Tag Archives: Genre of the Gospels

How the Author of Acts Rewrote Stories from Luke

As we discussed several months ago, Michael Licona wrote a book about the differences in the gospels in which he tries to explain them away by comparing the evangelists to Plutarch. However, his attempt was stillborn, since his methodology contains a deadly flaw. He proposes that by examining how Plutarch changed stories as he recounted them in different Lives, we can gain some insight as to how the author of Luke, for example, edited Marcan stories.

In the latter case, of course, we can see only how Luke dealt with one of his sources. In the former, we discover how Plutarch rewrote himself. These are two different things. But before we toss Licona’s book aside, let’s consider how we might apply his methodology correctly. Is there any place in the New Testament in which an author created a second work and plainly rewrote one or more stories in a way that might resemble Plutarch’s process?

Resuscitation Redux

Peter: “Tabitha, arise!”

Yes. In the Acts of the Apostles, the author (whom most scholars believe is the same person as the author of Luke) recycled stories told about Jesus and applied them to Peter. You probably already noticed long ago that Jesus raised a young girl (Mark provides the Aramaic talitha) in Luke 8:40-56, while Peter raised a female disciple named Tabitha (Aramaic for antelope or gazelle) in Acts 9:36-42. And no doubt you thought to yourself, “That sounds familiar.”

The author (we’ll call him Luke for the sake of convenience) has left other clues that we’re reading the same story, albeit with different characters set in a different locale. By examining the Greek text, we can discover textual affinities between the two stories.

Acts 9:36  Now there was in Joppa a disciple named Tabitha, which, translated, means Dorcas. She was full of good works and acts of charity. (NASB)

Acts places several important events in Joppa, because historically this town acted as the port city for Jerusalem. Legend has it that the cedars of Lebanon floated via the sea to Joppa, and then were shipped overland to Jerusalem. Joppa is the physical and metaphorical gateway from Judea to the Greco-Roman world.

Luke tells us Peter learned all animals are now clean while visiting Simon the Tanner in Joppa. This fable seeks to explain the change from a faction based in Judaism, with its understanding of what is ritually unclean to God (pork, blood, foreskins, etc.), to something new — a splinter cult on the path to a separate religion that fell back on the so-called Noahide Covenantread more »

How Ehrman’s Gospel “Truth” Gives a Pass to Trump’s “Truth” of Fake Videos

“Whether it’s a real video, the threat is real,” Sanders told reporters. “[Trump’s] goal is to promote strong border security and strong national security.” (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

At least one of the videos was later described as “fake” by a Dutch news outlet. Sanders said that didn’t matter. “Whether it’s a real video, the threat is real,” Sanders told reporters. “[Trump’s] goal is to promote strong border security and strong national security.”Sanders continued, criticizing reporters for pressing her on whether Trump should verify the content of videos before sharing them with his 43 million followers on Twitter.“I’m not talking about the nature of the video. I think you’re focusing on the wrong thing,” she said. “The threat is real, and that’s what the president is talking about.” (Gabby Morrongellio, Sarah Sanders defends Trump’s anti-Muslim tweets: ‘Whether it’s a real video, the threat is real’ in The Washington Examiner, Nov 29, 2017)

I’ve heard something like that before.

Think . . . .

Yes, that’s right, I remember now. That’s the logic used by scholars who attempt to defend the “fake” stories in the gospels as being somehow “true”.

Bart Ehrman earlier this year wrote about True Stories That Did Not Happen and reminded his readers of what he wrote nearly twenty years ago:

There are stories in the Gospels that did not happen historically as narrated, but that are meant to convey a truth. . . . But the notion that the Gospel accounts are not 100 percent accurate, while still important for the religious truths they try to convey, is widely shared in the scholarly guild . . . .

Can there be such a thing as a true story that didn’t happen? We certainly don’t normally talk that way: if we say that something is a “true story,” we mean that it’s something that happened. But actually, that itself is a funny way of putting it. . . . 

In fact, almost all of us realize this when we think about it. Just about everyone I’ve ever known was told at some point during grade school the story of George Washington and the cherry tree. As a young boy, George takes the ax to his father’s tree. When his father comes home, he demands, “Who cut down my cherry tree,” and young George, who is a bit inclined toward mischief but does turn out to be an honest lad, replies, “I cannot tell a lie; I did it.”

As it turns out (to the chagrin of some of my students!), this story never happened. We know this for a fact, because the person who fabricated it — a fellow called Parson Weems — later fessed up to the deed. But if the story didn’t happen, why do we continue to tell it? Because on some level, or possibly on a number of levels, we think it’s true.

On the one hand, the story has always served, though many people possibly never realized it, as a nice piece of national propaganda. . . . The United States is founded on honesty. It cannot tell a lie. . . . 

On the other hand . . . the story functions to convey an important lesson in personal morality. People shouldn’t lie. . . . . And so I myself have told the story and believed it, even though I don’t think it ever happened.

The Gospels of the New Testament contain stories kind of like that, stories that may convey truths, at least in the minds of those who told them, but that are not historically accurate. (Ehrman, B. D. (1999). Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. Oxford University Press. pp. 30-31)

More recently, in Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior (2016) Erhman goes so far as to describe historical truth in the sense of factual truth as a matter of “dry, banal, and frankly rather uninteresting to anyone except people with rather peculiar antiquarian interests” in “brute facts“. (p. 229)

Same with the ugly stories of Judas. read more »

The Enigma of Genre and The Gospel of John

In an earlier post, I wrote:

Seen from the perspective of believers, the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of John are disconcertingly different. On the other hand, if we clear our minds of the anxiety of historicity, we see that Mark and John resemble one another much more than they do any “other” Greco-Roman biography.

Notice that both gospels don’t begin with the birth of the subject (Jesus) or even vignettes from his childhood. Instead, they start with John the Baptist. In fact, both John and Mark have the Baptist utter the very first words of direct speech.

Charles Harold Dodd

The fact that John’s pattern for writing a gospel — what the Germans refer to as Gattung — seems suspiciously similar to Mark’s pattern did not escape Charles H. Talbert’s notice. In What Is a Gospel? he wrote:

The heritage of the last generation’s research, as enshrined in the commentaries on the Fourth Gospel by C. H. Dodd and Rudolf Bultmann, has supplied us with the working hypothesis that John and the Synoptics are independent of one another. James M. Robinson has seen that this hypothesis poses the problem of explaining how the same Gattung could emerge independently in two different trajectories, the synoptic and the Johannine.

If, as is usually supposed, Mark was the creator of the literary genre gospel and if John was independent of Mark, where did the fourth Evangelist get his pattern? (Talbert 1986, p. 9-10, bold emphasis mine)

Mark’s Pattern

The consensus among NT scholars for over a century has held that sayings of and stories about Jesus floated freely, first as oral history — kept alive through telling and retelling by his disciples — then as oral tradition, and finally as written gospels. But those first “gospels” were, so the reasoning goes, more or less freeform collections. Not until Mark did we at last see the first narrative gospel, which integrated the stories, sayings, and parables, laid out structurally as a journey along the path from Galilee to Jerusalem, with a tacked-on, pre-existing Passion Narrative.

[James M. Robinson] states that “the view that one distinctive Gattung Gospel emerged sui generis from the uniqueness of Christianity seems hardly tenable.” [Robinson (Trajectories) p. 235, 1971] The emergence of Mark and John independently points to the necessity for a reexamination of the question of the genre of the canonical gospels. (Talbert 1986, p. 10)

Wow. Can you believe Bultmann had the nerve to insist that the author of the Fourth Gospel had no knowledge at all of Mark’s gospel and failed to realize that John’s independent invention of a supposedly unique Gattung strains credulity?  read more »

Jesus at Thirty: Four Canonical Portraits (Evolution of the Gospels as Biographies, 3)

Tomas Hägg

Tomas Hägg (The Art of Biography in Antiquity) rightly notes that the four canonical gospels give us “four distinctive, if overlapping literary representations of Jesus.”

Yet comparatively little seems to have been written from a literary point of view to define by what means of characterization these four portraits emerge, and what the main characteristics are of each of them…. In spite of recent advances in the study of characterization in the New Testament, the general tendency seems to be to shun the figure(s) of Jesus himself and to focus on Paul, Peter, Judas, or lesser characters in the stories. In Bible commentaries one sometimes meets short, tantalizing characterizations, but nowhere (to my knowledge) any sustained comparative analysis. (p. 180)

Tomas Hägg explains that his discussion is intended to offer “just a few hints of possible approaches” to the character study of Jesus across the four gospels, “no full portraits.”

He begins by noting two “rather different” character interpretations of the Jesus in the Gospel of Mark:

To Joel Marcus, the Jesus in the Gospel of Mark is

  • dynamic
  • abrasive
  • intensely emotional, “a passionate instrument for the advent of the dominion of God”

To Richard Burridge, on the other hand, the Markan Jesus is

  • enigmatic and secretive
  • rushing around doing things “immediately”
  • a miracle worker, yet one who talks about suffering and dies terribly alone and forsaken

Burridge then discusses Matthew’s Jesus but without mentioning a single “actual character trait”: Jesus is a “new Moses”, but no particular personality or character is addressed. Next, for Burridge, is the Lukan Jesus who cares for the outcasts, the lost, the Gentiles, the women, the poor.

From Mark, then, we get the temperament; from Matthew, the theology; from Luke, the ethics — no contrasting portraits, just different angles. (p. 181)

Where the difficulty evidently lies

The evangelists do not offer any direct characterization of Jesus. This is not what we normally find in other biographies. Biographers are generally only too keen to use adjectives to describe their subject, to tell us the sort of person he (how many ancient biographies are there of women?) was. In the case of the gospels, however, read more »

Evolution of the Gospels as Biographies, 2

The previous post on this topic ended with the following:

The first genuinely biographical detail of Jesus arrives when Jesus is twelve years old facing the wise men in the Temple. We learn about the parents’ very natural and everyday concerns and the “adolescent arrogance” of Jesus, his separation from this world, his first signs of superior wisdom, and his return to “the expected filial obedience”.

This is the kind of characterizing anecdote that every biographer wishes for, a child demonstrating extraordinary gifts and a behaviour that anticipates his grown-up persona. It is, however, the only one told about the young Jesus in the canonical gospels. (p. 171)

It’s not much, only two childhood episodes to occupy thirty years. But that’s the start.

Hägg turns to examine how two “apocryphal” gospels picked up on Luke’s beginning. . . .

Tomas Hägg (The Art of Biography in Antiquity) then relates an observation that is worth pausing over:

All four evangelists proceed in continuous narrative from baptism to death and resurrection, each giving his own picture of Jesus’ public life within a common framework . . . . Paradoxically, their alternative accounts of Jesus, composed within the short span of some thirty years, thus came to be offered between the same covers, probably a unique biographical situation. (p. 172, my bolding in all quotations)

It seems we really do need to keep in mind that the gospels really are not like other biographies, that there is indeed something, or a number of things, “unique” about them. read more »

Evolution of the Gospels as Biographies, 1

Before putting aside for a while Tomas Hägg’s The Art of Biography in Antiquity I must address his chapter on the canonical gospels. It’s most interesting to have a set of non-theological eyes from an outside field (classics) examine their literary art as “ancient biographies” while nonetheless engaging with what biblical scholars have learned.

I have said several times that I have a problem thinking of at least the first written canonical gospel, the Gospel of Mark, as being “about Jesus” as a person, which is to say a “biography of Jesus”. My point is that Mark (as I’ll call the gospel’s author) presents us with a Jesus who is little/no more than a theological mouthpiece and actant, teaching, symbolizing and representing theological principles — a theological cipher — rather than as a “genuine person” of interest as a personality and human character. (I suspect that this symbolic nature of Jesus is the reason he can be embraced by such wildly diverse interest groups, even faiths, throughout history and today.)

Hägg on Burridge’s study:

[I]t turns out that there is a great diversity within each of the two groups, the four gospels and the ten ancient biographies; and it is this very diversity … that makes it possible always to find a parallel in one or several of the ten Loves for each feature occurring in one or more of the gospels. What is proven is that the investigated features of the gospels are not unique in ancient biographical literature; but no control group is established to show which features may be regarded as significantly typical of this literature, in contrast to the biographical writings of other times or cultures.” (p. 154)

But as Hägg himself points out, whether or not we define a gospel as a biography really comes down to how we define the term biography.

[M]ost discussions of the generic question are dependent on how one defines ‘biography’. (p. 152)

Works of the type of Burridge and Frickenschmidt are important, not for ‘proving’ that the gospels ‘are’ biographies — that remains a matter of definition, no more and no less — but for studying them as literature in context. (p. 155)

Fair enough. Hägg himself discusses the gospels as ancient biographies. Even so, I find his conclusion striking, and in some ways supportive of my own view: in discussing one scholar’s observation that the Jesus in the Gospel of John may speak about love but actually demonstrates very little of it in his own relationships with those close to him, Hägg writes:

The observation is pertinent, but the apparent coolness may rather be attributed to the ascetic narrative style that dominates all four gospels, as soon as it comes to the description of persons and their character traits, not to speak of their physical appearance, physiognomy as well as facial expressions. That the protagonist himself is no exception in this respect reduces markedly the gospels’ character of biographies, even by ancient standards.105 (p. 185, my bolding in all quotations)

Amen. But what does footnote 105 say?

105 Burridge 2004 passim (seen Index s.v. ‘characterization, methods of’), in his insistence that the gospels are close to Graeco-Roman bioi in all respects, misses the nuances; the gospels are rather extreme in this respect. 

Amen again.

One of the chapter’s epigraphs is interesting:

‘Jesus: A Biography’ is always an oxymoron.

Harold Bloom

Tomas Hägg’s chapter “What were the gospels?” does

not set out to prove anything about their ‘proper’ classification; [his] object is simply to read them as biographies. (p. 155)

His focus is

to trace the gradual ‘biographizing’ of the Christian message. 

read more »

What’s the Difference Between a History and a Biography?

Plutarch

Plutarch

Because so many NT scholars desperately want the gospels to be both Greco-Roman biographies and reliable histories, we could almost forget that these two forms of literature are not the same. You don’t have to take my word for it. Here’s what Plutarch said:

It being my purpose to write the lives of Alexander the king, and of Caesar, by whom Pompey was destroyed, the multitude of their great actions affords so large a field that I were to blame if I should not by way of apology forewarn my reader that I have chosen rather to epitomize the most celebrated parts of their story, than to insist at large on every particular circumstance of it. It must be borne in mind that my design is not to write histories, but lives.

And the most glorious exploits do not always furnish us with the clearest discoveries of virtue or vice in men; sometimes a matter of less moment, an expression or a jest, informs us better of their characters and inclinations, than the most famous sieges, the greatest armaments, or the bloodiest battles whatsoever.

Therefore as portrait-painters are more exact in the lines and features of the face, in which the character is seen, than in the other parts of the body, so I must be allowed to give my more particular attention to the marks and indications of the souls of men, and while I endeavour by these to portray their lives, may be free to leave more weighty matters and great battles to be treated of by others. (Plutarch’s Alexander [emphasis and reformatting mine])

We could boil these comments down into the following points. A biography: read more »

One Difference Between a “True” Biography and a Fictional (Gospel?) Biography

With the gospels in mind and thinking of them (for sake of argument) as biographical accounts of Jesus, how can we know if an ancient biography is about a genuinely historical person or if it is about a fictional character?

Let’s leave aside for now the claims of postmodernists who argue that there is no essential difference between histories and novels, between autobiography and fictional works. Enough historians and scholars of literature, at least to my satisfaction, have knocked these arguments down.

Many of us are familiar with the analysis of Richard Burridge that concludes that the gospels are of the same genre as ancient “bioi” (I’ll use the familiar term “biography”). The responses to Burridge’s arguments by Tim and me are collated here.

Before we take up the explanation, let’s look at some extracts from ancient biographers.

Biographer #1

Here is a passage about Socrates by Diogenes Laertius:

It was thought that he [Socrates] helped Euripides to make his plays; hence Mnesimachus writes:

This new play of Euripides is The Phrygians; and
Socrates provides the wood for frying.

And again he calls Euripides “an engine riveted by Socrates.” And Callias in The Captives:

a. Pray why so solemn, why this lofty air?
b. I’ve every right; I’m helped by Socrates.

. . . . . 

According to some authors he was a pupil of Anaxagoras, and also of Damon, as Alexander states in his Successions of Philosophers. When Anaxagoras was condemned, he became a pupil of Archelaus the physicist; Aristoxenus asserts that Archelaus was very fond of him. Duris makes him out to have been a slave and to have been employed on stonework, and the draped figures of the Graces on the Acropolis have by some been attributed to him. . . . . 

He was formidable in public speaking, according to Idomeneus; moreover, as Xenophon tells us, the Thirty forbade him to teach the art of words. And Aristophanes attacks him in his plays for making the worse appear the better reason. For Favorinus in his Miscellaneous History says Socrates and his pupil Aeschines were the first to teach rhetoric; and this is confirmed by Idomeneus in his work on the Socratic circle. . . . .

The significance of the highlighted phrases is that they indicate that the author is writing from the perspective of an outsider attempting to interpret and draw conclusions from and piece together pre-existing sources speaking of the past. The author’s narrative is constrained by the information that has already long been in existence.

Notice especially the caution expressed in the first line: we know that the author is not going to bet his life on the information being true because he tells us that the information is “thought” to be true on the basis of inference from the documents.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that such features in writing are a foolproof indicator of the factualness or genuine historicity of the subject. Obviously such phrases can be invented — and sometimes are invented — for the sake of creating verisimilitude for a fictional narrative. And such a presentation alone does not tell us with complete certainty that the person found in the sources was truly historical.

What we can establish from these literary indicators, however, is that on the face of it the author presents his work as an effort to relay to readers what is purported to be historical; furthermore, the author opens up to readers the means by which they can verify what he writes.

As I wrote in another post recently,

In her book Autobiographical Acts, Bruss formulates a number of interrelated “rules” . . . The rule that applies to this communication process on the author’s side reads:

“Whether or not what is reported can be discredited, . . . the autobiographer purports to believe in what he asserts.”

On the reader’s side, the rule-abiding expectation that the report is true implies a freedom to “check up” on its accuracy by way of appropriate verification procedures. 

In this perspective, the truth claim or autobiography in no sense implies the actual truth of an autobiographer’s statement. (Dorrit Cohn, 1999, The Distinction of Fiction, p. 31, italics original, my formatting)

So it is worthwhile asking why we find no comparable expressions in the earliest gospels, the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. I should say “any of the canonical gospels” since the prologue to Luke and the eyewitness claims in John create special problems that have been discussed in other posts. Moreover, we will see that all four canonical gospels, on the contrary, are replete with perspectives and expressions that indicate fiction.

Biographer #2

read more »

Form Criticism: Modern Scholarship’s Blind Spot

Percival Gardner-Smith

Percival Gardner-Smith

In a recent post, Neil discussed Helen Bond’s paper, “The Reception of Jesus in the Gospel of John.” I can’t find a print version of the paper, but the video released by Biblical Studies Online on my birthday, brings me both pain and pleasure. Pleasure, because I also believe the author of the Fourth Gospel knew and used Mark. (See my series, “How John Used Mark.”) But pain, too, because Bond repeats the same mistaken views about form criticism that continue to dominate modern New Testament studies.

I agree completely with her thesis statement:

I see John as a rewriting of those written texts in light of both the cultural memories of his own group and a very particular set of historical circumstances. There’s no doubt that this gospel is distinctive in many ways, with its view of Jesus as the incarnate Logos, the unique Son of the Father, and the bringer of eternal life. And yet, it seems to me that many of these distinctive features can be seen to derive from a creative reflection on Markan material. (Bond, 0:55, 2016 — Note: In this post all bold emphasis in quotations is mine.)

An extremely slim volume

Further, she correctly observes that most scholars thought John knew and used the Gospel of Mark until the publication of Percival Gardner-Smith’s Saint John & the Synoptic Gospels in 1938. But notice who turns out to be the villain in this story.

So, while the extent of John’s familiarity with Matthew has often been debated, there was almost complete agreement, until the early 20th century, that the evangelist was thoroughly acquainted with Mark and very likely also with Luke. With the emergence of form criticism, however, things began to change. (Bond, 1:52, 2016)

I set those last four words in italics to indicate Bond’s ominous tone, reminiscent of Neil on The Young Ones, telling us that Vyvyan has escaped. She continues: read more »

The Gospels: Written to Look Like (the final) Jewish Scriptures?

4evangelists-smThe genre of the gospels is an important question. Genre is an indication of the author’s intent. Does the author want to make us laugh at human foibles or weep over human tragedy, to escape into an entertaining world of make-believe, to be inspired and instructed by historical or biographical narratives, to mock establishment values, to understand and learn a philosophical idea? Authors choose the appropriate genre: treatise, satire, biography, history, novellas…. or their ancient equivalents.

Sometimes authors combine genres. We see this in the Book of Daniel where long apocalyptic passages suddenly break into the middle of gripping narrative adventure.

Another serious amateur researcher, Ben C. Smith, has posted a detailed argument for the gospels being composed as texts that were meant to complement the Jewish Scriptures in The Genre of the Gospels on the Biblical Criticism & History Forum. It’s an idea I myself have been toying with for some time so I can’t help but be a little biased in favour of his argument.

A common view among scholars today is that the Synoptic Gospels at least (Matthew, Mark and Luke) are a form of ancient biography. Ben Smith begins by taking on this popular notion by setting out the clear and distinctive differences between the Gospels and narratives of ancient lives:

Unlike most ancient “biographies” the Gospels are not reflective writings. They

  • are not written in the first person
  • do not self-consciously reflect upon the character of the main figure
  • do not as a rule reflect upon the kind of book they were writing or on their purposes for writing.

Ben sets out detailed illustrations from about nine ancient Lives with readers urged to take note of this: read more »

Homer in the Gospels: Recent Thoughts

Matthew Ferguson of the Κέλσος blog has posted an interesting discussion on Dennis MacDonald’s defence at the recent Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) conference of his thesis that a significant influence of the Homeric literature can be found in the New Testament writings, especially the Gospel of Mark and Book of Acts.

For those wondering what the status of his views currently are in the mainstream of biblical studies they will find this an interesting read. Some comments:

Not surprisingly, MacDonald’s thesis has had a number of critics, but has also received a good deal of praise. . .

Overall, the general consensus is that some of the parallels that MacDonald identifies are very strong and interesting, while others are weaker and more speculative. But, one thing that was generally agreed upon at the SBL conference is that mimesis criticism is working its way into mainstream biblical criticism. In fact, MacDonald’s mimesis criticism is likewise going to be discussed at the SBL Annual Meeting in Georgia later this year. . . .

The fact that MacDonald’s arguments will be a central part of this year’s annual SBL conference suggests to me that MacDonald’s new methods are, indeed, making headway into mainstream Biblical Studies. I am not sure whether mimesis criticism will necessarily be central to interpreting the majority of passages in the Gospels and Acts, but I do think that it is very applicable to select examples . . . .

Competing with OT influence? read more »

Genre of Gospels, Acts and OT Primary History: INDEX

Genre can be a highly fluid concept. In studies of Gospels I’ve noticed that discussions of genre sometimes overlap with intertextuality. Moreover, we may conclude that an ancient narrative belongs to the genre “history”, but once we learn what “history” could mean to the ancients we quickly move into discussions about the place of fictional tales in such works. Midrash is another concept that easily intrudes into any discussion of the genre of the gospels.

By genre here I mean the general character of a work, whether it be history or biography, prose epic or novella — or at least the rough ancient equivalents of those. Questions of intertextuality (and its sister midrash) I have relegated to techniques of how certain literature was composed regardless of its genre.  Nonetheless I am sure I have succumbed to some blurring of the concept in the list chosen below.

Posts by Tim Widowfield are so indicated. All others are by me.

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Genre of Bible’s Historical Books

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read more »

Why the Gospels Blend History with Fiction

johnson

Sara Johnson

Associate Professor of Classics specializing in Hellenistic Judaism, Sara Johnson, may suggest an answer to the question implicit in this post’s title even though she does not address the Gospels directly. Johnson has a chapter in Ancient Fiction: the Matrix of Early Christian and Jewish Narrative (2005) discussing the way 3 Maccabees was composed to help shape Jewish identity in the Hellenistic world. One way it accomplishes its ideological goal is to blend history and fiction. Historical verisimilitude serves to anchor the Jewish reader to the “historical tradition” of the community, while the infusion of fictional elements ensure the correct message and proper identity are inculcated. A reader such as myself with a strong interest in questions of Gospel origins cannot help but wonder if the Jesus narratives were written for a similar purpose in the same literary tradition.

Sara Johnson’s chapter is “Third Maccabees: Historical Fictions and the Shaping of Jewish Identity in the Hellenistic Period”. 3 Maccabees, if you have not yet read it, is available on the University of Michigan Digital Library site. It’s not too long. It opens with a scene of one of the “great” battles in the Hellenistic era, the battle of Raphia, in which the forces of Ptolemaic Egypt (King Philopater) routed the Syrian army of Antiochus III, 217 BCE. On the eve of the Battle there is an attempt on Philopater’s life but he is saved by a Jew.

Captive Jews in the hippodrome at Alexandria, engraved by Josiah Wood Whymper by Gustave Dore

Captive Jews in the hippodrome at Alexandria, engraved by Josiah Wood Whymper by Gustave Dore

In the euphoria of victory Philopater invites himself into the most sacred area of the Jewish Temple to offer thanks to the divinity. (It is the custom of victorious kings to enter temples that way.) The Jews protest, we we would expect and Ptolemy is prevented by some divine action to from carrying out his plan. He returns to Egypt, enraged, and orders the Jews of Egypt be rounded up and crushed to death by drunken elephants. God maintains the suspense by holding off his several rescue missions to the very last moment, and finally changes Philopater’s mind altogether so that he even tells the world what wonderful and loyal folk all those Jews are. Jews who had apostasized under his pressure are quite rightly slaughtered instead.

The tale is a rich mix of genuine historical details and fables. Historical persons talk with fictional ones. Accurate details of the battle and the preliminary attempt on Philopater’s life are as detailed and accurate as we find in the works of the historian Polybius. The same accuracy is found in the Egyptian’s tour of the cities of Syria and offering of thanksgiving sacrifices in their temples.

This prepares the reader for a tale firmly rooted in the known facts of the past. (p. 86)

But the historical and fictional sit side by side: read more »

Why the Gospels Are Historical Fiction

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A recent book by Jacob Licht, Storytelling in the Bible (Jerusalem, 1978), proposes that the “historical aspect” and the “storytelling” aspect of biblical narrative be thought of as entirely discrete functions that can be neatly peeled apart for inspection — apparently, like the different colored strands of electrical wiring.

This facile separation of the inseparable suggests how little some Bible scholars have thought about the role of literary art in biblical literature. (Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, p. 32)

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By “historical fiction” I mean a fictitious tale, whether it is a theological parable or not, set in a real historical time and place. Authors of “historical fiction” must necessarily include real historical places and real historical persons and events in their narrative or it will be nothing more than “fiction”. Ancient authors are known to have written “historical fiction” as broadly defined as this. We have the Alexander Romance by Heliodorus that is a largely fictitious dramatization of the person and exploits of Alexander the Great. Of more interest for our purposes here is Chariton’s tale of Chaereas and Callirhoe. These are entirely fictitious persons whose adventures take place in world of historical characters who make their own appearances in the novel: the Persian emperor, Artaxerxes II; his wife and Persian queen, Statira; the Syracusan statesman and general of the 410s, Hermocrates. There are allusions to other possible historical persons. Sure there are several anachronisms that found their way into Chariton’s novel. (And there are several historical anachronisms in the Gospels, too.) Chariton even imitated some of the style of the classical historians Herodotus and Thucydides.

In this way Chariton imitates the classical historians in technique, not for the purpose of masquerading as a professional historian, but rather, as Hagg (1987, 197) suggests, to create the “effect of openly mixing fictitious characters and events with historical ones.” (Edmund Cueva, The Myths of Fiction, p. 16)

A word to some critics: This post does not argue that Jesus did not exist or that the there is no historical basis to any of the events they portray. It spoils a post to have to say that, since it ought to be obvious that demonstrating a fictitious nature of a narrative does not at the same time demonstrate that there were no analogous historical events from which that narrative was ultimately derived. What the post does do, however, is suggest that those who do believe in a certain historicity of events found in the gospels should remove the gospels themselves as evidence for their hypothesis. But that is all by the by and a discussion for another time. Surely there is value in seeking to understand the nature of one of our culture’s foundational texts for its own sake, and to help understand the nature of the origins of culture’s faiths.

Cover of "The Art Of Biblical Narrative"

Cover of The Art Of Biblical Narrative

This post is inspired by Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative. Alter believes that the reason literary studies of the Bible were relatively neglected for so long is because of the cultural status of the Bible as a “holy book”, the source of divine revelation, of our faith. It seems gratuitously intrusive or simply quite irrelevant to examine the literary structure of a sacred book. So the main interest of those who study it has been theology. I would add that, given the Judaic and Christian religions of the Bible claim to be grounded in historical events, the relation of the Bible’s narratives to history has also been of major interest.

But surely the first rule of any historical study is to understand the nature of the source documents at hand. That means, surely, that the first thing we need to do with a literary source is to analyse it see what sort of literary composition it is. And as with any human creation, we know that the way something appears on the surface has the potential to conceal what lies beneath.

Only after we have established the nature of our literary source are we in a position to know what sorts of questions we can reasonably apply to it. Historians interested in historical events cannot turn to Heliodorus to learn more biographical data about Alexander the Great, nor can they turn to Chariton to fill in gaps in their knowledge about Artaxerxes II and Statira, because literary analysis confirms that these are works of (historical) fiction.

Some will ask, “Is it not possible that even a work of clever literary artifice was inspired by oral or other reports of genuine historical events, and that the author has happily found a way to narrate genuine history with literary artistry?”

The answer to that is, logically, Yes. It is possible. But then we need to recall our childhood days when we would so deeply wish a bed-time fairy story, or simply a good children’s novel, to have been true. When we were children we thought as children but now we put away childish things. If we do have at hand, as a result of our literary analysis, an obvious and immediate explanation for every action, for every speech, and for the artistry of the way these are woven into the narrative, do we still want more? Do we want to believe in something beyond the immediate reality of the literary artistry we see before our eyes? Is Occam’s razor not enough?

If we want history, we need to look for the evidence of history in a narrative that is clearly, again as a result of our analysis, capable of yielding historical information. Literary analysis helps us to discern the difference between historical fiction and history that sometimes contains fictional elements. Or maybe we would expect divine history to be told with the literary artifice that otherwise serves the goals and nature of fiction, even ancient fiction.

The beginning of the (hi)story

The great Latin poet, Virgil, holding a volume...

The Latin poet, Virgil, holding a volume on which is written the Aeneid. On either side stand the two muses: “Clio” (history) and “Melpomene” (tragedy). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Take the beginning of The Gospel According to St. Mark. Despite the title there is nothing in the text itself to tell us who the author was. This is most unlike most ancient works of history. Usually the historian is keen to introduce himself from the start in order to establish his credibility with his readers. He wants readers to know who he is and why they should believe his ensuing narrative. The ancient historian normally explains from the outset how he comes to know his stuff. What are his sources, even if in a generalized way. The whole point is to give readers a reason to read his work and take it as an authoritative contribution to the topic.

The Gospel of Mark does indeed begin by giving readers a reason to believe in the historicity of what follows, but it is has more in common with an ancient poet’s prayer to the Muses calling for inspiration and divinely revealed knowledge of the past than it does with the ancient historian’s reasons.

As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger . . . .

That’s the reason the reader knows what follows is true. It was foretold in the prophets. What need we of further witnesses?

Yes, some ancient historians did from time to time refer to a belief among some peoples in an oracle. But I can’t off hand recall any who claimed the oracle was the source or authority of their narrative. I have read, however, several ancient novels where divine prophecies are an integral part of the narrative and do indeed drive the plot. Events happen because a divine prophecy foretold them. That’s what we are reading in Mark’s Gospel here from the outset, not unlike the ancient novel by Xenophon of Ephesus, The Ephesian Tale, in which the plot begins with and is driven by an oracle of Apollo.

Note, too, how the two lead characters in the opening verses are introduced. read more »