Tag Archives: Gospel genre

Review, conclusion #1: How the Gospels Became History / Litwa

M. David Litwa’s concluding chapter is “The Myth of Historicity” and with this post I address the first half of that chapter. I have found the book, How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myth, most interesting, even though it has been a mixed journey, one that started more critical of the earlier chapters than of the later ones. Something of the same mix will be found in this final post as I sum up my responses to Litway’s thesis.

Litwa has identified in the previous chapters ten main tropes that serve as signals that the gospels were written to be read as historical narratives. He has noted that each of these ten is found in other Greco-Roman historical writings so it is reasonable to conclude the gospel authors, in deploying these tropes, likewise intended the gospels to be read as history. I list the ten here (from p. 210) with excerpts from the main text as illustrations. I follow with my review and thoughts on the points raised.

1. objectification (describing individually experienced phenomena as if they were fully knowable and observable by others)

A good example of objectification is the description of Jesus’s resurrection appearances. In origin, these appearances were perhaps visions experienced by early Christians either individually or in a group setting. Yet these visions came to be described as palpable events that occurred in space and time. Eventually, Jesus’s luminous body seen in visions became more solid in the act of historiographical retellings. Despite its ability to walk through walls, the body began to be depicted as “flesh and bone” (Luke 24:39), able to be poked and prodded by eyewitnesses—including the famous “doubting Thomas” (John 20:24—28). (p. 10)

2. synchrony (noting well-known persons or occurrences);

There are other historicizing tropes that increase the “reality effect” of the gospels.57 Synchrony, for instance, is the mention of famous persons who lived at the same time as the depicted hero. The third evangelist, for instance, mentioned the governor of Syria, Quirinius, as a contemporary of Jesus (Luke 2:2). This author wrongly dated the rule of Quirinius by about a decade, but the very mention of him as a well-known ruler (along with the then universally known “Caesar Augustus”) increased the realism of his tale. (p. 10)

3. syntopy (mentioning known places on the map);

A similar trope might be called syntopy, the mention of real and familiar places. The evangelists placed Jesus in Galilee under the administration of a historical Jewish king (Herod Antipas). The third evangelist intentionally clarified elements in an earlier evangelist’s topography (Luke 8:26 and Mark 5:1; Luke 4:31 and Mark 1:21) and added a travel narrative showing a discrete move from Galilee to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51-19:28). (p. 11)

4. straightforward, matter-of-fact presentation (which often frames the description of fantastical or anomalous events);

Likewise, Jesus’s sea-stilling miracle is stated in the matter-of-fact tone of historiography: “Jesus got up, rebuked the wind and said to the sea: ‘Shut up, be muzzled!’ Then the wind died down and there was a great calm” (Mark 4:39).11 In fact, Jesus seems rather grumpy after being awoken— another peculiarly human trait. His sea-stilling is fabulous, to be sure, but within the range of possibility for the “son of God” (Mark 3:11). Wind and sea are rebuked, but they are not personified. The timing is precise: Jesus calms the storm in the evening after a long day of weaving parables. The route can be traced on a map: Jesus sails across the Sea of Galilee to the region of the Gerasenes (Mark 5:1). It does not matter that Gerasa (modern Jerash) is thirty-seven miles southeast of the Sea of Galilee (no one but scholars seem to notice); what is important is that the geographical marker is there. The temporal and chronological markers generate a historical frame, a frame that soothes the turbulence of the miracle and fosters the calm of astounded belief. (p. 144)

5. vivid presentation (which includes the addition of random and circumstantial details) and the rhetoric of accuracy akribeia, which includes . . .

There are other vivid details in John that could easily be thought to go back to historical reminiscence: John the Baptist was baptized at Aenon near Salim (John 3:23); the lame man lay for thirty-eight years at the pool of Beth-zatha (5:3 —5); the slave whose ear was cut off was named Malchus (18:10); Peter stood at a charcoal fire outside Annas’s house during Jesus’s trial (18:18). The biblical scholar Paul N. Anderson claims, ‘John has more archaeological, topographical, sensory-empirical, personal knowledge and first-hand information than all of the other gospels combined.” Such vivid presentation (what the Greeks called enargeia) was a known technique of historiographical discourse. (p. 203)

6. . . . the introduction of literary eyewitnesses (such as the Beloved Disciple);

Despite the unlikelihood of the evangelists being eyewitnesses, at least one of them indicates that he based his material directly on an identifiable eyewitness who appears as a character in his story. Late in the fourth evangelist’s account, he introduces an unnamed figure whom he refers to as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” This disciple, who appears nowhere else in gospel literature, is portrayed as one of Jesus’s most intimate companions. At the Last Supper, the Beloved Disciple rests his head on Jesus’s breast (John 13:21-25). This posture represents a privileged, intimate relationship mirroring Jesus’s own relationship with his Father, in whose bosom he abides (John 1:18). (p. 196)

7. staged skepticism among the eyewitnesses (as in Matt. 28:17; John 20:25);

The author of Matthew noted that some of Jesus’s eleven disciples doubted the resurrection even when they saw him physically present (Matt. 28:17). (p. 191)

Thomas had declared, “Unless I see the nail wound in his hands, thrust my finger into the nail wound, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.” A week later, Thomas was staying in a locked room when Jesus walked through the walls. Admittedly, this was not a good way to prove Jesus’s materiality. Still, the hero approached Thomas and said, “Thomas, place your finger here; observe my hands, then bring your hand and thrust it into my side” (John 20:25-27). Thomas instantly realizes that Jesus is not a ghost but a god (John 20:28). (p. 184)

8. alternative reports (as in Matt. 28:13);

Despite the added story of Jesus’s appearance, reports of fraud arose. The disciples were rumored to have stolen the body (Matt. 28:13). In Matthew, this report is implicitly belittled since the disciples would have needed to subdue the well-trained and heavily armed Roman guard. (p. 174)

9. stated links of causation (as in Matt. 28:15); 

In providing this alternative tradition, the Matthean evangelist used the language of historical causation. The conniving Jewish leaders created the theft story; hence it continues to persist. Although this evangelist preferred to explain the missing body by narrating resurrection appearances, the fact that he offered an alternative report is significant. Providing such a report was a common historiographical technique. Offering the reader a choice between the reports gave the (albeit fleeting) impression of objectivity. (p. 175)

and . . .

10. . . . literary traces of a past event (such as tomb tokens).

Contrary to the suspicion of modern skeptics, they do not go to the wrong tomb. They recognize the right tomb by the presence of Jesus’s personal items, namely, the linen wrappings that formerly covered his body and a neatly folded cloth that covered his face (John 20:5-7). These details undercut the supposition that the body was stolen, since robbers would presumably not have taken the time to carefully fold Jesus’s face cloth. (p. 176)

Not unique to history

As discussed in the earlier posts these techniques are not exclusive to works of ancient history and biography but are also found in mythical-poetic works and even in fictional novellas, both “historical” and “erotic (=love stories)”.

One more — the everyday human setting

An elaboration can be made to some of Litwa’s above ten: e.g. the “objectification”, the “straightforward, matter-of-fact presentation”, as well as the references to “well-known persons” and “places on the map”, are brought to bear in very ordinary, everyday human life contexts, such as inviting guests in for a meal. The “vivid presentation” is not always there (not even the crucifixion of Jesus is described as graphically as it could be) but the “random and circumstantial details” are part and parcel of the miraculous or mythical events taking place as “by the way” events in mundane human settings.

One difference — no room for doubt

So yes, the way the miraculous events of the gospels were told does coincide in many, but not all, respects with the way they were told in ancient histories and biographies. The exception: ancient historians and biographers generally related the miraculous events with some authorial distance, expressing in various ways a concession that readers were free to doubt the truth of miraculous events. Not so the gospels.

“Alternative reports” compared with different biblical narratives read more »

Review, parts 13, 14. More on Ancient “Resurrection” Stories (Litwa: How the Gospels Became History)

Chapter Thirteen, “Disappearance and Recognition”, continues with an exploration of the little devices used by the author of the Gospel of Luke to build a sense of realism (or “historicity”) into the narrative of the two travellers on the Emmaus Road after the death of Jesus. These literary devices make the account seem very natural, acceptable as “reportage” of “what happened”. But then we come to the strange failure to recognize Jesus when he walks and talks alongside them and even after entering their home — until he breaks bread when he simply vanishes into thin air. Soon afterwards Jesus appears to his disciples by passing through a solid wall, after which he attempts to prove he is not a ghost but flesh just like them. M. David Litwa shows how such strange happenings were known and believed to have happened to Greek mythical characters. The point is that just as Greek myths could be told in a manner that lent them verisimilitude, placing the supernatural within a narrative of natural psychological reactions and settings, so the gospels do the same with the resurrection accounts of Jesus. One of the myths Litwa uses for comparison have also been discussed on Vridar, though not always in relation to the gospel: Baucis and Philemon. Another, one about hospitality given to an unrecognized Dionysus, you can read on archive.org’s poem by Silius Italicus. The motif of the gods preventing some people from seeing or recognizing them while allowing others to do so at certain times goes back to Homer. Walls did not prevent gods like Dionysus or Hermes from entering rooms, either.

Litwa covers other instances of humans dying only to have their bodies disappear and then reappear alive at some other time and place, as found in histories and biographies by Herodotus, Iamblichus and Philostratus. Sometimes the reappearing person even commands incredulous witnesses to touch him to see that he is real. Playwrights portrayed those returned from the dead as ghosts continued to bear the physical wounds they had suffered in the flesh so that they could be recognized by former acquaintances.

It would be a mistake to think that early Christians could see no comparison between their stories of Jesus and Greek myths. Justin Martyr, a mid-second century “Church Father”, addressed non-Christians thus:

The early Christian Justin Martyr even used these myihoi as a measuring rod of historical plausibility: “When we [Christians] say also that the Logos [i.e., Christ] … was crucified and died and rose again and ascended into heaven [aneleluthenai eis ton ouranon\, we propound nothing new [ou . . . kainon ti] beyond [what you believe] concerning those whom you call sons of Zeus.” Justin’s argument only works if the Greeks and Romans understood their ascent mythoi as records of real events.

(Litwa, 187 – Chapter 14)

In chapter fourteen (Ascent) Litwa addresses in detail the ancient belief in ascent to heaven in a cloud by one who at death is deified. Both the historian Livy and the biographer Plutarch write of what was believed to have been Romulus’s ascent and subsequent appearance on earth to a reputable eyewitness. The authors themselves may have been sceptical, as Litwa points out the Jewish philosopher was sceptical of Moses’ bodily ascent to heaven, but belief in the bodily ascent did persist among many.

And so forth. The gospel stories would not have been believed literally by sophisticated authors such as Cicero and Plutarch but it is evident that comparable stories, told with similar “naturalizing” techniques and contexts, were believed by others. The same techniques to create plausibility (see two earlier posts for the details) have led to millions ever since believing in the historicity of the gospel narratives. Litwa would be appalled, though, to take this point any further. His point is that the events in Jesus’ life were “remembered” through a cultural context that allowed the imagination to shape them in the direction of Greek myths.

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

To order a copy of How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths at the Footprint Books Website with a 15% discount click here or visit www.footprint.com.au

Please use discount voucher code BCLUB19 at the checkout to apply the discount.


Review, pt 1e (e for Exceptions!) : How the Gospels Became History / Litwa

There are other types of Greco-Roman historical works that have received less attention in M. David Litwa’s introductory chapter but that may yet be closer to the gospel narratives. Litwa did refer to these but with less elaboration in his introduction so I’ll address them here. Overall, we will see that these types of historical writings were not held with much respect among educated readers.

Josephus, a Jewish historian and contemporary of the evangelists, also complained that many historians turned to fantastical tales (mytholegein) to win a reputation as successful historians.

(Litwa, 12)

The Roman author Lucian satirized these types of historical works in True History (or True Story). One passage, to give you an idea of the flavour of the whole:

The rich men have garments of glass, very soft and delicate : the poorer sort of brass woven, whereof they have great plenty, which they enseam with water to make it fit for the workman, as we do our wool. If I should write what manner of eyes they have, I doubt I should be taken for a liar in publishing a matter so incredible : yet I cannot choose but tell it : for they have eyes to take in and  out as please themselves : and when a man is so disposed, he may take them out and then put them in and see again : many when they have lost their own eyes, borrow of others, for the rich have many lying by them.

(Lucian, True History, 71)

The same Lucian also wrote a more serious work in which he detailed the faults of many pop historians of his day and explained more seriously how history should be written. The hacks, Lucian pointed out, wrote for personal fame. They did not write anonymously. They sought to out-entertain their rivals. They capitalized on major news stories sweeping through the empire.

. . . from the beginning of the present excitements — the barbarian war, the Armenian disaster, the succession of victories — you cannot find a man but is writing history; nay, every one you meet is a Thucydides, a Herodotus, a Xenophon. . . .

If rumours about Jesus were popular throughout Syria and Jordan at during his lifetime then one can compare Lucian’s observation that popular news created a ready market for relevant histories.

. . . Another is a keen emulator of Thucydides, and by way of close approximation to his model starts with his own name — most graceful of beginnings, redolent of Attic thyme! Look at it: ‘Crepereius Calpurnianus of Pompeiopolis wrote the history of the . . . .

Yet the persons who wrote the gospels did so anonymously. (Compare many of the books of Jewish scriptures and other Second Temple novellas.)

. . . Another thing these gentlemen seem not to know is that poetry and history offer different wares, and have their separate rules. Poetry enjoys unrestricted freedom; it has but one law — the poet’s fancy.

. . . The vulgar may very likely extend their favour to this; but the select (whose judgement you disregard) will get a good deal of entertainment out of your heterogeneous, disjointed, fragmentary stuff.

Are the “poetic fancies” in the gospels presented as sheer entertainment or as something more?

Returning to Josephus. We began with Litwa’s mention of his essay against the views of Apion. Here is what Josephus wrote:

It is, then, the absence of any previously deposited record — which would have both instructed those who wished to learn and refuted those who lied — that accounts for the extent of the disagreement among the writers.

But a second reason must be added to this: those who hastily set about writing did not bother about the truth — although they were always quick to make this their promisebut displayed their literary prowess, and in whatever way they thought they could outshine others they adapted themselves in accordance with this, some turning to recount mythology, others seeking favor by praising cities or kings; others set out to criticise historical actions or the historians, thinking that their reputation would shine in this way.

In short, what they continue to practice is the complete opposite of history. For it is evidence of true history if everyone both says and writes the same things about the same (events). They, on the other hand, think that they will seem the most truthful of all if they describe the same things differently.

(Josephus, Against Apion, 1.23-26)

I wrote more fully of what Josephus might have thought of the gospels as works of history in What Josephus might have said about the Gospels. By Josephus’s ideal standards, at least as he professed them, we might conclude that he would have had a very poor view of our gospels as supposed works of history or biography.

To order a copy of How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths at the Footprint Books Website with a 15% discount click here or visit www.footprint.com.au

Please use discount voucher code BCLUB19 at the checkout to apply the discount.

There is one more exception, one not explicitly brought out in Litwa’s Introduction, and that is historians’ accounts of omens that precede historical turning points. I discussed this exception to the rule only recently so I will not elaborate again here: see Herodotus and Miracles — Material for a Gospel Comparison. A comparison with gospel material would be limited to the unexpected darkness enveloping the land at the time of the crucifixion of Jesus and the earthquake, the tearing of the temple veil, and perhaps even Matthew’s corpses of saints rising from their graves and wandering the streets of Jerusalem.

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


Josephus, Flavius. 2007. Against Apion. Edited by Steve Mason. Translated by John M. G. Barclay. Vol. 10. Flavius Josephus: Translation and Commentary. Brill.

Lucian of Samosata. 2016. “The Way to Write History.” In Works, by Lucian, translated by H. W. Fowler and F. G. Fowler, Web edition. The University of Adelaide: eBooks@Adelaide. https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lucian/works/chapter24.html.

Lucian of Samosata. 1894. Lucian’s True History. Translated by Francis Hickes. London : Privately printed. http://archive.org/details/lucianstruehisto00luciiala.

Origen. 1869. “Contra Celsum.” In The Writings of Origen. Vol. 2, translated by Frederick Crombie. Edinburgh : T. & T. Clark. http://archive.org/details/writingsoforigen02origuoft.


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 blog post on gospel genre

Another Freethought Blog to cite, this time Jon Cavaz writes a neat introductory piece on Gospel Genre highlighting the ahistorical character of the gospels:

Gospels as Legendary Biographies

I’m of a different opinion but my views are probably more technical and interested in nuances of little relevance to most of the real world. Check the Genre of Gospels, Acts and OT Primary History: INDEX if you want to get into the inner belly of what has been covered here so far.