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 not been very successful. 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 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 is more accepted among ancient biographical scholars today than Leo’s; however, since Leo’s attempt to categorize ancient biographies according to “Peripatetic” and “Alexandrian” styles has largely been abandoned, more problems remain for dealing with the variations of structure and content in ancient βίοι, while still attempting to define the Graeco-Roman biography as a unified “genre.”

As Tomas Hägg (The Art of Biography in Antiquity, pg. 2) notes:

“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, the first surviving work that we have undertaking the task, The Certamen of Homer and Hesiod, is a proto-biographical text that sheds 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 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.

Another interesting note is that mythical material can easily appear in such popular biographies within only a few decades of the subject’s death. As Kris Komarnitsky discusses in “Myth Growth Rates and the Gospels,” fictional biographies emerged about Alexander the Great within half a century of his death, just as the Gospels were written about Jesus roughly 40-60 years after his death. As the comparison with the Alexander Romance shows, a biography is not historically reliable simply because it is written only a few decades after the subject’s death, since many popular ancient biographies were written within that span, even for historical figures like Alexander the Great, and yet they included large amounts of legendary development. This form of biography likewise does not engage in the source analysis and methodology that is necessary to make an ancient text historically reliable.

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 used by the biographer Arrian in the 2nd century 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.

Conclusion:

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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5 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 https://nearemmaus.wordpress.com/category/scholars-theologians-pastors/andrew-w-pitts/).

    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

  5. Pingback: Making Mountains Out of Molehills, Part 3 | triggermanblog

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