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 part 2 of this discussion, 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.

Alexander’s Journey to Rome 

When the historical Alexander first ascended to the throne of Macedon, he had to engage in a number of military campaigns in Europe before he could invade the the Persian Empire. Most notably, Alexander needed to defend his European border north of Greece. And so, in 335 BCE, Alexander fought campaigns against the Illyrians and the Triballi, which secured his position in the Balkans. Alexander also had to deal with rebellions in Greece, and in particular, the city of Thebes (which had been subjugated by Macedon after the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BCE) had revolted against his rule. Alexander responded by sacking Thebes in 335 BCE, as a lesson to other Greek city-states.

Alexander Map 2Alexander invaded Asia in 334 BCE by crossing the Hellespont. He faced Persian resistance at the river Granicus, and there fought his first major battle against the Persian army under the command of the satraps of Darius in May of 334 BCE. Having successfully gained a foothold in Asia, Alexander then proceeded to capture Sardis, which was the chief city of the region of Lydia. Following these victories, Alexander proceeded to fight the Battle of Issus in 333 BCE and to defeat Darius himself in their first engagement, and then to lay siege to Tyre in 332 BCE. Before marching further toward the Persian Empire in the East, however, Alexander next crossed into Egypt, and there founded the city of Alexandria in 331 BCE. This is the correct chronology for the first part of Alexander’s military campaigns.

Map 4Recension α of the Alexander Romance, however, tells a very different story. Before marching into Asia (and without any mention of securing the borders in Europe), Alexander first sets sail to Sicily in AR 1.28. From there, Alexander crosses into Italy and there receives the allegiance of the Romans. Alexander next crosses south into Africa (1.29), then heads east into Libya (1.30), and upon entering Egypt, proceeds to found the city of Alexandria (1.31). Later in the narrative, Alexander continues on to lay siege to Tyre (1.35), and after this, to fight the Battle of Issus against Darius. As can be seen from this sequence of events, Alexander’s legendary journey to the West has disrupted the chronological order of his campaigns. There is no mention of his earliest battles, and the founding of Alexandria (331 BCE), the siege of Tyre (332 BCE), and the Battle of Issus (333 BCE) occur in reverse chronological order!

Despite these inaccuracies, however, there is good reason to suspect that these details are later redactions to the text of the Alexander Romance. Not only did a journey to the West serve the obvious purpose of appealing to (later) audiences during the period of the Roman Empire, but we may furthermore have traces of an earlier narrative, preserved in other recensions of the AR. Recension β of the AR includes chapters that are missing from recension α. In chapters 1.27-28 of β, Alexander first wages war against the Illyrians and Triballi, sacks the city of Thebes, then crosses the Hellespont, fights the Battle of Granicus, and then captures Sardis. It is only after this (correct) chronological progression that Alexander proceeds to sail to Sicily in 1.29 of β, after which the western itinerary and reverse chronological order, seen in α, is picked up in the narrative of β.

What is likely the case is that the original narrative of the AR had no journey to Rome and likewise followed an accurate chronological sequence of his campaigns [1]. When later versions of the text were redacted during the Roman era, however, a disruptive western expedition was added to the text, which corrupted the chronological order of the narrative. There are also other reasons for having Alexander found the city of Alexandria, before his battles with Darius. Alexandria was one of the most important cities of the Mediterranean world, and it was especially noteworthy for being named after its founder. Since founding Alexandria was such an important achievement in Alexander’s career, the narrative seeks to place this event prior to his eastern campaigns against Darius.


What is fascinating about popular-novelistic biographies is that their multiformity can often result in different sequences of events between two different versions. Often times, these differences are not accidental, but serve the specific narratological and rhetorical purposes of each text. In ancient rhetorical handbooks, the term chreia (derived from the Greek word χρεία, meaning “use”) was used to describe anecdotes, sayings, and deeds that were useful for instruction. Chreia could be stringed together, in order to create a running sequence of events. By arranging a collection of sayings or a list of deeds in a different chronological order, a different rhetorical effect could be achieved when compiling such material into a narrative. When two different texts had two different rhetorical emphases, therefore, what this resulted in was a different arrangement of material!

The rhetorical function of chreia has been used to explain why there are discrepancies and different sequences of events between the Gospels. In particular, evangelical scholar Craig Evans (whom I had a formal debate with last February) used this explanation in his debate with Bart Ehrman in 2012, in order to defend why there are differences between the Gospels. Evans (22:04) first acknowledges:

“Any careful, fair reading of the Gospels, side by side, will reveal a number of differences and discrepancies. Some of these discrepancies are more apparent than real. But many of them are real, indeed. We observe differences in the wording of Jesus’ teaching. Sayings clustered together in one gospel–for example, in one of the discourses of Matthew–are scattered over several chapters in another gospel–as seen, for example, in the central section of Luke. The order and sequence of a number of episodes sometimes vary from gospel to gospel.”

And then, Evans (26:42) uses the following justification to explain these differences;

“New Testament scholars have discovered the chreia, the useful anecdote … It’s useful for instruction–a saying, a deed–and these are talked about in several handbooks from antiquity. We see this, that very form, in the Gospels … And so this is why, in gathering the Gospels together and having them side by side … [ancient audiences] could see the differences … They’re supposed to be there, because the lessons taught by Matthew are not the same as the lessons and points and applications in Mark, and likewise with Luke, and so forth. The stories and teachings of Jesus have been edited and contextualized in ways that lead to clarity. And if you read the handbooks that talk about chreia, they always explain the chreia, the principle teachings of the great master, have to be updated, edited, and so on, in order that there be clarity, that a new audience, a new context, a new situation can understand the teaching properly.”

Now, I agree with Evans that the rhetorical use of chreia is a good explanation for why there are differences between the Gospels. Where I differ is in his inference that these differences do not to impinge, therefore, on the historical reliability of the Gospels. Rearranging the material of the Gospels for different rhetorical purposes may explain why there are differences between the texts, but it still results in historical-critical problems when modern historians try to reconstruct the chronological order and precise circumstances of Jesus’ ministry.

It should further be noted that, in the genres of historiography and historical biography, authors would more frequently signpost how they organize their material. The historical biographer Suetonius, for example, does not follow chronological order when he arranges his anecdotes about the Roman emperors. Suetonius (Aug. 9.1) explicitly tells his readers, however, that he has chosen to arrange his material topically, and not chronologically. In contrast, the historian Tacitus makes it clear that he is following a chronological order of events in his Annals and Histories, by arranging his material according to each year (indicated by the consuls of the year), when he narrates the same period as Suetonius. In this way, although Suetonius and Tacitus organize their material in a different order, we can still pin down a precise chronology of the Roman emperors whose reigns they cover in their historical works. We do not have any guide like this, however, for pinning down the precise chronology of Jesus’ activity in the Gospels.

In the genre of popular-novelistic biography, creative liberties are more frequently taken in the rearrangement of material. Regarding the Life of Aesop, for example, Leslie Kurke (Aesopic Conversations, pg. 7) explains:

Aesopic ConversationsWhole 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.”

A similar phenomenon is occurring in the Alexander Romance, which explains why the material is arranged differently between multiple recensions, often altering the chronological order. In the case of Alexander, however, we also know the precise chronology of his campaigns from reliable sources outside the AR. This puts the AR at something of a disadvantage compared to the Gospels, because we are thus more capable of fact-checking the chronological sequence of its narrative. But regardless, this kind of reshaping of material is highly characteristic of popular-novelistic biographies, which is why it is seen not only in the Life of Aesop and the Alexander Romance, but also in the Gospels, as well.

Internal Contradictions

What is further bizarre, however, about the redaction of material during the editing (and re-editing) of popular texts, is that it can sometimes even result in contradictions within the same narrative! For example, I discussed above how recension α of the Alexander Romance, by having Alexander set out for Rome at the beginning of his campaign, omits material about Alexander’s earliest battles, which includes the sack of Thebes (335 BCE). This event does take place, however, at a later point in the narrative (with incorrect chronology). Following his defeat of Darius at the Battle of Issus (1.41), Alexander makes a return journey to Greece, where he then sacks Thebes at the end of the first book of α (1.46).

What is interesting is that recension β of the Alexander Romance includes this same material, and so Alexander likewise sacks Thebes at the end of the first book of β (1.46). But, recension β had already included the sack of Thebes at an earlier point in the narrative (1.27), where it correctly depicts this event as occurring at the beginning of Alexander’s military campaigns. What this means, therefore, is that in recension β Alexander sacks Thebes twice!

This is a very peculiar detail, indeed, but we can make sense of it by noting how the authors of the Alexander Romance compile and edit various sources. What has occurred here is that there are two different traditions of the sack of Thebes within the source material of the AR. Recension α omits the earlier version of the event (which follows correct chronology), and instead follows the tradition that places it later in the narrative. Recension β preserves the correct chronology of Alexander’s first battles, but by incorporating the material of the later tradition, manages to repeat the same event within the narrative.

Similar anomalies occur in the Gospels, however, which are likewise probably the result of editing (and re-editing) their material. One example is during the scene of the Last Supper in the Gospel of John. What is interesting about this scene is that it contains an internal contradiction. At John 16:5, Jesus states:

“But now I am going to him who sent me. None of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’”

And yet, Jesus had been asked this very question by Peter just a couple of chapters earlier! John 13:36 explicitly reads:

“Simon Peter asked him, ‘Lord, where are you going?’ Jesus replied, ‘Where I am going, you cannot follow now, but you will follow later.'”

This contradiction is anomalous, indeed, but it can likely be explained as the result of John’s material being edited. As scholar Paul Anderson (John, Jesus, and History, Volume 2, pg. 248) suggests:

“Was the text disordered and reordered wrongly, was Jesus not paying attention, or does this perplexity reflect a diachronic relationship between the material in John 13 and 16, alleviated by seeing one passage or the other as part of another source or edition?”

Last Supper

There are also other anomalies like this in the Gospel of John, which suggest that the order of the text was disrupted during the editing of its material. Many examples are usefully summarized by blogger Paul Davidson in his essay “Is John out of Order? The Strange Geography and Chronology of the Fourth Gospel.” Here are a few more that Davidson notes:

John 14.31: The Sermon in the Alley

In chapter 12, Jesus pays his final visit to Jerusalem and spends the Last Supper with his disciples. After spending two chapters preaching the Farewell Discourse to them, Jesus apparently decides to leave, saying, ‘Rise, let us be on our way’ (14.31). He then continues his speech (15.1) for another three chapters as if nothing had changed until he and his disciples actually leave in 18.1. Some scholars think the Farewell Discourse originally ended at 14.31, and that chs. 15 and 16 are an addition reflecting a later situation in the Johannine community (Ashton 2007, 137).

John 11.2: There’s something about Mary

In chapter 11, we learn that Lazarus of Bethany, brother of Mary and Martha, has fallen ill. The narrator explains that this is the same Mary ‘who anointed the Lord with perform and wiped his feet with her hair.’ The odd thing about this explanation is that Mary’s anointing of Jesus hasn’t happened yet at this point in the story. (It takes place in chapter 12.)

John 6.1: One small step for a man…

In John 5, Jesus is in Jerusalem for a festival. From verse 14 onward, Jesus is in the temple giving a sermon. And then, suddenly, in the very next verse (6.1), Jesus goes ‘to the other side of the Sea of Galilee,’ implying he had been by the lakeside instead of in faraway Jerusalem. For this reason, Bultmann and others have suspected that chapter 6 originally followed 4, with chapter 5 misplaced in between. Other scholars see this as an indication of later editing or revision.”

I personally find these anomalies to be fascinating, especially when you can compare them to similar examples in Greco-Roman literature, such as with the Alexander Romance. It shows how there are many layers to these texts, and how redaction and re-editing can sometimes even lead to contradictions within the same narrative. Given these examples in John, it may not be so unusual that Alexander sacks Thebes twice in recension β of the AR.

Stories that grow over time

Another consequence of redacting texts and earlier traditions is that stories tend to grow over time with each redaction. Often times, characters and events are conflated, or are enhanced with new embellishments. An example of this can be seen in the Alexander Romance, when the death of the Persian king Darius is depicted (2.20). This scene is a highly colorful embellishment and conflation of sources that record Darius’ death outside the AR. As Christine Thomas (The Acts of Peter, Gospel Literature, and the Ancient Novel, pp. 75-76) explains about traditions external to the AR:

“Within the trajectory of the Alexander Romance, one can also find examples of the process of the creative development of a story to accommodate a new historical context … The example of the death of Darius well illustrates this sort of elaboration. After his defeat by Alexander at Arbela, Darius was taken prisoner by some of his own satraps. But Alexander was so fast on their heels that they eventually wounded Darius and left him behind so that they could beat a hastier retreat. Darius later died of his wounds, and the corpse was found by the Macedonians; so reads Arrian, probably the most reliable extant history (3.21). Biographers of Alexander such as Plutarch and Curtius Rufus tell us, however, that a Macedonian soldier named Polystratos, while looking for water, came upon Darius while he was breathing his last … Sources read by Diodorus Siculus report that it was Alexander himself who discovered Darius as he lay breathing his last, lamented over him, and responded personally to Darius’ request by taking an oath to avenge the murder.”

Alexander and Darius

As can be seen above, in the historiographical traditions of Darius’ death, there had already been new details added to the story, and the roles of different persons had been conflated, such as Polystratos and Alexander. The Alexander Romance, however, manages to outdo all of these other versions. As Thomas (pg. 76) goes on to explain:

“In the Alexander Romance, the scene takes place, not in the disorder of the Persian retreat, but in the palace of Darius itself, where the king, now deserted by all, lies dying. Alexander is so chivalrous that he entreats Darius to rise again and rule the Persians under the Macedonian conqueror’s support and protection; but when it is clear that the king will die, Alexander offers of his own initiative to wreak vengeance on the murderers, without even waiting to be requested by Darius to do so (2.20). These examples show how minor details of a base story can be progressively embroidered to heighten the dramatic effect…”

And so, as the story of Darius’ death was told (and retold) over time, the story itself grew larger and even conflated some of the details.

Similar examples of stories that grow over time can likewise be seen in the Gospels. In particular, later gospels–such as Matthew and Luke–tend to add details that are missing from earlier gospels–such as Mark [2]. Take the scene of Jesus’ burial by Joseph of Arimathea, for example. As NT scholar James McGrath (The Burial of Jesus: History and Fiction, pg. 70) explains:

“Our earliest account of Jesus’ burial, the Gospel of Mark, records a fundamental truth that later Christian authors tried desperately to ignore: Jesus’ disciples were not in a position to provide Jesus with an honorable burial. Mark tells us that a pious Jewish leader named Joseph of Arimathea made sure that Jewish law was observed, and, learning that Jesus had died, got the permission to take the body and bury it.”

McGrath points out, however, that the later gospels make a number of changes to Mark’s version of the story, in order to exalt and embellish Jesus’ burial. Luke (23:53) adds the detail that the tomb had never before been used, making the burial more honorable, and Matthew (27:59-6) adds both the detail that the tomb was unused and that it was even Joseph’s own tomb (a possible conflation, since the earlier account did not state that it was Joseph’s private tomb). John (19:39-41) even further adds the detail that Jesus was anointed with 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes before his burial (even when this contradicts Mark 16:1, which implies that Jesus was not anointed before his burial). John also adds the detail that Jesus was buried in a garden. If you go later into the apocryphal Gospel of Peter (35-42), giant angels even accompany Jesus as he emerges from the tomb.

As an can be seen from the examples above, when traditions are redacted multiple times across texts, new details are added and the stories often become embellished, growing larger and larger. This is particularly true of ‘open texts’ that go through multiple stages of composition, which is characteristic of popular-novelistic biography.

The fish gets bigger


Another consequence of redacting earlier traditions is that a number of anachronisms will often creep into the narrative, which reflect the circumstances of later stages of composition. Since our current versions of the Alexander Romance were completed several centuries after his death (even if earlier versions may have dated to only a couple of generations after Alexander), they therefore contain a number of anachronisms from later stages of Greece’s history. For example, in AR 1.24, the city of Thessalonike is mentioned in the narrative. This city was not founded, however, until after Alexander’s death. As Ken Dowden (Anthology of Ancient Greek Popular Literature, pg. 183) explains: “Thessalonike, the second city of modern Greece, was founded about 316 BCE, seven years after Alexander’s death.” Nevertheless, since this city was so important to later stages of Greece’s history, it is not surprising that it is mentioned anachronistically in the AR.

It should be noted, however, that anachronisms can also appear in historiographical literature. The historical biographer Plutarch, for example, makes a number of anachronisms about Greece’s history. One of the most glaring is in his Life of Theseus (25.3), where he claims that the legendary king Theseus (13th century BCE) minted coins at Athens during the Bronze Age. This is a far more egregious anachronism, since the first coins minted at Athens do not appear until the Peisistratid 6th century BCE, a full seven centuries later! If Plutarch could make an anachronism that dated to roughly 700 years later, therefore, it is hardly a surprise that the Alexander Romance could make an anachronism that dated to 7 years after Alexander’s death.

When it comes to anachronisms, it should be noted that the Gospels have an advantage over the Alexander Romance, since the final versions of the Gospels (excluding later interpolations) were completed by the early-2nd century CE (much closer to Jesus’ lifetime). As such, the Gospels contain fewer anachronisms, although it should be noted that they do inaccurately depict tax practices in Roman Palestine prior to 70 CE. With regard to Mark 12:13-17, Matthew 22:15-22, and Luke 20:20-26–where Jesus is presented with a Roman denarius and responds, “Render unto Caesar that which Caesar’s”–scholar Fabian Udoh has found that the circumstances depicted in this exchange are unlikely to have existed during the historical Jesus’ lifetime. As is explained in the article “Biblical Tax Story Rendered Implausible”:

“To determine the authenticity of Jesus’ pronouncement, Udoh looked at elements of the story: Did a Roman tax exist in Jesus’s time that everyone was required to pay? Was payment required in a particular Roman coin? Would that coin have borne the likeness of the emperor, and if so, would it have been circulating in such abundance that Jesus could have reasonably expected one to be produced on the spot?

First, Udoh finds no evidence from the period of a census-based, per-capita tribute or ‘poll tax,’ as the word in Matthew and Mark is customarily translated. Any assessments by Rome, he says, likely would have been based on agricultural production and paid in-kind with farm products like grain. In fact, by Udoh’s analysis, Rome did not impose a ‘per capita’ tribute on the people in Judea until 70 CE. He also finds no evidence of a direct tribute requiring payment in Roman money. Finally, he observes that since colonial taxes are notoriously difficult to collect, requiring payment in a specific coin would have only made collection more difficult.

Tiberius Denarius

Roman denarius of the emperor Tiberius

As for the Roman coin Jesus calls for, a silver denarius, these did exist during the time of his ministry, and they would have borne the likeness of Caesar Augustus or Tiberius. But while denarii would have been recognized by people in Jewish Palestine during Jesus’s time, Udoh says, archeological findings suggest they were not the silver coin being used at the time. That coin was the Tyrian shekel.

For these reasons Udoh believes that the render-unto-Caesar story probably originated from a later time or another place.”

If this story originated from a later time, which is quite probable since Roman tribute using the denarius was imposed on Judea after 70 CE (which is the period in which many scholars think that the Gospels were written), then this could reflect an anachronism in the Gospels. And, even if this tradition did not emerge after 70 CE (perhaps from conflating tax practices from another place outside of Judea), it would still reflect a historical inaccuracy in the Gospels, regardless. I discuss Udoh’s research in more detail in this previous essay.

Likewise, it should be noted that in later traditions about Jesus found outside the canonical Gospels, particularly within Christian apocryphal literature that emerged during the 2nd century CE and onward, there are far more anachronisms and historical inaccuracies. As Helmut Koester (“One Jesus and Four Primitive Gospels,” pg. 204) explains:

“There is even less probability that we will find anything genuine in the vast apocryphal information about Jesus’ life, miracles, relatives, etc. [In the early 20th century] Walter Bauer collected such material in a work of more than 500 pages–today it would be easy to add a second volume of equal size; but no one would venture to claim that much of this information is historically trustworthy. Without any doubt, the rise of form-criticism has made scholars even more cautious. Complete scepticism, it has been said, is the final outcome; and if this be true for the canonical Gospels, how much more so for the apocryphal tradition!”

As such, stories about Jesus did become increasingly full of anachronisms over the centuries, just as with Alexander the Great. Because the final versions of the canonical Gospels were completed by the early-2nd century CE, however, whereas the Alexander Romance was redacted over several centuries, these earlier gospels happen to contain less of the later developments. In contrast, the situation with the AR is more complicated, since it contains both a large amount of early material and later material. This accounts for why there are more anachronisms in the AR, even when there is still much accurate historical information preserved within the text.


A final point that should be made is that the extant historiographical sources for Alexander–such as Curtius Rufus, Plutarch, and Arrian–do tend to have less anachronisms (even though they wrote several centuries after Alexander’s death), because they base their material largely on the earlier (lost) historians of Alexander–such as Callisthenes, Ptolemy, and Cleitarchus–using critical methodology. The Alexander Romance, in contrast, interacts with both historical sources like this (especially Cleitarchus) in addition to oral traditions and later legends that emerged about Alexander over the centuries. Since the AR also tends to be less critical of its sources (compared to Rufus, Plutarch, and Arrian), and is likewise written according to popular and novelistic literary conventions, it has a tendency to incorporate far more legendary material.

The situation with Jesus is far more messy, since there were no contemporary historians who documented his ministry. The Gospels do not use critical historiographical methods (as I discuss in my essay “Ancient Historical Writing”), and it is likewise unlikely that they were written by eyewitnesses of Jesus (as I discuss in my essay “The Traditional Authors of the Gospels”). Instead, the Gospels were written according to more popular and novelistic literary conventions, such as the Alexander Romance, interacting with oral traditions. There were later Christian authors, such as Eusebius (even though he wasn’t a very good historian), who did apply historical-critical methods to the sources for Jesus, but this was not until several centuries after Jesus’ lifetime. Likewise, as I discuss in my essay “When Do Contemporary or Early Sources Matter,” Alexander left far more of a footprint on contemporary records and evidence than Jesus, which could be used by later historians. Jesus, in contrast, was an obscure itinerant peasant, known only through oral traditions (which do not even appear in written form until they were already transmitted in Greek, a different language than what Jesus spoke), who made very little impact upon his contemporaries.

We therefore have a sort of reverse situation between Alexander and Jesus. Alexander was first documented by historians, and only later was his life told in popular and novelistic literature. Jesus’ story, in contrast, was first related in popular and novelistic literature, and was only later critically evaluated by historians. Likewise, there was a much larger amount of contemporary evidence available for preserving the historical core of Alexander’s story, from the beginning, whereas for Jesus, he was far more obscure and less such evidence was thus available for preserving the core of his story. Reliable information for Alexander was therefore preserved for a much longer time, alongside legendary stories that emerged about him. For Jesus, in contrast, the historical core of his life was lost much more quickly, and yet legendary stories still emerged.

Likewise, as I discuss in my essay “Patterns of Myth-Making,” such legendary traditions can emerge very quickly, within only a couple generations, and even among eyewitnesses. As such, for both Alexander and Jesus we have a large amount of legendary traditions, but for Alexander we have more reliable sources to fact-check them, whereas for Jesus we have far less available. As I discussed in my previous post, the historical situations for Alexander and Jesus are very different, and so it is more difficult to draw historical-critical (as opposed to generic) parallels between the literature about their lives. But, since only a handful of texts that belong to the genre of popular-novelistic biography survive from antiquity, we have to compare the best examples that are available, if we wish to make historical-critical comparisons. Both the Alexander Romance and the Gospels exhibit similar patterns of redaction and embellishment, but since our surviving versions of them were written under different circumstances (such as our earliest versions of the AR dating later), they pose different historical-critical problems. There are far more anachronisms in the AR, for example, but we also have more historical certainty about the core events in his career. The Gospels, in contrast, have less anachronisms (since their texts were finalized earlier), but instead we have less certainty about the core events of Jesus’ life, since he was a far more obscure individual.

-Matthew Ferguson

[1] One difficulty for knowing whether chapters 1.27-28 of recension β belong to an earlier version of the Alexander Romance is the fact that recension α is an older version of the AR than recension β. It could be the case, therefore, that chapters 1.27-28 are actually a redaction on the text of recension α, rather than an earlier version of the text. Nevertheless, we also have evidence in the text of recension α to suggest that it had originally included the crossing of the Hellespont at the beginning of Alexander’s campaigns. This evidence belongs to the content of chapter 1.42, which precedes Alexander making a reverse journey into Europe in 1.43.

Despite the fact that chapters 1.42-43 are told in reverse chronological order, there are verbal clues within chapter 1.42 which imply that Alexander had previously crossed from Europe into Asia. This could suggest that the material in 1.42 had originally belonged to an earlier portion of the narrative. As Michael Paschalis (The Greek and Roman Novel: Parallel Readings, pg. 83) explains:

“Chapter 1.28 of recension β narrates Alexander’s crossing of the Hellespont in its original chronological order. In this narrative the Macedonian hero “jumped off the ship from Europe to Asia and then thrust his spear into the ground claiming Asia as won by his spear.” The narrative proceeds with the battle of Granicus. Diodorus’ account of the crossing … tells that same story in a very similar language and thus sheds light on the original position of the passages composing chapters 1.42 of the Alexander Romance.

As already noted by Ausfeld [Der griechische Alexanderroman, pp. 147-148], chapter 1.42 (in both recensions) contains remnants of Alexander’s crossing from Europe to Asia. According to Ausfeld the region of ‘Achaia,’ mentioned in A, the Armenian translation, Valerius, and Leo, would be Αχαιων λιμην, the harbor where in Arrian’s account Alexander landed when he crossed from Europe to Asia. Therefore, the thrusting of the spear into the ground and the visit to Troy, given separately in chapter 1.42, originally belonged together. The original crossing of the Taurus range is mentioned in chapter 1.41 but Ausfeld believed that the fictional crossing in 1.42 echoed the sacrifice of a bull (ταυρον) to Poseidon during the crossing of the Hellespont…

We must always assume that the narrative of the Alexander Romance passed through various stages before reaching the earliest form we possess, the text of A. As it stands, the text of A 1.42 presents some kind of thematic unity for what looks like an accidental compilation of unrelated passages.”

As such, there is textual evidence in recension α that Alexander’s crossing from Europe into Asia may have originally been told in the correct chronological order, before it was redacted into reverse chronological order. This evidence can be considered alongside the additional material in chapters 1.27-28 of recension β, which likewise gives the proper chronology for the beginning of Alexander’s military campaigns. Given these traces of the correct chronology in the texts of both recensions, there is reason to think that a later journey to Rome was added to the narrative, which disrupted the chronological order of the events in our earliest surviving recensions of the Alexander Romance.

[2] This progression depends on the assumption of Markan priority, namely that the Gospel of Mark was written first, and that both Matthew and Luke used Mark. Although there is some dispute over this theory, it should be noted that Markan priority is the majority view in the scholarly community by a fairly wide margin. As NT scholar Michael Kok (“Markan Priority or Posterity?”) explains:

“One sign of the consensus is that of the innumerable academic commentaries on Mark’s Gospel, C. S. Mann’s commentary on Mark for the Anchor Bible series is one of the rare exceptions in working from the basis of the Griesbach hypothesis and it has since been replaced by Joel Marcus’ two-volume commentaries that is firmly in support of Markan priority.”

Regarding the story of Joseph of Arimathea’s burial, in particular, William John Lyons argues in his recently published book, Joseph of Arimathea: A Study in Reception History (pg. 20):

“Despite the temptation to see the Gospel variants about Joseph of Arimathea as complementary, accurate, and eminently harmonizable, they can be easily understood as arising from the interaction of Mark’s account with the ideologies and needs of the three Evangelists who used his Gospel. This being so, it seems perfectly reasonable to suggest that any who wish to search for the Joseph behind these texts must begin and end with the portrayal in Mark, explicitly discarding the uncritical harmonizing tendency assumed by so many scholars.”

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

  1. Luis Mijares says:

    This is unrelated to the topic at hand but, I was wondering if you could do a review of Richard Bauckham’s book Jesus and the eye witnesses if you had read the book.
    Thank You

  2. i know that ehrman and others believe that the empty tomb is a christian creation, but even if joseph of a buried jesus, where is the evidence that the women who watched from afar followed him to burial location?

    • Well, Mark 15:47 says that the women saw were Joseph laid Jesus. What I find suspicious about the burial is the fact that Mark 15:42 says that evening was approaching and that verse 43 says that Joseph “dared” to ask Pilate for permission to bury the body. There is likewise no mention of the criminals crucified beside Jesus being buried.

      What these factors suggest to me is that it was not ordinary practice for the Jews or the Romans to bury crucified criminals in rock-hewn tombs (at least given how the author of Mark has described it). Rather, the passage seems to imply that Joseph made a special request and that Pilate made an exception for Jesus. The women, then, apparently followed Joseph and saw which tomb he laid Jesus in.

      Now, I do think it is historically plausible that the Romans would occasionally grant burial requests for crucified criminals, when a person of influence or special importance made such a request. Josephus attests to such special requests. HOWEVER, I also think that there would be a strong theological motive for the author of Mark (or his source) to invent such a story. If Jesus was really buried like ordinary criminals (I think, in trench graves on the ground), it would suit the purposes of a later Christian writer to invent an honorable burial by an influential individual, especially when such a burial would create a perfect scene for the body going missing, such as the empty tomb.

      Note also that all of the later Gospel authors further embellish the burial. Luke says that the tomb had never been used, Matthew says that it was both unused and Joseph’s own tomb, and John has Nicodemus anoint Jesus. If all of these texts could build on Mark’s story to further embellish the burial, the author of Mark (or his source) could have easily done the same, by inventing a burial in a rock-hewn tomb, to begin with.

  3. “Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joseph saw where he was laid.”

    “Well, Mark 15:47 says that the women saw were Joseph laid Jesus. ”

    out of curiosity would it be normal for jewish women to hang about later on or would they wail and leave just like the people in luke

    “When all the people who had gathered to witness this sight saw what took place, they beat their breasts and went away.”

    • Well, Luke 23:55-56 says that the women were about to anoint Jesus for his burial, but that they had to wait because the Sabbath was approaching. It was normal for women to attend to funeral rites in both Greek and Jewish cultures. And so, I think it would be normal for them to follow Joseph, assuming that Jesus was actually given a decent burial, in a rock-hewn tomb. But, I doubt that Jesus was given such a burial, and so the women following Joseph are probably an invention too, used as a plot device to later discover the empty tomb. Note also that the Gospel of John makes no mention of the women preparing spices and perfumes, and has Nicodemus do this instead (Jn. 19:39-49). So, this role is given to different people, depending on the gospel.

  4. Mark calls what he is doing a “euaggelion,” basically meaning he is writing something analogous to a piece of Augustan imperial propaganda. Mark writes: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God” closely matches the formula found on a monument erected by the Provincial Assembly in Asia Minor (1st century BCE): “Whereas… Providence… has… brought our life to the peak of perfection in giving us Augustus Caesar… who, being sent to us and to our descendants as a savior…, and whereas… the birthday of the god has been for the whole world the beginning of the gospel (euaggelion) concerning him, let all reckon a new era beginning from the date of his birth.”

  5. Pingback: Just what do you mean… HISTORY? |

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