Ancient and Modern Historiography: What Are The Gospels?
January 26, 2012 Leave a comment
Over the years, I have had my share of discussions about the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). There is still an overall skepticism towards them that permeates the culture and college campuses. I have found that many skeptics have never stopped and asked the question, “What Are The Gospels?”
What Are The Gospels?
When we discuss the Gospels with others I don’t think we can ignore the advice of New Testament scholar Ben Witherington who says, “Works of ancient history or biography should be judged by their own conventions.” (1)
For starters, one view of this topic was Dennis R. MacDonald’s Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark. But there was several problems with this approach. To see some of the issues with this approach, see here: Or, to see whether the Gospels are some sort of historical fiction and the problems with this approach, see Glen Miller’s Were the Miracles of Jesus invented by the Disciples/Evangelists?
Therefore, in asking whether the available sources for the life of Jesus are legendary, we should carefully evaluate the genre of the Gospels. In studying for his doctoral dissertation, Richard Burridge, dean of King’s College in London England, researched the genre of the gospels. Burridge says, “Genre is the like a kind of contract between the author and the reader, or between the producers of a programme and the audience, about how they will write or produce something and how you should interpret what they have written.” Therefore, it is important that you know what the genre of the thing is before you come to interpret it.” (2)
Burridge placed special attention on the prologue, verb subjects, allocation of space, mode of representation, length, structure, scale, literary units, use of sources, style, social setting, quality of characterization, atmosphere as well authorial intention and purpose. Because of the gospel’s similarities to these ancient biographies, Burridge concluded that the genre of the gospels is what is called an ancient bioi which near some similarities to Suetonius’s Twelve Ceasars or Plutarch’s Paraell Lives. But just because it can be concluded that the Gospels are Greco-Roman biographies, does that mean they are historical in nature? We probably should take the advice of David Aune when he says, “Greco Roman biography was “intrinsically concerned with history.” (3)
Some of the other aspects of an Ancient Bioi:
Ancient Bioi centered on a particular person and sought to present adequate characterization of that person. The biography would include information about other persons and groups of people, but the major focus of the work would be on central character. The goal of the ancient biographer was often hortatory or exhortational. Burridge says, “Ancient Bioi was a flexible genre having strong relationships with history, encomium and rhetoric, moral philosophy and the concern for character.” (4)
Other issues of Ancient Bioi:
1.The modern desire for precision must not be impose on ancient authors because they wrote in general fashion. Ancient authors were content to use adverbs and other terms for time in a metaphorical or less that precise way. Example- Luke says “Jesus was about 30”
2. The ancient author utilized historical data about the central figure but did so with different purposes.
3. The goal of ancient bioi was to create a lasting impression on the reader.
4. Objection: “Why do the gospels not include more about Jesus’ childhood and early adult years? Because a other aspect of an Ancient Bioi placed little focus on childhood development of the person in question since it was believed that character was basically static and did not develop over time, but rather, was merely revealed.
5. The author’s goal was not to recount all the historic events of the person’s life. The goal was to reveal who the person was through a portrait of words and deeds. If the person’s death took place in a glorious fashion, an ample amount of space had to be devoted to the biography to explain significance of event. This is because of was widely believed in antiquity that how one died revealed one’s true character. Since Jesus was crucified and no one in antiquity saw this as a noble way to die, this explains why the gospels include so much information about this event.
6. The tendency by apply modern historiographical expectations to the gospels makes it difficult to recognize ancient conventions and genre traits that are used in the Gospels such as:
1. Exhaustive or compressive accounts
2. Value-free commentary
3. Ascribing all events to natural causes –ancient authors did not hesitate to mention supernatural events in their narratives of historical events.
4.The avoidance of rhetorical devices and effects (5)
Charles Talbert, who had written the groundbreaking What Is a Gospel? says the following about the Burridge book, “This volume ought to end any legitimate details pf the canonical Gospel’s biographical character” (see his review in Journal of Biblical Literature, 112 (1993).
The Gospel Genre and Historical Intention
In the latest book by Gregory Boyd and Paul Eddy called The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Tradition (pgs 334-335) they note Willem van Unick’s study of how ancient historians understood their work based on Lucian’s How To Write History and Dionysis of Halicarnassus’s Letter to Pompei. From these two works van Unick formulates “ten rules” of ancient historiography. Ancient historians were expected to:
1. Choose a noble subject
2. Choose a subject that would be useful to the intended audience
3. Be impartial and independent in researching and composing their history
4. Construct a good narrative with an especially good beginning and ending
5. Engage in adequate preparatory research
6. Use good judgment in the selection of material, exemplifying appropriate variety
7. Accurately and appropriately order one’s material
8. Make the narrative lively and interesting
9. Exercise moderation in topographal details
10. Compose speeches appropriate to the orator and rhetorical situation
Daniel Marguerat has analyzed Luke’s history writing in the light of Unnick’s ten rules and has arrived at the following conclusion:
“Comparisons of Luke-Acts with the list of historiographal norms confirms that the Lucan writings corresponds to standard Graeco-Roman historiogrpahy. We…find that Luke follows eight of ten rules: his transgression of the other two (the first and the third) points us toward the specificity of Luke’s project. The instructions observed by Luke are also followed by the majority of historians if Hellenistic Judaism, especially Flavius Josephus.”
Boyd and Eddy note that Luke’s apparent violation of rule number one is instructive. Rather than a culturally appropriate noble subject, Luke and his fellow Gospel writers chose as their central focus the life of a Galilean carpenter who was eventually crucified as a false messiah and blasphemer—hardly a “noble subject. “ –pgs 334-335
It is true that the Gospels are not modern biographies. While modern biographers may write to the entire public and no one or group in particular, the Gospels were written to specific Christian audiences for “in house” use.
What needs to be remembered is that just because the Gospels are not biographies in the modern sense, this does not mean they are unreliable. It is important to avoid the fallacy of chronological snobbery which rejects something just because of the date of it is extremely old or what people label as “primitive” or “prescientific.”
We should appreciate the fact that we have access to four biographies from a figure in antiquity such as Jesus.
Furthermore, we want to remember that the Gospels are what William Placher calls “history like-witnesses, to truths both historical and transcendental.” Having said this, there are plenty of historical points that are made in the Gospels that don’t have to be attributed to the miraculous. For example, Luke gives correct titles for the following officials: Cyprus, proconsul (13:7–8); Thessalonica, politarchs (17:6); Ephesus, temple wardens (19:35); Malta, the first man of the island. Each of these has been confirmed by Roman usage. In all, Luke names thirty-two countries, fifty-four cities, and nine islands without an error. (6) He also gives us 84 events, customs, people, locations, etc, which have been confirmed by archaeology in the book of Acts–see The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History by classics scholar Colin Hemer. To see the list of these items, click here:
In his book The Reliability of John’s Gospel, Craig Blomberg has identified 59 people, events, or places that have been confirmed by archaeology such as:
1.The use of stone water jars in the New Testament (John 2:6).
2. The proper place of Jacob’s well (2:8)
3. Josephus in (Wars of the Jews 2.232), confirms there was significant hostility between Jews and Samaritans during Jesus’ time (4:9).
4. “Went Up” accurately describes the ascent to Jerusalem(5:1).
5. Archaeology confirms the existence of the Pool of Siloam (9:7)
6. The obscure and tiny village of Ephraim (11:54) near Jerusalem is mentioned by Josephus.
7. “Come down” accurately describes the topography of western Galilee.(There’s a significant elevation drop from Cana to Capernaum). (4:46;49, 51).
8. Caiaphas was the high priest that year (11:49); we learn from Josephus that Caiaphas held the office from A.D 18-37.
One book that has recently handled the issue of eyewitness testimony issue within the New Testament is Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony by Richard Bauckham. In this book, Bauckham offers a new paridigm called “The Jesus of Testimony.”
New Testament faith is portrayed biblically as knowledge based upon testimony. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that investigates the nature and origin of knowledge. How do we know something? The role of testimony is one of the primary ways humans can know anything about historical events. Bauckham does a superb job in evaluating how testimony can be treated as historical knowledge.
Bauckham also notes the following:
“The Greek word for “eyewitness” (autoptai), does not have forensic meaning, and in that sense the English word “eyewitnesses” with its suggestion of a metaphor from the law courts, is a little misleading. The autoptai are simply firsthand observers of those events.
Bauckham has followed the work of Samuel Byrskog in arguing that while the Gospels though in some ways are a very distinctive form of historiography, they share broadly in the attitude to eyewitness testimony that was common among historians in the Greco-Roman period. These historians valued above all reports of firsthand experience of the events they recounted. Best of all was for the historian to have been himself a participant in the events (direct autopsy). Failing that (and no historian was present at all the events he need to recount, not least because some would be simultaneous), they sought informants who could speak from firsthand knowledge and whom they could interview (indirect autopsy).”
It is my hope that more people will take the time to look at the genre of the books of the Bible and actually attempt to know what it is they are trying to interpret. While this may be a challenge for some people, it can be an incredibly rewarding experience.
1. Ben Witherington III, New Testament History (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 2001), 14-28.
2. Richard Burridge And Graham Gould, Jesus: Then And Now (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 2004), 2.
3. Gregory A. Boyd and Paul R. Eddy, The Jesus Legend: A Case For The Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Tradition (Grand Rapids: Baker Books. 2007), 411.
4. See Richard Burridge, What Are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Graeco Roman Biography (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, Second Edition, 2004).
5. These six points can be found in Witherington’s New Testament History.
6. Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Books. 1999), 431.
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