In my earlier essay “Ancient Historical Writing Compared to the Gospels of the New Testament,” I contrasted the canonical Gospels with the genres of ancient historiography and historical biography. To be sure, historiography and biography were not the same genre in antiquity, as the former was based on the history of a broader period or event, while the latter was based on the life of an individual. Nevertheless, the two can both be sufficiently described as “historical writing,” especially since many of the narrative conventions between the two are similar. Plutarch, for example, compares his source material and makes historical judgements in a manner very similar to Dionysius of Halicarnassus, even if he was writing historical biographies while Dionysius wrote a Roman history. In the essay, I show how the Gospel authors do not follow the narrative conventions of historical biographers like Plutarch and Suetonius.
I likewise discuss in my essay “Are the Gospels Ancient Biographies?” how the genre of biography was rather diverse in antiquity, and that not all Greco-Roman biographies were historical biographies. Plutarch and Suetonius were political biographers, whose research and methodology was fairly rigorous (at least for the time). At the same time, there were also more novelistic and legendary biographies, such as the Alexander Romance, as well as legendary Lives about figures such as Aesop and Homer, in addition to a number of other kinds of ancient biographies that I discuss in the essay.
In “Ancient Historical Writing Compared to the Gospels of the New Testament,” I also suggest that the Gospels are structured more as prose novels than historical writing. To be clear, that essay is not about making a comparison with the novel, since it is instead contrasting the Gospels with ancient historiography and historical biography. Some of what I write in this new essay, however, will discuss the comparison with the novel in more detail.
The comparison of the Gospels’ genre with the ancient novel is a mainstream view in biblical scholarship. Among the scholarly works exploring the comparison are Ronald Hock (ed.) Ancient Fiction and Early Christian Narrative, Jo-Ann Brant (ed.) Ancient Fiction: The Matrix of Early Christian and Jewish Narrative, and Marília Pinheiro (ed.) The Ancient Novel and Early Christian and Jewish Narrative: Fictional Intersections, as well as Richard Pervo in Profit With Delight: The Literary Genre of the Acts of the Apostles. Apologists, of course, do not like this comparison, but the fact remains that it is a mainstream scholarly position.
The comparison with the novel is often juxtaposed against the comparison with Greco-Roman biography. Espousing this latter view are Richard Burridge in What Are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography and Dirk Frickenschmidt in Evangelium als Biographie: die vier Evangelien im Rahmen antiker Erzählkunst. As I discuss in my essay “Are the Gospels Ancient Biographies?,” however, I think that the boundaries between these two genres are actually far more blurred and fluid than is sometimes understood. Ancient biography was a highly diverse genre. As Arnaldo Momigliano (The Development of Greek Biography, pg. 9) argues:
“An account of the life of a man from birth to death is what I call biography.”
That definition is pretty broad. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke, of course, fit it fairly well, though Mark and John do not include a birth narrative. Then again, Plutarch’s Cato Minor and Galba don’t include birth narratives either, so the genre can be even more flexible sometimes than Momigliano’s very basic definition.
Personally, I think that, if the Gospels do belong to the genre of Greco-Roman biography, they are far more aptly compared to the novelistic and legendary biographies discussed above, such as those about Alexander, Aesop, and Homer. It should be noted that these kinds of biographies are much more similar to prose novels than historical biographies, based on their storytelling elements and lack of analytical rigor. To illustrate this comparison, I am going to discuss a somewhat obscure text, The Certamen of Homer and Hesiod. The Certamen (“contest”) is a sort of dual biography about the epic poets Homer and Hesiod. Much like the Gospels, scholars debate what genre the Certamen belongs to. It tells the lives of Homer and Hesiod from birth to death, but the main focus of the text seems to be on storytelling and setting the stage for their famous contest at the center of the narrative. The way that the Certamen is written has a number of interesting parallels with the Gospels.
In what sense can the Gospels be compared with ancient novels? On the one hand, their genre and style is not terribly similar to ancient novels like Petronius’ Satyricon or Apuleius’ Golden Ass, which are more extended travel and adventure narratives. They are more similar, however, to Jewish historical fiction novellas, such as the Book of Ruth and the Book of Esther. The latter two, however, are Hebrew texts and belong to the Hebrew Old Testament. Where might one go, then, to find a better Greco-Roman comparison?
The Certamen is an interesting text to compare, because, like the Gospels, it narrates the birth, journeys, and deaths of its subjects. But, even more importantly, the text has a central theme and climax much like the Gospels. Even though Matthew and Luke include the birth of Jesus, these opening sections of the texts are smaller than the rest of the content and generally introductory. A lot of time is skipped. Matthew omits Jesus’ childhood virtually altogether, whereas Luke (2:41-52) includes only but a little about the boy Jesus. Mark and John do without Jesus’ birth altogether. Instead, the Gospels are more focused on two key aspects of Jesus’ life: 1) his ministry following his baptism by John the Baptist, and 2) his Passion and crucifixion. The rest of the narrative is constructed around these two core emphases.
The biographical elements in the Certamen are likewise more peripheral. The ancestry and birth of Homer and Hesiod are discussed at the beginning, but there is little about their childhood and education (usually, though not always, historical biographers like Plutarch and Suetonius spend more time on these details, and likewise provide more of a comprehensive, rather than episodic, account of the subject’s life). Instead, the focus of theCertamen is on the famous contest in the center. Much like the ministry and Passion of Jesus, this is contest the main emphasis of the text.
Here is what is related about the contest:
“According to one account they flourished at the same time and even had a contest of skill at Chalcis in Euboea. For, they say, after Homer had composed the ‘Margites’, he went about from city to city as a minstrel, and coming to Delphi, inquired who he was and of what country? The Pythia answered:
`The Isle of Ios is your mother’s country and it shall receive you dead; but beware of the riddle of the young children.’
Hearing this, it is said, he hesitated to go to Ios, and remained in the region where he was. Now about the same time Ganyctor was celebrating the funeral rites of his father Amphidamas, king of Euboea, and invited to the gathering not only all those who were famous for bodily strength and fleetness of foot, but also those who excelled in wit, promising them great rewards. And so, as the story goes, the two went to Chalcis and met by chance. The leading Chalcidians were judges together with Paneides, the brother of the dead king; and it is said that after a wonderful contest between the two poets, Hesiod won in the following manner: he came forward into the midst and put Homer one question after another, which Homer answered.”
The contest itself is rather amusing. Part of it is structured around Hesiod beginning poetic couplets with lines that Homer must then finish. Hesiod usually starts out these lines to make them embarrassing or impossible to finish, but then Homer finds some clever response. As the Certamen relates:
“[T]he latter [Hesiod] turned to sentences of doubtful meaning: he recited many lines and required Homer to complete the sense of each appropriately. The first of the following verses is Hesiod’s and the next Homer’s.”
At one part, Hesiod begins a line about eating horses (not a common Greek practice), to which Homer replies:
HESIOD: `Then they dined on the flesh of oxen and their horses’ necks –‘
HOMER: `They unyoked dripping with sweat, when they had had enough of war.’
Or, Hesiod likewise tries to spin a line where Homer must explain how a weakling son can be born from a strong father, to which Homer replies:
HESIOD:`This man is the son of a brave father and a weakling –‘
HOMER: `Mother; for war is too stern for any woman.’
Or, Hesiod tries to spin a rather unkind way of opening a banquet among guests, to which Homer responds:
HESIOD: `Eat, my guests, and drink, and may no one of you return home to his dear country –‘
HOMER: `Distressed; but may you all reach home again unscathed.’
And so the text runs on in this fashion (it’s better in Greek, by the way, than this old English translation, but the point is clear enough). Now, the Certamen is about the lives of two poets, so of course it scripts them to speak poetic verses. The Gospels, in contrast, are about Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet and miracle worker, and so they script him to speak parables and give teachings, and stage set him to perform miracles. What’s noteworthy is that this scripting and stage setting is the main emphasis of the text; the biographical elements are merely the structural elements at the periphery.
NT scholar L. Michael White discusses in Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite how the Gospels likewise are structured around storytelling conventions, where they set the stage for Jesus to perform certain actions, or script him to report different parables and teachings. What’s notable is that the Gospel authors are very flexible (and often inconsistent) in how they arrange material. The scripting and stage setting is what is important, not a consistent narrative, per se.
As White (pg. ix-x) explains:
“[E]ach of the Gospel authors has woven such episodes into the story in distinctive ways, changing not only the running order of the narrative, but also certain cause-and-effect relationships within each story. For example, in the Synoptics–especially the Gospel of Mark–it is the cleansing of the Temple that serves as the immediate cause of Jesus’ arrest and execution. In the Gospel of John there is no connection between these events, as the cleansing is two full years earlier. In contrast, for the Gospel of John the immediate cause of Jesus’ execution is the raising of Lazarus (11:38-44), an event never discussed in the Synoptics. Thus, the story works differently in each of these versions because of basic changes in narrative.”
Likewise, White also argues that the Gospels main function was performative. After all, the Gospels were most likely composed from sayings collections and summary outlines of Jesus’ deeds that had served performative functions even before they were written. As White (x) elaborates:
“[T]he Gospel writers … reshape and recombine both old and new episodes, teachings, and characters that circulate[d] about the central figure, Jesus. Storytelling was essentially an oral performance medium in the ancient world, even when those stories were eventually written down. Thus, any particular performance might highlight different elements in the light of the circumstances of the author and the audience. It is similar to what happens with each new performance of a play, whether by Shakespeare or Neil Simon. Different actors, different settings, different periods of history–all of them create a different climate. Even when a script gets written down, the performances and emphases can change or be reinterpreted.”
White (pp. x-xi) concludes:
“In this sense, the authors were playing to an audience. They are ‘faithful’ in that they were trying to instill and reaffirm the faith of those audiences, albeit sometimes in new and different ways. Even so, the stories are just that–stories–and not ‘histories’ in any modern sense.”
Now, we do not possess multiple versions of the Certamen, so we cannot compare the rearranging of material that is seen in the Gospels, such as how in the Synoptic Gospels both Mathew and Luke redact Mark in different ways (for a further discussion of redaction criticism, see here). In this sense, the Certamen is different than the Gospels. But there are also a number of very notable similarities.
To begin with, both the Gospels and the Certamen operated as ‘open texts,’ which were expanded redacted through multiple stages of composition. The Gospel of Matthew, for example, borrows and redacts as much as 80% of the material in Mark, and Luke does the same for 65% of the material. Likewise, the Gospel of John is most likely written based on an expansion of an earlier Signs Gospel about the seven great miracles of Jesus. Historical biographers like Plutarch and Suetonius do not write like this at all. Instead, they exercise far more authorial originality and construct highly unique narratives. Just compare Plutarch’s Julius Caesar with Suetonius’ Julius Caesar and see how structurally different they are. Then do a parallel reading of the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Matthew. The differences are striking.
The Certamen likewise operated as an open text. Early in our extant text of the Certamen (provided by one 14th century manuscript), there is a reference to the 2nd century Roman emperor Hadrian. Classicists have long since realized, however, that the Certamen went through multiple stages of composition. The first to suggest an earlier date of composition was (funny enough) Friedrich Nietzsche (yes, Nietzsche was a classical philologist too), who suggested that the Certamen was derived from the sophist Alcidamas’ Mouseion, written in the 4th century BCE. Since then, some earlier papyri fragments have been found, corroborating this suggestion.
Both the Gospels and the Certamen, therefore, went through multiple stages of composition. In this way they were ‘open texts,’ far more like the novelistic and legendary kinds of biography discussed above. This more informal kind of biography is discussed by Tomas Hägg (The Art of Biography in Antiquity, pg. 99)
“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.”
This style of biography, distinct from historical biography, is notable for including more legendary elements, which can partially account for the legendary elements in both theCertamen and the Gospels. Also worth noting is that the Certamen has an anonymous author (or authors), just as the Gospels are anonymous, as I discuss in my essay “Why Scholars Doubt the Traditional Authors of the Gospels.”
Another similarity between the Certamen and the Gospels is the simplicity of their language. This summer I have been doing a lot of reading of Greek historians in the original language, including Herodotus, Thucydides, and Plutarch. I have likewise been doing Greek readings in the Gospels on the side for additional reading. The differences between the two groups are astonishing. It is difficult to see just how rudimentary the Gospels are until one studies them in Greek. The Gospel of Matthew, for example, almost painfully follows a subject, verb, and object sentence structure. It is nothing like the long, periodic, and analytical prose of a historian like Thucydides. The Certamen, however, is likewise has very simple Greek prose. The storytelling is basic and easy to read, with the most difficult part being the poetic couplets in the center.
Part of both the simplicity of language and the relatively short lengths of the Certamen and the Gospels also suggests that they primarily served as performative texts. The Certamen is a relatively short text, and you can recite all of it fairly quickly. The Gospels are a little bit longer, but still not nearly as long or extensive as the historical writings of Herodotus, Thucydides, or Plutarch. Plutarch’s biographies are relatively shorter, to be fair, but he also structured them as a multi-text series of parallel lives, quite different from the Gospels.
Finally, both the Certamen and the Gospels operated within the backdrop of a larger body of literature. The Certamen was obviously a shorter text inspired by the poetic epics of Homer and Hesiod. The Gospels are likewise written under heavy influence of the Greek Septuagint (and were possibly influenced by the Homeric epics, likewise, if Dennis MacDonald’s mimesis criticism has any merit). Elements like Midrash, where events and characters in the Gospels are based on OT parallels, such as when the Gospel of Matthew models Jesus on Moses, as well as fulfillment of scripture citations, where the Gospels claim (more likely invent) certain prophecies that Jesus fulfilled, suggest that the Gospels were inspired more by earlier literature than earlier historical events. They are highly legendary elements, which again reflect how the Gospels are written more as novelistic and legendary biographies.
Now, I do not mean to argue in this essay that the Certamen is the only (or even the best) parallel text with the Gospels. There are important differences. In particular, the Gospels operated far more in a Jewish context than the Certamen. Another difference is that theCertamen is far more upfront about contradictory source material. For the different birth places of Homer, for example, the Certamen relates:
“Everyone boasts that the most divine of poets, Homer and Hesiod, are said to be his particular countrymen. Hesiod, indeed, has put a name to his native place and so prevented any rivalry, for he said that his father ‘settled near Helicon in a wretched hamlet, Ascra, which is miserable in winter, sultry in summer, and good at no season.’ But, as for Homer, you might almost say that every city with its inhabitants claims him as her son. Foremost are the men of Smyrna who say that he was the Son of Meles, the river of their town, by a nymph Cretheis, and that he was at first called Melesigenes. He was named Homer later, when he became blind, this being their usual epithet for such people. The Chians, on the other hand, bring forward evidence to show that he was their countrymen, saying that there actually remain some of his descendants among them who are called Homeridae. The Colophonians even show the place where they declare that he began to compose when a schoolmaster, and say that his first work was the ‘Margites.’”
Now, as I explain in my essay “Ancient Historical Writing Compared to the Gospels of the New Testament,” discussing contradictions among source material is a key feature of historical prose. In this way, the Certamen is actually being more historically responsible than the Gospels, since the Gospel of Matthew (chapters 1-2) and the Gospel of Luke (chapters 2-3) relate two conflicting genealogies and accounts of Jesus’ birth, without acknowledging any contradictions in their source material (which certainly must have been there). On the other hand, the ambiguity of Homer’s background and identity is a major theme of his life (Homer himself even has to ask the Oracle of Delphi in theCertamen where he is truly from, which is identified as Ithaca, though this is certainly legend), so that acknowledging the contradictions plays more to the narrative elements in this novelistic biography, rather than reflects genuine historical interest. The narrative goal of the Gospels is to depict Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, so of course they have to make him descended from David (albeit in different ways) and get him born in Bethlehem (albeit in different ways).
Those differences aside, however, I think the comparison with the Certamen does successfully show how, if the Gospels are to be compared with Greco-Roman biographies, they are far more similar to this kind of novelistic and legendary biography. When I first read the Certamen in Greek in a ‘Reception of Homer’ seminar in Spring 2013, I couldn’t help but think of how much more similar it was to the Gospels than a historical biographer like Plutarch. I’ve now outlined above some of the similarities that I see between the two.