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

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

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

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

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

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

“Meanwhile this book, intended to do honour to Agricola, my father-in-law, will, as an expression of filial regard, be commended, or at least excused.”

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

TacitusI remember that he used to tell us how in his early youth he would have imbibed a keener love of philosophy than became a Roman and a senator, had not his mother’s good sense checked his excited and ardent spirit. It was the case of a lofty and aspiring soul craving with more eagerness than caution the beauty and splendour of great and glorious renown. But it was soon mellowed by reason and experience, and he retained from his learning that most difficult of lessons—moderation.”

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

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

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

Plutarch“This is the account which most of the participants give of the battle, although they themselves confess that they were ignorant of its details, owing to the disorder and the unequal fortunes of the several groups. At a later time, when I was travelling through the plain, Mestrius Florus, one of the men of consular rank who were at that time with Otho (by constraint, and not of their own will), pointed out to me an ancient temple, and told me how, as he came up to it after the battle, he saw a heap of dead bodies so high that those on top of it touched the gable of the temple.”

The biographer Suetonius discusses several eyewitness recollections, both from within his family, as well from own experiences. In his Life of Caligula (19.3), for example, Suetonius describes his grandfather’s recollections about a spectacle that the emperor Caligula performed in the Bay of Naples:

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

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

SuetoniusMy father Suetonius Laetus took part in that war, as a tribune of the equestrian order in the Thirteenth legion. He used often to declare afterwards that Otho, even when he was a private citizen, so loathed civil strife, that at the mere mention of the fate of Brutus and Cassius at a banquet he shuddered; that he would not have engaged with Galba, if he had not felt confident that the affair could be settled peacefully; further, that he was led to hold his life cheap at that time by the example of a common soldier.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Questions of whether the events described in the “we” sections of Acts are historical and whether Luke or his source/s witnessed them are unanswerable on the basis of the evidence currently available, as even the staunchest defenders of historicity and eyewitnessing acknowledge. More important, the fact that Acts provides no information and, indeed, by writing anonymously and constructing an anonymous observer, actually withholds information about a putative historical eyewitness, suggests that the first person plural in Acts has to do with narrative, not historical, eyewitnessing.”

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

“It’s not a historical relationship, specifically, what it is, is the author of the fourth gospel allowing you to make that connection, even encouraging you to make that kind of connection, but himself just wanting to hold off a little bit on making that explicit claim.”

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

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

-Matthew Ferguson

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

  1. Pingback: Vridar » Historical versus Spiritual Eyewitnesses

  2. hello sir

    few questions

    1. where is the evidence that jesus’ teaching would have been repeated again and again?
    2. if the teachings are not long but short, than can they be memorised without change?

    in mark jesus says ,

    “for such a reply….”
    to the non-jewish woman who sought help

    matthew changes it to

    “woman great is your faith…”

    in mark, it does not seem that jesus is impressed with her faith, but impressed with her response
    so is it possible that jesus’ response as recorded in mark was remembered again and again ?

    or was it invented by christians in first century to give a chance to non-jews to enter christian version of kingdom of god???

  3. Cicero says:

    Interesting article, and I agree entirely with your literary argument. But where its counter-apologetic relevance is concerned I am less certain. Very well, the Gospels themselves are not eyewitness accounts (which I don’t think can be reasonably disputed) and they contain no direct eyewitness material, but that doesn’t mean eyewitnesses didn’t exist. As late as Quadratus [125 C.E.] appeals to eyewitnesses were being made. When such appeals could be made in the first place, can we assume Christianity took such economies with the truth as you suggest elsewhere (with reference to, say, Jesus’ trial and the Barabbas story)? It’s an argument from silence, but even so.

    I realise, of course, that this question transgresses the intended scope of your article. But Christian apologists tend to expect unreasonable standards of (dis)proof and I generally find it easier (and possible!) to acquiesce.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment! Yes, I do agree that, even if the Gospel authors do not explicitly identify eyewitnesses by name, nor discuss their own personal experiences in the first person singular, they must have drawn on sources and traditions that, at some point, went back to eyewitnesses.

      That being said, I do think it is important, in terms of counter-apologetics, to point out that there is not a single Christian author from the 1st century CE, who unambiguously discusses his/her own experiences seeing the resurrected Jesus in an earthly setting. Paul is the best source for Jesus’ post-mortem appearances, but he does not specify that they happened on earth, face to face. The Gospel authors narrate Jesus appearing to his disciples in Galilee or Jerusalem only in the third person, and the use of the “beloved disciple” in John is hardly an unambiguous eyewitness experience. Considering that the resurrection of Jesus is the most important event in Christianity, I find it remarkable that not a single 1st century author says “I saw Jesus raised from the dead at this place and time.”

      As far as Barabbas goes, I am inclined to think that the Gospels frequently create fictional events through mimetic models, whether it be Jesus walking on water out of imitation of Moses, feeding a whole crowd with bread out of imitation of Elisha, or being born in Bethlehem out of imitation of David. The Barabbas story seems to be doing something similar. While it may not be fully certain, I think the odds of Barabbas being fictional is *at least* 50%, and that’s all you need to make the story historically untenable.

  4. Cicero says:

    Thanks for your reply. What I think makes your approach on this blog particularly effective is that you often demonstrate not only how the evidence is lacking but how the evidence positively points the other way – as where mimetic fiction is not only an “alternative”, but a much better explanation of the facts in question. In my experience one does not loosen the hold Christianity has on the minds of her adherents and potential adherents simply by stating that it is not proven, which counter-apologetic writings too often do.

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