Tag Archives: Litwa: How the Gospels Became History

Review, part 4 (Gospel & Pagan Gods in Flesh) : How the Gospels Became History / Litwa

We now come to the most interesting chapters of M. David Litwa’s How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths. We are no longer distracted by protests against those who would deny the historicity of Jesus or, at least not directly, protests against scholars who posit that the evangelists directly imitated Homer. The title of chapter 3 is “Incarnation” and here Litwa enlightens readers to the first-century context of how readers might have understood the very idea of a god appearing in the world in flesh as a human being. To be fair, though, Litwa intends to demonstrate more than this ancient world-view. Litwa also attempts to demonstrate how the evangelists presented the idea of god’s incarnation as plausible history.

Litwa begins with the Gospel of John and right from the start pulls me up with notions that may be old-hat to others but that were noteworthy to me: in the Gospel of John Jesus is never shown to be eating but he does tell others to eat him (or eat his flesh) and similar ideas. So what does “incarnation” mean to the fourth evangelist? Interesting question.

Sent into the world

Moving on, Litwa informs/reminds readers that just as biblical Wisdom was driven away when she tried to dwell among men so the Greek goddess of Justice, likewise, was driven from the unjust world of humanity. But the more detailed comparisons come with Hermes (the Roman Mercury) who was also known as the Logos, the interpreter of the high god Zeus, and messenger from Zeus to mortals. Litwa points to several messenger and creative roles of Hermes but focusses on Hermes assumption of a human body in his errands. We saw one of these roles when recently discussing M. David Litwa’s criticisms of Dennis MacDonald’s thesis. The god Hermes swept down from Mount Olympus to meet and escort the Trojan Priam on his dangerous quest to enter the Greek camp and request the return of the body of his slain son Hector. There Hermes took on the form of a young warrior capable of winning the trust of Priam and safely escorting him to the Greek camp.

Augustus Caesar: Mercury in the flesh

But Litwa informs us that Hermes — as the Roman Mercury — was subsequently portrayed by a Roman poet (Horace) as appearing on earth in the body of Augustus Caesar.

Then there is the ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras. Litwa carries us through the biographers who lead readers to understand that the great thinker was also a “god who had come to earth”:

Iamblichus reported a Pythagorean creedal question (akousma) with its correct answer: ‘“Who are you Pythagoras?’ For they confess that he is the Hyperborean Apollo.(Litwa, 69)

Pythagoras: Apollo in the flesh

But from here Litwa becomes more interesting still. Pythagoras revealed his true divine identity (i.e. the god Apollo in the flesh) to one selected follower, Abaris. Pythagoras took Abaris aside to show him, privately, that he had a thigh of pure gold — an unequivocal proof that he was truly a god. Later, at an Olympic Games, Pythagoras was reported by many eyewitnesses as having accidentally revealed the same golden thigh, thus proving to multitudes his divine nature.

Litwa reasonably draws a comparison with Jesus’ private revelation to Peter that he is indeed the Messiah. And this is, of course, reinforced by Jesus demonstrating the fact by the visible transformation of his body in the Transfiguration (as Pythagoras showed his golden thigh) to his select few followers. Litwa’s point, however, is more than mere revelation. Litwa argues that it is the quotidian, the prosaic, the mundane commonplace setting that goes some way to transforming the myth into “plausible history”.

The revelation and transfiguration take place at a well-known urban centre, Caesarea Philippi, and on a nearby mountain. Peter fumbles for words and says something quite silly so readers are clear that he is taken completely by surprise as any mere mortal would be. Litwa compares this circumstantial detail with the ordinariness of details surrounding Pythagoras’s revelation to Abaris. The Gospel of Luke even goes one step further by depicting the disciples as sleeping and needing to be awoken when Jesus’ body is transformed. Sleep, waking up, saying silly things, a well-known city and mountain — all of this context sets the revelation into a “plausible” or “historically sounding” context, according to Litwa.

I am not so sure, however. To return to the scene of Hermes being sent by Zeus to escort Priam, we read in Homer the following. Hermes descends as commanded by Zeus but the details of his meeting with Priam are also very prosaic, as the highlighted words surely indicate:

With this wand in his hand the mighty [Hermes] made his flight and soon reached Troyland and the Hellespont. There he proceeded on foot, looking like a young prince at that most charming age when the beard first starts to grow.

Meanwhile the [Priam and his herald] had driven past the great barrow of Ilus and stopped their mules and horses for a drink at the river. Everything as dark by now, and it was not till Hermes was quite close to them that the herald looked up and saw him. He at once turned round to Priam and said: ‘Look, your majesty; we must beware. I see a man, and I am afraid we may be butchered. Let us make our escape in the chariot, or if not that, fall at his knees and implore his mercy.’ –

The old man [Priam] was dumbfounded and filled with terror; the hairs stood up on his supple limbs; he was rooted to the spot and could not say a word. But the [Hermes] did not wait to be accosted. He went straight up to Priam, took him by the hand . . . . [Iliad 24]

Yet no critic of Homer in later centuries (including the time the gospels were written) thought of Homer as writing more than poetry. Even if the Trojan War were thought to be history and Homer its historian, the universal opinion was that Homer wrote the story in terms of poetic myth. Mundane details may have contextualized the mythical encounters of humans and gods, but they did not demonstrate the “historical truth” of such encounters.

But questioning Litwa’s thesis is a secondary focus of mine. What fascinates me most is the broader cultural context of the ideas or motifs we find in the gospels in the first or second centuries CE. Upcoming — Litwa’s discussions of genealogies and divine conceptions.

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.


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


Review, part 3b (The Thesis) : How the Gospels Became History / Litwa

We arrive now at a point where I am beginning to find more agreement with, and renewed interest in, M. David Litwa’s thesis in How the Gospels Became History.

Having dismissed Dennis MacDonald’s proposal that the gospels (in particular Gospel of Mark) were created intertextually with not only various Jewish books but also Greco-Roman ones (in particular Homer’s epics) Litwa sets forth his view of how non-Jewish ideas found their way into the gospels. The gospel authors (“evangelists”) were necessarily part of a late first-century CE Mediterranean culture that was infused with mythoi (myths). (See the first post of this series for Litwa’s discussion of how these were defined in ancient times.) (Again, all bolded highlighting is mine.)

Greek mythoi were the mass media when the gospels were written in the late first century CE. Mythoi were reflected in virtually all the cultural venues available: sculpture, painting, pantomime, hymn, novels, coins, gems, mosaics, plays, athletic events — even executions. (p. 50)

Litwa expands on this idea,

Even the rigorist Jewish Essenes, who sequestered themselves in the Judean desert, employed astrological, calendrical, organizational, and scribal practices common to the Hellenistic world. (p. 52)

. . . . What united learned peoples in the provinces was a shared educational system and repertoire of stories, poems, and speeches that virtually every person of culture knew. . . . 

Since gospel stories arose when Greek mythoi were the dominant cultural lore, it is not strange to think that this lore shaped the formation of Jesus narratives. . . .

Greek mythology was part of the “pre-understanding” of all those who lived in Hellenistic culture — including Jews and Christians. . . . 

. . . As a result of socialization, human beings come to share assumptions that allow’ them to communicate and experience phenomena in a basically similar way.

In this sense, early Jews and Christians were inevitably influenced by the dominant cultural lore. Greek mythic discourses were part of the mainstream, urban culture to which most early Christians belonged. If Christians were socialized in predominantly Greek cultural environments, it is no surprise that they were shaped by the dominant stories. Some of the influence would have been consciously experienced through the educational system. Other influences would have been absorbed by attending plays, viewing works of art, hearing poetry, and simply conversing on a daily basis with Hellenized peoples in the many marketplaces of ideas. (pp. 51-52)

Litwa from there proceeds to a discussion of “gospel genre”.

. . . there is a rough consensus that the gospels best approximate ancient biographical (or bios) literature. We can define biography as a form of historiography focusing on the life and character of a single person. (p. 53)

That sounds simple enough — until we do a little bit of reading of the literature on ancient historiography. I have posted on this topic often enough and part of the reason is that I keep learning new things as I read more. At this point I have to say that some classicists flatly deny that ancient historiography conforms to any clear rules of a single genre. A fuller discussion (again) will have to wait. Till then I will allow Litwa to speak, read more »

Review, part 3a (Homer and the Gospels) : How the Gospels Became History / Litwa

In this post, I am presenting MacDonald’s case beside Litwa’s criticisms. One may disagree with MacDonald’s thesis and the significance he sees in certain comparisons but that is another discussion. Here I am interested only in an assessment of Litwa’s criticisms.

M. David Litwa opens chapter 2, “A Theory of Comparisons”, of How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths, with the following epigraph:

The issue of difference has been all but forgotten.
Jonathan J. Smith

It is all too easy to overlook differences, agreed. I seem to recall drawing questionable conclusions about the world’s religions from reading, many years ago, certain works by James George Frazer and Joseph Campbell. On the other hand, much of my reading in more recent years has been of scholarly discussions that give renewed insights into the significance and meaning of the differences between the compared works. Indeed, Smith is quoted elsewhere in that same book (A Magic Still Dwells) making that same positive point:

“. . . . The issue of difference has been all but forgotten.” Smith attempts to counter this trend by emphasizing that questions of difference are constitutive of the very process of comparison. [C]omparison is, at base, never identity. Comparison requires the postulation of difference as the grounds of its being interesting (rather than tautological) and a methodical manipulation of difference, a playing across the ‘gap’ in the service of some useful end.” See Smith, “In Comparison a Magic Dwells,” pp. 21, 35; 25-26, 40. Smith reiterates this point in his critique of Eliade in chapter 1 of To Take Place, pp. 13-14.”

(Holdrege, 89. Bolded highlighting in all quotations is mine.)

Unfortunately, Litwa continues to operate with the assumption that “comparativists” who have not embraced his methods of comparison have continued to “forget” the importance of differences. As we saw in my previous post, I think Litwa is mistaken here, and that the mythicist he sought with the most detail to expose as flawed did not at all fall into the “forget the differences trap”. Litwa made assertions without providing evidence, and the evidence that I cited, I believe, demonstrated that Litwa’s criticism was misguided in this particular area. I cover this ground again because Litwa recapitulates it in the opening of his second chapter:

To understand how mythic historiographies work, they must be compared in a way that is both thoughtful and sound. In chapter 1, I presented some instances of unsound comparison in my discussion of Jesus Myth Theory. In short, mythicists tend to genetically connect words and motifs for religious (or antireligious) ends. Often their zeal induces them to ignore or paste over differences in cultural setting and storyline. 

No evidence (or cherry-picked evidence that went contrary to the main arguments) was offered to support that claim.

. . . . Similarities that are isolated and superficial often conceal greater differences. What is worse, superficial similarities are sometimes employed to prove historical causation. Yet individual words, phrases, and ideas that are similar (in some respect) are not necessarily genetically related. Similarities, no matter how precise, never amount to causation. (p. 46)

At this point, I am inclined to direct the reader to the words of Holdrege (citing Smith) above. Most of us are well aware of the dangers of confusing correlation with causation. When we have sound theories or explanations for particular types of similarities (e.g. comparing DNA samples) then comparisons can indeed be strong supports for appropriate arguments ranging from causation to coincidence.

Despite early slight missteps, Litwa does make an important point:

All similarities, furthermore, must be contextualized. If a posited similarity is between mythoi in two different texts, then one must situate the texts in their sociocultural settings. When were the texts written? Where were they written? Who wrote them? For what purposes? Do they belong to the same culture or sphere of cultural codes? And so forth.

Only after this contextual work has been done can one even think about positing a relation between stories. The relation, moreover, is not always that the author of text B knew and copied text A. Sometimes the authors of texts A and B depended on another text, C, or perhaps they saw the same event X or heard a similar oral report Y or belonged to common culture Z. (p. 47)

Precisely. The only flaw I see in Litwa’s discussion is his inconsistency is acknowledging that even Jesus myth theorists, and another “comparativist” he discusses in-depth in this second chapter, do contextualize their comparisons as per above. And sometimes such contextualizing questions do lead to a strong case that the author of text B knew and copied text A. We know Virgil did copy Homer and that the authors of the gospels did indeed know and copy and adapt the Jewish scriptures.

The reason Litwa is attempting to cordon off arguments confusing correlation with causation and to demean suggestions that “genetic relationships” explain similarities is to establish the thesis of his book, “dynamic cultural interaction”:

We need to think of the relations between the gospels and Greek lore more as dynamic cultural interaction: the complex, random, conscious and unconscious events of learning that occur when people interact and engage in practices of socialization. (p. 47)

I don’t know of any Jesus mythicist — and I’m thinking of Wells, Doherty, Price, Brodie, Carrier — who would disagree. Nor does Dennis R. MacDonald disagree with the reality of such a process leading to similar literary motifs appearing in diverse literature. In this second chapter, it happens to be Dennis MacDonald’s turn to come under Litwa’s critical eye.

Overlooking MacDonald’s agreement with the principle of “dynamic cultural interaction”, Litwa misguidedly objects to MacDonald’s argument for “genetic” connections between the Gospel of Mark and Homeric epics and wants to posit, instead, a more “complex, random, conscious and unconscious” series of interactions as an explanation for apparent similarities (or to deny even the reality of many of the similarities on the grounds that differences outnumber points in common). I don’t see the point of this argument. Does this sound like déjà vu back to my discussion of Litwa’s chapter on the Jesus myth theory? There is surely no problem with accepting Litwa’s overall explanation for similar motifs appearing in the gospels and classical literature but that explanation for some similarities does not mean another explanation for a more limited number of similarities must be ruled out. I know MacDonald’s Homeric thesis is of interest to many readers so I’ll take time to address Litwa’s criticism of it in detail.

The criteria MacDonald uses to judge probability of a text’s dependence on other works:

    1. accessibility to the author of the potential borrowed text
    2. analogy with borrowings of the text by other authors (did other authors also borrow and re-write the same stories?)
    3. density of the numbers of similarities between the texts
    4. order or sequence of the parallels
    5. distinctiveness of special features of the stories
    6. interpretability or intelligibility — the capacity of the original text to make sense of some detail in the new work (e.g. why does Jesus want his Messiahship kept secret?)

MacDonald developed a 7th criterion since publishing Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark:

7. Often Greek readers prior to 1000 C.E. seem to have been aware of affinities between New Testament narratives and their putative classical Greek models. Such ancient and Byzantine recognitions often suggest imitations in the original composition of the Gospels and Acts. (MacDonald, Gospels and Homer, 6 f)

Here is what MacDonald wrote about Litwa’s case for a more general cultural influence:

Response to objection 1: Because the Homeric epics were foundational to ancient Greek culture, any similarities between Mark and Homer are more likely to reflect general cultural influence than literary mimesis.To some extent I would agree, but one must not exclude imitation prima facie. Certainly some similarities between Mark and Homer may be due to general cultural influence, but it also is true that many ancient authors consciously imitated the epics; after all, they learned to do so in school. Furthermore, ancient narrative is rife with examples of obvious and subtle imitations of the epics as texts.

The challenge, then, is to test if similarities between two works issue from cultural osmosis or rhetorical mimesis. The last four of my six criteria attempt to do this very thing: (3) density (the number or volume of parallels between the two texts), (4) order (recognizable affinities in the sequence of the parallels), (5) distinctive traits (characteristics found in these two texts and not found widely elsewhere), and (6) interpretability (why the author imitated the target, which may include emulation or transvaluation). To my knowledge, no critic of my work has proposed alternative criteria for establishing literary connections. Although some parallels satisfy these criteria weakly, others do so magnificently and are sufficient to establish mimesis as a dominating strategy in Mark, not merely general cultural affinities. 

(MacDonald, 4f)

It is not an either/or argument.

Dennis R. MacDonald and Mimesis Criticism

Mimesis refers to an author’s conscious imitation of another text. The imitation can have a range of functions: the author shows off a certain intellectual sophistication; the author is striving to write a work comparable to the artistry of the “masters”; the author is using the contrast for humorous effect; the author creates a character or event that both recalls and surpasses its traditional counterpart, and probably more.

One rarely encounters objections to the notion that gospel authors (evangelists) copied or played with Jewish scriptures. Litwa implies that the reason for acceptance in this case is that

[t]he evanglists advertised their connection to previous Jewish texts. (p. 47)

But that is not entirely so. Yes, on occasion the evangelists did so advertise:

Then saith Jesus unto them, All ye shall be offended because of me this night: for it is written, I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered abroad. — Matthew 26:31

Sometimes they advertised their debt to Jewish scriptures less explicitly but nonetheless quite obviously. We all know that John the Baptist is modelled on the prophet Elijah when he is introduced as follows and subsequently called “Elijah” by Jesus (Mark 9):

. . . in the wilderness . . . John was clothed with camel’s hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins; and he did eat locusts and wild honey. — Mark 1:3-4, 6

But there are many times when there is no advertising at all. 160 scriptural quotations and allusions have been identified in just five chapters of the Gospel of Mark. How many do you think were “advertised” as such? See 160 Scriptural Quotations and Allusions in Mark 11-16.

Recognize that the evangelists were quite capable of “mimesis” on Jewish scriptures without advertising and it follows that we have a right to ask if they similarly work with other literature that we have good reason to believe they knew about.

Litwa’s criticisms of MacDonald’s method

Litwa points readers to earlier more detailed criticisms of MacDonald’s The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark by Margaret Mitchell and Karl Olav Sandnes (links are to their articles on Jstor) and acknowledges MacDonald’s response to those articles, but adds,

In my judgment, MacDonald’s response does not adequately address the concerns raised by Mitchell and Sandnes. (p. 235)

Okay, so I’ll let you be the judge. I’ll quote each objection of Litwa along with MacDonald’s indirect response. read more »

Review, part 2 (Damnation upon that Christ Myth Theory!) : How the Gospels Became History / Litwa

M. David Litwa declared at the outset of his book How the Gospels Became History

Whether or not the evangelists did report actual events is a separate question and is not my concern. (p.3)

So I remain mystified by his decision to make his first chapter entirely about the “Jesus Myth Theory”. It adds nothing to his argument about the “How the Gospels Became History” — which was the argument I wanted to read about when I sought out the book.

Litwa does excuse his discussion of the Jesus myth theory by explaining that the three “mythicist” views he will address are

examples of how comparison ought not to be done. (p. 22)

But he further delays this discussion by irrelevantly accusing most “nonscholarly mythicists” of being disgruntled and obsessed former fundamentalists.

[Maurice Casey] successfully showed that most of them were responding to their previous Fundamentalist views of Jesus. (p. 23)

Litwa cites nothing more than Casey’s assertions, magically transforming his baseless claims into a “successful demonstration”. I demonstrated that Casey’s assertions were lacking in any evidentiary foundation, with the abundance of evidence actually contradicting his claim. See Who’s Who: Mythicists and Mythicist Agnostics. Not a single testimony or publication (internet or print publication) of anyone who has left a fundamentalist or cultic church that I have read has “blamed Jesus” or expressed a desire to banish Jesus from history, though I suppose, given the bigness of the world, that there must be some exceptions somewhere. Former fundamentalists are generally either thankful to Jesus for bringing them out of their cultic associations or simply treat Jesus as an “innocent bystander”, the mere object of belief, while the villainy is always placed squarely on manipulative humans. I myself returned to mainstream churches after my cult experience and was very thankful and happy to do so. It was only after ongoing questioning that I eventually left mainstream Christianity after becoming an atheist, and even later still before I took any interest in the question of the historicity of Jesus.

I do have to wonder if M. David Litwa genuinely read Maurice Casey’s book against mythicists (Casey also personally attacks non-mythicists, anyone whom he appears to think has unfairly dared to criticize his work in the past) because the intellectual level of the book is surely an embarrassment to any professional scholar. Raphael Lataster remarked,

I find the posts by Hoffman, Maurice Casey, and Stephanie Fisher to be too mean-spirited, scornful, unconvincing, polemical, and amateurish to be even remotely worthy of consideration here. (Lataster, 133)

and I also posted some responses that are now archived here.

So Litwa informs readers that “nonscholarly mythicists” are

dispelling a phantom from their own tormented past[s] (though the daimon often returns — seven times as strong) 

and that their mythicist belief is

born of seething resentment and (un)spoken rage against Fundamental Christianity (p. 24)

— without explaining what any of this has to do with his thesis that he has already said is not concerned with the question of historicity. Yet he does insist that there are serious Christ Myth scholars who are not former fundamentalists and that their arguments need to be taken more seriously. Why, or how this advances the thesis of his book, he does not explain. But having thoroughly poisoned the well Litwa proceeds to tackle the arguments of Bauer, Brodie and Carrier.

Bruno Bauer

Litwa manages to discuss Bauer’s “mythicist” views without once mentioning Paul or the New Testament epistles even though it was Bauer’s study of Paul that led him to conclude Jesus had not existed.

At the end of his investigation of the Gospels, Bauer is inclined to make the decision on the question whether there ever was a historical Jesus depend on the result of a further investigation which he proposed to make into the Pauline epistles. (Schweitzer, 139, my emphasis)

As long as Bauer studied the gospels he remained open to the possibility of a historical Jesus as the beginning of Christianity. read more »

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.

-o-

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.


 

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?

read more »

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, 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 »