There are other types of Greco-Roman historical works that have received less attention in M. David Litwa’s introductory chapter but that may yet be closer to the gospel narratives. Litwa did refer to these but with less elaboration in his introduction so I’ll address them here. Overall, we will see that these types of historical writings were not held with much respect among educated readers.
Josephus, a Jewish historian and contemporary of the evangelists, also complained that many historians turned to fantastical tales (mytholegein) to win a reputation as successful historians.
The Roman author Lucian satirized these types of historical works in True History (or True Story). One passage, to give you an idea of the flavour of the whole:
The rich men have garments of glass, very soft and delicate : the poorer sort of brass woven, whereof they have great plenty, which they enseam with water to make it fit for the workman, as we do our wool. If I should write what manner of eyes they have, I doubt I should be taken for a liar in publishing a matter so incredible : yet I cannot choose but tell it : for they have eyes to take in and out as please themselves : and when a man is so disposed, he may take them out and then put them in and see again : many when they have lost their own eyes, borrow of others, for the rich have many lying by them.
(Lucian, True History, 71)
The same Lucian also wrote a more serious work in which he detailed the faults of many pop historians of his day and explained more seriously how history should be written. The hacks, Lucian pointed out, wrote for personal fame. They did not write anonymously. They sought to out-entertain their rivals. They capitalized on major news stories sweeping through the empire.
. . . from the beginning of the present excitements — the barbarian war, the Armenian disaster, the succession of victories — you cannot find a man but is writing history; nay, every one you meet is a Thucydides, a Herodotus, a Xenophon. . . .
If rumours about Jesus were popular throughout Syria and Jordan at during his lifetime then one can compare Lucian’s observation that popular news created a ready market for relevant histories.
. . . Another is a keen emulator of Thucydides, and by way of close approximation to his model starts with his own name — most graceful of beginnings, redolent of Attic thyme! Look at it: ‘Crepereius Calpurnianus of Pompeiopolis wrote the history of the . . . .
Yet the persons who wrote the gospels did so anonymously. (Compare many of the books of Jewish scriptures and other Second Temple novellas.)
. . . Another thing these gentlemen seem not to know is that poetry and history offer different wares, and have their separate rules. Poetry enjoys unrestricted freedom; it has but one law — the poet’s fancy.
. . . The vulgar may very likely extend their favour to this; but the select (whose judgement you disregard) will get a good deal of entertainment out of your heterogeneous, disjointed, fragmentary stuff.
Are the “poetic fancies” in the gospels presented as sheer entertainment or as something more?
Returning to Josephus. We began with Litwa’s mention of his essay against the views of Apion. Here is what Josephus wrote:
It is, then, the absence of any previously deposited record — which would have both instructed those who wished to learn and refuted those who lied — that accounts for the extent of the disagreement among the writers.
But a second reason must be added to this: those who hastily set about writing did not bother about the truth — although they were always quick to make this their promise — but displayed their literary prowess, and in whatever way they thought they could outshine others they adapted themselves in accordance with this, some turning to recount mythology, others seeking favor by praising cities or kings; others set out to criticise historical actions or the historians, thinking that their reputation would shine in this way.
In short, what they continue to practice is the complete opposite of history. For it is evidence of true history if everyone both says and writes the same things about the same (events). They, on the other hand, think that they will seem the most truthful of all if they describe the same things differently.
(Josephus, Against Apion, 1.23-26)
I wrote more fully of what Josephus might have thought of the gospels as works of history in What Josephus might have said about the Gospels. By Josephus’s ideal standards, at least as he professed them, we might conclude that he would have had a very poor view of our gospels as supposed works of history or biography.
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There is one more exception, one not explicitly brought out in Litwa’s Introduction, and that is historians’ accounts of omens that precede historical turning points. I discussed this exception to the rule only recently so I will not elaborate again here: see Herodotus and Miracles — Material for a Gospel Comparison. A comparison with gospel material would be limited to the unexpected darkness enveloping the land at the time of the crucifixion of Jesus and the earthquake, the tearing of the temple veil, and perhaps even Matthew’s corpses of saints rising from their graves and wandering the streets of Jerusalem.
Litwa, M. David. 2019. How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Josephus, Flavius. 2007. Against Apion. Edited by Steve Mason. Translated by John M. G. Barclay. Vol. 10. Flavius Josephus: Translation and Commentary. Brill.
Lucian of Samosata. 2016. “The Way to Write History.” In Works, by Lucian, translated by H. W. Fowler and F. G. Fowler, Web edition. The University of Adelaide: eBooks@Adelaide. https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lucian/works/chapter24.html.
Lucian of Samosata. 1894. Lucian’s True History. Translated by Francis Hickes. London : Privately printed. http://archive.org/details/lucianstruehisto00luciiala.
Origen. 1869. “Contra Celsum.” In The Writings of Origen. Vol. 2, translated by Frederick Crombie. Edinburgh : T. & T. Clark. http://archive.org/details/writingsoforigen02origuoft.
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2 thoughts on “Review, pt 1e (e for Exceptions!) : How the Gospels Became History / Litwa”
I want to point out that Litwa’s title is “How the gospels became history.” If he truly addressed that question in the book, he would look at the sociological development of a Church, the political usefulness of “historically true” gospels to that church, the pressure from below (illiterates and children) to understand the four-gospel story as true, and IMO only secondarily the content of the gospels and the genres/purposes intended by their authors.* It seems to me, so far, that Litwa is arguing that the authors wrote in a genre that predisposed their readers to understanding the story as literally true. Even if he’s right (and from the Vridar posts I am not convinced he is), the readers of the gospels were not reading the gospels in isolation from other Christian texts, and from social information about Christianity from other people. I look forward to finding out if Litwa continues the literary-genre approach throughout the book, or if Litwa addresses the sociological processes I mentioned.
*Note: A lot of Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity is off-base because his knowledge is too shallow–and he readily admits the difficulty he had in learning enough to write the book–but his discussion is useful regarding the motives of modern people who convert to a religion, and the function of the new religion in their lives. The actual doctrine is of less importance than the social rewards.
“Yet the persons who wrote the gospels did so anonymously.”
Yes, but the genre of prophetic literature was almost entirely anonymous or pseudonymous. And prophetic literature was produced largely in relation to wars. Prophetic literature was meant to be believed and it largely was. This is because most prophetic literature was a form of propaganda, either directed at the enemy population or the domestic one.
Prophetic literature also made regular use of devices like acrostics and chaisims, as we see in Daniel as well. There may have been multiple reasons, but included among them was apparently guarding against interpolations, and many prophetic accounts contain warnings against editing or rearranging the words, as we see in Revelation, and also many Sibylline works.
In addition, Jews had been engaged in two centuries of propaganda using prophetic works for Greek and Roman audiences, all of it anonymously or pseudonymously produced. Pseudo-Sibylline and Pseudo-Orphic works were the primary avenues of this type of literature, produced largely out of Alexandria Egypt.
The Gospels contain essentially all of the characteristics of Jewish prophetic literature. An interesting thing to note there is the example of Virgil apparently having been fooled by Jewish Sibylline literature, which he used as the inspiration for his Fourth Eclogue.