figures he knew of like John The Baptist, Pilate, and Jesus caught up in events at the end of time (which would make it a work of apologetic historical fiction centered around real historical figures like Paul in Acts), or (2) did Mark write the story of a historicized mythical Jesus interacting with famous historical people like John The Baptist and Pilate?

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