In my earlier essay “Ancient Historical Writing Compared to the Gospels of the New Testament,” I contrasted the canonical Gospels with the genres of ancient historiography and historical biography. To be sure, historiography and biography were not the same genre in antiquity, as the former was based on the history of a broader period or event, while the latter was based on the life of an individual. Nevertheless, the two can both be sufficiently described as “historical writing,” especially since many of the narrative conventions between the two are similar. Plutarch, for example, compares his source material and makes historical judgements in a manner very similar to Dionysius of Halicarnassus, even if he was writing historical biographies while Dionysius wrote a Roman history. In the essay, I show how the Gospel authors do not follow the narrative conventions of historical biographers like Plutarch and Suetonius.
I likewise discuss in my essay “Are the Gospels Ancient Biographies?” how the genre of biography was rather diverse in antiquity, and that not all Greco-Roman biographies were historical biographies. Plutarch and Suetonius were political biographers, whose research and methodology was fairly rigorous (at least for the time). At the same time, there were also more novelistic and legendary biographies, such as the Alexander Romance, as well as legendary Lives about figures such as Aesop and Homer, in addition to a number of other kinds of ancient biographies that I discuss in the essay.
In “Ancient Historical Writing Compared to the Gospels of the New Testament,” I also suggest that the Gospels are structured more as prose novels than historical writing. To be clear, that essay is not about making a comparison with the novel, since it is instead contrasting the Gospels with ancient historiography and historical biography. Some of what I write in this new essay, however, will discuss the comparison with the novel in more detail.
The comparison of the Gospels’ genre with the ancient novel is a mainstream view in biblical scholarship. Among the scholarly works exploring the comparison are Ronald Hock (ed.) Ancient Fiction and Early Christian Narrative, Jo-Ann Brant (ed.) Ancient Fiction: The Matrix of Early Christian and Jewish Narrative, and Marília Pinheiro (ed.) The Ancient Novel and Early Christian and Jewish Narrative: Fictional Intersections, as well as Richard Pervo in Profit With Delight: The Literary Genre of the Acts of the Apostles. Apologists, of course, do not like this comparison, but the fact remains that it is a mainstream scholarly position.
The comparison with the novel is often juxtaposed against the comparison with Greco-Roman biography. Espousing this latter view are Richard Burridge in What Are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography and Dirk Frickenschmidt in Evangelium als Biographie: die vier Evangelien im Rahmen antiker Erzählkunst. As I discuss in my essay “Are the Gospels Ancient Biographies?,” however, I think that the boundaries between these two genres are actually far more blurred and fluid than is sometimes understood. Ancient biography was a highly diverse genre. As Arnaldo Momigliano (The Development of Greek Biography, pg. 9) argues:
“An account of the life of a man from birth to death is what I call biography.”
That definition is pretty broad. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke, of course, fit it fairly well, though Mark and John do not include a birth narrative. Then again, Plutarch’s Cato Minor and Galba don’t include birth narratives either, so the genre can be even more flexible sometimes than Momigliano’s very basic definition.
Personally, I think that, if the Gospels do belong to the genre of Greco-Roman biography, they are far more aptly compared to the novelistic and legendary biographies discussed above, such as those about Alexander, Aesop, and Homer. It should be noted that these kinds of biographies are much more similar to prose novels than historical biographies, based on their storytelling elements and lack of analytical rigor. To illustrate this comparison, I am going to discuss a somewhat obscure text, The Certamen of Homer and Hesiod. The Certamen (“contest”) is a sort of dual biography about the epic poets Homer and Hesiod. Much like the Gospels, scholars debate what genre the Certamen belongs to. It tells the lives of Homer and Hesiod from birth to death, but the main focus of the text seems to be on storytelling and setting the stage for their famous contest at the center of the narrative. The way that the Certamen is written has a number of interesting parallels with the Gospels.