SBL/AAR 2014: Plutarch and the New Testament

Things have been insanely busy this academic quarter, which is why I announced earlier this year that I will be on something of a sabbatical from blogging, until I finish my qualifying exams and advance to candidacy in my Ph.D. program.

However, I am currently visiting family in Phoenix for the Thanksgiving holiday, and, now that I have a chance to catch up on some blogging this weekend, I would like to discuss my visit to the Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion 2014 Conference in San Diego last weekend.


This was my first visit to the SBL/AAR annual conference, and I was only able to visit for a couple days of the conference, owing to graduate work. I had a really great time, though, visiting the panels and feeling the pulse of current Biblical, Philosophy of Religion, Ancient Mediterranean Religions, and Classical scholarship. The panel I enjoyed most during my visit was the Sunday Corpus Hellenisticum Novi Testamenti panel “Plutarch and the New Testament.”

As readers of this blog will probably know, ancient biography is one of the major subjects of my graduate research. I completed my M.A. thesis on the Latin biographer Suetonius Tranquillus, and I have also written here previously about the diverse spectrum of βίοι (“lives”) in antiquity. Accordingly, you could imagine that I was very interested in visiting a panel about the Greek biographer Plutarch and his relation to the New Testament.

PlutarchPlutarch was an author who lived and wrote from about 50-120 CE. This is a very important time for New Testament Studies, because probably the entire corpus of the NT was written during this exact period. Scholars such as Richard Burridge (What Are the Gospels?) have also argued that the Gospels of the NT belong to the genre of ancient biography, which Plutarch was a major contributor to with both his Imperial Lives and Parallel Lives. I evaluate this comparison of the Gospels with ancient biographies, including discussion of its merits and problems, in my blog series “Are the Gospels Ancient Biographies?.” Moreover, Plutarch did not just write biographies, but also several other monographs on various topics, such as his Moralia, which includes 78 essays relating to Greco-Roman customs and mores (excellent for doing social history!).

Now, I have argued that, while the Gospels may possibly belong to the genre of ancient biography, they are not very structurally or thematically similar to Plutarch’s biographies. Part of the reason why is that the spectrum of ancient βίοι was very broad and includes a wide range of diverse exempla, meaning that, even if two texts are both ancient biographies, that does not entail that they will necessarily be similar to each other. Furthermore, Plutarch conducts far greater research than the Gospels, and explains his sources of information, whereas the Gospels are silent about their literary sources. For example, compare the beginning of Plutarch’s Lycrugus (1.1-4) with the Gospel of Luke (1.1-4) and count how many literary sources each author names and explains their relevance. Finally, Plutarch is far more didactic and scholarly in his biographies, whereas the Gospels are far more hagiographical and scriptural.

But, the usefulness of Plutarch in understanding the NT is not to argue that Plutarch writes identically to the NT, but to understand him as a contemporary author who reflects many of the trends in Hellenistic literature during the 1st-2nd centuries CE. Plutarch is useful for studying the Gospels and the other books of the NT as literature in context.

There were four papers presented on the “Plutarch and the New Testament” panel. Since these papers were spoken orally, and I likewise do not have permission to publish them online, the links below are only to the abstracts of the papers, which can be accessed publicly on the SBL’s website.

Rainer Hirsch-Luipold started the panel with “Plutarch and the New Testament – History, Challenges, and Perspectives,” which surveyed major issues of Plutarchan and NT scholarship from the last 40 years, ever since the publication of H.D. Betz’s groundbreaking work Plutarch’s Theological Writings and Early Christian Literature (1975). On a related note, Frederick Brenk also gave a paper, titled “Plutarch’s Monotheism and the New Testament,” which discussed philosophical and religious conceptions of monotheism in the ancient world, and both Plutarch’s and the NT’s debt to Plato. Luc Van der Stockt — president of the International Plutarch Society — also gave a paper on Plutarch’s use of notes and sources, titled “‘Don’t waste old filing cards!’ Plutarch’s Technique of Hypomnematic Composition,” which I really enjoyed, especially since it bore relevance to some of my previous work in source analysis and the structures of Greek and Latin historiographical and biographical texts.

But, in particular, I enjoyed David Aune’s paper “Why Compare Plutarch and the New Testament? Some Possibilities and Problems,” which surveyed the history of scholarly attempts to assemble volumes of parallels between Hellenistic literature and the NT corpus, including parallel passages, uses vocabulary and phrases, historical content, etc. These collections of parallels (such as those assembled by J.J. Wettstein and Paul Billerbeck) are often massive, half-hazard in the organization, and have not been critically examined by many Classicists. As such, Aune discussed the need for more Classical historians to evaluate parallels between Hellenistic texts and the NT. Hitherto, more theologians and NT scholars have been concerned with assembling these parallels, but they have not been critically reviewed as much as they should by Classicists, who are working from the other end of the spectrum.

One example that came up was Craig Keener’s new volumes on Acts, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary, which boasts 10,000 references from extra-biblical sources. The problem, however, is that not many Classical historians have evaluated these references to assess their relevance and validity. I got thinking after listening to Dr. Aune’s paper that this is exactly the kind of work that I could do for my dissertation. A dissertation that critically surveyed volumes of parallels between Classical texts and the NT corpus, from a Classical perspective, is sorely needed, and it would be a great topic to combine my interests in both Greco-Roman literature and early Christian literature. I am definitely going to consider pursuing this topic further as enter the second half of my Ph.D. program.

Anyhow, that was what was discussed during the “Plutarch and the New Testament” panel during the SBL/AAR 2014 conference. It was great stuff and is encouraging for further research in the days ahead. Another interesting part of the conference was that I ran into Christian apologist Mike Licona, who I met for the first time in person. Given some of our history and backstory, the encounter was friendlier than you might think. Overall, I was really glad that the conference was located in San Diego, which made it easier for me to drive down and attend.

After attending this SBL/ARR meeting, I am definitely excited about the next one, and this was a great opportunity for me to sharpen my research interests for the years ahead.

-Matthew Ferguson

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5 Responses to SBL/AAR 2014: Plutarch and the New Testament

  1. MNT says:

    Did you see Ehrman defend his book?

    • Unfortunately, I did not, since it was held on Saturday, and I was mostly only visiting panels on Sunday, owing to graduate work that I also had going on last weekend. James McGrath has written about the panel, though:

      • MNT says:

        Dr. Ferguson,

        Can you discuss the authorship issues in the Old Testament like you did with the New Testament?

        What happened to your latest article where you explained your reasons why you are aggressive in your apologetics? Are you stopping posting until you are done with your finals?

        • Hey MNT,

          Yes, I have been very busy with finals, which is part of the reason why I chose to take down my two most recent posts.

          First, I took down the review David Hart’s “The Experience of God,” since finding that there is a part in the back of the book (pg. 350) where Hart (briefly and dismissively) mentions Graham Oppy’s “Arguing About Gods.” In the original review, I had stated that Hart makes no mention of Oppy, but it turns out that this statement of mine was incorrect. It doesn’t drastically change my review of Hart, but, since I did make a mistake, I have taken down the review for the time being [Note: I have since revised the article and reposted it here.]

          The article about opposing aggressive apologetics I took down because it was argumentative and provocative, and I didn’t have time to deal with it during finals. There is also a crazy story about the morning in which I wrote it:

          So, when I visited my family in AZ during Thanksgiving a couple weeks ago, my car’s gears started having problems on the outskirts of Phoenix. When I took the car in for repairs, the cost was so great as to justify purchasing another car. So, I bought a new car about two weeks ago. That was a big enough distraction around finals! But, buying the car also interrupted my plans for blogging during Thanksgiving weekend. I had originally planned to write 3 posts (this post, the Hart review, and the aggressive apologetics post) during Thanksgiving weekend, but I only got to the 2nd one, owing to my purchase of the new car. To make up the difference, I got up very early (at 4pm) on 12/3/2014 to write my post about aggressive apologetics. Literally, as soon as I finished the post at a local Starbucks, I went back to my (brand new) car, was backing out of the parking lot, and then noticed that my right, rear passenger side window had been shattered. I had literally just bought the car a few days before. Suffice it to say, that sort of ruined my week. I also found my error in the Hart review not long afterward, and decided to just remove both posts for the time being. The car window is fixed now, but that certainly threw a wrench into things during that week.

          As for your question about me writing more on the authorial traditions of the OT, it is a great topic, but my time right now is limited. Funny enough, a lot of people have been contacting me recently to ask me to write on specific topics: one woman asked me to write an article that would be translated into Spanish for a magazine, aimed at the diaspora of Spanish and Portuguese speakers, about why it is okay to doubt Christianity (I plan to write the article, when I get the chance). I was also asked recently to write a blog post commenting more on Ehrman’s arguments against the historicity of Jesus’ burial in the Gospels (I plan to write this post as well). Finally, another person contacted me about critiquing Licona’s recently published article on miracles and the historical method. I also have a number of disagreements with Licona’s recent comparison of alleged contradictions in Plutarch with (in my opinion, actual) contradictions in the NT. Suffice it to say, as a Classicist who works in ancient biography, I think that Licona’s comparison is way off. On the other had, I have already written a lot critiquing Licona’s other arguments, so I don’t want to fixate on him too repeatedly on this blog, when there are other issues to write on (especially after Licona and I had a friendly encounter at the SBL).

          Those are just some of the things that people have asked me to write about recently. I have other plans for things that I want to write on my own. This winter break I am working on an article about defining the supernatural (up to 30 pages long) that I plan to submit to an atheist journal. I’ll try to blog during that time too, but I also have to study a lot of Greek right now for my graduate qualifying exams. I’ll be busy no matter what, so that, if I am away from blogging for a while, it’s not that I am not doing naturalist/counter-apologetics work, it’s just that I don’t have time for publishing new stuff online.

          I think it is a good sign that so many people are asking me to write on stuff. That, if anything, means that people like my writing. But, time is very constricted this year, which is why I am on something of a sabbatical from blogging. I’ll be back though, since this is only one (scheduling-wise, awkward) year, and I will have plenty more years as a graduate student and professional ahead to keep commenting on these issues.

          • P.S. I am not “Dr. Ferguson” yet, as I still have graduate exams and then my dissertation to complete, before earning my Ph.D. That’s part of why I am so busy now and why I have been away 🙂

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