The Historical Reliability of Popular Biographies, Part 1: Framing the Comparison

Recently on Κέλσος I have been discussing the generic features that the NT Gospels share with Greek popular-novelistic biographies. Such features include the simple vocabulary and sentence structure found in these texts (as I discussed in my most recent post), which distinguish popular biographies from the more elevated and critical styles of historical biographers, such as Plutarch and Suetonius. I have likewise discussed how popular biographies more closely resemble ancient novels in their frequent use of direct speech and dialogue, versus the indirect speech and paraphrase that is more characteristic of ancient historiography. Another major criterion that I have discussed is formal anonymity and open textuality. The Synoptic Gospels, especially, are distinct from elite biographers in their open borrowing and redaction of material from earlier texts, which is very different from how authors like Plutarch and Suetonius, who wrote in a unique and original style, would compose. In contrast, popular biographies–such as the Alexander Romance, Life of Aesop, and Certamen of Homer and Hesiod –would all freely adapt material from earlier textual sources.

The features that I have described above are all text-immanent, in that they pertain to the language, style, and composition of a text. But another major question that will no doubt arise from this comparison is: How do other popular-novelistic biographies compare to the Gospels, in terms of their historical reliability?

McGrath 8

James McGrath, The Burial of Jesus (pg. 57)

A major difference between historical criticism and genre criticism is that historical criticism is concerned primarily with the “real” world outside the text. History is concerned with investigating real people, places, and events that have existed in the physical world. We often use ancient literature to learn such information, especially when we lack other forms of archaeological and documentary evidence. As I discuss in my essay “History, Probability, and Miracles,” however, the study of ancient literature is not a very reliable method for knowing about the past, particularly because ancient authors could easily fabricate false information by erring in their description, embellishing persons and events, spreading unverified claims and rumors, or even through outright lying, such as producing forgeries. In many cases, however, we only have ancient literature to learn certain things about the past, when no other forms of evidence are available. In the case of the historical Jesus, our entire knowledge of him is dependent solely upon ancient literature, and primarily Christian literature written from a devotional point of view.

A major point that should be emphasized in discussing genre criticism, however, is that historical accuracy is not something that defines a literary genre. There are, in fact, several forms of fictional narrative that discuss real people, places, and events in the physical world. Take William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, for example. Although this play includes a number of inaccurate details about Caesar’s assassination, it for the most part hews toward depicting a real historical event. In contrast, simply belonging to the genre of history does not entail that a text is historically accurate. Plutarch’s Life of Theseus and Life of Romulus, for example, are both historical biographies about mythical individuals who probably did not exist.

What especially makes historical accuracy inadequate for identifying literary genre is that it is concerned with matters extrinsic to the text itself. In contrast, the language, style, and compositional features of a text are intrinsic to the text itself. For identifying the literary genre of the Gospels, therefore, these internal features and how they compare to other literature from the same time period should take precedent. And so, as I have argued, the Gospels most closely resemble Greek popular-novelistic biographies, in terms of these internal features.

ThomasBut, that being said, I am likewise interested in the historical criticism of popular-novelistic biographies, as well. And so, I will share below some of the research that I did last academic quarter in a historical Jesus seminar that I took under NT scholar Christine Thomas. In the seminar, I investigated the historical reliability and verisimilitude of the Alexander Romance, and how this text compares to the NT Gospels. This research topic was especially fitting, because Dr. Thomas has written a book on the ancient novel and gospel literature, which makes comparisons with the Alexander RomanceThe Acts of Peter, Gospel Literature, and the Ancient Novel: Rewriting the Past. Below I interact with Dr. Thomas’ own research in my analysis.

In this first post, I will discuss the theoretical meaning of “historical reliability,” and how it is far more difficult to draw comparisons between two texts on the basis of historical reliability, than it is to draw comparisons on the basis of genre and literary conventions. I will also lay out some of the difficulties for comparing the Alexander Romance with the Gospels, in terms of historical reliability, but will further explain why it is the best comparison text for the Gospels available, out of our limited selection of popular-novelistic biographies that survive from antiquity. In some subsequent writing, I will compare and contrast the historicity of the AR and the Gospels, in greater detail.

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Grammatiki Karla on Ancient Greek Popular Literature, Part 1: Language and Style

Writing Biography in Greece and RomeSeeing that I will be comparing the NT Gospels to the genre of Greek popular-novelistic biography in my Ph.D. dissertation, a major component of this project will be identifying the features and characteristics of “popular literature.” Fortunately, a new academic book on Greco-Roman biography just came out this year (published just last May) which deals with this topic–Writing Biography in Greece and Rome: Narrative Technique and Fictionalization. There is a collection of chapters in the book, written by different authors, on a variety of issues pertaining to Greco-Roman biography. Luckily, the book deals with Kleinliteratur, in addition to elite and scholarly biographies, and so there is a chapter on the Life of Aesop

The chapter about the Life of Aesop is written by Grammatiki Karla, and is titled “Life of Aesop: Fictional Biography as Popular Literature?.” As the title suggests, Karla’s chapter deals with the defining attributes of “popular literature” and how they can be identified in the Life of Aesop. Although Karla’s chapter only briefly mentions the Alexander Romance (pg. 49) and the Gospel of Mark (pg. 56), many of the attributes that are discussed likewise bear heavily upon these texts. In this post (part 1), I will summarize Karla’s discussion of “popular literature,” particularly under the first subsection, “Language – Style,” and how I think that her analysis can be applied likewise to the genre of the Gospels. In a subsequent post (part 2), I will also summarize the other subsections in the chapter.

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Idealized Portraits of Jesus, Alexander the Great, and Aesop

I have been busy working on my dissertation recently, which has taken away some time from blogging, but today I will (briefly) share something interesting from my research.

The topic of my dissertation is an analysis of the generic and thematic features that the NT Gospels share with the Alexander Romance and the Life of Aesop. This topic also has overlap with other books in the New Testament, particularly the Book of Revelation, which I previously compared to Alexander’s Letter to Olympias in book 2 of the Alexander Romance, in my essay “Eschatology in Alexander’s Letter to Olympias and the Book of Revelation.” An interesting theme that is shared between the ancient literature about Jesus Christ, Alexander the Great, and the fabulist Aesop is the use of idealized portraits in their physical descriptions. All of these descriptions are over the top, and are meant to convey symbolism.

Although Jesus’ physical appearance is not discussed in the canonical Gospels [1], there is a very interesting portrait of Jesus that is given at the beginning of the Book of Revelation. When John of Patmos is writing to seven churches in the province of Asia, he describes a vision in which Jesus appears to him. This Jesus is not the one who is depicted before his death in the Gospels, but is instead the resurrected Jesus who has ascended to Heaven, and who now appears with some considerable bodily enhancements. Here is the portrait of Jesus that John describes (Revelation 1:12-16):

Portrait of Jesus“And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.”

Now, clearly this portrait of Jesus is meant to be taken symbolically. In fact, just a few lines down, Revelation 1:20 explains that the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches that John is writing to. The reference to “someone like a son of man” is to Daniel 7:13-14, where a figure “like a son of man” is described, who will be a cosmic judge that will be given power over all the nations of the world. This figure is also described in Daniel 7:9 as having “clothing as white as snow” and “hair as white as wool,” and so it is clear that the author of Revelation is modeling Jesus on the figure described in this passage.

What is interesting about both the Alexander Romance and the Life of Aesop is that they similarly use embellished portraits to convey symbolic imagery. This is in large part a function of popular-novelistic biographies, which are not meant to engage in the kind psychological and critical analysis typical of historiographical Greco-Roman biographies, such as those of Plutarch and Suetonius, but instead are intended to depict symbolic histories of their subjects. And so, in the Alexander Romance, for example, we do not get a terribly accurate physical description of the historical Alexander’s appearance, but instead a romanticized portrait that conveys his greater nature. Here is how Alexander is described (Alexander Romance 1.13):

Screenshot 2016-06-26 at 9.19.44 AM“When [Alexander] became a man, his appearance was not like Philip’s and, indeed, not even like his mother Olympias’ … he was a type all of his own. Indeed, he had the shape of a man, but he had the mane of a lion and eyes of different colors–the right eye black, the left grey–and teeth as sharp as a serpent’s; he displayed the energy of a lion. And there was no doubt of how his nature would turn out” [2].

Now, as with Jesus’ description in Revelation, Alexander is also being modeled on a previous mythical archetype in this passage. The reference to the “mane of a lion” is clearly meant to allude to the demigod Hercules, who wore the pelt of a lion. The “teeth as sharp as a serpent’s” are perhaps also a reference to Hercules strangling snakes in his cradle. I have discussed in my essay “Patterns of Myth-Making Between the Lives of Alexander the Great and Jesus Christ” how, even during his lifetime and among eyewitnesses, legendary stories about Alexander emerged that compared him to figures like Hercules and Achilles. This description in the Alexander Romance is clearly based on such stories. Like Jesus, Alexander’s portrait his symbolic. As the passage explains, his appearance revealed how his true “nature” would turn out, perhaps suggesting that Alexander would travel the world as a second Hercules.

The description of Aesop in the Life of Aesop is certainly less flattering, and may appear as less than ideal. But this first appearance is deceiving (and meant to be). Aesop is depicted as misshapen and remarkably ugly, to the point of being symbolically so. Here is how Aesop is described (Life of Aesop 1):

Portrait of Aesop“The fabulist Aesop, the great benefactor of mankind, was … of loathsome aspect, worthless as a servant, potbellied, misshapen of head, snub-nosed, swarthy, dwarfish, bandy-legged, short-armed, squint-eyed, liver-lipped–a portentous monstrosity. In addition to this he had a defect more serious than his unsightliness in being speechless, for he was dumb and could not talk” [3].

Now, why is this appearance so deceiving? Because Aesop’s outer ugliness both disguises and contrasts with his true inner beauty. Although Aesop may appear hideous, he is filled with wisdom and the power to speak in fables. At first, he is mute and cannot speak. But later in the biography, Isis (or Fortune) grants Aesop the power of speech, and soon he begins to outwit both his masters and great kings alike with his cleverness and fables.

Once more, like Jesus and Alexander, Aesop is being modeled on a previous archetype. In this case, Aesop’s ugliness is probably an allusion to the philosopher Socrates. Like Aesop, Socrates was thought to be a very ugly man, but this appearance was misleading, and contrasted with his true inner nature. In Plato’s Theaetetus (143e), Socrates is described as being far from handsome, with a “snub nose” and “protruding eyes.” What’s interesting is that Aesop’s comparison with Socrates was probably a later tradition about his life. As Tomas Hägg (The Art of Biography in Antiquity, pg. 133) explains, “Aesop’s excessive ugliness is likely … a Hellenistic addition to the characterization; there is no certain traces of it in the older tradition.” And so, as the stories about Aesop evolved over time, his appearance was eventually idealized into symbolic ugliness, very likely in imitation of Socrates.

What I find interesting about all of these idealized portraits is that they emerge from the subject being modeled on previous archetypes. Jesus is modeled on the figure “like a son of man” described in the Book of Daniel, Alexander is modeled on Hercules, and Aesop on Socrates. This pattern is very similar to the one that I discussed in my previous essay about how legendary development often occurs when an individual is modeled in imitation of previous mythical archetypes. Such imitation apparently has the ability not only to fashion legendary stories and anecdotes about a person, but also embellishments of their physical appearance, as well.

-Matthew Ferguson

[1] Although Jesus’ physical appearance is not explicitly discussed in the Gospels, it is alluded to in the scene of the transfiguration, which is included in each of the Synoptic Gospels. In the Gospel of Mark (9:2-4), the scene is described as follows:

TransfigurationAfter six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.”

Like the idealized portraits discussed above, this depiction of Jesus is also based on previous mythical archetypes, in that both Moses and the prophet Elijah appear alongside Jesus. In this way, the physical appearance of Jesus is likewise embellished in the Synoptic Gospels.

[2] For this passage, I have used Ken Dowden’s translation.

[3] For this passage, I have used Lloyd Daly’s translation.

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Patterns of Myth-Making Between the Lives of Alexander the Great and Jesus Christ

Greek Alexander RomanceRecently on Κέλσος I have been discussing the Alexander Romance and some of the similarities that this mythical biography of Alexander the Great shares with the New Testament Gospels. The earliest Greek version of the Alexander Romance that we possess dates to the 2nd-4th centuries CE, which is a number of centuries after Alexander’s death. Nevertheless, the Alexander Romance functioned as an ‘open text,’ meaning that it was added to and redacted for several centuries following its earliest composition. Due to this fact, the first version of the Romance that we possess almost certainly was not the first that was written.

The leading Classicist to study the subject, Richard Stoneman, dates the Alexander Romance to as early as the beginning of the 3rd century BCE, only a generation or two after Alexander’s death (323 BCE). Even if the Alexander Romance had been written much later, however, the text certainly makes use of eyewitness and contemporary source materials that were written during or shortly after Alexander’s lifetime. One of the sources used by the Romance is Onesicritus, who was a personal traveling companion of Alexander, who nevertheless claimed that Alexander had met with mythical Amazonian warriors on his journeys. As B.P. Reardon (Collected Ancient Greek Novels, pg. 651) points out, “It comes as a shock to realize how quickly historians fictionalized Alexander.”

The first version of the Alexander Romance that we possess contains a number of geographical and chronological errors. Since the text evolved through several centuries of composition, however, many of the greatest errors in the narrative are simply later additions. One example is Alexander’s journey to Rome (AR 1.28), which never historically took place, since the historical Alexander the Great only journeyed to the East. This error is almost certainly a later addition, however, which was added to the text during the period of the Roman Empire. As the Alexander Romance evolved over the centuries, new stories were added to the text in order to have Alexander visit new locations where the Romance was being read. The first versions, therefore, probably contained less geographical and chronological errors than the later versions.

The Alexander Romance likewise contains symbolic locations, which are not meant to be taken literally. As Alexander travels beyond Persia into lands unknown to the Greco-Roman world, he begins to encounter increasingly marvelous phenomena in the narrative. These include descriptions of lands where “the sun does not shine” (2.39) and giant humans with “forearms and hands like saws” (2.32). These descriptions, however, are not referring to literal places and people. As I explain in my previous essay, “Eschatology in Alexander’s Letter to Olympias and the Book of Revelation,” such imagery is used figuratively to illustrate Alexander’s journey to the end of the Earth. This portion of the narrative has many eschatological themes similar to the Book of Revelation, which also describes marvelous phenomena, such as creatures with “six wings covered with eyes all around” (4:6-8), which likewise are not meant to be taken literally. Furthermore, some of the recensions of the Alexander Romance even omit such details. Recension α, for example, does not include the Letter to Olympias, which contains many of the most marvelous descriptions in the Romance. Recension α, therefore, is a relatively less fabulous version of the text than recension β.

Six-Winged Creatures

For the purposes of myth-making, however, the dating and accuracy of the Alexander Romance is largely irrelevant to its value as a comparison text for the Gospels. This is because the eyewitness and contemporary sources used by the Romance date back to stories that were being told about Alexander during his lifetime and shortly after. The myths that were developing about Alexander during this period bear many similarities to the stories that were told about Jesus 40-60 years after his death. To be sure, Alexander is not a duplicate of Jesus, due to the fact that there are important differences between any two figures of history. But the patterns of myth-making that surrounded both individuals and developed rapidly after their lives share a number of similar themes.

The most common form of myth-making seen between Alexander and Jesus is the modeling of their characters upon previous heroic archetypes. Even before the Alexander Romance was written, Alexander was being compared to figures like Hercules and Achilles. Likewise, prior to the composition of the Gospels, Jesus was being compared to figures like Moses, David, Elijah, and Elisha. This modeling upon heroic archetypes resulted in a number of inventions and embellishments being told about each figure, in order to liken them to their mythical counterparts. Below I will lay out some of the common myth-making patterns shared between Alexander and Jesus.

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Eschatology in Alexander’s Letter to Olympias and the Book of Revelation

Amitay 3I have been writing recently on Κέλσος about the topic of my dissertation, which identifies the NT Gospels as belonging to the genre of Greek popular-novelistic biography, through a comparison with the Alexander Romance and the Life of Aesop. The comparison of Alexander the Great in the Romance with Jesus Christ in the Gospels is especially enlightening, since both Alexander and Jesus were historical persons, who had fabulous accounts written about their lives within only a couple generations after their deaths [1]. Both were likewise called the “Son of God” (discussed by Ory Amitay in From Alexander to Jesus) [2], and both were attributed dual paternity, with Alexander being the son of Philip of Macedon and the Egyptian god Ammon, and with Jesus being the son of Joseph of Nazareth and the Jewish god Yahweh [3]. Both Alexander and Jesus were also considered to be “king of kings.” 

What is especially interesting about the Alexander Romance, however, is that it also has similarities with more books in the New Testament than just the Gospels. In this post, I will discuss a similarity that the Alexander Romance shares with the Book of Revelation, in a lengthy letter that Alexander sends to his mother Olympias at the end of book two. Alexander’s letter is to a certain extent apocalyptic, in that it makes multiple predictions of Alexander’s death. But the greatest similarity that the Letter to Olympias shares with the Book of Revelation is that both texts are heavily eschatological, in that they each discuss the end of the Earth. In Revelation, the Earth is destroyed by the second coming of Jesus, whereas in the Letter to Olympias, Alexander travels to the end of the Earth. Both texts are filled with surreal imagery and read almost like a dream. Below is my analysis:

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Homeric Mimesis in the Alexander Romance

Recently I posted a guest blog by NT scholar Dennis MacDonald, which discusses the possible use of Homeric mimesis in the canonical Gospels, particularly the Gospel of Mark. Mimesis of earlier literature is a common literary technique found in the genre of Greek popular-novelistic biography, which I argue is the genre that the Gospels most resemble in Hellenistic literature. Even if one does not grant that the Gospels imitate Homer, however, it is still widely accepted among NT scholars that the Gospels imitate the language, tropes, and characters of the Greek Septuagint, and thus model Jesus off of OT figures such as Moses, David, Elijah, and Elisha.

The same is true for the Life of Aesop, which is a philosophical biography blended with heavy novelistic elements. In the biography Aesop is modeled off of famous Greek philosophers, such as Diogenes and Socrates. In the latter case, a clear echo of Socrates is heard in the Life of Aesop (25) when the philosopher Xanthos asks him, “What do you know how to do?,” to which Aesop replies, “Nothing at all.” When Xanthos asks, “Why do you say nothing,” one of his students responds, “No man alive knows everything. That’s why he said he knew nothing.” This imitates Socrates’ declaration in Plato’s Apology (29b), where he states that he knows only one thing: that he knows nothing.

Socrates Quote

I likewise discuss in this earlier post how Alexander is modeled off of Odysseus in the Alexander Romance (1.21), when he drives out Philip’s wedding banquet (as Philip was in the process of marrying another woman than his mother), which mimics Odysseus driving out the suitors from his house in the Odyssey. Below I will discuss another instance of Homeric mimesis in the Alexander Romance, which this time imitates the cycle of the Trojan War.

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Mary Magdalene and Judas Iscariot Never Existed: The Author of the Gospel of Mark Created Them (Guest Blog by New Testament Scholar Dennis MacDonald)

MacDonaldBelow is a guest blog that NT scholar Dennis MacDonald asked me to post here on Κέλσος. MacDonald argues that both Mary Magdalene and Judas Iscariot are fictional characters that never historically existed, but were created by the author of Mark. This post is heavily related to my previous essay, which discusses the creation of fictional characters in the Alexander Romance, namely prince Nicolaus of the Arcarnanians and Lysias the divider.

I should note that my posting of MacDonald’s essay here does not constitute endorsement, since I also think that Mary and Judas could have existed as historical persons (or been invented for reasons other than Homeric mimesis). Nevertheless, I likewise think that MacDonald’s hypothesis is interesting and certainly plausible. Below is MacDonald’s essay:

I’ve had enough! I’m writing this paper at 4:00 a.m. March 28, 2016, the day after Easter. Throughout Holy Week New Testament scholars, many of whom are not only my colleagues but my friends, have naively proposed in various popular media some variation on the historical Judas and Magdalene and how later tradition reshaped and contested their legacies. I heard no one challenging the presumption that such characters actually existed, even though the earliest Christian records don’t mention them, namely the authentic epistles of Paul and the lost Gospel Q, which I prefer to call the Logoi of Jesus. They both first appear in Christian texts in the Gospel of Mark, and every single reference to them later issues—whether directly or indirectly—from that single work. The existence of both characters thus depends on one’s assessment of what Mark says about them. This not to say that later both characters became exceedingly and controversial dramatis personae in Jesus narratives and their interpretations, but both first appear in Mark, who frequently created character with significant names.

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