Understanding the Value of Biblical Parallels

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

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

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

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

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

Generic and Literary Parallels

When analyzing ancient literature, one strategy for interpretation is to group related pieces of literature, which share structural and narratological features in common, into categories or “literary genres.” This practice stems from the fact that literature and language is never formed in a vacuum, but is always contextual within a broader sociological context. Authors base their works on previous literary models and audiences interpret them based on other literature that they have read.

In this regard, many scholars are interested in knowing which literary genre the Gospels of the New Testament belong to, so that we can better understand both their authorial intent and targeted audiences. One genre that the Gospels are frequently assigned to is Greco-Roman biography, such as in Richard Burridge’s influential work What Are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography. There is much to recommend for this comparison, such as the Gospels’ genealogies (in the case of Matthew and Luke), their focus on the life and death of a single individual, and the greater frequency of verbs performed by the central character of the text.

There are also many limitations, however, for comparing the Gospels with Greco-Roman biography. Perhaps the greatest is that ancient biography was a highly diverse and flexible genre. Ancient bioi could vary substantially in their length, complexity of language, analytical rigor, and intended effect. Some biographies were extremely laudatory and hagiographical, whereas others were overtly hostile and polemical. Some biographies engaged in little historical analysis, while others were far more critical and historiographical. Because of these distinctions, ancient biography specialist Tomas Hägg has (partially) critiqued Burridge’s study. As Hägg (The Art of Biography in Antiquity, pg. 155) argues:

Art of BiographyThere is a great diversity within each of the two groups, the four gospels and the ten ancient biographies; and it is this very diversity, we should note, that makes it possible always to find a parallel in one or several of the ten Lives for each feature occurring in one or more of the gospels. What is proven is that the investigated features of the gospels are not unique in ancient biographical literature; but no control group is established to show which features may be regarded as significantly typical of this literature.”

Nevertheless, Hägg (pg. 155) also grants that there is much value for comparing the Gospels with the genre of Greco-Roman biography:

Works of the type of Burridge and Frickenschmidt are important, not for ‘proving’ that the gospels ‘are’ biographies – that remains a matter of definition, no more no less – but for studying them as literature in context. They show that ancient biography is a manifold entity and that the gospels are not more deviant or special than many other biographical texts of Graeco-Roman antiquity.”

As can be seen, Hägg’s view of the matter is very nuanced and he acknowledges both advantages and limitations of Burridge’s study.

Part of why I chose to compare the Gospels to popular-novelistic biographies, such as the Alexander Romance, the Life of Aesop, and the Certamen of Homer and Hesiod, as the topic of my dissertation, is to sharpen the value of Burridge’s study. As I have discussed here previously, all of these texts share many features in common, such as their simple vernacular and sentence structure, their lack of critical historical analysis, and their open textuality and multiformity. These characteristics are also distinct from elite and historiographical Greco-Roman biographies, such as those of Plutarch and Suetonius, which tend to use more complex vocabulary and sentence structure, more frequently cite and critically analyze their sources, and are likewise written in a distinct style that exercises more authorial control over their material.

It should also be noted, however, that genre criticism is not binary, but complex and heterogenous. An individual text can have features that belong to multiple literary genres. (On this point, I recommend Kasper Larsen’s excellent book The Gospel of John as Genre Mosaic.) The NT Gospels, for example, also have many parallels with Old Testament historiography, particularly the Elijah-Elisha cycle, apocalyptic literature, such as the Book of Daniel, and Jewish novels, such as Ruth and Esther. As such, I do not think that the genre of popular-novelistic biography alone can explain all of the features within the Gospels. It does explain many of their structural and stylistic elements, but there are also limitations that make other parallels more suitable for explaining other features of the text.

Historical Subject Parallels

Another complexity of Greco-Roman biography is that ancient bioi could be written about very different kinds of individuals. We possess ancient biographical works written about poets, philosophers, orators, kings, and generals. The nature of the biographical subject, therefore, can substantially influence the material about his life. Even biographies that are written in the same genre, and sometimes even by the same author, can thus vary substantially in terms of their content.

It is also on this point that we should turn to our next criterion. Many parallels that are offered for the historical Jesus relate to his role as an itinerant prophet, teacher of wisdom, and miracle worker. These are parallels between Jesus and other historical figures. It is important to recognize, when making such comparisons, that individuals of similar characteristics and backgrounds can have their lives recorded in a variety of literary genres. Likewise, two historical figures can share many aspects in common, while differing in other aspects.

SocratesTake, for example, the philosopher Socrates as a parallel for Jesus. There is much to recommend for this comparison. Both individuals were executed for their teachings. Neither wrote any literary works of his own, but is only known through the writings of others (although the Gospels likewise have important generic differences from texts like Plato’s dialogues.) Both had disciples who spread their teachings following their deaths. Each likewise became an object of literary fascination, and was depicted in different ways and fictionalized by different authors. Although both are historical, therefore, there is often great difficulty in separating the facts from fiction about their lives.

While Socrates shares much in common with Jesus, however, there are also important differences between the two. Socrates was not regarded as a miracle worker by his followers, nor was he depicted as an apocalyptic or messianic figure. Jesus’ teachings consist more of short, formulaic sayings, whereas Socrates is depicted as engaging in lengthier dialogues. Jesus’ parables have more in common with Aesop’s fables, in terms of their structure and didactic techniques. And, indeed, Aesop is also an important parallel figure for Jesus. But, Aesop also did not lead a religious or philosophical movement, nor is his historical existence as well established as the existence of either Jesus or Socrates. (It should also be noted that there is better evidence for Socrates’ existence than the evidence for the historical Jesus, even though the large majority of scholars agree that Jesus was probably a historical figure.)

In terms of itinerant miracle workers, Apollonius of Tyana is a better ancient comparison for Jesus. Apollonius was said to heal the sick, to drive out demons, and to have ascended to heaven following his death. But Apollonius was also a Pythagorean philosopher, and his teachings differed substantially from Jesus’ Jewish apocalypticism. Likewise, another major difference between the two is that each of their lives was recorded in very different forms of biographical literature. Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius is written in polished Attic prose, whereas the Gospels are written in the rudimentary Koine dialect. Philostratus frequently cites his sources (even if they were invented or unreliable), and he notes contradictions between various accounts about Apollonius, whereas the Gospels contain far less critical analysis. As such the Life of Apollonius is not a very good parallel for the literary genre of the Gospels. They have some biographical features in common, but they differ in many important structural and stylistic elements. For this reason I chose, as the topic of my dissertation, to compare the Gospels to more popular biographical literature, which differs from the elevated, elite literature of Philostratus.

There were also other Jewish messianic claimants who lived around the same period as Jesus. Theudas (c. 45 CE), for example, was a Jewish prophetic figure whose aspirations were to lead a movement of people to the river Jordan, which he would part like Moses. (It is likewise worth noting that Jesus’s miracles in the Gospels were modeled on those of Moses.) Theudas’ movement was put down by the Roman procurator Fadus, and he was captured and executed. There was also Menahem (66 CE), who led an armed revolt and marched on Jerusalem as king, but was eventually put down by other Jewish factions. Although both Theudas and Menahem were messianic figures, their movements were also far more militaristic, whereas Jesus’ ministry was apocalyptic. Neither figure likewise had biographical texts written about their lives, such as the Gospels. The parallels between them and Jesus are thus limited, but both shed light on the broader context of Jewish messianism in the 1st century CE.

There are also other Jewish miracle workers in different historical periods than Jesus. Baal Shem Tov, for example, was the founder of Hasidic Judaism and had miraculous stories told about his life in literature written only half a century after his life, drawing from the accounts of eyewitnesses. As scholar Bart Ehrman (“Another Jewish Miracle Worker”) explains:

“Our principal source of information about the Besht comes in a series of anecdotes about his life written 54 years after his death, entitled In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov (in the Hebrew: Shivhe ha-Besht). The book was published in 1814 in Poland. Its author was Rabbi Dov Ber, who, as it turns out, was the son-in-law of a man who had been the personal scribe and secretary for the Besht, a rabbi called Alexander the Shohet. The book contains 251 short tales about the Besht. Fifteen of these are said to have come directly from Alexander; the rest come from other sources, including the rabbi of the author’s own community who had heard them from his own teacher.

Throughout the tales the Besh heals the sick, exorcises dybbuks (restless souls of dead people), and helps barren women conceive. He can ascend to heaven and miraculously shorten a journey. He is often shown to be superior to others he encounters: other rabbinic scholars, medical doctors, and sorcerers. While those outside the Hasidic tradition might consider these stories simply to be pious fictions, legendary accounts based on hearsay, started by gullible devotees, the author Dov Ber himself claims that they are rooted in reliable sources and relate historical realities. As he himself reflects, “I was careful to write down all the awesome things that I heard from truthful people. In each case I wrote down from whom I heard it. Thank God, who endowed me with memory, I neither added nor omitted anything. Every word is true and I did not change a word”…

…There are many, many tales such as these throughout the account. And what is my point? Do I think the Besht actually had supernatural powers and was able to do these things, to be transformed into a divine, glowing presence, to cast out and imprison demons, to ignite trees with his finger, to raise the dead, and all the rest? No, personally, I don’t believe it. But are the reports based ultimately on eyewitness reports? Well, writing some 55 years after the events the author claims they were indeed based on eyewitness testimony. Does that make them reliable?”

As such, there is other Jewish literature, written within the same time span as the Gospels were about Jesus, which nevertheless records similar miraculous phenomena. But, this literature was written over a millennium after Jesus in a very different cultural context, and so, it has not come from the same generic context as the Gospels. Likewise, Ehrman notes that there were very different teachings between the Besht and Jesus:

“Their messages were not particularly similar. The Besht was a proponent of pious ecstasy and insisted that God was present in all things. His goal in life, and the goal to which he urged his followers, was to attain a kind of unity with God through intense concentration and by abandoning all thought of oneself. He was personally highly enthusiastic; his devotion was especially intent.”

As such, the Besht is not a “double” for Jesus, but only a partial parallel. But nevertheless, the Besht still shows how the memory of great teachers can become embellished and full of paranormal phenomena, even in the accounts of eyewitnesses, only a few decades after their deaths.

There is also the Jewish messianic figure Sabbatai Zevi, who was heavily promoted as the Jewish Messiah by his follower Nathan of Gaza, just as the apostle Paul promoted Jesus as the Messiah. Sabbatai Zevi converted to Islam (under violent pressure) in 1666 CE, but many in his movement still regarded him as the Jewish Messiah, and even rationalized that Zevi was “supposed to convert to Islam” to destroy it from within. There is likewise the more recent messianic figure Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who was widely expected to be the Jewish Messiah that would usher in the end times redemption. This expectation was frustrated, however, when Schneerson died of a stroke in 1994. Nevertheless, many in his movement still held on to their belief that he would be the Messiah, and soon rationalized that he would return from the dead to usher in the final redemption. As Simon Dein of Durham University, author of “What Really Happens When Prophecy Fails: The Case of Lubavitch,” explains about this phenomenon:

“[The] Lubavitch are not a group of fanatics … They are sane people trying to reason their way through the facts and in the pursuit of understanding … Like many groups whose messianic expectations fail to materialize, resort is made to eschatological hermeneutics to explain and reinforce messianic ideology … [Schneerson’s] illness and subsequent death posed cognitive challenges for his followers. They made two predictions that were empirically disconfirmed: that he would recover from the illness and that he would usher in the Redemption. In accordance with cognitive dissonance theory … they appealed to a number of post hoc rationalizations to allay the dissonance.”

If other messianic movements could survive in the face of failed expectations, it makes sense that Christianity could do the same. For example, most biblical scholars doubt that Jesus predicted his own crucifixion, but later Christians soon cherry picked verses from Jewish scripture out of context in order to rationalize this circumstance. As Bart Ehrman explains:

“No Jew, prior to Christianity, thought that the Messiah was to be crucified. The Messiah was to be a great warrior or a great king or a great judge. He was to be a figure of grandeur and power, not somebody who’s squashed by the enemy like a mosquito. How could Jesus, the Messiah, have been killed as a common criminal? Christians turned to their scriptures to try and understand it, and they found passages that refer to the Righteous One of God’s suffering death. But in these passages, such as Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 and Psalm 69, the one who is punished or who is killed is also vindicated by God. Christians came to believe their scriptures that Jesus was the Righteous One and that God must have vindicated him. And so Christians came to think of Jesus as one who, even though he had been crucified, came to be exalted to heaven, much as Elijah and Enoch had in the Hebrew scriptures. How can he be Jesus the Messiah though, if he’s been exalted to heaven? Well, Jesus must be coming back soon to establish the kingdom. He wasn’t an earthly Messiah; he’s a spiritual Messiah. That’s why the early Christians thought the end was coming right away in their own lifetime.”

Likewise, most scholars agree that the first generation of Christians believed that Jesus would return in their own lifetime (see Mark 13:28-30 and 1 John 2:18), and yet such a prediction never materialized. Nevertheless, Christianity still persisted as an apocalyptic movement, and its followers simply rationalized that Jesus would return later.

As can be seen from the examples above, there are many parallels for Jesus among both ancient and modern figures, and among both Gentiles and Jews. And yet, none of these figures are a perfect “double” for Jesus, primarily because every historical figure has his own unique characteristics and historical circumstances, just as every religious, political, or philosophical movement. But this does not mean that the figure of Jesus has no substantial overlap with many other historical figures, and so, studying these parallels can help us to better understand different aspects of the historical Jesus.

 The Role of Genre in Historical Criticism

Above I have discussed both genre criticism and historical criticism. As has been shown, individuals of a very different character can still have their lives recorded in a similar genre of literature. On the other hand, historical figures who have much in common can be written about in very different literary genres. As such, generic parallels between the Gospels and other ancient biographical literature, such as the Certamen of Homer and Hesiod, do not always entail that the biographical subjects are identical. (After all, Jesus was a Jewish apocalyptic prophet, whereas Homer and Hesiod were Greek poets.) Likewise, literature of a similar genre can be written under different circumstances (such as being written only decades or centuries after the life of the subject.) These differences do not negate the parallels, however, when they are applied properly to the correct issues. As such, understanding such parallels requires a great deal of nuance and appreciation for both their advantages and limitations.

Another nuance that must be appreciated, when doing genre and historical criticism, is the relationship between the two. As I discuss in my essay “The Historical Reliability of Popular Biographies, Part 1: Framing the Comparison,” texts of the same literary genre can vary substantially in terms of their historical reliability. Plutarch’s Life of Otho, for example, is far more historically reliable than his Life of Theseus, since the former was written far closer to the life of the subject than the latter (even when both texts have the same author). Likewise, simply because a text is not historical in genre does not entail that it contains no reliable historical information. The poet Martial’s Epigrams, for example, contain many accurate sociological and historical details about Rome in the 1st century CE, and yet it is still correct to describe his works as “poetry” and not “history.”

There is also a further nuance to be appreciated, however, for how a text’s genre can affect its historical reliability. Certain kinds of literary genres can be structured in ways that undermine their historical reliability (such as not being written in chronological order), and can likewise be more prone to embellishment than other literary genres. As such, although not all issues of historical criticism are related to literary genre, there are certain historical-critical issues that are particularly relevant to genre. I have categorized this distinction in the following Venn diagram:

Genre vs. Historical Criticism (1)

In my article “Ancient Historical Writing Compared to the Gospels,” I discuss how the structure and style of the NT Gospels differ substantially from both the historiography and historical biography of their same period. That article deals primarily with the topic of the Gospels’ literary genre; however, I also note at several points in the the article that certain aspects of the Gospels’ genre can affect their historical reliability (which I also summarize here). These historical-critical issues related to genre need to be distinguished, however, from historical-critical issues that are not related to genre.

For example, as I have discussed above, texts of a similar literary genre can be written after different gaps of time from the life of their subject. Likewise, as I discuss in my essay “When Do Contemporary or Early Sources Matter in Ancient History,” sources that are closer to the life of the subject tend to be more historically reliable (though not always) than sources written in a much later period. Nevertheless, the amount of time elapsed between a text and the subject that it describes is not generally specific to its literary genre. As such, the issue of dating belongs more in the right bubble above. I have also described in my essay “Grammatiki Karla on Ancient Greek Popular Literature,” how the Gospels share many similarities with popular-novelistic biographies in terms of their simple vocabulary and syntax, such as their frequent use of the basic conjunction kai (“and”), their short sentence structure, and their relative lack of subordinate clauses. Since vocabulary and sentence structure only pertain to the language in which a text is written, however, and not necessarily to whether it is depicting real events, this comparison belongs more in the left bubble above.

There are certain considerations of genre, however, that very much affect historical reliability. One is mimesis criticism, which studies how literature is modeled on previous literary archetypes. As I discuss in my essay “Patterns of Myth-Making Between the Lives of Alexander the Great and Jesus Christ,” the miracles of Jesus in the Gospels are heavily modeled on those of Moses, Elijah, and Elisha in the Old Testament. Since such literary sources can easily embellish how Jesus is depicted in the Gospels, and provide non-historical explanations for why he is depicted performing certain miracles, they thus cast doubt on the historical reliability of those passages. Likewise, since the Gospels frequently cite Old Testament passages as “fulfillment of prophecies,” such as Jesus being born in Bethlehem, being taken to and then “called out of Egypt,” and being descended from King David, these details were likely invented as ex eventu prophecies. In fact, Paul Davidson in “What’s the Deal with Matthew’s Genealogy?,” provides a detailed analysis for how nearly all of Jesus’ genealogy in the Gospel of Matthew can be explained as a fabrication out of passages from the Old Testament. This even includes the name of Jesus’ grandfather Jacob. As Davidson explains:

“The last two names leading up to Jesus are Jacob and Joseph. One is immediately reminded of the patriarch Joseph in Genesis, who also had a father named Jacob and who grew up in Egypt much like Matthew’s Jesus did.”

As such, even Jesus’ grandfather (at least as he is described in this genealogy) may easily been a fictional character invented by the author of Matthew. Likewise, as I discuss in my essay “Allegorical Characters with Common Names in the Alexander Romance and the Gospels,” there are several figures in the Gospels who appear to be fictional characters, based on their names and their roles within the narrative. There is likewise evidence in other Greek popular biographies, such as the Alexander Romance, for similar fictional characters, who nevertheless bear common historical names, such as “Nicolaus” and “Lysias.” As such, even if several characters in the Gospels have common names for 1st century Palestine, they still could have easily been literary inventions.

Most recently I have also discussed in my essay “The Historical Reliability of Popular Biographies, Part 2: Redaction Criticism,” how, since the Gospels (especially the Synoptic Gospels) are rewrites of each other, later gospels tend to add details that are absent from earlier gospels, which has the effect of making stories grow larger and become embellished over time. Since such embellishments reflect later stages of development, they thus cast doubt on whether they go back to actual historical events.

The historical-critical issues that I have just discussed are heavily related to the question of genre, since they pertain to how the Gospels use their sources, the literary motives that cause them to depict events in certain ways, and the creative liberties taken by their authors. As such, they belong in the center bubble of the diagram above. That being said, there are also many other historical-critical issues pertaining the Gospels and the historical Jesus beyond these ones relating to genre. As such, they only make up a fraction of the historical-critical issues that need to be considered on these topics. I discuss these issues of genre and historical reliability in my article “Ancient Historical Writing Compared to the Gospels,” but that does not mean that the article is intended to encompass every historical-critical issues pertaining to the Gospels and Jesus.

Sociological Parallels

Beyond issues of genre and historical subject, there are also important sociological parallels between Christianity and other world religions. These parallels include how Christianity functioned as a minority religion in the early Roman Empire, comprised of self-ostracized people who occasionally faced persecution for certain aspects of their beliefs, in addition to how Christians proselytized and increased their numbers. In this regard, there are many important parallels between Christianity and Mormonism. Although both religions emerged under different circumstances, each grew at roughly the same statistical rate in the first several decades of its development. As scholar Bart Ehrman (How Jesus Became God, pg. 131) explains:

“[S]ociologist Rodney Stark [The Rise of Christianity] has shown that during its first three hundred years years, the Christian religion grew at a rate of 40 percent every decade. If Christianity started out as a relatively small group in the first century but had some three million followers by the early fourth — that’s a 40 percent increase every ten years. What is striking to Stark is that this is the same growth rate of the Mormon church since it started in the nineteenth century. So these mainline Christians who think that God must have been behind Christianity or it would not have grown as quickly as it did — are they willing to say the same thing about the Mormon church (which they in fact tend not to support)?”

It should also be noted that Mormons in America often faced persecution and were attacked for their beliefs. Yet, in spite of these difficulties, Mormonism continued to grow at a steady rate, just as Christianity did in the Roman Empire. As such, there is an important sociological parallel here between how both Christianity and Mormonism first grew and increased their numbers.

Another religious group that has parallels with Christianity, in ancient times, is the Qumran community by the Dead Sea. Like the early Christians, this community made up only a fraction of the Jews during its historical period. This community likewise self-ostracized itself and rejected the Jewish Temple leadership. Bereft of the Temple, the Qumran community instead turned to its sacred scriptures, and began to collect books at a rapid rate. This circumstance, in part, explains why the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered at Qumran. The early Christians likewise turned to sacred scripture when their religion first emerged, which is why Christians produced a large number of manuscripts of their sacred texts. Most religions during the Roman Empire did not place great emphasis on sacred scripture, but both the Qumran community and the early Christians did, which is why more manuscripts and literature belonging to their community survive from antiquity.

Dead Sea Scrolls

That being said, there are also important differences between the Qumran community and the Christians, and although they share an emphasis on books and sacred scripture in common, they also had different emphases in their theology and whom they sought to join their community. The Qumran community, for example, did not evangelize to Gentiles.

Thematic and Conceptual Parallels

There are also important thematic and conceptual parallels between Christianity and other religious movements. For example, the Qumran community, discussed above, likewise expected a future apocalypse and end of the world, which is probably a major reason why they self-ostracized themselves from other social groups. And, so many religious movements throughout history have made such predictions that there is no space here to discuss all the examples. For a good overview of this phenomenon, I recommend A Brief History of the End of the World by Simon Pearson.

Another concept that was not exclusive to Christianity was that of resurrection after death. As Richard Miller has recently discussed in Resurrection and Reception in Early Christianity, there are several ancient figures in both Hellenistic and Roman cultures who were believed to have resurrected after their death, including mythical figures, such as Hercules and Romulus, and historical figures, such as Roman emperors. Miller (pg. 2) argues that the first Christians would have thus understood Jesus’ resurrection in light of this broader context:

Miller“Justin Martyr’s First Apology presented the framing contours of the Gospel narrative as having resided within a mythic mode of hero fabulation. Considering the plea’s broader context, one may best summarize the larger argument as follows: ‘We, O Romans, have produced myths and fables with our Jesus as you have done with your own heroes and emperors; so why are you killing us?’ Central to the earliest great apology of the Christian tradition, this grand concession casts a profound light on the nature of early Christian narrative production.”

As such, the belief in Jesus’ resurrection is not a unique phenomenon peculiar to Christianity, and the early Christians likewise probably first came to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead under the influence of previous expectations and examples.

What Parallels Can Teach about Christian Origins

As has been shown above, there is a great abundance of parallels between the Gospels, Jesus, and Christianity and other literature, figures, and religions of both the ancient and modern world. As has been repeatedly noted, there are also important differences, and so I do not think that any of the examples which I have discussed entail a “double” of Jesus or Christianity. Every historical figure and every religious movement belongs to peculiar cultural, social, and historical circumstances that change the shape of their nature and development.

What must be appreciated when making such comparisons is that there are different kinds of parallels. Some parallels are generic and pertain to similar kinds of literature. Some are based on the historical figure in question, and so link individuals who have similar teachings, representation in literature, and biographical attributes. Some are sociological and thus describe how similar groups self-identify and spread their numbers. Some are also thematic, and so connect similar beliefs and concepts that are shared between multiple religious movements. Given all of the diversity that can arise from each of these different kinds of parallels, I doubt that there will ever be a perfect “double” found for Jesus or Christianity. It would require a development that involved the exact same kind of literature, the exact same kind of historical figure, the exact same kind of sociology, and the exact same concepts. Given how historical and social circumstances vary across time, space, and cultures, this exact same arrangement of variables is unlikely to perfectly replicate itself. But, that does not negate the fact that there are important parallels concerning certain, individual variables.

What the parallels do show, however, is that when you take apart each of the individual aspects making up Christianity and how it emerged during the 1st century CE, almost none of them are entirely unique or exclusive. There were other self-ostracized and apocalyptic Jewish movements that rejected the Jewish Temple during the same historical period, such as the Qumran community, who likewise placed a strong emphasis on sacred texts. Christianity grew at a rate similar to other world religions, such as Mormonism. There were other historical figures who were executed, such as Socrates, whose memory became embellished and fictionalized by their followers. There were other Jewish messianic figures, such Theudas and Menahem, during the same period as Jesus. Other miracle workers throughout history, such as Apollonius of Tyana and Baal Shem Tov. Other mythical and historical figures who were believed to have resurrected after their deaths. Christianity survived in the face of frustrated expectations and predictions, just as did the movements following Sabbatai Zevi and Menachem Mendel Schneerson. There were also similar forms of popular biographical literature to the Gospels, which do not reflect the critical analysis and elevated styles of elite biographers, such as Plutarch and Suetonius, and instead are more embellished and hagiographical.

What Christianity consists of, then, is its own particular blend of these different kinds of characteristics, which emerged from its own particular set of historical, social, and cultural circumstances. We do not need a “double” for Jesus or Christianity, therefore, for a small, self-ostracized Jewish movement to have emerged following the death of its messianic figure, to have believed in his resurrection, to have claimed that he performed miracles, to have spread at steady rate of growth, and to have embellished its leader in later hagiographical literature, which modeled him on previous mythical archetypes. Each of these different attributes is attested by a wealth of generic, historical, sociological, and conceptual parallels. Christianity is just one more arrangement of the different parts. Such arrangements are bound to differ between examples, since every historical figure and religious movements belongs to its own peculiar set of circumstances. But if every ingredient in a stew has parallels with other recipes, I am inclined not to think that the stew itself is entirely exclusive or extraordinary, even if it makes up its own unique blend of the ingredients.

The Advantages and Limitations of My Dissertation

With these nuances spelled out above, I will conclude with some (brief) discussion of what I think will be both the advantages and the limitations of my dissertation topic, which compares to the NT Gospels to the genre of Greek popular-novelistic biography. One thing that I have learned after over a decade of academic study in higher education is that a single piece of scholarship seldom leads to sweeping conclusions. You are expected to change the game with a PhD dissertation, by making a unique contribution to scholarship, but such changes will be limited in their scope and implications. Below I have posted what I think is a useful video for explaining what your PhD dissertation is expected to do:

First off, a major advantage of my dissertation, I think, will be to expand upon the scholarship of Richard Burridge, and his comparison of the Gospels to Greco-Roman biography. As Tomas Hägg discusses above, Burridge’s reference class is too broad, and so while he does note important parallels between the Gospels and other biographical literature, the criteria discussed are too broad to explain many of the particular features of the Gospels. I will sharpen the comparison by comparing the Gospels to a smaller subtype of biography, notable for its simple language and style, popular audience, heavy use of direct speech, multiformity, redaction of previous sources, and rearrangement of common literary units according to chreia. I will also contrast the style of these popular biographies with those of elite biographers, such as Plutarch and Suetonius, who wrote in a more elevated style, engaged in far more critical analysis of their sources, and likewise exercised far more authorial control over their material.

Although popular-novelistic biographies, such as the Alexander Romance and the Life of Aesop, have important generic characteristics that they share with the Gospels, there are also important differences between the subjects that they depict. Jesus, Aesop, and Alexander the Great are all different individuals in many respects, but they share important similarities. Aesop is particularly like Jesus in his use of fables, which are metaphorical short stories designed to illustrate moral lessons, very similar to Jesus’ use of parables. Aesop is likewise unjustly executed at the Temple of Delphi in the Life of Aesop, following an episodic travel narrative, just as Jesus is depicted in the Gospels as traveling from Galilee to Jerusalem, where he faces crucifixion. Alexander the Great, although different from Jesus in many important regards, is heavily modeled on mythical figures in the Alexander Romance, such as Hercules, Achilles, and Odysseus, just as Jesus is modeled on Moses, David, Elijah, and Elisha in the Gospels. One important aspect of this genre of literature that I will be stressing is that it is heavily mimetic, in drawing from previous literary sources and models in its depiction of events, rather than the critical analysis of historical sources. Alexander and Jesus are likewise depicted in similar eschatological literature, emphasizing the ends of the earth.

A major focus of genre criticism is assessing how a text’s literary genre contributes to our interpretation of it and how it was understood by its original audience(s). On this point, I will be noting how ancient commentators, such as Dionysius of Halicarnassus, interpreted historiographical literature, such as Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. One thing that is very important to note is that Dionysius interprets the Melian Dialogue differently than the rest of Thucydides’ narrative. It is important to recognize that Thucydides almost never engages in dramatic dialogues in his history, except in two instances–with the Ambracian Herald (3.113) and the Melian Dialogue (5.84-116). Instead, Thucydides far more often employs indirect speech in his narrative, as was common among ancient historians. When Thucydides does engage in dialogues, however, Dionysius in On the Language of Thucydides (37) notes that he “dramatizes” his narrative, and thus does not interpret the scene literally. This interpretation has major implications for understanding how educated audiences would have perceived the Gospels, which are packed full of dramatic dialogues and large sections of direct speech. Dionysius would have almost certainly not interpreted such scenes in the Gospels to have been literal depictions of events, rather than embellished and scripted exchanges used to illustrate moral and theological points. Jesus likewise serves as a mouthpiece for the ideas of others in the Gospels, very similar to how Plato uses the figure of Socrates in his dialogues, and also similar to how Aesop is used in the Life of Aesop.

I also hope to shed some light on how genre can affect our historical-critical interpretations of the Gospels. As I discussed in my previous essay, all of these popular biographies are rewrites of earlier sources and material, and they tend to add new details that are absent from their received material. What this has the effect of doing is making stories grow over time, and become further and further embellished. Both sets of texts likewise tend to rearrange common literary units, which creates chronological discrepancies between different versions. That being said, the Alexander Romance and the Life of Aesop functioned as ‘open texts’ for a much longer period than the Gospels, which became fixated around the beginning of the early 2nd century CE. Because of this, both texts include large amounts of later material, often containing anachronisms, which creeped into the narrative during later centuries of their development. Because of their earlier fixation, the Gospels tend to include less anachronisms (although similar anachronistic stories were told about Jesus in later Christian literature), and they may also more accurately depict the culture, topography, and sociology of 1st century Palestine (although I am still looking into this issue for the Alexander Romance). At the same time, however, we also have greater historical certainty for many of the events in Alexander’s life (Aesop is a different situation, since no literature was written about him until a substantial gap of time after his death), and so the Alexander Romance, in some respects, contains a more historically reliable core of material than the Gospels, which we are often unable to verify due to the obscurity of the historical Jesus.

Although generic parallels are important for understanding how we interpret ancient literature, I have also noted above that genre is heterogenous and complex. There are other literary genres that also have important parallels with the Gospels, such as Old Testament historiography (particularly the Elijah-Elisha cycle), apocalyptic literature (such as Daniel), and the Jewish novel (such as Ruth and Esther). These parallels will limit some of the implications for my comparison with Greek popular-novelistic biographies, since the Gospels also emerged within a Jewish context that is absent from these texts. Nevertheless, both the Alexander Romance and the Life of Aesop were also written in an important Egyptian context, and so they too represent hybridity with Greek culture, similar to the Gospels.

I have many more advantages and limitations in mind for my dissertation than just these (and I will also no doubt discover more as I continue to work on the dissertation), and so this is just a snippet of my current thoughts. I have provided the discussion in this essay, however, both to clarify the purpose of my dissertation and to illustrate the nuances of its central thesis. I plan to add yet more considerations to the discussion in further blogs ahead!

-Matthew Ferguson

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3 Responses to Understanding the Value of Biblical Parallels

  1. ICW says:

    The more I read of this blog, the more confused I am with one basic claim:

    That the historical Jesus’ statements about himself did not include a claim to being Elohim or divine, but this was added onto him by (Hellenised?) Jews calling themselves Followers of The Way or Christians.

    I am not a classical scholar; I am a small-time archivist working for someone who is using the classics to form a curriculum for some extracurricular classes in Nigeria. I don’t have a deep understanding of the workings of MSS. and texts and transmission of history/legends/myths. I am, however, fascinated by this notion of mythologising!

    How exactly could Jewish monotheists (strict as anything about their monotheism) ever even *want* to divinise a person whom they knew to be a man? Even if he never existed, why would they want to invent a literary fiction that utterly contradicted their monotheism?

    Sorry if this is the wrong post in which to ask this question. I thought about it on your very old post answering Lewis’ Trilemma, but comments are closed there.

    • Hey ICW,

      I’ll get back to this comment in the near future, but I think that the idea of Jesus’ divinity came more from Pagan theology (e.g. the deification of Roman emperors, demigods like Hercules, etc.) than it did from Jewish theology. Remember that Christianity was both a Gentile and Jewish movement. A number of Jewish Christians actually rejected Jesus’ divinity (e.g. the Ebionites), whereas Christians against the Hebrew Bible (e.g. Marcion) actually raised the level of Jesus’ divinity to being greater than the Jewish god. What eventually became the orthodox view lies somewhere between these points.

      Btw, that earlier essay on C.S. Lewis is pretty old, and I plan to write more interacting with him at some point in the future (when I’m not so busy). In the meantime, I’ve put a disclaimer at the top noting that some of my original views have been modified since writing it.

  2. ICW says:

    In my preparation for baptism, I read up on the heresies you mentioned; however, I never did conceive of how important it was that early Christianity was Gentile as well as Jewish!

    I suppose I still look at it too much through the lens what I was told from catechism: the tradition of 12 (Jewish) Apostles passing a specific, already-formed “Gospel Message” (“The Gospel which I preach…”) to Gentiles, who then received it as it was, but who did not have a substantive part in creating the message. Obviously this is an unsustainable view.

    Thank you for the reply!

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