Fictional Characters Who Appear Even in Historical Literature

This quarter I am busy teaching as part of the Humanities Core at UC Irvine. The course is inter-disciplinary, and covers literature, film, philosophy, history, and visual art. It’s a great teaching experience, especially since we have our students writing their own academic blogs about the material we cover. The theme of the curriculum is “Empire and Its Ruins,” and we are currently covering the Roman Empire, including discussion of the Roman historian Tacitus. During lecture last week, professor Andrew Zissos (who is also my dissertation advisor) discussed the speech of Calgacus, which is depicted in Tacitus’ Life of Agricola (29-32). Calgacus is described as a chieftian of the Caledonian Confederacy (which was an alliance of tribes in modern day Scotland), who fought against Rome around 83 CE. Prior to the Battle of Mons Graupius, Tacitus has Calgacus give the following speech, which voices a scathing critique of Roman imperialism:

“To us who dwell on the uttermost confines of the earth and of freedom, this remote sanctuary of Britain’s glory has up to this time been a defense. Now, however, the furthest limits of Britain are thrown open, and the unknown always passes for the marvelous. But there are no tribes beyond us, nothing indeed but waves and rocks, and the yet more terrible Romans, from whose oppression escape is vainly sought by obedience and submission. Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a solitude and call it peace.”

Calgacus’ speech is famous for providing one of the most negative depictions of Rome in ancient literature. The Roman Empire cannot be satisfied by conquest either east or west. They rob the rich, and even rob the poor. Most distinctive of all, however, is Calgacus’ characterization of the Pax Romana. What the Romans call “peace” is not really harmony and prosperity, but rather a desert which has been stripped of life, so that it is no longer a threat to their rule.

During Zissos’ lecture a question arose about how Tacitus knew Calgacus’ words. He had neither witnessed the speech, nor discusses knowing anyone who had. Zissos’ response came as a surprise to many of the students: Tacitus probably imagined and invented the whole thing. Not only that, but we have no other ancient source that even mentions Calgacus. Zissos explained that Calgacus is quite possibly a fictional character. This is remarkable, given that Tacitus is even a historical author. If a historian like Tacitus could invent fictional characters and speeches in his narrative, what does this say about the possibility of fictional characters in the Gospels and Acts?

One thing that may surprise modern readers is the creative license with which ancient authors would blend history and fiction. Take, for example, the characters depicted in Plato’s dialogues. Socrates, who was a historical person, features as the main subject of these texts, but he is often depicted engaging with named characters who are quite possibly Plato’s invention. As John Fritz (Plato and the Elements of Dialogue, pg. 18) explains:

“Plato could have employed purely fictional but named characters such as Diotima, Callicles, or Timaeus. Several reasons for this suggest themselves. Attributing a view, behavior, or idea to a character that is utterly fictional combats the extent to which historical characters are defined, and hence combats the way in which dialogue is colored by such information. Using a fictional character allows Plato to explore an idea with considerably more freedom than employing characters that are limited by history.”

What is remarkable is that such characters have names that were common for the period, like Timaeus, and are even depicted as coming form real cities. As I discuss in my essay “Allegorical Characters with Common Names in the Alexander Romance and the Gospels,” fictional characters with common names, like Nicolaus and Lysias, also appear in popular biographical literature, such as the Alexander Romance. Whereas both Plato and the Alexander Romance largely function as historical fictions, however, Tacitus writes in a far more historiographical style, and yet even he appears to have employed fictional characters as a literary device.

When it comes to the use of such fictional characters, there are a few things that make them stand out:

  • The character is not corroborated in literature outside of the narrative. A lack of outside corroboration only provides a necessary condition for a character being invented by a particular author. Often times apologists will try to brush off so-called “arguments from silence,” when solely the Gospels or Acts provide information for a character or event. But it is important to remember that other criteria for fictional invention can be supplied, once the existence of a character or event hinges on a single source (or inter-dependent sources like the Gospels).
  • The character often shows up only at a particular scene. This criterion is not universal, but it’s common for many of the fictional characters I have discussed above. Calgacus, for example, shows up to give a speech before a battle in the Agricola, but later he is not mentioned during or after the battle, nor listed among the hostages captured. He simply shows up, gives his speech, and then disappears, suggesting a very specific literary role in the narrative.
  • The character voices a specific view or performs a specific role. Fictional characters are usually symbolic, meaning that their actions in the narrative serve some rhetorical purpose of the author. Tacitus, for example, uses Calgacus to voice criticisms against Rome. It’s an interesting and subtle creation on his part, since the words that he puts into the mouth of a barbarian chieftain are actually composed by a Roman senator. Tacitus is setting up an antithetical view of Rome for his father-in-law Agricola to confront in the narrative. He is able to create an antithesis between these figures all the more easily, when he is able to employ the license of fiction in how he portrays Calgacus.
  • The character’s name reflects on his or her role in the narrative. This criterion is likewise not universal, but it is common. In the example of the Alexander Romance that I discussed above, for example, Alexander defeats and kills Nicolaus (meaning “conquerer of people”) in order to demonstrate how Alexander would conquer great kings and empires. Lysias (whose name means “divider”) divides a wedding banquet of Alexander’s father Philip. The fact that these characters’ names match their role in the narrative is a tell sign that they are probably invented and being used allegorically.

Since we have good evidence that ancient authors would invent fictional characters across a number literary genres, including historical literature, this raises the question as to whether there could be such fictional characters in the Gospels and Acts. As I discuss in my article “Ancient Historical Writing Compared to the Gospels of the New Testament,” the Gospels do not greatly resemble the historiography and historical biographies from antiquity, and I likewise discuss in my essay “Greek Popular Biography: Romance, Contest, Gospel,” how they far more closely align with popular and novelistic biographical accounts of historical figures. Apologists will often claim that the Gospels are more close to historical biographies (such as I discussed in my recent review of Craig Keener), and that Acts is a work of ancient historiography. But even if this were true, what the example of Calgacus in Tacitus shows is that even these more historical genres can include fictional characters in the narrative!

I have discussed multiple examples on this blog of characters in the Gospels and Acts who appear to be fictional inventions. In my essay “WLC Tries to Defend the Myth of Barrabas,” for example, I point out how the criminal Barrabas, who is pitted against Jesus for the crowd’s release in the Gospels’ passion narratives, is probably an allegorical character. Barabbas meets all of the criteria for character invention that I discuss above. He appears nowhere outside of the Gospels, which establishes a necessary condition for his invention. In addition to that, he shows up exclusively for a scene in which he is contrasted with Jesus. Barabbas is described as a militant insurrectionist and possibly a counter-messianic figure, who contrasts with Jesus’ more peaceful and apocalyptic messianism. What does the name Barabbas mean? “Son of the father.” And yet, Jesus is the true son of God the father. Furthermore, we have no example outside of Christian literature for a custom by the Roman authorities to release any criminal that the crowd chooses during the Passover festival. Barabbas is quite possibly an invention of the Gospel authors.

Other characters who show signs of fictional invention include Stephen in Acts of the Apostles (6:8-8:1). Much like Calgacus, Stephen abruptly shows up in the narrative to give a lengthy speech (the longest one in all of the Bible). In it, Stephen responds to the objection that Jesus had sought to change the Laws of Moses. The Jews respond to this action by stoning Stephen to death. What does the name Stephen mean? “Crown.” At least in later Christian literature, martyrs who die for the faith receive the “crown of martyrdom” (such as in the Acts of Philip), and this could be an earlier example of the same motif.

There is likewise Joseph of Arimathea who performs Jesus’ burial after his disciples have abandoned him. There is no known city of Arimathea that has been confirmed by modern archaeology. But in Greek, the name Αριμαθαια can be formed by the Greek prefix αρι- (“best”) and μαθη, μαθησις, μαθημα, μαθητης (“teaching/disciple”). In other words, Joseph showed up from “best disciple town” to give Jesus a decent burial, after all the other disciples had fled. Joseph of Arimathea may also be designed to parallel the role of Joseph the Patriarch in Genesis 50:4-5, who asks the Pharaoh for permission to bury his father’s body in a cave tomb. NT scholar Dennis MacDonald (The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark pp. 154-161) has likewise suggested that Joseph of Arimathea’s role is very similar to that of Priam’s in book 24 of the Iliad. Priam, the father of Hector, dares to journey to Achilles’ camp to plead for the body of Hector. What is the name of Jesus’ father? Joseph. And here a figure with the same name paralleling a father figure performs the same action (in fact, Joseph of Arimathea is even identified as Jesus’ uncle in some later traditions).

One of the signs that Joseph of Arimathea’s role, which first appears in Mark, is a literary invention is the way that the later Gospels tweak with it, toward the direction of having Jospeh bury Jesus in an increasingly more honorable tomb. In Mark (15:42-47), Joseph hastily buries Jesus by having him wrapped in a linen shroud, and then placing him in a tomb cut out of rock. However, 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 explicitly contradicts Mark 16:1, which implies that Jesus was not anointed before his burial. John also adds the detail that Jesus was buried in a garden. There have been many speculative attempts to harmonize these details, but as William John Lyons (Joseph of Arimathea: A Study in Reception History, pg. 20) argues:

“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.”

In response to the possibility of fictional characters in the Gospels and Acts, apologists frequently appeal to Richard Bauckham’s onomastic argument in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (pp. 67-92). Bauckham argues that the frequency of names which appear in literature, inscriptions, and burial sites in our Palestinian background data for the period matches the names in the Gospels/Acts, and therefore it is unlikely that the named individuals who appear in these texts are fictional characters. For male names, here is the data for the top ten names that he provides (pg. 85):

Rank Name # in Gospels & Acts Total # Attested
1 Simon 8 243
2 Joseph 6 218
3 Lazarus/Eleazar 1 166
4 Judas 5 164
5 John 5 122
6 Jesus 2 99
7 Ananias 2 82
8 Jonathan 1 71
9 Matthew 2 62
10 Manaen 1 42

Here is also the data for the top ten female names (pg. 92):

Rank Name # in Gospels & Acts Total # Attested
1 Mary 6 70
2 Salome 1 58
3 Shelamzion 0 24
4 Martha 1 20
5 Joanna 1 12
5 Saphira 1 12
7 Bernice 1 8
8 Imma 0 7
8 Mara 0 7
10 Cyprus 0 6
10 Sara 0 6
10 Alexandra 0 6

There are a number of responses that can be made to this argument, but I recommend this analysis that was posted on AcademicBiblical Reddit for a detailed discussion. I’ll quote some of the author’s main points:

  • The data for women is woefully incomplete. Mary was a common name in Palestine, and there are a handful of Marys in the Gospel & Acts. How convincing is this by itself? Is it significant that 5 of the top 10 female names are unattested in the Gospel and Acts? Or is this just an artifact of insufficient data?
  • The data for men hinges on a handful of names… [I’ll add that most of the male names are those from the Old Testament, such as Simeon/Simon, Joseph, Judah/Judas, which could easily influence some of the names appearing in the New Testament.]
  • There are discordances in the data for male names. Assuming Bauckham’s hypothesis, we would expect the “# in Gospels & Acts” column to descend in proportion to the “Total # Attested” column. Of note, Eleazar is grossly underattested. [I’ll add that the name Jesus is also underattested, which is no doubt due to the fact that Jesus functions as the primary character in the Gospels; nevertheless, this circumstance does not eliminate the role of creatively shaping characters’ names in the narrative.] We in fact do not see such a linear decrease. Instead, we see the most of the most common names (Simon, Joseph, Judas, John, Mary) occurring at a plausibly similar rate, but after that we see the incidence drop off in an exponential fashion…
  • Bauckham calculates that the occurrence of male Greek names within the background literature is 12.3%, while the incidence of male Greek names in the Gospels and Acts is 22%. This is an 80% over-representation of male Greek names in the Gospels and Acts relative to the Palestinian background occurrence. [It is also noteworthy that characters with Greek names show up in bizarre circumstances, such as Nicodemus during the burial of Jesus.]
  • You can see from the tables that the incidence of names in the Gospels is extremely small relative to the background literature (of course). This means that statistical noise dominates for all but the most popular names. You can’t really infer anything useful for names attested < 3-5 times or so.

These objections call into question how well the Gospels and Acts reflect the background data of names to begin with, and likewise whether the names they attest are statistically significant. But to go back to the example that I gave of Calgacus in Tacitus’ Agricola, however, what is perhaps the strongest response to Bauckham’s onomastic argument is that, even if most of the characters in Gospels/Acts are not fictional, this does not eliminate the possibility that certain characters are still invented.

There is no doubt that most of the characters who appear in Tacitus’ Agricola are historical figures. And yet, at a key portion of his narrative Tacitus still quite likely invented the character Galgacus, particularly because he could serve a specific role and speak certain words. I see no reason why the authors of the Gospels and Acts could not do the same thing. And so, even if most of the characters in the Gospels/Acts are not fictional and match the background data for the period, this circumstance would still not prohibit certain characters like Barabbas, Stephen, and Joseph of Arimathea from being invented [1]. Bauckham’s onomastic argument is thus insufficient for insuring that none of the characters were invented.

It should also be noted, of course, that in later Christian literature invented characters increase exponentially, particularly when names are assigned to anonymous characters in the Gospels/Acts. On this point see Bruce Metzger in “Names for the Nameless.” And even before that, many of the anonymous characters who appear in the Gospels/Acts could very likely be fictional characters, as well.

-Matthew Ferguson

[1] It is also noteworthy that Barabbas was not even a common name to begin with, further strengthening the likelihood of his invention.

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6 Responses to Fictional Characters Who Appear Even in Historical Literature

  1. busterggi says:

    With the exception of the various Herods, Pilate and maybe a couple of high priests is there any outside confirmatory evidence for anyone in the NT?

    • Celsus says:

      James is attested by Josephus. Aside from that, when it comes to early Christian figures, you have to look toward Christian literature for corroboration in the 1st century CE. Paul mentions “Cephas,” who seems to be Peter, though some have suggested that he may be a different figure.

  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

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