Eyewitness Recollections in Greco-Roman Biography versus the Anonymity of the Gospels

In the genre of Greco-Roman biography (as well as historiography) ancient authors did not always name all of their oral or written sources, and there were no footnotes in the literature of the period. Nevertheless, biographers from the early Roman Empire tend to cite such sources at a much higher frequency than what is seen in the NT Gospels. The citation of literary and documentary sources (e.g., letters, previous authors, notebooks, etc.) occurs more often in biographies that deal with subjects dating to long before the author’s lifetime. The biographer Suetonius, for example, cites far more literary and documentary sources in his Lives of Julius Caesar and Augustus (who lived over a century before he was writing) than he does in his Lives of the Flavian emperors (whose reigns he personally lived through).

What is interesting about biographies dealing with subjects dating close to the author’s own lifetime, however, is that they tend to include more citations of the author’s own eyewitness experiences, as well as discussion of his oral sources. Sometimes it is claimed that the authors of the Gospels do not explicitly discuss their own eyewitness experiences, nor cite their oral and written sources, because the Gospels were written close enough to Jesus’ lifetime for such sources to be implicit for their audiences. This assumption is undermined, however, by surveying the Greco-Roman biographical literature from the same period.

In fact, virtually every biographer from the early Roman Empire whose works are still extant–Cornelius Nepos, Tacitus, Plutarch, Suetonius, and Lucian–explicitly cites his own eyewitness experiences in biographies that deal with subjects dating to his own lifetime. The biographer Cornelius Nepos, for example, discusses a funeral speech that he heard of Atticus (a philosopher and friend of Cicero) in his Life of Atticus (17.1-2):

Nepos“Of the affectionate disposition of Atticus towards his relatives, why should I say much, since I myself heard him proudly assert, and with truth, at the funeral of his mother, whom he buried at the age of ninety, that “he had never had occasion to be reconciled to his mother,” and that “he had never been at all at variance with his sister,” who was nearly of the same age with himself; a proof that either no cause of complaint had happened between them, or that he was a person of such kind feelings towards his relatives, as to think it an impiety to be offended with those whom he ought to love.”

Tacitus, although he is primarily known for being a historian, wrote a biography of his father-in-law, the Roman statesman Agricola. And indeed, Tacitus specificities that he was related to Agricola at the beginning of the biography (Life of Agricola, 3.3):

“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.”

This would be like the author of Matthew, for example, stating that he was a personal disciple of Jesus. Not only do modern scholars doubt that the Gospel of Matthew was actually written by the disciple Matthew, but furthemore the author of the gospel makes no explicit statement about his personal relation to the subject. Tacitus likewise discusses stories and anecdotes that he personally heard from Agricola. Later in the biography (4.1), for example, Tacitus states:

TacitusI 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.”

And near the end of the biography (24.3), Tacitus also relates:

I have often heard him say that a single legion with a few auxiliaries could conquer and occupy Ireland, and that it would have a salutary effect on Britain for the Roman arms to be seen everywhere, and for freedom, so to speak, to be banished from its sight.”

The biographer Plutarch likewise discusses how he conversed with eyewitnesses regarding a battle fought by the Roman emperor Otho, who waged a civil war during his own lifetime. As Plutarch (Life of Otho, 14.1) relates:

Plutarch“This is the account which most of the participants give of the battle, although they themselves confess that they were ignorant of its details, owing to the disorder and the unequal fortunes of the several groups. 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 biographer Suetonius discusses several eyewitness recollections, both from within his family, as well from own experiences. In his Life of Caligula (19.3), for example, Suetonius describes his grandfather’s recollections about a spectacle that the emperor Caligula performed in the Bay of Naples:

“I know that many have supposed that Gaius devised this kind of bridge in rivalry of Xerxes, who excited no little admiration by bridging the much narrower Hellespont; others, that it was to inspire fear in Germany and Britain, on which he had designs, by the fame of some stupendous work. But when I was a boy, I used to hear my grandfather say that the reason for the work, as revealed by the emperor’s confidential courtiers, was that Thrasyllus the astrologer had declared to Tiberius, when he was worried about his successor and inclined towards his natural grandson, that Gaius had no more chance of becoming emperor than of riding about over the gulf of Baiae with horses.”

Suetonius likewise discusses his father’s own military experiences in his Life of Otho (10.1):

SuetoniusMy 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.”

And, in his Life of Domitian (12.2), Suetonius even discusses an event that he personally witnessed during the emperor Domitian’s reign: 

“Besides other taxes, that on the Jews was levied with the utmost rigour, and those were prosecuted who without publicly acknowledging that faith yet lived as Jews, as well as those who concealed their origin and did not pay the tribute levied upon their people. I recall being present in my youth when the person of a man ninety years old was examined before the procurator and a very crowded court, to see whether he was circumcised.”

The Second Sophistic author Lucian, although he is not primarily known for being a biographer, likewise wrote a biography of the philosopher Demonax. And, in that biography, Lucian specifies that he personally knew and frequently consorted with the subject (Life of Demonax, 1):

Lucian“It was in the book of Fate that even this age of ours should not be destitute entirely of noteworthy and memorable men, but produce a body of extraordinary power, and a mind of surpassing wisdom. My allusions are to Sostratus the Boeotian, whom the Greeks called, and believed to be, Heracles; and more particularly to the philosopher Demonax. I saw and marvelled at both of them, and with the latter I long consorted.”

Considering that virtually every Greco-Roman biographer from the early Roman Empire, writing on subjects dating to within half a century or so of his composition, mentions his personal relation to events, the failure of any of the Gospel authors to explicitly do so should make us question whether the Gospels belong to the same literary genre as these authors.

In my essay “Are the Gospels Ancient Biographies?,” I discuss how a number of NT scholars, such as Richard Burridge and Dirk Frickenschmidt, argue that the Gospels belong to the genre of Greco-Roman biography. I am not fully against this comparison, but as I argue in my essay “Greek Popular Biography: Romance, Contest, Gospel,” the Gospels do not resemble the style of elite and historiographical biographers, such as those quoted above. Instead, the Gospels far more closely resemble the popular and novelistic biographical literature from antiquity–such as the Life of Aesop and the Alexander Romance–which likewise tends not to contain any discussion of sources or eyewitnesses, and instead is formally anonymous.

Much like these popular-novelistic biographies, the gospels Matthew and Mark do not even contain statements from the author in the first person, much less do they discuss the author’s own relation to events. The author of Mark, for example, at no point states that he was a personal attendant of Peter (and modern scholars likewise doubt that the gospel was actually written by John Mark). The author of Luke uses the first person in the prologue of his gospel (1:1-4), as well as in the prologue of Acts (1:1), in order to dedicate the works to Theophilus (an unknown, later Christian figure), but at no point does he explicitly state that he was a personal attendant of Paul. It is likewise doubtful that the ambiguous use of the first person plural, scattered throughout the “we” passages in Acts (16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:1-28:16), reflects the eyewitness experiences of the author (and such passages certainly do not claim eyewitness status as clearly as the biographers above). As William Campbell in The “We” Passages in the Acts of the Apostles (pg. 13) explains:

“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 Gospel of John is the only one to claim eyewitness status, but this is only through an anonymous figure–“the disciple whom Jesus loved”–which, once more, is a vastly more ambiguous identification of source and eyewitness experience than what is used by the biographical authors above. In fact, the use of the “beloved disciple” is such an odd and ambivalent construction, that many scholars think the author is only suggesting (not explicitly claiming) to his audience that the gospel was based on the recollections of a specific eyewitness. As NT scholar Mark Goodacre (“NT Pod 38: Who is the Beloved Disciple in John’s Gospel?”) explains:

“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.”

Now, I mentioned above that popular-novelistic biographies–such as the Life of Aesop and the Alexander Romance–likewise do not discuss authorial eyewitnessing. The earliest surviving versions of these texts were written, however, long after the periods in which both Aesop and Alexander the Great lived. We do possess another popular biography from antiquity, however–the Life of Secundus–which was likely written within 40-60 years of the subject’s own lifetime (roughly the same gap of time after which the Gospels were written about Jesus). But, like the Gospels, the author of the Life of Secundus does not discuss himself in the first person, nor does he mention any of his personal relation to events within the narrative.

So, the fact that the Gospels do not explicitly discuss any of their authors’ relation to sources or events is a major reason why scholars consider them to be anonymous. The fact that historiographical biographers–such as Nepos, Tacitus, Plutarch, Suetonius, and Lucian–actually do is likewise a reason why their biographies are not considered to be anonymous. But, we do have other anonymous biographical literature from antiquity–such as the Life of Aesop, the Alexander Romance, and the Life of Secundus. These biographies are popular and novelistic, however, and not historiographical, which should thus offer us some insight into where, on the broader spectrum of Greco-Roman biography, the Gospels more appropriately belong.

-Matthew Ferguson

Posted in Ancient Biography, Ancient Novel, Classics, Historical Jesus | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Diegesis and Mimesis: A Very Brief Introduction

Another major part of working on a dissertation in the humanities is that you will usually incorporate some form of literary theory into the central thesis of your argument. I have discussed in a previous post some current theory of what constituted “fiction,” as opposed to “history” and “myth,” in the ancient world. In this post, I will likewise discuss the difference between diegesis and mimesis as narrative techniques. These words will no doubt sound rather technical to those who do not specialize in literary studies, but they are very important for understanding how the Gospels are written.

To provide a brief definition of both of these terms, Sarah Bryant-Bertail (“Spatio-Temporality as Theater Performance,” pg. 6) writes:

“A division between the mimetic and the diegetic space can be made … [T]he mimetic space is that seen in performance by a spectator or projected by a reader onto an imaginary stage. It includes the scenography and the fictional locale this immediately refers to. The diegetic space is all that would not be seen in a real or projected theater but that is nevertheless established in the spectator/reader’s imagination through verbal and non-verbal signs systems, either in description or through imagery.”

All of this may still sound rather abstract, and so, below is a chart that I made last academic year for how these terms can be applied to ancient narratives:

Diegesis vs. Mimesis

The terms diegesis and mimesis are often employed to performance in theater, as Bryant-Bertail has done above. But they are also highly relevant to the narrative techniques used in novels, as well as historiography [1].

The essence of diegesis is to “tell” or “report” information within a text, whereas the essence of mimesis is to “show” or “perform.” These forms of narrative can manifest through multiple literary devices. Diegetic narrative is generally told in the voice of the narrator, whereas mimetic narrative is generally told in the voice of the subject. Indirect speech is more common in diegetic narrative, where the narrator reports or paraphrases the words of the subject. In contrast, direct speech is characteristic of mimetic narrative, where the exact words of the subject are performed. The effect of speaking words in the voice of the subject places mimetic narrative within the scene of the plot, while the diegetic use of the narrator’s voice generally provides information that is not voiced or shown within scene, but provided through external description. The tone of mimesis is generally dramatic, whereas the tone of diegesis is descriptive. Both diegesis and mimesis are used across multiple literary genres, but in varying ways depending on the nature of the genre.

Continue reading

Posted in Ancient Biography, Ancient Novel, Dissertation, Literary Theory | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Understanding the Value of Biblical Parallels

Here on Κέλσος I frequently discuss parallels between the New Testament, the historical Jesus, and Christianity and other literature, historical figures, and religions of the ancient Mediterranean world. I am likewise currently working on a dissertation that compares the Gospels to popular-novelistic biographies, which seeks to identify the most suitable biographical subtype for situating the Gospels on the broader spectrum of Greco-Roman biography.

Part of the value of comparing literature and historical figures is that parallel situations often shed light on each other, which can help us to understand the context in which Christianity emerged and Christian literature was written. This context aids in interpretation, historical criticism, and sociological analysis. Something important to recognize about such comparisons, however, is that there are many nuances that both sharpen and impose limitations upon the parallels.

One misconception that should be cleared up, from the get go, is that a parallel between Jesus or Christianity does not necessarily entail a “double” or perfectly identical situation. Historical figures, literature, and events can share several characteristics in common, while still differing in many other regards. Most parallels are thus limited in their implications, and so must be treated with the proper nuance to understand their relevance.

Amitay 3One example of this is the comparison between Jesus and Alexander the Great. There are clearly many differences between these two figures, such as Alexander being a king and general, whereas Jesus was an itinerant peasant. And yet, these two figures also have much in common, such as the stories about their divine birth and their modeling on previous mythical archetypes. As such, the comparison between Alexander and Jesus has both its advantages and its limitations. The advantages can help us explain certain aspects of Jesus’ role in Christianity, whereas the limitations entail that there are still many other considerations to be made, in order to have a complete picture of either figure.

Since comparing literature and historical figures requires a great deal of nuance, and appreciation for shades of meaning and degrees of difference, I think it will be valuable to lay out some criteria below for how to make these distinctions, in order to apply parallels properly in literary and historical analysis. After discussion of these criteria, I will also discuss what I think will be some of the advantages and limitations of my dissertation.

Continue reading

Posted in Ancient Biography, Ancient Novel, Historical Jesus, History, Miracles | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Historical Reliability of Popular Biographies, Part 2: Redaction Criticism

In my previous post I discussed the complexity of historical criticism, and how even texts of the same literary genre can vary substantially in terms of historical reliability, based on their date of composition and their available sources of information. In this follow-up post, I will discuss some further historical-critical issues that we can compare between the Alexander Romance and the NT Gospels. This post will not be the final installment of my series discussing the historical reliability of popular-novelistic biographies, since there is a large amount of diverse issues that need to be covered. In part 2 of this series, however, I will discuss redaction criticism and how it can affect the historical reliability of ancient texts. Redaction is a process by which later authors or editors interact with earlier texts, sources, and traditions and shape them into later narratives. During this process, new details can often be added to the narrative and earlier stories can become embellished with subsequent material. Since this progression has a tendency to make stories grow over time, and thus to become more and more legendary, it is highly relevant to the historical criticism of ancient texts.

Alexander's historians 2

An intriguing aspect of our extant literary sources for Alexander the Great is that they virtually all date to the Roman period (146 BCE – 330 CE). This is not because there were no histories of Alexander that were written during the Hellenistic period (336-146 BCE). In fact, Alexander’s campaigns were documented by a wide variety of eyewitness and contemporary historians, whose works no longer survive due to disappearance in textual transmission. Our extant historians for Alexander, however, such as Plutarch and Arrian, quote a large number of previous authors and sources (such as as Callisthenes, Ptolemy, and Cleitarchus), and so, even though the works of Alexander’s original historians no longer survive, we still have a large number of fragments preserved of them. These fragments are available in edited volumes, such as Felix Jacoby’s Fragments of the Greek Historians, and are used by modern historians when reconstructing the life of the historical Alexander.

It remains quite interesting to consider, however, why later Roman authors took such a strong interest in Alexander. Most Roman historians during the late-Republic and early-Empire wrote primarily on topics of Roman history (although the Roman biographer Cornelius Nepos did write short biographies of famous Greek statesmen in his Lives of Eminent Commanders). Alexander is an exception, however, in having a full-length Latin history (and not just a short biography) written about his life. As Richard Stoneman (“The Latin Alexander,” pg. 167) explains:

Latin Fiction“The career of Alexander the Great provides a unique exception to the general rule that Latin writers of history wrote (before the Christian period) only on Roman topics … [O]nly he became the subject of a full-length history in Latin. And this occurred more than once. The first Latin Alexander historian was Quintus Curtius Rufus … who composed a lengthy and important historical account of his career, probably in the first century CE.”

Alexander was not just a fascination of Roman literature, however, but also served as an overt model of Roman statecraft, especially during the imperial period. The Roman biographer Suetonius claims that the emperor Augustus (Rome’s first emperor) used an image of Alexander as a seal for his letters (Aug. 50.1), and even arranged a special viewing of Alexander’s entombed sarcophagus, while staying in Alexandria (Aug. 18.1).

Following the Roman conquest of the Greek East and the Hellenistic kingdoms that were derivative of Alexander, a question that nagged many Roman historians was: What would have happened, if Alexander the Great had marched West and waged war against Rome? As Ken Dowden (Anthology of Ancient Greek Popular Literature, pg. 186) explains, “Alexander never went to Sicily, Italy, or Africa, though a western expedition was alleged to be among his last plans, and ‘What if he had?’ later became a popular debating topic” during the Roman period. This topic is seen even in the historian Titus Livy’s History of Rome, where he spends an unusual amount of space discussing Alexander, even though most of his history is devoted to Roman topics. As Diana Spencer in The Roman Alexander: Reading a Cultural Myth (pg. 51) explains:

Roman Alexander“Livy’s ‘digression’ in Book 9 is inspired by a vision of an Alexander who can prove useful for Roman self-definition as a historical race, and as a people who, through good management of their ‘Alexandrian qualities,’ offer a new, improved model. Livy opens his excursus with a question and a claim–he tells us that he has often considered but never formulated the question of what the outcome of a war between Alexander and Rome, man versus state, would have been (9.17.2) … If we remember that this narrative of Livy’s is designed to present the story of Rome from its foundation, then this digression on so splendidly individualistic an autocrat, a digression that never succeeds in entirely dimming his lustre, is particularly noteworthy.”

And so, Alexander always had a strong reception in the Roman West, and was varyingly seen as a predecessor, rival, and model of the Roman Empire. This fascination with Alexander’s character, as Spencer (pg. 41) explains, highlights “the modulations taking place in a pattern of ongoing reinvention of Alexander as a model for the interrogation of power and authority at Rome.” All of this context is relevant for understanding the Alexander Romance and one of its most glaring historical inaccuracies: Alexander’s journey to Rome (1.28). As will be discussed in the analysis below, we have good reason to think that this episode is a later redaction to the AR, which was directed toward an audience living during the Roman period.

Continue reading

Posted in Ancient Biography, Ancient Novel, Dissertation, History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

The Historical Reliability of Popular Biographies, Part 1: Framing the Comparison

Recently on Κέλσος I have been discussing the generic features that the NT Gospels share with Greek popular-novelistic biographies. Such features include the simple vocabulary and sentence structure found in these texts (as I discussed in my most recent post), which distinguish popular biographies from the more elevated and critical styles of historical biographers, such as Plutarch and Suetonius. I have likewise discussed how popular biographies more closely resemble ancient novels in their frequent use of direct speech and dialogue, versus the indirect speech and paraphrase that is more characteristic of ancient historiography. Another major criterion that I have discussed is formal anonymity and open textuality. The Synoptic Gospels, especially, are distinct from elite biographers in their open borrowing and redaction of material from earlier texts, which is very different from how authors like Plutarch and Suetonius, who wrote in a unique and original style, would compose. In contrast, popular biographies–such as the Alexander Romance, Life of Aesop, and Certamen of Homer and Hesiod –would all freely adapt material from earlier textual sources.

The features that I have described above are all text-immanent, in that they pertain to the language, style, and composition of a text. But another major question that will no doubt arise from this comparison is: How do other popular-novelistic biographies compare to the Gospels, in terms of their historical reliability?

McGrath 8

James McGrath, The Burial of Jesus (pg. 57)

A major difference between historical criticism and genre criticism is that historical criticism is concerned primarily with the “real” world outside the text. History is concerned with investigating real people, places, and events that have existed in the physical world. We often use ancient literature to learn such information, especially when we lack other forms of archaeological and documentary evidence. As I discuss in my essay “History, Probability, and Miracles,” however, the study of ancient literature is not a very reliable method for knowing about the past, particularly because ancient authors could easily fabricate false information by erring in their description, embellishing persons and events, spreading unverified claims and rumors, or even through outright lying, such as producing forgeries. In many cases, however, we only have ancient literature to learn certain things about the past, when no other forms of evidence are available. In the case of the historical Jesus, our entire knowledge of him is dependent solely upon ancient literature, and primarily Christian literature written from a devotional point of view.

A major point that should be emphasized in discussing genre criticism, however, is that historical accuracy is not something that defines a literary genre. There are, in fact, several forms of fictional narrative that discuss real people, places, and events in the physical world. Take William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, for example. Although this play includes a number of inaccurate details about Caesar’s assassination, it for the most part hews toward depicting a real historical event. In contrast, simply belonging to the genre of history does not entail that a text is historically accurate. Plutarch’s Life of Theseus and Life of Romulus, for example, are both historical biographies about mythical individuals who probably did not exist.

What especially makes historical accuracy inadequate for identifying literary genre is that it is concerned with matters extrinsic to the text itself. In contrast, the language, style, and compositional features of a text are intrinsic to the text itself. For identifying the literary genre of the Gospels, therefore, these internal features and how they compare to other literature from the same time period should take precedent. And so, as I have argued, the Gospels most closely resemble Greek popular-novelistic biographies, in terms of these internal features.

ThomasBut, that being said, I am likewise interested in the historical criticism of popular-novelistic biographies, as well. And so, I will share below some of the research that I did last academic quarter in a historical Jesus seminar that I took under NT scholar Christine Thomas. In the seminar, I investigated the historical reliability and verisimilitude of the Alexander Romance, and how this text compares to the NT Gospels. This research topic was especially fitting, because Dr. Thomas has written a book on the ancient novel and gospel literature, which makes comparisons with the Alexander RomanceThe Acts of Peter, Gospel Literature, and the Ancient Novel: Rewriting the Past. Below I interact with Dr. Thomas’ own research in my analysis.

In this first post, I will discuss the theoretical meaning of “historical reliability,” and how it is far more difficult to draw comparisons between two texts on the basis of historical reliability, than it is to draw comparisons on the basis of genre and literary conventions. I will also lay out some of the difficulties for comparing the Alexander Romance with the Gospels, in terms of historical reliability, but will further explain why it is the best comparison text for the Gospels available, out of our limited selection of popular-novelistic biographies that survive from antiquity. In some subsequent writing, I will compare and contrast the historicity of the AR and the Gospels, in greater detail.

Continue reading

Posted in Ancient Biography, Ancient Novel, Dissertation, History | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Grammatiki Karla on Ancient Greek Popular Literature, Part 1: Language and Style

Writing Biography in Greece and RomeSeeing that I will be comparing the NT Gospels to the genre of Greek popular-novelistic biography in my Ph.D. dissertation, a major component of this project will be identifying the features and characteristics of “popular literature.” Fortunately, a new academic book on Greco-Roman biography just came out this year (published just last May) which deals with this topic–Writing Biography in Greece and Rome: Narrative Technique and Fictionalization. There is a collection of chapters in the book, written by different authors, on a variety of issues pertaining to Greco-Roman biography. Luckily, the book deals with Kleinliteratur, in addition to elite and scholarly biographies, and so there is a chapter on the Life of Aesop

The chapter about the Life of Aesop is written by Grammatiki Karla, and is titled “Life of Aesop: Fictional Biography as Popular Literature?.” As the title suggests, Karla’s chapter deals with the defining attributes of “popular literature” and how they can be identified in the Life of Aesop. Although Karla’s chapter only briefly mentions the Alexander Romance (pg. 49) and the Gospel of Mark (pg. 56), many of the attributes that are discussed likewise bear heavily upon these texts. In this post (part 1), I will summarize Karla’s discussion of “popular literature,” particularly under the first subsection, “Language – Style,” and how I think that her analysis can be applied likewise to the genre of the Gospels. In a subsequent post (part 2), I will also summarize the other subsections in the chapter.

Continue reading

Posted in Ancient Biography, Ancient Novel, Classics, Dissertation, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Idealized Portraits of Jesus, Alexander the Great, and Aesop

I have been busy working on my dissertation recently, which has taken away some time from blogging, but today I will (briefly) share something interesting from my research.

The topic of my dissertation is an analysis of the generic and thematic features that the NT Gospels share with the Alexander Romance and the Life of Aesop. This topic also has overlap with other books in the New Testament, particularly the Book of Revelation, which I previously compared to Alexander’s Letter to Olympias in book 2 of the Alexander Romance, in my essay “Eschatology in Alexander’s Letter to Olympias and the Book of Revelation.” An interesting theme that is shared between the ancient literature about Jesus Christ, Alexander the Great, and the fabulist Aesop is the use of idealized portraits in their physical descriptions. All of these descriptions are over the top, and are meant to convey symbolism.

Although Jesus’ physical appearance is not discussed in the canonical Gospels [1], there is a very interesting portrait of Jesus that is given at the beginning of the Book of Revelation. When John of Patmos is writing to seven churches in the province of Asia, he describes a vision in which Jesus appears to him. This Jesus is not the one who is depicted before his death in the Gospels, but is instead the resurrected Jesus who has ascended to Heaven, and who now appears with some considerable bodily enhancements. Here is the portrait of Jesus that John describes (Revelation 1:12-16):

Portrait of Jesus“And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.”

Now, clearly this portrait of Jesus is meant to be taken symbolically. In fact, just a few lines down, Revelation 1:20 explains that the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches that John is writing to. The reference to “someone like a son of man” is to Daniel 7:13-14, where a figure “like a son of man” is described, who will be a cosmic judge that will be given power over all the nations of the world. This figure is also described in Daniel 7:9 as having “clothing as white as snow” and “hair as white as wool,” and so it is clear that the author of Revelation is modeling Jesus on the figure described in this passage.

What is interesting about both the Alexander Romance and the Life of Aesop is that they similarly use embellished portraits to convey symbolic imagery. This is in large part a function of popular-novelistic biographies, which are not meant to engage in the kind psychological and critical analysis typical of historiographical Greco-Roman biographies, such as those of Plutarch and Suetonius, but instead are intended to depict symbolic histories of their subjects. And so, in the Alexander Romance, for example, we do not get a terribly accurate physical description of the historical Alexander’s appearance, but instead a romanticized portrait that conveys his greater nature. Here is how Alexander is described (Alexander Romance 1.13):

Screenshot 2016-06-26 at 9.19.44 AM“When [Alexander] became a man, his appearance was not like Philip’s and, indeed, not even like his mother Olympias’ … he was a type all of his own. Indeed, he had the shape of a man, but he had the mane of a lion and eyes of different colors–the right eye black, the left grey–and teeth as sharp as a serpent’s; he displayed the energy of a lion. And there was no doubt of how his nature would turn out” [2].

Now, as with Jesus’ description in Revelation, Alexander is also being modeled on a previous mythical archetype in this passage. The reference to the “mane of a lion” is clearly meant to allude to the demigod Hercules, who wore the pelt of a lion. The “teeth as sharp as a serpent’s” are perhaps also a reference to Hercules strangling snakes in his cradle. I have discussed in my essay “Patterns of Myth-Making Between the Lives of Alexander the Great and Jesus Christ” how, even during his lifetime and among eyewitnesses, legendary stories about Alexander emerged that compared him to figures like Hercules and Achilles. This description in the Alexander Romance is clearly based on such stories. Like Jesus, Alexander’s portrait his symbolic. As the passage explains, his appearance revealed how his true “nature” would turn out, perhaps suggesting that Alexander would travel the world as a second Hercules.

The description of Aesop in the Life of Aesop is certainly less flattering, and may appear as less than ideal. But this first appearance is deceiving (and meant to be). Aesop is depicted as misshapen and remarkably ugly, to the point of being symbolically so. Here is how Aesop is described (Life of Aesop 1):

Portrait of Aesop“The fabulist Aesop, the great benefactor of mankind, was … of loathsome aspect, worthless as a servant, potbellied, misshapen of head, snub-nosed, swarthy, dwarfish, bandy-legged, short-armed, squint-eyed, liver-lipped–a portentous monstrosity. In addition to this he had a defect more serious than his unsightliness in being speechless, for he was dumb and could not talk” [3].

Now, why is this appearance so deceiving? Because Aesop’s outer ugliness both disguises and contrasts with his true inner beauty. Although Aesop may appear hideous, he is filled with wisdom and the power to speak in fables. At first, he is mute and cannot speak. But later in the biography, Isis (or Fortune) grants Aesop the power of speech, and soon he begins to outwit both his masters and great kings alike with his cleverness and fables.

Once more, like Jesus and Alexander, Aesop is being modeled on a previous archetype. In this case, Aesop’s ugliness is probably an allusion to the philosopher Socrates. Like Aesop, Socrates was thought to be a very ugly man, but this appearance was misleading, and contrasted with his true inner nature. In Plato’s Theaetetus (143e), Socrates is described as being far from handsome, with a “snub nose” and “protruding eyes.” What’s interesting is that Aesop’s comparison with Socrates was probably a later tradition about his life. As Tomas Hägg (The Art of Biography in Antiquity, pg. 133) explains, “Aesop’s excessive ugliness is likely … a Hellenistic addition to the characterization; there is no certain traces of it in the older tradition.” And so, as the stories about Aesop evolved over time, his appearance was eventually idealized into symbolic ugliness, very likely in imitation of Socrates.

What I find interesting about all of these idealized portraits is that they emerge from the subject being modeled on previous archetypes. Jesus is modeled on the figure “like a son of man” described in the Book of Daniel, Alexander is modeled on Hercules, and Aesop on Socrates. This pattern is very similar to the one that I discussed in my previous essay about how legendary development often occurs when an individual is modeled in imitation of previous mythical archetypes. Such imitation apparently has the ability not only to fashion legendary stories and anecdotes about a person, but also embellishments of their physical appearance, as well.

-Matthew Ferguson

[1] Although Jesus’ physical appearance is not explicitly discussed in the Gospels, it is alluded to in the scene of the transfiguration, which is included in each of the Synoptic Gospels. In the Gospel of Mark (9:2-4), the scene is described as follows:

TransfigurationAfter six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.”

Like the idealized portraits discussed above, this depiction of Jesus is also based on previous mythical archetypes, in that both Moses and the prophet Elijah appear alongside Jesus. In this way, the physical appearance of Jesus is likewise embellished in the Synoptic Gospels.

[2] For this passage, I have used Ken Dowden’s translation.

[3] For this passage, I have used Lloyd Daly’s translation.

Posted in Ancient Biography, Ancient Novel, Classics, Dissertation, Weird Stuff from Antiquity | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments