I have focused heavily on doing academic work over the past couple weeks, which has freed up time this Friday to address some recent activity in the circles of Christian apologetics. Recently, Christian apologist David Marshall wrote a critique of me on his blog Christ the Tao. The incident started about a month ago, however, when Marshall was asked by a friend to post a critical comment on an essay of mine, which apparently his friend found troubling.
The essay that Marshall commented on is titled “Ancient Historical Writing Compared to the Gospels of the New Testament,” which I wrote in August 2013. After publishing the essay, I received positive comments from James McGrath (professor of New Testament language and literature) here, Michael Kok (Ph.D. in Biblical Studies) here, and Erlend MacGillivray (Ph.D. candidate in New Testament Studies) here. I do not mean to imply that any of these scholars agree with or endorse the article, but I link to their comments in order to provide a contrast with the tone and attitude of Marshall’s comment. Also, take a look at the essay itself, and see if anything in my writing is as acerbic as Marshall’s comment.
Here is the comment that I received from Marshall about a month ago on the essay. Take note that I was not arguing or interacting with Marshall online at any recent point before this incident. The comment below, therefore, reflects David Marshall’s behavior as the instigator of our recent interactions (yellow highlight is my own):
For the record, I am a Classics Ph.D. student who also holds an M.A. in the subject with an emphasis in ancient history. Such experience has involved studying multiple Greek and Latin authors in the original language, in addition to doing genre criticism and understanding the history of 1st century CE literature. I have likewise taken graduate seminars on the New Testament and Christian Origins (in addition to teaching about these subjects in college courses), some of which I wrote about here recently. So, when I read Marshall make statements like:
“…you have not yet really read the gospels in a serious way, however many times you have leafed through the texts.”
“It is clear you do not as yet have any clue, what you are dealing with in the gospels.”
I frankly found Marshall’s tone to be rude and his accusations to be misinformed. In fact, to make these claims about someone with my academic background amounts to outright misrepresentation.
Now, I have no problem with people posting critical comments and disagreeing with me on Κέλσος, provided that the discourse is substantive and polite (as I specify in my ‘Comment Policy’), but I think it is quite obvious that Marshall’s first comment was outside the bounds of appropriate commenting behavior. The story only begins there, however, since, in the weeks following this comment, Marshall’s behavior has become increasingly rude and polemical, leading up to Marshall writing a post on his blog, titled “How Matthew Ferguson Helps Prove the Gospels,” which attempts to refute my essay.
Both Marshall’s online behavior interacting with me over the last month, and his blog post attempting to raise arguments against my own, will be addressed below.
Part I of this response will address David Marshall’s behavior interacting with me online, and Part II will respond to the arguments that Marshall has raised against my essay. Each part also has subsections addressing the various issues that have come up during this exchange.
Part I: David Marshall’s Recent Online Behavior
Section 1: Marshall’s first falsehood about my identity
Marshall made false statements about my academic background, right off the bat, in his first comment responding to my essay. To claim that a Ph.D. student, who has taken graduate seminars on the NT, written multiple seminar and conference papers on the canonical Gospels, and taught about the formation of the NT canon in college courses, has not “read the gospels in a serious way” amounts to direct falsehood. Plain and simple.
I was not pleased with Marshall’s tone and attitude in this first comment, so I wrote him a comment in response that corrected his allegations about my academic background, and likewise responded to the points in his first comment. Admittedly, my tone was not friendly, and I did not “turn the other cheek” (Mt. 5:39) in responding to Marshall. But, unlike Marshall, everything that I stated in my response was true (to be discussed further below).
My response also brought up a previous incident that had occurred between Marshall and I a couple years back.
Section 2: Marshall’s past falsehood about my identity
One of the reasons that I wasn’t very patient with Marshall this time around is because I actually had some interactions with him a couple years ago on this blog. A couple years back, Marshall wrote a polemic against me titled “Matthew Ferguson (Celsus) on the ‘Marshall School of Apologetics,'” which likewise included a number of personal attacks. Among the statements that Marshall made was the following:
“Ferguson is that unfortunate type of ignoramus who is even ignorant of the fact that he is ignorant.”
What was ironic about this statement, however, was that Marshall was actually ignorant about the person he was attacking. He had been involved in some Amazon book review drama with a commenter named “Celsus,” which Marshall assumed must have been the same person as myself (the Greek title of my blog “Κέλσος” = “Celsus” in Latin). Now, this would be an understandable (albeit hasty) mistake, had I not informed Marshall that I was not the Celsus on Amazon only weeks previously, when he posted a comment on my blog. Marshall apparently did not read my response, and thus still wrote his misguided polemic against me.
I informed Marshall of his error, and he was embarrassed and apologized. In fact, in his recent post against me, Marshall acknowledges, “I do make mistakes from time to time: that was perhaps the most embarrassing in this blog to date.” I forgave Marshall for the error, but this incident taught me to be on the lookout for vitriolic behavior from him in the future. I learned from this incident to be on the lookout for Marshall as an online troll (I’ve also seen him trolling other blogs and writing polemics against other people in the past).
Now, Marshall was not happy when I responded to his comment and corrected his errors. In that comment, I also suspended Marshall’s commenting privileges on my blog for a couple weeks, due to his bad behavior. That was the incident that triggered Marshall writing his new polemic against me on his blog a couple weeks ago.
Section 3: Yet another falsehood from Marshall about my identity
In his attempt to attack me, yet again, Marshall misrepresented my identity a third time online. I was informed by a friend on Facebook that David Marshall had recently posted criticism of me on his blog. I had been dealing with Marshall in the comments on my blog just a couple days before, so I was not surprised. I figured that Marshall had probably shared his post on his Facebook page, so I decided to take a look and see what he and other people were saying about me.
What I learned is that Marshall doesn’t even have the slightest clue about what my actual beliefs are regarding the historical Jesus. Here is what Marshall posted on his Facebook page, in a comment that included my picture and likewise some rather bullyish descriptions of Marshall “squeezing me”:
I am not a Christ Mythicist, and certainly believe in the historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth. Not only have a I stated this in literally every online writing that I have published in which the premise has been relevant, but I have even written a lengthy essay explicitly defending Jesus’ historical existence and explaining the minimal facts that I think we can say about his life.
Marshall’s first misrepresentation of me a couple years ago was a careless and hasty mistake. His second misrepresentation of me in his comment a month ago was rude and misinformed. This third misrepresentation of me literally contradicts everything that I have written online about the NT and the historical Jesus. As far as I am concerned: three strikes, and your credibility is out.
Section 4: Marshall attempts to cover his tracks
Even Marshall realizes that his online attacks against me over the last month have been both too strident and ill-informed. In fact, before his current post (which is still available online), Marshall wrote a previous response that he later took down (a PDF can still be read here of the earlier version). After taking down the first post, Marshall acknowledged on his blog:
“I posted a long critique of an attack on the gospels by a young Classics scholar named Matthew Ferguson. Quite a few people read the thing, though there were no comments yet. Looking it over this afternoon, I felt a twinge of embarrassment. The post was too disorganized, too rambling, and lacked some crucial empirical evidence. In some places my wording was a little too strident, as well … So I’ve moved that article temporarily back to “draft” mode. I’ll fix it up, and a deeper analysis of the some of the works Ferguson cites, and hopefully post it again within a day or two.”
[For the record, Marshall’s revised version still contains a huge slew of personal insults.]
Now, people take down and edit old blog posts, so I would let this one slide. However, a key difference between Marshall’s first post, and his revised version, is that he removes his original comment and my reply to him, which he had originally quoted in his response.
This is a rather serious omission, because Marshall’s readers can now no longer read his first comment to me, in which he was clearly rude to me and misrepresented my credentials. Marshall instead spends the first part of his post responding to my “harsh accusations” against him, without even showing people that it was clearly he who started the exchange. As will be shown below, Marshall is still trying to pretend that he was not the aggressor in this situation.
Section 5: Marshall’s bullying behavior
Marshall’s insults and accusations against me have been numerous over the last month. I will quote below just some of the things that Marshall has stated (bolding and emphasis is my own):
“Matthew Ferguson does not seem to me a very mature scholar.” (source here)
“Yes, Lewis was an expert in ancient Greek and Latin literature, far above your or my pay grades, and a great expert on literary genre, which you frankly show little aptitude for.” (source here)
“Rather than show yourself generous in spirit, you throw that old mistake in my face, toss a flurry of insults at me, speak to me as if I were a child (I am older, better-credentialed, and have a stronger publication history than you, in no way limited to on-line journals, as you seem to think), and act as if trying to manfully defend your comments were just too much bother.” (source here)
[For the record, I never stated that Marshall had only posted in online journals. Marshall is simply projecting this to try to find some error on my part.]
[I should also note that, as a Feminist, I strongly resent Marshall’s sexist language.]
“Isn’t it time you gave up such hopeless ploys, and came to grips with the utterly unique gospels, as they actually are?” (source here)
“[T]he most radical critics of the gospels are actually friends of Christianity. Squeeze them a little … Take the young classicist Matthew Ferguson, for example. No, please take him … Seriously, here’s what you can do with an earnest mythicist, if you take the time to squeeze the facts he parleys to his audience a little…” (source here)
“I do intend to read your other attempts to find a parallel to the gospels. This is exactly what I was looking for. Certainly your article on The Contest was entertaining — and, in a sense, enlightening. I don’t imagine you have any worse arguments in your arsenal, but feel free and give them, if you do.” (source here)
“You take refuge in the fact that you read Greek and Latin better than I … which in turn has little to do with historicity — you appear to be tossing out red herrings like these to distract your readers from the fact that on substance, your arguments are pretty much all toast.” (source here)
“You can censor my response if you like; I will post it elsewhere. Add the courage of intellectual conviction to the list of virtues you seem to be opting out on, here.” (source here)
[For the record, I have not failed to approve any of the comments that Marshall has posted on my blog at any previous point in our exchange, despite the fact that all of them have violated my ‘Comment Policy.’]
Those statements are derived from a variety of Marshall’s online interactions with me over the past month.
Section 6: Marshall’s attempt at Tu Quoque
Despite the fact that Marshall clearly started our interaction by posting a rude comment on my blog, and despite the fact that he is on record making multiple false statements against me, Marshall has refused to apologize for his recent behavior. For the record, I did not ask Marshall to apologize, but he made sure to clarify in and additional comment that he himself would not do so (bolding is my own):
“Matthew: I think you’ve misrepresented me about as much as I have misrepresented you. (And admittedly, I have made two rather bad mistakes now, a record I don’t recall establishing in any other dispute — but you’ve about equaled it.) Many of your comments in this very thread make false assumptions about me, and show far less charity (someone who apparently knows you better warned me about this) that I have, at times, shown you. So frankly, you don’t have much to complain about on either score, anymore. I apologized sincerely once, but your unapologetic misrepresentations and snideness obviate further apology on my part, I think.”
And yet, what have I done to misrepresent Marshall or show snideness toward him? Did I come onto Marshall’s blog, insulting him and claiming that he had no experience in a subject that he has taken graduate seminars in? Did I claim that Marshall held to a position about the historical Jesus, which Marshall not only does not hold, but has also written at length opposing? Did I even start any of this online exchange? Nope.
The most that Marshall can muster is to claim that I made “false assumptions” about his language experience. He states:
“You take refuge in the fact that you read Greek and Latin better than I – conflating that falsely with a general “lack of language skills.” (Actually I read modern Chinese, classical Chinese, some Japanese and Russian, and some Koine Greek, along with English and enough French to sometimes get by.)”
And yet did I ever state that Marshall had no experience in those languages? Nope, I only quoted Marshall’s own statement above about being able to read less Latin and Greek than I (to be discussed below), when Marshall was making attacks against my qualifications and credentials.
Marshall has no leg to stand on regarding his inappropriate behavior in our exchange. He started the exchange by posting a rude comment on my blog. He has made a number of false statements against both my academic qualifications and historical positions, which are irrefutably documented above. And yet, Marshall cannot list one example where I have treated him the same. The most he can do is (vaguely) state that I have made “false assumptions,” because he simply has no parallel whatsoever on my part to the kind of behavior that he has been exhibiting. Marshall has not only made “false assumptions,” he has publicly made statements that are directly false.
Part II: David Marshall’s Reaction to My Blog
Section 1: Marshall’s thinly veiled apologetic agenda
Marshall’s first comment on my blog (the one that a friend asked him to write) contained virtually no substantive response to my arguments. I pointed this out in my reply to him, which prompted him to write his current post.
In that post, Marshall states that I display “a fundamental lack of intellectual openness” and do not show “any sign of genuine intellectual curiosity.” For the record, I made 4am commutes from Long Beach to Santa Barbara last Spring quarter, in order to take seminars with NT scholar Christine Thomas on the New Testament and Christian Origins.
In contrast, Marshall states:
“Given the actual character of the gospels and the remarkable Person they reveal, skeptics should think about making peace with God.”
Section 2: Marshall’s lack of credentials
After Marshall posted his first comment on my essay, in which he claimed that I had not seriously studied the Gospels, he did not like the fact that my reply emphasized my experience studying Classical languages. Marshall accused me of “waving around my credentials” when I stated that I had studied a wide array of literature from the 1st century CE (including the NT) in the original language.
In his response, Marshall tries to downplay the importance of language skills to studying the Gospels’ genre:
“Second, Ferguson seems to assume that the primary prerequisite for textual analysis is language skill, or at least that reading Greek and Latin gives him an advantage in analyzing literary genre. I do not think that is true. All these texts have been translated, in some cases many times, by scholars who appear to know what they are doing. Nothing of great importance seems to hang on the subtle variations in word usage that a linguist can pick up on. So while I do read some Koine Greek, no doubt not nearly as well as Ferguson, what are most needed here are good reading skills, depth of experience in reading literature and history in many different cultures…”
This is, of course, far from the truth, and any serious Classics department would tell you so. (Imagine if Richard Burridge, for example, would be taken seriously, if he had to rely on English translations when doing genre criticism.) The key language skills that are needed in studying the literary genre of the Gospels are not being able to read in Chinese or Russian or English. The question of the Gospels’ genre, and where they fit into their literary context, pertains specifically to literary developments that had been occurring in the 5th century BCE – 2nd century CE Mediterranean world, particularly in literature written in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin (all languages that I have experience in).
[I should note that I do not pretend to be an expert in these languages or subjects at this point in my career, as I am still a Ph.D. graduate student at this point in my studies. Nor do I mean to imply that there are no scholars with equal or greater experience than I who may disagree with my arguments. There are a variety of different viewpoints, after all, in academia. However, Marshall attacks my credentials from his very first comment in this exchange, which is why I brought this up, especially since Marshall is less experienced than I on these subjects.]
Marshall states that he can read “some Koine Greek,” which is the only relevant language experience that he has listed, but that is precisely one of the weakest skills that he can offer here. The reason why is due to the fact that evaluating the Gospels’ genre cannot be done in isolation. Simply being able to read the Koine Greek of the New Testament does not mean that you have been heavily introduced to other literature from the same period. Genre criticism, after all, is a comparative study.
That is why I stressed in my response to Marshall the importance of reading Greek and Latin historians–such as Herodotus, Thucydides, and Tacitus–as well as historical biographers–such as Plutarch and Suetonius–when assessing whether the Gospels are historical in genre. The differences between the style and language of these authors and the writings of the Gospels are very striking when they are compared together. They don’t read as the same genre at all. I also stressed the importance of reading novelistic and legendary biographies, such as the Certamen of Homer and Hesiod, which contain simpler language and style, as well as heightened storytelling elements, much more similar to the Gospels. I’ll discuss Marshall’s attempted arguments against the Certamen comparison below.
Section 3: Marshall misrepresents what I mean by “historical writing”
Marshall thinks that he is being clever in his response by pointing out that no Classical or NT scholars think that the Gospels are “historiography,” per se. Instead, he thinks he is more knowledgeable of scholarly trends in arguing that the Gospels belong to “Greek biography”:
“Ferguson’s original point, that the gospels are not “ancient historical writing,” does not seem of great importance, since no one I know of claims they are. The comparison that has persuaded many scholars, rather, is to ancient Greek biography. (Especially Richard Burridge’s influential work arguing that the gospels are essentially Greek biographies.)”
Here, Marshall is not even taking the time to read the essays that he is trying to rebut. In my essay “The Certamen of Homer and Hesiod and the Gospels: Some Comparanda,” which Marshall also tries to critique in his response, I clearly state at the top:
“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.”
Obviously what I meant by the term “historical writing” was not specifically “historiography,” but “Greco-Roman historiography + historical biography.” My essay “Ancient Historical Writing Compared to the Gospels of the new Testament” even quotes historical biographers such as Plutarch and Suetonius and refers to them as “biographers,” so this would have been obvious to anyone who had taken the time to read my essay with any nuance.
Beyond this fact, I have completed an MA thesis on the historical biographer Suetonius. Does Marshall really think that I do not understand these nuances about Greco-Roman biography?
Section 4: Marshall’s own contradictions about genre
One of the points that Marshall stresses throughout his post is the “utter uniqueness” of the Gospels. Marshall claims that even mainstream NT scholars like Bart Ehrman are acting in “desperation” to find any parallel to them. As Marshall states:
“[E]ven the best-educated and most relentless skeptics [are] scouring the ancient world for parallels to the gospels…”
And yet Marshall also argues that the Gospels belong to the genre of Greek biography, which would entail that they have such parallels to the Gospels:
“The reigning view right now seems to be that the gospels are not history per se, but Greek biography. The case for that was made, I think pretty effectively, by Richard Burridge.”
So, which is it? Are the Gospels “utterly unique”? Or are they similar to Greek biographies? Notice how Marshall drops Richard Burridge’s name above (this is one of the keywords that many apologists know when they try to argue about the Gospels’ genre). In my essay “Are the Gospels Ancient Biographies?,” I also discuss the arguments of German scholar Dirk Frickenschmidt (Evangelium als Biographie: die vier Evangelien im Rahmen antiker Erzählkunst), in addition to the more recent scholarship of Tomas Hägg (The Art of Biography in Antiquity).
Richard Burridge (What Are the Gospels?) compares the Gospels with ten Greco-Roman biographies (notably, Burridge includes Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius of Tyana as a parallel to the Gospels, even though Marshall appeals to his recent article in the Christian apologetics journal Equipped trying to debunk this comparison). These are the biographies that Burridge compares the Gospels to: Isocrates’ Evagoras, Xenophon’s Agesilaus, Satyrus’ Euripides, Nepos’ Atticus, and Philo’s Moses, Tacitus’ Agricola, Plutarch’s Cato Minor, Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars, Lucian’s Demonax, and Philostratus’ Apollonius.
Burridge’s study has been critiqued by subsequent Classicists writing on the genre of ancient biography. In particular, Tomas Hägg (pg. 155) argues:
“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.”
Another major problem with Burridge’s comparison is that it focuses primarily on scholarly biographies with elevated literary style, such as those of Tacitus, Plutarch, and Suetonius, which circulated in more elite literary circles. As NT scholar Pheme Perkins (Oxford Annotated Bible, pg. 1743) explains, however:
“Greco-Roman biographies were addressed to a social and literary elite, which may explain why the Gospels, addressed to a much broader audience, do not match them very closely.”
One of the things that I stress in my essay “Are the Gospels Ancient Biographies?” was that the genre of Greco-Roman biography was highly diverse in antiquity, and there were several more popular and legendary biographies in antiquity, beyond the more scholarly and formal biographies that were addressed more to the literary elite. As Tomas Hägg (pg. 99) 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.”
I argue in the essay (and will argue further below) that, if the Gospels are to be compared to Greco-Roman biographies, they belong far more appropriately to this latter form of popular and legendary biography, and are not very similar to the historical biographies of authors like Plutarch and Suetonius.
Section 5: Marshall’s bogus authorities in trying to dismiss the novel and hagiography comparison
One of the big emphases of Marshall’s response is to claim that the comparison of the Gospels to the ancient novel is absurd. As Marshall claims:
“You also describe the gospels as “novels.” This is complete and utter nonsense … Anyone who reads the gospels and thinks it’s one of those, is, frankly, as blind as a bat.”
When citing authorities against this comparison, however, Marshall appeals to a number of outdated and irrelevant persons. In order to argue that the Gospels are not novelistic or hagiographical, Marshall appeals to Augustine (yes, Augustine), Blaise Pascal, English literature scholar C.S. Lewis, and psychiatrist M. Scott Peck, all of whom are almost fully irrelevant to modern Classical and NT scholarship. Among actual New Testament scholars he lists N.T. Wright and Richard Bauckham (both minorities in the field), in addition to name dropping Richard Burridge.
Despite Marshall’s claim that anyone who compares the Gospels to ancient novels is “blind as a bat,” there are a number of leading scholars and publications making this comparison (which, on a note, does not imply that there is an academic consensus that the Gospels are ancient novels in genre). Among them are the following: Ronald Hock (ed.) Ancient Fiction and Early Christian Narrative, Jo-Ann Brant (ed.) Ancient Fiction: The Matrix of Early Christian and Jewish Narrative, Marília Pinheiro (ed.) The Ancient Novel and Early Christian and Jewish Narrative: Fictional Intersections, and Richard Pervo in Profit With Delight: The Literary Genre of the Acts of the Apostles. Likewise, Dennis MacDonald’s comparison with the novel is being discussed at the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting this year (compare that with Marshall publishing an article in an apologetics journal like Equipped).
Personally, I think that the genres of biography and the novel have considerable overlap, particularly when dealing with popular and legendary biographies that have heavy storytelling elements, such as those of Alexander, Homer, and Aesop. My position on the Gospels’ genre, therefore, lies between ancient biography and the ancient novel.
Section 6: The core theses of my two essays that Marshall tries to critique
Marshall’s post critiques two of my essays. The first, “Ancient Historical Writing Compared to the Gospels of the new Testament,” contrasts the genre of the Gospels with the genres of Greco-Roman historiography and historical biography. To be sure, that essay is not primarily about comparing the Gospels with the novel, despite the fact that Marshall obsesses over this in his post. My actual article, which makes a more detailed comparison with the novel and popular biographies, is “The Certamen of Homer and Hesiod and the Gospels: Some Comparanda,” which Marshall also tries to critique. Before responding to Marshall’s criticisms I will lay out the core theses of each article, so that my arguments can be clearly understood.
My essay “Ancient Historical Writing Compared to the Gospels of the new Testament” provides 10 points of contrast between the canonical Gospels and the genres Greco-Roman historiography and historical biography. I will note each point (though, not in the same order), in a summary below:
One of the most striking features of the canonical Gospels is the way that they borrow material from each other and are textually interdependent (point 7). The Gospel of Matthew, for example, borrows from much as 80% of Mark’s material, and Luke borrows from 65% of the material of the earliest gospel. This is not at all how historical biographers like Plutarch and Suetonius write. Instead, the historical biographies of these authors are written in a far more unique style, which distinguishes a personal (and often far more analytical) author. In contrast, the Synoptic Gospels are some of the most textually interdependent works that I know of from Classical antiquity.
Despite the Gospels’ interdependence on each other, they are very silent about their historical sources (point 1), with the exception of a very brief note in Luke (1:1). Instead, the majority of source citations in the Gospels are literary citations to the Old Testament. These source citations take the form of Midrash, where events and characters in the Gospels are shaped based around Old Testament 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) that Jesus fulfilled certain prophecies. This form of citation is a major blow against much of the historicity of the Gospels, because it shows that their authors were structuring their narrative around earlier literature (particular the Hebrew scriptures translated in Greek), more so than historical events (even if there are a few historical kernels in the Gospels).
What is more striking, however, is the way that the Gospel authors re-arrange material between each other, often contradicting each other (point 2), which reflects very little concern for preserving an accurate order of events. As NT scholar L. Michael White (Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite) explains (pg. ix-x):
“[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.”
And (pg. x):
“[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.”
And (pp. x-xi):
“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.”
Beyond the fact that the Gospels blatantly copy material from each without citation, re-arrange the material in contradictory ways to suite different storytelling purposes, and model characters and events around earlier literature in the Old Testament, I also argue that they seldom include the analytical rigor of historical biographies, such as signposting authorial speculation or limitations in sources (point 6), or providing logical analysis of major events that should have had immediate consequence (point 9). Instead, the Gospels are written in an anonymous, third-person style, which is largely performative and centered around storytelling (point 3). This simpler, less analytical style no doubt reflects the fact that the Gospels were targeted toward a wider and less educated audience than the historical biographies of Plutarch and Suetonius (point 4). Likewise, the Gospels are far more hagiographical and designed to praise their subject (point 5), and emphasize miracles far more so than the occasional miracles that occur in ancient historical texts (point 8). Despite the fact that miracles occur in Greco-Roman historical texts, I do not know of any serious Classicist who argues that we can prove them with historical evidence (point 10), making apologetic attempts to “historically prove” the miracles of Jesus unlike every scholarly pursuit that I know of in mainstream academia. Instead, Classicists normally bracket miracles in ancient narratives as theological or philosophical questions that extend beyond the scope of what can be proven with ancient texts.
If the Gospels are not like the historical biographies of Plutarch and Suetonius, is there a better parallel within the genre of Greco-Roman biography for what they are like? In my essay “The Certamen of Homer and Hesiod and the Gospels: Some Comparanda,” I compare the Gospels to the more popular and legendary biographical form, using the example of the The Certamen of Homer and Hesiod, which is a kind of dual biography about the epic poets Homer and Hesiod.
As I note in the essay, the Certamen has some important content differences with the Gospels, but their main similarity is based around their language, structure, and storytelling conventions. These are the kinds of considerations relevant to the genre of a narrative, not necessarily to its content.
The similarities in genre between the Certamen and the Gospels include the fact that the Certamen was an ‘open text,’ which was redacted through multiple stages of composition (similar to how Matthew and Luke redact Mark, except for the fact that the Synoptic Gospels take even more liberties than the Certamen in re-arranging material). Likewise, a key feature of these ‘open texts’ is that they largely circulated anonymously. The Certamen circulated anonymously, just as the Gospels were anonymous when they were first circulated in the 1st century (as I explain in my essay “Why Scholars Doubt the Traditional Authors of the Gospels”). The language and structure of these ‘open texts’ are likewise far more simple and fluid. They include far less analytical elements and are written a more general audience. The main emphasis of the text is likewise on stage-setting and scripting, with the biographical elements more at the periphery of the narrative than they are in historical biographies. The Certamen scripts Homer and Hesiod to deliver certain lines of poetry, not unlike how the Gospels script Jesus to deliver parables and sermons. These kinds of storytelling elements are far more similar to popular and legendary biographies, and I argue that both the Certamen and the Gospels are examples of both.
Despite the fact that the Certamen is similar to the Gospels in genre, there are still many differences in content. As I specify in the essay, the Certamen is talking about very different biographical subjects, namely two Greek poets, whereas the Gospels are focusing on a Galilean apocalyptic prophet. Likewise, the Gospels operated far more within a Jewish context, particularly within a Hellenistic Jewish context in the Diaspora, whereas the Certamen operates primarily within a Pagan Greek context. Despite these differences, however, they have less to do with the language, structure, and style shared between the Certamen and the Gospels, which are far more relevant criteria for evaluating literary genre.
Section 7: Marshall’s conflation of historical genre with historical reliability
Above are my thoughts about literary genre. Note that I am speaking primarily about the language and style of a text, and not about whether it necessarily contains accurate historical content, which is a separate question (though, I do note that the question of genre does have certain implications for historical reliability).
One of the most striking contradictions that Marshall makes, even within his same post, involves another misrepresentation of my essay “Ancient Historical Writing Compared to the Gospels of the new Testament.” As I have stated above, that essay asks the question of whether the Gospels’ literary genre matches the Greco-Roman historical writing of antiquity. At the bottom of the essay, I explicitly state that there are “historical kernels” in the Gospels, even if they are non-historical in genre, meaning that even non-historical texts can still contain accurate historical information.
Here is what Marshall writes in his response:
“First, note the adjective “historical” before the noun “prose.” “Historical” can mean two things: (1) belonging to a specific genre, the genre of historical narratives, or (2) historically accurate, baring truthful content about the past. The danger in Ferguson’s wording here seems to be equivocation, confusing these two meanings of the term. He does not overtly commit this error, but it seems to lie latent throughout his argument, and must be deliberately avoided.”
Not only do I not overtly make this error in the essay, but I have even written separate essays on the question of historical reliability, as opposed to genre. My essay “When Do Contemporary or Early Sources Matter in Ancient History?,” in addition to this earlier essay, both address the second meaning of (2) historical accuracy that Marshall is discussing (in addition to this subsequent essay that I wrote on myth-making in the Gospels). The two essays that Marshall is trying to critique specifically deal with the first question of (1) historical genre.
In fact, if you look at my blog index, I specify that the essay comparing the Gospels to historiography and historical biography is concerned specifically with genre. That essay does discuss a number of historical-critical issues that arise from the Gospels lack of historical genre, such as the ambiguity of their sources, contradictions between the texts, their use of allegorical characters, and their shaping of material on mimetic models rather than historical events. But there is a limited scope to these historical-critical issues, since not all issues of historical reliability pertain to genre. The relative dating of a text, for example, such as a text being composed decades or centuries after the events depicted, would not apply to my essay, since ancient historiography and historical biography could be written about both recent and remote events.
Likewise, my essay on the Certamen says little about historical reliability, but is concerned primarily with which biographical sub-type best approximates the genre of the Gospels. It is also worth noting that Marshall focuses most of his historical-critical arguments on the Certamen comparison, while responding to virtually none of the arguments in my essay about how the Certamen is a good comparison of biographical sub-genre with the Gospels. Considering that my interaction with Marshall first began when he raised a fit over me describing the Gospels as “novels” and then said that they were “biographies” (both descriptions of genres), and then I provided him with an example of a text that is a hybrid of novel and biography (an answer to his objection about genre), it was clear that our discussion had started on the topic of the Gospels’ genre.
What is remarkable is that Marshall not only misrepresents my essays, but also commits the very same false equivocation that he is accusing me of, by conflating the issues of genre and historical reliability. Here are some examples:
In attempting to rebut my essay “The Certamen of Homer and Hesiod and the Gospels: Some Comparanda,” Marshall attempts to draw points of contrast between the Gospels and the Certamen. Many of these points have nothing to do with differences in genre at all, but actually deal with the second meaning of (2) historical accuracy. For example, Marshall argues:
“(2) The gospels were written within the plausible life-span of Jesus’ first followers. The Contest was written perhaps 400 years later. Again, this is not a minor difference. How honest can a “scholar” be to compare the historicity of two sets of documents, and “forget” to mention that one was written within a generation of the passing of its subject, while the other was written SIX generations later? These two facts make utter nonsense of Ferguson’s comparison.”
How does the amount of time elapsed have anything to do with the genre of a particular text? Plutarch’s Life of Lycurgus, for example, is a historical biography that was written almost a millennium after the subject’s life (not to mention that Lycurgus is probably a mythical figure). And yet, Plutarch still engages in the critical historical methodology that I discuss when writing this biography (even his first chapters of the text are full of critical analysis). In contrast the hagiographical Life of St. Genevieve (520 CE) claims to be written only eighteen years after the subject’s death. And yet, this hagiography includes several mythical elements (such as monsters: 34, exorcisms: 44-47; calmed storms: 50; healings: 32, 36).
Other popular biographies, which were non-historical in genre, were also written within a generation or two of their subject, such as the Alexander Romance, for example. 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 C.E.; 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 B.C.E. 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.”
What does any of this have to do with literary genre? Nothing at all. The amount of time elapsed is a question relating to historical reliability, not genre, meaning that Marshall is actually committing the exact same false equivocation that he accuses me of. Not to mention the fact that, simply because the Life of St. Genevieve and the Alexander Romance were written within the plausible lifespan of eyewitnesses, did not stop these biographies from including multiple legendary elements. The reason why is because they are not historical in genre, regardless of the amount of time elapsed from the events they are writing about. The same observation applies here to the Gospels.
Marshall likewise states:
“(26) Four gospels confirm one another on numerous points. The Contest stands on one weak, wobbly leg.”
Whether two or more different texts happen to corroborate each other on details is not the same question of whether they are engaging in historical analysis. Independent corroboration can be a test of historical accuracy, but it is not a test of historical genre. Once more, Marshall is making the false equivocation here that he accuses me of.
Beyond the fact that there are multiple contradictions between the four Gospels, such as those noted by NT scholar L. Michael White above (I likewise elaborate on contradictory stories in the Gospels in this essay), which refutes even Marshall’s premise, he is missing the key point here that the style of historical prose is to compare contradictions in sources. Take, for example, when the historical biographer Suetonius (Life of Caligula, 8.1-5) compares the different accounts of the emperor Caligula’s birthplace:
“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’ sources do not corroborate. But that is not the point of genre. As a historical biographer, Suetonius is engaging in critical analysis and comparing differences in his source material. That is a difference in literary genre, not whether the material happens to be corroborated. The Gospels engage in nowhere near this kind of critical analysis, despite the fact that they redact and change stories between each other. This absence of analysis and creative adaption again reflects a difference in literary genre, not whether a text is historically reliable.
Marshall likewise raises another point about historical reliability that has nothing to do with genre:
“(7) In the gospels, the voice of the subject is distinct from other characters. Except where the two poets are being directly quoted, this does not seem true of The Contest. Hesiod asks what is best in life. “Homer” replies, “For men on earth tis better never to be born at all or being born, to pass through the gates of Hades with all speed.” The playwright Aeschylus says this sort of thing all the time — it does not sound particularly like Homer to me. So the tone of the speakers in The Contest provides little or no evidence of historicity, is seems.”
Beyond the fact that NT scholars have long recognized that there are major differences between the teachings and sayings of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels (in which Jesus is more prone to speak cryptically through parables and references to the OT) and the Gospel of John (in which Jesus speaks in longer prosaic speeches), this point again has nothing to do with the literary genre of a text.
Marshall states, “So the tone of the speakers in The Contest provides little or no evidence of historicity, is seems.” What on earth does this have to do with historicity? I think that the Certamen contains little to no reliable historical information, and I never made a comparison of historical reliability between the Certamen and the Gospels. That was not what my essay was about. Instead, I was comparing the language and structure of the Certamen, as a popular and novelistic biography, to the Gospels. Marshall is instead conflating genre with historical reliability, just like he accuses me of doing, despite the fact that he can list no examples.
Section 8: Marshall’s attempt to respond to my genre criteria
The criteria that I list in my essay “Ancient Historical Writing Compared to the Gospels of the new Testament” are based primarily on linguistic, structural, and stylistic features. It doesn’t matter if there are 10 or 40 of these features. What matters is that they define broader characteristics across genre and groups of literature.
Below are Marshall’s criticisms of my 10 criteria in “Ancient Historical Writing Compared to the Gospels of the new Testament.” I will address each in tern.
Point 1: Discussion of Methodology and Sources
Under this criterion I argue that historical texts are far more prone to cite and discuss their sources and methodology (though they do not always do so consistently, as I specify) than the canonical Gospels, which are virtually silent about their sources. The exceptions are Midrash and fulfillment of scripture citations, where the Gospels cite the Old Testament, which is actually a blow against historicity, because it shows how the Gospels are actually basing their narratives off of earlier literary materials and shaping Jesus’ character around OT motifs, regardless of historical accuracy (such as in claiming that Jesus was descended from David, or in modeling Jesus’ miracles off of Moses).
Marshall begins by arguing:
“Notice that Ferguson merely says historical works are “often” prefaced with such statements. Which is consistent with the possibility that they usually are not. So the point, if it matters, is stated in too weak a form to support any important argument.”
Marshall ignores my footnote (5) in the very same essay addressing this very issue:
“ When ancient historical authors do not cite or discuss their sources at the beginning of their works, they frequently cite and discuss them elsewhere in the text. For example, Plutarch’s Life of Alexander does not cite any sources at the beginning of the biography; however, as J. Powell in “The Sources of Plutarch’s Alexander” (pg. 229) explains, “Plutarch cites by name no fewer than twenty-four authorities” elsewhere in the text. Nevertheless, none of the NT Gospels cite any of their written sources by name.
Likewise, even when ancient historians do not identify many of their written sources by name, they often discuss their sources anonymously. For example, the historian Tacitus identifies few of his written sources by name in the first books of his Annals, with the notable exception of Pliny the Elder in Ann. 1.67; however, Tacitus still engages many of his written sources anonymously in ways that are atypical of the canonical Gospels. For example, Tacitus uses formulas like quidam tradidere (“some have related,” Ann. 1.13), diversa apud auctores (“conflicting accounts among historians,” Ann. 1.81), and secutus plurimos auctorum (“having followed the accounts of most historians,” Ann. 4.57). Such methodological statements are virtually absent from the canonical Gospels, with the exception of the first few lines of Luke (1:1-4). Likewise, the Oxford Annotated Bible (pg. 1827) notes that these few lines are atypical of the style elsewhere in Luke’s gospel: “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.”
The source criterion should furthermore not be interpreted as meaning that ancient historians always cited their sources in every instance. Very frequently they do not, and there were no footnotes in antiquity. Nevertheless, discussion of sources and methodology is still considerably more present in ancient historical works, compared to the canonical Gospels in which it is virtually absent, reflecting a difference in style and genre.”
Once more, in his careless reading Marshall has not realized that I have already addressed the objection that he is raising.
Furthermore, the critical analysis of sources is not a secondary characteristic of ancient historiography (or historical biography), but was one of its essential features going back all the way to the very inception of the genre, beginning with the Histories of Herodotus. As Irene de Jong (Narratology & Classics, pg. 172) explains about the difference between Herodotus and the epic poetry that preceded him:
“[T]he Herodotean narrator is clearly indebted to the Homeric narrator. But unlike that narrator, the Herodotean narrator has no Muses to help him, and at times he admits that he does not know something, gives more than one motive for a character’s actions, and reaches the ‘borders’ of his story and is unable to tell what lies outside them … [H]e is present in his own text as a person who travels and talks with informants and, as a histor, compares and weighs sources.”
Marshall also argues:
“The gospels were written far closer to the time in which their subject lived, than “many” historical works. Furthermore, the Christian faith was persecuted and officially prescribed. Works on much older historical figures like Alexander the Great required long explanations about sources, and it was safe to give them. Richard Bauckham argues that the writers of the gospels also refer to their sources, though more cautiously, as is understandable under the circumstances.”
Here, Marshall is trying to act as if ancient historians only cited their sources when they were writing hundreds of years after the event. And yet I have come across examples in Greek historiographical literature just these last couple weeks (doing readings in the original language), where historical authors discuss their sources “far closer” to events they are describing. Take the following passage that I read in Greek the other day in Herodotus (8.65), describing a miracle that allegedly occurred during the Second Greco-Persian War:
“Dicaeus son of Theocydes, an Athenian exile who had become important among the Medes, said that at the time when the land of Attica was being laid waste by Xerxes’ army and there were no Athenians in the country, he was with Demaratus the Lacedaemonian on the Thriasian plain and saw advancing from Eleusis a cloud of dust as if raised by the feet of about thirty thousand men. They marvelled at what men might be raising such a cloud of dust and immediately heard a cry. The cry seemed to be the “Iacchus” of the mysteries … and after the dust and the cry came a cloud, which rose aloft and floated away toward Salamis to the camp of the Hellenes. In this way they understood that Xerxes’ fleet was going to be destroyed. Dicaeus son of Theocydes used to say this, appealing to Demaratus and others as witnesses.“
This event allegedly occurred in 480 BCE, whereas Herodotus was writing c. 430 BCE, about 50 years after the event. The Gospels are written 40-60 years after the events they describe. And yet you see far more of these source citations in Herodotus, because, again, he is a historical author.
Furthermore, there are several historical biographies written within 25-50 years after their subjects’ lives, which nevertheless discuss the use of sources, often naming them. Suetonius discusses such sources in his Lives about the emperors Galba (Gal. 20.1), Otho (Oth. 6.2), and Vitellius (Vit. 1.1), all written about 50 years after the subjects’ deaths. Plutarch also writes about Galba and Otho even closer to their lives, roughly 30 years after their deaths, and yet he too cites sources about them (Gal. 14.4; Oth. 9.2-3).
As for Richard Bauckham, Marshall is appealing to his (minority) view that the Gospels may (vaguely) identify their sources through the practice of inclusio. However, Bauckham’s thesis has not been accepted by the majority of mainstream scholars, primarily because it stretches the evidence too far as to whether the Gospels actually identify eyewitnesses. For an in-depth review that summarizes scholarly critiques of Bauckham, see here.
Point 2: Internally Addressed and Analyzed Contradictions among Traditions
This next point addresses the issue that historical authors very frequently discuss contradictions between source material, whereas the Gospels redact material from early narratives (even creating contradictions in the process), without explaining their methodology or even showing concern for chronological order.
Marshall again makes the same excuse that Gospels are writing “too close” to discuss contradictions in their source material:
“Actually, the authors of the gospels do not tell us how they judged between sources. We know that in fact, they did not accept everything from Mark without adjusting it. And if, as they probably knew (and as Bauckham argues) Mark was based on the accounts of Peter, of course such a source would naturally be given priority. Given, again, that the evangelists were “often” closer to the time when their subject lived than historians were, and wrote when many of the first eyewitnesses were still around and in potential danger, again, their failure to explicitly detail sources is neither surprising nor need it act as an impediment.”
Once more, in just reading Greek authors over the last couple weeks, I have come across examples that directly contradict Marshall’s “closer to the time” rationalization above. Take this passage that I found in Thucydides (2.5) the other day, describing a failed Theban coup to capture the Greek city of Plataea during the Peloponnesian War:
“…the Thebans wished if possible to have some prisoners to exchange against their countrymen in the town, should any chance to have been taken alive. Such was their plan. But the Plataeans suspected their intention almost before it was formed, and becoming alarmed for their fellow-citizens outside the town, sent a herald to the Thebans, reproaching them for their unscrupulous attempt to seize their city in time of peace, and warning them against any outrage on those outside. Should the warning be disregarded, they threatened to put to death the men they had in their hands, but added that, on the Thebans retiring from their territory, they would surrender the prisoners to their friends. This is the Theban account of the matter, and they say that they had an oath given them. The Plataeans, on the other hand, do not admit any promise of an immediate surrender, but make it contingent upon subsequent negotiation: the oath they deny altogether. Be this as it may, upon the Thebans retiring from their territory without committing any injury, the Plataeans hastily got in whatever they had in the country and immediately put the men to death. The prisoners were a hundred and eighty in number; Eurymachus, the person with whom the traitors had negotiated, being one.”
Now, we know for a fact that Thucydides (1:1) was an eyewitness to the Peloponnesian War, and began writing his account at the beginning conflict. And yet here Thucydides is discussing contradictions in his source material, again, because he is a historical author.
Furthermore, there are also historical biographers that write about their sources within 25-50 years after their subjects’ deaths. Marshall is making a claim very similar to one made by Craig Keener, which I rebut in my essay under footnote 10:
“Some apologists have sought to excuse the fact that the Gospels do not mention contradictions and varying reports between their sources, by arguing that the Gospels were composed too close to the life of Jesus for divergent accounts to have emerged. Craig Keener (The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, pg. 128), for example, claims, “The Gospel writers do not identify specific sources … probably at least partly because they discuss events of a recent generation of which sources have not yet greatly diverged.” This argument, however, is poorly supported by trends in historical biographical literature written only a generation or two after the subject’s death.
As the Oxford Annotated Bible (pg. 1744) explains about the dating of the NT Gospels, “Scholars generally agree that the Gospels were written forty to sixty years after the death of Jesus.” There is an abundance of historical biographical literature written within this same timespan, however, that nevertheless spends considerably more space citing contradictions and varying reports between sources. Suetonius’ Twelve Caesars, for example, was written c. 121 CE, which placed it about fifty years after the Roman civil war of 69 CE. During that war, three successive emperors died violently, and Suetonius cites contradictions and divergent accounts about all of their lives. For the the emperor Galba, Suetonius cites contradictions about the manner of his assassination (Gal. 20.1). For Otho (the subsequent emperor), Suetonius cites contradictions about the manner in which he overthrew Galba (Oth. 6.2). For the next emperor, Vitellius, Suetonius cites contradictions about his ancestry (Vit. 1.1). The historical biographer Plutarch also wrote about the civil of 69 CE, and his biographies of the emperors Galba and Otho were probably published, at the latest, during the reign of the emperor Nerva (96-98 CE), only about thirty years after their deaths. And yet, Plutarch cites contradictions about the events of Galba’s assassination (Gal. 14.4), and likewise cites contradictions about Otho’s civil war with Vitellius (Oth. 9.2-3). Suetonius also wrote about the Flavian dynasty (69-96 CE), fifty to twenty-five years after the emperors who reigned. And yet, Suetonius cites contradictions about the occupation of the emperor Vespasian’s father (Vesp. 1.2), and different interpretations of the meaning behind the emperor Titus’ last words (Tit. 10.2), as well as various rumors about the emperor Domitian’s youth (Dom. 1.1).
It should be noted that all of these contradictory and varying reports are recorded about Roman emperors, for whom there would have been considerably more documentation and knowledge about their lives. In the case of Jesus, he was an obscure Galilean peasant, whose life was first related by oral tradition, spanning various regions, and often in Greek, a different language than what Jesus spoke. Keener’s notion that divergent accounts about Jesus would not substantially emerge under such circumstances, when divergence emerged among the accounts of Roman emperors, for whom it would have been considerably easier to ascertain the facts about their lives, is thus poorly supported.”
Beyond the examples given above, it should be noted that each of the major biographers of the Roman Empire–Cornelius Nepos (e.g., Themistocles 9.1), Plutarch (e.g., Otho 9.2-3), Suetonius (e.g., Caligula 8.1-5), Diogenes Laertius (e.g., 1.23), and the author(s) of the Historia Augusta (e.g., Hadrian 4.8-10)–note contradictions between their sources at various points in their biographies. The same is also true of Greco-Roman historians–such as Herodotus (e.g., 1.1-5), Thucydides (e.g., 2.5), Xenophon (e.g., Hellenica 6.4), Polybius (e.g., 12.5), Diodorus Siculus (e.g., 1.64), Sallust (e.g., Catiline War 19.3-5), Dionysius of Halicarnassus (e.g., Roman Antiquities 1.22), Livy (e.g., 1.55), Paterculus (e.g, 1.7), Curtius Rufus (e.g., 6.4), Josephus (e.g., Judean Antiquities 18.2), Tacitus (e.g., Annals 1.81), Appian (e.g., 11.9), Arrian (e.g., Anabasis 2.3), and Cassius Dio (e.g., 55.23). As such, noting contradictions between sources was a normative feature of both ancient historiography and historical biography. Nevertheless, as with the case of citing written sources, historians and historical biographers did not always note contradictions in every instance in which their sources disagreed. This criterion should therefore be interpreted as a distinction of frequency and not universality. Both ancient historians and historical biographers cite contradictions between their sources far more frequently than the canonical Gospels, even if they do not do so in every instance, which reflects a difference in genre.
Point 3: Authorial Presence in the Narrative
Marshall actually responds to very little of this part and instead gets hung up on the fact that I use the word “novel” in this section. Again, I am not primarily talking about novels in this essay, but instead contrasting the Gospels with the writings of historical authors. Marshall states:
“As Bauckham shows, authorship was probably understood, and is largely implicit.”
Once more an appeal to Bauckham’s (minority) view. However, something that Marshall is apparently unaware of is that authorship was not merely “implicit” in ancient historiography, but was usually overtly stated in the text itself. As Armin Baum (“The Anonymity of the New Testament History Books,” pg. 130) explains, most ancient historians identified their names within the prologues of their texts:
Likewise, even when historians and historical biographers did not overtly state their names within the body of their texts, they still frequently used the first-person to discuss their relation to the events described and their sources, rather than the anonymous, third-person style of narration in the Gospels.
As such, you won’t find much of anything in the Gospels that reads like the following:
Dionysius of Halicarnassus (Roman Antiquities 1.7): “I arrived in Italy at the very time that Augustus Caesar put an end to the civil war, in the middle of the one hundred and eighty-seventh Olympiad, and having from that time to this present day, a period of twenty-two years, lived at Rome, learned the language of the Romans and acquainted myself with their writings, I have devoted myself during all that time to matters bearing upon my subject. Some information I received orally from men of the greatest learning, with whom I associated; and the rest I gathered from histories written by the approved Roman authors.”
Tacitus (Histories 1.1): “I myself knew nothing of Galba, of Otho, or of Vitellius, either from benefits or from injuries. I would not deny that my elevation was begun by Vespasian, augmented by Titus, and still further advanced by Domitian; but those who profess inviolable truthfulness must speak of all without partiality and without hatred.”
Beyond that, historical authors also interject their judgements into the narrative, using constructions like δοκεῖ μοι (“it seems to me”), in order to engage in critical analysis. The Gospels, in contrast, contain little to none of these authorial statements about judgement and method, with the only major exception being the first lines of Luke (1:1-4), after which the author follows the style of the Septuagint. However, popular-novelistic biographies, like the Alexander Romance, are also anonymous and contain little to no interjections from the author, which is why their genre more closely resembles the Gospels.
Point 4: Education Level of the Audience
In this section, I explain that one reason that the Gospels are not historical in genre is due to the fact that history was not a widely taught subject in antiquity. In fact, the majority of the population was illiterate and untrained in critical thinking. We take these things for granted today, but in antiquity such training was largely restricted to the social elite. This is a point of consideration that should be made, especially when evaluating texts that have simpler language and more obvious storytelling and performative conventions. These features distinguish the more legendary and novelistic biographies, directed at a wider audience, that Tomas Hägg describes above.
“The gospels are written for both the elite (if they are humble) and for six-year old black girls from the Deep South who are just learning to read, like Rudy Bridges.”
Apparently the Gospel authors had the American South in mind when they were writing in the 1st century CE… I’ll quote what an actual scholarly resource, The Oxford Annotated Bible (pg. 1743):
“Greco-Roman biographies were addressed to a social and literary elite, which may explain why the Gospels, addressed to a much broader audience, do not match them very closely.”
Marshall also gets hung up on and gripes about the fact that I make the following statement:
“For anyone who reads ancient Greek, the quality between a historian like Thucydides versus the authors of the Gospels is on par with comparing Shakespeare to Sesame Street (okay, maybe not that extreme, but you get the point). Historical writing was simply far more complex and analytical…”
This was obviously a loose analogy that I was using to explain to a general audience the difference of language and style found between historical authors and the Gospels. Marshall responds:
“No one who compares, say, Tacitus to Shakespeare, and the gospels to Sesame Street, even facetiously, should speak in the same breath about being “skilled at critical thinking” or about the “literary elite.” Frankly, anything such a commentator subsequently says should be dismissed, until he puts Sesame Street, and such childish and inane “witticisms” aside for a good long while.”
Funny enough, I was just reading an article about the differences between Classical and seminary Greek language training the other day that makes use of the exact same Shakespeare analogy. The article, written by Patristics scholar Seumas Macdonald, is titled “Why Classical (Greek) students are better at Greek than Seminary students,” and here is what it states:
“Classical students generally train in classical grammar, which on the whole is slightly more complex than Koine grammar … Plato, Homer, Greek plays, Attic oratory. These are all high-level literary texts that demand a lot from their students. It’s functionally equivalent to taking a grammar class in English and then in your second year reading Shakespeare and the like … Seminary students, though, move from a a grammar class to reading the newspaper. The NT is not a high-register set of documents. It’s sophisticated, challenging, but its level of language isn’t and isn’t meant to be ‘Shakespearean.’“
Obviously Marshall is just getting hung up on my comparison of Shakespeare to Sesame Street (which I even specified was an exaggeration), in order to be petty and polemical. This is the exact kind of vapid argumentation that underlies all of Marshall’s article.
Point 5: Hagiography versus Biography
In this section I discuss how the historical biographies of Plutarch and Suetonius frequently include negative material about their subject (Suetonius even categorizes whole sections of his narrative around negative material). Likewise, both Plutarch and Suetonius are willing, as authors, to criticize their subjects. This is again a difference between historical analysis and laudatory praise.
Marshall tries to get around this by arguing that there are criticism made against Jesus in the Gospels by his enemies:
“To begin with, in fact, the gospels are full of realistic criticism of Jesus. That criticism comes not from the authors of the gospels, but from Jesus’ critics, true.”
And yet this concedes the point about the difference in style between these texts. The Gospels merely stage Jesus to refute his opponents and face adversity bravely. Plato’s dialogues likewise script arguments from Socrates’ opponents against the philosopher (which Socrates gets to refute, just like Jesus), and make Socrates face adversity. But that hardly negates the fact that Plato is obviously being laudatory toward Socrates, and is likewise always staging Socrates to win the argument in these situations. In fact, this is a major reason that scholars don’t take Plato’s hagiographical depiction of Socrates at face value
Hagiographical and laudatory accounts can include the subject’s enemies making attacks against them. What’s different about historical biographers, such as Plutarch and Suetonius, is that they are willing, as critical authors, to interject their own judgements about negative behavior. There is nothing like this in the Gospels. The title of the Gospels is εὐαγγέλιον (“good news”), reflecting the blatant one-dimensional praise of their subject.
Point 6: Signposts about Authorial Speculation
In this section I explain how there are numerous kinds of signposts that ancient historians would use to signal speculation and the limitations of sources. Sometimes these signposts take the form of precautionary statements by the historian, such as Thucydides’ (1.22) remark:
“That particular persons have spoken when they were about to enter into the war or when they were in it were hard for me to remember exactly, whether they were speeches which I have heard myself or have received at the second hand. But as any man seemed to me that knew what was nearest to the sum of the truth of all that had been uttered to speak most agreeably to the matter still in hand, so I have made it spoken here. But of the acts themselves done in the war, I thought not fit to write all that I heard from all authors nor such as I myself did but think to be true, but only those whereat I was myself present and those of which with all diligence I had made particular inquiry. And yet even of those things it was hard to know the certainty, because such as were present at every action spake not all after the same manner, but as they were affected to the parts or as they could remember.”
Of course, the Gospels never cast doubt on the certainty of their material about Jesus like this. Marshall responds:
“Ferguson cites Thucydides’ famous, and oft-cited, admission that he was guessing when it came to the speeches he cites. But he does not cite any other ancient historians on this. I have not read all the ancient historians, but don’t recall such comments from others I have read.”
If Marshall were able to read these texts in their original language, he would realize that these kinds of authorial judgements are all over the place. They don’t just appear in statements like this, but are also reflected in grammatical structures, such as indirect speech. In fact, the use of direct speech vs. indirect speech is another major characteristic that contrasts the Gospels from ancient historiography, while aligning them with the ancient novel. Ancient historians and historical biographers did not like to quote large amounts of direct speech, primarily because they did not always know the exact words spoken on a given occasion. Ancient novels, in contrast, were far more dramatic, and would thus include large amounts of quotations from their characters in direct speech, often in the form of dialogues. In fact, Richard Pervo in “Direct Speech in Acts and the Question of Genre” has found that Acts of the Apostles contains more direct speech than virtually any piece of historiography from the same period. Instead, Acts only contains as much direct speech as ancient novels. Here is the statistical breakdown that Pervo (pg. 301) provides:
While Pervo’s study focuses on Acts, there is a similar amount of direct speech in the Gospels, which likewise aligns them with the ancient novel. This is all ironic in light of Marshall’s statement:
“You also describe the gospels as “novels.” This is complete and utter nonsense … Anyone who reads the gospels and thinks it’s one of those, is, frankly, as blind as a bat.”
And yet, a close reading of these texts reveals that only ancient novels include as much direct speech as Acts or the Gospels, whereas virtually no piece of ancient historiography does the same. Contrary to Marshall’s assertion, anyone who thinks that the Gospels are works of historiography or historical biography could be more aptly described as “blind as a bat.” Likewise, ancient historians would frequently employ paraphrase when they did not know the exact words that were spoken on a given occasion, using vocabulary like ἔλεγε τοιάδε (“he spoke words like these”), which distanced them from directly reporting the literal words in speeches.
Beyond this, there are other constructions that historians could use to interject historical judgements, such as phrases like δοκεῖ μοι (“it seems to me”). The historian Titus Livy, for example, frequently uses constructions like ut dicitur (“as it is said”) or ferunt (“they claim”) to specify that he is not endorsing certain claims, but only recording that they were made. One such example is when Livy (1.39) discusses the tale of how the Roman king Servius Tullius’ head, when he was a child, caught on fire while he was sleeping, but did not harm him, as it was a sign that he would be a future king. Livy’s careful use of the verb ferunt (“they claim”) indicates that he is distancing himself from gullibly believing in this fable, again providing a signpost about the limitations of his material. In contrast, the Gospels use virtually none of these constructions.
Likewise, read the example I gave above, under point 2, where Thucydides also signposts uncertainty in his sources, by stressing how the Thebans and the Plataeans gave two different versions of a historical event. The Gospels, in contrast, redact and re-arrange material between each other, often changing the order of events, without including qualifying statements like this.
Point 7: Independence versus Interdependence
To me as a Classicist, one of the most striking features of the Gospels, in fact probably their most salient characteristic (especially with the Synoptic Gospels), is the way that they borrow and redact material from each other. You virtually never see Greco-Roman historians and historical biographers lift 80% or 65% of their narrative from an earlier source, re-arrange the material to suite different storytelling conventions, and then say nothing about their methodology. As a Classicist, I do not know of any other texts that do this as much as the canonical Gospels, with the exception of popular-novelistic biographies.
Marshall’s response to this is:
“Yet another poor argument. Mark is the shortest gospel, so even if you borrow most of it, that does not mean there is not a great deal of independent material in your own. As there clearly is.”
And yet can Marshall provide an example of a Greco-Roman historian or historical biographer who writes in this way? I know of none. Texts that do operate this way, however, are the kind of legendary and novelistic biographies discussed above, such as the Certamen. As ancient biography specialist Tomas Hägg discusses, these kinds of popular biographies operated as ‘open texts,’ which went through multiple stages of editing and redaction. This is far more similar to how the Gospels are written, which is a major point to take into consideration when evaluating genre.
Point 8. Miracles at the Fringe versus the Core of the Narrative
In this section, I point out that, while miracles occur in Greco-Roman histories and biographies, they are seldom the main focus of the narrative. As the heading states, they occur more at the fringe than the core of the narrative. Marshall responds:
“Ferguson is simply begging the question about whether God acts in the world, then using prejudicial language to make the miracles in the gospels seem ridiculous.”
This section has nothing to do with the theological question of whether God acts in the world. The issue at stake is the emphasis of the genre. The Gospels place far more emphasis on miracles than the vast majority of Greco-Roman histories and historical biographies (a point even noted by Christian scholar Craig Keener), which is major difference between the two. The difference is probably due to the fact that the Gospels are far more hagiographical and designed to extol and praise their subject, as well as being more theologically-focused narratives. Marshall also states:
“Obviously, the gospel stories are not “unbelievable,” since many of us do, in fact, believe them. What can be done, cannot be undoable: the very doing of it, proves it possible.”
I really have no idea where he is going with this bizarre bandwagon fallacy. I don’t care whether Marshall believes in the Gospel miracles or not. The frequency and focus of miracles is considerably greater in the Gospels compared to Greco-Roman histories and historical biographies, which is the only point of contrast being made here. The different emphases between the two has nothing to do with whether miracles are actually real.
Point 9: Important Characters and Events Do Not Disappear from the Narrative
I’ll simply quote the analysis from my essay in this section, and then quote Marshall’s response, since I think it deserves very little follow-up:
“Prior to entry in my Classics M.A. program, I wrote as a writing sample a paper about the Roman prefect Sejanus and his alleged conspiracy against the emperor Tiberius in 31 CE. Both Tacitus and Dio invest extensive portions of their narratives introducing Sejanus and explaining the steps he took in gaining power under Tiberius. Whatever Sejanus was planning, it did not come to fruition, as he was executed by Tiberius in 31 CE. Part of the accusations levied against Sejanus was that he had many allies in the Roman Senate who were helping him in the conspiracy.
Now, imagine if, after Sejanus’ death, there was no aftermath or followup and the narrative merely moved on to another subject. The sequence of events would not at all be logical and would leave many questions unanswered. Instead, both Tacitus (book 6) and Dio (book 58) spend a considerable amount of narrative space discussing the senators who were accused and condemned for being co-conspirators with Sejanus. This makes logical sense, as the event and its instigator were were both of a very important nature and we would not expect that they would suddenly disappear from a narrative in which they played crucial roles.
And yet in the Gospels earth-shaking events take place that then receive no followup and strangely disappear once they have played their symbolic role in the narrative. Take the Gospel of Matthew, for example. Jesus’ death (27:52-53) causes an earthquake that opens the tombs of saints, from which dead people resurrect and then appear throughout Jerusalem. This is an extraordinary event, indeed, and yet there is no followup in the Gospels or Acts of how the city was affected by this. Then, Pontius Pilate is so worried that Jesus’ tomb will be found empty, lest people believe a miracle had occurred (as if all of the saints’ resurrections weren’t convincing enough), that he has guards stationed at the tomb. When the guards are foiled, however, and Jesus’ body is found missing, the Jewish authorities claim (28:11-15) that the disciples stole the body. Grave robbery was a capital offense in ancient Judea, and yet, there is no followup prosecution of the disciples for this charge, even when they are brought to court on other issues. Furthermore, what happened to Joseph of Arimathea? His tomb was the one that was supposed to remain occupied, and yet, when it is found empty, he is not even questioned on the matter. Pilate had gone to great lengths to ensure that Jesus’ body did not go missing, and yet, when Jesus is claimed to have risen, he does not even undergo an investigation into the circumstances.”
You can consider whether Marshall’s response to this is persuasive or not:
“This final argument is especially ironic. In reality, it is in fiction that characters (the ones Ferguson names here are in fact not so important) almost never disappear, not in real life. Characters seldom disappear in a Dickens novel, or even in ancient Greek novels. You run into London lowlifes in Paris during climactic scenes, or treacherous Greek maids get their comeuppance by appearing suddenly, then dying just as suddenly, in Egypt, before the revengeful eyes of their former victims.
But this sort of coincidence never happens in the gospels, and it is one (minor) reason I find them credible.
Who knows if Joseph of Arimathea was questioned? It is not an important point in the narrative, and there is no reason it should have been pursued. The rising saints in Matthew 27 are tangential to the story, and probably even to Matthew’s thinking — he has no doubt heard such a rumor — but so central to the thought of skeptics, that Ferguson can’t resist mentioning that little incident in two consecutive points. This is how the mind of a person who is pursuing polemical, not historical, interests works.”
No response to how the historical analysis of Tacitus and Cassius Dio includes logical follow-up to major events in the narrative, just excuses for why the Gospels are full of plot holes. I see little to respond to here.
Point 10: Even Good Historical Texts Should Not Always Be Trusted
In the last section, I discuss how modern historians do not even take ancient historical texts at face value, meaning that even being historical in genre is no sure proof of inerrancy. A major point that I would add is that I am unaware of virtually any Classical scholar who thinks that we can use Greco-Roman historical texts to “prove” Pagan miracles. Such a thing is completely absent from Classical scholarship. This should give us some perspective when assessing similar claims in New Testament scholarship. Marshall states:
“This is not, as Ferguson admits, a point of comparison between ancient history and the gospels, it is merely Ferguson’s statement of personal incredulity at the supernatural in general, and some of what they report, in particular.”
Again, I could care less about “personal incredulity.” What matters is professional trends in scholarly disciplines. Classicists normally refrain from casting judgements about the veracity of Pagan miracles, because such questions involve underlying theological and philosophical assumptions that cannot be considered bona fide part of the historical evidence. If Marshall can show me a Classical article or book, published by an academic publisher, that makes the case for how historians can use ancient texts to prove Pagan miracles, I will accept similar methodology in New Testament Studies. Otherwise, I think that historians of both should take a “hands off” approach to judging such events, since it is simply beyond the scope of academic history. People can choose to believe in miracles or not, I am simply making sure to apply Classical methodology consistently with the New Testament, and I know of no such efforts in Classics to “prove” Pagan miracles akin to the efforts by Christian apologists to “prove” Christian miracles. Because of that I do not consider apologetic arguments for Christian miracles to be on par with serious Classical scholarship. It is simply a non-scholarly and religiously-motivated pursuit (at best you could catagorize it under Philosophy and Theology).
Section 9: The blatant confirmation bias underlying the criteria of Marshall’s genre criticism
Now let’s take a look Marshall’s arguments against my essay “The Certamen of Homer and Hesiod and the Gospels: Some Comparanda.” When I took a look at David Marshall’s facebook page the other day, I found a comment that I particularly found to be hypocritical on Marshall’s part:
“Characteristics need to be set” in order to avoid “confirmation bias,” eh? Well, I have set the language, structure, and stylistic elements that characterize a literary genre in part II, section 6 above. Note how I have also stressed that two texts of a similar genre can still differ drastically in their content.
After complaining about confirmation bias, consider some of the following literary criteria that Marshall uses to contrast the genre of the Gospels with the Certamen:
“(11) Jesus taught in distinctive parables.“
And Homer and Hesiod, being poets, recite poetry. So what? That is a difference in content, not genre. Both the Certamen and Gospels engage in stage-setting and scripting their subjects to deliver certain lines or sayings. These kinds of performative and storytelling elements distinguish a type of literary genre, such as the popular and legendary biographies discussed above. (Another point worth repeating here is that the Gospels and the Certamen include a large number of quotations of their subjects in direct speech, which reflects far more creative shaping and performativity in the narrative; in contrast, ancient historical works more often employ indirect speech, in order to distances themselves from claiming to know the exact words of their subjects, again reflecting a different type of critical and evidential analysis). Marshall is merely trying to make a distinction about an individual text’s content, when my essay is about broader structural features across genre
“(3) The gospels are ethnically distinctive and realistic. This, too, is untrue of The Contest. It is written entirely from within the perspective of Greek culture.“
Once more, is the setting in which a story takes place a matter of content, or genre? Different texts of the same genre can tell stories set in multiple cultures. This is nothing but confirmation bias on Marshall’s part, because he is defining the genre of the Gospels specifically based on the cultural settings in which they took place, which is hardly the same thing as identifying language and structural elements within a literary genre.
“(13) Jesus makes use of poetic language, including hyperbole, but not formal poetry. Homer and Hesiod don’t say much, outside of their poems and a few rather empty philosophical banalities.“
What does poetry or “philosophical banalities” have to do with the structure and a genre of a text? A legendary biography can include poetry, deeds, and/or parables. This content can also be banal or interesting. None of this has to do with structure and genre.
“(14) In the gospels, you get to know a few disciples well, who act in fairly consistent manners. (The same is true of Confucius’ disciples in the Analects.) This is not relevant to The Contest, since neither man is shown as having disciples.“
So, having well-known disciples is a criterion for identifying a genre of literature? As opposed to the language and structure of a narrative, regardless of the characters that it includes? Once more, confirmation bias.
“(18) Jesus praises people on the margins, but never flatters them. Neither Hesiod nor Homer so much as notice much anyone besides themselves.“
Is identifying people on the margins a question of content or literary structure and genre? Repeat the observations above.
“(25) Jesus fulfills ancient Hebrew traditions by a dialogue with that tradition that exhibits variety, subtlety, tying Jesus to that tradition by many threads of ancient truth. Nothing like this occurs in The Contest.“
This one actually made me laugh. Where do I, or anyone else, claim that the Certamen (a Pagan Greek text) fulfills ancient Hebrew traditions? Does every ancient biography have to fulfill Hebrew traditions to belong to the literary genre of biography? This is once more a point about content, completely irrelevant to the question of literary structure.
Section 10: Marshall’s unwarranted and irrelevant assumptions
Marshall likewise proposes a number of other criteria that are completely irrelevant to the question of literary genre. What distinguishes this last group, however, is the fact that it is also based on a number of unwarrented assumptions.
“(20) Jesus’ teachings were Earth-shaking then, and remain Earth-shaking now. Not so, perhaps surprisingly, the fresh teaching, or even most of the cited poetry of the two great ancient poets.”
This one again made me laugh. You mean that a defining feature of a literary genre is that it has to change the world? So, if we have a novel, a poem, and a research paper that all have Earth-shaking consequences, we should then say that they all belong to the same literary genre? As opposed to considerations like language, structure, and style? At best this criterion would apply to the reception of a piece of literature and would say absolutely nothing about its genre.
But, what is even further absurd about this point is the fact that Marshall assumes the Gospels were Earth-shaking. After all, the emperor Tiberius Caesar converted to Christianity, as did the prefect Pontius Pilate, right? The apostle Paul was likewise in correspondence with the Stoic philosopher Seneca, eh? So, obviously Jesus had a huge and immediate impact on the world, didn’t he? Um, except for the fact that Christians in subsequent centuries had to create forgeries about these events, because the actual first generation of Christians demonstrably had very little impact on the broader world. See my essay “Tiberius Caesar the Christian?” discussing how Christians had to lie and produce forgeries about the their Earth-shaking impact, due to the utter silence among contemporaries about any of Jesus’ miracles.
For a more realistic estimate of the actual influence Christianity had through the 1st-2nd centuries CE, NT scholar Bart Ehrman (How Jesus Became God, pg. 131) explains:
“[S]ociologist Rodney Stark [The Rise of Christianity] has shown that during its first three hundred years years, the Christian religion grew at a rate of 40 percent every decade. If Christianity started out as a relatively small group in the first century but had some three million followers by the early fourth — that’s a 40 percent increase every ten years. What is striking to Stark is that this is the same growth rate of the Mormon church since it started in the nineteenth century. So these mainline Christians who think that God must have been behind Christianity or it would not have grown as quickly as it did — are they willing to say the same thing about the Mormon church (which they in fact tend not to support)?”
Earth-shaking, uh? Sure, Marshall…
“(23) The rabbi whom the evangelists describe treats women with great respect and compassion, but also challenges them to greater things. There is no way the evangelists all independently decided to invent such a striking and unusual man. No such quality can be found in The Context (sic).“
For an analysis of whether any of the texts in the Bible show equality toward women, see an earlier essay by my co-author Francis Adams: “Evaluating the Bible’s Treatment of Women: Why Egalitarians Are Wrong and Everyone Else is Reprehensible.”
Beyond this point, what does the way that a biographical subject treats women have to do with the language, structure, and style of a narrative? Can you not write biographies about people who are sexist? Once more, this point has absolutely nothing to do with the question of literary genre.
“(4) The gospels realistically describe the rural geography of their setting. The author of The Contest seems to know his way around, though he gives fewer details.“
I will quote some of the geographical inaccuracies in the Gospels from my essay “Matthew the τελώνης (“Toll Collector”) and the Authorship of the First Gospel,” footnote 7:
“Examples of inaccurate descriptions of Palestine in the Gospel of Mark include the following: A problematic route in Mk 7:31 in which Jesus is described to have traveled out of Tyre through Sidon (North of Tyre) to the Sea of Galilee (South of Tyre). In the words of scholar Hugh Anderson in The Gospel of Mark (pg. 192), this would be like “travelling from Cornwall to London by way of Manchester.” Another problematic route is described in Mk 11:1, which has Jesus and the disciples, in approaching Jerusalem from Jericho, come first to Bethphage and then to Bethany. As Helms (Who Wrote the Gospels?, pg. 6) explains, “Anyone approaching Jerusalem from Jericho would come first to Bethany and then Bethphage, not the reverse. This is one of the several passages showing that Mark knew little about Palestine.” Nineham (The Gospel of St. Mark, pgs. 294-295) agrees, “Mark did not know the relative positions of these two villages on the Jericho road.” Another problem concerns the location of Geresa (modern Jerash). As Theissen (The Gospels in Context, pg. 242) explains, “According to 5:1ff, the town of Gerasa and its surrounding lands lie near the Lake of Galilee, although in reality Gerasa is about 65 kilometers southeast of the lake.” Likewise, Raymond Brown (An Introduction to the New Testament, pg. 160) notes, “No one has been able to locate the Dalmanutha of 8:10, and it may be a corruption of Magdala.”
Beyond that fact, whether a novel or a historical biography has an accurate description of geography is irrelevant to the question of its language and literary structure. Again, Marshall is confusing historical and/or geographical reliability with literary genre.
“(9) Reactions to Jesus are credible, given events. This is not so true of The Contest. For instance, the Argives are so thrilled that Homer praised their skill in war in a few brief lines (“Argives with linen jerkins, very goads of war”), that they give him “costly gifts” and set up a statue to him. This sort of reaction is a typical novelistic detail — Jesus never gets statues. Also, Hesiod’s body is brought to land by dolphins, another novelistic motif.”
Sure, which is why an earthquake that tore the curtain in the Jewish Temple in twain, and the sky growing dark for 3 hours at midday made no impact whatsoever on any contemporary Pagan or Jewish writings? Marshall, in contrast, claims that Homer and Hesiod getting statues as a prize for a poetry contest is not credible and a “novelistic detail”…
Marshall also leaves out the fact that Hesiod’s dead body, after being thrown into the sea, was brought to land by dolphins “on the third day” in the Certamen. Note that this “third day” motif may predate the Gospels. I fail to see how a dead man magically rising from the dead “on the third day” is any more or less credible than this story.
“(1) The gospels claim to be historical.“
This is virtually the only criterion that Marshall has offered that would be relevant to the question of literary genre. And yet it is completely unfounded. The Gospel authors do not claim to be writing a ἱστορία (“history”) or a βίος (“biography”). Instead, they are categorized under the title εὐαγγέλιον (“gospel” or “good news”), which is a blatant marker of hagiography.
The only Gospel to even make a pretense at claiming to be historical is the Gospel of Luke in the introductory lines (1:1-4) to the text. However, as scholar Marion Soards (Oxford Annotated Bible, pg. 1827) notes:
“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.”
After those four brief verses you are right back into redacting earlier narratives, OT Midrash, and hagiography. Here is what The Oxford Annotated Bible (a scholarly resource summarizing dominant trends in the last 150 years of biblical scholarship) concludes about the Gospels’ historical aims (pg. 1744):
There you have it from a real scholarly authority, quite unlike a layman like David Marshall.
Section 11: Marshall’s subjectivity and irrelevant personal opinions
Finally, Marshall proposes criteria that amount to little more than his personal opinion over whether the teachings of Jesus are remarkable, or whether the miracles of Jesus are realistic or not:
“(10) Jesus offers surprising, non-platitudinous teachings.“
“(24) The miracles of Jesus are realistic, purposeful, constructive, respectful of the nature of things, and pious in the sense of pointing people to God. This characteristic does not at all apply to The Contest.”
This is not only irrelevant to genre criticism, but it also is a completely subjective premise. Who decides if Jesus’ teachings are “non-platitudinous” or not, or whether his miracles are “purposeful” and “pious”? I recommend Richard Carrier’ article “On Musonius Rufus: A Brief Essay” for many interesting points of comparison on how the Stoic philosopher Musonius Rufus taught far more insightful and valuable teachings than Jesus. You can also look at Hector Avalos’ new book The Bad Jesus for a critical examination of Jesus’ ethics, as well as a deconstruction of the notion that Jesus taught many things that were actually revolutionary. But none of this can form any structural or linguistic basis for a genre of literature.
Section 11: The real nature of Marshall’s genre criticsm
As was seen above, virtually all of Marshall’s criteria are either irrelevant, based on selection bias, or make unwarranted assumptions. His most frequent fallacy is to define a text’s genre by its content, rather than its language, structure, and style. He thinks that contrasting the Certamen with the Gospels, based on the one having poetry and the other having parables, is a question of genre, when it has only to due with content. A biography can include poetry, parables, deeds, and much more. Whether it is biographical and what kind of biography it is depends on its literary structure.
Marshall also likes to boast that he can come up with 20 or 40 of such criteria, compared to my 10, but the reality is that Marshall’s criteria are so bogus and based on selection bias that anyone could literally come up with hundreds of them. I’ll make one up right now:
“The Gospels of Matthew and Luke claim that Jesus is descended from King David. The Certamen does not claim that Homer or Hesiod descended from King David.”
It’s easy to make up bogus comparisons like this all day. What is more important is that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke include genealogies of Jesus (however contradictory, legendary, and obviously made up), just like the Certamen includes genealogies of Homer and Hesiod (which the author acknowledges can include contradictions). Those are the kinds of structural elements relevant to genre, not whether the content between two texts happens to include different stories or characters.
Marshall used similar bogus criteria recently when attempting to deconstruct NT scholar Bart Ehrman’s comparison of the accounts of Jesus to those of Rabbi Baal Shem Tov. In that post, Marshall’s objections basically boil down to “Jesus did this, Baal Shem Tov didn’t,” with very little structural analysis about the broader and more general features between the accounts. It’s extremely easy to cook up bogus criteria like this, filled with confirmation bias, all day on your couch. It contributes nothing to serious Classical or New Testament scholarship. Let Marshall take his criteria to the Society of Biblical Literature. Only then will I take them seriously, not when they are published in an apologetics journal like Equipped.
David Marshall was extremely rude when he commented on my blog the other day, in which he immediately insulted me. He posted a comment because someone “linked to my post and asked for a comment.” Marshall then accuses me of not having “any sign of genuine intellectual curiosity.” In contrast, he makes clear that his own stake in studying the Gospels is about getting “skeptics” to “make peace with God.”
Despite his highly unprofessional tone, Marshall is by his own admission not trained in Classical languages (despite attacking me for allegedly only “leafing through” texts like the Gospels). His appeal to bogus authorities, such as Augustine and C.S. Lewis, his sloppy use of bogus criteria, such as defining a genre based on whether it causes “Earth-shaking events,” and his overall unfamiliarity with the Classical literature from the 5th century BCE-2nd centuries CE are all reflected in his amateur analysis. Marshall is an apologist trying to convert people to his religion (and retain converts), not a Classical or New Testament scholar.
That said, I am glad that David Marshall is a Christian apologist. His predatory tactics reflect the bullying that many apologists rely on to try to convert people to their religion. His rude behavior has furnished me with ample documentation above to expose how many of these Christian apologists behave. And for that we should be grateful, especially since I have been talking about this kind of behavior among apologists for years now (see my discussion of apologist Cliffe Knechtle’s similar predatory tactics here).
I have taken the time to interact with Marshall’s criticism against me, despite the fact that it deserved no such response. Any piece that is written so acerbically and rudely does not deserve to be taken seriously. However, the process has afforded me the opportunity to expose the dirty tactics used by Christian apologists. After writing this response, I do not plan to interact with Marshall again for a long while. He is simply someone who is not worth my time, especially when I have my graduate studies and real scholars to focus on.