Category Archives: Literary Analysis

What’s the Matter with Biblical Scholarship? Part 1

The king is a what?

We had finally made an end-to-end connection from an automated teller machine (ATM), through our alarm-correlation engine, and into our trouble-ticketing system. Actually, we probably simulated something like a paper jam, but the free text description that went along with that alarm type contained this message: The King Is a Fink!”

Why? We were following an old tradition. At NCR, it signified a successful test. Over at HP, I’m told, they would transmit the sentence, “My hovercraft is full of eels!” So I suppose their chief engineer liked to watch Monty Python, while NCR’s enjoyed the comic strip, The Wizard of Id.

It was the late 1990s, and I was a contractor visiting the development team in Copenhagen, Denmark. They had other traditions there, too. Later that afternoon, we celebrated our success in the break room, where they offered me truly awful champagne (deliberately so) and some bright pink marshmallow peeps. I declined the peeps, having become a vegetarian ten years earlier.

At some point during the celebration, somebody asked to nobody in particular, “What is a fink?” I paused to think about that one. How would you define that word in terms a Dane or, for that matter, any non-English speaker would understand? My mind wandered to “Rat Pfink a Boo Boo” — and how would you ever explain that?

Before I could answer, a Danish woman who had spent her teens in the U.S. said, “It’s a bird. It’s supposed to be a ‘finch.’ The king is a finch.” Some nodded. Others were still perplexed. After all, why would you compare a monarch to a bird? read more »

Michael Licona Asks, “Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?”

[Edit: When first published, this post credited Michael Bird instead of Michael Licona for this book. I can’t explain it, other than a total brain-fart, followed by the injudicious use of mass find-and-replace. My apologies to everyone. –Tim]

We have to dig deep to find something nice to say about Michael R. Licona’s new book, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? Perhaps the best thing I can come up with is that he didn’t insert the word apparent to soften the blow. Other apologists will tell us why we needn’t worry about “apparent differences” or “seeming contradictions.” Not Licona. He acknowledges the differences and says he wants to find out how they got there.

Poor Ancient Historians

In his foreword, Craig Evans notes the variations among the evangelists and asks:

How is this to be explained? Should these discrepancies be regarded as errors? Were the Gospel writers poor historians? Have they told the truth about Jesus?

Such is the strange and mysterious world of NT scholarship. How can we explain these bizarre questions?

According to some of today’s most prolific writers in biblical scholarship, the evangelists — the authors of the canonical gospels — were historians and writers of Greco-Roman biographies. They reach these conclusions via embarrassingly obvious cherry-picking, which leaves them with a pile of incongruous evidence, which they feel compelled to explain away. read more »

The Prodigal Son: Cultural Reception History and the New Testament

Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son, 166...
Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1662–1669 (Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Neil’s post from last year — “Why Does Jesus Never Do Anything Wrong?” — got me thinking about a story told by David Livermore in his course, Customs of the World: Using Cultural Intelligence to Adapt, Wherever You Are. He tells of a New Testament scholar and minister who performed a small experiment in which he asked people of different cultures to tell him the parable of the Prodigal Son. Afterward, he compared the points of story to what people remembered, noting what they tended to remember as well as what they left out.

His results were somewhat surprising. It turns out that our cultural background, social context, and personal history can have a large impact on what we consider important. Without realizing it, our frame of reference profoundly distorts how we understand and recall information.

How did the Prodigal Son end up in a pigpen?

Although Livermore and others have used this anecdote (you can find many references on the web), I found it rather difficult to track down the original scholarship. Sadly, the book in which the paper first appeared, Literary Encounters with the Reign of God, is far too expensive for me; however, you can see bits of it in the Google Books preview. Fortunately, the author, Mark Allen Powell, recapitulates much of his paper in the book, What Do They Hear? Bridging the Gap Between Pulpit and Pew.

Powell, a narrative critic, frequently uses the term polyvalence, which for him has a specific meaning:

Simply put, polyvalence refers to the capacity—or, perhaps, the inevitable tendency— for texts to mean different things to different people. Literary critics differ drastically in their evaluation of polyvalence (i.e., friend or foe?), but virtually all literary critics now recognize the reality of this phenomenon: texts do mean different things to different people and at least some of the interpretive differences that have been examined (e.g., gender-biased interpretations) appear to follow fairly predictable patterns. (Powell, 2007, p. 12)

I would add that the situation might even be worse for those of us who were steeped in a particular tradition since childhood. Not only have I been hearing New Testament stories for over five decades, but I’ve been told what they mean, again and again. I even know them by titles that drive the reader or hearer to understand them from an orthodox point of view. For example, I knew the parable of the Prodigal Son long before I knew what the word “prodigal” even meant.

As I said earlier, Powell asked a number students to pair off, then read, and finally describe the parable to their partners. He then noted the details they emphasized or omitted. (The exercise comes from Rhoads, Dewey, and Michie’s Mark as Story.) Oddly enough, they all left out the part about the famine that struck right when the young man’s money ran out. Powell notes: read more »

Doubting an Oral Tradition behind the Gospels: The Parables

All posts in this series are archived at Henaut: Oral Tradition and the Gospels

(This post extends well beyond Henaut, however.)


I have recently posted insights by John Drury and Michael Goulder into the literary character of the parables in the gospels. (The vocabulary and themes are part and parcel of the larger canvass and thematic structure of each gospel.) Drury has further shown that they are not, as widely assumed, to be based on everyday commonplace events but are in fact bizarre and unnatural scenarios. (Sowers did not scatter seed so wastefully as per the parable of the sower, for example.)

kelberoralwrittenShortly before Drury’s book was published (1985) a work by Werner Kelber appeared, Oral and Written Gospel (1983). I recall devouring Kelber’s books, pencil-marking them, thinking about them, applying them to other works I read, when I first began to study study what scholarship had to say about Gospel origins. His Oral and Written Gospel remains one of the most underlined and scribbled-in books on my shelf. Back then Kelber led me to ask so many questions of other works I was reading; now I find myself asking more critical questions of Kelber himself.

Arguments for the parables originating in oral performance

Here is what he wrote about the significance of the parables as evidence for oral tradition lying behind the sayings of Jesus in the gospels.

The oral propriety of parabolic stories requires little argument. “A parable is an urgent endeavour on the part of the speaker towards the listener.” [citing Carlston] Speaking is the ordinary mode of parabolic discourse, and writing in parables seems almost out of place. (p. 57, my own bolding and formatting in all quotations)

There are three distinctive features about parables that Kelber identifies as clear signs that they originated as oral performances. read more »

Jesus Did Not Speak in Parables — the Evidence

fivegospelsHenautThe parables of Jesus are among many people’s favourite treasures in the Bible and the focus of much erudite and popular research outputs by some of the most renowned scholars in the field. In The Five Gospels Robert Funk, Roy Hoover and the Jesus Seminar confidently point to the triadic structure (groups of threes) as well as the repetitions and catchwords — all characteristics of oral sayings — in the Parable of the Sower (Mark 4) to assert that this parable most likely originated as the very words of Jesus himself. The same year (1993) saw Barry Henaut’s publication, Oral Tradition and the Gospels: The Problem of Mark 4, that comprehensively demolished the claim that triadic structures, repetitions and mnemonic catchwords are unique to oral communications and demonstrated that the same features were also characteristic of ancient literary compositions that were written to be read aloud to audiences.


This post follows on from What Is a Parable? My original intent was to post the outline of Michael Goulder’s reasons for concluding that the parables we know so well from the gospels were the literary creations of the evangelist authors of those gospels and did not derive from anything Jesus said.

ParablesBefore I had a chance to continue with that plan one most helpful reader alerted me to John Drury’s book The Parables in the Gospels: History and Allegory.

I’ll keep this post’s main focus on the Gospel of Mark, widely thought to be the earliest gospel written. Matthew, Luke and (a significant number of scholars believe) John knew and adapted Mark’s material to serve their own theological and literary purposes.

I know we remember all this but. . .

From the earlier What Is a Parable? post we saw that the Greek word in the Bible that we translate as “parable” was derived from the Greek version of the Old Testament (the Septuagint/LXX) and embraced what in Hebrew was a word (mashal) that embraced a wide range of figurative expressions. It could be a pithy proverbial saying, an extended allegorical tale, a prophetic oracle, a riddle, a song of derision or a byword. It was generally a saying with a hidden meaning that needed to be deciphered. It generally professed to explain God’s will behind some historical condition. It was always an integral part of its surrounding narrative.

That last mentioned trait alone is a significant reason for believing such parables were the creations of the authors of the works in which they appeared. read more »

Gospels As Historical Sources: How Literary Criticism Changes Everything

Owens1This post is best read in the context of the earlier posts on Clarke Owens’ Son of Yahweh: The Gospels as Novels, in particular Jesus Is Not “As Historical As Anyone Else in the Ancient World”. This post considers the different genres qualities (verbal categories, discourse types) between Gospels and historical writings and concludes the Gospels are characterized by language typical of make-believe narratives.

One would expect that it would go without saying that one must first understand what one is reading before one knows how to assess its value as a historical source. But the field of historical Jesus research is graced with many exceptions and methods found in no other field of historical inquiry. One of these is the belief that literary analysis has no relevance to the study of the historical Jesus.

James McGrath even publishes a diagram to show why literary analysis is irrelevant for historical inquiry. It is assumed that the literary approach does nothing more than explain the literary qualities and narrative structure of the work. It appears in The Burial of Jesus: History and Faith:

McGrath is not alone in this understanding of the difference between literary and historical studies of the Gospels, which is to say that a good number of Christian history scholars do not really understand the nature of historical source material or the fundamentals of how to undertake historical research. I am not saying all biblical scholars fall into this trap, nor that all other types of historians avoid it, since there are indeed a few biblical scholars more critical than their peers and some sloppy historians in other fields who build upon unexamined assumptions.

miles1Jack Miles (born 1942) is an American author and winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the MacArthur Fellowship. His work on religion, politics, and culture has appeared in numerous national publications . . . . Miles treats his biblical subjects neither as transcendent deities or historical figures, but as literary protagonists. His first book, God: A Biography, won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 1996 . . . . (Wikipedia)

What is wrong with the above model? Jack Miles, another scholar discussed by Clarke Owens in Son of Yahweh: The Gospels as Novels, strongly disagrees with the notion that one can validly “see through” the Gospel narratives to history below. He draws the analogy of the text as a stained-glass window: not to be looked through but looked at. According to Clarke Owens this is only “half right”. Owens identifies the flaw in Jack Miles’ analogy: Miles is embracing as a universal what “literary critics would recognize as [only] a theory” of literature — that of “autotelic literature“. That is, the idea that literature can and must be interpreted only within its own boundaries is only one theory among a number of valid ways of reading and understanding literature.

According to Owens, while it is correct that we cannot “look through” a text on the assumption that it is some sort of window to a real world of past persons and events, it must be recognized that there are ways literature can serve as historical sources — only not in the way biblical scholars too often assume.

The message of the stained glass window

Clarke Owens, writing as a literature scholar, reminds us that there are certain types of literature (e.g. allegory) acknowledged as taking their meaning and intended interpretations from reference points outside themselves. (One might call this type heterotelic, referring to something outside itself, as opposed to autotelic.) So Owens disputes the idea of Jack Miles that literature must be read exclusively “as literature” and without reference to history. read more »

Jesus Is Not “As Historical As Anyone Else in the Ancient World”

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailOne of the gold nuggets in Clarke Owens’ Son of Yahweh: The Gospels as Novels is its simple explanation of how how to distinguish between historical persons (e.g. Socrates, Thales, Alexander, etc) and fictive ones like (as we shall see) Jesus. I say it’s a “simple explanation” but maybe that’s because I am biased towards the idea of studying how literature works and the importance of understanding the nature of a literary source before we can know how to interpret its story.

I can already hear the groans of people thinking, “But we all know the Gospel Jesus is not the historical Jesus; we all know the Christ of the Faith is not the historical person,” and so forth, so what’s the point? Answer: In a future post we shall see that the very idea that the Gospels can even be used as sources through which theologians can dig to find history beneath them — an archaeological image often used by HJ scholars — is a fallacy.

Let’s return again to John P. Meier. (We’ve spotlighted him a lot lately, and not only with these Owens posts. The price of scholarly renown!)

In The Marginal Jew, v. 1, page 12, Owens focuses on Meier’s bald assertion that literary criticism is of no use to scholars who are seeking to discern genuinely historical material behind the Gospels. (I have argued that that is nonsense but in this post I will try to channel Owen’s voice as much as possible.) And what are Meier’s grounds for giving a priori confidence in the Gospels as gateways to historical information lurking behind the texts?

1st-century documents of Christian propaganda . . . advanced truth claims about Jesus of Nazareth, truth claims for which some 1st-century Christians were willing to die. . . .

  • Against these tired claims we do know people die for all sorts of nonsense and delusions;
  • we also know — well many of us do — that the stories of early Christian martyrdoms have been greatly exaggerated into mythical dimensions;
  • and we also know — at least many of us do — that there are more plausible explanations of Christian origins than a handful of devotees coming to feel a new inner-presence of their master who had been killed as a social and political outcast. (This is nothing other than a rationalistic paraphrase of the myth.)

Is not this a scholarly version, a slightly diluted version, of: “The Bible claims to be the Word of God and since the first generations of Christians willingly died for its message it must be true! No-one would die for a lie!” Scholar’s edition: “The Bible claims. . . . and since Christians died. . . . there must be some truth somewhere there if we look with the proper tools.” Both the conservative believer and the critical scholar in the service of increasing the credibility of theology to the modern world rhetorically conclude: How else do we explain the martyrdoms? How else do we explain Christianity?

When John Meier in his opening chapter of volume one discusses the “basic concept” of “The Real Jesus and the Historical Jesus” he creates the illusion of starting at the beginning but in fact he leaves the entire question of historicity begging.

  • Of course we can’t know “the real Jesus” given the time-gap and state of the records; after all, we can only partially know “the real Nixon” despite his recency and the avalanche of material available on him.
  • Of course it becomes increasingly difficult to assess “the historical” the further back in time we go; it’s hard enough knowing what to make of Thales or Apollonius of Tyana “or anyone else in the ancient world” and the evidence is just as scant for Jesus.

Owens identifies what Meier has done in making such comparisons (my bolding in all quotations):

An implication exists in the double comparison, which is that Jesus is as real as Nixon and as historical as Thales but the explicit point is that there is less ‘reality’ data on Jesus than on Nixon, and as meager ‘historical’ data on Jesus as on Thales.

We note that what we might consider the “first question” of any book purporting to deal with the issue of a ‘historical Jesus’ – the question of whether or not Jesus existed — is being set up to go begging. ‘Reality’ is impossible, and ‘history’ is impossibly difficult, so we are to assume both, as we do with Nixon and Thales.

(Owens, Clarke W. (2013-07-26). Son of Yahweh: The Gospels As Novels (Kindle Locations 216-221). Christian Alternative. Kindle Edition.)

Is Jesus really as historical as Thales?

No. And the reason the answer is No is because the qualitative difference between the literary evidence for the existence of Thales and the literary evidence for the existence of Jesus. (John Meier introduced the comparison of Thales so Clarke Owens takes this as a case-study to illustrate his argument.) read more »

Paul’s sermon on the Areopagus inspired by the Muses

Erinyes (Furies)

Some years ago I somehow stumbled into an email exchange with a doctoral student on the other side of the world who kindly let me preview a chapter of the thesis he had been working on. Since I recently noticed his thesis has since 2006 been commercially published as Foreign but Familiar Gods: Graeco-Romans Read Religion in Acts I feel free to share the contents of that chapter now.

Lynn Kauppi argues that the scene in Acts where Paul is brought before the Areopagus to explain himself partly on the impression that he is introducing new gods to Athens was inspired by a scene in a play well-known to Greek speakers of the day.

The play is Eumenides, the third in a trilogy of plays composed by Aeschylus around the 450’s bce. The name Eumenides refers to devotees of the Furies (Erinyes). These Furies pursued and tormented one who had murdered his own mother.

In the first play of the series King Agamemnon returned home victorious from the Trojan war but was murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra. In the second play their son Orestes was moved by his sister and the god Apollo to avenge his father’s death by killing his mother.

The third play, the one said to contain the influences on the author of Acts, contains the resolution of the moral conflicts built up in the first two plays. On Apollo’s advice Orestes flees to Athens seeking escape from the torment of the Furies. Meanwhile the ghost of Clytemnestra rises up from the dead to rebuke the Furies for not completing their just vengeance on her son.

In Athens Orestes is met by the goddess Athena who listens to his case and also hears the counter-claims of the Furies. Unable to determine the rights and wrongs of the matter alone she founds the court of the Areopagus to help her decide the case. Orestes appears at this court, the Areopagus, along with his prosecutors, the Furies, and his defender, the god Apollo. The court is divided so the goddess Athena casts the deciding vote in favour of Orestes, thus cleansing him from the stain or pollution of blood-guilt and setting a precedent for mercy over justice. When the Furies threaten to destroy Athens in retaliation a shrine is established for them and a procession is held in their honour by the Athenians.

The outline of the play does not encourage the modern reader to suspect it may contain an influence on the author of Acts.

But Kauppi argues that the play was well-known in the early Christian era and did influence other writings of the time; and that a Graeco-Roman reader of Acts would likely recognize allusions in the play to “the resurrection” from the dead, the role of the Areopagus in examining the central character and the theme of the introduction of new gods into Athens. read more »

A classicist’s insights into how Acts was composed and stitched together

I love to read fresh insights that potentially open new understandings on how a biblical author worked to produce what became a part of the foundational canon of western civilization.

I’ve recently been catching up with New Testament Interpretation Through Rhetorical Criticism by classics professor George A. Kennedy (1984).

Acts 1:1-15:35 seems to be a compositional unit and could be read as a complete work. The disciples have carried on the mission of Jesus and seem to have settled their internal differences; faced with Jewish opposition they have persevered, and the gospel is being extended to the gentiles. From 15:36 to the end of the book, focus is turned entirely upon the missionary activities of Paul; Peter and the other apostles are forgotten. (p.127)

I have frequently read the view that the Jerusalem Council is a climactic turning point in the book of Acts, but I think this is the first time I have taken note of the view that this episode also constitutes a satisfactory conclusion to a story that began in Acts 1.

Another take on the “we passages”

Kennedy adds some other interesting observations in support. The first of the “we passages” appears soon afterwards, in 16:10. Kennedy notes that scholars generally assume this marks the moment Luke joined Paul, but he himself points out that if this is the case, then it is odd that the author does not say that. Rather, Kennedy finds it interesting that the first “we passage” comes just after the introduction of Timothy as a companion of Paul.

Again in chapter 20 Timothy joins Paul and the narrative slips into the first person plural. . . . It is possible that Luke utilized Timothy’s account of his travels with Paul and did not alter “we” to “they.” This is unlikely to be an editorial oversight, considering the number of times it occurs and the otherwise smooth flow of the narrative. . . . Firsthand knowledge of what Paul said begins in chapter 20, when Timothy is present, and the speech there is rather different from what has gone before. (pp. 127-8)

I think there is a better accounting for the “we passages”, but I have not spent any time thinking through Kennedy’s suggestion here. It might be worth doing so, at least in respect to a source ostensibly claiming to be by a Timothy. (I don’t think I ever got around to completing my old notes on an alternative explanation for the we passages that I began here two years ago, darn it.)

Classical historiography — and classical endings

Kennedy suggests that the narrative from Acts 1 to Acts 15:35 “may represent a compositional unit which was all that was originally intended to be added to Luke’s Gospel.”

While I can readily accept that section of Acts is “a compositional unit”, I think it would be hard to sustain an argument that it was all that was originally intended to be added to Luke’s Gospel. The introduction speaks of the gospel going to all nations and the narrative presages Paul taking the message before kings and rulers. Both these are not fulfilled until the gospel reaches the capital and ruler of all nations (Rome) and till Paul has addressed Jewish and gentile rulers in Caesarea and Rome. But that the narrative up to 15:35 does represent an independent literary unit with a certain completeness in its own right is nonetheless interesting.

On the eminent suitability of Acts 15:30-35 as a classical ending to a work of ancient historiography, Kennedy writes:

Classical historiography generally does not employ a rhetorical epilogue and instead often concludes with a very brief reference to continuing events (as at the end of Acts 28). This well describes where we are left in Acts 15:30-35. (p. 128 – my emphasis throughout)

Here is Acts 15:30-35

So when they were dismissed, they came to Antioch: and when they had gathered the multitude together, they delivered the epistle: which when they had read, they rejoiced for the consolation.  And Judas and Silas, being prophets also themselves, exhorted the brethren with many words, and confirmed them. And after they had tarried there a space, they were let go in peace from the brethren unto the apostles. Notwithstanding it pleased Silas to abide there still. Paul also and Barnabas continued in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also.

I had not before noticed how this is so well echoed by the ending of Acts 28:

And Paul dwelt two whole years in his own hired house, and received all that came in unto him, preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ, with all confidence, no man forbidding him.

But what is particularly interesting is Kennedy’s observation as a scholar and professor of the classics:

The opening of 15:36 is reminiscent of the opening of Xenophon’s Hellenica, a work read in Greek schools. Xenophon attached his work on Greek history to the abrupt end of Thucydides (probably as left at the latter’s death) by the words meta de tauta, “And after this . . . .” Acts 15:36 begins “And after some days . . . .” An educated audience such as Luke had in mind might have perceived this.

I like reading of such fresh possibilities when someone more steeped in the broader literary context of the biblical books than in the confines of theological studies publishes his or her insights. If, as Kennedy notes, Xenophon’s Hellenica was studies in Greek schools, his case is quite plausible.

Putting it all together

If in fact the second half of Acts is Luke’s version of Paul’s travels, conceived as a separate entity and based on Timothy’s account filled out by Luke for those periods Timothy did not witness, the retention of the “we” is not an editorial oversight, but a stylistic rhetorical device to increase the authority of the account. No deceit need have been intended; Luke may have thought that the introduction of Timothy in chapter 16 made clear what he was doing, and it is possible that 15:36 was intended to be given a title such as “Luke’s Account of the Missions of Paul, after Timothy.” (p. 128)

If this is a credible option, Kennedy opines that the author originally had in mind a three part corpus:

  1. The Gospel
  2. The Activities of the Disciples from the ascension to the meeting in Jerusalem
  3. Second Acts: The Missions of Paul

Kennedy comments that although there is no real difference in the prose of the two halves of Acts, there is a significant difference in tone. The second half conveys an immediacy of a first-hand observation. I would qualify Kennedy’s observation by saying that this first-hand impression is itself a rhetorical device and not necessarily a fact of the sources at all.

I think that the difference in tone owes more to an additional explanation Kennedy offers — the movement beyond Palestine, Syria and Pisidia and to the Ionian coast, Greece, and beyond.

In this new setting Paul’s speech at Athens, the first address in what might be called Second Acts, takes on special meaning. Not only the Jews reject the gospel; so do the philosophers of the intellectual capital of the world. There is a dramatic movement from rejection in Athens, to rejection in Jerusalem and Paul’s trial, to rejection in Rome, but this rejection by leaders everywhere is shown against a pattern of acceptance by the people. (p.128-9)

I am not sure that Kennedy’s suggestion that the author originally intended a distinctly two part work for Acts is the only explanation for a Xenophon/Hellenica-like join at 15:36. The half-way cathartic ending in Acts with the Jerusalem Council and its aftermath, and the possible half-way kick-re-start at 15:36 could well have been the author’s way of informing his audience that one part of the story had finished and a new part, with a different theme, was to begin. Such rhetorical devices were the tools an author necessarily drew upon to speak his mind to an audience when he had adopted the voice of the anonymous narrator. As Jan-Wim Wesselius comments in The Origin of the History of Israel: Herodotus’s Histories as Blueprint for the First Books of the Bible,

The almost complete absence of the personal aspect of the narrator makes it impossible to express personal thoughts and feelings . . . .  This apparently made it necessary to invent or apply various literary techniques that enable an anonymous narrator . . . . to introduce the programme of a book through purely literary means . . . . (p. 77)

Not much is changed if we do see the author having originally intended for Acts to be a two-part work, or if a rhetorical device at Acts 15:36 served to introduce a new thematic program. What it does offer, however, is an insight to the human processes and plans that were responsible for its creation. Anything that helps us see with sharper clarity the West’s primary canon as a human product is A Good Thing.


Ministry of the Apostles. Russian icon by Fyodor Zubov, 1660.
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The literary genre of Acts. 10: historical novels – ancient cyrogenics and lost cities

Following is my own elaboration of Pervo’s introduction to a discussion of ancient historical novels. My Stadter citations are independent of Pervo’s book. I do not refer to Acts in this post. Others can think through the comparisons. But will discuss a few more historical novels before returning to Acts.

The Cyropaedia by Xenophon – the first historical novel

The author Xenophon, ca 400 b.c.e., wrote histories of Greek wars (Hellenica) and of his expedition in the Persian empire (Anabasis). Some of his works have been translated as modern Penguin classics and all can be found online.

He also wrote “a historical biography” of the Persian king Cyrus. In this account we read of historical characters who at times are true to known historical actions. The Cyropaedia reads like history.

He begins by explaining how careful he was to research his facts:

Believing this man to be deserving of all admiration, we have therefore investigated who he was in his origin, what natural endowments he possessed, and what sort of education he had enjoyed, that he so greatly excelled in governing men. Accordingly, what we have found out or think we know concerning him we shall now endeavour to present. (From the Perseus Project text.)

That sounds impressive and reassuring enough to a first time reader.

But Philip Stadter (Fictional Narrative in the Cyropaideia) compares this research-statement by Xenophon with others written by Herodotus and Thucydides (p.462):


  • noted his desire to preserve and understand the past
  • gave a sample of the oral traditions upon which he would draw
  • claimed he would start from what he himself knew, showing no partiality


  • stressed the analytical and investigatory effort needed to get to the truth
  • presented a schematic example of his mode of inquiry by analyzing the growth of unified action and maritime power re the Trojan War

Contrast Xenophon

  • makes no overt claim to factual accuracy
  • no statement on the difficulties of ascertaining the truth in a distant time and country
  • no allusions to the weaknesses of memory or the reliability of informants

Stadter writes:

In telling his story, Xenophon composed the first extant novel, and demonstrated the power and flexibility of fictional prose narrative. His work is heavily influenced by earlier narrative in poetry and prose, and yet developed new possibilities and emphases. (p.461)

The Cyropedia was an ancient historical novel.

Xenophon does on occasion accurately preserve customs – such as wearing high-soled shoes – or names, at least within the limitations of his own knowledge. But these items are subservient to the narrative, the source of which is Xenophon’s invention, not historical tradition or research. . . .

Xenophon shapes a story of Cyrus which is composed of dialogues that were never spoken, battles that never took place, and people summoned and dismissed from the written page without any shadow of historical reality. . . .

The creation and selection of narrative episodes, the temporal and geographical framework in which they are set, and the mode in which the reader is expected to respond are fictional. (p.463-4)

The purpose of this historical novel? To teach readers the principles of an ideal government and the qualities of an ideal ruler.

Yet as Stadter points out, the reader is assured from the beginning that the story is based on the author’s diligent enquiries into the facts. It is not until one reads “some 21 pages” of unrelenting success stories that one begins to dsicern the fictional nature of the work. (Stadter, p.462). Not that any one story is incredible on its own, but it is the steady avalanching of success stories that eventually collapses under its own weight, at least in the minds of savvy readers.

Ancients recognized its fictional character.

Cicero wrote:

Take the case of the famous Cyrus, portrayed by Xenophon, not as an historical character, but as a model of righteous government, the serious dignity of whose character is represented by that philosopher as combined with a peculiar courtesy. (Letter to Quintus)

In Diogenes Laertius we read:

Then, too, the one wrote the Cyropaedia and the other a book on Politics ; and Plato in his Laws says, that the Cyropaedia is a mere romance, for that Cyrus was not such a person as he is described in that book.

Richard Pervo (Profit with Delight, p.177) adds a third citation, the letter to Pompey 4 by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, to the same effect.

The power of the historical novel format

Stadter lists the following advantages (not necessarily his words) of the narrative format:

  • A long narrative is an effective way to convey complicated information or concepts.
  • Narrative also permits the interweaving of a number of themes.
  • Narrative replicates the human experience of “one durn thing after another”, creating a vivid sense of reality in the telling of each piece of information.
  • Narratives are a form of teaching by example rather than abstract precepts or summary statements, and thus naturally more memorable and even plausible.
  • If the events are credible, the reader may accept them as possible. If the events are contrary to common experience, the reader will either place them in a distant time and place (e.g. The Odyssey) or treat them as allegory or parable (e.g. Aesop’s fables). Either way, narrative is persuasive by its nature.
  • Narratives (good ones) are enjoyable, and listeners generally want to hear more.
  • Narratives are memorable. The lessons or messages they convey are easily recalled.

One can add three points to Stadter’s list the value of historical fiction:

  • added verisimilitude
  • added verisimilitude
  • added verisimilitude

Recall how all the more enthralled we were as children when a fairy tale ended with words like, “And we know this really happened because you can see to this very day . . . ”

That eternally persuasive “historically-true” story of Atlantis

Pervo does not discuss Plato’s story of Atlantis but Stadter helpfully brings it in to the discussion.

The history of Atlantis is a fictional morality tale within a larger work by Plato, Timaeus. But it has taken a life of its own, as everyone knows. Most of us treat the story as a fable. But that was not how it is introduced, and those people today who believe it was real have a good case, at least by the standards often set out for believing the historicity of ancient writings accepted into religious canons.

Plato goes to great pains to explain through Critias how he carefully he decided to introduce the story in the first place, since his concern was to get the true details right in his own mind before expounding it. For though it might be seen as a quite extraordinary story, it nonetheless definitely “was true”. To remove any doubt from readers’ minds Plato writes that

  • the story is actually documented by custodians — in Egypt — who can be trusted to preserve such records
  • the story was passed on via a chain of highly reputable and credible named witnesses
  • these witnesses took pains to be sure they got the story exactly right and passed it on without deviation
  • the transmitters were conscious of the risk of normal memory lapses so took specified preventive measures to minimize this risk

Plato insisted in his writing through his characters that the story was definitely and without a shadow of doubt true and factual. An abundance of references to what appear to be the records of eyewitness details follow.

And many remain persuaded even today. And many more, though not persuaded, are open to wondering if maybe there was some truth to it after all. And it all started with Plato’s simulation of history — his mini historical novel within Timaeus.

Such is the power of a narrative that reads like history.

Clark’s criteria for valid parallels (continuing Tyson on Marcion and Luke-Acts)

Tyson draws on the criteria devised by Andrew Clark in his Parallel Lives to further his discussion of Peter’s and Paul’s characterization in Acts. (Have been discussing Tyson’s argument that our canonical Luke-Acts was largely a second century response to Marcionism.) Before continuing with notes from Tyson, am listing here Clark’s criteria. read more »

The literary genre of Acts. 9: The ancient novel

Continuing notes from Richard Pervo’s Profit with Delight. (Previous related posts are archived here.) Skipping ahead here, wisely or otherwise, to chapter 4 and its discussion of “the ancient novel”. This post looks at different ways of seeing how ancient novels are made/how they work, with the hope of offering new ways to see and understand Acts by comparison.

Pervo begins with the question: Why discuss the ancient novel in a study of Acts? read more »

Reviewing Chris Price’s and Marion Soard’s critiques of Pervo’s “Profit with Delight”

Christopher Price has published online a lengthy discussion titled Genre, Historicity, Authorship and Date of Acts (several places, e.g. here and here). In his 12 to 13 page section of this essay where he discusses Richard Pervo’s Profit with Delight he references Marion Soard’s 1990 review of Pervo’s book in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion. Both Price’s essay and Soard’s review are classic illustrations of how sometimes people can so completely misread the clearest text. Perhaps this is the result of careless assumptions substituting for a careful engagement with the text. In the case of the fundamentalist Price, however, there also seems to be an assumption that any unorthodox critique of the Bible must by definition be a bad argument, and this leads him to misread — or misrepresent — Pervo’s text repeatedly.

I’ll address both Price’s and Sourd’s criticisms of Profit with Delight here. read more »

The literary genre of Acts. 8: clarification

Some have misread my notes from Pervo’s book as if I/Pervo claimed Acts is itself an ancient romance or a fictional historical novel. Pervo demonstrates that Acts shares many similarities with ancient novels. The theological and historical intent of Acts is expressed through many novelistic features. How much “historical fact” is to be found in Acts is a separate, although inevitably related, question.

Pervo writes in his preface:

[M]ost studies have concentrated upon the profit and ignored the delight. A major task of this book is to elucidate the entertaining nature of Acts. Since one customary means for rejecting popular literature has been to label it pure entertainment, I wish to make clear that there is no intent here to deny Luke’s serious theological program. . . .

Through comparison of Acts with ancient popular narratives I seek not only the identification of literary affinities but also clarification of the religious and social values of the milieu in which it emerged. . . .

In chapter 4 (p86) he writes:

Although clearly a theological book and a presentation of history, Acts also seeks to entertain.

Pervo also concludes with:

By reference to novels in general and historical novels in particular I have attempted to provide detailed evidence for the ancient novel’s relevance to the understanding of Acts.

My intent is that such comparison proceed alongside, as well as in competition with, investigations using historiographical models. . . . Reconsideration of the question of genre does not eliminate the possibility of sources.