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

To help boost new content on the blog, when a good question from a reader comes along, I am going to occasionally write a new post about it, which will include both the question and my response to it. Bart Ehrman does the same thing and calls it his “Readers’ Mailbag.” I figure that it would be great to start doing this on Κέλσος.

(Note: What questions I choose to write about is purely at my discretion, so please do not solicit me to post about your question.)

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.

This is my first stab at doing a “Readers’ Mailbag,” but I think answering this question shaped into a nice post on its own.

-Matthew Ferguson

This entry was posted in Ancient Biography, Ancient Novel, Classics, Historical Jesus, History, Mailbag, Miracles and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 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.

  3. Pingback: Biblical Studies Carnival 149 (June 2018) | Reading Acts

  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.

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