Greek Popular Biography: Romance, Contest, Gospel

Alright, I have finished grading exams, advanced to Ph.D. candidacy, and wrapped up the Winter 2016 academic quarter. I have also been catching up on rest and exercise this past week, while recovering from a very busy and stressful last couple of months. Today is the first day that I have felt like writing again, and I have decided to resume my blogging here on Κέλσος by discussing my presentation at the Pacific Coast SBL meeting at Claremont earlier this month, along with some of the work that I have been doing on my dissertation.

The conference paper that I presented at Claremont makes a comparison of genre between the New Testament Gospels and the Certamen of Homer and Hesiod (I have discussed this comparison previously in this earlier essay). The Certamen is a popular and performative account of the lives and deaths of the Greek poets Homer and Hesiod, as well as their famous contest at Chalcis in Euboea. Drawing from elements of epic, novel, and biography, the Certamen makes up a sort of hybrid genre in the spectrum of Greco-Roman biography, which I categorize under the term “popular-novelistic biography.” The Gospels can likewise be said to be biographical, in that they narrate the life, ministry, and death of Jesus. Nevertheless, the goal of my presentation at Claremont was to provide more insight into exactly what kind of biographies the Gospels are, and which other texts they most resemble from antiquity.


There was a vast amount of biographical literature in antiquity, about a wide range of different subjects, some being kings, generals, and politicians, and others being poets and philosophers. Beyond just the biographical subject, however, different biographical texts could also be written in different ways, varying in their length, style, and historical reliability. Some ancient biographies were very scholarly and historically rigorous, such as those of Plutarch and Suetonius, while others were more novelistic and directed toward a wider audience, such as the Certamen of Homer and Hesiod.

AesopThe Certamen is not the only popular biography from the ancient world, however. During the course of my dissertation research, I have also been studying two other popular biographical traditions from antiquity–the Aesop Romance and the Alexander Romance. These texts are also relevant to my SBL paper, since, for the topic of my dissertation, I will be doing an extended comparison of the Romances with the NT Gospels. (My original dissertation topic had been about the authorship of the Gospels, but during the course of my research I was drawn toward this comparison of genre.)

As such, I will discuss in greater detail below the genre of Greek popular biography, through the examples of the Certamen of Homer and Hesiod, the Aesop Romance, and the Alexander Romance, and why I think that the Gospels of Jesus in the New Testament belong most to this genre (at least in terms of Hellenistic literature, while acknowledging that the Gospels also have important Jewish influences). I’ll also include some of the PPT slides from my presentation at Claremont in the discussion. I have been writing about the issue of the Gospels’ literary genre for some time on this blog, but through the comparison with Greek popular biography, I feel that these sacred texts are starting to make more sense to me than ever before!

Historiographical and Novelistic Biographies

What were the literary conventions for writing a Bios or Life in antiquity? Biography, as opposed to historiography, tells the life of an individual person, as opposed to the history of a broader period or event. Nevertheless, the genre of Greco-Roman biography was rather diverse in antiquity, and not all Bioi or Lives were similar to each other. In his landmark work, The Development of Greek Biography (pg. 11), Arnaldo Momigliano provides this minimal definition of biography:

“An account of the life of a man from birth to death is what I call biography.”

Other features of a Bios can include the frequency with which the subject performs verbs (biographical subjects tend to perform more verbs in the narrative than other characters in the text), and the placement of the subject’s name at the beginning of the narrative. I outline these generic features on the slide below:


Even if we grant these generic features, however, this definition of Greco-Roman biography is still rather broad, and can encompass a wide range of biographical subjects from antiquity, whether they by legendary figures, such Theseus and Romulus, or well-established historical persons, such as Cicero and Julius Caesar. But likewise, different styles of ancient biography were composed using different narratological conventions, as well as historical and/or literary sources. Some were more analytic and historical, whereas others were more dramatic and novelistic.

The slide below outlines some of the different structures and emphases that can be found across the diverse biographical exempla from antiquity:


As can be seen, ancient biographical texts could vary not only in their source materials and method of organization, but also in their audience, tone, and literary conventions. On this point it is worth noting that the flexibility of Greco-Roman biography is in large part due to the fact that the genre was derivative of other literary genres. As Tomas Hägg (The Art of Biography in Antiquity, pg. 2) explains:

Art of BiographyBiography starts from a very simple concept, the life of an individual from cradle to death (or at least a considerable part of this time span), and is probably represented, in oral or written or visual form, in every culture throughout history. But even if we restrict our view to the literary variety of the Western tradition, the simple basic concept allows a multitude of forms, and they are arguably in most cases influenced more by current literary or historical or psychological trends than by earlier biographies. The structure and style of contemporary historiography and novel tend to determine the form of biographies, at least those with scholarly and literary pretensions.”

Some ancient biographers, such as Plutarch and Suetonius, modeled their narratives more closely on the conventions of historiography, while other biographies, such as the Certamen and the Aesop and Alexander Romances, followed more closely the style of the novel. Biographies that were historiographical tended to be more critical (and even polemical) toward their subject, while novelistic biographies tended to be hagiographical in exulting their subject. Likewise, historiographical biographies were directed almost exclusively toward an elite audience, whereas novelistic biographies were more popular and directed toward less educated audiences.

On the point of audience and education, it is worth noting that their wider audiences is a major feature that distinguishes the NT Gospels from historiographical biographies. As the Oxford Annotated Bible (pg. 1743) explains:

“[Historiographical] Greco-Roman biographies were addressed to a social and literary elite, which may explain why the Gospels, addressed to a much broader audience, do not match them very closely.”

What is also interesting is that this popular appeal results in a greater number of translations being written for these texts (e.g. the Latin Vulgate and Julius Valerius’ Latin translation of the Alexander Romance). Likewise, these texts generally enjoyed greater popularity during the Middle Ages. As B.P. Reardon (Collected Ancient Greek Novels, pp. 650) explains:

“The Alexander Romance, as it is usually called, was antiquity’s most successful novel. Its author is unknown, its date uncertain, its literary quality doubtful; but eighty versions in twenty-four languages testify to a popularity and diffusion exceeded only by the Bible.”

There are also other important formal features that distinguish historiographical from novelistic biographies, which I outline in the slide below:

Fix 1

The Role of the Narrator in Historiography and Novel

A major literary feature that distinguishes historiography from the novel is the role of the narrator. This difference can be very subtle and it sometimes requires reading these texts in their original Greek and Latin to pick up on it. What is important to note, however, is that the role of author and the role of narrator in a text are not always the same. As Irene de Jong (Narratology and Classics: A Practical Guide, pg. 17) explains:

“It is an important principle of narratology that the narrator cannot automatically be equated with the author; rather, it is a creation of the author, like the characters.”

A very important feature of Greco-Roman historiography, however, is that the role of author and narrator are the same. The term history comes from the Greek ἱστορία, which means “inquiry.” Historiography is distinct as a genre in that the historian distances himself from his description of past events. Authors like Herodotus knew that they did not have omniscient access to the past, but had to rely on oral and documentary sources to glean such information second-hand. What this meant is that ancient historians would not narrate their histories omnisciently, but would consciously discuss their role as investigator. This feature would cause ancient historians to frequently name themselves in their narrative, or at least to include several authorial interjections in the first-person.

As such, both Herodotus (1.1) and Thucydides (1.1) begin their narratives by naming themselves:

This is the display of the inquiry of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, so that things done by man not be forgotten in time, and that great and marvelous deeds, some displayed by the Hellenes, some by the barbarians, not lose their glory, including among others what was the cause of their waging war on each other.”

Thucydides, an Athenian, wrote the history of the war between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians, beginning at the moment that it broke out, and believing that it would be a great war, and more worthy of relation than any that had preceded it.”

By beginning their narratives in this way, both Herodotus and Thucydides more or less equate their authorship with their role as narrators. This occurs not only in their prologues, but also through authorial interjections and judgements scattered throughout the narrative, where first-person constructions are used, such as δοκεῖ μοι (“it seems to me”). This use of the first-person likewise translates into historiographical biographies. Both Plutarch and Suetonius utilize the first-person to describe their relation to sources and past events. Suetonius, for example, in his Life of Caligula (19.1-3), uses the first-person to describe a number of his oral sources, making statements such as “most people, I know, are of opinion” and “when I was a boy, I heard my grandfather say.”

NarratorsThe manner of narration of described above is very different from the role of the narrator in ancient novels. In both the genres of epic and novel, the narrator usually describes events omnisciently in the third-person. This style of narration does not equate the author with narrator, but instead is formally anonymous. As de Jong (Narrators, Narratees, and Narratives in Ancient Greek Literature, pg. 14) explains about narration in the Iliad: “An external, omniscient, and omnipresent narrator is in fact the archetypal narrator of early storytelling.”

This manner of narration can likewise be seen in certain Hellenistic romance novels. Take Xenophon of Ephesus’ Ephesian Story, for example. As J. Morgan (Ibid., pg. 489) explains about the role of narrator in this text: 

The Ephesian Story is narrated by an anonymous external narrator … On no occasion does the narrator speak for himself in the first-person or his narratee in the second, and there is virtually no overt self-referential commentary on the quality of the narration…”

Even though Xenophon of Ephesus was the known author of this text, therefore, he still does not narrate the story in his own voice or equate himself with the role of narrator. Instead, the text is formally anonymous. Anonymous narration is likewise seen in several books of the Old Testament. As Bart Ehrman (Forged, pg. 224) explains:

“The portions of the Old Testament that relate to the history of Israel after the death of Moses are found in the books of Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings. All of these books are written anonymously.”

This manner of narration can likewise be seen in the canonical Gospels. As I explain in my essay, “Why Scholars Doubt the Traditional Authors of the Gospels,” most mainstream NT scholars doubt that the canonical Gospels were actually written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. But, even if they were, these texts would still be formally anonymous! The reason why is that they are not narrated in the author’s voice, but instead through an external third-person narrator. As a result, these texts mostly lack authorial interjections in the first-person (in addition to the fact that none of the Gospels name their author in its prologue). This feature of the Gospels is noted by Armin Baum in “The Anonymity of the New Testament History Books.” Baum (pg. 130) provides the following chart to contrast the anonymity of the Gospels with the role of the author in Greek historiography:


As can be seen, Matthew and Mark do not even include the use of the first-person, but are instead narrated through an external, omniscient third-person narrator. This manner of narration is far more similar to ancient novels than historiography. John vaguely alludes to a “disciple whom Jesus loved” in the text, but this figure operates more as a source for the gospel, rather than the author or narrator. As scholar Robert Kysar (The Anchor Bible Dictionary, v. 3, pp. 919-920) explains:

“The supposition that the author was one and the same with the beloved disciple is often advanced as a means of insuring that the evangelist did witness Jesus’ ministry. Two other passages are advanced as evidence of the same — 19:35 and 21:24. But both falter under close scrutiny. 19:35 does not claim that the author was the one who witnessed the scene but only that the scene is related on the sound basis of eyewitness. 21:24 is part of the appendix of the gospel and should not be assumed to have come from the same hand as that responsible for the body of the gospel. Neither of these passages, therefore, persuades many Johannine scholars that the author claims eyewitness status.”

The only gospel that could possibly make claim to not being formally anonymous is Luke. This is because the author uses the first-person in the prologue when dedicating the gospel to Theophilus (Lk. 1:3), and likewise uses a similar construction in the prologue of Acts (1:1). The author of Luke-Acts still does not name himself in the prologue, however, and there are no authorial interjections in the first-person singular within the two texts. The closest Luke-Acts comes to including the first-person at all, beyond the prologues, is in the “we passages” of Acts (16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:1-28:16), where the author uses the first-person plural (not singular). It is likely that these passages do not refer to authorial eyewitnessing, however, rather than narrative eyewitnessing. 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 formal anonymity of the Gospels can be compared with the anonymity of the Aesop and Alexander Romances. Not only do we not know the authors of these texts, but they also lack authorial interjections in the first-person. Instead, the Aesop and Alexander Romances are narrated by an external, omniscient third-person narrator. The Certamen of Homer and Hesiod, like the Gospel of Luke, is a slight exception, since the author uses the first-person plural in the prologue to indicate that the work was composed during the reign of Hadrian:

“We will set down, however, what we have heard to have been said by the Pythia concerning Homer in the time of the most sacred Emperor Hadrian.”

As in Luke, however, the first-person plural in the Certamen likely operates as a narrative construction here, rather than a statement in the author’s own voice.

The Open Adaptation and Redaction of Sources in Popular-Novelistic Biography

Another major feature that distinguishes popular-novelistic biography from historiographical biography is the way that these different biographical subgenres use their sources. Historians like Herodotus and Thucydides would frequently discuss their oral and documentary sources, and critically analyze them. This aspect of historiography likewise translates into historical biography. Take Plutarch’s Life of Alexander, for example. As J. Powell in “The Sources of Plutarch’s Alexander” (pg. 229) explains, “Plutarch cites by name no fewer than twenty-four authorities” in the text [1].

In contrast, however, neither the Gospels nor the Aesop and Alexander Romances name any of their oral or documentary sources within the text (the Gospels do cite passages from the Septuagint, but these are literary and scriptural sources, rather than historical or documentary sources). Here, the Certamen of Homer and Hesiod has a slight historiographical edge on the Gospels and the Romances, since the author of this work still notes that there were contradictory sources about Homer’s origins:

“But, as for Homer, you might almost say that every city with its inhabitants claims him as her son. Foremost are the men of Smyrna who say that he was the Son of Meles, the river of their town, by a nymph Cretheis, and that he was at first called Melesigenes. He was named Homer later, when he became blind, this being their usual epithet for such people. The Chians, on the other hand, bring forward evidence to show that he was their countrymen, saying that there actually remain some of his descendants among them who are called Homeridae.”

But what is even more distinctive about the use of sources in popular-novelistic biographies is not their lack of source-citations, but rather their mimesis of earlier narratives. These texts openly redact whole sections of earlier narratives, such as when the author of Matthew borrows 80% of Mark’s material and when Luke borrows 65% of Mark. Sources are used in a similar way in both the Certamen and the Aesop and Alexander Romances. As Hägg (The Art of Biography in Antiquity, pg. 99) explains:

Synoptic Problem“Simultaneously with the emergence of a bookish form of biography in the late classical and Hellenistic periods, vital biographic traditions were in progress at an oral or subliterary level, concerning in the first place legendary figures of great popular appeal … In contrast to the Lives treated in the previous chapter, which are the works of distinctive authors and largely remain under authorial control, these are anonymous; and they are ‘open texts’, with regard to origin as well as transmission.”

For the Certamen, although our current text dates to the reign of Hadrian, scholars since the 19th century have known that it was based on an earlier version (or versions) of the contest. The first to suggest an earlier date of composition was (funny enough) Friedrich Nietzsche (yes, Nietzsche was a classical philologist too), who suggested that the Certamen was derived from the sophist Alcidamas’ Mouseion, written in the 4th century BCE. Since then, some earlier papyri fragments have been found, corroborating this suggestion.

For the Aesop Romance, the author of the text compiles both fables, biographical anecdotes, and earlier narratives that had been in circulation for centuries before the text’s composition. As Leslie Kurke (Aesopic Conversations, pp. 6-7) explains:

Aesopic Conversations“[T]wo factors encourage an approach to the texts of the Life of Aesop (Vita G and others) as late fixations or instantiations that may include or embed long-lived popular oral traditions. First, there is the fact that our earliest extant references to Aesop in the fifth-century BCE literary texts imply a familiar narrative of the Life of Aesop already in circulation that conforms in certain lineaments and details to the much later written versions … Second, all the manuscript Lives and papyri versions together read like nothing so much as various transcriptions of popular jokes or anecdotes.”

The current text of the Alexander Romance that we possess comes from a 2nd-4th century CE version. Nevertheless, this text was shaped using earlier narratives and sources that dated to within a couple decades of Alexander’s lifetime. As Richard Stoneman (The Landmark Arrian, pp. 388-389) explains:

“Soon after his death, Alexander’s life story was written up by an anonymous author … This work, known as the Alexander Romance, emphasized the fabulous elements of Alexander’s story and added many new fables … This work seems, however, not to have been known to the Romans until it was translated by Julius Valerius in the fourth century C.E.; this has led to the mistaken view, still shared by many, that the Greek original was not written until shortly before that date. Probably it arose much earlier, perhaps in the early third century B.C.E. The Alexander Romance is a fictional biography that … is of interest as indicating the way that the memory of Alexander was shaped a generation or two after his death.”

What is noteworthy about this development is that legendary material can accumulate within just a couple decades of the subject’s lifetime! Mainstream NT scholars agree that the Gospels were written roughly 40-6o years after Jesus’ death. This span of time is not dissimilar to the gap between Alexander and legendary accounts about his life. In fact, there were even traveling companions of Alexander who claimed that the Macedonian king had visited Amazonian warriors, who were writing only a couple decades after his death. As B.P. Reardon (Collected Ancient Greek Novels, pg. 651) explains:

“It comes as a shock to realize how quickly historians fictionalized Alexander: Onesikritos, who had actually accompanied Alexander, told how Alexander had met the queen of the (mythical) Amazons.”

SecundusAlthough both the Certamen and the Aesop Romance date to centuries after their subjects’ lifetimes (even in earlier sources), another popular-novelistic biography that, like the earliest Alexander Romance, was written within a couple decades of the subject’s life is the Life of Secundus the Silent Philosopher. I have excluded this text from my analysis, since it has a number of structural differences with the other popular-novelistic biographies that I am discussing, but it is still similar in that it is a formally anonymous, hagiographical biography, written in a low language register, for a popular audience. Secundus was a philosopher who lived during the reign of the emperor Hadrian (117-138 CE). Our earliest papyrus of the text dates to the 3rd century CE, which places it only about a century after the philosopher’s life (and this is only a later copy of the text, meaning that it was probably composed earlier, only a few decades after the events described in the text).

As such, popular-novelistic biographies could be written very close to their subject’s lifetime, and the canonical Gospels are no exception in this regard.

The Multiformity of Popular-Novelistic Biography

A major consequence of operating as ‘open texts’ is that popular-novelistic biographies exist in multiple versions and recensions. When I first academically studied the Gospels, as a Classicist, I found it odd that there are four Gospels, rather than just one (especially when the Synoptic Gospels share so much common material). Historiographical biographies are not usually written in this way. Although Plutarch’s Life of Julius Caesar and Suetonius’ Life of Julius Caesar, for example, are biographies about the same individual, they are written in very different styles and use different sources (in addition to the former being written in Greek and the latter in Latin).

This is nothing like the relationship between Matthew and Mark, for example. These two Gospels are not just biographies about the same individual, but also share vast amounts of the same material, including many of the same pericopes and verses. I found this to be peculiar, which got me interested in finding other biographies that exhibit similar kinds of multiformity. This search led me to the genre of popular-novelistic biography. In the slide below I lay out the multiformity of popular-novelistic biographical traditions:


The Alexander Romance, for example, exists in five distinct Greek recensions. As Christine Thomas (one of my dissertation committee members) explains in The Acts of Peter, Gospel Literature, and the Ancient Novel (pg. 74):

Thomas“[T]he Alexander romance of Pseudo-Kallisthenes shows such variation among the manuscripts that the work itself–quite aside from later translations, versions, and rewritings of it that proliferated throughout the middle ages, about eighty of them so far–exists in no less than five Greek recensions: A, β, λ, ε, γ, all edited and printed as separate editions of the same text.”

All of these different recensions are related to each other, in that later recensions adapt and redact the materials from earlier recensions. Richard Stoneman in The Greek Alexander Romance (pg. 28) lays out the relationship between these recensions in the following chart:

Different recensions can incorporate both unique and shared materials, as well as relocating shared pericopes at different portions of the narrative. This kind of intertextuality is similar to what is seen in the relationship between the Synoptic Gospels. (Though, I think the Synoptic Gospels exhibit more variation, in that they each contain more unique materials and often rearrange materials more drastically than the Alexander Romance; they were also fixated earlier, meaning that once these rearrangements were made in each gospel, they were not fashioned into later recensions; nevertheless, both sets of texts exhibit multiformity in their use of common source materials and their redactions of earlier accounts.) Consider the chart below outlining the standard two-source hypothesis of the relationship between the Synoptic Gospels:

Figure 1

This multiformity and rearrangement of shared pericopes in an episodic narrative is likewise observed in the Aesop Romance. As Kurke (Aesopic Conversations, pg. 7) explains:

Whole episodes cycle in and out of the texts, and sometimes occupy different positions within the structure of the work. This striking feature suggests that the traditions about Aesop were perceived by their ancient readers/authors … to have a different status from high, canonical literary texts, which had to be treated with greater care and respect and transmitted in pristine form … The first of these features suggests a long-lived and robust oral tradition (or better, traditions) about Aesop; the second implies that even once some version of these traditions was committed to writing, the ongoing work of fashioning and refashioning tales about Aesop continued, probably through a lively interaction between oral traditions and highly permeable written versions.”

Kurk’s description above matches many of the observations that NT scholars have made about the rearrangement of common materials in the Gospels. As L. Michael White (Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite, pp. ix-x) explains:

Scripting Jesus[E]ach of the Gospel authors has woven such episodes into the story in distinctive ways, changing not only the running order of the narrative, but also certain cause-and-effect relationships within each story. For example, in the Synoptics–especially the Gospel of Mark–it is the cleansing of the Temple that serves as the immediate cause of Jesus’ arrest and execution. In the Gospel of John there is no connection between these events, as the cleansing is two full years earlier. In contrast, for the Gospel of John the immediate cause of Jesus’ execution is the raising of Lazarus (11:38-44), an event never discussed in the Synoptics.”

This kind of multiformity and adaptation/redaction of sources is common in popular-novelistic biography, but as I have said, it is not a major feature of historiographical biography.

The Use of Direct Speech in Historiography and Novel

Beyond just the use of sources, however, there are other narrative clues that can reveal the difference between historiographical and novelistic biography. One is the use of direct speech versus indirect speech. Direct speech is when a person’s words are quoted verbatim (“Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life'”), as opposed to indirect speech, where the subject’s statements or thoughts are reported without direct quotation (“Jesus said that he is the way, the truth and the life”).

The use of the latter construction can be significant in ancient narratives, since historical authors would frequently use indirect speech to distance themselves from claiming to know the exact words of their subject. Very often there would be no written record or exact memory of the words that were spoken during a historical event. Thucydides makes this clear when he specifies in his History of the Peloponnesian War (1.22) that he often had to reconstruct speeches, since he did not know the exact words spoken on a given occasion:

“That particular persons have spoken when they were about to enter into the war or when they were in it were hard for me to remember exactly, whether they were speeches which I have heard myself or have received at the second hand. But as any man seemed to me that knew what was nearest to the sum of the truth of all that had been uttered to speak most agreeably to the matter still in hand, so I have made it spoken here. But of the acts themselves done in the war, I thought not fit to write all that I heard from all authors nor such as I myself did but think to be true, but only those whereat I was myself present and those of which with all diligence I had made particular inquiry. And yet even of those things it was hard to know the certainty, because such as were present at every action spake not all after the same manner, but as they were affected to the parts or as they could remember.”

Even when ancient historians and historical biographers do not make explicit statements like this, however, they still use subtle narrative constructions to indicate when they do not know a subject’s exact words. I outline some of these constructions in the slide below:


As can be seen, historians like Herodotus and Thucydides would frequently use indirect speech and paraphrase to distance themselves from knowing the exact words spoken on a given occasion. This is very different from the kinds of dialogues and monologues that occur in ancient novels and popular biography. In the Aesop Romance, for example, the subject Aesop has long and often comical discussion with his slave owner Xanthos, to the point that direct speech is dominant throughout this popular biography, with indirect speech being used little at all. This is likewise seen in the Gospels when Jesus engages in dialogues with other characters in the narrative. Rather than use complex grammatical constructions, these texts use simple verbs of speeking, such as λέγει, εἶπε, and ἔφη, followed by direct quotation. This kind of speech is not characteristic of historiography, in that the words are quoted verbatim, whereas historians would normally distance themselves from quoting exact words. 

An even more insightful example can be discussed in the case of the Alexander Romance. There is likewise a large amount of direct speech in the Alexander Romance, but what is especially interesting is that this biographical tradition can be contrasted with Plutarch’s Life of Alexander. Both biographies are about the same individual, but Plutarch’s biography is historiographical, whereas the Alexander Romance is novelistic. As such, the former contains far less direct speech than the latter. This difference has even been calculated by Richard Pervo in “Direct Speech in Acts and the Question of Genre.” Below is a chart that Pervo (pg. 301) provides:

Pervo Direct Speech

As can be seen, in the case of the Alexander Romance, 34.4% of this popular biography’s narrative is told in direct speech, whereas in Plutarch’s historical biography of Alexander, only 12.1% of the narrative consists of direct speech! This is also important for the question of the Gospels’ literary genre, in addition to Acts of the Apostles, since all of these texts include a very large amount of direct speech, not only in directly quoting Jesus’ sermons and parables, but also in quoting dialogues between Jesus and his disciples, as well as other characters in the narrative.

In contrast, Greco-Roman historical narratives include far less direct speech. The only one that even comes close is Sallust’s Catiline. As a historical monograph about the conspiracy of Catiline–an event that involved a large number of Senate orations–the text has 28.3% direct speech. But almost all of this direct speech makes up the orations that Sallust includes in his narrative, rather than the kinds of dialogues that you see between Jesus and his disciples in the Gospels, for example, or between Aesop and Xanthos in the Aesop Romance. The low frequency of direct speech in historiography can also be seen in historical biographies. Tacitus’ Agricola, for example, only includes 11.5% direct speech, which is closer to the ratios in historiography than in novels.

Likewise, when there are large speeches given in Acts, such as those of Peter and Paul, NT scholars like Bart Ehrman (“Exaltation Christology in the Speeches of Acts”) have pointed out that the two subjects use the same basic vocabulary and sentence structure, to the point that it is clear that the speeches were composed not by two different individuals, but by the same author:

“[W]hat is striking is that if you didn’t know who was giving the speech, you’d have almost no way to tell from what is said. That is to say, the lower class uneducated peasant fisherman Aramaic-speaking Peter, in his speech in ch. 2, sounds almost exactly like the highly educated rhetorically effective intellectual Greek-speaking Paul in his speech in ch. 13. Why does Peter’s speech sound like Paul’s speech? Because neither Peter nor Paul wrote their speeches. Luke wrote them both.”

As such, the use of direct speech is not only more characteristic of the ancient novel and popular biography, but when novelistic authors, such as the author Acts, would write speeches and dialogues in this way, they were often completely fabricating and inventing them.

Thematic Features of Popular-Novelistic Biography

Above I have discussed a number of the formal and structural features of popular-novelistic biographies, but there are also several thematic features shared between these texts. To begin with, I should note that all of these texts are about historical figures, or at least putative historical figures (in the case of Homer and Aesop). Just because the Gospels are popular-novelistic biographies, therefore, does not necessarily imply that a historical Jesus did not exist, just as how the Alexander Romance does not imply that a historical Alexander the Great did not exist.

It is also worth noting that all of our surviving versions of these texts date to the early Roman Empire (even if there were earlier versions that dated back into the Classical and Hellenistic Greek periods). The Gospels and the Aesop Romance were both composed in the 1st century CE, the Certamen and the Life of Secundus the Silent Philosopher both date to the 2nd century CE, and the Alexander Romance dates to sometime between the 2nd-4th centuries CE. It makes sense, therefore, to study popular-novelistic biography as a genre that in some ways flourished during this period.

There are also other thematic features common to these texts, which are very interesting to study. Below are a series of slides that outline common thematic features that I discussed when presenting my paper at the Pacific Coast SBL at Claremont:


A very interesting feature of these texts is that they are all about authors of oral or written literature. Jesus is famous for his use of parables, especially in the Synoptic Gospels, which were a distinctive form of fiction that utilized metaphor (for a discussion of the fictional devices of parables, including how they also led to legendary development about the historical person of Jesus, I recommend John Dominic Crossan’s The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus). These parables are very similar to the fables used by Aesop, which likewise employ metaphor.

Consider the parable of the difficult way and the narrow gate in the Gospel of Matthew (7:13-14): 

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

This is very similar to a fable that Aesop teaches in the Aesop Romance (93):

Aesop said, ‘I will not give you advice but will speak in a fable. Once, at the command of Zeus, Prometheus described to men two ways, one the way of freedom, and the other that of slavery. The way of freedom he pictured as rough at the beginning, narrow, steep, and waterless, full of brambles, and beset with perils everywhere, but finally a level plain amid parks, groves of fruit trees, and water courses where the struggle reaches its end in rest. The way of slavery he pictured as a level plain at the beginning, flowery and pleasant to look upon with much to delight but at its end narrow, hard, and like a cliff.'”

The Certamen of Homer and Hesiod likewise has its subjects recite poetic verses, especially during their contest, which is what the two poets were known for. In addition, the Alexander Romance was composed using an earlier epistolary novel, which was comprised of letters attributed to Alexander. As Reardon (Collected Ancient Greek Novels, pp. 650-651) explains:

“The author was more a compiler than a creative artist. A Greek-speaker living in Alexandria at some time between A.D. 140 and 340, he seems to have used mainly two books … The first of the two books was a varied collection of fictions concerning Alexander. It included a sort of epistolary novel of about 100 B.C., which consisted chiefly of the correspondence of Alexander with his adversaries, most notably Darius and Poros, and revealed the character of the correspondents, as ancient epistolary fictions were meant to do … The other main source for the romance was a history deriving from Kleitarchos (circa 300 B.C.).”

One theory about how these biographical traditions emerge is that they are actually comprised largely of biographical anecdotes that circulated alongside the oral and written literary traditions that were attributed to their subject. Aesop’s fables, for example, circulated across the Greek world for centuries, but alongside them also circulated biographical anecdotes about Aesop himself. Likewise, Jesus’ parables and sermons very likely circulated before the Gospels were composed, and alongside them there would have also been biographical anecdotes about Jesus’ life.


Another distinctive feature of these popular biographical texts is that they all begin with a divine or oracular event, calling the subject to his mission or ministry, which is then followed by an episodic travel narrative. The Gospel of Mark (1:9-11), for example, famously begins with Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist, during which the Holy Spirit descends on him like a dove:

dove“At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’”

This divine sanction is very similar to the beginning of the Aesop Romance, when Aesop is given the power of speech (and thus the ability to speak fables) by the goddess Isis:

“The brook echoed the rustling of the branches of the trees round about. As a sweet, gentle wind began to blow, the verdant limbs were gently moved and wafted over him a cool breeze, creating in the many-blossomed wood a fresh and restful spot. The hum of cicadas in the branches filled the air, and the chorus of many different kinds of birds could be heard … And Echo, the imitator of voices, uttered her responsive sounds in harmony. All of these voices conspired to lull Aesop into a deep and blissful sleep. Our lady, the goddess Isis, then made her appearance, together with the nine Muses, and said, ‘You see here, my daughters, the very image of true piety, a man who may be ill-proportioned on the outside, but is above all reproach in regard to his inner spirit. He once gave guidance to my servant when she had lost her way, and now in your presence I shall reward him. I myself shall restore his voice, while you bestow upon that voice the most noble ability in speaking.’ When she had said this, Isis removed from Aesop’s tongue the impediment that had prevented him from speaking, and gave him back his voice. She also persuaded each of the Muses in turn to grant Aesop something of her own gifts. They bestowed upon him the power to compose and elaborate Greek tales.”

TamingThe Alexander Romance (1.15) likewise uses the taming of Bucephalus to fulfill a prophecy given by the Oracle of Delphi to Philip of Macedon, which predicted that whoever could tame the wild horse would be ruler of the world:

“Philip, he shall be king over the whole world and shall subject all to his power, whosoever shall leap upon the horse Bucephalus and ride him through the center of Pella.”

The Certamen of Homer and Hesiod is interesting in that it contains an oracular couplet. Both oracles are given by the Oracle of Delphi about the origins of Homer. The first is given to the emperor Hadrian during the prologue of the narrative:

“Do you ask me of the unknown race and native country of the heavenly siren? His country is Ithica, his father is Telemachus, and Epicasta, the daughter of Nestor, is the mother who bore him, the wisest of mortal man by far.”

This scene then transitions into the narrative about Homer himself, when the poet visits the same oracle to ask the same question about his origins (even Homer didn’t know where the heck he was from!):

“The island of Ios is the home country of your mother, which will receive you dead; but beware the young children’s riddle.”

After these two oracles, Homer begins his travel narrative, which leads up to his famous contest with Hesiod at Chalcis in Euboea.

Fix 2

As mentioned above, all of these popular-novelistic biographies contain travel narratives, which follow the subject’s calling to mission/ministry. The Certamen has Homer and Hesiod travel to the site of their contest at Chalcis in Euboea, and then to the locations of the two poets’ deaths. The travel narrative in the Alexander Romance is too vast to discuss here, but suffice it to say that Alexander travels from West to East, and then returns from India to Babylon, where he dies.

The most interesting parallel with the Gospels in terms of travel narrative, however, is found in the Aesop Romance. After Aesop is freed from slavery, he journeys to Babylon and Egypt, and finally to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. There, the Delphians wrongfully accuse Aesop of stealing from the temple’s ornaments and execute him by pushing him off a cliff. This is very similar to the travel narrative and death of Jesus in the Gospels. In each of the Gospels, Jesus travels from Galilee to the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, where he is wrongfully accused of blasphemy and sedition, and then executed by crucifixion. What is noteworthy is that both of these executions take place at the most important temples in both the Greek and Jewish worlds. As Lawrence Wills (The Quest of the Historical Gospel, pg. 31) points out about these similarities:

“Further, the movement in Aesop from Samos to Delphi–that is, from the periphery to the center, especially the center as far as the god Apollo is concerned–is similar to the movement in Mark and John from Galilee to Judea … and in both cases the narrative action of the conflict will come to revolve around a temple, where the god’s deliverance will become problematic.”

Given that Good Friday was yesterday, it is interesting to see how other hagiographical accounts exist from antiquity of revered saints being wrongfully executed at important sacred spaces.

Screenshot 2016-03-26 at 10.34.40 PM

Aesop’s and Jesus’ wrongful executions are discussed above, but likewise the Alexander Romance and the Certamen of Homer and Hesiod feature the wrongful death of the biographical subject. In the Alexander Romance, Alexander is betrayed by his lieutenant Antipater, who send him poison contained in a lead vessel. In the Certamen, Hesiod is wrongfully suspected of seducing the sister of his hosts Amphiphanes and Genyetor, the sons of Phegeus, who are entertaining him at Oenoe in Locris. Hesiod’s hosts murder him and then cast him into the sea. Despite the wrongful death of the subject in all of these biographical accounts, however, each is vindicated by divine retribution.

SBL 11

After Aesop is executed at Delphi, a plague inflicts the city and Zeus sends an oracle demanding that the Delphians expiate Aesop’s death. In the Certamen, after Hesiod is killed, Zeus sends a thunderbolt that destroys the ship of his murders while they are set out to sea. Nevertheless, the most interesting comparison of divine retribution with the Gospels is found in the Alexander Romance.

When Jesus dies in the Gospels, the sky darkens at midday and the curtain in the Jewish Temple is ripped. This scene is described perhaps most vividly in the Gospel of Matthew (27:45-53):

darknessFrom noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land. About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ (which means ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’). When some of those standing there heard this, they said, ‘He’s calling Elijah.’ Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge. He filled it with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. The rest said, ‘Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to save him.’ And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.”

Compare the scene of Jesus’ death above with that of Alexander the Great below (3.33):

“Now Ptolemy went to Alexander and said: ‘Alexander, to whom do you bequeath the kingdom?’ He said: ‘To the one who is strong and willing, the one who conserves and accomplishes.’ Now when he said this, straightway a mist filled the air and darkness fell. Then appeared a great star falling from heaven into the sea. And with it came a great eagle, and the bronze statue of Zeus in Babylon was shaken. Then the star went back to heaven, and the eagle ascended carrying with it a brilliant star. And when the star was hidden in heaven, at once Alexander closed his eyes.”

In both accounts darkness covers the earth and the ground is shaken at a temple of highest divinity. Each scene likewise signifies and stresses the divine importance and vindication of the subject.

SBL 12

Another very interesting parallel with the Gospels, however, is only found in the Certamen of Homer and Hesiod, namely, the resurrection of the subject “on the third day” after his death. We all know the story of Jesus rising from the dead on the third day following his crucifixion, but what is interesting is that Hesiod has a sort of resurrection on the third day, as well. After his body is thrown into the sea, the Certamen states that it was later carried to the shore by dolphins:

“[Hesiod] continued to stay a somewhat long time at Oenoe, until the young men, suspecting Hesiod of seducing their sister, killed him and cast his body into the sea which separates Achaea and Locris. On the third day, however, his body was brought to land by dolphins while some local feast of Ariadne was being held. Thereupon, all the people hurried to the shore, and recognized the body, lamented over it and buried it, and then began to look for the assassins. But these, fearing the anger of their countrymen, launched a fishing boat, and put out to sea for Crete: they had finished half their voyage when Zeus sank them with a thunderbolt.”

Unlike the Gospels, however, there is also a motif of demise “on the third day” in the Certamen. In contrast to Hesiod, Homer does not receive resurrection but instead death on the third day:

“The poet sailed to Ios, after the assembly was broken up, to join Creophylus, and stayed there some time, being now an old man. And, it is said, as he was sitting by the sea he asked some boys who were returning from fishing: ‘Sirs, hunters of deep-sea prey, have we caught anything?’ To this replied: ‘All that we caught, we left behind, and carry away all that we did not catch.’ Homer did not understand this reply and asked what they meant. They then explained that they had caught nothing in fishing, but had been catching their lice, and those of the lice which they caught, they left behind; but carried away in their clothes those which they did not catch. Hereupon Homer remembered the oracle and, perceiving that the end of his life had come composed his own epitaph. And while he was retiring from that place, he slipped in a clayey place and fell upon his side, and died, it is said, the third day after.”

What I find interesting about all of this is that it shows how the story of Jesus resurrecting “on the third day” was not unique to the Gospels in antiquity. In fact, there are a number of other third day motifs in both Jewish and Hellenistic literature. Take, for example, Jonah in the belly of the whale. Jon. 1:17 states that he was in the whale for “three days and three nights” before being spit up on land. Likewise, in Euripides’ Alcestis, Hercules travels to the underworld to bring back Admetos’ deceased bride Alcestis, who is unable to speak to him until the “third day” from when she is brought back from the dead. Seeing how Easter Sunday is tomorrow, I find it fascinating to study other ancient tales about third day resurrection motifs, since they were certainly not unique to Jesus.

There are many other structural and thematic parallels between the Gospels and the popular-novelistic biographies that I have discussed above, which I have not included in this (lengthy) essay. I plan to discuss more of these in future blog posts, since I find that this comparison offers some very rich parallels. Stay tuned, therefore, for more discussion on this topic ahead, especially as I continue to develop my dissertation!

-Matthew Ferguson

[1] Likewise, even when ancient historians and historical biographers do not identify many of their written sources by name, they often discuss their sources anonymously. For example, the historian Tacitus identifies few of his written sources by name in the first books of his Annals, with the notable exception of Pliny the Elder in Ann. 1.67; however, Tacitus still engages many of his written sources anonymously. For example, Tacitus uses formulas like quidam tradidere (“some have related,” Ann. 1.13), diversa apud auctores (“conflicting accounts among historians,” Ann. 1.81), and secutus plurimos auctorum (“having followed the accounts of most historians,” Ann. 4.57). Such methodological statements are virtually absent from the canonical Gospels, with the exception of the first few lines of Luke (1:1-4). Likewise, the Oxford Annotated Bible (pg. 1827) notes that these few lines are atypical of the style elsewhere in Luke’s gospel: “The initial four verses of the book are a single Greek sentence that forms a highly stylized introductory statement typical of ancient historical writings … After this distinctive preface, however, the narrative shifts into a style of Greek reminiscent of the Septuagint.”

The source criterion should furthermore not be interpreted as meaning that ancient historians always cited their sources in every instance. Very frequently they do not, and there were no footnotes in antiquity. Nevertheless, discussion of sources and methodology is still considerably more present in ancient historiography and historical biography than other literary genres, such as the novel and popular biography.

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

2 Responses to Greek Popular Biography: Romance, Contest, Gospel

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

  2. NT scholar Richard Miller, author of Resurrection and Reception in Early Christianity, recently left this comment below on my Facebook page. Since it contributes to the discussion above, I have decided to post it here:

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