Monday, February 06, 2017

How The Gospels Compare To Other Ancient Biographies (Part 1)

(This will be a five-part series. I'll put up a post with links to all five parts the day after I post the final segment.)

Late last year, Craig Keener and Edward Wright published Biographies And Jesus (Lexington, Kentucky: Emeth Press, 2016). It's about how the gospels fit within the genre of ancient biography. (There's an appendix on memory and oral tradition, which is distinct from, but relevant to, the main subject of the book.) There are more than a dozen contributors, some of them scholars and others doctoral students. The book carries endorsements from Richard Burridge, James Charlesworth, Helen Bond, Craig Evans, and David Moessner. Keener's chapters are the best, and the book is worth getting for those chapters alone.

In this post and others to follow, I want to quote some highlights from the book and add some observations of my own. Since the book is so lengthy (about 350 pages without the indexes and such and 450 pages with them) and covers so much ground, I'll only be discussing a small percentage of what's addressed there. I'll often quote a sentence or paragraph that summarizes a point, even though there's more of an argument and more documentation in the book. I'll be citing the relevant portions of the book without identifying which author wrote each portion.

On scholarly views of the gospels' genre(s):

A majority of scholars today regard the Gospels as ancient biography. (3)

Critics often object that ancient biographies are significantly different than modern ones. That's true, and I agree that modern biographies are generally better. But the differences are often less substantial than critics suggest, the problems with modern biographies are often underestimated, and ancient biographies are better than modern ones in some contexts. See pages 8-9 and the notes on both pages for some examples.

On how biographies, including the gospels, differ from ancient novels and other fiction:

Biography is the only kind of work about a real, individual historical figure other than a historical novel - virtually none of which were about recent historical persons....

Moreover, biographers, like historians (but unlike most novelists), typically sought to communicate moral, political, or even theological lessons....

Although we know of no historical novels about recent historical figures, a minority of ancient novels did exist about figures of the distant past....

In contrast to the Gospels, none of the above-named historical novels derive from the early imperial period, and all were composed long after living memory of their subjects (i.e., long after anyone who knew the eyewitnesses had died). Moreover, scenes in these novels tend to be fleshed out with far more copious details than is possible in many biographies' (including the Synoptics') anecdotes and often barer focus on events....

Indeed, most novels focus on fictitious characters, and when using genuine characters they reveal little knowledge about events in the genuine characters' lives. Typically novels portray historical figures anachronistically, often placing them in the wrong periods....

On the majority view, Matthew and Luke presumably made use of Mark for their biographic projects because they believed that Mark likewise conveyed accurate information, whether from earlier published sources (cf. Luke 1:1) or oral information from eyewitnesses (as Papias suggests; cf. Luke 1:2). Fictional accounts were not typically interested in prior information, nor written about recent historical figures....

In any case, Matthew and Luke, who probably wrote biographies within two decades of Mark, considered him a reliable source and were in a much better position to know circumstances surrounding his work than we are. (4, 9, 33, 35-6, 170)

Concerning apocryphal gospels:

The majority of scholars recognize these later Gospels as novels, not biographies, and there is in them (as opposed to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) little indication of Judean or Galilean elements or other signs of earlier tradition....

I know of no mainstream historical Jesus scholars (such as E.P. Sanders, John Meier or Gerd Theissen) who appeal to such documents [the Protevangelium Of James and other apocryphal gospels], whereas a biographic genre for the first-century Gospels is currently and historically the dominant position in Gospels scholarship. (35, n. 258 on 35)

Keener observes that the gospels lack the sort of diversity we would expect if their authors were fabricating material as much as critics sometimes suggest. By contrast, we do see that kind of diversity in later Gnostic sources:

Had early storytellers and writers indulged in free invention in various geographical communities, we would expect Gospels much more diverse than our Synoptics are - more like the later Gnostic materials formed under such conditions. (351)

(Upcoming segments in the series will be linked here when they become available: part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5.)

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