Readers’ Mailbag: Should Legendary Development Have Occurred More Rapidly for Alexander the Great than Jesus?

Recently in response to my blog essay “Are the Gospels Ancient Biographies?: The Spectrum of Ancient Βίοι”–in which I discuss how the NT Gospels resemble the more novelistic and fabulous biographies from antiquity, such as the Alexander Romance (in contrast to more historiographical and mundane ancient biographies, such as those of Plutarch, for example)–a reader asked this question:

Thanks for this article, it’s a great read and most enjoyable. Just one thing, I am not entirely persuaded about the growth of popular biographies, at least in terms of comparing their rapid emergence with the gospels. Someone, like Alexander for example, was a widely known character, who acted out it his life on a grand stage. The rapid embellishments on such a well know character are understandable. But Jesus life was quite different, he spent his life in a back water, an unknown figure to the majority of people, and even afterwards, the same was true for a very long time. So, I think the arguments against fabulisation and extraordinary embellishments (in the gospels) have a point, because of the time scale involved. This is not to suggest that there aren’t any, and as time went on, (as the none canonical gospels show), there was a definite movement in this direction; but I am not sure that it is a good argument for implying that the gospels must be full of the fanciful .

I’d be interested to hear your response.

To provide some further context, I have compared the pace of legendary development between Alexander the Great and Jesus in this previous essay, as well as this one. Here is my response to the reader’s question:

I am actually going to turn your intuition on its head. Let’s stop and think about what it would take to turn Alexander into a fabulated hero. The historical Alexander had already accomplished many extraordinary deeds during his lifetime. He had expanded the small countries of Macedonia and Greece into conquering most of the known world. He had traveled as far as India and deep into Central Asia. He had vanquished great kings and generals. He had founded many cities and left behind a great empire (even if it fractured). And he had done all of this by his early-30’s.

What sort of embellishments needed to be fabricated about Alexander, in order to make his story more glorious? Really, not too many. Sure, you could add stuff about him meeting legendary Amazon warriors (like Achilles) during his military expeditions. You could spread rumors about his mother being impregnated by a god (like Hercules). And you could speak of journeys to the end of the world (like Odysseus). But when it’s all said and done, the real Alexander the Great was already a legend in his own right.

Now let’s turn to Jesus. If you wanted to spread stories about Jesus being the Messiah, what kind of Messiah would he make if he was nothing but an obscure, itinerant peasant, who made little impact on the known world during his lifetime? Jesus was never recognized by the vast majority of his contemporary Judeans as their king. He never overthrew the yoke of Roman oppression. He never ushered in any sort of cosmic judgement or transformation while he was alive. Who wants to hear about a Messiah who was little more than a vagabond wandering around giving sermons?

So, if you want to dress Jesus up as a Messiah, you actually have far more work to do. You would need to spread stories about him ascending to heaven (like Elijah). Stories about him walking on water (even more remarkable than Moses merely parting water). Stories about him multiplying even more bread than Elisha had. Stories about him raising the dead and performing nature miracles (like both Elijah and Elisha). And, if Jesus had not ushered in cosmic judgement during his lifetime, then you would need to speak of celestial visions foretelling how he would do so in the future (such as what John of Patmos witnessed).

Finally, since Jesus had suffered an embarrassing execution on the cross, you would need to revise that blemish on his track record, by having him experience an extraordinary reversal of fate. Perhaps, say, by rising from the dead afterward…

So, I actually think that someone like Jesus would have far more fabulation occur in his popular biography. Note, both Alexander and Jesus had their legends take shape around mimetic models. Alexander was modeled on figures such as Hercules, Achilles, and Odysseus. Jesus was modeled on figures such as Moses, Elijah, and Elisha. But Jesus’ story needed far more miracles and wonder-working in it, in order to raise him from an obscure peasant to someone far more remarkable. Alexander didn’t need that. He already was remarkable. It didn’t take as much myth-making to impress people with Alexander’s story. But who wants a King of the Jews and Messiah that does nothing but wander around giving sermons and speaking in parables? You need to add miracles, thunder, and furry to the story, in order to get people to follow Jesus.

A final note is that fabulation also did seem to take place more slowly with Alexander than Jesus. Our earliest versions of the Alexander Romance date to centuries after his death. Scholars such as Richard Stoneman think that they may be based on an earlier archetype, dating to only a couple generations after Alexander’s lifetime, but we can’t be sure. In contrast, we know that none of the Gospels could have been written any later than a century after Jesus’ death.

And I think there are reasons why the Gospels needed to be written sooner. To get Christianity off the ground, you needed to have extraordinary tales about Jesus circulated quite early. Otherwise both Jesus and Christianity would have faded into obscurity. Alexander, in contrast, would have remained quite famous for centuries, with no help from the Alexander Romance being needed to preserve his memory and legend. So, as I said at the beginning, counter-intuition may be the answer to your question.

I think answering this question shaped into a nice post on its own, and so I’ve posted it on the main page of this blog.

-Matthew Ferguson

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11 Responses to Readers’ Mailbag: Should Legendary Development Have Occurred More Rapidly for Alexander the Great than Jesus?

  1. Paul King says:

    I would suggest that Jesus’ greater obscurity also encouraged fabulation. Both in the sense that the shortage of information was a vacuum that demanded to be filled, and in that there was little danger of contradiction.
    Tying Jesus to earlier scripture would also be a motivation. An obvious example being the two conflicting genealogies which show him as a descendant of the kingly line.

  2. Gary says:

    If only we could go back in time and find out just how much of the first gospel, Mark, was fabulation! I would in particular like to know if the tomb provided by Joseph of Arimathea was historical. Is it possible that the early Christian resurrection belief was SOLELY based on alleged appearances and not on an empty tomb? It would be fascinating to know.

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  4. josenrael says:

    The entire point of the your (beautiful) post is that the Earliest Evangelists were basically embarrassed about a real oscure Jesus so they were moved to make an apology of him by fabulation.

    But if the contrast between an oscure Jesus and a famous Christ was deliberate in the mind of the Earliest Evangelist (think about the Messianic Secret in Mark) then there was no embarrassment at all: Jesus was not really the Jewish Christ (as Marcion preached) in the Earliest Gospel and so the rapid fabulation (of which you talk) was caused by the embarrassment about the marcionite/gnostic claim and not by a really obscure “historical” Jesus.

    The entire point behind “Jesus Barabbas” is that the real Jesus who was crucified was just the Jewish Christ (docet also the titulum crucis) and not the gnostic Son of Father (called a robber by Celsus in virtue of the his enigmatic being unknown).

    So, at the origin of the rapid fabulation about the earthly Jesus was the embarrassment about rival Gnostic claims (that Jesus was not the Jewish Christ) and not embarrassment about an obscure historical Jesus.

    • Celsus says:

      Hi Josenrael,

      Well first, I think that there was more than embarrassment at work in the fabulation about Jesus. As another commenter noted, a greater dearth of information about the historical Jesus (due to his obscurity) compared to the fame of Alexander the Great, could also lead the evangelists (and their oral sources) to fill in the gaps about his life. Note also, there wouldn’t be as much risk of contradicting a known historical record, compared to inventing stories about Alexander who had a known historical record.

      I don’t think there needs to be any contradiction between the Messianic Secret in Mark and a tendency to embellish Jesus’ life. Rather, I think that Mark, especially as the first evangelist, had to recognize that few people (especially Gentiles) had heard about Jesus. The Messianic Secret could in fact be an apology for Jesus’ obscurity, by framing him as someone who was deliberately trying to remain secretive, hence justifying to Mark’s audience why they hadn’t heard these stories before.

      But, Mark also had to balance this out with Jesus performing miracles, to demonstrate that he really was the Messiah, though in secret. Note that Mark often has Jesus perform miracles in a manner that keeps him away from the public’s eyes. While curing of the Blind Man at Bethsaida, Mark has Jesus lead him out of the village first, before performing the miracle, and when he heals a leper, he instructs him not to tell anyone. The secretive nature of Jesus’ miracles provides an excellent context for inventing them. Nobody was around to see and thus contradict them.

      I’m sure that responding the Marcionites was a factor in proto-Orthodox myth-making about Jesus. But I wouldn’t restrict all the factors in fabulation to this explanation. I think that myth-making can derive from a variety of causes and sources. Responding to the Pharisees would also provide a context for inventing miracles about Jesus (e.g., Mark 3:1-6), and I think polemics against other Jewish sects, as well as the Romans, probably preceded fabulation in response to Marcion.

  5. arcseconds says:

    Hi Matthew,

    I’m wondering whether you could say more about what you think the mindset was of the Gospel writers and those involved in the presumably mostly oral traditions they drew from.

    What you’ve written here almost reads as though it’s a deliberate PR stunt to market Jesus to the world, as though the VP (Marketing) of the Jesus Movement got them in a room and said “look, we’ve got a great product here, but no-one’s interested in an itinerant demogogue who was executed as a troublemaker by the occupiers — we need a new narrative! Isn’t the Messiah supposed to win? Let’s make this the Greatest Story Ever Told!”

  6. Mark Shapiro says:

    The embellishments you are considering are mostly miracles. Of course they are false, or ‘fiction’.
    But as Ramsey MacMullen points out these need not be fiction in the usual sense, since everybody in the Empire believed in miracles and imputed them to all sorts of people as fact. They were ‘happening’ to Jews and pagans all day every day. The rabbis impute miracles to the tannaim and each other all over the place. People were just credulous and naive in that kind of way.

    Interestingly Vermes suggests that many of Jesus’ exorcism-healing miracles were actually possible, and Jesus himself believed them — the cure would tend to be short lived, by which time Jesus would have moved on. I don’t think exorcisms and healings are a particularly impressive messianic credential; indeed most of Jesus’ miracles are pretty unimpressive. Origen says, probably rightly, that the riot in the Temple was his greatest miracle, given that the scale of the temple is several football fields worth. (I expect Mark is here confabulating or grossly expanding some incident: his gospel is a response to the fall of the Temple and he wants Jesus to have anticipated it and thematized it.)

    In any case, there is little reason to deny that quite a few of the tales recorded in Mark were not circulating during Jesus’ life. “Mark” was educated and perhaps in a position to talk to some of the credulous people present in the 30s, but he was a believer and thus credulous.

    The ‘resurrection’ is another matter, but it is clearly not a late development. God knows how the idea got going – presumably hyper-emotional states of ‘feeling the presence’; it isn’t too hard to fill in the blanks in various plausible ways. But it was certainly well-established when Paul bought in, which seems to be a couple years after the events.

    The earliest resurrection-believers presumably already had messianic ideas about Jesus on the basis of what they had already seen or convinced themselves of. They don’t impute many of the characteristic acts of a messiah to him, since they expect them to happen in a few weeks/months/years, when he descends on clouds and clobbers the Romans etc.

    The strangest part of your remarks is the teleological element

    > To get Christianity off the ground, you …

    and the like. No one was trying to get “Christianity” off the ground. They believed this stuff themselves and it has nothing to do with “Christianity”; it is just Jewish messianism of an ordinary sort. The crucifixion and resurrection and ascension were at first understood as a mere blip in anticipation of the final world-conquering which was just around the corner.

    The healing miracles of Jesus are more plausibly non-fiction than the spectacular sermons in Matthew and Luke. They are non-fiction in the sense that they are standard period peasant naivete.

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