In my last post I discussed Lawrence Wills’ comparison of the Gospels’ literary genre to the Life of Aesop, as a hybrid of ancient novel and biography, in The Quest of the Historical Gospel. In this followup post, I will also discuss Whitney Shiner’s comparison of the Life of Aesop to the Gospel of Mark in Ancient Fiction and Early Christian Narrative. The same book also includes an article by Richard Pervo–titled “A Nihilist Fabula: Introducing the Life of Aesop”–which (as the title suggests) likewise discusses the Life of Aesop, and so I will discuss a few points of Pervo’s contribution, as well.
Pervo, “A Nihilist Fabula: Introducing the Life of Aesop”
Pervo (pp. 77-79) begins his chapter with many of the same observations as Wills about the similar length of the Life of Aesop compared the Gospels, the “unpretentious style” shared between these narratives of popular heroes, and the common theme of vindicating the death of a venerated hero. Likewise, Pervo (pg. 79) discusses how, after Aesop earns manumission and freedom, the former slave becomes an “itinerant philosopher-sophist not unlike Dio of Prusa,” but also quite similar to Jesus. On his journey, “Aesop, like Jesus and Paul, sets out for his city of destiny, Delphi, with its oracle of Apollo,” where “he is found guilty of sacrilege and compelled to die” (pp. 79-80).
Pervo (pg. 81) categorizes the Life of Aesop as a novel, but also notes how the text has biographical features, similar to the Alexander Romance (as well as the Certamen of Homer and Hesiod, I might add). Pervo also makes an important note, however, about how the frequent use of dialogue in the narratives is “a mark of novelists rather than of pseudo-historians or pseudo-biographers.” The frequent occurrence of direct speech in the Gospels, with Jesus’ sermons, parables, and dialogues is quite similar. Pervo (pg. 82) also notes “similarities to fictitious lives of philosophers and sages, such as Socrates, Ahikar, and Apollonius of Tyana, as well as themes, motifs, and techniques shared with romantic novels.”
To summarize the genre of the Life of Aesop, Pervo (pg. 28) concludes:
“Since all novels are, in some way, fictional biographies, Aesop is aptly labeled as an historical novel, the fictional biography of a presumably historical individual.”
In terms of the date and provenance of the text, Pervo (pg. 82) argues that papyrological evidence suggests a 2nd century CE terminus a quo, but also notes (pg. 83) how the Life of Aesop makes use of a number of earlier sources and traditions (quite similar to the Certamen, as well as the Gospels). Pervo (pg. 84) argues that the “old view” was to view the Life as “random collections of material largely devoid of structure.” The same view has been held towards the Gospel of Mark, though Pervo also argues that both texts’ have greater aesthetic value and organization than this. Regardless, it is still interesting how both texts have provoked the same reaction.
On this point, I think that it is now a good time to turn to Whitney Shiner’s analysis, since he discusses how both the Life of Aesop and the Gospel of Mark create plot through “episodic narratives.”
Shiner, “Creating Plot in Episodic Narratives: The Life of Aesop and the Gospel of Mark”
Shiner (pg. 155) begins his analysis by noting that there are “two distinct ways” that the Gospels have been read. One approach, following the form critics, is to view the Gospels as a conglomeration of self-contained episodes that have been stitched together from oral tradition. The other approach is to view the Gospels as a continuous narrative. Shiner argues, however, that these approaches can be harmonized through an “extended episodic narrative.” As Shiner (pp. 155-156) explains:
“In reading the Gospels as episodic narrative, one must see the narrative as simultaneously episodes and as extended narrative. The extended narrative is built from more or less self-contained blocks. Continuity in the extended narrative is found not so much in the continuity of detail in action and characterization between episodes as in continuity in the overall impact of the episodes. To take an analogy from art, extended episodic narrative is like a mosaic.”
Shiner goes on to note that the Life of Aesop, much like the Gospels, is built around narrative episodes that are largely independent. These independent episodes, however, are organized to advance the plot of the macronarrative. As Shiner (pg. 156) explains:
“This is especially true of the most extensive section of the Life, in which Aesop repeatedly outwits his master, the philosopher Xanthus. Much of the macronarrative structure of Aesop, such as Aesop’s sale to the philosopher, his manumission, and his entering into service to Lycurgus, serve to move the narrative from one type of episode, appropriate to Aesop’s earlier situation, to a different style of episode, appropriate to the new plot situation.”
Shiner (pp. 169-174) identifies eight different narrative strategies shared between the Life of Aesop and the Gospel of Mark that are used to weave episodes into a continuous plot:
- Similar episodes are repeated to develop a point: Shiner notes that Jesus’ healing miracles in Mark 1, rather than being organized by a single extended healing event or a summary of miracles, are instead repetitious to show “by cumulative effect Jesus’ ability to heal.” Shiner likewise notes similarities in the repeated theme of Aesop’s ability to outwit others through his wit and fables across episodes, such as in his dealings with Xanthus, Croesus, his adopted son, Lycurgus, and the people of Delphi.
- Within the plot as a whole discrete sections are created that are, in terms of size and content, amenable to episodic development: Shiner notes how Mark 1:21-2:12 constitutes a healing section with one exorcism, three healings, one summary of healing and exorcism, and another summary of exorcism. This organization is similar to how Aesop uses three fables in succession in his dealings with Croesus (93-100), which ends with Aesop writing down his fables.
- The discrete sections are ordered to suggest a coherent plot development from one to the other: Shiner (pg. 170) notes how the healings in the first chapter of Mark “lead, through a combined healing/dispute to the dispute material of chapter two ending in one more healing/dispute, leading after a short interlude to the dispute about the meaning of the the exorcisms that explains the tension between the acclamation of the crowd and the opposition of the authorities.” This method of pre-empting later episodes with earlier episodes is similar to how Aesop’s sell by his first master (10-12) is prepared by an earlier episode showing how the stewart wanted to get rid of the slave (9), just as how Aesop’s manumission (90) is prepared by Xanthus’ offer (which he later withdraws) for Aesop to buy his freedom (80).
- Sustained conflicts between the hero and another person or group are established and episodes are used to illustrate conflict: Shiner notes how Jesus’ repeated conflicts with the religious authorities set the plot leading up to the passion narrative. For example, the first episode (2:1-12) brings up the charge of blasphemy, which foreshadows the charge at Jesus’ trial. This is followed (3:1-6) by the authorities decision to kill Jesus, which is then followed by a later series of disputes (11:27-12:40), which set the stage for the passion. A similar buildup is seen in the conflict between Aesop and his master Xanthus’ wife. Originally, the philosopher’s wife instigates the purchasing of a slave (22), and when Aesop arrives at the house he charges her with lewd intentions (29-32), which is then followed when she does in fact demand to have sexual relations with Aesop (75-76).
- Episodes of various lengths are presented to create variety: Shiner notes how larger episodes are interrupted by shorter episodes, in order to provide thematic breaks in material. For example, Aesop’s aphoristic teaching to his adopted son (109-110) is a shorter episode surrounded by more elaborate material. The extensive miracle stories in Mark 4:35-8:10 are similarly interrupted by sub-episodes, such as the narrative of John the Baptist’s death (6:14-29).
- Narrative within episodes is elaborated to enhance the narrative quality of the whole: Shiner notes how most of the episodes in the Life of Aesop are “highly elaborated.” This feature is less common in Mark, but Shiner also points out that certain episodes, such as the healing of the demoniac possessed by the legion (5:1-20) and the death of John the Baptist (6:14-29) are given greater narrative detail, to create “the effect of sustained narrative for the Gospel as a whole.”
- Discrete episodes are interwoven to extend narrative tension or to provide keys for interpretation: Shiner points out how a well-known feature of Mark is the interweaving of one episode within a broader episode, in order for one to interpret the other. For example, the cursing of the fig tree (11:12-25) is interrupted by Jesus driving out the money changers from the Temple court, symbolizing the withering of the Temple as a place of divine worship. A similar interruption occurs when Aesop gives delicacies intended for Xanthus’ wife to his dog (44-46; 49-50), which is interrupted by witty sayings of Aesop at a banquet, forming (no pun intended) a thematic sandwich.
- Similar episode plots are presented at different places in the narrative to recall earlier episodes and to suggest an underlying unity of theme or plot: One section early in Mark portrays conflicts between Jesus and various religious authorities regarding his miracles (2:1-3:6). Another episode not long after (3:22-30)–which includes Jesus’ famous saying “a house divided against itself cannot stand”–provides a context for interpreting the earlier conflicts, through Jesus’ explanation that he cannot cast out demons by the power of Satan, since Satan cannot stand against Satan. Shiner notes how the narrative then turns to other details such as parables and miracles, but then the conflict is refreshened in the reader’s mind by another set of conflicts later in the gospel (7:1-23; 8:11-12; 10:1-12). Shiner points out how recurrent themes also create a sense of familiarity in the Life of Aesop, such as the repeated theme of Aesop’s narrow escapes from danger, including: his punishment for stealing figs (2-3), his possible death at the hands of an overseer (9-11), taking a beating from Xanthus (56-64), being sent to jail (65), the anger of Croesus (95-99), and a sentence of death due to a false accusation, (103). These themes buildup up a sense of invincibility, which is then reversed when Aesop’s cleverness fails him and he is unable to escape his death at Delphi (127-142).
Through these narrative strategies, therefore, Shiner argues that the episodic structure of the Life of Aesop and the Gospel of Mark does not conflict with a continuous narrative. Instead, these strategies are employed to weave continuity within the narrative and a continuous plot.
A crucial agreement that is worth pointing out between Lawrence Wills, Richard Pervo, and Whitney Shiner is that they all argue that the Life of Aesop is more similar to Mark and John, than it is to Matthew and Luke. This argument is based, in part, on the fact that there is no genealogy of Aesop. In my comparison with The Certamen of Homer and Hesiod, however, I noted how the Certamen does include an account of the ancestry of Homer and Hesiod. In fact, the Certamen can be broken into three sections:
- Part I (sections 1-5) the ancestry and place of birth of the two poets
- Part II (sections 6-13) the ἀγών, or “contest”
- Part III (sections 14-18) the fate and deaths of the two poets
I wonder if this structure is, in some respects, a little bit more similar to Matthew and Luke, by the inclusion of the ancestry. Likewise, there is a specific bias that leads the author of the Certamen to favor a genealogical tradition that has Homer and Hesiod born at around the same time period. The reason why is because, if they were not contemporaries, there could be no contest. This bias is not dissimilar to Matthew and Luke’s agenda to have Jesus born as a descendent of King David, perhaps illustrating some of the licenses taken by these authors of novelistic biographies.