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Are the Gospels Reliable Sources? Part Four: “But These Are Written That You May Believe…” – The Gospels as Greco-Roman Biographies 

Written by Alex Smith. In part four of this series, Alex Smith explores the nature of the Gospels, asking whether they should be considered as ancient biographies, and weighing up scholarship on the subject.

This article is part of a series entitled ‘Are the Gospels Reliable Sources?’. The rest of this series can be read here. The bibliography of this series can be found here.

‘It requires little acquaintance with the Gospels to recognize

that they are works about Jesus. It also requires little acquaintance with ancient biography to recognize that its most conspicuous feature is that it nearly always focused on its personal subjects. It therefore comes as no surprise that most Gospels scholars today have embraced the view that the Gospels are ancient biographies.’ 

Dr Craig Keener: Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary 

If the Gospels are eyewitness accounts, the question remains as to what kind of literature they are.  If an eyewitness wrote a fictional story, it would be very different to if they wrote a historical account. The majority of scholars today agree that the Gospels are ancient biographies. This was also the case all the way up to the beginning of the twenty-first century. Critics changed this thinking when they advocated that the Gospels were a unique genre, similar to folklore. They were challenged by scholars like Charles Talbert, in 1977, and Philip Shuler, in 1982, who both compared the Gospels with ancient biographies. Both Talbert and Shuler’s arguments had weaknesses, but they laid the groundwork for future study. Klaus Berger and his student Dirk Firckenschmidt also advocated that the Gospels were biographies, but it was Richard Burridge’s 1992 book What are the Gospels? that really made an impact. His arguments persuaded the vast majority of scholars that, to at least some degree, the Gospels were Greco-Roman biographies. Burridge identified four main features of Greco-Roman biographies: 

1)   Opening features – Title and introduction that highlight who the biography is focused on. 

2)   Subject – The subject of the biography takes up the majority of the text, in particular of the verbs. 

3)   External features – Such as style and structure. They draw attention to the subject. 

4)   Internal features – Things like settings and topics, as well as the values and intentions the author presents. 

He then examined the Gospels to see whether they had the same identifying features. Burridge concluded that the Gospel’s titles could not be used to suggest they were biographies, but their introductions could. The Gospels have Jesus as the clear subject, and even the heavy emphasis on the last week of Jesus life and lack of information for the first 30 years of it, has comparisons in ancient biographies. The emphasis on a chronologically small but important period is the same as a single battle being given 26% of Agricola’s biography. The Gospels’ external and internal features are the same as or very similar to those of ancient biographies. This led to Burridge’s conclusion that the Gospels were ancient biographies. 

Ancient biographies were not the same as modern biographies and it was a very wide and flexible genre. Noted classicist Christopher Pelling wrote in The Oxford Classical Dictionary:  

Biography in antiquity was not a rigidly defined genre. Bios, ‘life’, or bioi, ‘lives’, could span a range of types of writing, from Plutarch’s cradle-to-grave accounts of statesmen to Chamaeleon’s extravagant stories about literary figures, and even to Dicaearchus’ ambitious Life of Greece. Consequently, the boundaries with neighbouring genres—the encomium, the biographical novel on the model of Xenophon’s Cyropaedia, the historical monograph on the deeds of a great man like Alexander the Great—are blurred and sometimes artificial. One should not think of a single ‘biographical genre’ with acknowledged conventions, but rather of a complicated picture of overlapping traditions, embracing works of varying form, style, length, and truthfulness. 

The historical reliability of ancient biographies as a genre was highest between the first century B.C.E. and the third century C.E. Within the broader genre of biography, the Gospels are closest to the biographies of sages. These worked to accurately transmit the sages’ teaching. At the same time, the Gospels are also like the biographies of public figures, which give full, detailed descriptions of their subjects’ lives. Ancient biographies were not just straight historical accounts. They also had other interests and emphases, in particular their subject’s character. They would highlight and shape their accounts to highlight it. At the same time, good biographers only used the information they were given, and did not make up new stories. 

Ben Meyer said that ‘If the intention of the writer can be defined to include factuality and if the writer is plausibly knowledgeable on the matter and free of the suspicion of fraud, historicity can be inferred’ to a reasonable degree. At the same time Richard Bauckham pointed out that those studying a text should assess ‘the general reliability and character of a testimonial source and, if it is judged trustworthy, trusting it’ to the degree that the assessment had found it reliable. If by their genre, the Gospels are claiming to be historically accurate, we should treat them as such unless there is good reason to think otherwise. Modern scholarship strongly suggests that both Luke and Matthew use Mark as a source. It shows how they wanted to use information rather than make things up. It also demonstrates how they believed Mark was a reliable source, despite the fact that they often rearrange his content. Papias disagrees with Mark’s order, whilst acknowledging that Mark was often not attempting chronological order. He prefers the order in the later Gospels, but still sees Mark as a reliable source. Matthew, Luke and Papias were all better placed to know the genre, claims being made, and reliability of Mark than we are. 

Ancient biographies were a subtype of historiography. Classicist Philip Stadter described the two as having “fluid” boundaries. Biographies were not perfect historical accounts. Nepos got some of his information wrong, Suetonius could get numbers wrong, and Plutarch could treat some material as slightly adjustable, even if he had been accurate in other places. Plutarch would also sometimes add his own details to events to flesh them out, but he did not invent the events themselves. At the same time there was also disagreement amongst regular historians over “shaping detail” and Plutarch’s biographies, for example, are very similar to regular histories. He drew upon many sources, evaluating their reliability, and was often chronological in his work. Suetonius, rather than evaluate his sources, included a wider range of sometimes contradicting accounts, and allowed the reader to decide. Some have argued that the Gospels are straight historical accounts. They highlight how they contain many historiographic elements. This is true, but due to the fluidity of the two genres and the close links between them it does not take away from the Gospels as ancient biographies. As David Aune said, biography was ‘firmly rooted in historical fact rather than literary fiction.’     

Ancient historiography was not the same as modern historiography and should not be judged by the exact same standards. There were different conventions and aims. At the same time, ancient historians and biographers had a higher view of factual truth than is sometimes assumed today. Rhetorical presentation was important as it was required for a work to be read and have people pay to have copies made. Narratives had to make sense and be cohesive, resulting in historians sometimes speculating to fill in small details. Modern historians do this as well, but the ancient historians did it in narrative form. This did not give ancient historians and biographers freedom to do whatever they wanted. In his letters Pliny pointed out that there was clear distinction between history and oratory. Lucian criticised other historians who over embellished their accounts. Speeches were sometimes imaginatively reconstructed, and ancient authors, like modern ones, had biases and agendas. They could also present individuals and events in very different ways. For example, there are vastly different portrayals of Alexander the Great as a person depending on the source read. But this also happens today. James Dunn used the example of the different ways Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher are portrayed in modern biographies. 

Although they could not always agree on the finer details, ancient historians thought that accuracy mattered. Craig Keener created a list of things that were expected from history, and therefore from historical biographies: 

  • ‘History was supposed to be truthful.’ 
  • ‘The historian must provide unmixed truth.’ 
  • If an ancient historian deliberately lied, then others would hold them to account. 
  • If they were accidently incorrect it would still be pointed out by their peers, but they would be less harshly reprimanded. 
  • If a writer deliberately always presented their subject matter as harshly as possible, they ‘could be accused of malice’. 
  • ‘The goal of history, unlike myth, is purely truth.’ 
  • Even the most ‘rhetorically focused, pre-Christian historian, writing essays on earlier historians’ rhetoric’ would still advocate that history should be as factually accurate as possible. 

Not all ancient historians or biographers would live up to this standard, or even their own standards, but biography and history were not fictional genres. This view was also shared by Hellenistic Jewish historians. 

Greek historians were very good at research. Herodotus, Thucydides, Diodorus Siculus, Philostratus, and Polybius were all advocates and practitioners of traveling, interviewing eyewitnesses and cross-referencing sources. Many Roman historians tended not to, because they had so many records in Rome. But it was Greek historiography that was dominant in the eastern Mediterranean and the Gospels were written in this historiographical culture of critical research and preservation of memory. 

The New Testament books of Luke and Acts are two volumes of the same work, yet the evidence suggests that Luke’s Gospel is a biography, and Acts is a historical monograph. At first glance this would not seem to work, until we remember the flexibility between genres. There are also examples of different volumes in a series having different genres. There are ‘overlapping biographies’ in Plutarch’s Galba and Otho. Luke’s Gospel is on the border between biography and history and the preface makes it clear that although it is a biography, he is doing history. He has engaged with eyewitnesses and is still writing in living memory of the events he is describing. Luke also arranges his material to help make points and draw comparisons. It has many of the hallmarks of particularly Greek historiography. Martin Hengel summed it up when he said, ‘His account always remains within the limits of what was considered reliable by the standards of antiquity.’ 

In the book Biographies and Jesus some of the contributors make comparisons with different ancient biographies and the Gospels. They examine the historical reliability of those biographies so that they can see the probability that the Gospels are accurate or inaccurate. Timothy J. Christian looked at Cornelius Nepos’ Themistocles. He found that Nepos heavily relied on Herodotus and Thucydides and accurately uses them. As it is a biography, he moralises them to make points, but this does not detract from his accuracy. The areas where Nepos is careless do not invalidate the overall reliability. Nepos has reputation for being a weak historian and writing many centuries after his subject matter. If he managed to reliably impart accurate information how much more so would Gospels written within living memory, by eyewitnesses or people who knew eyewitnesses. Craig Keener studied Suetonius’ Otho. He concluded that, whilst it is unclear to what extent Suetonius adapted some of his information, in particular motivations, it is obvious that he had a heavy dependence on source material. Suetonius saw history as reliant upon prior information, not something where he could make it all up. Suetonius was relatively close to the eyewitnesses, and there is high probability that a great proportion of what he says is correct. The Gospels appear to have an even stronger reliance on source material, Matthew and Luke use Mark extensively, and are even closer to the events. It stands to reason that their accounts would be more reliable than that of Suetonius. A comparison of three different accounts of the life of the Emperor Galba by Suetonius, Plutarch and Tacitus was carried out by Benson Goh. He discovered that overall, there was a substantial degree of agreement and historically reliable agreement between them. What differences there were may have been ‘caused by differences in biographers’ purposes, sources, memories and degrees of specificity.’ Fasil Woldermariam compared Plutarch’s, Xenophon’s, and Nepos’s Biographies of Agesilaus. He found that if a later biographer used a biography written by an eyewitness it is likely to be reliable. Biographers preferred eyewitness testimony. These two showed that biographers could accurately pass on information and were aware of what was reliable and what was not. Esteban Hidalgo’s ‘Redaction-Critical Study on Philo’s On the Life of Moses, Book 1’ found that Philo arranged some chreia thematically, and that the Gospels may have done the same. This would not affect the accuracy of the statements but would mean that some were not in chronological order or were grouped together thematically. This may be what Mark did in his Gospel and may be why Papias criticised him. 

Perhaps the most controversial part of identifying the Gospels as biographies is the debate over the extent to which they contain compositional, or literary, techniques. Michael Licona’s book Why are there Differences in Gospels has been particularly influential in advocating the viewpoint that ancient biographers were taught literary techniques that gave them flexibility in their accounts. Licona uses ancient compositional textbooks to demonstrate progymnasmata, or ‘preliminary exercises in rhetoric.’ He then presents a range of techniques that he, and some classicists such as Christopher Pelling, argue that writers were taught. They include: 

addition to clarify, intensify, or expound upon certain points; omission for brevity; substituting a different term, usually a synonym; altering the inflection of a word (e.g., changing a singular to a plural or vice versa); creating a dialogue from a speech or teaching; and changing a question to a statement or a command, or vice versa. 

Licona also uses Plutarch’s Lives as a case studyIn them Plutarch tells the same story in different accounts, and Licona compares these to come up with more literary techniques. These were that Plutarch: 

compresses stories, conflates them, transfers what one character said to the lips of a different person, inverts the order of events, rounds numbers, simplifies, and displaces a story or an element of a story from its original context and then transplants it in a different one, occasionally using a synthetic chronology. The most common device we observed Plutarch using was literary spotlighting. 

Plutarch is also said to paraphrase regularly, sometimes just to follow literary conventions, with no apparent practical purpose. 

Licona then turns to the Gospels and identifies many of the same techniques as being used by the Gospel authors. He presents it as an explanation for why many of the differences between the Gospel accounts exist. His proposal is controversial amongst some scholars, in particular Peter J Williams, and Lydia Mcgrew, for three main reasons.  

  1. They do not see the evidence for some of these techniques in Plutarch and the Gospels and think that the evidence for a wide group of literary techniques does not exist.  
  1. They do not see the techniques taught in schools as being prescribed for historiography, and question where the Gospel authors, none of whom went to prestigious schools and the most well educated of them being a tax collector, would have learned these techniques.  
  1. The third reason is they accuse Licona of advocating fictionalising techniques, which present the Gospels as accurate sources but at the same time say the authors deliberately made changes that they knew were not true.  

Licona, and his supporters like Craig Keener, have rejected the use of the term fictionalising and have accused their critics of having reasoning that is too black and white. They also pointed out that the Gospels’ authors may well have had scribes to help them, as many ancient writers including the apostle Paul did. These scribes may well have been educated in the literary techniques. I think Licona and Keener are correct in identifying literary techniques in ancient biographies and that they may, to some extent, be in the Gospels. But having examined the arguments I do not think that all the techniques go as far as Licona and Keener suggest and that not all have been used in the Gospels, particularly not as frequently as they suggest. I agree with Craig Blomberg that it is the ‘fictionalising devices’ in particular that do not hold up to scrutiny. There are many examples where good harmonisations, a normal historical technique, and looking a bit more carefully at the text, provide better explanations for Gospel differences. Others are best answered with literary devices. Those that involve a discrepancy between a Gospel and another historical account, need to include a weighing up of the other account’s reliability. 

It is not denied by the scholars who hold to the literary device theory that the Gospels used these devices less than other biographers. They agree with John Kloppenborg’s statement that ‘Matthew and Luke used Q [a hypothetical but likely pre-Gospel source] far more “woodenly” than other writers employed their sources’ and Licona says that ‘Plutarch employs nothing close to the near “copy and paste” method that is very often employed by Matthew and Luke.’   

M. David Litwa agrees that the Gospels are written as historical Greco-Roman biographies but sees them as ‘something like mythical historiographies.’ Whilst the authors believed that they wrote about real events, they had become mythologised in the time period between them taking place and being written down, and the Gospel authors used historical techniques to make them sound more plausible. An issue with his argument is that for him, the Christians’ “mythic age” was very recent, whilst for Greeks it was long ago. The Greek historians who talked about myths did so explicitly, acknowledging when they were talking about myths and when they were talking about history. They also only described events in the distant past as myths, which had had time to change and develop. They did not describe events within living memory as myths. Greco-Roman historians did also not see all “unusual” events as myths.  

Both the evidence, and the weight of scholarship suggest that the Gospels are Greco-Roman biographies. This means that they are historical texts, albeit with flexibility that allowed their authors to frame their subject in a particular light. Meredith Kline and Michael Kruger have argued that this frame is a covenantal one. Kline sees a strong comparison between the literary structure of the Old Testament book Exodus and the Gospels. Kruger points out that both have an emphasis on, ‘the life of the covenant mediator, the inauguration of the covenant, and a new law delivered by the covenant mediator.’ There is an emphasis on how God’s promises and relationships with his people come about. The Gospels are presenting their historical information through this framework. 

Bibliography

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