Another major part of working on a dissertation in the humanities is that you will usually incorporate some form of literary theory into the central thesis of your argument. I have discussed in a previous post some current theory of what constituted “fiction,” as opposed to “history” and “myth,” in the ancient world. In this post, I will likewise discuss the difference between diegesis and mimesis as narrative techniques. These words will no doubt sound rather technical to those who do not specialize in literary studies, but they are very important for understanding how the Gospels are written.
To provide a brief definition of both of these terms, Sarah Bryant-Bertail (“Spatio-Temporality as Theater Performance,” pg. 6) writes:
“A division between the mimetic and the diegetic space can be made … [T]he mimetic space is that seen in performance by a spectator or projected by a reader onto an imaginary stage. It includes the scenography and the fictional locale this immediately refers to. The diegetic space is all that would not be seen in a real or projected theater but that is nevertheless established in the spectator/reader’s imagination through verbal and non-verbal signs systems, either in description or through imagery.”
All of this may still sound rather abstract, and so, below is a chart that I made last academic year for how these terms can be applied to ancient narratives:
The terms diegesis and mimesis are often employed to performance in theater, as Bryant-Bertail has done above. But they are also highly relevant to the narrative techniques used in novels, as well as historiography .
The essence of diegesis is to “tell” or “report” information within a text, whereas the essence of mimesis is to “show” or “perform.” These forms of narrative can manifest through multiple literary devices. Diegetic narrative is generally told in the voice of the narrator, whereas mimetic narrative is generally told in the voice of the subject. Indirect speech is more common in diegetic narrative, where the narrator reports or paraphrases the words of the subject. In contrast, direct speech is characteristic of mimetic narrative, where the exact words of the subject are performed. The effect of speaking words in the voice of the subject places mimetic narrative within the scene of the plot, while the diegetic use of the narrator’s voice generally provides information that is not voiced or shown within scene, but provided through external description. The tone of mimesis is generally dramatic, whereas the tone of diegesis is descriptive. Both diegesis and mimesis are used across multiple literary genres, but in varying ways depending on the nature of the genre.
The distinction between diegesis and mimesis is found first among ancient authors. Plato (Republic 3.392d) notes that narrators sometimes speak solely in their own voice, as the poet or storyteller, in “plain, unmixed narration” (απλη διηγησις), but can also use direct speech to speak in the voices of individual characters, making “narration through mimesis” (διηγησις δια μιμησεως). Authors like Homer, who speak in both the voice of the narrator and the subject, can do “narration through both” (διηγησις δι’ αμφοτερων). Aristotle (Poetics 1448a) notes than an author can represent his subject (μιμησαιτο), partly by narrative (απαγγελλοντα), and partly by speaking in the voice of another (ετερος), or without making any such change (μη μεταβαλλοντα). Diogenes Laertius (3.50) notes that some dialogues are dramatic (δραματικος) and that others are narratives (διηγηματικος), noting that this distinction applies especially to tragedy and dramatic performance, more so than philosophy.
Given recent scholarly discussion of tragic elements in the Gospels (e.g., Dialogue and Drama: Elements of Greek Tragedy in the Fourth Gospel by Jo-Ann Brant), the dialogues in the Gospels were likely seen as dramatic. On this point, it is worth noting that the historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus was able to recognize the use of diegesis and mimesis in Thucydides. Thucydides’ main narrative technique is to intermix diegetic discussion of the events and circumstances during the Peloponnesian War in chronological order, with orations given in direct speech at crucial moments during the war. Very rarely, however, does Thucydides actually depict characters speaking back and forth in dialogue. In fact, this form of speech only occurs twice in the entire text. One of the instances is with the Ambraciot Herald in 3.113; but the more notable example is with the Melian Dialogue in 5.84-116. In On the Language of Thucydides (37), Dionysius notes that Thucydides begins the Melian Dialogue by relating what each side said in reported speech (διηγηματικον), but after that, Thucydides has the Athenians and the Melians speak back and forth to each other through dialogue, when they exchange arguments. Dionysius states that Thucydides “dramatized” (δραματιζει) this section of the narrative.
If Dionysius could notice this abnormal exception in Thucydides’ otherwise diegetic manner of narration, then it seems very probable that ancient audiences could have recognized such dramatic devices in the Gospels. The Gospels, unlike Thucydides, are filled with dialogues between characters speaking back and forth in direct speech. Given that this is the predominant form of narration, ancient listeners could thus probably discern a difference of genre between a historiographical text like Thucydides and the Gospels. Even when Luke (1.1-4) begins with a historiographical prologue, using a diegetic narrative technique, the following narrative is replete with several dramatic dialogues . I would argue, therefore, that the prologue of Luke should not be the primary feature of the text for discerning its genre.
Greco-Roman historiography is a genre that consists predominantly of diegetic narrative. The historian relates information about places and events from a “bird’s eye view,” and explains the methodology and sources involved in historical reconstruction. Historians like Herodotus and Thucydides also frequently interject historical judgments in the first person, and they likewise write most of their narrative using indirect speech. When direct speech is employed in historiography, the historian can still clarify to the reader that he does not know the exact word of his subject in a number of ways. Thucydides (1.22), for example, overtly states that he had to reconstruct speeches from imperfect memory and secondhand sources. Thucydides likewise uses vocabulary like ελεγε τοιαδε (“he spoke words like these”) to signify paraphrase (e.g., 3.36). When direct speech is employed in historiography, it is generally used to heighten drama at key points in the narrative.
It should also be noted that the concepts of author and narrator are not necessarily synonymous. The voice of the narrator is not always the voice of author, but can also be used as a storytelling device or character apart from the author’s personality. Nevertheless, a key feature of historiography is that the narrator and the author are (generally speaking) the same. Historians like Herodotus and Thucydides tell their narratives in their own voice using their own research. The genre of Greco-Roman historiography, therefore, is not usually anonymous.
Perhaps the most mimetic genres in ancient literature are tragedy and comedy. This is because the entire narratives of plays are voiced by the actors performing the subject. Even stage directions are not included in the texts of ancient plays. Direct speech, therefore, comprises the entire text, making these genres highly mimetic. As J. Barrett (Narrators, Narratees, and Narratives in Ancient Greek Literature, pg. 235) explains:
“Narrative in drama is always more than narrative. It is also, of course, the (speech) act of a character on-stage, the utterance of one of the dramatis personae. Some aspects of these narratives, therefore, are determined not by the workings of the narratives themselves, but rather by their dramatic contexts.”
Speech acts in dramatic contexts likewise occur in both epic poetry and the novel; however, these genres are distinct from tragedy and comedy in that narrators play a greater role in developing the plot.
The genre of epic poetry incorporates important aspects of both diegetic and mimetic narratological techniques. The poet externally narrates scene and action in epic, while the subject is usually given voice through direct speech. Homer, therefore, can describe the setting and circumstances in the Iliad while still having the Greek heroes engage in frequent dialogue. Nevertheless, the role of the narrator is different in epic than in historiography. As noted above, ancient historians narrated their accounts in their own voice, making the author equivalent with narrator. The identity of the narrator is far more ambiguous in epic, however, and generally used as a storytelling device. As Irene de Jong (Narrators, Narratees, and Narratives in Ancient Greek Literature, pg. 14) explains:
“An external, omniscient, and omnipresent narrator is in fact the archetypal narrator of early storytelling.”
This kind of narration makes most epics formally anonymous, in that the identity of the narrator is not the same as that of the author. The ancient novel, as a genre, was most influenced by epic. As Tomas Hägg (The Novel in Antiquity, pg. 110) argues:
“The novel is the genuine heir of epic–in function, in structure, and also from a historical and chronological point of view. The Odyssey is the prototype of the Greek novel, and as such is simply the first novel of love, travel, and adventure in Greek.”
The main difference between these genres is that novels are told in prose, whereas epic is told in verse. The novel employs more simple language, whereas epic is highly elevated. Nevertheless, the role of the narrator in ancient novels is often similar to that of external narrators in epic (though not always, since some ancient novels had internal narrators who were characters within the story). As J. Morgan (Narrators, Narratees, and Narratives in Ancient Greek Literature, pg. 489) explains about the role of narrator in Xenophon of Ephesus’ Ephesian Story, for example:
“The Ephesian Story is narrated by an anonymous external narrator … On no occasion does the narrator speak for himself in the first-person or his narratee in the second, and there is virtually no overt self-referential commentary on the quality of the narration…”
This formal anonymity of the narrator is likewise seen in the Life of Aesop and the Alexander Romance. As Tomas Hägg (The Art of Biography in Antiquity, pg. 99) explains, these popular-novelistic biographies are anonymous in terms of both “origin and transmission,” and do not provide self-referential clues about the identity of the narrator or author.
The Gospels Matthew and Mark are written in the same way. As Armin Baum (“The Anonymity of the New Testament History Books,” pg. 130) explains, these two gospels do not use the narratorial first-person, and provide no clues about the identity of either narrator or author. John (21.24) references an anonymous “disciple whom Jesus loved” as the source for the gospel, but neither names this figure nor equates him with the narrator of the text. Luke (1.1) is the only gospel in which the author refers to himself in the first-person; however, he neither names himself nor identifies himself as narrator, but only dedicates the work to Theophilus. Given that Luke adapts so much material from Mark and redacts this material into new topical arrangements, in an episodic structure similar to Mark, the role of the narrator is likely similar in Luke to that of the narrator in Mark, thus making the text formally anonymous.
As I note in my essay “Are the Gospels Ancient Biographies?: The Spectrum of Ancient Βίοι,” Greco-Roman biography is a highly fluid genre that is difficult to define. A biography tells the life of an individual, but the structure and content of ancient bioi and vitae can vary substantially. My dissertation will argue that the genre of biography is so diverse, in part, because it is largely derivative of other literary genres. Greco-Roman biography was influenced by historiography, as well as by tragedy, epic, and the novel. Biographers like Plutarch and Suetonius modeled their narratives more closely on historiography. While Plutarch (Life of Alexander 1.1-3) acknowledged that biography is distinct from historiography, in that the former emphasized anecdote and examination of an individual’s ethos, he nevertheless drew this distinction more so on the basis of content than literary form. Plutarch still engages in the critical analysis of sources, uses the first person to interject authorial judgments, and likewise uses direct speech sparingly. In contrast, texts like the Life of Aesop and the Alexander Romance, in addition to the Gospels, I argue more closely resemble the narrative techniques used in ancient novels.
I will conclude with an example of how diegetic narrative techniques are used by a historical biographer, like Suetonius, versus the mimetic narrative techniques used by a novelistic biographer, like the author of Matthew. Both Suetonius and Matthew like to group related material together into topical sections. Miracles that appear at different locations in the narrative of Mark, for example, are grouped together by the author of Matthew into the same chapter. As B.C. Beaton (“How Matthew Writes,” pg. 125) explains:
“Numerous other themes are taken up and transmuted into new formulations. Matthew adopts the Marcan miracle stories, retaining their existential character, yet his use departs from the context of Mark’s cosmic battle. Instead, Matthew collects a larger group of miracle stories from his various sources and inserts them into a complex structure (chs. 8-9).”
This kind of topical organizing paradigm is very similar to how Suetonius writes the individual chapters in his biographies. In his Life of Julius (25), for example, Suetonius summarizes Julius Caesar’s major military successes and defeats during the Gallic War in a single chapter, grouping together events that span nine years apart. When doing so, Suetonius’ narrative technique is highly diegetic, in that he is simply reporting a related group of events, rather than dramatically depicting how they took place. Here is what Suetonius writes:
“During the nine years of his command this is in substance what he did. All that part of Gaul which is bounded by the Pyrenees, the Alps and the Cévennes, and by the Rhine and Rhone rivers, a circuit of some 3,200 miles, with the exception of some allied states which had rendered him good service, he reduced to the form of a province; and imposed upon it a yearly tribute of 40,000,000 sesterces. He was the first Roman to build a bridge and attack the Germans beyond the Rhine; and he inflicted heavy losses upon them. He invaded the Britons too, a people unknown before, vanquished them, and exacted moneys and hostages. Amid all these successes he met with adverse fortune but three times in all: in Britain, where his fleet narrowly escaped destruction in a violent storm; in Gaul, when one of his legions was routed at Gergovia; and on the borders of Germany, when his lieutenants Titurius and Aurunculeius were ambushed and slain.”
The author of Matthew likewise groups Jesus’ miracles together into topical sections. But, unlike Suetonius, he does not simply provide a list of Jesus’ miracles, but instead dramatically depicts them, scene by scene, through spatial transitions between each location in which they take place, in addition to including dramatic dialogues. In this way, Matthew “sets the stage,” as it were, for Jesus to perform miracles, which is a highly mimetic way of writing. Consider the following summary of miracles in chapter 8 and the transitional clauses that are added to “set the stage” for each scene:
Matthew 8.1-4: Jesus heals a man with leprosy
“When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, ‘Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.’”
Matthew 8.5-13: The faith of the centurion
“When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help.”
Matthew 8.14-17: Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law
“When Jesus came into Peter’s house, he saw Peter’s mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever.”
Matthew 8.18-22: Confrontation with a teacher of the law
“When Jesus saw the crowd around him, he gave orders to cross to the other side of the lake. Then a teacher of the law came to him and said, ‘Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.’”
Matthew 8.23-27: Jesus calms the storm
“Then he got into the boat and his disciples followed him. Suddenly a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping.”
Matthew 8.28-34: Jesus heals two demon-possessed men
“When he arrived at the other side in the region of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men coming from the tombs met him. They were so violent that no one could pass that way.”
Here, Matthew appears to want to make a topical arrangement of Jesus’ miracles, by grouping them together in a couple chapters (8-9). However, unlike Suetonius, Matthew cannot merely “tell” (diegesis) a summary of Jesus’ miracles; instead, Matthew has to “show” (mimesis) Jesus’ miracles, by having him transition to different scenes, in which Matthew stages Jesus to perform the miracles. This form of narration is likewise mimetic in a source-critical sense, in that Matthew not only borrows the miracles from earlier sources, such as Mark, but also redacts them by placing them at a different section of the narrative (e.g., the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law occurs much earlier in Mark, at 1.29-34). Nevertheless, Matthew appears to be doing a similar topical arrangement as Suetonius, but the author is bound by the dramatic and storytelling nature of the his gospel to give a more scenic and spatially transitioned narrative, even to material that he has arranged topically.
I sometimes wonder what it would be like, if an author like Suetonius had written a gospel about Jesus. Could Suetonius have organized Jesus’ miracles and teachings into topical lists, as he does with his biographies of the Roman emperors? It would certainly be an interesting text to read, if he had done so. But it should be noted that none of the NT Gospels are written in the same way as Suetonius’ biographies. Even when the author of Matthew has a similar organizing strategy in mind, by grouping different material from his sources into topically related chapters, he still has to depict them dramatically, by “setting the stage” for each event, rather than simply providing a topical list.
It should also be noted that, since this dramatic representation requires chronological and geographical transitions between Jesus’ activities, and yet is drawn from different portions of the narrative than Matthew’s sources, it creates confusion over what was the actual timeline of Jesus’ ministry. None of the Gospels provide a clear or consistent chronology for when different portions of Jesus’ ministry took place, nor a precise map of how he traveled. If a historical author had written about Jesus, we might have a clearer picture of this chronology and geography, but instead we only have dramatic representations, arranged at different portions of the Gospels’ narratives . This circumstance no doubt owes much to the Gospels’ mimetic, as opposed to diegetic, narrative techniques.
 It should be noted that when I use the term “mimesis” in this essay, it has a slightly different meaning than mimetic criticism. Mimetic criticism deals with the sources used by a text, and how narratives are fashioned on previous literary models. In this essay, I use the term “mimesis” to instead refer to voicing and performing the words and actions of the subject, in contrast to reporting or describing them.
 On this point, it is worth pointing out that the historian Herodotus occasionally uses dialogues in his History. Like Thucydides, however, their use is rare and usually reserved for scenes that are especially dramatic. One example is the dialogue between Croesus and Solon. This scene is highly didactic and meant to illustrate moral lessons, and so, Herodotus scripts Croesus and Solon arguing over what is the meaning of happiness and fortune in life. It’s a powerful scene, but it should also be noted that modern historians doubt that such an exchange ever actually took place. The dialogue is legendary rather than historical.
 One can usefully contrast the lack of chronological and geographical clarity for the precise timeline of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospels with how Suetonius gives such a timeline for Julius Caesar’s actions during his during his civil war with Pompey. In his Life of Caesar (34), Suetonius writes:
“The sum total of his movements after that is, in their order, as follows: He overran Umbria, Picenum, and Etruria, took prisoner Lucius Domitius, who had been irregularly named his successor, and was holding Corfinium with a garrison, let him go free, and then proceeded along the Adriatic to Brundisium, where Pompey and the consuls had taken refuge, intending to cross the sea as soon as might be. After trying by every kind of hindrance to prevent their sailing, he marched off to Rome, and after calling the senate together to discuss public business, went to attack Pompey’s strongest forces, which were in Spain under command of three of his lieutenants — Marcus Petreius, Lucius Afranius, and Marcus Varro — saying to his friends before he left ‘I go to meet an army without a leader, and I shall return to meet a leader without an army.’ And in fact, though his advance was delayed by the siege of Massilia, which had shut its gates against him, and by extreme scarcity of supplies, he nevertheless quickly gained a complete victory.”
None of the Gospels provide such a clear account of Jesus’ movements, in part because they were probably no longer known by the time in which the Gospels were written.
This post, and your manner of writing in general, make me feel warmer.
A humanistic needle in the techno-haystack.
Matt, I appreciate your analysis of Greek literature and your comparison with the Gospels. I wonder, however, if such a comparison is particularly helpful in determining whether the Gospels should be considered as novels or biography or history.
As I read back through the Old Testament, the mimesis narrative technique dominates. It is the story telling technique used in almost all Hebrew stories, and stories as a genre dominate in the biblical narrative, even in the history sections. The Gospels follow that tradition.
It seems to me that classifying the various pieces of the Old Testament or the Gospels as to genre – epic, story, biography, history, etc. – must depend on something other than a comparison with the genre and their characteristics of Greek literature, unless we are willing to classify all Old Testament narrative literature as epic or novel. But that appears to ignore the fact that that those who read these stories throughout the biblical period read them as history and not as fiction.
Could these early readers have been mistaken? Or is there something else going on? Perhaps they understood that the history told in the books of Genesis, Kings, Ezra, et al. is written in a mimetic style using direct dialogue rather than indirect to, as you say, “heighten drama.”
If that is the case, we are asking the wrong question regarding the genre of the Gospels. And we are probably getting the wrong answer.
I prefer to think of the Gospels as historically based stories that were designed as tracts presenting the person of Jesus as Messiah (Gospel of Matthew) or Son of God (Gospel of John) or Son of Man (Gospel of Luke). They were not intended to present the life of Jesus chronologically as a biography might. They were not intended as mere history; they were history interpreted.
I don’t know if there is a particular genre into which the Gospels fit other than the genre they have always been called, εὐαγγελίῳ.
Well, the thing is that we also have Greek popular biographies that resemble the mimetic narrative techniques in the Gospels, such as the Alexander Romance and the Life of Aesop. In these texts, we see few (if any) instances of authorial interjections, far more narrative space given to action, as opposed to critical analysis, and (perhaps most importantly) several dramatic dialogues. These texts are also roughly contemporary with the Gospels, particularly the Life of Aesop.
What the popular biographies above can offer as a comparison, which the OT historical books cannot, is their focus on the life and travels of a single individual. All three examples (the Gospels and the two Romances) have the biographical subject’s names in the titles, the subject performs most of the verbs in the narrative, speaks most of the words, and also has the narrative either begin with his birth, or with an account of his early life, while ending with his death (and divine vindication).
That kind of biographical structure is not common of the OT historical books, but it is common of Greek-Roman biography, including both historiographical biographers (such as Plutarch and Suetonius) and novelistic biographers (such as the Romances). But, as I have noted, the historiographical biographers tend to use diegetic narrative techniques, whereas the novelistic biographers use mimetic narrative techniques, similar to the Gospels. So in this regard, I align the Gospels more closely with the novelistic Lives.
When it comes to OT genre criticism, although we call the OT historical books “histories,” they don’t actually meet that definition according to ancient literary types. They weren’t originally called ἱστορία, and we shouldn’t conflate them with the Greek genre. Joshua through Esther are actually a blend of genres, and some of the books have been patched together by different sources.
You are right that they are more mimetic in narration, but there are important similarities that the novelistic biographies I mention share with the Gospels, which the OT historical books do not. One is the multiformity and redaction of biographical pericopes. If you notice from the discussion above, Matthew takes different pericopes from Jesus’ miracles and teachings in Mark, and re-arranges them into a new organizational paradigm in his text. The Alexander Romance and Life of Aesop do the same thing across different recensions. Likewise, the anecdotal chreia, which consist of sayings and deeds of the subjects, is a major component of what makes up the pericopes, and it’s a generic type that comes from Greek rhetorical handbooks like the progymnasmata, not from Jewish literary forms.
It is true that by Second Temple Judaism the historical veracity of the OT accounts was more or less accepted, and seems to be referred to as fact in the NT. Then again, the Greeks during this period also didn’t doubt the historical truth of the Trojan War. On the other hand, they did question whether Homer told the Trojan War accurately. The difference may be that Homer was seen as a poet, whereas the OT books were seen as scripture. But simply being taken as authoritative as scripture doesn’t mean that their truth was understood in the same sense as a historiographical account, per se.
I agree that, while I do think the Gospels have a biographical frame, they also contain tractates of Jesus’ teachings, and were meant to serve for instruction, doctrine, and a model of Christian conduct. On this point, my dissertation will argue that they serve as a hybrid genre with Greek philosophical biographies and even a little bit of political biographies. Konstan and Walsh have a chapter in Writing Biography in Greece and Rome which argues that the Gospels are a blend between novelistic biographies and the civic kind. They use the narrative conventions of novelistic Lives, and share their themes of subverting conventional morality, but also share the civic themes of providing a model for emulation and teaching (which is somewhat lacking in the Alexander Romance and the Life of Aesop).
That said, while the Gospels do share some of the civi biographical emphasis on teaching and emulation, they lack its historiographical component of discussing sources or doing critical analysis. In this regard, the novelistic narratology dominates. This is problematic, because the historical Jesus was an obscure figure. Without knowing where the Gospel authors obtained their information, it becomes quite difficult to assess their reliability, and in this regard I do think that their novelistic narratology undercuts the degree to which the historicity of the narratives can be verified.
As a note too, framing this as “genre criticism” may come off as too narrow a methodological framework. What I am actually doing is comparative literature. In my dissertation, I will actually be doing the section on genre theory at the end, since I want to accumulate the data and parallels first, and then assess the theory for how it all fits together. I don’t want to shoehorn my approach into an a priori theoretical framework. I’ve been amassing many parallels that the Gospels share with novelistic biographies like the Alexander Romances and the Life of Aesop. We’ll see where that goes…