Are the Gospels Ancient Biographies?: The Spectrum of Ancient Βίοι

In a number of subsequent posts, I will be doing a blog series evaluating the comparison of the canonical NT Gospels with the genre of Graeco-Roman biography in antiquity. Ancient biography is one of my major research areas in Classics, and I wrote my M.A. thesis on the ancient biographer Suetonius Tranquillus. For this first post I will be discussing the variety of ancient βίοι that we know of from both extant manuscripts and fragments across a span of roughly a millennium (from the development of Greek biography in the 5th, 4th, and 3rd centuries BCE to the predominance of Christian biography in the 4th century CE). In order to assess whether the Gospels could be ancient βίοι, one needs to be familiar with the genre as a whole, and, as such, this survey will outline some of the most important exempla of Graeco-Roman biography in antiquity and the major stages of the genre’s development.

The comparison of the NT Gospels with the genre of Graeco-Roman biography has become more popular in recent decades, as scholars search for literary antecedents and parallels between the Gospels and other ancient texts. Prior to modern scholarship, the Gospels were regarded as sacred scripture, and, not surprisingly, were often thought to be sui generis (“of one’s own kind”) in their literary genre, as sacred and inspired texts were generally considered to be different from human ones. Since scholars have been studying the Gospels in a secular and academic setting, however, alongside other literature from antiquity, the Gospels have been treated more as human texts. Since literature is never produced in a vacuum, the question of the Gospels’ literary antecedents and broader genre has become a major issue in evaluating them as ancient literature.

The two most notable studies to make the comparison between the Gospels and ancient βίοι are Richard Burridge’s What Are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography (in English) and Dirk Frickenschmidt’s Evangelium als Biographie: die vier Evangelien im Rahmen antiker Erzählkunst (in German, translated: “Gospel Biography: the Four Gospels in the Context of Ancient Storytelling”). Both studies make the comparison by identifying structural similarities and common features in ancient biographies, and seeking to identify similar structures and features in the Gospels. Burridge’s study is based on a canon of ten ancient biographical texts. Five are pre-Christian: Isocrates’ Evagoras, Xenophon’s Agesilaus, Satyrus’ Euripides, Nepos’ Atticus, and Philo’s Moses. Five belong to the Christian era: Tacitus’ Agricola, Plutarch’s Cato Minor, Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars, Lucian’s Demonax, and Philostratus’ Apollonius. Frickenschmidt’s study is based on an even larger canon of 142 ancient biographical texts (of which, 50 are by Plutarch, 25 by Nepos, 23 by Diogenes Laertius, and 13 by Suetonius).

This blog will focus on the diversity of Graeco-Roman biographies outside of the Gospels, in order to understand some of the texts used in the canons of Burridge’s and Frickenschmidt’s studies.

A major problem in defining the genre of Graeco-Roman biography is the wide and diverse variety of biographical exampla that have come down to us from antiquity. Ancient βίοι can vary considerably in their length. Some can be rather long. Philostratus’ Apollonius, for example, is 8 books long and consists of 347 chapters (roughly 347 paragraphs by modern reckoning). Compare this to, say, Plutarch’s Galba, which is only a single book of 29 chapters, or Suetonius’ Horace, which is only about 5 chapters (or 5 paragraphs) long. Not only do their lengths vary considerably, but so do their contents as well. Apollonius of Tyana was a Neopythagorean philosopher, and so much of the biography is devoted to philosophical discourse. Galba, in contrast, was a Roman emperor, who briefly reigned for a few months during the Roman civil war of 69 CE, and who, after overthrowing the unpopular emperor Nero, was himself assassinated in January 69 CE. Since Galba had become emperor through usurpation and was eventually assassinated by his own Praetorian Guard, much of Plutarch’s Galba is spent comparing the emperor to a mercenary. Then there is Suetonius’ Horace, which tells the life of a poet, and focuses mostly on Horace’s private life and the man behind the poetry. None of these biographies are terribly similar to each other.

Scholarly attempts to define clear subcategories of ancient biography have been met with challenges. Most notably at the turn of the 20th century, Friedrich Leo in Die Griechisch-Römische Biographie Nach Ihrer Literarischen Form sought to differentiate between “Peripatetic” and “Alexandrian” forms of biography. Peripatetic biographies were supposedly designed for famous generals and statesmen, and were structured around a chronological travel narrative. Alexandrian biographies were supposedly designed for poets and philosophers, and were less chronological and more scholarly and topical in their organization. While Leo’s proposal sought to answer a variety of questions that scholars have about the variance in ancient biographical structures, it has since been met with criticism.

Wolf Steidle in Sueton und die antike Biographie critiqued Leo for categorizing ancient biographies according to abstract structural conventions. Instead, Steidle argued that ancient biographies are so diverse in their structures, because of the diversity of personalities and biographical subjects that ancient biographers wrote about, ranging from poets to philosophers to kings and generals. In Steidle’s own words (pg. 166):

“…für die Komposition der antiken Biographie zu jeder Zeit einzig und allein der spezielle Gegenstand, d.h. die individuelle Art der Lebensführung des zu Beschreibenden, nicht aber eine abstrakt formale Scheidung zwischen literarischen und politischen Persönlichkeiten maßgebend ist.”

“For the composition of ancient biography at any time, the decisive factor is solely the specific subject matter, i.e. the individual way of life of the person being described, rather than any abstract, formal distinction between literary and political figures.”

This divergence is unlike a number of other ancient genres that can by more uniform in their compositional structures. Take Tacitus’ annalistic histories, for example. The Roman annalists recorded history per annum, i.e. on a year-to-year basis, identifying each year by the Roman consuls who served in that term. Such a compositional structure could be applied fairly consistently, whether you were writing about a span of time in the 5th century BCE or the 1st century CE. The period did not matter so much, since years are a ubiquitous organizational paradigm.

Ancient biographies, however, are not so consistent. Steidle’s view has challenged Leo’s attempt to categorize ancient biographies according to “Peripatetic” and “Alexandrian” models; though more recent scholarship has also expanded upon the distinction to identify a wider range of biographical sub-types. Justin Marc Smith (“Genre Matters: What Kind of Bioi are the Canonical Gospels?”), for example, interacting with the work of Klaus Berger (“Hellenistische Gattungen Im Neuen Testament”), notes the following proposed sub-types for ancient biography:

“Berger has attempted to combine the typologies of Leo and Wherli by suggesting that bioi be divided as follows: 1) Encomium: following the practice of speeches given to honor an individual at death; 2) Peripatetic: as a chronological presentation of a subject’s life; 3) Popular-Novelistic: written for entertainment; and 4) Alexandrian: a systematic/topical presentation of the life of an individual…”

Others have noted difficulties, however, in defining Graeco-Roman biography as a unified “genre.” As Tomas Hägg (The Art of Biography in Antiquity, pg. 2) argues:

“One of the reasons for the scholarly neglect of biography until quite recently may be that it seems not to form a ‘genre’ in the same way as, say, the novel does, in spite of its many varieties and subgenres.”

One solution proposed by scholars is to define ancient biography according to its minimal components. All biographies must tell the life of some person. In his landmark work The Development of Greek Biography (pg. 11), Arnaldo Momigliano provided a minimal definition of biography:

“An account of the life of a man from birth to death is what I call biography.”

Such a definition is very simple. A biography should tell the life of a person from cradle to death. Whatever lies in between can vary considerably, depending on the individual lifestyle and career of the person being described. It should be noted that, according to this definition, the Gospels of Mark and John may not be considered ancient βίοι, since neither of these texts includes an account of Jesus’ birth (Mark, in fact, is restricted to only about a year of Jesus’ life). That said, not all ancient biographies included accounts of the subject’s birth (although most did). For example, Plutarch’s Cato Minor does not include the subject’s birth; however, a considerable portion of the narrative is still devoted to Cato’s childhood (whereas the childhood of Jesus is also absent from Mark and John, restricting their narratives almost entirely to Jesus’ adult ministry). Then again, Plutarch’s Galba also does not include the birth of the subject, and focuses primarily on Galba’s adult career and role in the civil war of 69 CE, perhaps somewhat more similar to the biographical scope of Mark and John.

Another problem with a minimal definition of biography is that it does not predict or explain many of the features in an individual text. For example, even if we can say that the NT Gospels are “ancient biographies” that does not mean that many of their conventions are universal to the “genre” nor that we can even explain many of the features in Gospels through this comparison.

As Hägg (The Art of Biography in Antiquity, pg. 155) argues, regarding Burridge’s study, which compares the Gospels to a canon of ten ancient biographical texts:

“There is a great diversity within each of the two groups, the four gospels and the ten ancient biographies; and it is this very diversity, we should note, that makes it possible always to find a parallel in one or several of the ten Lives for each feature occurring in one or more of the gospels. What is proven is that the investigated features of the gospels are not unique in ancient biographical literature; but no control group is established to show which features may be regarded as significantly typical of this literature.”

As such, Hägg cautions against claiming that the Gospels “are” ancient biographies, in that we can clearly define them as such through universal features of the genre, but instead argues that the comparison is more useful in simply comparing the Gospels to their backdrop of ancient literature. As Hägg (pg. 155) points out:

“Works of the type of Burridge and Frickenschmidt are important, not for ‘proving’ that the gospels ‘are’ biographies – that remains a matter of definition, no more no less – but for studying them as literature in context. They show that ancient biography is a manifold entity and that the gospels are not more deviant or special than many other biographical texts of Graeco-Roman antiquity.”

Hägg (pg. 155) also notes that the Gospels share features and influences with many other ancient genres:

“At the same time, it is important to remember that the gospels had a background in non-Greek literature as well, and that this background may in some respects be more significant than the elements they share with earlier Greek Lives. Biographical accounts in the Old Testament of patriarchs and prophets may well have been the single most important source of inspiration, as some scholars argue. Nor should the application of the label ‘biography’ imply that influences from other ancient genres, such as historiographical and novelistic literature, are not in evidence.”

Accordingly, the wrong way to think about the comparison is that we can say, black and white, that the Gospels “belong” to the genre of ancient biography. That remains a matter of definition. Instead, through comparative literary studies, it is more useful to see how common tropes and structures in ancient biographical literature can also be found in the Gospels.

Greek Biography’s Origins in the 5th, 4th, and 3rd Centuries BCE:

Arguably, the genre of Graeco-Roman biography owes its earliest influence to Homer’s Odyssey in the 8th century BCE. Unlike the Iliad, which is an epic that focuses on multiple heroes and their role in a larger war, the Odyssey is focused primarily on one man: Odysseus and his journey home after the Trojan war. This focus on a single character gave rise to a particular interest in an individual man’s personality. The Odyssey invites us to analyze the character of Odysseus more so than any other character in the epic. We are largely told the story of his journey through his own eyes. The Odyssey thus influenced the emergence of two particular genres of literature: the ancient novel (which often focused on the travels of a protagonist) and the ancient biography (which analyzed an individual man’s character). It should be noted that the ancient novel and biography share many similarities. Later in this series, I will be discussing NT scholar Dennis MacDonald’s The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark, which also analyzes similarities between the Gospels and the ancient novel. It should be noted that, if the Gospels can be meaningfully compared with ancient biographies, it is not unlikely, given the two genres’ similar origin, that the Gospels also share many features with the ancient novel.

Ancient biography began to take shape as a formal genre in the 5th century BCE Greek world. It began with popular fixations on individual personalities. Most notably, Homer himself had become a subject of great interest, since the two greatest epics of Greek literature were attributed to him, and yet nobody knew much about the man himself. As such, one work that we have undertaking the task, The Certamen of Homer and Hesiod, likely evolved as proto-biographical text, which can shed light on the genre’s early formation. The Certamen was an “open text” that evolved and was expanded upon all the way until the 2nd century CE, although its earliest version(s) probably dated to the 5th century BCE (discussed here). The Certamen focuses considerably on the question of Homer’s identity. It is a joint proto-biography of Homer and Hesiod, which, similar to the definition of biography given above, tells the stories of their lives from ancestry to death. The Certamen begins with telling all of the various accounts of Homer’s native birthplace. The stories are so conflicting that even Homer himself has to visit the Oracle of Delphi to find the truth!

Homer was not the only figure to attract biographical attention in the 5th century BCE. Likewise, the Greek fabulist Aesop was the subject of many proto-biographical developments, as were the Seven Sages of ancient Greece. As Momigliano (The Development of Greek Biography, pg. 27) explains:

“Another subject which interested fifth-century readers was the life and thought of the Seven Wise Men. The so-called drinking songs of the Seven Wise Men quoted by Diogenes Laertius … are generally recognized as fifth-century products .. In more popular quarters stories were told about the life of Aesop. Herodotus had some knowledge of it, as the curious anecdote in 2.134 about Aesop’s murder in Delphi shows.”

In the early 4th century BCE, the genre of ancient biography saw another major development with rising interest in the personality of the philosopher Socrates. As Hägg (The Art of Biography in Antiquity, pg. 10) explains:

“The single most important force for the emergence of Greek biography in the fourth century BC, it has been convincingly argued, was the personal and historical impact of the figure of Socrates, as reconstructed or invented by the Socratic writers.”

Of these Socratic writers, the most important to the development of the genre of ancient biography was Xenophon. Xenophon was a former pupil of Socrates, a mercenary soldier (who also wrote an autobiographical account of his campaign into Persia in his Anabasis), and very prolific author, who is regarded by scholars as the first known biographer. Xenophon’s Memorabilia is an early biography of Socrates, which notably lacks the label βίος (“the life of”) in its title (which was a later development). Xenophon’s Memorabilia helped pave the way for philosophical biography, and his Agesilaus, which narrated the life of the Spartan king Agesilaus II, also helped shape the development of political biography. It should be noted that Xenophon’s Anabasis, Memorabilia, and Agesilaus are all biographical texts, and yet the vary considerably from each other in their content and structure, despite having the same author.

Xenophon was writing in the early-4th century BCE, but by the time of the late-4th century BCE, the genre of ancient biography had begun to take on more formal characteristics, particularly in using the word βίος (later vita in Latin) in their titles. Hägg (pg. 67) explains:

“From the first half of the fourth century BCE, most of the texts that from a biographical point of view appear to have been important have actually survived; but none of them has ‘bios’ in its title, and a narrowly biographical interest did not seem to be their main driving force. For the second half of the same century, the reverse is true: Lives were written and so called in the title, an unmistakably biographical form was established – but no single work has survived in anything like its complete form. Yet the fragments and testimonia are numerous enough to preclude any reasonable doubt that this was a crucial period in the history of ancient biography.”

It should be noted that the Gospel titles do not contain the term βίος (“the life of”), and the word “gospel” comes from the Greek εὐαγγέλιον (“good news”).

Hägg notes that among the lost biographers of this period, whose works are only partially extant in fragments, most prominently we know of AristoxenusLives of Pythagoras and Socrates, SatyrusLife of Euripides, Hermippus the Callimachean, and Antigonus of Carystus. All of these authors wrote biographies about philosophers or poets. As Hägg (pg. 93) further elaborates:

Aristoxenus was in all likelihood a leading man in the process that made biography a recognizable literary form in the late fourth century BCE. The focus was on the whole life of a person, rather than deeds or ideas or artistic oeuvre viewed in isolation. Furthermore, we already notice much of the scholarly apparatus that will mark the rhetoric of biography, irrespective of the actual blend of fact and fiction: eyewitnesses, written sources, the weighing of evidence, a declared will to find out the truth about a character, and open or hidden polemics against earlier representations of the same figure. The other three were active in the second half of the third century, when the genre was consolidated and, to all appearances, experienced its Hellenistic heyday. To the interest in ethics and in character revealed in life and lifestyle has now been added the antiquarian urge, the obsession to record variant traditions, however mutually irreconcilable, and the will to document, sometimes at the expense of portrayal.”

It should be noted that, alongside of these rigorous biographies, which appear to have discussed sources and methodology, there was also the rise of another form of biography that was more informal in its structure and focused on the lives of popular heroes. Hägg (pg. 99) further explains:

“Simultaneously with the emergence of a bookish form of biography in the late classical and Hellenistic periods, vital biographic traditions were in progress at an oral or subliterary level, concerning in the first place legendary figures of great popular appeal … In contrast to the Lives treated in the previous chapter, which are the works of distinctive authors and largely remain under authorial control, these are anonymous; and they are ‘open texts’, with regard to origin as well as transmission.”

These popular lives were about legendary figures, such as Homer and Aesop, but also historical figures like Alexander the Great, who had a variety of fictional biographies written about him in the Alexander Romance [1].

Of the two groups of ancient biography discussed above, the Gospels, I argue, are more similar to the popular biographies in the latter category. This is due to a number of reasons:

  1. The Gospels are anonymous in the composition, just like the popular biographies of Homer, Aesop, and Alexander.
  2. The Gospels operated, at least originally, more as “open texts,” since much of their content was adapted and reworked into later versions. For example, the Gospel of Matthew borrows from as much as 80% of the verses in Mark, and Luke likewise borrows from 65% of the material in Mark. This is not typical of historical and scholarly biographies, which had greater authorial control, such as those of Plutarch, who does not merely copy his material from earlier works.
  3. The Gospels do not discuss their sources or methodology, which is a feature of more historical and scholarly biographies. Instead, like the popular biographies of Homer, Aesop, and Alexander the Great, they are less critical, more hagiographical, and include more legends and myth-making.

In addition to the Alexander Romance, Alexander the Great also inspired a number of historical biographies of his life, most notably the works of Callisthenes, Onesicritus, and Ptolomy, which were later quoted by biographers like Plutarch and Arrian in the 1st-2nd centuries CE. These biographies of Alexander were largely chronological, focused on his journeys and military campaigns, and were rigorous in their methodology. The early historical biographies of Alexander the Great were thus a major influence on the development of political biography, which dealt with kings, generals, and statesmen.

Jewish Biography:

It should be noted that, outside of the developments of Graeco-Roman biography discussed above, there was also a Jewish tradition of biography, which, depending on the work and time period, occasionally had Hellenistic influences.

As Hägg (The Art of Biography in Antiquity, pg. 381) explains:

“Jewish biographical discourse, especially the Lives of patriarchs and prophets in the Old Testament, had a direct impact on the Christian authors through their reading of the Septuagint and of the Jewish-Hellenistic writers Philo and Josephus, in addition to the indirect influence through the gospels … Philo’s On the Life of Moses, a narrative interpretation of the biblical story, is one of the specific texts that inspired Christian biography. The Acts of the Apostles, both the canonic and the many apocryphal, provide further biographically structured stories.”

Philo’s Moses is an example of a Jewish biography, which was written before the NT Gospels and was likewise heavily influenced by the Greek Septuagint. The Greek influence on Philo allowed for a blend of Jewish and Hellenistic literary genres, which is present likewise in the Gospels.

It should further be noted that, in terms of their language and sentence structure, the NT Gospels are more similar to the Septuagint than any other Greek text. As NT scholar Bart Ehrman (Forged, pg. 224) explains:

“In all four Gospels, the story of Jesus is presented as a continuation of the history of the people of God as narrated in the Jewish Bible … All of these books are written anonymously … the message of the Gospels … is portrayed in these books as continuous with the anonymously written history of Israel as laid out in the Old Testament Scriptures.”

The influences of the Septuagint on the Gospels, I would argue, are much stronger than those of Graeco-Roman biography. For example, Luke is probably the most Hellenistic of the four canonical Gospels, even including an opening statement in Lk. 1.1-4 typical of the opening statements in Graeco-Roman biographies. After these few verses, however, the language of the Septuagint becomes more prominent. As scholar Marion Soards (Oxford Annotated Bible, pg. 1827) explains:

“The initial four verses of the book are a single Greek sentence that forms a highly stylized introductory statement typical of ancient historical writings … After this distinctive preface, however, the narrative shifts into a style of Greek reminiscent of the Septuagint.”

It should also be noted that, unlike historical Graeco-Roman biographies, the Septuagint is not as methodologically rigorous, and almost never discusses the sources or the methods of investigation used to construct narratives. This may very likely account for why the Gospels are not similar to ancient Graeco-Roman historiography. Since historical biographies, such as those of Plutarch and Suetonius, overlapped with this category, the Gospels are not very similar to them as well, though they may share features with popular Graeco-Roman biographies, such as those of the Alexander Romance.

Roman Biography:

So far I have mostly been discussing the Greek side of Graeco-Roman biography, but the Romans also had their own distinct biographical tradition. The earliest forms of Roman biography largely followed Greek models. This can be seen in the biographies of Cornelius Nepos who lived in the 1st century BCE. Nepos’ Lives of Eminent Commanders largely followed a chronological and peripatetic form of narration, typical of Greek biography.

As Roman literature developed, however, Roman biography began to take on its own unique characteristics. In particular, Roman biography was influenced by the funeral orations that were given at a man’s death, as well as inscriptions that recorded a man’s political offices and career. Hägg (The Art of Biography in Antiquity, pg. 234) explains:

“The cursus honorum so diligently recorded in Roman inscriptions of various categories is one well-known manifestation, a kind of mini-biography in stone.”

An example of a Latin autobiographical work, which combines Latin funeral orations with funerary inscriptions into a form of autobiographical narrative, is the emperor Augustus’ Res Gestae, which was published posthumously after his death. The Res Gestae is unlike Greek biography in that it mostly catalogs the Roman political offices and military and civic achievements of Augustus, and does not follow a chronological and peripatetic narrative.

Probably the best example of Roman biography that we now possess is Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars, which was the subject of my M.A. thesis. Suetonius’ biographies are unlike Greek models of political biography, such as those of the Alexander the Great, in that they do not follow a chronological and peripatetic structure, but instead arrange material thematically. This is explained by Suetonius in the opening chapters of his Augustus (9.1):

“Proposita uitae eius uelut summa parte<s> singillatim neque per tempora sed per species exsequar, quo distinctius demonstrari cognoscique possint.”

“With a summary, as it were, of his life set forth, I will follow the parts one by one, not chronologically, but through subject headings, whereby they can be demonstrated and understood more distinctly from one another.”

This last academic quarter I wrote a seminar paper, titled “Narration Per Tempora and Per Species in Suetonius’ De Vita Caesarum,” that explores some of the peculiar structural features of Suetonius’ narrative style. Part of the paper also contrasts his style with Plutarch, who wrote biographies on some of the same subjects. Plutarch’s Julius, Galba, and Otho are organized very differently than Suetonius’ Julius, Galba, and Otho, showing how two authors writing biographies on the same subjects could structure their biographies very differently.

Suetonius influenced the later Roman biographies of Marius Maximus (now lost) and the Historia Augusta (a rather gossipy collection of imperial biographies falsely attributed to a group of authors, but probably written by a single individual).

Imperial Biographies of the 1st and 2nd Centuries CE:

The imperial period in Rome produced some of the most prominent ancient biographical works that are known today. Not only did Suetonius write in this period, but so did Tacitus, whose Agricola is an example of Roman biography. The most famous Greek biographer during this period is Plutarch, whose Parallel Lives includes the biographies of 46 Greek and Roman statesmen. Plutarch also wrote a collection of biographies on the Roman emperors, of which only his Galba and Otho survive. This collection may have also inspired Suetonius’ biographies about the Roman emperors, although this is uncertain among scholars.

Plutarch and Suetonius are probably the two most famous biographers from antiquity. They wrote political and historical biographies, but, despite being better known, this should not imply that political biography was the mainstream in antiquity. As Hägg (pg. 381) explains:

“While these two authors have a dominant position in the modern apprehension of what ancient biography is, their choice of subjects represents the exception rather than the rule, at least with regard to Greek literature. The biographical mainstream, in fact, consists of Lives of religious and philosophical figures, from the beginnings with the different pictures of Socrates and his way of life right up to the Late Antique emergence of Christian hagiography. In the Hellenistic period, as we saw, philosophical Lives dominated over literary and political, and in the Early Empire the form was used in the gospels to embody the new creed in multiple Lives of its founder-figure.”

For perhaps a more representative example of mainstream and popular biography during the imperial period, one might consult Diogenes Laertius’ The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers and Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius of Tyana (although both of these biographers still exercised considerably more authorial control than the anonymous and popular biographies of famous heroes that were very popular in antiquity, but which often do not survive today).

Given this background, when one compares the NT Gospels with the genre of Graeco-Roman biography, it is important to remember that most exempla of this genre are not like the historical biographies of Plutarch and Suetonius. Furthermore, the biographies of Plutarch and Suetonius share similarities with Graeco-Roman historiography that are almost completely absent from the Gospels. I discuss many of the conventions of ancient historiography in my article “Ancient Historical Writing Compared to the Gospels of the New Testament.” To name a few important features here:

Plutarch, as a historical biographer, is methodologically conscious about the sources he consulted for his biographies and how he weighs the evidence. For example, Plutarch begins his Lycurgus (1.1-3) with this introductory statement:

“Concerning Lycurgus the lawgiver, in general, nothing can be said which is not disputed, since indeed there are different accounts of his birth, his travels, his death, and above all, of his work as lawmaker and statesman; and there is least agreement among historians as to the times in which the man lived. Some say that he flourished at the same time with Iphitus, and in concert with him established the Olympic truce. Among these is Aristotle the philosopher, and he alleges as proof the discus at Olympia on which an inscription preserves the name of Lycurgus. But those who compute the time by the successions of kings at Sparta, like Eratosthenes and Apollodorus, prove that Lycurgus was many years earlier than the first Olympiad. And Timaeus conjectures that there were two Lycurgus at Sparta, at different times, and that to one of them the achievements of both were ascribed, owing to his greater fame; he thinks also that the elder of the two lived not far from the times of Homer, and some assert that he actually met Homer face to face. Xenophon, also, makes an impression of simplicity in the passage where he says that Lycurgus lived in the time of the Heracleidae. For in lineage, of course, the latest of the Spartan kings were also Heracleidae; but Xenophon apparently wishes to use the name Heracleidae of the first and more immediate descendants of Heracles, so famous in story. However, although the history of these times is such a maze, I shall try, in presenting my narrative, to follow those authors who are least contradicted, or who have the most notable witnesses for what they have written about the man.”

Although Plutarch acknowledges that there are many problems in reconstructing the life of the legendary Spartan lawgiver Lycurgus, he is nevertheless open and clear about the sources he consulted and his methods of inquiry. None of the Gospels, with the exception of a brief statement at the beginning of Luke, ever discuss their sources or methods of reaching conclusion. Even Lk 1.1 only contains this brief statement about written sources:

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us…”

Such a statement pales in comparison to that of Plutarch and is not of very much help. We can tell, however, from source analysis that the author of Luke derived a large portion of his material from the Gospel of Mark (another anonymous text even more silent about where it obtained its material).

Historical biographers were also open in discussing contradictions among their sources. As I discuss in my article “Bible Contradictions: Why Are They There? What Do They Entail?,” the NT Gospels contain many contradictory versions of stories and events. This is not an immediate problem for their historical accuracy, as many ancient authors had to deal with different versions of stories and events when consulting different sources for constructing their narratives. The difference, however, is that historical biographers often identify these contradictions and compare the different versions of events when reaching their conclusion. For example, the historical biographer Suetonius in his Caligula (8.1-5) openly discusses contradictions in his sources about the birth place of the Roman emperor Caligula:

“Gaius Caesar was born the day before the Kalends of September in the consulship of his father and Gaius Fonteius Capito. Conflicting testimony makes his birthplace uncertain. Gnaeus Lentulus Gaetulicus writes that he was born at Tibur, Plinius Secundus among the Treveri, in a village called Ambitarvium above the Confluence. Pliny adds as proof that altars are shown there, inscribed “For the Delivery of Agrippina.” Verses which were in circulation soon after he became emperor indicate that he was begotten in the winter-quarters of the legions: “He who was born in the camp and reared ‘mid the arms of his country, gave at the outset a sign that he was fated to rule.” I myself find in the gazette that he first saw the light at Antium. Gaetulicus is shown to be wrong by Pliny, who says that he told a flattering lie, to add some lustre to the fame of a young and vainglorious prince from the city sacred to Hercules; and that he lied with the more assurance because Germanicus really did have a son born to him at Tibur, also called Gaius Caesar, of whose lovable disposition and untimely death I have already spoken. Pliny has erred in his chronology; for the historians of Augustus agree that Germanicus was not sent to Germany until the close of his consulship, when Gaius was already born. Moreover, the inscription on the altar adds no strength to Pliny’s view, for Agrippina twice gave birth to daughters in that region, and any childbirth, regardless of sex, is called puerperium, since the men of old called girls puerae, just as they called boys puelli. Furthermore, we have a letter written by Augustus to his granddaughter Agrippina, a few months before he died, about the Gaius in question (for no other child of the name was still alive at that time), reading as follows: “Yesterday I arranged with Talarius and Asillius to bring your boy Gaius on the fifteenth day before the Kalends of June, if it be the will of the gods. I send with him besides one of my slaves who is a physician, and I have written Germanicus to keep him if he wishes. Farewell, my own Agrippina, and take care to come in good health to your Germanicus.” I think it is clear enough that Gaius could not have been born in a place to which he was first taken from Rome when he was nearly two years old. This letter also weakens our confidence in the verses, the more so because they are anonymous. We must then accept the only remaining testimony, that of the public record, particularly since Gaius loved Antium as if it were his native soil, always preferring it to all other places of retreat, and even thinking, it is said, of transferring there the seat and abode of the empire through weariness of Rome.”

Here, Suetonius acknowledges that there is a contradiction, but as a historical author he instead engages in a rigorous analysis of the various forms of evidence, ranging from the works of previous historians, to inscriptions, to personal letters, to public records, in order to get to the bottom of the discrepancy. He discusses his sources and methods to give context to the conclusions that he has reached.

There is no such rigorous analysis in the Gospels. As ancient historian Richard Carrier discusses in “The Date of the Nativity in Luke,” the narratives of Jesus’ birth in both Matthew and Luke contain a number of contradictory statements; however, unlike the historical biographer Suetonius, the author of neither gospel discusses how there were differences among their sources. Notice how in Suetonius the contradictions are dealt with consciously within the narrative, rather than between narratives, as in the Gospels, by two authors who give their own versions of events without any discussion of sources or method. This is another one of the many features that separates the Gospels from historical biography, even if they may share similarities with popular biographies that were less rigorous.

The Rise of Christian Biography in the 3rd and 4th Centuries CE:

Ancient Graeco-Roman biography, alongside the rise of Christendom, was gradually replaced by Christian biography. This is not to say that the two are completely different: Christian biography owes much of its development to earlier Pagan models. However, Christian biographies were often more hagiographical, legendary, and focused on acts like martyrdom. As I discuss in my article “March to Martyrdom! Down the Yellow Brick Road…” these Christian biographies included works like the Acts of Paul and the Acts of Peter, which are biographical in their focus on an individual subject, but are also less focused on the subject’s entire life rather than the narrative of his martyrdom and death. Both Acts also include a large number of legendary elements.

Regarding the importance of martyrdom in Christian biography, Hägg (The Art of Biography in Antiquity, pg. 381) explains:

“There is the whole complex of early Christian martyr stories, starting in the mid-second century with the martyrdom of Polycarp. Description of the interrogation and execution of the martyrs readily gets supplemented with a retrospect on their life, the embryo of a regular saint’s Life. A precursor of the hagiography to come is Vita et passio Cypriani, the short Latin Life of the martyred Bishop Cyprian of Carthage (ca. 200 – 58), written by his deacon Pontius and sometimes declared the ‘first Christian biography.’”

The differences between hagiography and biography should also now be noted. Marc van Uytfanghe is a scholar whose article “L’hagiographie: un “genre” chrétien ou antique tardif?” discusses some of the key features of hagiographical discourse. Since the work is in French, I will quote Peter Hatlie in The Monks and Monasteries of Constantinople, Ca. 350-850 (pg. 10), who summarizes Marc van Uytfanghe’s main points:

“Among the most able of scholars at work in this field today is Marc van Uytganghe, whose research considers hagiographic texts from many epochs and different cultural contexts, Christian and Pagan alike. In two of his best-known studies, he proceeds from an examination of the literary development of hagiography and its principal themes to brief discussions of interpretation. Instead of classifying hagiography as a literary genre, he prefers the expression ‘hagiographic discourse’ in view of the following criteria: (1) hagiographic discourse takes as its subject people who are close to God, but not God or gods themselves; (2) it represents a fundamentally subjective account, rooted in oral tradition and freely borrowing from both historic and invented materials as it comes to be written down; (3) it is more performative than informative, which is to say it favors idealization, apology, clarification, and edification over the neutral transfer of information; and (4) because it deals with archetypes and platitudes, hagiographic discourse tends to picture the world in fixed terms, where values as such virtue and vice or good and evil are separate and static entities.”

It should be quite obvious that the NT Gospels had a very large influence on the development of later Christian biography, and the hagiographical element of Christian biography no doubt owes its origin to them. Historical Graeco-Roman biographies are not always so one-dimensional in praising their subject. Even for a popular and well-liked emperor like Augustus, the historical biographer Suetonius in his Augustus still did not hold back from describing Augustus’ acts of adultery (69) and lavish behavior (70). Good historians and biographers are concerned with telling the past as it really is rather than just heaping praise upon individuals as propaganda. However, the Gospels only have positive things to say about Jesus, and, accordingly, later Christian biography owed much of its hagiographical nature to them.

It should also be noted that, alongside the biographies of saints and martyrs, political biographies continued to be written in the Christian era. For example, the church father Eusebius in his Life of Constantine provides an example of political biography about a Christian Roman emperor. Like the hagiographical elements common to other Christian biographries, however, Eusebius’ Constantine is considerably more praising of the emperor than previous Graeco-Roman biographies about Roman emperors.


In this first part of my blog series on comparing the NT Gospels with Graeco-Roman biography I have discussed the origins of Graeco-Roman biography in the 5th-3rd centuries BCE and have also traced the course of its development up through the Christian era. As has been shown, the genre of Graeco-Roman biography was rather diverse in antiquity, with many variations in structure and content depending on the biographical subject being described. As such, the comparison of the NT Gospels with “Graeco-Roman biography” is no simple or straightforward matter, as ancient biographical scholars still debate how the genre can even be defined to begin with.

-Matthew Ferguson

[1] As classicist Richard Stoneman (The Landmark Arrian, pgs. 388-389) explains: “Soon after his death, Alexander’s life story was written up by an anonymous author … This work, known as the Alexander Romance, emphasized the fabulous elements of Alexander’s story and added many new fables … This work seems, however, not to have been known to the Romans until it was translated by Julius Valerius in the fourth century CE; this has led to the mistaken view, still shared by many, that the Greek original was not written until shortly before that date. Probably it arose much earlier, perhaps in the early third century BCE. The Alexander Romance is a fictional biography that … is of interest as indicating the way that the memory of Alexander was shaped a generation or two after his death.”

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14 Responses to Are the Gospels Ancient Biographies?: The Spectrum of Ancient Βίοι

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James’ Ramblings and commented:
    Long post, so be warned. But I found reading it to be worthwhile.

  2. I believe that we have talked about this before, but I think that some of the elements of philosophical bios (which is a category that has not been adequately studied) best approximates the genre of the Gospels; particularly their lack of concern for chronological coherence, their blatant hagiography, open contradictions between accounts, the existence of varying traditions, their primary interest in teachings, aphorisms and successor lists etc… This both expresses itself in philosophical biographies, but perhaps more importantly (given small number of philosophical bios that antiquity has bequeathed to us) in the way in which ancient philosophers’ utilized the traditions of notable philosophers. So, for example, consider the presentation and sources of the figure of Socrates we see witnessed in Epictetus’ writings (and on this see in particular Döring, “Sokrates bei Epiktet.” and Tsalla’s “Socrates as the Paradigm of the Ethical Personality in Epictetus”). Studies on Socrates in Seneca’s writings advance a similar point.

    Also, you will want to refine your statement about Philo’s “Moses” and biography; in particular interacting with the work both published on this topic by Maren Niehoff in Studia Philonica and GRBS. Perhaps more importantly though the quote from Marc van Uytfanghe seems outdated. In particular consider Arthur Urbano’s monograph that has just been published “The Philosophical Life: Biography and the Struggle for Philosophy in Late Antiquity” which (convincingly in my estimation) places late-antique Christian hagiography and biography as being indebted to philosophical biographies.

    Also (if you don’t mind me pointing you to another resource!) Andrew Pitt’s forthcoming work where he argues against Burridge should be of interest to you: see

    Looking forward to learning from your forthcoming posts.

  3. Also I should say, given that my post above might come across as too critical, that I appreciated your detailing of the handling of sources that is evident in historical/political bios and the differences between them and the Gospels.

  4. Pingback: Gospels Legendary or Historical Biographies? | oliviaanddad

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  6. Stephen Wright says:

    Thanks for this article, it’s a great read and most enjoyable. Just one thing, I am not entirely persuaded about the growth of popular biographies, at least in terms of comparing their rapid emergence with the gospels. Someone, like Alexander for example, was a widely known character, who acted out it his life on a grand stage. The rapid embellishments on such a well know character are understandable. But Jesus life was quite different, he spent his life in a back water, an unknown figure to the majority of people, and even afterwards, the same was true for a very long time. So, I think the arguments against fabulisation and extraordinary embellishments (in the gospels) have a point, because of the time scale involved. This is not to suggest that there aren’t any, and as time went on, (as the none canonical gospels show), there was a definite movement in this direction; but I am not sure that it is a good argument for implying that the gospels must be full of the fanciful .

    I’d be interested to hear your response.

    • Celsus says:

      Hi Stephen,

      To answer your question: I am actually going to turn your intuition on its head. Let’s stop and think about what it would take to turn Alexander into a fabulated hero. The historical Alexander had already accomplished many extraordinary deeds during his lifetime. He had expanded the small countries of Macedonia and Greece into conquering most of the known world. He had traveled as far as India and deep into Central Asia. He had vanquished great kings and generals. He had founded many cities and left behind a great empire (even if it fractured). And he had done all of this by his early-30’s.

      What sort of embellishments needed to be fabricated about Alexander, in order to make his story more glorious? Really, not too many. Sure, you could add stuff about him meeting legendary Amazon warriors (like Achilles) during his military expeditions. You could spread rumors about his mother being impregnated by a god (like Hercules). And you could speak of journeys to the end of the world (like Odysseus). But when it’s all said and done, the real Alexander the Great was already a legend in his own right.

      Now let’s turn to Jesus. If you wanted to spread stories about Jesus being the Messiah, what kind of Messiah would he make if he was nothing but an obscure, itinerant peasant, who made little impact on the known world during his lifetime? Jesus was never recognized by the vast majority of his contemporary Judeans as their king. He never overthrew the yoke of Roman oppression. He never ushered in any sort of cosmic judgement or transformation while he was alive. Who wants to hear about a Messiah who was little more than a vagabond wandering around giving sermons?

      So, if you want to dress Jesus up as a Messiah, you actually have far more work to do. You would need to spread stories about him ascending to heaven (like Elijah). Stories about him walking on water (even more remarkable than Moses merely parting water). Stories about him multiplying even more bread than Elisha had. Stories about him raising the dead and performing nature miracles (like both Elijah and Elisha). And, if Jesus had not ushered in cosmic judgement during his lifetime, then you would need to speak of celestial visions foretelling how he would do so in the future (such as what John of Patmos witnessed).

      So, I actually think that someone like Jesus would have far more fabulation occur in his popular biography. Note, bother Alexander and Jesus had their legends take shape around mimetic models. Alexander was modeled on figures such as Achilles, Hercules, and Odysseus. Jesus was modeled on figures such as Moses, Elijah, and Elisha. But Jesus’ story needed far more miracles and wonder-working in it, in order to raise him from an obscure peasant to someone far more remarkable. Alexander didn’t need that. He already was remarkable. It didn’t take as much myth-making to impress people with Alexander’s story. But who wants a King of the Jews and Messiah that does nothing but wander around giving sermons and speaking in parables? You need to add miracles, thunder, and furry to the story, in order to get people to follow Jesus.

  7. Hey Ferguson. I’ve read a lot of your posts and I wanted to ask some questions in order to see your views on this, that, etc. One thing you noted was that AN Sherwin-White’s rule is not much of a “rule” at all, since it’s possible for myth to rapidly develop. I’m similarly unconvinced that there’s any such “rule”. However, that doesn’t mean that there’s a fact that continues to apply — the closer a source is to the event it describes, the more reliable it tends to be. This is not a “rule”, but it’s generally true, and the criterion of early attestation, even if not a proof, increases the plausibility of any case for the reliability of a text. We would prefer a text 50 years from the events rather than 500. You write that “As Kris Komarnitsky discusses … fictional biographies emerged about Alexander the Great within half a century of his death”. But Komarnitsky doesn’t say that the Alexander Romances, the texts you’re referring to, did emerge this early at all. In fact, Komarnitsky admits that this is the basis of wide controversy on how early these Alexander Romance traditions are (since they’re written many centuries later) that will probably never be resolved, though he does note a recent interpreter that agrees with him.

    I appreciate your post and I find it highly informative. However, I have more I’d like to ask about. This is a question, since I actually don’t know the answer. You note that many biographies, like those of Plutarch, discuss their methodology and whatnot. Methodology and source encompasses the good majority of your arguments. However, as you note in this post, there’s a category of Jewish biography as well. Was discussion of methodology as prominent in Jewish biographies as these historical biographies like Plutarch and Suetonius you mention? And if not, how prominent was it? How many Jewish biographies engage in not much, if any of this methodological discussion?

    Though Michael Licona is an apologist (the reality is that everyone in this sort of discussion is one form of apologist or another), his recent book Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? (2016) was published by Oxford University Press and makes an important, original contribution to the topic. Licona directly compares a large number of literary characteristics between Plutarch and the Gospels, and finds numerous matches and the fact that this element of ancient biography, especially in Plutarch, helps us understand many differences in the Gospels. There’s more to point out, but this encompasses the points I’m going to make for now and see how you address them.

    • Celsus says:

      Thank you for your comment. Just so you know, I’m currently on a medical leave of absence from school and taking a break from this blog. So, I’m not really interested right now in getting involved in a protracted discussion. That said, I will provide some feedback on the points that you raise here.

      Regarding the first point that you raise, yes, I agree that a text dating earlier generally situates it within a context that is closer to the social, geographical, and historical details of the events depicted.

      This is one of the reasons that I believe in the historical existence of Jesus. We do have sources for him dating to within a century of his life (some non-Christian), which increases the plausibility of accurate details being recorded about him. Even though I do not think that the evidence for Jesus is anywhere near comparable to Alexander or Caesar, I am generally satisfied enough with the evidence to believe that Jesus existed, comparable to other historical figures.

      A better comparison of the evidence for Jesus would be the historical Socrates. We do have a variety of sources for Socrates’ life (some dating closer than any sources for Jesus), which depict him in a variety of ways. One reason that it’s almost always a bad idea to compare Jesus to figures like Alexander or Caesar is because the latter were far more prominent individuals, attested by a wide archaeological and papyrological context. But Socrates (a sculptor), like Jesus (a carpenter), was a more obscure figure, and so the historical-critical context is more comparable.

      Regarding the dating of texts and their relation to historical reliability, I would recommend that you take a look at this essay, wherein I analyze the historicity of Alexander, in comparison to Jesus:

      Something worth noting is that, even if our most extant sources date to centuries after Alexander’s life, we still have fragments from contemporary historians (preserved in multiple textual sources), who wrote about Alexander during his lifetime or shortly after. Moreover, we actually have at least one historiographical account of Alexander, discovered in papyri, which is near contemporary to his life:

      The authors of these sources date closer to Alexander’s lifetime than any known authors who wrote about Jesus. The corpus we have of Alexander’s exploits is also considerably longer and more detailed than that for Jesus.

      Regarding the Komarnitsky citation, yes, that was a slip on my part. Thanks for catching it in this (older) post. I’ve made an edit, which has removed that paragraph for now, until I get a chance to revise it.

      Regarding the dating of popular-novelistic biographies, first, it should be noted that we do have an example of a text written in this genre, which dates to about 50-100 years after the subject’s lifetime. The Life of Secundus is an anonymous bios, which scholar Justin Marc Smith regards as a contemporary form of biography:

      One issue, however, is that the Life of Secundus does not resemble the Gospels as closely as the Alexander Romance or Life of Aesop. Scholar Richard Stoneman argues that the AR, in roughly its current form, was originally composed a generation or two after Alexander’s lifetime. That thesis is controversial, since scholars like Jouanno have proposed other theories about the dating of the AR.

      That said, there are a lot of nuances to consider when evaluating the dating of popular-novelistic biographies. First off, we do have fragmentary evidence for the Life of Aesop, discussed by scholar Tomas Hägg, which seems to attest versions of the Life dating considerably earlier than its current form (possibly as early as the Classical period). Even a much earlier version of the LoA would still date too far after Aesop’s life to be contemporary. But the point does show that popular bioi first emerged earlier than the Gospels were written. The Certamen of Homer and Hesiod also appears to attest similar versions of the two poets’ lives, which dated back many centuries.

      Both popular and historiographical biography, as genres, appear to have taken shape around a time that is roughly contemporaneous with the New Testament texts. Our earliest form of the Life of Aesop is generally dated to somewhere between the 1st century BCE to the 2nd century CE (and as I’ve noted, there appear to have been similar versions dating earlier). The Certamen and Life of Secundus appear to be products of the 2nd century CE. And while our earliest extant version of the Alexander Romance may date to as late as the 3rd century CE (even though scholars like Stoneman argue that it derives from a version much earlier), segments of the Life appear to have been written centuries earlier. Scholar Catherine Hetzer argues that the Letter to Olympias (in book two) may have been composed around the turn of the 1st centuries BCE and CE (curiously close to Jesus’ lifetime). There are also letters included within the AR, which probably go back to as early as the Hellenistic period, especially since similar letters have been discovered in Hellenistic papyri.

      In terms of historiographical bioi, Plutarch composed around the same time as the composition of the New Testament, whereas Tacitus and Suetonius likely wrote shortly thereafter, and Cornelius Nepos some decades before. It’s easier to date these texts than the popular Lives, primarily because they were written by autobiographical authors (who include statements about their own experiences in the first person), and were not subject to open-textual revision. The popular Lives are all written with anonymous narrators (as are all of the Gospels, except for the prologue of Luke), and their texts would be adapted into later versions (similar to how Matthew and Luke adapt earlier material from Mark).

      As such, whereas our existing versions of the historiographical Lives are much closer to the text in its earliest form, we almost certainly do not possess the earliest versions of texts like the Alexander Romance and the Life of Aesop.

      When it comes to the differences between historiographical and popular-novelistic biography, I actually discuss far more details and nuances than just their methodology and use of sources. I am writing my dissertation on how the Gospels can be compared to popular-novelistic biographies, and in that I will discuss things like their use of direct speech, redaction of earlier sources, and organization of material. I’ll also be discussing how the Gospels compare/contrast with biographers like Plutarch and Suetonius.

      First off, it should be noted that all of the surviving historiographical biographers (dating to the same period), who wrote about events contemporary to their own time (Nepos, Plutarch, Tacitus, Suetonius, and Lucian), include discussion of their own experiences in the first person. I discuss some of their eyewitness citations in the following essay:

      None of the Gospel authors discuss their own experience in the same way, and their narratorology does not resemble “autobiographical authors,” something that I also discuss in more detail here:

      But there are also far more subtle distinctions between these two genres of biography. One is the difference between the “diegesis” and “mimesis” of their narratology. Since that gets into some technical literary-critical stuff, I’ll refer you to this essay which explains some of the distinction in more detail:

      Plus, it’s also worth considering the similar methods of characterization between these popular bioi:

      To answer your question:

      “However, as you note in this post, there’s a category of Jewish biography as well. Was discussion of methodology as prominent in Jewish biographies as these historical biographies like Plutarch and Suetonius you mention? And if not, how prominent was it? How many Jewish biographies engage in not much, if any of this methodological discussion?”

      Tomas Hägg discusses above the lives of the patriarchs and prophets in the Old Testament, as well as Philo and Josephus. Regarding the first example, there is no doubt that OT biographical sections greatly influenced the Gospels. After all, the Gospels refer to them in scripture citations. But, these segments of the OT do not constitute “biography” as a genre. They all included in larger works, with a much broader scope of material. You could say that they write about the “lives” of patriarchs and prophets, but do not constitute Lives.

      Josephus wrote an autobiography, which is a fairly different genre in terms of ancient literature. That work is written heavily in the first person, about Josephus’ own background and experience, at a rate more common than both historiographical biographers and popular-novelistic Lives. It doesn’t really resemble the Gospels very much.

      Philo’s Life of Moses dates earlier than the Gospels, and is not an autobiography like Josephus. A problem with Philo, however, is that he wrote about a distant figure, and thus Justin Smith regards him as “non-contemporary.” Philo narrates his text in the first person far more than any of the Gospels. Consider the prologue to Philo’s biography:

      “I have conceived the idea of writing the life of Moses, who, according to the account of some persons, was the lawgiver of the Jews, but according to others only an interpreter of the sacred laws, the greatest and most perfect man that ever lived, having a desire to make his character fully known to those who ought not to remain in ignorance respecting him … since the historians who have flourished among the Greeks have not chosen to think him worthy of mention, the greater part of whom have both in their poems and also in their prose writings, disparaged or defaced the powers which they have received through education, composing comedies and works full of Sybaritish profligacy and licentiousness to their everlasting shame, while they ought rather to have employed their natural endowments and abilities in preserving a record of virtuous men and praiseworthy lives, so that honourable actions, whether ancient or modern, might not be buried in silence, and thus have all recollection of them lost, while they might shine gloriously if duly celebrated; and that they might not themselves have seemed to pass by more appropriate subjects, and to prefer such as were unworthy of being mentioned at all, while they were eager to give a specious appearance to infamous actions, so as to secure notoriety for disgraceful deeds. But I disregard the envious disposition of these men, and shall proceed to narrate the events which befell him, having learnt them both from those sacred scriptures which he has left as marvellous memorials of his wisdom, and having also heard many things from the elders of my nation, for I have continually connected together what I have heard with what I have read, and in this way I look upon it that I am acquainted with the history of his life more accurately than other people.”

      This introduction bears some resemblance to the prologues of Luke-Acts, but it’s hard to deny that Philo is far more detailed and elaborate in discussing the sources that he consulted.

      So, when it comes to Jewish biography, I would argue that Josephus’ autobiography is not an apt comparison. The lives of the patriarchs and prophets in the Old Testament are certainly important for analyzing the sources and composition of the Gospels, but these OT sources do not constitute the genre of bios. Philo is the closest comparison, but he is far more detailed in discussing his own background and sources.

      Regarding Mike Licona’s new monograph, I do have a copy and have been planning to write a review for some time (however, some health issues have slowed me down recently). Licona compares when Plutarch writes about the same event in different portions of his texts, and how these parallel sections compare/contrast with one another. He argues (persuasively, in my opinion) that Plutarch often omits certain details from one version versus another, or describes an event in different ways. Accordingly, Licona argues that the different versions of events between the Gospels should not always be regarded as “contradictions,” since there is a literary precedent for these kinds of variations.

      I agree partly with Licona, but a difference between Plutarch and the Gospels is that the former is not redacting an earlier text from another author. Plutarch in his own works writes about the same events in different ways. But Matthew and Luke actually adapt a previous work into their own narratives, and when authors do this, they often redact the earlier work, to change it according to what they think is more suitable. As such, when comparing the differences between Mark, Matthew, and Luke, we must consider that some of the differences are intentional, and actually do represent a different version of the same event, when one author has changed the account of another. I discuss this further in the following essay:

      A similar argument to Licona’s is made in another volume by Craig Keener, for which I have actually had the time to write an extended review. I think that you would find the following link helpful for addressing your question:

      Take note, I do not (at the current time I am writing this) regard the Gospels as a form of Christian hagiography. The Lives of Christian saints belong more to the context of Late Antiquity. I do think that the Gospels are highly “hagiographical,” but in an earlier literary context. Rather, I argue that the Gospels belong more in the context of popular biographical literature, which was being edited and composed anonymously in the Eastern half of the Roman Empire around the first couple centuries CE.

      That said, there are certain comparisons of Christian hagiography with the Gospels, which are useful for historical-critical considerations (if not generic ones). For example, the Life of Saint Genevieve was written only eighteen years after the lifetime of the subject. And yet it includes things such as monsters, exorcisms, calmed storms, and healings. In light of that, I would argue that fabulous tales can emerge quite early, and so it wouldn’t surprise me if the Gospels were engaging in a similar kind of fabulation, even if only written about half a century after Jesus’ life.

      • Thanks Matthew. I appreciate your response, but I’ve never contested that the evidence for the existence of Jesus is anywhere near that of Alexander or Caesar’s. Jesus is a non-elite figure, which makes this completely unsurprising. So, no disagreement there. I’m also glad you agree with what I noted regarding Komarnitsky. I understand you’re on medical leave, so I’ll keep this short, and you are under no obligation to continue responding.

        I am aware of Stoneman’s interpretation, as Komarnitsky explains, however the hypothetical nature of these arguments, as Komarnitsky notes, leaves behind a probable state where scholars will never come to consensus on this topic, and so reference to an early date of the AR can’t be secured. As far as the Life of Aesop goes, I’m not sure you’d contest that there’s similarly no evidence to date this text to anything but within a very long period after Aesop’s death. Even in the classical period, like, say, 400 BC, may be over a century and a half after the death of Aesop. While I wouldn’t contest that novelistic bios existed when the Gospels were written, what seems to be less secure is popular/novelistic biographies within, say, 40 years of the death of the figure (like Mark). I’m also aware of some of your arguments regarding the distinctions between the historical biographies and the Gospels, however, this isn’t an area I’d like to get in to right now and I’d like to focus on the subject of my comment.

        As for my comment, I asked if Jewish biographies discuss their methodology and sources and whatnot. I agree Josephus, writing a biography of himself is not exactly the best comparison (very hard to compare different sources for a reliable account of .. yourself). You say that Philo discusses his sources and whatnot, which is exactly what my question is about, actually. Have you written anything about this elsewhere? How often does he do this?

        On the point of Licona’s book, which I noted to emphasize many of the similarities that bios of those like Plutarch have with the Gospels, you give a lot of links, all of which I’ll definitely read (though you’ve given a bit much to read before I write this response). So perhaps we’ll come back to this one day. The last point I’ll make, though, is on your reference to the internal anonymity of the Gospels. Based off of a recent paper I’ve read by Simon Gathercole, I think it’s evident that the specific feature of an author not naming themselves in a text is not an actual characteristic of ancient biography, and so not particularly relevant to the conversation. Gathercole writes;

        In some respects biography is a subgenre of historiography, but it is treated separately here because of the different ways in which the sphragis may or may not be employed.40 Moreover, it is probably true that the most popular view of the Gospels’ genre (though not a consensus position) is that they most closely approximate to bioi. In this connection it is important to note that Philo omits his name from his biographically oriented works on Abraham, Joseph, and Moses. Josephus’ autobiography does not contain a preface mentioning the subject’s name, so if absence of such a self-reference were a criterion for anonymity we would be left with the absurd result that Josephus’ Vita was anonymous. Among well-known biographers Plutarch (1st–2nd c. CE) makes no mention of his name in his Parallel Lives. Of the biographical writings of Lucian (2nd c. CE), his Passing of Peregrinus has his name, but as part of an epistolary prescript (‘Lucian to Cronus, with best wishes’); otherwise, Alexander the False Prophet, the Toxaris, and the biography of Demonax have no mentions of Lucian’s name in a preface. In the Alexander, Lucian’s name appears towards the end merely because he is a participant in the drama (Alex. 55), and similarly Porphyry’s Life of Plotinus (3rd c. CE) only features its author when Porphyry’s relationship with his subject intrudes into the narrative. Accordingly, his Life of Pythagoras does not mention Porphyry by name. The Life of Apollonius by Philostratus (2nd–3rd c. CE) and two works entitled Lives of the Sophists, one by him and another by Eunapius (4th– 5th c. CE), do not. Similarly, on the Roman side, Nepos (1st c. BCE) makes no mention of his name in his preface. The Agricola (late 1st c. CE) does not name Tacitus, although the mention that the author is the subject’s son-in-law means that the writer’s identity is not in doubt (Agr. 3). (pp. 458-9)

        P.S. It’s not the thesis of Gathercole’s actual paper I’m noting, rather this specific point Gathercole makes.

        Thanks for the long comment.

        • Celsus says:

          Just to offer a brief reply:

          I agree that there is considerable dispute about the dating of the Alexander Romance. Stoneman does offer a number of arguments in favor of early dating, importantly noting how many of the components of the AR (in terms of its material) seem to date to the Hellenistic period. I’m fine with a later period of composition, but likewise, I do think that the AR was being composed at a time either before or around the time of the Gospels’ composition. For generic purposes, therefore, I do think that they can be compared in a similar literary context.

          What you seem to be more concerned about, however, is whether popular-novelistic biographies were ever written about recent or contemporaneous figures. Bear in mind, we do not have many examples of this genre that have survived. There is the Alexander Romance, the Life of Aesop, the Certamen, and the Life of Secundus. Out of these, 1/4 were written about a recent figure (possibly 2/4 if the AR dates earlier).

          I don’t think that it’s too great of a generic challenge, if the Gospels defied the norm, and wrote about a more recent figure. First off, it should be noted that generic deviations of this sort are not unprecedented. Recently I published an article about the Book of Revelation, in which I discussed how it was unusual for the witness of the revelation to be a contemporary church figure. Most ancient apocalypses were attributed to ancient figures from the distant past. But, Revelation names John as the witness, and he even writes about current events that he is concerned with. Does this mean that Revelation shouldn’t be identified with the genre of apocalyptic literature? I don’t think so.

          Moreover, if you look at the biographies of Plutarch and Suetonius, there is considerable variation in whether they write about distant or recent figures. Plutarch does both, and while Suetonius wrote about fairly recent Roman emperors, he also has a lost biographical work about the lives of the Roman kings. So I wouldn’t say that the genre is defined by or constricted by whether the biographical subject is distant or recent. Justin Marc Smith does argue that there was a contemporary form of popular-novelistic biography, regarding the Life of Secundus.

          I have not actually written much about Philo, in particular, which is something to expand on in the future. For generic purposes, it’s very notable that Philo writes in a first person, autobiographical voice. He interjects his own voice into the narrative in a way that is quite different from the Gospels. To see how the Gospels, in contrast, are narrated with formal anonymity, I recommend this article by Armin Baum:

          When I discuss formal anonymity, I am not stating that historiographical biographers tend to provide their name within the body of the text. What I am saying is that they make more statements about their background, sources, and experiences in the first person, as autobiographical authors. The Gospels (as well as other popular-novelistic biographies) are instead narrated dominantly in the third person. This is an important generic nuance, and it relates to how diegesis and mimesis differentiates these narratives, as I discuss in the following aforementioned link:

          I agree with Gathercole’s point, but I don’t think it solves the issue at stake. An author does not need to provide his name, in order to give far more information about his identity than what is seen from the Gospels’ authors (as Nepos, Plutarch, Tacitus, Suetonius, and Lucian all do). Moreover, even in the titular attributions of these works, the Gospels are said to have only been written according to their traditional authors. As Martin Hengel explains:

          “The unusual titles of the Gospels already indicate that the evangelists are not meant to appear as ‘biographical’ authors like others, but to bear witness in their works to the one saving message of Jesus Christ. As is already shown by the beginning of the oldest Gospel, Mark 1:1, ‘beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ,’ the title of this Gospel could not be ‘Gospel of Mark’ because the content of his book was the ‘Gospel of Jesus Christ,’ the saving message of Christ–as subjective genitive (or genitivus auctoris), ‘coming from Jesus Christ’ and objective genitive, ‘about Jesus Christ’–but only ‘the Gospel (of Jesus Christ) according to Mark.’ The real ‘author’ of the one Gospel was Jesus Christ himself.”

          The historiographical biographies are not formally anonymous, in the way Hengel describes above. Their titles use the genitive to say that they are the works of the author, not according to the author.

          • Right, I’m surely not claimed that being an outlier invalidates your case. However, it is one among many factors that need to be considered in an overarching case. I’m sure this is something we’re both on the same page.

            I’ve enjoyed the work of Armin Baum I’ve seen so far, and I’ll definitely read the paper you recommend. Just looking at its abstract, though, a question appears in my mind. No doubt that many biographies like those of Philo, Plutarch and Suetonius have some sort of authorial presence that is either minimal in the Gospels (Luke and John have a few verses each) or completely absent (Mark and Matthew). However, given what Baum writes in the abstract, one must pose a question; is the authorial absence of the Gospels a product of (1) being placed under the class of novelistic biography, such as the Life of Aesop, or the product of (2) being written in imitation of various Old Testament books? It’s possible that it could be both, though it isn’t necessarily both. This isn’t something I’ve considered before, but it’s worth considering.

            I will admit to only vague familiarity on the scholarly interpretations of “Gospel of X” versus “Gospel according to X”. From what I know, it appears that this raises the possibility that, for example, a text was not claimed to be written by a certain figured called ‘Mark’ but claimed that its traditions go back to a certain figure called ‘Mark’. Novelistic biographies, however, don’t claim to be “according” to a certain author either, so it’s not clear whether or not this peculiar feature of the Gospels has more to say about its genre (historical vs novelistic) then, say, the fact that Christian traditions shaped the use of whichever genre that the authors of the Gospels were using.

          • Celsus says:

            Yes, there are a lot of factors to consider on why the Gospels are formally anonymous. Bear in mind, one can consider influences that are both “generic” (parallel texts) and “genetic” (source texts). Since the Gospels used the OT books as a source of imitation, this would be a genetic form of influence. The Gospels taking shape during the proliferation of popular-novelistic biographies, and adapting their form of narratology, would be a generic influence. Personally I think that both factors are at work.

            On this point, it’s worth noting that some scholars argue that the Gospel of Luke was familiar with the Life of Aesop, and imitated portions of it:


            Novelistic biographies were sometimes attributed (though without the “according to” construction). The Alexander Romance was attributed to Callisthenes in some of the manuscripts (although this is clearly pseudonymous). But yes, it is odd that the Gospels have the unusual “according to” construction. I think that this is due to the fact that, when the NT canon was being formed, there was a high proclivity to connect each text with a named church figure. In fact, all of the NT books are attributed to church figures of authority, with the exception of Hebrews.

            David Trobisch argues that the Gospels were given their traditional names, during the middle of the 2nd century. Originally, the Gospel of Mark was probably titled “The Gospel of Jesus.” But, when multiple Gospels were in circulation, and especially when four were placed in the NT canon, there came a need to expand on the title, so as to distinguish them from on another. Trobisch argues (persuasively, in my opinion) that the names attached to the Gospels were based on internal features of texts (e.g., the name change from “Levi” to “Matthew” was a reason that a later editor used this name). As such, Trobisch argues that the Gospels were not attributed based on known authors, but rather based on editors finding a need to give a text a certain name, held by a church figure.

            So, I think Christianity’s canonical concerns (a factor absent from other novelistic-biographies) is the reason we get the unusual “according to” construction.

          • I think my last response, combined with yours, is an adequate summary of all the possibilities on the table here given this topical subject. You’ve introduced me to a a large sum of information that I was certainly not aware of earlier (I read and saved Baum’s paper, and I also was completely unaware of the fallacies in the Tiberius 10/42 sources and Mount Vesuvius arguments you debunked elsewhere), and I think I have a much better grasp on the topic. Therefore, the next step, for both of us perhaps, is to come up and continue thinking about the best solution. That’s where I’m at, at least.

            I did mention a paper by Gathercole, published a few months ago, arguing that the names attached were original. Of course, I’ll have to see how other scholars vet Gathercole’s work on the subject and until then I’m going to hold onto some skepticism.

            Given the lack of dispute in your latest response, I think there’s little for us to dispute right now at all. On that note, I thank you for the respectful discussion and perhaps we’ll have another one at another time.

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