Tag Archives: Litwa: How the Gospels Became History

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

read more »

Review, pt 1b: How the Gospels Became History / Litwa

In the first post we cited ancient authors on the meaning of myth.  Two more authors that M. David Litwa cites:

A fable (mythos) is a fictitious story giving an image of truth . . .

Aelius Theon, 1st C CE (Kennedy 2003. Progymnasmata)

A myth aims at being a false tale, resembling a true one; therefore it is far removed from actual events, if a tale is but a picture and an image of actuality, and a myth is but a picture and image of a tale. And thus those who write of imaginative exploits lag as far behind historians as persons who tell of deeds come short of those that do them.

Plutarch, On the Fame of the Athenians, 348.4

Let us hope that Fable may, in what shall follow, so submit to the purifying processes of Reason as to take the character of exact history. In any case, however, where it shall be found contumaciously slighting credibility, and refusing to be reduced to anything like probable fact, we shall beg that we may meet with candid readers, and such as will receive with indulgence the stories of antiquity.

Plutarch, Life of Theseus, 1.5

Continuing from part 1a …

M. David Litwa’s interest is exactly what I was hoping for. As he explains (p.3),

Whether or not the evangelists did report actual events is a separate question and is not my concern.

Good. It is the history-like narrative of the gospels themselves that interests me. Why are they written that way? He continues:

Evidently they thought they did. At any rate, my focus is on how the evangelists used historical tropes to convince readers that they spoke of real—and thus “true”—events.

Some readers might quibble over that way of expressing the problem. Can we really know the thoughts of unknown authors? But the task can be reframed as an exploration of what makes the gospels function as history-like narratives.

Since the line between myth and history can often look quite blurry at times Litwa makes the excellent point that the two genres are in reality “ideal types”. As an “idea”, “pure history” only relates actual events, and “pure myth only “mythical/fantastical/impossible/unhistorical” events so are not always found in their pure, or “ideal”, forms:

In actual literature they mixed and blended without apology or sense of contradiction. 

(For a more detailed explanation of the technical term ideal type see the post On (Dying and Rising Gods and) IDEAL TYPES).

Certainly our earliest accounts by Christians make it clear that they did not consider their beliefs to be mythical. Litwa cites Origen’s Contra Celsus (2.58; 3.27) in which Origen declaims that the resurrection is certainly historical and “proves” the point by reminding us that disciples died for that belief, after all. Further, we even have New Testament epistles:

For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. (2 Peter 1:16)

They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. (2 Timothy 4:4)

. . . pay no attention to Jewish myths . . . (Titus 1:14)

and so on. Myths stood opposed to Christian truth.

Truth and history

So what of history, or the writing of history, the practice of historiography? read more »

Revised Post: “Review, pt 1a: How the Gospels Became History / Litwa”

To anyone who has read the previous post . . . I have entirely rewritten the last part of that post. My original text was misleading. Now corrected.

Review, pt 1a: How the Gospels Became History / Litwa

We declared a while ago on Vridar that we would never sell anything so I am at this moment trapped between gratitude and principle. Yale University Press kindly agreed to send me a review copy of M. David Litwa’s How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths but, as it turned out, they requested their agent in Australia, Footprint Books, to forward me the review copy, and Footprint Books asked me to add a notice of a discount offer at the end of my review. (Because its such a departure from past practice I want to be upfront and place this notice at the beginning this one time rather than appear to be “sneaking” it in at the end.) It’s an expensive book so hopefully, some readers will appreciate the discount offer. 

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.

Myth and/or history: where do our four canonical gospels fit? Can history contain myth? Is history fundamentally a type of myth? The gospels contain stories of the supernatural and miraculous but did not other ancient (genuinely) historical works likewise contain such stories? Why do the gospels look like history even though they begin with divine beings speaking and making things?

Why do our gospels look like history while clearly containing so much of the fabulous? How did they come to be what they are?

We addressed the question of the centrality of belief in history to Christian faith in an earlier series addressing Dennis Nineham’s The Use and Abuse of the Bible (though I see now that I never got around to posting part 5, so that’s another item added to my “to do” list). That was a study of theology. M. David Litwa’s book, How the Gospels Became History, appears to be a literary study of the gospels. Yin and yang. (But we have covered the same theme from other viewpoints, too, such as that of Chaim Milikovsky in Why Gospel Fiction was Written as Gospel Truth — a plausible explanation.)

But this time it is M. David Litwa’s turn so we’ll look at his Introduction in this first post. It is titled “The Gospels, Mythography, and Historiography”.

What did the ancient people make of these terms or their equivalents? I am always drawn to endnotes while reading books like this one and if they are many I can spend more time there than in the main text, and here I’ll quote key translations:

In addition to this, since of the things history deals with one part is history, one myth, and one fiction, of which

history is the exposition of certain things that are true and took place (such as that Alexander died in Babylon poisoned by conspirators),

fiction that of things that did not take place told like those that took place (such as comic plays and mimes),

and myth is the exposition of things that did not take place and are false (such as that the race of poisonous spiders and snakes was brought to life “from the blood of the Titans, they tell”, and that Pegasus jumped out of the head of the Gorgon when her throat was cut, and that Diomedes’ companions were transformed into sea birds, or Odysseus into a horse or Hecuba into a dog)

(Sextus Empiricus – apparently referencing AsclepiadesAgainst the Grammarians 1:263-64, my formatting)

Compare Cicero,

The narrative is an exposition of events that have occurred or are supposed to have occurred. . . . That which consists of an exposition of events has three forms fabula, historia, argumentum. Fabula is the term applied to a narrative in which the events are not true and have no verisimilitude, for example

“Huge winged dragons yoked to a car”

Historia is an account of actual occurrences remote from the recollection of our own age, as

“War on men of Carthage Appius decreed”

Argumentum is a fictitious narrative which nevertheless could have occurred. An example may be quoted from Terence

“For after he had left the school of youth” . . .

(Cicero, De Inventione, 1.27)

Or as Quintilian wrote in Latin,

Now there are three forms of narrative, without counting the type used in actual legal cases.

First there is the fictitious [Latin = fabula, fable = Greek mythos, myth] narrative as we get it in tragedies and poems, which is not merely not true but has little resemblance to truth.

Secondly, there is the realistic narrative as presented by comedies, which, though not true, has yet a certain verisimilitude.

Thirdly there is the historical narrative, which is an exposition of actual fact. Poetic narratives are the property of the teacher of literature. The rhetorician therefore should begin with the historical narrative, whose force is in proportion to its truth. 

(Quintilian, “Orator’s Education”, 2.4.2)

So it would seem that myths were opposed to truth; and history was “the truth”.

But Litwa offers a warning . . . read more »