While doing research on my dissertation, which works to situate the NT Gospels within the generic spectrum of Greco-Roman biography, one recent publication (October 2016) that has popped up on my radar is Craig Keener and Edward Wright’s new volume Biographies and Jesus: What Does It Mean for the Gospels to Be Biographies?. Similar to my own research, Keener and Wright identify the Gospels as ancient biographies, but rather than aligning them more closely with popular-novelistic biographies, such as the Life of Aesop and the Alexander Romance (which I think offer stronger parallels), they instead draw more parallels with historiographical biographers, such as Suetonius and Plutarch. Since I think that Keener and Wright have misplaced their emphasis, in this review I will lay out some points of contrast between the Gospels and the historical biographers Suetonius and Plutarch, which I think undermine the arguments presented in this volume.
The present review will focus on chapter 6 of the volume–“Otho: A Targeted Comparison of Suetonius’ Biography and Tacitus’ History, with Implications for the Gospels’ Historical Reliability”–which is written by Keener himself. This chapter is particularly relevant to my own research background, since I wrote my M.A. thesis on Suetonius, and have likewise written multiple graduate papers on the Roman civil war of 69 CE, also known as the “Year of the Four Emperors.” In the chapter, Keener lays out three major sources for the emperor Otho’s brief reign–Suetonius, Tacitus, and Plutarch–and highlights points of contact between the three accounts (while also noting that there are certain differences), which he argues demonstrate that a historiographical biographer, like Suetonius, drew upon earlier sources of information, rather than inventing material. Keener then makes the further inference that the authors of the Synoptic Gospels must have likewise relied upon earlier sources, and did not merely invent stories about Jesus.
While certain portions of the chapter are interesting (such as Keener’s discussion on pp. 162-166 of how even Suetonius, Tacitus, and Plutarch sometimes contradict each other, due to differences of genre, the role of memory, and rhetorical emphasis), I overall think that his targeted comparison does not offer a very good analogy for the Synoptic Gospels. In this review, I will focus on how historiographical biographers are far more prone to cite their written and oral sources (including eyewitnesses) than anything that is found in the Gospels, and likewise on how there is a much stronger case to be made that Suetonius, Tacitus, and Plutarch are actually independent accounts (adding more weight to the inference that they are independently corroborating historical events). I will also discuss how the Synoptic Gospels are far more textually dependent (suggesting that they don’t have as many independent sources of information, and sometimes are even redacting each other). As a final point, I will respond to some criticism that Keener presents against comparing the Gospels with the genre of the ancient novel.
Citation of Eyewitness Sources
A major detail found in both Suetonius’ Life of Otho and Plutarch’s Life of Otho, which I think Keener understates, is that both authors use the first-person singular to name specific eyewitnesses (whom they knew personally) that had witnessed the events during Otho’s reign. To his credit, Keener (pp. 168-9) acknowledges:
“Plutarch consulted witnesses, including an officer who described to him what he saw while Plutarch was touring the site with him (Plutarch Otho 14.1) … One of Suetonius’ sources is clear: his own father Suetonius Laetus was a tribune serving under Otho, and shared with him information about Otho’s character and actions (Otho 10.1).”
I think that this detail offers more of a point of contrast with the Gospels, however, rather than comparison. Let’s take a look at each passage. Here is what Suetonius (1o.1) states about his father’s eyewitness recollections of Otho:
“My father Suetonius Laetus took part in that war, as a tribune of the equestrian order in the Thirteenth legion. He used often to declare afterwards that Otho, even when he was a private citizen, so loathed civil strife, that at the mere mention of the fate of Brutus and Cassius at a banquet he shuddered; that he would not have engaged with Galba, if he had not felt confident that the affair could be settled peacefully; further, that he was led to hold his life cheap at that time by the example of a common soldier. This man on bringing news of the defeat of the army was believed by no one, but was charged by the soldiers now with falsehood and now with cowardice, and accused of running away; whereupon he fell on his sword at the emperor’s feet. My father used to say that at this sight Otho cried out that he would no longer endanger the lives of such brave men, who had deserved so well.”
In like manner, here is what Plutarch (14.1-2) says the following about Mestrius Florus–an eyewitness of Otho–whom Plutarch traveled with:
“At a later time, when I was travelling through the plain, Mestrius Florus, one of the men of consular rank who were at that time with Otho (by constraint, and not of their own will), pointed out to me an ancient temple, and told me how, as he came up to it after the battle, he saw a heap of dead bodies so high that those on top of it touched the gable of the temple. The reason for this he said he could neither discover himself nor learn from anyone else. It is natural, indeed, that in civil wars, when a rout takes place, more men should be killed, because no quarter is given (there being no use for prisoners); but why the dead bodies should be collected and heaped up in such a manner is not easy to determine.”
We have nothing like this kind of eyewitness citation in the Gospels. The author of Mark, for example, never states that he knew an eyewitness like Peter, nor specifies what kind of information he could have told him about Jesus. As Armin Baum points out in “The Anonymity of the New Testament History Books,” both Mark and Matthew are written anonymously, in that all the events are told by an omniscient, third-person narrator. At no point does the author of either gospel interject his own voice in the first-person, to specify which sources he consulted, what events he saw, or any person that he knew as an eyewitness. On this point, it should be noted that the narratology in the Life of Aesop and the Alexander Romance is quite similar. Both of these texts are likewise narrated omnisciently in the third-person, which is a major generic similarity that they share with the Gospels. In contrast, Suetonius’ and Plutarch’s biographies are narrated differently, in that the author interjects his own voice and experiences into the narrative .
Another point of contrast that can be offered between Tacitus’ Agricola (a biography written about a recent figure), versus the Gospel of Matthew (written a generation or two after Jesus’ death), is how the author identifies his relation to the subject. In the Agricola (3.3), Tacitus overtly states:
“Meanwhile this book, intended to do honour to Agricola, my father-in-law, will, as an expression of filial regard, be commended, or at least excused.”
At no point does the author of Matthew state that he was a personal eyewitness of Jesus. Instead, the gospel is narrated anonymously in the third-person. There are likewise many scholarly arguments against the second-century tradition that the apostle Matthew was the author of the text, as I discuss further in my article “Why Scholars Doubt the Traditional Authors of the Gospels.” In any event, however, even if the the apostle Matthew had authored the gospel, his relation to Jesus is far more ambiguous than what Tacitus discusses in the biography of his father-in-law. For example, Tacitus explicitly discusses stories and anecdotes that he personally heard from Agricola. Later in the biography (4.1), he remarks:
“I remember that he used to tell us how in his early youth he would have imbibed a keener love of philosophy than became a Roman and a senator, had not his mother’s good sense checked his excited and ardent spirit. It was the case of a lofty and aspiring soul craving with more eagerness than caution the beauty and splendour of great and glorious renown. But it was soon mellowed by reason and experience, and he retained from his learning that most difficult of lessons—moderation.”
In contrast, the author of Matthew does not explicitly discuss any information that he had been told by Jesus. What further reinforces the anonymity of the text, is that even the scene on Matthew’s calling to Jesus’ ministry (9:9-13) is probably adapted (often verbatim) from the earlier Gospel of Mark (2:13-17). This means that the author would have explicitly overlooked an opportunity to interject eyewitness experience. Even evangelical scholars such as Richard Bauckham have argued, based on this anonymous adaptation of a previous source, that the author of Matthew was probably not the apostle Matthew. Bauckham (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, pg. 112) states:
“[T]he author of Matthew’s Gospel intended to associate the Gospel with the apostle Matthew but was not himself the apostle Matthew. Matthew himself could have described his own call without having to take over the way Mark described Levi’s call.”
As I discuss in my essay “Eyewitness Recollections in Greco-Roman Biography versus the Anonymity of the Gospels,” every single historiographical biographer that we have from the early-Roman Empire (who was writing on recent events within roughly the last 50 years)–Cornelius Nepos, Tacitus, Plutarch, Suetonius, and Lucian–uses the first-person singular to discuss their relation to eyewitnesses and sources. In contrast, none of the Gospels do the same, suggesting that they do not offer a strong generic parallel with these authors.
Keener does not place enough emphasis on the fact that the Gospels do not cite their sources as explicitly as Suetonius, Tacitus, and Plutarch. Instead, he draws the (speculative) inference that the Gospels’ authors must have likewise made use of such sources. Criticism of this inference will be offered in the discussion below.
The Role of Narratology in Relating Eyewitness Experiences
A major point of literary theory worth emphasizing is that the role of author and narrator cannot always be assumed as the same, especially in texts that are told wholly in the third-person. As Irene de Jong (Narratology and Classics: A Practical Guide, pg. 17) explains:
“It is an important principle of narratology that the narrator cannot automatically be equated with the author; rather, it is a creation of the author, like the characters.”
What is significant about the biographies of Suetonius and Plutarch is that we can draw a far greater connection between the events narrated and the author’s own research and eyewitness experience. This is because both authors use the first-person singular to connect the role of author and and narrator. But when a text’s narrator is wholly omniscient, writing in the third-person, it grants the author far greater creative license. A useful resource to consult on this point is David Rhoads and Donald Michie in Mark as Story: An Introduction to the Narrative of a Gospel, in which they explain (pg. 36):
“The shift in perspective significantly changes one’s experience of the story. It shows how the omniscient narrator speaks in the the third-person from outside the story and does not figure in the story as a character-narrator would. And it reveals the unlimited knowledge of the omniscient narrator because no character has enough knowledge of other characters or events to be able to tell the whole story as the omniscient narrator has told it.”
Both Rhoads and Michie note (pp. 37-8) how this creative license even gives the Markan narrator the ability to see inside the minds of characters, to omnisciently “know” what Jesus’ opponents thought, or when the disciples were confused or had their hearts hardened. This is very different from Suetonius’ description of his father Suetonius Laetus. Suetonius does not omnisciently “see inside the mind” of his father, he but instead relates what his father told him.
Possible Citation of Eyewitness Experience in Luke-Acts and John
The role of the narrator is slightly different, but mostly similar in Luke-Acts. In these texts, the author uses the first-person singular, but only in the prologues of each text (Lk. 1:3; Acts 1:1), where he does not specify that he personally knew any eyewitnesses of Jesus . In addition to that, there is also the ambiguous use of the first-person plural in the “we” passages of Acts (16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:1-28:16), where the author describes Paul’s journeys. But this is quite different from the author using the first-person singular to state that he was a traveling companion of Paul, in the same way that Plutarch specifies that he was a traveling companion of Mestrius Florus. Furthermore, many scholars have raised doubts that the “we” passages in Acts reflect the personal experiences of an authorial eyewitness. For example, William Campbell argues in the in The “We” Passages in the Acts of the Apostles (pg. 13):
“Questions of whether the events described in the “we” sections of Acts are historical and whether Luke or his source/s witnessed them are unanswerable on the basis of the evidence currently available, as even the staunchest defenders of historicity and eyewitnessing acknowledge. More important, the fact that Acts provides no information and, indeed, by writing anonymously and constructing an anonymous observer, actually withholds information about a putative historical eyewitness, suggests that the first person plural in Acts has to do with narrative, not historical, eyewitnessing.”
The only clear appeal to a specific eyewitness can be found in the Gospel of John, but even here, the author withholds his identity by describing him as “the disciple whom Jesus loves.” The text even refuses to name him at key moments, such as the discovery of the empty tomb (20:1-9), where other characters such as Mary Magdalene and Peter are named, and yet this character is deliberately kept anonymous. This is a far more ambiguous appeal to an eyewitness, compared to the named eyewitnesses that Suetonius and Plutarch provide. Furthermore, many scholars have argued that this ambiguous “beloved disciple” may have been a creation of the author, or only someone whom the author was suggesting was a specific eyewitness. As Mark Goodacre (who identifies the “beloved” disciple as John the son of Zebedee) has argued:
“It’s not a historical relationship, specifically, what it is, is the author of the fourth gospel allowing you to make that connection, even encouraging you to make that kind of connection, but himself just wanting to hold off a little bit on making that explicit claim.”
Suetonius and Plutarch, however, do not “hold off a little bit” on identifying their eyewitness sources. They name them specifically and state how they knew them.
The Petrine Tradition for Mark
All of this is relevant to a contention that Keener (pg. 169) makes, regarding the possibility that Peter was an eyewitness source whom the author of Mark depended on:
“This analogy cannot prove that an early gospel writer, say Mark, would have depended on earlier written eyewitness sources, but it confronts the historical prejudice of those who a priori suppose it is unlikely … Since biographers appealed to eyewitness sources where possible, there is no intrinsic historical reason to rule out the possibility that Mark depended on Peter, as later tradition suggest.”
But mere possibility is not the same thing as an author stating and identifying his eyewitness sources (particularly in regard to what those eyewitnesses told him), such as what we see in Suetonius and Plutarch. Furthermore, Keener’s language here is somewhat polemical. Scholars do not merely have “prejudice” or assume “a priori” that the Petrine tradition associated with Mark is problematic. They argue so. One example is my friend and NT scholar Michael Kok, who in his monograph The Gospel on the Margins: The Reception of Mark in the Second Century offers counter-points to defenders of the Petrine tradition, such as Martin Hengel and Richard Bauckham . Kok argues that the Petrine tradition was a later development that was added to legitimate Mark’s gospel for second-century Christian readers, while it cannot be tenably demonstrated from the text of Mark that it relies exclusively on the eyewitness recollections of Peter. While Kok grants that it is possible that Peter may have had some role as a source for the gospel, this possibility is far more ambiguous than the named eyewitness sources appealed to by historical biographers, such as Suetonius and Plutarch. I have written a review of Kok’s thesis, which can be read here.
Earlier Written Sources
To his credit, Keener (pp. 169-70) cautions his statement about Peter as a source for Mark, by granting: “What is more clear from the analogy is that Mark very probably would have depended on earlier information of some sort.” On this point, it is important to compare what we know about the sources for the reign of Otho that were available to Tacitus, Plutarch, and Suetonius, compared to the sources that the Gospels’ authors would have had available for Jesus. Regarding earlier written sources, Charles Murison (Galba, Otho and Vitellius, pg. xii) explains:
“Regarding the sources for this period, there were major works, now lost, by Cluvius Rufus, Fabius Rusticus, and Pliny the Elder which underlie our accounts. My view is that Pliny the Elder’s Historiae a fine Aufidi Bassi was probably the so-called ‘common source’ for this period.”
Murison (pg. xii) also lists other possible sources that we can identify for the period:
“[M]onographs by Herennius Senecio (on Helvidius Priscus), Ti. Claudius Pollio (on L. Annius Bassus), Julius Secundus (on Otho), Pompeius Planta (on the Bedriacum campaign?) and memoirs by Vespasian, Mucianus, Marius Celsus … and perhaps also by Suetonius Paulinus and Vestricius Spurinna…”
Scholars have sought to identify earlier written sources that may underlie the Gospels–such as a Q-source that was possibly a collection of Jesus’ sayings, a pre-Markan passion narrative that may underlie the crucifixion scene presented in each gospel, as well as an M-source and L-source for material that are unique to Matthew and Luke. The difficulty with these sources is that they are all conjectural, even if based on scholarly examination of textual evidence.
A number of scholars argue that they may have never existed. Mark Goodacre in the Case Against Q, for example, presents arguments against the hypothesis of a Q-source. Werner Kelber et al in The Passion in Mark have called into question the existence of a pre-Markan passion narrative. The M-source and L-source for Matthew and Luke are especially conjectural, since these only represents material that is found solely in each gospel, which may never have derived from written sources. M.D. Goulder in Midrash and Lection in Matthew, for example, argues that Matthew depended on virtually no other written sources besides Mark. Even if these scholars present minority views, the point still stands that we have far greater clarity over the several named written sources available to Suetonius, Tacitus, and Plutarch, versus the hypothetical written sources for the Gospels.
The Diversity of Written Sources
Another point that should be emphasized is that we know of a far greater diversity of sources that authors like Suetonius, Tacitus, and Plutarch could have relied on. We know of memoirs written by different individuals, such as Vespasian . But we also know of sources who offered a different perspective on Otho’s reign. One is Cluvius Rufus, whom is discussed in several of our textual sources, and played an important part in many key events. As Douglas Little and Christopher Ehrhardt (Plutarch, Lives of Galba and Otho, pp. 3-4): explain:
“[Cluvius Rufus] was a leading senator and ex-consul, whose consulship perhaps was earlier than AD 41; he was prominent at Nero’s court (Suet. Ner. 21.2; Tac. Hist. 4.43), and distinguished by literary and forensic ability. Galba appointed him governor of Spain, probably of all three provinces; after Galba’s murder he gave his allegiance to Vitellius, went to join him in Gaul and accompanied him on his march to Italy (Tac. Hist. 1.8; 1.76; 2.65). In December of 69 he was one of the two senators present at Vitellius’ attempt to abdicate (Tac. Hist. 3.65); his date of death is unknown, but he survived for at least some years after 69, and probably wrote his historical work in Vespasian’s reign (cf. Pliny, Ep. 10.19.5).”
Whereas Suetonius, Tacitus, and Plutarch could have relied on a diversity of sources, the sources for the Gospels would have most likely been restricted to a far more Christian venue. Most of the traditions about Jesus were handed down by his followers. One reason why Kris Komarnitsky (“Myth Growth Rates and the Gospels”) argues that ancient biographies about famous kings, generals, or emperors offer a poor point of comparison with the Gospels is because they are accounts of figures who had considerable “public interest.” In contrast, Jesus was a far more obscure figure. Kormanitsky states:
“Alexander the Great, like almost everyone else classical historians normally investigate, was a figure of significant public interest when he was alive. Because of this, widespread knowledge of facts about him across a range of hostile, friendly, and neutral people would have limited how much the historical core could be displaced by legend in the oral and written traditions after his death. However, in the case of Jesus, this constraint would have been much less, because Jesus was very probably a figure of very little public significance except to his followers when he was alive and to his worshippers after his death…”
Komarnitsky’s point applies equally to widespread knowledge about the reign of Otho. The emperor Otho was a significant figure of “public interest,” who affected the whole Roman world by his actions. That Otho was involved in the First Battle of Bedriacum, for example, would not be a detail that an author had to learn from one particular written source or oral informant. It was simply common knowledge. The Gospels cannot be said to rely on such a wide range of public knowledge for Jesus, however, since most of the traditions about his life were handed down by his followers and earlier worshipers, in what would have been a far more insular venue .
When it comes to the citation of non-Christian views, the Gospels afford little textual evidence. One example can be found in Matthew’s citation of an anonymous Jewish polemic in Mt. 28:11-15. In the passage, Matthew claims that non-Christian Jews were circulating the rumor that Jesus’ body had merely been stolen by his followers. It’s notable that this rare citation of a non-Christian source actually contradicts the resurrection narrative in the Gospels. But likewise it is also probable that, even if Matthew is reporting an oral source in this passage, he has likely tampered with the details, by inventing the guards at Jesus’ tomb as a counter-measure against the possibility of body theft .
Citation of Textual Sources
What is also noteworthy is that historical biographers are far more prone to cite their written sources by name, whereas the Gospels virtually never do so. Consider the opening line of Luke (1:1):
“Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us…”
Although the author vaguely alludes to earlier written accounts, he never states their titles or who wrote them. In contrast, Little and Ehrhardt (pg. 3) note the following regarding Plutarch’s citation of sources:
“[I]n the Otho he mentions two, Cluvius Rufus (Otho 3.2) and (Julius) Secundus (Otho 9.3), as well as anonymous sources, which may have been written or oral (Otho 9.1, 3, 14.1). Of these, Cluvius Rufus is fairly well known.”
It should first be noted that these different practices of citation point to a generic difference between Plutarch and the Gospels. As a historical biographer, Plutarch justifies his claims by citing the sources he consulted, whereas the anonymous and omniscient style of narration in the Gospels does not lend itself to this practice . Instead, this kind of narration far more closely resembles the external, third-person narration seen in the Life of Aesop and the Alexander Romance. On a generic level, therefore, there are far more parallels between these popular biographical texts than the historiographical biographers that Keener focuses on.
But secondly, it should also be noted that we have far less detail given for the written sources that the author of Luke consulted. One strategy that can be used, in the absence of the author naming his sources, is to look for parallel passages between other texts. When doing so, we can infer that the author of Luke directly copied, adapted, and redacted a large amount of material from the Gospel of Mark. But this leads to another problem, since Luke’s use of Mark suggests that the authors are not independently reporting their common material.
Textual Independence versus Collusion
At this point we can return to the literary parallels that Keener (pp. 149-161) catalogues between the accounts of Otho found in Suetonius, Tacitus, and Plutarch. Keener goes to great length noting several points of contact between these texts (spanning multiple details about Otho’s involvement with the emperor Nero, his governorship of Lusitania in Spain, his revolt against the emperor Galba, etc.). Keener argues that this overlap necessitates the inference that these authors were not merely inventing material, but must have been relying on earlier sources. All of this is likely true, but here I think that Keener understates the independence of these historical authors, versus the literary dependence found between the Synoptic Gospels. Keener argues (pg. 148):
“The parallels among authors exhibit the same sorts of variation one finds in the gospel tradition (although in keeping with elite practices there is far less verbatim material).”
The concession that Keener grants, in the parenthetical of the sentence above, needs to be explored with far more nuance and emphasis. The Synoptic Gospels show verbatim that they were relying on each other for information. Keener on pg. 170 notes that the majority view among scholars (namely Markan priority) is that Matthew and Luke made use of Mark’s previous narrative, and drew upon Mark for information about Jesus. In this regard, the Synoptic Gospels are textually dependent between each other. This nuance is important, because where the Synoptics demonstrate points of contact between their stories about Jesus, there is a far greater case to be made that the authors are colluding between their accounts, rather than independently attesting knowledge of historical events.
In contrast, the opposite case can be made that historical authors like Suetonius, Tacitus, and Plutarch were writing independently of each other. Keener briefly notes that it was not an “elite practice” to copy material between accounts verbatim. But in this chapter he largely confines to footnotes the fact that many scholars agree that neither Suetonius, Tacitus, or Plutarch were relying on each other for information. On pg. 146 n. 19, Keener notes the following:
“Chronologically, it is possible that Plutarch could have written before Tacitus and Suetonius, but he is not likely their (esp. Tacitus’) direct source; many other writers no longer extant flourished in antiquity…”
“Dependence is more easily demonstrated in some cases than in others … Hägg [The Art of Biography in Antiquity, pp. 240-1] suggests that Suetonius and Plutarch, who organize their work quite differently, may have even invented imperial biographies independently.”
I would also add an important article by Tristan Power–“Suetonius’ Tacitus”–in which he argues that textual evidence cannot show that Suetonius either relied upon, or was responding to, Tacitus’ works. Instead, Power argues that Suetonius’ and Tacitus’ works are probably independent of each other.
All of this nuance is important, since the literary parallels that Keener catalogues in his chart (comparing Suetonius, Tacitus, and Plutarch) do not really offer an apt comparison for the source relations between the Gospels. What I found to be particularly problematic about this chapter is that Keener does not even draw out the common material between the Synoptic Gospels, but simply assumes it and describes it vaguely. On pg. 148, Keener states:
“I will not elaborate my comparison with the similarities and differences among the Synoptic Gospels by comparing parallel passages in them … I take for granted that most readers have made such comparisons and contrasts themselves.”
But let’s map out the Synoptics’ source relations visually, in order to illustrate how closely they are inter-dependent upon each other, and are likewise drawing from a comparatively narrow range of sources (in contrast to the wide range of sources available to Suetonius, Tacitus, and Plutarch). Below is chart that illustrates that relationships between the Synoptics:
The relationships between Suetonius, Tacitus, and Plutarch do not look much at all like this (often verbatim) overlap of material. Even though these authors often corroborate each other on historical details, they do not draw upon each other or common traditions in such a close manner . Plutarch, writing in Greek, does not even use the same language as the Latin of Tacitus and Suetonius. The Synoptic Gospels, in contrast, are textually dependent upon each other (with Matthew and Luke closely following the material in Mark), and even where earlier textual sources can be inferred (such as the “double tradition” between Matthew and Luke suggesting a Q-source), it is far more limited than the wide range of sources for Otho that I have noted above.
Redaction as a Means of Invention
All of Keener’s analysis is meant to give assurance that the authors of the Gospels did not merely invent stories about Jesus, but instead relied on earlier historical sources. But another point that I don’t think is emphasized enough in this chapter is that both Matthew and Luke redact and change Mark, in ways that suggest inventions by their authors. Keener (pg. 170) argues:
“Matthew and Luke, who probably wrote biographies within two decades of Mark, considered him a reliable source…”
But here it is important to consider the details that Matthew and Luke tweak in Mark’s version of events. Consider, for example, the role of Joseph of Arimathea in the burial of Jesus. As James McGrath (The Burial of Jesus: History and Fiction, pgs. 69-79) points out, there are considerable embellishments in Joseph’s story added in the later gospels. McGrath argues:
“Our earliest account of Jesus’ burial, the Gospel of Mark, records a fundamental truth that later Christian authors tried desperately to ignore: Jesus’ disciples were not in a position to provide Jesus with an honorable burial. Mark tells us that a pious Jewish leader named Joseph of Arimathea made sure that Jewish law was observed, and, learning that Jesus had died, got the permission to take the body and bury it.”
McGrath points out that all three of the later gospels embellish this story. Luke (23:53) adds the detail that the tomb had never been used before, making the burial more honorable, and Matthew (27:59-6) adds both the detail that the tomb was unused and that it was even Joseph’s own tomb. John (19:39-41) even further adds the detail that Jesus was anointed with 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes before his burial, even when this runs into conflict with Mark 16:1, which implies that Jesus was not anointed before his burial. What each of these changes imply is that the later gospel authors were adding details to the story, suggesting literary inventions aimed at making Jesus’ burial more honorable, even when they relied upon an earlier source.
When it comes to efforts to reconcile these traditions, William John Lyons argues in Joseph of Arimathea: A Study in Reception History that the differences are better understood by the later gospel authors changing the narrative, in order to serve ideological interests. Lyons (pg. 20) writes:
“Despite the temptation to see the Gospel variants about Joseph of Arimathea as complementary, accurate, and eminently harmonizable, they can be easily understood as arising from the interaction of Mark’s account with the ideologies and needs of the three Evangelists who used his Gospel. This being so, it seems perfectly reasonable to suggest that any who wish to search for the Joseph behind these texts must begin and end with the portrayal in Mark, explicitly discarding the uncritical harmonizing tendency assumed by so many scholars.”
What is important to emphasize, therefore, is that even when the Gospels were relying on earlier sources, they could have very likely tweaked the details, in ways that suggest literary invention. This point certainly detracts from their historical reliability.
But what I further think is not emphasized sufficiently in Keener’s chapter, is that Suetonius, Tacitus, and Plutarch do not directly redact each other in the manner seen in the Synoptic Gospels. On pp. 162-6, Keener discusses differences between these authors’ accounts, and how they may arise from issues such as genre (with Tacitus being a historian, whereas Suetonius and Plutarch are biographers), rhetorical emphasis, clarity of details when drawing from memory, as well as sheer semantics. To his credit, Keener (pg. 162) does note, “Some differences in sequence probably reflect lack of knowledge or concern for sequence rather than deliberate changes.”
But on this point, it is worth noting that Suetonius, Tacitus, and Plutarch probably do not make deliberately changes to each other’s accounts (on the grounds of their greater textual independence), than what is seen in the Synoptic Gospels. Tristan Power in “Suetonius’ Tacitus,” for example, argues against the speculation that Suetonius is sometimes responding to Tacitus’ historical works, on issues such as the characterization of the emperor Nero. Power argues that the points of contact between the two authors is too vague to suggest literary dependence on each other. Tacitus and Suetonius were simply writing on their own version of events. In contrast, the Synoptics are inter-dependent in their version of events, and Matthew and Luke likely make deliberate changes to Mark.
What Sources the Gospels Do Mention
Another point that I think was not emphasized sufficiently in Keener’s chapter is the textual sources that the Synoptics do actually cite. These are not named eyewitnesses or specific written accounts about Jesus (which Keener spends far too much time speculating over). Rather, they are passages from the Old Testament, which suggest that the Synoptics were fashioning their narratives on earlier literature, as opposed to historical events. Consider Matthew’s citation of OT passages in his infancy narrative of Jesus. As Bart Ehrman (“Matthew’s Fulfillment of Scripture Citations”) explains:
“What is perhaps most striking about Matthew’s account is that it all happens according to divine plan. The Holy Spirit is responsible for Mary’s pregnancy and an angel from heaven allays Joseph’s fears. All this happens to fulfill a prophecy of the Hebrew Scriptures (1:23). Indeed, so does everything else in the narrative: Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem (2:6), the family’s flight to Egypt (2:14), Herod’s slaughter of the innocent children of Bethlehem (2:18), and the family’s decision to relocate in Nazareth (2:23). These are stories that occur only in Matthew, and they are all said to be fulfillments of prophecy.”
It can easily be argued, however, that Herod’s slaughter of the infant boys in Bethlehem (Mt. 2:16-18) was derived from Pharoah’s slaughter of the Hebrew boys in Exodus 1:22-2:8, rather than from a historical event. Likewise, even evangelical scholars, such as Robert Gundry, have argued that there are other fictional elements in Matthew’s nativity, such as the visit of the Magi being used as an allusion to Daniel 2:2. Fellow blogger Paul Davidson has also written an excellent summary of how Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus was almost entirely derived from the Old Testament, providing a summary of many previous scholarly observations, in “What’s the Deal with Matthew’s Genealogy?”
Whereas many of these stories only appear in Matthew, the Synoptics likewise betray signs of literary invention due to OT imitation, even when they “corroborate” each other on points of contact. For example, it is attested in all four gospels that the soldiers, who were attending Jesus’ crucifixion, divided his clothing and cast lots to see which items they would receive (Mt. 27:35; Mk. 15:24; Lk. 23:34; Jn. 19:23). This is the kind of “point of contact” that Keener emphasizes in his chapter, and yet it is probably a literary invention. The scene was most likely drawn directly from Psalm 22:18, which states:
“They divide my clothes among them
and cast lots for my garment.”
What is further worth noting is that many scholars argue the dividing of Jesus’ garments by lot is actually a detail which derives from the hypothetical pre-Markan passion narrative! This means that, even when the Gospels were possibly drawing on an earlier source, there was still literary invention most likely occurring before our first extant biographies of Jesus were written. This is another factor that undermines the Gospels’ historical reliability. It presents a strong case that stories were being invented about Jesus, even at the oral and pre-compositional level, which were modeling him after OT passages and figures . I discuss how OT imitation probably led to legendary development about Jesus, in my essay “Patterns of Myth-Making Between the Lives of Alexander the Great and Jesus Christ.”
Keener spends far too much time in this chapter speculating over eyewitness sources or earlier written accounts, which the authors of the Gospels don’t even name, while not placing enough emphasis on the main sources they do cite: Old Testament literature. This reliance on earlier literary sources can even lead to “points of contact” between the Gospels, which is a detail Keener argues enhances their historical reliability. But my analysis above shows that, even when the Synoptics agree with each other, it can still often be the result of common literary (as opposed to historical) sources, resulting in legendary development.
Keener’s Criticism that Novelistic Biographies Were about Distant Figures
A final point that I will address is some of the criticism that Keener offers against comparing the Gospels to texts like the Life of Aesop and the Alexander Romance. Keener (pg. 144) argues: “[L]egendary and fictitious “lives” generally involve characters of the remote or distant past.” In contrast, Keener points out that the Gospels started to be written roughly a generation after Jesus, and he also notes that Suetonius’ and Plutarch’s biographies of Otho likewise deal with a figure of a fairly recent period. While I think that this argument offers certain value for comparing the Gospels to the accounts of Otho (I still think that Keener is far too speculative in his comparison of their sources and corroboration over details), as a generic argument, this is rather weak.
Let me give an analogy: Recently I have been working on a peer-reviewed article about the Book of Revelation. The apocalypse in Revelation is unique, since the author and witness is a contemporary church figure (John of Patmos), whereas in most ancient apocalypses the witness is a distant figure of the past (such as Abraham or Enoch). Likewise, Revelation is written as an epistle, addressed to contemporary churches in Asia Minor, whereas most apocalypses were not written as letters. On these grounds, should I compare Revelation primarily to the epistles of Cicero or Pliny the Younger, since they are likewise letters written by contemporary figures to a contemporary recipient? Certainly not.
The bulk of Revelation’s structure and style still resembles ancient apocalypses more closely, even if the text deviates somewhat in the author and witness being a contemporary figure. In regard to Revelation being written as an epistolary narrative, John Collins (Apocalypse: The Morphology of a Genre, pg. 70) points out that the “epistolary form” of the text “is subordinated to and in the service of the book’s revelatory character.” In like manner, simply because the historical biographers Suetonius and Plutarch wrote about a more recent figure, like the Gospels, this does not mean that they offer the best parallels in the spectrum of ancient biography. The Gospels far more closely resemble the structure and style of popular and novelistic biographies, such as the Life of Aesop and the Alexander Romance, even if they may deviate somewhat in being written about a more recent figure.
As I have discussed previously on this blog, popular-novelistic biographies share many structural features in common with the Gospels, which apply to the bulk of the text (as opposed to loose comparisons with authors like Suetonius or Plutarch). These features include their simple vernacular and sentence structure, their lack of critical historical analysis, their emphasis on mimetic as opposed to diegetic narrative techniques, and their open textuality and multiformity. Such characteristics are also distinct from elite and historiographical Greco-Roman biographies, such as those of Plutarch and Suetonius, which tend to use more complex vocabulary and sentence structure, more frequently cite and critically analyze their sources, are narrated far more diegetically than mimetically, and are likewise written in a distinct style that exercises more authorial control over their material. To his credit, Keener (pg. 147) acknowledges:
“Since we lack surviving biographies of a “popular” level for recent characters, however, it is unfair to argue from silence about what the differences might be.”
Though, the case can be made that we do possess popular-novelistic biographies that were written a generation or two after the subject’s death, even if their dating is more questionable than the Gospels. One example is the Life of Secundus the Silent Philosopher. Secundus was a philosopher who was said to live during the reign of the emperor Hadrian (117-138 CE). Our earliest papyrological evidence for the text dates to the 3rd century CE, which places at least an early form of it to only about a century after the philosopher’s life (and this is only a later copy of the text, meaning that there were probably versions which were composed earlier, only a few decades after the events described in the text). Although the Life of Secundus is structurally quite different from the Gospels, it still resembles their narratology, in that it is told solely by an omniscient, third-person narrator, who likewise does not explain any role in interacting with eyewitness sources. Richard Stoneman (The Greek Alexander Romance, pp. 8-17) has also argued that, even though we only possess later copies of the Alexander Romance, a number of considerations (including papyrological evidence) may date an earlier version of the Romance to as early as the third-century BCE, only a generation or two after Alexander’s death.
But another consideration has been suggested by David Konstan and Robert Walsh in Writing Biography in Greece and Rome, in their chapter “Civic and Subversive Biography in Antiquity” (pp. 26-43). In the chapter, Konstan and Walsh draw a distinction between the tradition of civic biography (which they argue was the model of biography followed by Suetonius and Plutarch), versus subversive biographies, such as the Life of Aesop. Whereas the former category focused on figures of political influence (like Otho), the latter category dealt with marginalized individuals in society, who were trouble makers using thier arguments and wit to challenge the authorities. The role of Jesus as an itinerant prophet challenging the prevailing Jewish and Roman authorities more closely resembles the style of subversive biographies. As Konstan and Walsh (pg. 40) note:
“[C]omparisons between Mark and such works as the Life of Aesop or the Life of Homer have been drawn on the basis of their literary style as well as their structure, and in particular their chronological organization.”
Konstan and Walsh (pg. 42) suggest, however, that Christian biographies may represent an “evolution and contamination of forms,” in which they blended a subversive biographical account of Jesus with some of the features of civic biography. In any event, the fact that the Gospels write about a recent figure, I think, is a far weaker point of contrast with novelistic-biographies, versus stronger considerations that align them more closely with the this style of biography. At the same time, Keener’s use of Suetonius and Plutarch as analogies to the Gospels, I would argue, offer only weak and speculative points of comparison.
A final contention that I will respond to of Keener (pg. 167) is when he argues that the Gospels show a far greater correspondence in their material than what would be expected of ancient novelistic literature: “One would not expect anything like this level of correspondence in a novel of comparable length, even in the rarer historical novels where correspondences are possible.” But depending on which texts are targeted, this is really not true.
Recension α and recension β of the Alexander Romance, for example, show a far greater degree of correspondence in their material than what is found in the Synoptic Gospels. Of course, there is a reason for this: recension β was relying on and redacting α as an earlier written source. In a somewhat similar fashion, both Matthew and Luke were relying on material in Mark (in addition to possible common sources like Q), which explains a great deal of their correspondence. To be fair, the verbal correspondence between the different recensions of the Alexander Romance is much greater than the Gospels, suggesting a greater degree of textual dependence. As Armin Baum explains:
“The β recension of the Alexander Romance also deviated to a lesser degree from the wording of its source than the Synoptics, although its author did not attribute a comparable religious importance to his text (B.III.4).”
But at the same time, the Synoptics are likewise far more textually dependent than authors like Suetonius, Tacitus, and Plutarch–who show virtually no verbatim agreement between passages, drew upon a much wider range of specified textual and oral sources, and could have all been likely writing independently of each other. A great deal of the “correspondence” between the Synoptics can be attributed to their textual dependence, as well as their far more narrow range of sources, which mostly developed in an insular Christian venue. In contrast, the correspondence between Suetonius, Tacitus, and Plutarch owes itself far more the to the public knowledge of Otho’s reign, which despite being documented by a far more diverse range of sources, still led to corroboration over most details, due to the “public interest” in Otho as a major figure.
While I am overall critical of Keener’s thesis, I will grant that he does add qualifiers at certain points of this chapter. He briefly notes (pg. 148) that verbatim adaptation of another text’s material was not a common practice of “elite” authors, which is a point of contrast between the Synoptics and authors like Suetonius, Tacitus, and Plutarch. Although he argues that we lack other examples of “popular” biographies written about recent figures (which is somewhat contestable), he also allows (pg. 147) that “some differences may exist” between our historical and biographical accounts of Otho. He discusses briefly in a few footnotes that Suetonius, Tacitus, and Plutarch may be writing independently of each other (although this discussion really needs more emphasis in the body of the narrative, especially at points where he discusses the Synoptics’ far more clear dependence on each other).
But these qualifiers aside, I think that Keener’s conclusions are off the mark. The correspondence of material between Suetonius’, Tacitus’, and Plutarch’ accounts about Otho do not offer a good target case for the Gospels, primarily because these authors were writing about a figure of much greater “public interest,” who not only had more common knowledge available about his life, but also a far greater range of sources who documented his reign. In contrast, Jesus was a far more obscure figure, with the traditions about his life emerging in a far more insular and primarily Christian venue. This becomes especially problematic when the Synoptics demonstrate far more textual dependence and verbal overlap between their accounts (with Matthew and Luke probably relying on much of Mark’s material), whereas a far greater case can be made that Suetonius, Tacitus, and Plutarch are writing independently of each other. The fact that Keener does not even lay out the parallel passages of the Synoptics, and discuss the nuances of how they may compare (or, indeed, contrast) with correspondences between these historiographical authors, makes his thesis rather vague and speculative.
Keener’s targeted comparison seeks to offer a window into what kinds of oral and textual sources the authors of the Synoptic Gospels may have consulted, by using the descriptions of such sources in Suetonius, Tacitus, and Plutarch as a comparison. But the problem is that these historiographical sources explicitly name their sources, whereas the authors of the Gospels do not. There are also far greater parallels to the omniscient, third-person style of narration found in the Gospels (especially Matthew and Mark) in popular-novelistic biographies, such as the Life of Aesop and Alexander Romance, despite Keener’s objections to comparing the Gospels to these texts.
The fact that the Synoptics are likewise redacting each other (with Matthew and Luke making changes to Mark), whereas there is far less evidence suggesting that Suetonius, for example, was making changes to Tacitus’ historical works, raises another problem with the Gospels’ historical reliability. Keener wants to emphasize in this chapter that the Gospels are not merely inventing material, since they relied on earlier sources. But when they make changes to these sources, by adding to or changing the details, it allows for a path toward legendary development and embellishment. Furthermore, another problem raised for the Gospels’ historical reliability is that they often model their stories about Jesus on earlier Old Testament literature (suggesting a literary, rather than historical, use of sources). That this imitation of the OT can even be detected in sources that may have predated the Gospels, at the oral or pre-compositional stage, suggests that legendary development was already taking place about Jesus, before the Gospels were even written. Likewise, at some “points of contact” between the Gospels–such as the soldiers casting lots for Jesus’ garments–the correspondence more likely stems from a common literary source–such as Psalm 22:18–rather than from the eyewitness knowledge of either the author or his sources.
Due to these problems, I do not think that Keener’s targeted comparison makes a solid case for supporting the Gospels’ historical reliability. It is far too speculative in imagining oral and written sources that may underlie the Gospels, while not placing enough emphasis on the textual inter-dependence and use of literary sources, which is far more clearly presented by the evidence.
 Plutarch (18.1) likewise uses the first-person singular to cite his eyewitness experience in visiting Othos’ tomb:
“They buried the remains of Otho, and made a tomb for them which neither by the great size of its mound nor by the boastfulness of its inscription could awaken jealousy. I saw it when I was at Brixillum.”
None of the Gospels’ authors cite their travels or what places and events they witnessed in such a clear manner.
 Luke (1:2) does state that eyewitnesses had “handed down to us” (παρέδοσαν ἡμῖν) traditions about Jesus. But his use of the plural “us” (ἡμῖν), and the author’s emphasis on written accounts in Lk. 1:1, imply that the author is working with common oral traditions and textual sources, rather than that he had personally known an eyewitness. In any event, the author of Luke-Acts certainly does not use the first-person singular to state that he personally knew eyewitnesses of Jesus, in the same way that Suetonius and Plutarch specify that they knew eyewitnesses of Otho.
 One argument, which Kok discusses in his critical response to Bauckham (pp. 77-84), is the possibility that the Gospel of Mark cites Peter as a source, through the literary device of inclusio. An inclusio is a bracketed structure, which envelopes details at the beginning of a pericope with details at the end. With regard to Peter’s role in Mark, Kok (pg. 78) explains:
“Bauckham repeats Hengel’s point [Studies, pp. 50-2; Four Gospels, pp. 83–4] that Peter is mentioned twenty-five times in Mark, always as the head of the Twelve or the Three, and in a rhetorical inclusio where he is the first and last named disciple (1:16; 16:7).”
Kok (pg. 79) also notes how an inclusio can possibly provide narrative focalization:
“Based on Cuthbert Turner’s observation that Mark quickly shifts from a plural verb without an explicit subject to a singular verb or pronoun in reference to Jesus alone in twenty-one passages, Bauckham [Eyewitnesses, pp. 156-68] sees a second literary device at work by which Mark supplies narrative focalization from the vantage point of the disciples and especially Peter.”
While these details may suggest that Peter plays a large literary role in Mark’s gospel, it is rather speculative to jump from this to the conclusion that Peter was an eyewitness source. Many scholars do not agree with Bauckham’s conclusion, such as Kok who states (pg. 80):
“It is not wrong to stress Peter’s significance on the literary level, but neither the inclusio nor the plural-to-singular-narrative device proves that he was one of Mark’s informants.”
What can certainly be said, however, is that the ambiguous use of an inclusio, featuring a named character, is a far more speculative identification of a source than what we have available in Suetonius and Plutarch. Both of these historical biographers explicitly name their eyewitness sources, and what information they told them. We have nothing like this in the Gospel of Mark, even despite Bauckham’s arguments.
Bauckham recently published a second edition of Jesus and the Eyewitness (April 2017), and both Kok and myself are going to examine his arguments further, as part of our continuing research.
 Gabriele Marasco (Political Autobiographies and Memoirs in Antiquity, pp. 324-5) notes that both Tacitus and Suetonius likely drew on material from Vespasian’s memoirs.
 When it comes to the possibility that oral tradition may have served as a check against legendary development emerging about Jesus’ life, Komarnitsky (“Myth Growth Rates and the Gospels”) offers the following counter-point:
“But what about the presence and influence of firsthand eyewitnesses on the oral tradition, someone might ask. Although a few of Jesus’ closest followers were probably eyewitnesses to a large part of his ministry (such as the Apostles), in an enthusiastic religious movement driven by belief in Jesus’ resurrection and imminent return (I think these were sincerely held beliefs that were not the result of legendary growth), these followers may by themselves have been unable to contain the growth of legend and displacement of the historical core among those in the growing church who did not know Jesus when he was alive or were not eyewitnesses of the specific events being distorted. The ability of a few of Jesus’ closest followers to contain the growth of legend would have been further hampered if the legends were growing in several different locales, for in this case they would have had the nearly impossible task of being present everywhere, stamping out all of the unhistorical legends. Eyewitnesses of Jesus’ ministry may also have viewed the correction of legends and policing of historical accuracy for events that occurred before Jesus’ death as a relatively trivial pursuit if their focus was mainly on Jesus’ future return.”
In contrast, Suetonius, Tacitus, and Plutarch could have drawn on much more common knowledge for the period of Otho’s reign, due to the fact that Otho was a figure of considerable “public interest.”
 The contention can be raised that the citation of the Jewish polemic in Mt. 28:11-15 may have come from no oral source at all, or if it did, the author of Matthew has tampered with it. One reason for this contention is that Matthew (27:62-66) states that Pontius Pilate had stationed guards at Jesus’ tomb (in order to prevent body theft), because Jesus had predicted his own resurrection. Many scholars would contend, however, that this is not a historically reliable detail of Jesus’ life, and that the anticipation of his resurrection only developed after his death. Matthew could have invented the detail about the guards, however, in order to serve as an apologetic against non-Christian Jews, who were claiming that Jesus’ body was stolen. Or, it’s possible that Matthew was relying on no oral source at all, and merely anticipating that the objection of body theft might be raised, had thus created the story about the guards. Unlike the points of contact that Keener notes between the Synoptics, the guard’s report is found solely in the Gospel of Matthew, meaning that it could have simply been invented by the author. For more analysis on this topic, see Richard Carrier’s “Plausibility of Theft FAQ.”
 I should note that I do not mean to imply that historical biographers like Plutarch, or historians like Tacitus, cited their textual and oral sources in every instance. In many cases they do not, and there were no footnotes in antiquity. Nevertheless, the point still stands that there is a far greater frequency of such source-citations found in these historiographical authors, which contrasts with the near absence of any such citations in the Gospels, as well as popular-novelistic biographies, such as the Life of Aesop and the Alexander Romance.
 It should still be acknowledged that many scholars argue Tacitus, Suetonius, and Plutarch drew upon a ‘common source’ in their narratives. Murison (Galba, Otho and Vitellius, pg. xii) thinks that Pliny the Elder’s Historiae a fine Aufidi Bassi was probably this major source used between these authors, while Keener (pg. 168) notes that Fabius Rusticus was likewise probably a source shared by each author. But even if Tacitus, Suetonius, and Plutarch had common sources, they also drew upon a much wider range of sources (as opposed to Matthew and Luke’s rather narrow reliance on Mark and possibly the Q-source). These historical authors do not merely copy material verbatim from earlier sources, so that we can see such close parallel passages between them which reflect the exact wording. In contrast, they demonstrate far more independence, which suggests corroboration without collusion (as opposed to the Synoptics reliance on Mark suggesting far more collusion in their material). Murison (pg. xii) notes that scholars should exercise great caution in assuming that Suetonius, Tacitus, and Plutarch derived most of their narratives from a common source, arguing: “I do not accept the position that our extant authors used only one or two sources in writing their accounts and that all variations or alternatives to be found in their works are copied holus bolus from earlier accounts now lost.” In contrast, scholars do not need to be so cautious when pointing out the obvious parallel passages which suggest that the Synoptics are inter-dependent accounts.
 To be fair, it should likewise be acknowledged that ancient historians sometimes fashioned their narrative in imitation of earlier motifs found in Greco-Roman epic. Regarding the death of the emperor Galba in Tacitus’ account, for example, scholar Timothy Joseph (Tacitus the Epic Successor, pg. 84) argues that Tacitus imitates the death of Priam in the Aeneid when describing Galba’s death. While historical authors could sometimes make allusions to epic like this, however, it does not imply that they invented material in the same way as the Gospels. We can be far more certain that Galba was actually assassinated, than we can be over the details of Matthew’s infancy narrative or whether soldiers actually cast lots for Jesus’ garments. The Gospels show a far greater dependence on OT passages than Tacitus does on the Aeneid, but it is still worth noting that imitation of epic motifs was not entirely missing from ancient historical literature.