Tag Archives: Genre of the Gospels

Review, pt 1d: How the Gospels Became History / Litwa (Gospels as Mythic Historiography)

I have been slow posting with the first few pages of M. David Litwa’s How the Gospels Became History but I hope the time I’ve taken with the foundations (see various recent posts on ancient historians) will pay off when I get into the main argument. A reason I have taken a detour with readings of ancient Greco-Roman historians is the difficulty I have had with some of Litwa’s explanations in his introductory chapter. Was I reading contradictions or was I simply not understanding? I’m still not entirely sure so I’ll leave you to think it through.

Litwa will set out a case that educated non-Christians would have read the gospels as a certain type of history:

I propose that educated non-Christian readers in the Greco-Roman world would have viewed the gospels as something like mythical historiographiesrecords of actually occurring events that nonetheless included fantastical elements. . . . There was at the time an independent interest in the literature of paradoxography, or wonder tales.67 Literature that recounted unusual events especially about eastern sages would not have been automatically rejected as unhistorical.

Even as the evangelists recounted the awe-inspiring wonders of their hero, they managed to keep their stories within the flexible bounds of historiography. They were thus able to provide the best of both worlds: an entertaining narrative that, for all its marvels, still appeared to be a record of actual events. In other words, even as the evangelists preserved fantastical elements (to mythödes) in their narratives, they maintained a kind of baseline plausibility to gesture toward the cultured readers of their time.

67 – the citation is to mid-second century records

(Litwa, 12. Bolding and formatting are mine in all quotations)

I interpret this particular comment to mean that the gospel narratives were similar to other historical writings of the time insofar as they sprinkled a tale of “normal” (i.e. plausible) human activities with stories of miracles and wonders. That is, the main (“normal”, “plausible”) narrative (represented by green blocks) flows independently of the sporadic wonder tales (purple with sun disc). The wonder tales add entertainment but the story itself does not depend on them. They can be omitted without any damage to the main narrative.

Examples in Greco-Roman histories: where an author inserts a tale that “they say” but leaves it open to the reader whether to believe it or not. For some examples, see The Relationship between Myth and History among Ancient Authors. Usually the “wonder story” is only loosely integrated into the larger realistic account by rhetorical devices such as “they say” or “there is a story that” or “poets have written” or “a less realistic account that is well known…” etcetera.

Examples in noncanonical gospels: Jesus being “born” by suddenly appearing beside Mary after a two-month pregnancy (Ascension of Isaiah); Jesus causing clay pigeons to come alive (Infancy Gospel of Thomas). . . . Tales of wonder that entertain as interludes rather than drive the plot.

In the canonical gospels, on the other hand, miracles are an essential part of the respective plots. To see how true this is, try reading the Gospel of Mark after first deleting or covering up the episodes of the miraculous, the divine or spirit world, mind-reading, and other supernatural inferences. One is left with a story that makes no sense. Was it because of an argument over unwashed hands that Jesus was crucified, for example? In the canonical gospels, the miracles are essential to the plot development: they are what bring notoriety to Jesus and identify him as the one whom the priests must, through jealousy, get rid of. The gospel narratives simply don’t work as stories without Jesus’ ability to perform miracles and demonstrate (though he is not obviously recognized as such by the human actors) his divine nature. The Greco-Roman histories would lose some entertainment value by omitting certain miracles but their fundamental narratives would still survive.

The tales of wonder in the gospels are (1) rich with theological meaning (e.g. feeding multitudes in the wilderness represents a “greater Moses” or shepherd role of Jesus) and (2) integral to the plot (e.g. the miracles set in train the events that lead to the atoning death of Jesus).

Hence I find Litwa’s thesis difficult to accept in the light of what we know of Greco-Roman histories. In the gospels, the tales of wonder themselves must be understood as the historical events, essential to the historical narrative, not optional entertainment along the way. There are not “two worlds” in the gospels, mundane and wonders, but one world in which the wonders are as essentially historical as the preaching and the debates.

A Better Comparison?

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Review, pt 1c: How the Gospels Became History / Litwa (Looking like history?)

Continuing from part 1b …

M. David Litwa’s opening chapter of How the Gospels Became History is an overview of ancient history-writing looked like, including its frequent allowance of myth, and how the canonical gospels fit in with this type of literature. So far we have been moving slowly as we take note of what ancient writers themselves said about the connection between history and myth, truth and fiction, with the implication that the gospels are part and parcel of the world of ancient historiography.

Not all scholars have agreed and Litwa takes up the challenge of Richard C. Miller who argues that the gospels are far removed from the genre of Greco-Roman history. I’ll quote a little more of Miller’s argument that does Litwa:

[T]he panoply of early Christian gospel texts appears more or less disinterested in conforming to any particular narrative of Christian origins and instead exhibits an all-but-whimsical freedom, an astonishing prose creativity in depiction and variance in the telling and ordering of scenes. Of the hundreds of Christian works that survive from the first three centuries of the Common Era, no reliable histories exist aside perhaps from fragments of the five books of Papias. Of these hundreds, setting aside the various epistles and apologies, thus focusing on the narratives, we find a single unifying feature: the early Christian narratives were all fictive in modality. Whether one considers the collection of early Christian gospels, the various apostolic acta, the assortment of apocalypses, or the burgeoning stock of hagiographa, until Eusebius’s fourth-century Historia Ecclesiastica, itself a myth of Christian origins, though intended to be read as a history, one encounters nothing deserving of the genus “historiography”; one finds only legends, myths, folktales, and novelistic fictions. Albeit, considering the characteristic gravitas of these texts, one would be mistaken to dismiss them merely as works of aesthetic entertainment. As all of these works exclude the requisite signals distinguishing ancient works of historiography, that is,

  • no visible weighing of sources,
  • no apology for the all-too-common occurrence of the supernatural,
  • no endeavor to distinguish such accounts and conventions from analogous fictive narratives in classical literature (including the frequent mimetic use of Homer, Euripides, and other canonized fictions of classical antiquity),
  • no transparent sense of authorship (or even readership) or origin,

the ecclesiastical distinction endeavored by Irenaeus of Lyons et alii to segregate and signify some such works as canonical, reliable histories appears wholly political and arbitrary.

(Miller, p. 133. Bolded highlighting and dot point formatting is mine in all quotations)

I have reservations about Litwa’s attempt to meld the gospels into the same apparel as ancient historiography. My understanding and recollection are that as a rule, Greco-Roman historians introduced their tales of the miraculous with “apologies” of sorts. They would comment that the tale was “what was reported” by others, or express some sympathy with readers/auditors if they found the tale hard to believe, and so forth. Only in biblical narratives (and satirical put-downs of hack Greco-Roman historians) do we find a prose history-like narrative that declares the miraculous as fact without any hint of self-conscious possibility of doubt by the author. I will present another post with examples to illustrate.

As for the evangelists being careful selectors of their material I suggest that Litwa is relying more upon conventional assumptions and interpretations than clear evidence to that effect. See, for example, various posts discussing other scholarly views of the Luke-Acts prologue.)

Litwa responds with the following objections:

  • Yet simply by writing in sober, nonpoetic forms, the evangelists distinguished their accounts from the dominant mythoi found, for instance, in Homer and Euripides.
  • They did not, moreover, need to apologize for describing miraculous events since these events were a regular feature of ancient historiography.
  • Finally, the evangelists weighed their sources in the sense that they strongly valued eyewitnesses over hearsay (Luke 1:2) and were careful selectors of material to include and exclude from previous texts.43
    • 43 Although the evangelists did not cite sources, they certainly used them and, in the case of Luke, gave the impression that they used eyewitness reports (Luke 1:2).

(Litwa, pp. 7, 228)

Litwa further claims that Miller has misunderstood the character of ancient historiography.

At a deeper level, Miller’s comments reveal a misunderstanding about how most ancient historiographies were written. Ancient historiography did not have a single form with a single set of lofty standards.

(Litwa, p. 7)

For example, Litwa explains, the “father of history”, Herodotus, was well-known for including many tall-tales and myths in his history of the free-ranging background to the Greco-Persian wars. Many later historians likewise felt free to entertain their audiences with mythical tales, too. Then there was Thucydides, known as “the father of scientific history”, who wrote a no-nonsense, straightforward, factual account of the Peloponnesian War — or so he tells us and so many believe. Thucydides certainly shunned all hint of ostensible myth. Yet, and Litwa overlooks this point, though it supports his larger argument, even Thucydides is known to have fabricated scenes of “what would have happened” and to have done so through dramatic genre and sources unrelated to historical specific events as we have seen in previous posts:

But Thucydides was different in his avoidance of the fabulous tales. Litwa is quite correct to point out that

As a genre, historiography was sometimes different from mythography more in its rhetorical conventions than in its content.

(Litwa, p. 8)

Plausibility and entertainment value were high priorities for Greco-Roman historians. At this point, Litwa appears to bring out a point I made in the above insert box that for the sake of plausibility a historian would often need to couch his account of the miraculous with some hint of an apology:

They could pass off a fantastical story as something they heard of and did not subscribe to, or they could give two different versions of a story: one miraculous, the other rationalizing.

(Litwa p. 8)

So those who wrote our first surviving narratives of the life of Jesus used a genre that was associated with genuine — believable — historical or biographical accounts even is spiced up with stories of miracles. (Another detail that Litwa may bring out later in the book is his suggestion that the historical/biographical genre was in part used to appeal to more educated people who were apparently joining the flocks.)

One caveat I have: Litwa is comparing the gospel narratives with Greco-Roman histories and biographies: that the evangelists were modelling their narratives as much on the conventions of other stories in Jewish literature, especially what we classify as their Scriptures, is not mentioned, at least not in this chapter. Yet it is that latter comparison that I find draws attention to a closer match to the rhetoric of how the miraculous events were introduced, as I have attempted to indicate above.

Sources and tropes

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Review part 5: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster (Case for Agnosticism – 2, Sources)

I discuss here my reading of Chapter 5 of Raphael Lataster’s Questioning the Historicity of Jesus. Here he looks at the problematic nature of the gospels and extra-biblical sources for Jesus.

Lataster discusses how historical Jesus scholars attempt to get around the problem that there are no primary sources for a historical Jesus. This absence leads scholars to focus on

1) the character and limitations of presumed oral traditions that bridge the gap between the gospels and the historical Jesus;

2) memory theory, what we theorize and know about social and individual memories.

Both of these studies do indeed raise awareness of problems for a historian’s access to a historical Jesus and Lataster cites numerous scholars who have contributed to our awareness of these problems. I suggest, however, that much of the discussion is at best a footnote to a debate over whether there was a person of Jesus at the start of Christianity. After all, the problems relate to the reconstruction of such a Jesus. If Christianity had some other origin then memories or oral traditions cannot have any relation to “a historical Jesus”.

Josephus

For an annotated list and links to discussions of the Testimonium Flavianum on this blog see Jesus in Josephus: Testimonium Flavianum

The most famous extra-biblical reference to a historical Jesus is the Testimonium Flavianum of Josephus. Lataster’s discussion is a thorough coverage of the weaknesses of attempts to salvage even a smaller core of the surviving sentences, again citing a range of recent scholars who have expressed serious reservations about Josephus ever having said anything at all about our Jesus. I was pleased to see a detailed quotation from a publication by a distinguished professor in the field of linguistics, Paul Hopper. (Interested readers can see the quotation in an older post here.) As for the second passage in the Antiquities of Josephus, one which appears to be an after-thought reference to a Jesus related to a certain James, Lataster highlights Richard Carrier’s argument that the Jesus referred to is Jesus son of Damneus. (See David Fitzgerald Responds for details of the argument.) Carrier’s view makes some sense but I am not entirely sure it resolves all questions and for that reason I prefer Earl Doherty’s original discussion as the more satisfactory. But either way, there are significant problems with the view that Josephus identified James as “the brother of Jesus, the one called Christ”, both in syntax and context. It is important to address both Josephan passages but as Lataster notes,

it is important to realise that even if authentic, these verses do not necessarily confirm the existence of the Historical Jesus.

(Lataster, p. 200)

Josephus is writing decades after the supposed historical Jesus and adds nothing to what is known from other sources, the implication being that there is no reason to suspect that either passage had any source other than Christians, either as Josephus’s late first century source or as later copyists of his work.

Other sources

Lataster’s comprehensive discussions of other ancient sources mentioning or interpreted as alluding to either Jesus or Christ — Tacitus, Pliny, Thallus, Suetonius, Mara bar Serapion, and the Talmud — draw in both scholarly rebuttals and common answers that as far as I am aware have never been countered by anyone attempting to use them as evidence for a historical Jesus. A new point concerning Pliny’s letter about Christians to emperor Trajan is also covered: Enrico Tuccinardi has applied a stylometric analysis that strongly indicates the entire passage is a forgery.

Scholarly “confessions”

As for the canonical gospels, Lataster reminds us of the major obstacles to accepting them as sources for a historical Jesus. They are late documents, at least forty years after the narrated crucifixion, and they are accepted by critical biblical scholars as mythical or theological narratives of Christ, not a historical person. Whatever the form of Jesus behind them — historical or mythical — they are nonhistorical elaborations that have come to hide whatever that original concept was. Lataster buttresses his point with citations from critical biblical scholars. One such noteworthy name is that of the pioneer of the Jesus Seminar, Robert Funk:

As an historian, I do not know for certain that Jesus really existed, that he is anything more than the figment of some overactive imaginations… In my view, there is nothing about Jesus of Nazareth that we can know beyond any possible doubt. In the mortal life we have there are only prob abilities. And the Jesus that scholars have isolated in the ancient gospels, gospels that are bloated with the will to believe, may turn out to be only another image that merely reflects our deepest longings.

(Robert Walter Funk, “Bookshelf: The Resurrection of Jesus,” The Fourth R 8, no. 1 (1995): 9., in Lataster, p. 219)

Given the prevailing near consensus that the Gospel of Mark is the earliest gospel it is reasonable to consider the possibility that all subsequent references to and portrayals of a historical Jesus can go back to that gospel. Lataster cites Bart Ehrman to this effect:

If there had been one source of Christian antiquity that mentioned a historical Jesus (e.g., Mark) and everyone else was based on what that source had to say, then possibly you could argue that this person made Jesus up and everyone else simply took the ball and ran with it.

(Lataster, p. 220, citing Erhman from https://ehrmanblog.org/gospel-evidence-that-jesus-existed, accessed 05/04/2017.)

If it all begins with Mark . . . 

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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. 

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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 »

What Does a “Life of Jesus” Look Like?

"This worthless slave has learning?" asked the gardener. Aesop laughed and said to him, "You should talk, you miserable wretch!" "I'm a miserable wretch?" exclaimed the gardener. "You're a gardener, aren't you?"
“This worthless slave has learning?” asked the gardener.
Aesop laughed and said to him, “You should talk, you miserable wretch!”
“I’m a miserable wretch?” exclaimed the gardener.
“You’re a gardener, aren’t you?”

I have in the past argued that our canonical gospels are not really about the life and person of Jesus but rather they are a dramatization of core theological beliefs of the early Church. Jesus is a personification, a mouthpiece and a role constructed to play out this dramatization. One could say I have sided with Adela Yarbro Collins when she expresses doubts about the gospels really being biographies of Jesus when she writes:

With regard to the gospel of Mark at least, one may question whether the main purpose of the work is to depict the essence or character of Jesus Christ. (Collins 1990, p. 41)

The fundamental purpose of Mark does not then seem to be to depict the essence or character of Jesus Christ, to present Jesus as a model, to indicate who possesses the true tradition at the time the gospel was written, or to synthesize the various literary forms taken by the tradition about Jesus and their theologies. (Collins 1990, p. 44)

The gospel begins with a reference to Jesus Christ [son of God], not out of interest in his character, but to present him as God’s agent. . . . (Collins 1990, p. 62)

That was yesterday. Today I am being pressured to re-think that viewpoint. The reason is chapter 2, “Civic and subversive biography in antiquity” by David Konstan and Robyn Walsh in Writing Biography in Greece and Rome: Narrative Technique and Fictionalization, edited by Koen De Temmerman and Kristoffel Demoen. [In the interests of disclosure I must confess that this book cost me an arm and half a leg so one may suspect that I am motivated by a need to justify my extravagance by an over-willingness to be persuaded by its contents.]

Konstan and Walsh begin by proposing that there are two types of ancient biographies. (I’ll call them biographies even though that term carries more rigorous understandings of how one should write seriously about a life of a person than were applicable to their Greco-Roman counterparts. These ancient “lives” or “biographies” are usually called “bioi” (Greek) or “vitae” (Latin) to remind us of their often quite different attributes.)

Type 1: civic biographies

These are the universally acknowledged great and good, the pillars of society, whose lives shine as exemplars for us all to emulate. They

highlight the virtues of their subjects, often great statesmen or military heroes who exemplify justice and courage, or else brilliant thinkers and writers, the philosophers and poets whose lives might serve as models . . . (Konstan and Walsh 2016, p.28)

Type 2: subversive biographies

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 »