2019-11-24

Review, part 3b (The Thesis) : How the Gospels Became History / Litwa

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by Neil Godfrey

We arrive now at a point where I am beginning to find more agreement with, and renewed interest in, M. David Litwa’s thesis in How the Gospels Became History.

Having dismissed Dennis MacDonald’s proposal that the gospels (in particular Gospel of Mark) were created intertextually with not only various Jewish books but also Greco-Roman ones (in particular Homer’s epics) Litwa sets forth his view of how non-Jewish ideas found their way into the gospels. The gospel authors (“evangelists”) were necessarily part of a late first-century CE Mediterranean culture that was infused with mythoi (myths). (See the first post of this series for Litwa’s discussion of how these were defined in ancient times.) (Again, all bolded highlighting is mine.)

Greek mythoi were the mass media when the gospels were written in the late first century CE. Mythoi were reflected in virtually all the cultural venues available: sculpture, painting, pantomime, hymn, novels, coins, gems, mosaics, plays, athletic events — even executions. (p. 50)

Litwa expands on this idea,

Even the rigorist Jewish Essenes, who sequestered themselves in the Judean desert, employed astrological, calendrical, organizational, and scribal practices common to the Hellenistic world. (p. 52)

. . . . What united learned peoples in the provinces was a shared educational system and repertoire of stories, poems, and speeches that virtually every person of culture knew. . . . 

Since gospel stories arose when Greek mythoi were the dominant cultural lore, it is not strange to think that this lore shaped the formation of Jesus narratives. . . .

Greek mythology was part of the “pre-understanding” of all those who lived in Hellenistic culture — including Jews and Christians. . . . 

. . . As a result of socialization, human beings come to share assumptions that allow’ them to communicate and experience phenomena in a basically similar way.

In this sense, early Jews and Christians were inevitably influenced by the dominant cultural lore. Greek mythic discourses were part of the mainstream, urban culture to which most early Christians belonged. If Christians were socialized in predominantly Greek cultural environments, it is no surprise that they were shaped by the dominant stories. Some of the influence would have been consciously experienced through the educational system. Other influences would have been absorbed by attending plays, viewing works of art, hearing poetry, and simply conversing on a daily basis with Hellenized peoples in the many marketplaces of ideas. (pp. 51-52)

Litwa from there proceeds to a discussion of “gospel genre”.

. . . there is a rough consensus that the gospels best approximate ancient biographical (or bios) literature. We can define biography as a form of historiography focusing on the life and character of a single person. (p. 53)

That sounds simple enough — until we do a little bit of reading of the literature on ancient historiography. I have posted on this topic often enough and part of the reason is that I keep learning new things as I read more. At this point I have to say that some classicists flatly deny that ancient historiography conforms to any clear rules of a single genre. A fuller discussion (again) will have to wait. Till then I will allow Litwa to speak,

No ancient writers of biography would deny, however, that they spoke of real historical events and persons who lived in space and time. Many biographers, moreover, worked hard to give their works a historical cast. They described real places, mentioned precise times, referred to contemporary monuments, and so on. (p. 53)

Litwa is evidently writing for an audience that extends as far as the hoi polloi as the following quotation demonstrates.

Churchgoers are often instructed that the gospels were written by eyewitnesses or those who knew them. In fact, the gospel writers are all second- and third-generation Christians, none of whom claimed to be apostles or intimates of Jesus. None of them, it seems, attached their names to their work or clarified their sources. (The titles “According to Mark,” “According to Matthew’,” and so on are second-century additions.)  (p. 54)

The price tag on Litwa’s book is surely inexcusable.

There is no question that they calculated precise times and described real places. It is debatable, however, and I would say contradicted by the evidence, that they necessarily “would deny . . . that they spoke of real historical events and persons”. I will post on this point soon. Till then, I will leave a place-holder saying that we can see from the evidence that some ancient historians or biographers certainly did have personal doubts about the historical existence of the persons they wrote about. I will call upon Herodotus, Plutarch and Lucian as principal witnesses.

Without supporting evidence Litwa asserts that the evangelists relied entirely upon

oral and written sources for Jesus’s sayings, accounts of his miracles, and (increasingly) stories of his postmortem appearances in Judea and Galilee. (p. 54)

We do have at hand abundant evidence that the evangelists drew upon Jewish scriptures to frame these stories but for now let’s align ourselves with Litwa’s views.

In accordance with conventional biblical scholarship, Litwa suggests that the evangelists were initially interested in strengthening the faith of new believers but over time came to be interested in persuading outsider audiences, too.

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At this point Litwa’s argument seems overly selective. He cites ancient Pliny the Younger, Cicero and Lucian to demonstrate that some ancients equated simplicity of language with truth.

When history was told in clear prose without poetic ornament, “truth” distinguished itself from mylhos. Accordingly, the gospels were written in the common speech of the day (called Koine) so that people of every level of education — or even none at all — could understand their recitation. (p. 55)

Pause and think for a moment. Is Litwa really confusing an entire dialect with truthful speech? Something has come undone along the way.

Next, the gospels are anonymous. We know that. We know the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are later additions. But Litwa sees more here:

Other authors — among them Plato, Plutarch, Lucian, and Porphyry — also wrote works in which they did not name themselves. The anonymity did not necessarily mean that the authors were particularly humble or that the gospels were community products. (p. 55)

True. But why not include another possibility: that the evangelists were following the way of the writers of most of the Jewish scriptures?

Litwa moves on to a synopsis of each of our canonical gospels. Mark tells a simple story of Jesus and concludes with Jerusalem’s fall; Matthew rewrites Mark and adds more from Q and elsewhere; Luke claims to rely upon eyewitnesses for more information but the evidence in the gospel does not support the eyewitness claim; John is the final witness to appeal to gentiles to believe that Jesus is the “messiah and son of God”.

Litwa then outlines the works of Greco-Roman historians that he will call upon most in his upcoming discussion of “how the gospels became history”: Diodorus of Sicily, Plutarch, Suetonius, Philostratus and Iamblichus.

Litwa’s thesis

In this book, I am primarily interested in the question of why the gospels seemed true to their earliest readers. My thesis . . . is that the gospels seemed true because they were written in historiographical discourse with historiographical tropes that gave the impression of historicity. (p. 61)

Litwa adds,

Ultimately what I want to affirm is that the similarity between select gospel and Greco-Roman stories is due to a similarity in cultural setting. In the late first century CE, historiography was considered to be a discourse communicating “real” objects of knowledge. (p. 62)

Except for the times when historians were well-known to be narrating implausible — mythical, unreal, fantastical — events for audience entertainment. And except for the times when historians were known to be struggling, against their own better judgments, to be narrating episodes that they knew to be factually dubious but morally efficacious.

To sum up, my theory of comparison is based neither on the idea of genetic connection between texts nor on some kind of psychic unity of humankind. Rather, it is based on structural similarities of learned patterns of thought rooted in a shared (Greek) language and (Hellenistic) culture. This shared culture affected not only the content of certain stories but also how they were told in the late first and early second centuries CE. At this time, biographers and historiographers tended to (re)describe their mythoi in historical form to maximize their plausibility. (p. 62)

All of my other reading in the studies of ancient historians as explored by classicists informs me that mythical stories (as we today understand the term ‘mythical’) were not, never ever, believed to be “literally historical” without doubt, etc, by ancient historians or biographers. The distinction was clear enough. But that’s beside the point at this particular moment. I am really interested in learning what Litwa has to tell us about the gospel narratives and how they were influenced by the Greco-Roman mythical culture from which they emerged.

More to follow. . . . .


Litwa, M. David. 2019. How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.


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Neil Godfrey

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7 Comments

  • Steve Ruis
    2019-11-24 13:37:19 GMT+0000 - 13:37 | Permalink

    Oh, boy. Re “No ancient writers of biography would deny, however, that they spoke of real historical events and persons who lived in space and time. Many biographers, moreover, worked hard to give their works a historical cast. They described real places, mentioned precise times, referred to contemporary monuments, and so on. (p. 53)”

    Uh, what if the biographers were mistaken? Or were intending to deceive? Or intended to supply a document for simple folk who needed such stories to accept “the message?” (You know, like … Jesus. Could the whole parables trope have been created by the evangelists to support their creation of parables to get “the message” across? Does the trope on parables even show up in the epistles?)

    And … re “… Litwa asserts that the evangelists relied entirely upon oral and written sources for Jesus’s sayings, accounts of his miracles, and (increasingly) stories of his postmortem appearances in Judea and Galilee. (p. 54)” Excuse me? Relied entirely? Methinks the author is much too sure of himself. And how would these evangelists verify the veracity of “Jesus sayings” or accounts of “his miracles?” The primary communication device of the time was mouth to ear gossip. There is a parlor game called “Telephone” which shows what occurs under such circumstances.) And how is it that the biggest miracle of all doesn’t show up until John is written? Did that miracle go unnoticed all of that time? Or was it made up to “top” the other writers?

    Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and so far I am not hearing/seeing it. But then I am not reading the book.

    Thank you for your service. I would not be aware of these sources were it not for you.

    • MrHorse
      2019-11-24 22:39:09 GMT+0000 - 22:39 | Permalink

      “Uh, what if the biographers were mistaken? Or were intending to deceive? Or intended to supply a document for simple folk who needed such stories to accept “the message?”

      ?
      Exactly [the premise of Steve’s last two questions. Though the early renditions may not have been intended to deceive]. What if the gospel and any of the other [extant] early Christian writers weren’t ‘biographers’ ?? ….

  • Peter Grullemans
    2019-11-24 13:45:38 GMT+0000 - 13:45 | Permalink

    Litwa’s view that “the gospels seemed true because they were written in historiographical discourse with historiographical tropes that gave the impression of historicity.” (p. 61) and your view Neil that “mythical stories (as we today understand the term ‘mythical’) were not, never ever, believed to be “literally historical” without doubt, etc, by ancient historians or biographers” are in harmony with mine that the gospels were part of a fraud perpetrated on the ignorant masses by the educated leaders.

  • MrHorse
    2019-11-24 22:33:16 GMT+0000 - 22:33 | Permalink

    Litwa’s “No ancient writers of biography would deny, however, that they spoke of real historical events and persons who lived in space and time” is spurious even meaningless rhetoric. Such bare statements primarily framed in the negative usually are (in any context or situation).

  • james barlow
    2019-11-25 10:39:22 GMT+0000 - 10:39 | Permalink

    “Litwa adds, ‘Ultimately what I want to affirm is that the similarity between select gospel and Greco-Roman stories is due to a similarity in cultural setting. In the late first century CE, historiography was considered to be a discourse communicating ‘real’ objects of knowledge.’ (p. 62)
    “Except for the times when historians were well-known to be narrating implausible — mythical, unreal, fantastical — events for audience entertainment. And except for the times when historians were known to be struggling, against their own better judgments, to be narrating episodes that they knew to be factually dubious but morally efficacious.”
    …A misunderstanding can easily occur here owing to a stridently rationalistic approach I’ve sought to warn of elsewhere (with Carrier noted as a frequent offender/victim): Jesus was by all means “a ‘real’ object of knowledge” for believers/evangelists! And that in their minds the proclamation of (what we’d call) a mythological Jesus in historical terms was (as Litwa says) ‘quite natural’ at the time. The historiographical gambit as an expression of faith was germane to their lived reality of the presence of Christ.

    • db
      2019-11-25 13:58:35 GMT+0000 - 13:58 | Permalink

      Jesus was by all means “a ‘real’ object of knowledge” for believers/evangelists

      Carrier would agree, in the same sense that Satan was a ‘real’ object of knowledge for believers/evangelists.

  • Giuseppe
    2019-11-26 10:17:34 GMT+0000 - 10:17 | Permalink

    Neil writes in a past comment:

    Litwa does say that authors writing biographical works believed their subjects to have been historical, though I hope to show that is not necessarily wholly true.

    I fear that Neil is introducing a false dichotomy, here: if the authors believed their subjects to have been historical, then this is more expected on historicity, vice versa, the mythicism would be more expected “only if” the original author deceived or was not understood.

    But I think that there could be a case where the first euhemerizer (I am assuming the paradigm of mythicism here) was reporting what he believed a real History in a story, without double reading (=with deceive) and without misunderstanding.

    Think what could happen if the original story ended with the Transfiguration episode as the original crucifixion, with Moses and Elijah the two original “thieves” who insult a Jesus crucified… …in the “air” before the three Pillars seeing (hallucinating) him in that precise moment.

    In this case the original euhemerizer was reporting what was for him a precise historical fact: the Pillars who hallucinated the crucifixion of Jesus in outer space.

    If then the Transfiguration was separated from the crucifixicion, by reducing the latter to what the our gospels say about it, the reason of this “reduction” was: the Transfiguration event remembered too closely the crucifixion/exaltation of Jesus the Son of Father (“Bar-Abbas”) who had prayed his Father (‘Abba’) in Mark 14:35-36, being heard in the original story (as he is again in proto-John) by a crucifixion of glory (=the original Transfiguration).

    In short, the Transfiguration (=Crocifixion of glory) was reducted to a mere Roman crucifixion in virtue of the same process by which Jesus Son of Father (not the creator) was reduced to a robber named Jesus Barabbas.

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