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?
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.
But, 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 Romance—The 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.