How and Why Plutarch Expanded His “Lives”

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by Tim Widowfield

In his recent book, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?, Michael Licona struggles to show that we skeptics make far too much of the differences in the canonical gospels. Many of these differences, he argues, result from ordinary compositional devices typically used by authors of Greco-Roman biographies.

This volume will pursue the identification of several techniques employed in the writing of ancient history and biography that can be gleaned from compositional textbooks and inferred from observations of the differences in how Plutarch reported the same events in nine of his Lives. We will also observe how the employment of these techniques by the evangelists would result in precisely the types of differences we often observe in the Gospels. (Licona, 2017, Location 268, Kindle Edition)

Licona’s methodology, such as it is, invites us to concentrate our attention on actions as mere techniques. Imagine, for example, watching a large truck barreling down a multilane highway at great speed, then swerving for some reason. Now imagine a bicyclist riding down a country path, then swerving for some reason. Since NT scholars “know” that a bicycle is really just a truck, can we infer that swerving is just some sort of “driving technique” employed by all truckers?

Motiveless motion?

Perhaps not. Maybe the key is not to focus on the act, but on the motives. When we ask the truck driver, he may tell us that he was trying to avoid a deer, while the bicyclist may explain that she hit a rock lying in the path. Our superficial concentration on the event with the truck tells us nothing of consequence with respect to the adventure of the solitary cyclist.

What was the cause? Avoidance? Subsequent reaction? Erratic behavior? “Don’t worry your pretty little head about it,” Licona would tell us. “It’s just what they do.”

And so what if Plutarch embellished his stories? Apologists assure us that he didn’t do it very much, so we can trust him, just as we can trust the gospel writers, because they’re so darned similar. Licona tells us that biographers (the real ones, not the evangelists) might embellish a story a tiny bit to give us more insight.

A history was meant to illustrate past events whereas a biography was meant to serve as a literary portrait of its main character. Accordingly, if an adapting or bending of details would serve to make a historical point or illuminate the qualities of the main character in a manner that rendered them clearer, the historian or biographer were free to do so, since their accounts would be “true enough.” (Licona 2016, Kindle Location 335)

See? They didn’t fabricate whole stories. They just adapted and bent some minor details. If the writers of the canonical gospels tweaked a few things here and there, so what? Nor should we be surprised, they tell us, if Matthew and Luke digested the Gospel of Mark as their primary source material without letting on that they were copying it, frequently word for word. Plutarch did that once — sort of.

Plutarch’s altering of his source material is perhaps most noticeable when comparing his Life of Coriolanus with the account as told by Dionysius of Halicarnassus. D. A. Russell estimates that Plutarch was so dependent on Dionysius in writing that Life that perhaps only 20 percent of it is non-Dionysian material. (Licona 2016 p. 24)

Picking cherries for Jesus

Everything in the above paragraph is true. Unfortunately, it is one of Licona’s most egregious examples of cherry-picking. He’s referring to Donald Andrew Frank Moore Russell, the famous British classicist (still alive at 96!). For Licona’s thesis to make any sense, we’d have to ignore what Russell himself said about Plutarch’s Lives.

[I]t is misleading and dangerous to use what is plainly one of the most sophisticated products of ancient historiography without constant regard to the plans and purposes of the author. (Russell 1966, p. 139)

Now, I should note here that Licona admits that there are reasons other than “just because” for Plutarch’s redaction of his sources or for why he told a story differently in one life versus another.

There are numerous reasons why differences exist: a slip of memory, the use of different sources, the elasticity of oral tradition, the flexibility of the biographical genre, redaction, adaptation within chreia, reporting the event from different vantage points, one author featuring content omitted by another, and the use of idioms that are now foreign to us. It is also possible that an author may have altered his source(s) in order to render the story in a manner he regarded as being more plausible than as it was told in his source(s). (Licona 2016, p. 2)

But that isn’t what Licona’s book is about. He wants to focus instead on compositional devices and rhetorical devices.

One common supposed compositional device used by Plutarch is expansion, which Licona identifies as “expansion of narrative details.” Accordingly, as he summarizes the analysis of many pericopes from Plutarch’s Lives, Licona will say that he “includes elements” (p. 91), “provides more details” (p. 80), or “includes additional details” (p. 98). Contrariwise, when listing his summary points of the analysis of gospel pericopes, Licona will almost never claim that an evangelist added something. Moreover, within the text of the analysis, he will tell us that the evangelists may be drawing on different traditions.

Expansion and reliability

Again, our NT expert wants to put the evangelists in the same category as Plutarch, who he claims is largely reliable, despite some embellishments here and there. In fact, Licona strongly implies that the gospel writers were a great deal more reliable. You may ask, “How much more reliable?”

Since Matthew largely uses Mark as his source and neglects to mention Salome, it is possible that “the mother of the sons of Zebedee” in Matthew is named Salome in Mark. However, it is likewise possible Matthew has substituted a different woman witness for Salome if he had heard directly from her. (Licona, 2016, p. 211, emphasis mine)

I’ve been reading biblical scholarship for decades, so I’m pretty much inured to its shortcomings and just plain awfulness. However, I must confess that when I read that sentence highlighted above, I literally almost fell out of my chair. Imagine arguing with a straight face that Matthew could have had access to eyewitnesses and still be so dependent upon Mark’s gospel as to plagiarize nearly 90 percent of it. By the way, that’s the correct term. Matthew didn’t use Mark as a source; he copied Mark’s gospel and passed it off as his own work. That’s the textbook definition of plagiarism.

Licona’s comments above serve to remind us that an admitted apologist can command the respect of his peers, write books that people take seriously, teach at institutions of higher learning, etc. And I’ll say it again, that people like Licona can do so, because there are no guardrails on the right. No concept, no notion, no theory, no assertion in conservative scholarship is off limits. They spout articles of faith dressed up as legitimate arguments without fear of ridicule. In fact, they are protected by their faith, to which any critic who wishes to stay in the good graces of the guild must show deference and respect.

Plutarch’s motivation for expansion

Turning our focus back to the subject of expansion as practiced by Plutarch, I would draw your attention again to D. A. Russell’s analysis of Plutarch’s Life of Coriolanus. As we noted above, Russell estimated that Plutarch relied on Dionysius of Halicarnassus for about 80 percent of his biography of the Roman tragic figure. So what about the other 20 percent?

If Russell had made his living as a biblical scholar, he would surely have told us Plutarch “must have” relied on alternate stories in the Rich Oral Tradition™. But he’s just a classicist with no particular axe to grind.

The second chapter concerns the hero’s military education. Part of this also is commonplace, for example the conception of the body as the soldier’s ὅπλον σύμφυτον [inherent weapon]. That Marcius as a boy exercised himself in running and wrestling is not stated by Dionysius. As there is no reason to suspect another source, it follows, on our hypothesis, that we have a speculative expansion of Plutarch’s: this is what the boyhood of such a man must have been like. A historical instance, which may well be the pattern, is the boyhood of Philopoemen, a similar personality, which Plutarch describes (Philopoemen 3) in very similar terms. A fictional expansion of the same theme is to be found in Romulus 6. (Russell 1963, p. 23, emphasis mine)

Clearly, Plutarch made things up. Why would he do that?

The most important cause of Plutarch’s deviations from Dionysius is of course the difference between the demands of βίοι [biography] and those of ἱστοία [history]. Thus the scanty hints about Marcius’ youth and upbringing had to be expanded; education is an indispensable topic. (Russell, 1963, p. 22)

The form of a biography

For Plutarch, at least, the biographer not only needed to focus on a particular person and to reveal the true character and motivations of that person, but he should also try to follow an ideal form. Not all of his biographies succeed in that endeavor, but Russell noted a clear pattern, arguing that “despite wide variations, there does seem to be a recognizable and rather complex favoured structure.” Some lives fit better than others, of course. (Russell 1966, p. 149)

By way of illustration, he mapped out this form the way Plutarch might have written a biography of a famous 20th-century British prime minister.

It [the form] would be an ideal fit for Sir Winston Churchill. We should have in fact nine divisions.

  1. Ancestry.
  2. Personality revealed in childhood anecdotes.
  3. Campaigns as a boy (μειράκιον [a lad, a stripling]).
  4. Entry into politics.
  5. First main climax: Gallipoli.
  6. In the wilderness in war and peace.
  7. Second main climax: Dunkirk and the war.
  8. Dramatic change of fortune in 1945.
  9. Post-war governments, old age, death, funeral, children.

Add an elaborate Preface, a few digressions, (on Blenheim, say, and the historical associations of the Hellespont) and a comparison with some other figure, and a very Plutarchean framework will emerge. (Russell 1966, p. 149, emphasis mine)

[As an aside, notice that ancient literature should be analyzed as whole works with definite forms and structures. They’re not just a series of dot-point items. Further, we need to analyze an author’s work in its totality. If we view individual facts as simply a pile of details, we’ll barely scratch the surface, and most likely be wrong in our conclusions. A checklist of cherry-picked items is not a framework.]

Here we see why Plutarch had to invent large sections of the early life of Coriolanus. As the twig is bent, so grows the tree — and yet Plutarch’s sole source tells us almost nothing about the twig. In Plutarch’s view of the world, a man’s ancestry and natural inclinations, combined with his training and upbringing, largely determined his later actions.

We’re not just talking about minor details here. He made up missing formal divisions. That’s what a Greco-Roman biographer would do. That’s exactly what Plutarch did.


If Licona followed the obvious trail here, he could have written a far more interesting book. For example, if the authors of Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels found Mark lacking, what did they add and why? The first obvious missing item is Jesus’ ancestry. Luke, perhaps more influenced by Greco-Roman models than any of the other evangelists, felt the need to expand on Jesus’ childhood, creating a story about the boy in the Temple, arguing with the priests.

I think another “missing chunk” in Mark has to be the content of Jesus’ ministry. I recall reading Mark for the first time in one sitting while trying my best to imagine it was my first exposure to the story of the gospel. (Not an easy task.) My immediate impression was surprise at the lack of details regarding Jesus’ ministry. He goes from village to village. He speaks to people in the countryside. People marvel at his words. But what is he saying? It’s as if we’re viewing the proceedings from a great distance. We can see what’s going on, but we can’t hear it.

Matthew, Luke, and John provide that missing message. But where did those details actually come from? Did the evangelists tap into the Rich Oral Tradition, or did they create what they think Jesus “must have” said? Or is it a combination of the two?

In the coming posts, we’ll take an even closer look at Licona’s methodology, and apply it in ways an apologist would never dare.

Russell D. A.

Plutarch’s Life of Coriolanus,” The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 53, Parts 1 and 2 (1963), pp. 21-28

On Reading Plutarch’s Lives,” Greece & Rome, Vol. 13, No. 2 (Oct., 1966), pp. 139-154

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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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7 thoughts on “How and Why Plutarch Expanded His “Lives””

  1. Expanding and modifying earlier accounts is fine for fiction but when its used for supposed non-fiction than that non-fiction has been converted to fiction and should not be taken as truth, let alone the immutable truth about a deity and more so when all conflicting versions are somehow supposed to be equally true.

  2. The multiplication of hypothetical sources mentioned above had an analogue in the life cycle of the Ptolomaic system of astronomy; its adherents had to keep on adding more epicycles, more complications, in order to make it fit observations. That model was abandoned when the Copernican explanation presented a simpler, more accurate model of how things worked. but not without a lot of pain and even some bloodshed, when the adherents of the old system refused to let go of it, and tried to use their authority to bully the innovators into silence.

    The llinks below lead to essays that show how the author of the gospel attributed to Mark “plagiarized” himself, He had a basic miracle tale which he rewrote over and over again to bulk out his narrative.
    To paraphrase and expand on one of the essays, the miracle stories from the synoptic gospels are literary creations. They seem to be based on a single narrative common source, that was rewritten in a slightly different form, over and over again, to create superficially different appearing stories.
    They are not unrelated accounts of independently occurring events, they are deliberately created, closely related literary fictions, They are not individual accounts of separate historical events.
    The Gospel of Mark Is A Literary Fugue, Whose Component Miracle Stories Are Variations On A Common Theme. The subsequent gospels are just augmented copies of Mark’s fictions.
    Each of the URLs below leads to an essay discussing the relatedness of a particular set of miracle narratives, and the downloadable comparison tables which accompany each essay clearly show the inter-dependencies of the gospel miracle stories.
    Again when viewed side by side, it becomes evident that the miracle stories are not reportage, they are repetive literary creations.
    Thank for the bandwidth

  3. when mark has jesus say ,”my god, my god, why have you forsaken me?” Bart thinks that there is no way mark could have heard jesus say this. Ehrman thinks that mark is writing for his persecuted and forsaken audience and is putting their experiences in his stories about Jesus.

    others say that maybe mark was rebutting oral sayings which have Jesus calling out to Elijah for help.

    did mark invent the story about Jesus being forsaken by friends, family and God himself ,or did he know stories which he did not like and rebutted them?

    1. Tim’s mileage may well vary on this one but here’s my view:

      The saying “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” is taken directly from the Psalms (22.1). The motif of a son of David (or persecuted servant of God) being rejected by his loved ones and family is taken directly from the Psalms (27.10). The motif of the righteous son or servant of God being persecuted by “his own” is as old as the stories of Abel and Joseph.

      The idea of God’s righteous ones being persecuted and rejected by their families and closest acquaintances is as old as the Old Testament writings themselves. An author in a Jewish matrix towards the latter part of the Second Temple period had no need for independent “oral traditions” to be familiar with such a story.

      I see no reason to suspect that the author of the Gospel of Mark was doing anything except simply playing with a host of OT passages in his imagination and coming up with the very familiar story of the righteous and humble servant of God being unjustly treated by all and sundry. See, for example, “160 Scriptural Quotations and Allusions in Mark 11-16” (http://vridar.org/2017/05/01/160-scriptural-quotations-and-allusions-in-mark-11-16/).

      Does anyone seriously think that each one of these 160 allusions and quotations in Mark are better explained by an independent “oral tradition” to an event that made them “real”? Of course not. The author was immersed in the Scriptures and creating a narrative out of them.

      Ps. 22 and Ps 27 should be seen in relation to all the other events tied in with scriptural quotations and allusions. There was no “oral tradition”. There was only the author creatively weaving OT passages — (it was a common literary technique to play in such ways with earlier literary sources) — and to imagine an “oral tradition” on top of all of this is to only introduce explanations that are simply not necessary and have no supporting evidence.

  4. “the demands of βίοι [biography] and those of ἱστοία [history]”
    I can’t find ἱστοία (histoia) in the lexicon. Surely there is a missing rho, and this should read ἱστορία (historia)

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