Tag Archives: Ancient literature

A New Genre for the Gospels? It’s not so unusual. And Imitation and Intertextuality? A necessity!

Maybe it’s just me and the particular apologists I have encountered over the years, but I seem to have run into a claim that the authors of the canonical gospels found themselves moved to write about Jesus in a completely new literary genre that we call “the gospels”. The four gospels certainly are unlike other types of ancient historical and biographical writings from the Greco-Roman world, and many of us are well aware that a number of scholars have attempted to demonstrate that they nonetheless do conform to an ancient type of writing that approximates our understanding of biography, that is, a Life, or bios. We have argued here that such efforts are problematic and pointed out that not all scholars specializing in the genre of the gospels agree.

So I found myself taking special interest when last week I came across classicist scholars pointing out that the creation of new genres, generally by mixing together into one composition the features of a range of pre-existing literary genres, was not at all so unusual in the literary world of the Greco-Roman culture throughout the second century b.c.e. through to the second century c.e.

Further, on the question of intertextuality and “mimesis” or imitation and creatively re-writing lines and episodes from earlier well-known works may be thought of as the one constant, an essential skill for any Greco-Roman author, as we shall see.

Here are some extracts from the works I came across discussing the history of literature throughout this period:

First, some from Elaine Fantham and her highly regarded work, Roman Literary Culture: From Cicero to Apuleius.

In her introduction Fantham explains that she intends to discuss

where appropriate, to explain the rise and fall of different genres by social and political change. (p. xiv

Soon we come to the subheading:

New Genres of Literature, from Lucilius to Apuleius (p.12)

The Romans, she tell us, claimed to have invented the genre of satire (p.13), of the personal elegy (p.33) and of protest literature (p.117). On the works of Apuleius she writes:

But there was another layer of literary performance, which straddles the thin line between actuality and fiction. . . .  But this single work is a world in itself. This sophisticated and sensational narrative achieved for its age an escape from the limitations of genre, locality, class, or age group that had last been reached by Ovid’s epic of transformation; but the changes from verse to prose, from myth to contemporary fantasy, reflect the new diffusion of Latin literature into a reader’s world as diverse and far flung as the empire itself. — p. 17

Further on we read,

Later generations continued the transfusion of genres  (p. 94).

And returning to an earlier period… read more »

Another example of that bookend structure in ancient literature

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but here’s another instance of that bookend/concentric/ring/chiastic structure that once upon a time a long time ago I thought was evidence of divine inspiration when I saw it in the Bible. I posted an example from Suetonius recently. This one is from Josephus and his book Antiquities of the Jews. It is set out and discussed by Steve Mason in his commentary on Josephus’s Life. Life has a structure that mirrors the Antiquities, Mason shows. So without the details that he mentions to fill in much that is generalized here, here is the structure of Antiquities.

Prologue (1.1-26)

PART I: First Temple {Ant. 1-10)

A. The Lawgiver’s Establishment of the Constitution (1-4)

Antecedents: Creation to the deaths of Isaac and Rebecca; Abraham the first convert (vol. 1)—in Mesopotamia

Antecedents: Jacob and Esau to the Exodus (vol. 2)

The Judean constitution: summary of priestly laws (vol. 3)

Forty years in desert, rebellion to the death of Moses; summary of the law as constitution (vol. 4)

B. First Phase: senate, kings, and high priests of Eli’s descent (5-8)

Conquest of Canaan under Joshua (vol. 5)

Conflicts with Philistines under Samuel and Saul (vol. 6)

Zenith of the first monarchy: the reign of David (vol. 7)

The reign of Solomon and division of the kingdom (vol. 8)

C. Second Phase: decline through corruption of the constitution (9-10)

Problems with neighbors to the fall of the Northern Kingdom (vol. 9)

CENTRAL PANEL: Fall of the first Temple; the priest-prophet Jeremiah and prophet Daniel assert the Judean God’s control of affairs and predict the Roman era. Decisive proof of the Judean code’s effectiveness.

PART II: Second Temple {Ant. 11-20)

A. Re-establishment of the aristocracy through the glorious Hasmonean house; its decline (11-13)

Return of Jews under Cyrus to Alexander the Great (vol. 11)

Successful interaction with the Ptolemaic world from the death of Alexander; translation of the LXX; Tobiad story; the Hasmonean revolt (vol. 12)

Zenith of the Hasmonean dynasty with John Hyrcanus; monarchy and decline to the death of Alexandra (vol. 13)

B. Monarchy writ large: Herod (14-17)

The end of the Hasmoneans; Roman intervention in Judea; Herod’s rise to power; benefits to the Judeans (vol. 14)

Herod’s conquest of Jerusalem; building projects and dedication of Temple (vol. 15)

Herod at the peak of his power; his domestic conflicts (vol. 16)

The end of Herod’s life; his son Archelaus (vol. 17)

C. World-wide effectiveness of the Judean constitution (18-20)

Judea becomes a province; Judeans in Rome; Roman rule to Agrippa I; Herod’s descendants; Gaius’ plan fails and he is punished; Asinaeus and Anilaeus in Babylonia (vol. 18);

Detailed description of Gaius’ punishment; promotion of Claudius; career of Agrippa I; the Roman constitutional crisis; Judeans in Alexandria (vol. 19)

From the death of Agrippa I to the eve of the revolt; the conversion of Adiabene’s royal house in Mesopotamia; causes of the revolt; concluding remarks (vol. 20)

Epilogue (20.259-68)


Mason, Steve. 2001. Flavius Josephus: Translation and Commentary, Volume 9: Life of Josephus. Leiden: Brill. p. xxiv


It works for Esther. Why not for Jesus?

Esther before Ahasuerus: Tintoretto

One of the most frequently asked questions about the Book of Esther is: Are the events recounted in it true? In other words, is the book historically accurate? Arguing against the book’s historicity is the fact that many things in the story conflict with our knowledge about Persian history or are too fantastic to be believable. The following points are among the most obvious.

  • We know of no Persian queen named Esther, or any Jewish queen of Persia, and we would not expect there to have been one. Queens came from the noble Persian families, not from ethnic minorities. Moreover, real kings don’t choose queens from beauty contests. In fact, Esther enters the story more like a concubine, and only later emerges as a dignified queen. In contrast, Vashti, who was presumably a queen of proper ancestry and clearly in a high position at court, is treated like a concubine by Ahasuerus.
  • While Ahasuerus has been equated with Xerxes, no Persian king acted or would act the way Ahasuerus did. He is a king who cannot make the smallest decision without legal consultation, and leaves the big decisions to others altogether. Any resemblance to a real Persian king is purely coincidental.
  • To govern a country in which a law could never be changed would make governing impossible.1
  • A decree to annihilate the Jews is least at home in ancient Persia, an empire that is thought to have been relatively benevolent to the various ethnic groups within it, and is portrayed positively elsewhere in the Bible.
  • This is the empire that permitted the Jews to return to Judah and rebuild the Temple, of which there is not a word in Esther.
  • The plot hangs on at least one particular hook that goes against all logic but which is crucial to the story: that Esther could keep her Jewish identity hidden while all the world knew that she was related to Mordecai and all the world knew that Mordecai was a Jew.

In contrast, those who defend the book’s historicity point to the authentic information about the Persian court and its many customs and institutions, and the use of a number of Persian terms. But it is not simply a matter of weighing one side’s proofs against the other side’s, for, when we look carefully at the points for and against historicity, it turns out that the historically authentic material is in the background and setting, while the main characters and the important elements in the plot are much farther removed from reality. If this were a modern work, we would call it a historical novel, or historical fiction. While those terms may not be appropriate for the Bible, we can certainly recognize Esther as a form of imaginative storytelling, not unlike Jonah and Daniel, or Judith and Tobit in the Apocrypha. In fact, such storytelling was common in the Persian and Hellenistic periods, and even Greek historians such as Herodotus, whose writings are given more credibility as history, include imaginative tales in their works. The distinction between history and story, which is such an important issue for us, would not have engaged readers in the Persian period in the same way it does us. To the ancient reader an imaginative story was just as worthy, or even as holy, as a historically accurate one, so to declare Esther to be imaginative does not in any way detract from its value; The message of the Book of Esther and the significance of Purim remain the same whether or not the events of the book were actual.

Berlin, Adele. n.d. Esther = [Ester]: The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2001. pp. xvi-xvii

Of course in the gospels some of the “too fantastic to be believable” points have been written out and replaced by scholarly inventions. The most obvious example is that Jesus in the gospels was crucified for no good reason (except for being very good and being the messiah); so the gospel truth is replaced by the more plausible notion that Jesus must have been crucified for as a political rebel.

Pilate acts as unhistorically as does Ahasuerus.

But then again …. you never know. I mean, how else can you explain the existence of the Jews today if Esther was not historical? Why would anyone make it up? How else do you explain Purim? Maybe it was historical after all…. ?? (tongue is wedged deep into cheek)

 

 

The Classical and Biblical Canons — & the importance of identifying authors

Sarcophagus of the Muses

The ancient community of scholars attached to the Alexandrian Museum had a “religious character” since it was headed by a royally appointed priest and devoted to the service of the goddesses known as the Muses. This community produced the classical canon consisting of Homer, Hesiod, nine lyric poets, various playwrights and philosophers. Another collection of divinely inspired texts followed.

What is noteworthy about this development of the classics or “canon” of Greek literature is the way in which it anticipates the similar development of the “canon” of the Hebrew Bible. It begins with Homer as the undisputed authoritative “canonical” work for all Greeks in the same way that the Pentateuch became the most important work for the Jews. To Homer and Hesiod, the great epics, the Alexandrians added other categories and works, but none drawn from their own time. They were all the great works of a past era. For the most part, the works were accepted as those of the first rank, without dispute, not only within the Hellenistic world, but especially by the Roman literati as well. . . . . 

One important aspect of the so-called Alexandrian canon is the fact that it comprises lists of persons, epic and lyric poets, orators, historians, philosophers, and so on, along with their genuine written works and excluding the works that were spuriously attributed to them. Canonicity therefore entailed known authorship.

Now a problem with most biblical literature is that it is anonymous. Yet it is precisely this impulse to follow the Hellenistic practice of creating an exclusive “canon,” a list of the classics of biblical literature that also came from the age of inspiration, that leads to the impulse to ascribe all of the works within this inspired corpus to individual authors: Moses, Joshua, Samuel, David, Solomon, and so on. Indeed, it is this notion of authorship that accounts, more than anything else, for the inclusion of some works, such as Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes, into this fixed corpus.

Furthermore, there can be no canon, whether classical or biblical, without known authors, because anonymous works were undatable in antiquity; and if they could not be attributed to “inspired” persons from the age of inspiration, they had to be excluded. It may also be noted that most pseudepigraphic works were specifically attributed to “canonical” authors or the notables who belonged to that ancient period.

(John Van Seters, The Edited Bible, pp. 40-41 — bolding and formatting mine. Italics original.)

Reading an ancient historical narrative: two fundamental principles

It is a naive mistake to approach every ancient narrative that purports to be about past events on the assumption that we can take it at its word — unless and until proven wrong.  Even the famous “father of history”, the Greek “historian” Herodotus, turned fables into history. The Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) does the same. If we are to understand how to interpret the New Testament literature we might find it useful to study ancient Hellenistic literature in general. Knowing how ancient authors worked across a wide spectrum of genres in the cultural milieu preceding and surrounding the time of the Gospels might lead to an understanding otherwise lost to us. If nothing else, a broad understanding of how ancient texts “worked” will alert us to possibilities that need to be considered and evaluated when we do read the Gospels.

I focus in this post on Herodotus and draw out lessons from modern critical studies that might profit us in reading the Gospels and Acts, perhaps even the New Testament epistles.

In school I learned that Herodotus was “a credulous collector of anecdotal data”. That was wrong. That perception was the result of taking his writings at face-value and making modern-reader judgments about that face-value reading. That’s not good enough and leaves the door open to many misreadings of the text. read more »

The Popularity of Resurrection

Golden plaques representing the resurrection o...
Image via Wikipedia

I’d love to have the time to cite links and sources for each of the following. Maybe I can catch up with doing that in the future. But for now I like at least the idea of a bare list the examples of resurrection belief and hope in the ancient world as discussed by Richard Carrier in Not the Impossible Faith.

This post should be seen as part of a set of other posts I have done in the past:

Popular novels and the gospels

Another empty tomb tale

Resurrection reversal

Dog resurrection

Two Greek historians of the 4th century BC, Theopompus and Eudemus of Rhodes, described the Persian Zoroastrian religious belief that “men will be resurrected and become immortal”. This religion — with its belief in resurrection to physical immortality — was still the dominant religion of the Persian empire throughout the Roman period.

Herodotus records the Thracians believed in a physical resurrection of Zalmoxis. The link is to the Wikipedia article where you can read about the religious cult that grew around this resurrected Zalmoxis, a cult that promised eternal paradise for believers (Carrier cites here the attestation of this in Plato’s Charmides, 156d).

Herodotus also reports the belief in the resurrection of Aristeas of Proconnesus. Again the link is to a Wikipedia quotation from Herodotus.

“Lucian records that the pagan Antigonus had told him: “I know a man who came to life more than twenty days after his burial, having attended the fellow both before his death and after he cam to life.” (Carrier, p.86)

Celsus listed name of those whom many pagans believed to have been resurrected: read more »

Literary criticism, a key to historical enquiry (Nehemiah case study)

It is indeed usual for practitioners of biblical literary criticism to insist that the literary must precede the historical, that we must understand the nature of our texts as literary works before we attempt to use them for historical reconstruction. (From David J. A. Clines, What Does Eve Do to Help? 1990. p. 163, my emphasis)

Clines further remarks that sometimes the very process of asking literary questions can itself lead to the raising — and even the answering — of historical questions. His case study is the Book of Nehemiah.

Clines tests the reliability of Nehemiah on four areas:

  1. narrative about Nehemiah’s own mind, intentions, feelings, motivations
  2. narrative about the minds of other characters, their intentions, feelings, motivations
  3. matters of time, sequence, narrative compression, and reticence
  4. evidence of a romantic imagination at work.

This post looks at Cline’s analysis of the first of these. read more »

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):

Herodotus

  • 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

Thucydides

  • 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.

Ancient prologues: Conventions and an oddity of the Acts preface

Since my previous post on looking at the preface to Acts in the context of contemporary prefaces, I have added a new section in that same post on the conventions of those prefaces. I have included it separately again here below.

I have also added the most obvious omission in my previous post, the preface of Acts itself. It is interesting to compare it with other prefaces to histories, and note not only Cadbury’s comments on where it fails to meet expected conventional standards, but also to observe the remarkable failure of the author to declare the purpose or contents of the work it is introducing. (Cadbury raises the possibility that the original preface may have been tampered with in order to account for this failure to match expected convention.) read more »

The literary genre of Acts. 1: Ancient Prologues

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.

read more »