The Historical Reliability of Popular Biographies, Part 1: Framing the Comparison

Recently on Κέλσος I have been discussing the generic features that the NT Gospels share with Greek popular-novelistic biographies. Such features include the simple vocabulary and sentence structure found in these texts (as I discussed in my most recent post), which distinguish popular biographies from the more elevated and critical styles of historical biographers, such as Plutarch and Suetonius. I have likewise discussed how popular biographies more closely resemble ancient novels in their frequent use of direct speech and dialogue, versus the indirect speech and paraphrase that is more characteristic of ancient historiography. Another major criterion that I have discussed is formal anonymity and open textuality. The Synoptic Gospels, especially, are distinct from elite biographers in their open borrowing and redaction of material from earlier texts, which is very different from how authors like Plutarch and Suetonius, who wrote in a unique and original style, would compose. In contrast, popular biographies–such as the Alexander Romance, Life of Aesop, and Certamen of Homer and Hesiod –would all freely adapt material from earlier textual sources.

The features that I have described above are all text-immanent, in that they pertain to the language, style, and composition of a text. But another major question that will no doubt arise from this comparison is: How do other popular-novelistic biographies compare to the Gospels, in terms of their historical reliability?

McGrath 8

James McGrath, The Burial of Jesus (pg. 57)

A major difference between historical criticism and genre criticism is that historical criticism is concerned primarily with the “real” world outside the text. History is concerned with investigating real people, places, and events that have existed in the physical world. We often use ancient literature to learn such information, especially when we lack other forms of archaeological and documentary evidence. As I discuss in my essay “History, Probability, and Miracles,” however, the study of ancient literature is not a very reliable method for knowing about the past, particularly because ancient authors could easily fabricate false information by erring in their description, embellishing persons and events, spreading unverified claims and rumors, or even through outright lying, such as producing forgeries. In many cases, however, we only have ancient literature to learn certain things about the past, when no other forms of evidence are available. In the case of the historical Jesus, our entire knowledge of him is dependent solely upon ancient literature, and primarily Christian literature written from a devotional point of view.

A major point that should be emphasized in discussing genre criticism, however, is that historical accuracy is not something that defines a literary genre. There are, in fact, several forms of fictional narrative that discuss real people, places, and events in the physical world. Take William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, for example. Although this play includes a number of inaccurate details about Caesar’s assassination, it for the most part hews toward depicting a real historical event. In contrast, simply belonging to the genre of history does not entail that a text is historically accurate. Plutarch’s Life of Theseus and Life of Romulus, for example, are both historical biographies about mythical individuals who probably did not exist.

What especially makes historical accuracy inadequate for identifying literary genre is that it is concerned with matters extrinsic to the text itself. In contrast, the language, style, and compositional features of a text are intrinsic to the text itself. For identifying the literary genre of the Gospels, therefore, these internal features and how they compare to other literature from the same time period should take precedent. And so, as I have argued, the Gospels most closely resemble Greek popular-novelistic biographies, in terms of these internal features.

ThomasBut, that being said, I am likewise interested in the historical criticism of popular-novelistic biographies, as well. And so, I will share below some of the research that I did last academic quarter in a historical Jesus seminar that I took under NT scholar Christine Thomas. In the seminar, I investigated the historical reliability and verisimilitude of the Alexander Romance, and how this text compares to the NT Gospels. This research topic was especially fitting, because Dr. Thomas has written a book on the ancient novel and gospel literature, which makes comparisons with the Alexander RomanceThe Acts of Peter, Gospel Literature, and the Ancient Novel: Rewriting the Past. Below I interact with Dr. Thomas’ own research in my analysis.

In this first post, I will discuss the theoretical meaning of “historical reliability,” and how it is far more difficult to draw comparisons between two texts on the basis of historical reliability, than it is to draw comparisons on the basis of genre and literary conventions. I will also lay out some of the difficulties for comparing the Alexander Romance with the Gospels, in terms of historical reliability, but will further explain why it is the best comparison text for the Gospels available, out of our limited selection of popular-novelistic biographies that survive from antiquity. In some subsequent writing, I will compare and contrast the historicity of the AR and the Gospels, in greater detail.

What is historical reliability in literature?

As discussed above, historical reliability concerns people, places, and events that have existed in the “real” world. What this means for the historical criticism of ancient literature, therefore, is that the content within ancient texts provides a referent to external reality. As historical theorist Hayden White (“The Fictions of Factual Representation,” pg. 121) explains:

“Historians are concerned with events which can be assigned to specific time-space locations, events which are (or were) in principle observable or perceivable, whereas imaginative writers–poets, novelists, playwrights–are concerned with both these kinds of events and imagined, hypothetical, or invented ones.”

And so, what it means to say that there was a “historical Jesus” is that there was a real collection of matter and energy in space-time, specifically in Galilee during the 1st century CE, that we can connect with the Jesus depicted in the Gospels.

When it comes to popular-novelistic biographies, it should be noted that all of them describe historical (or at least putatively historical) subjects. Alexander the Great was a real person who lived during the 4th century BCE, whom the Alexander Romance describes with some accuracy. Aesop, although his historical existence is more disputable, was thought to be a real person who lived during the 6th century BCE. Homer is a figure whom modern scholars doubt existed as a historical person, but who nevertheless was regarded in antiquity to have been the historical author of the Iliad and the Odyssey. The existence of Hesiod is more probable, since he included his name within his poetry. It should be noted, too, that the Certamen makes use of Hesiod’s biographical information in his poetry (Works and Days, 640) when it states that he lived near Mount Helicon at Ascra.

And so, all of these popular-novelistic biographies are intended to depict historical subjects who existed within space-time.

Why historical reliability is a bad measure of literary genre

Simply because popular-novelistic biographies dealt with real (or putatively real) people, however, does not mean that they depicted their subjects in the same ways as ancient historians and historical biographers. As I explain in my essay “Ancient Historical Writing Compared to the Gospels of the New Testament,” authors who belonged to these literary genres would far more often engage in critical analysis, through methods such as citing their sources, noting contradictions between two versions of an event, and less frequently quoting direct speech, when they did not know the specific words spoken on a given occasion. Most of these critical methods are absent from popular-novelistic biographies, although the Certamen does acknowledge that there were contradictory accounts about Homer’s ancestry and place of origin.

Because both historical biographies and popular-novelistic biographies could depict real people and events (as well as legendary people and events), therefore, historical accuracy is not a good measure of either literary genre. Rather, whether an ancient text is “historical” in a generic sense has more to do with its literary conventions. In contrast, the “historical accuracy” of a text concerns broader realities in the outside world, which are external to the text itself. As Christine Thomas (The Acts of Peter, Gospel Literature, and the Ancient Novel, pp. 94-95) explains: 

“The problem, I would submit, is one of referentiality. The determination of whether a work is historical–and thus less fictional–depends on the nature of its reference to history, which is something beyond the pale of the text proper. The extent to which a text can be considered a ‘history’ thus cannot be described in the text-immanent fashion in which most modern literary criticism is conducted. One must make a judgement about the knowledge of realities outside the text that was available to its readers.”

And so, historical reliability is a matter that is largely extraneous to the genre criticism of a text. This is why, no matter how historically reliable the Gospels are, they still would not belong to either the genre of historiography or historical biography, if they follow different literary conventions.

The ancient understanding of historicity 

Even further distinctions can be drawn here, however, about how historical accuracy was understood in the ancient world versus the present. Today, we have greater geographical, archaeological, and chronological knowledge of the past, and so modern historians can more precisely determine whether a text is describing a real place or event. Such information, however, was far more limited in antiquity, when knowledge of the past was less certain. Instead, many things that modern historians consider to be non-historical were actually considered to be historically accurate in antiquity. The Trojan War, for example, was widely believed to be a historical event in the ancient world, even though modern historians now doubt its historicity (at least as it is described in ancient sources).

When knowledge of the past was less certain, historicity was more often a matter of opinion. And so, ancient audiences believed that texts described “historical” events, when they believed that the subject matter depicted had actually taken place. In contrast, a text described “fictional” events, when they were never thought to have actually occurred. As Thomas (pg. 95) explains:

“Ancient rhetoricians distinguished three types of narrative: history, myth, and plasma [πλάσμα], a word without direct English equivalent. History and myth differed in that history is true and myth is fantastic; it does not even seem true. The defining characteristic that distinguished plasma (fiction) from historia (history) was not its verisimilitude–both showed this as a defining feature–but whether or not the things narrated actually happened.”

It should be noted, on this point, that ancient audiences would have considered the Alexander Romance, at least for the most part, to be historia (history) and not plasma (fiction) under this definition. We know this partially because we even have examples of material within the AR being described as historia by ancient authors. As Thomas (pg. 95) goes on to explain:

“As an example of a ‘true thing that happened,’ Sextus Empiricus gives the fact that Alexander died in Babylon because he was poisoned by plotters against his life … Significantly, the historical event that Sextus mentions is narrated at the end of the Alexander Romance, a novelistic work. Sextus uses it as an example precisely because every literate person would know that it actually happened.”

And so, under the ancient understanding of historia (history), the Alexander Romance would have been considered to depict “historical” events, even if modern historians now cast doubt on much of its historical reliability. This likely remained true, even when the text depicted a number of chronological and geographical errors. As Tomas Hägg (Parthenope, pg. 83) explains:

“The overtly and topically fantastic ingredients apart, there are in the more strictly historical parts gross anachronisms and geographical blunders; but it is uncertain to what extent the author himself or the popular audience to whom he obviously addressed himself noticed or cared about them. The unequivocal historicity of the central figure and his overall achievement probably satisfied most readers’ demands in this respect, securing a kind of historical probability for the story at large.”

Regarding the “overtly and topically fantastic ingredients” that Hägg mentions, it should be noted that there are certain parts of the Alexander Romance that were probably considered to be myth, i.e., something that “does not even seem true,” which is still different from plasma (fiction), in that plasma was understood to be verisimilar and “like something true,” even though it had not actually taken place. Most notably, Alexander’s letter to Olympias at the end of book 2 was likely seen as mythical and not historical. In the letter, Alexander describes his journey to the ends of the earth, during which he encounters giant humans with “forearms and hands like saws” (2.32) and birds with “human faces” (2.40), travels through lands where the sun does not shine (2.38), and even invents a contraption that allows him to fly into the air (2.41).

What is notable about the letter to Olympias is that it is written in a different literary genre than the rest of the text. Rather than the third person narration used elsewhere in the text, this portion of the AR is instead written in the first person as an epistle. Furthermore, the letter does not even appear in all of the recensions of the Alexander Romance. Recension α, for example, does not include the letter, whereas it is included in recension β. What is likely the case is that this letter was seen as a separate literary work, which was added to the text. In this way, the historical reliability and verisimilitude of the letter to Olympias does not reflect greatly on the historicity of the rest of the narrative.

It is also worth noting that, alongside the Gospels, other Christian literature was produced, within the same century as Jesus’ death, which depicted Jesus in a similarly mythical manner. Most notable, the Book of Revelation likewise includes fantastic descriptions of mythical creatures, such as in its description (Rev. 4:6-8) of “four living creatures … covered with eyes, in front and in back. The first living creature was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man, the fourth was like a flying eagle. Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under its wings.” Such mythical descriptions are very similar to those in the letter to Olympias.

Six-Winged Creatures

But what is further interesting is that even the resurrection of Jesus, as depicted in the Gospels, may have originally been understood within a mythical, rather than historical context, following the Mediterranean trope of divine translation used for heroes and emperors. This is the thesis of NT scholar Richard Miller’s recently published book, Resurrection and Reception in Early Christianity. In his study on the resurrection of Jesus, within a broader Greco-Roman context, Miller points out that Justin Martyr, who was the earliest commentator on the Gospels in the 2nd century CE, never made historical proofs to defend the Gospel resurrection narratives, but instead compared Jesus’ resurrection to similar myths found in Pagan religion. As Miller (pg. 2) explains:

“Justin Martyr’s First Apology presented the framing contours of the Gospel narrative as having resided within a mythic mode of hero fabulation. Considering the plea’s broader context, one may best summarize the larger argument as follows: ‘We, O Romans, have produced myths and fables with our Jesus as you have done with your own heroes and emperors; so why are you killing us?’ Central to the earliest great apology of the Christian tradition, this grand concession casts a profound light on the nature of early Christian narrative production.”

While later Christians certainly viewed the Gospel resurrection narratives within a historical light, it is important that Justin belongs to a much earlier period, only a couple generations after the Gospels were written. And so, as the first major commentator on the Gospels, he probably preserves an earlier trace of how their resurrection narratives were understood. As Miller (pg. 4) points out:

“Interestingly, the apology did not propose any argument in support of this claim that the two groups of stories were distinguishable by the alleged veracity of the Christian narratives and falsity of the analogous classical Mediterranean narratives; this statement again provided merely an assertion, attempting to assign archaic precedence to Judeo-Christian tradition. The obvious step, were this an attempt at a historical argument, would have been to propose eyewitness testimony attesting to the historicity of such early Christian tales, an argument that may have perhaps appeared compelling considering Justin’s proximity to the region and time period.”

And so, Justin instead appeals to the antiquity of Judaism when defending this Jewish divine translation over Pagan divine translations, and not to historical evidence. As Miller (pg. 8) summarizes:

Miller“Justin’s works provided no historical argument supporting the resurrection; one may properly adduce such conspicuous absences in concluding that early Christians held no such position. Indeed, scanning the multitude of documents, one finds that the early Christians apparently never did make such a claim or attempt such an argument, unlike modern Christian apologists, because that was not their perspective nor was this the story’s conventional function.”

As such, while I do think that most of the Gospels’ narratives were understood as historia, in the sense that their audience believed that they depicted real events (even if modern historians now cast doubt on many of the details), it is worth noting that the resurrection may have been an exception, which was instead understood within the mythical context of divine translation.

Why Greek romance novels are plasma, whereas popular-novelistic biographies are historia

An important clarification that should be made, when I describe texts like the Gospels and the Alexander Romance as “novels,” is that I am not referring to Greek romance novels, but rather to novelistic biographies. Romance novels such as Daphnis and Chloe and the Ephesian Tale were likely understood as plasma (fiction) and not historia (history). This is because, while these novels are set in historical places, the characters and events depicted were generally not thought to have actually existed, even though they were largely verisimilar to real life [1]. Their narratives likewise focus on travel and romance, rather than the life and death of an individual, and so they are not biographical in the same sense.

In contrast, popular-novelistic biographies were all about the lives of historical (or putatively historical) individuals. Likewise, the vast majority the Alexander Romance (with the notable exception of the letter to Olympias) refers to events that were historical (or at least thought to be historical, such as Alexander’s encounter with the Amazons). Even when the the AR errors in many chronological and geographical details, this does not make the text “fiction.” As Thomas (pp. 101-102) explains:

“It is important to note … that the concept of novel in antiquity does not necessarily imply fictiousness. Fiction is not simply falsehood or bad history. The Alexander romance is bad history, but it does not thereby become fictitious … [F]iction in the ancient world differs from history in that its plot has no referent outside the world of the text.”

And so, both the AR and the Gospels were equally “novelistic” and “historical.” They were novelistic in a generic sense, due to their their literary conventions (which were atypical of historical biographies), while being historical in the ancient rhetorical sense, due to their audience believing that they depicted real events. Under the modern understanding of historical reliability, however, both texts contain a number of details that modern historians doubt actually occurred within space-time. And so, it is to this understanding of historical reliability that I will now direct my analysis.

Chronological Distance and Historical Reliability

The greatest challenge for comparing the historical reliability of texts like the Life of Aesop and the Certamen of Homer and Hesiod with the Gospels, is that these texts were written several centuries after the events depicted. There were likewise no substantial contemporary sources for figures like Aesop and Homer (although the Certamen does derive biographical information from Hesiod’s poetry) for their later biographers to draw upon. As I explain in my essay “When Do Contemporary or Early Sources Matter in Ancient History?,” ancient texts that were composed centuries after an event (such as Plutarch’s Life of Alexander) could still be reliable, if they had contemporary sources available (such as Callisthenes of Olynthus). In the case of Aesop and Homer, however, there were no such sources, and so the biographies of their lives are generally less historically reliable than the Gospels, which were both written and used sources closer to Jesus’ life (even though the Gospels still pose a number of historical-critical problems).

This is not important for generic considerations, however, because texts of the same literary genre (including historiography and historical biography) could be written about events that spanned different lengths of time from the composition of the text itself. The historical biographer Plutarch wrote his Life of Lycurgus about the legendary Spartan lawgiver Lycurgus (who was reputed to have lived during the 8th century BCE) nearly a millennium after the subject’s life (during the early-2nd century CE). Plutarch also wrote his Life of Otho about the Roman emperor Otho, however, only about thirty years after the subject’s death. And yet these texts are of the same literary genre, and even have the same author! As such, the closer temporal proximity of the Gospels to the life of Jesus has virtually no relevance to the fact that they still share the same literary genre with texts like the Life of Aesop and the Certamen, even when these texts were written after a greater gap of chronological distance.

SecundusThe popular-novelistic Life of Secundus the Silent Philosopher would appear to fare better for a historical-critical comparison, since it was written much closer to the events depicted. The text is set during the period in which the Roman emperor Hadrian reigned (117-138 CE), and we likewise possess an early papyrus of the text that dates to the 3rd century CE. Since this papyrus was probably not the first manuscript copy of the text, Classicist Ben Perry estimates that the text was composed earlier, around the late-2nd century CE, only about 40-60 years after Secundus was reputed to have lived. This is roughly the same span of time after which the Gospels were composed about Jesus.

A major problem for comparing the Life of Secundus with the Gospels, however, on the question of historical reliability, is the fact that it contains few narrative details that offer historical description. (Although, there are no anachronisms or historical inaccuracies in the text that I am aware of.) Rather, most of the text consists of the teachings of Secundus, which he privately revealed to the emperor Hadrian. There are few named characters and locations that are discussed in any detail, and the portion of the text discussing his life is very short, before the narrative jumps into a summary of his philosophical teachings. As such, although the Life of Secundus is written as close to the subject’s life as the Gospels are to Jesus, the content of the text does not make it very suitable for a historical-critical comparison. 

We are left, then, with the Alexander Romance. Although our earliest textual version of this popular-novelistic biography dates to the 2nd-4th centuries CE, some five-hundred years or so after Alexander’s death, it draws upon material that was written by eyewitnesses and near contemporaries of Alexander, such as Cleitarchus and Onesicritus. Earlier sources like this, therefore, still preserved the core of the historical details in the narrative. Likewise, it is almost certainly the case that the earliest text of the AR that we possess was not the first one written. This is because the AR functioned as an ‘open text,’ meaning that it went through several stages of composition and redaction, which likely spanned several centuries. It is unknown when the earliest version of the AR was composed, but the leading Classicist to study the subject, Richard Stoneman, dates it to the beginning of the 3rd century BCE, only a generation or two after Alexander’s death. As Stoneman (The Landmark Arrian, pgs. 388-389) argues:

“Soon after his death, Alexander’s life story was written up by an anonymous author … This work, known as the Alexander Romance, emphasized the fabulous elements of Alexander’s story and added many new fables … This work seems, however, not to have been known to the Romans until it was translated by Julius Valerius in the fourth century CE; this has led to the mistaken view, still shared by many, that the Greek original was not written until shortly before that date. Probably it arose much earlier, perhaps in the early third century BCE. The Alexander Romance is a fictional biography that … is of interest as indicating the way that the memory of Alexander was shaped a generation or two after his death.”

If the Alexander Romance was composed as early as Stoneman estimates, then its original composition would be about as close to Alexander’s life as the Gospels are to Jesus, and even if the text was written substantially later, it still drew upon earlier sources for Alexander, which preserves much of its historical reliability.

There is still a major problem, however, for why the Alexander Romance is an imperfect comparison with the Gospels, on the question of historical reliability. This is the fact that the earliest version of the text that we possess still dates to the 2nd-4th centuries CE. The fact that the AR also functioned as an ‘open text’ means that additional material was added to it, which dates to much later after Alexander’s life. This later material is in large part to blame for why there are several anachronisms and geographical errors in the text. Most prominently, Alexander’s journey to Rome (1.28) is obviously a major historical inaccuracy in the text, since the historical Alexander only journeyed to the East. Since our current version of the text dates to after the Roman Empire’s conquest of the Greek East, however, this detail was almost certainly added during the Roman period, centuries after Alexander’s life. The final versions of the Gospels, however, were completed within a century after Jesus’ deaths, and although our ancient and medieval manuscripts of the Gospels possess interpolations that dated later, we still (for the most part) possess the texts of the Gospels as they would have existed in the 1st-2nd centuries CE. This means that there are less anachronisms in the Gospels (although the Gospels do inaccurately depict tax practices in Palestine prior to 70 CE), and so the AR is still an imperfect comparison text when it comes to historical criticism [2].

Our selection of popular-novelistic biographies that survive from antiquity is limited, and so, out of the handful of examples that we possess, none of them provide a perfect comparison for the Gospels when it comes to historical criticism. As noted above, however, historical criticism deals with matters extrinsic to the text itself, which makes it difficult draw comparisons on such issues. When it comes to the intrinsic literary features of a text, we can compare the relative amount that they use direct speech vs. indirect speech, how often they cite their sources, how often they include authorial interjections in the first person, and the common vocabulary and sentence structure used between them. This is why such intrinsic features are better for assessing literary genre. They are text-immanent features, whereas historical criticism deals with the outside world. If one text happens to be written at a later date than another text in regard to the events depicted, for example, both the quality and quantity of its available sources of information may change substantially.

The relativity of the historical subject and expected evidence

Our difficulties do not end there, however, since another messy part of historical criticism is that even the very life and nature of the subject himself can change the historical reliability of texts about his life! Alexander the Great, for example, was a famous king and general, who founded cities, minted coins, and left a large archaeological footprint of his life activity. As such, he left far more evidence for which a text like the Alexander Romance can serve as a referent. Jesus, in contrast, made very little historical impact on his contemporary world, and so we possess vastly fewer outside sources (and no physical evidence) to fact-check the details about Jesus in the Gospels. This gives the Gospels something of a free pass, since we depend far more upon them for our information about Jesus, whereas for Alexander we can go to reliable sources outside the AR to fact-check it.

Battle of Issus

Mosaic of Alexander the Great fighting at the Battle of Issus (333 BCE)

This greater abundance of evidence for Alexander can also serve as a double-bladed sword. On the one hand, since Alexander’s battles, such as the Battle of Issus (333 BCE), were so well known, historical memory of them was preserved for a long time. And, the AR (1.41) is thus accurate in depicting Alexander as having defeated the Persian king Darius at Issus. On the other hand, because greater and more reliable evidence for the life of Alexander survives (in sources outside the AR), we also have a greater ability to fact-check the depiction of events in the AR. And so, although the Battle of Issus was an actual battle that Alexander fought, the AR (1.35) inaccurately depicts it as taking place after the Siege of Tyre (332 BCE), which historically took place in the following year. Since we possess reliable outside sources to fact-check this information, we know that the AR is inaccurate in regard to this detail.

On this point, however, Jesus again gets something of a free pass, because we only have the Gospels as sources for many of the details of his life, with no outside sources to fact-check them. As Richard Stoneman (Greek Fiction: The Greek Novel in Context, pg. 120) points out:

“[W]ith Jesus … we have no independent historical source by which we can evaluate the ways in which the legend varies from what really happened. In the Alexander Romance we see see history becoming saga before our very eyes.”

And yet, at the same time, we also have greater certainty for the events in Alexander’s life that historically occurred, because he left a much greater degree of historical evidence. As Ory Amitay (From Alexander to Jesus pg. 149) explains:

“Alexander … has a clear advantage in the field of history. A sea of ink has dried up in the attempt to paint a picture of Jesus historicus, yet we nevertheless know precious little about him. Not so Alexander.”

This puts the stories about Jesus in the Gospels in a rather different epistemological position. On the one hand, we can’t fact-check most of them with outside sources. On the other hand, we are also less certain that they even historically took place, because they left much less of a footprint of contemporary evidence.

Cleansing the Temple

Jesus chastising the merchants and money changers in the Jewish Temple courts

Take, for example, Jesus’ cleansing of the Jewish Temple in the Synoptic Gospels (Mt. 21:12–17; Mk. 11:15–19; Lk. 19:45–48), which takes place in the last week before his arrest and execution. In the Gospel of John (2:13–16), however, the event is depicted a full two years earlier. As NT scholar L. Michael White (Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite, pp. ix-x) explains:

“[E]ach of the Gospel authors has woven such episodes into the story in distinctive ways, changing not only the running order of the narrative, but also certain cause-and-effect relationships within each story. For example, in the Synoptics–especially the Gospel of Mark–it is the cleansing of the Temple that serves as the immediate cause of Jesus’ arrest and execution. In the Gospel of John there is no connection between these events, as the cleansing is two full years earlier. In contrast, for the Gospel of John the immediate cause of Jesus’ execution is the raising of Lazarus (11:38-44), an event never discussed in the Synoptics.”

And so, when did Jesus cleanse the Temple, in the final week before his death, or two years earlier? Unlike in the case of Alexander, where we have outside sources to fact-check in which order he fought his battles, we have no outside source to fact-check which gospel tradition is depicting this event in the correct chronological order. And in this way, the Gospels again get something of a free pass. On the other hand, though, we are also considerably less certain that Jesus even cleansed the Jewish Temple, to begin with, than we are that Alexander fought the Battle of Issus. It’s plausible that Jesus did make some kind of demonstration in the Jewish Temple (although, the Temple courts were very large, and so it is unlikely that Jesus drove out the entire area), but we simply cannot know such obscure details with as much certainty as major historical events, like the Battle of Issus. And so, there is a greater probability that Jesus never cleansed the Jewish Temple to begin with, even if some NT scholars think that this may be a historical kernel about his life. In contrast, scholars studying the historical Alexander are absolutely certain that he fought at Issus.


As can be seen from the discussion above, not only is the Alexander Romance an imperfect comparison for the Gospels, in terms of historical criticism, but the person of Alexander the Great himself is also imperfect for a comparison for Jesus, because we possess a much greater quantity and quality of evidence for his life. Nevertheless, we also only possess a handful of popular-novelistic biographies from antiquity, and so we have to make use of the best comparison available. There are important differences between the figures of Homer, Aesop, Alexander, and Jesus in many regards, and none of them is a double for the other. But, they also have texts of the same literary genre written about each of them. We can easily compare the generic features that put these texts in the same literary genre, but for historical criticism the world outside the text is a vastly different arena, for which comparisons cannot be drawn so easily. But, to demonstrate that popular-novelistic biographies can still include accurate historical information about historical individuals, the comparison of the Alexander Romance with the Gospels is the most suitable, since both texts do contain information that the large majority of historians consider to be accurate.

That’s all for this first post. I will follow up later with some further analysis, which will compare the historical reliability of the Alexander Romance with the Gospels, based on the biographical information and events depicted within each text, and some of the criteria by which we can evaluate their historicity.

-Matthew Ferguson

[1] On this point, I should note that Daphnis and Chloe and the Ephesian Tale are “novels” in a generic sense, not because they were believed to be plasma (fiction) by their audiences, but because of their literary conventions. As Christine Thomas (The Acts of Peter, Gospel Literature, and the Ancient Novel, pg. 119) explains, “Whether ancient readers ‘believed’ a text or not is … not a reliable criterion for distinguishing novels from other works.” Novels could depict events that were believed to have historically taken place. What instead distinguishes these romance novels as “novels” is their use of storytelling in prose (as opposed to verse, as in epic), written with large amounts of dialogue and direct speech (as opposed to indirect speech and paraphrase, as in historiography), and their focus on a travel and adventure narrative that centers on the romance between two youths.

[2] One reason why the Gospels were fixated at an earlier date, with no further redactions (beyond later textual interpolations), probably has to due with concerns over canon. The Gospels were texts that were essential to theology and doctrine, whereas a text like the Alexander Romance, even if an editor might have wanted to exclude certain material for whatever reason, would not be nearly as important to dogma. For this reason, the AR could be freely rewritten for centuries, making several additions and subtractions, without generally interfering with doctrinal concerns. But it was far more important, in the case of the Gospels, to exclude certain material, particularly when it was considered heretical, and so far more quickly their texts were finalized.

When it comes to the amount of chronological and geographical errors in the Alexander Romance, I would also be willing to grant that this may be due to the fact that the author was writing more for entertainment, whereas the Gospels, in writing for theological and apologetic concerns, may have at least placed a greater priority on getting dating and geography correct. This does not meant that they were always successful, and it also does not mean that the core events of the narrative, even if set in real places, were historical. But, I will grant that the Gospels may have had a greater concern for verisimilitude than the AR, which, as a text designed more for entertainment, likely took more creative liberties with the historical setting. Even so, this consideration would not negate any of the narratological, syntactical, and structural parallels that these texts share with each other.

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3 Responses to The Historical Reliability of Popular Biographies, Part 1: Framing the Comparison

  1. CharlieJ says:

    Thanks. I was reading (Pseudo)Cicero’s Ad Herennium the other day and came across his three types of narratio in negotiorum explicatione posit[a]: fabula, historia, argumentum. His definition of the third: argumentum est ficta res quae tamen fieri potuit, velut argumenta comoediarum.

    It’s interesting that the author assigned tragedy to fable and comedy to argumentum, thus showing the entanglement between historical and genre criticism.

    • Hi Charlie,

      I also looked at Ad Herennium during my research project. Indeed, the categories that ancient rhetoricians draw for these distinctions are not always neatly defined. What they mostly deal with is the metaphysical and aesthetic distancing from everyday life.

      Both Greek and Roman tragedy was usually set in the distant past, involved the direct involvement of the gods, and often included miraculous events (e.g., deus ex machina). In this way, tragedy was distant from ordinary life and unlike everyday experience. And so, “it does not even seem true,” which is similar to the category of myth that Sextus describes.

      Greek and Roman comedy, in contrast, depicted the lives of ordinary families and individuals (especially New Comedy). Their setting was familiar and “like something true,” even though they depicted fictional and invented characters and situations. This is also true of Greek romance novels, as well as Roman novels (e.g., Satyricon).

  2. Brian says:

    I enjoyed reading your post. I’ll read part 2 later today or tomorrow.

    About a year ago, I read Julius Caesar’s “Gallic War” and I was struck by it’s practicality; I think just one or two mentions of gods at all, and those of the Celts or Gauls, if I remember rightly. I have even been entertaining the idea the Julius Caesar may not have been religious, in spite of his own apotheosis, but which seems a practical political move.

    Julius Caesar’s writing is an antidote to the notion that the ancient and classical world was teeming with angels, gods, and miracles, and that the gospels were simply reporting the world as it was. I see the “Aeneid” as another antidote, because it’s doing essentially what the gospels are doing, only for polytheists.

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