Friday, February 10, 2017

How The Gospels Compare To Other Ancient Biographies (Part 5)

(Earlier parts in the series: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4.)

Though this book by Keener and his colleagues is a great resource that provides a lot of valuable information about ancient biographies and related topics, it does have some limitations and flaws. I want to close my series on the book by discussing several of those problems. I refer to "limitations and flaws", since it might be argued that one or more of my points below fall outside the scope of what the authors were trying to accomplish with the book. Either way, whether I'm addressing a limitation of the book or a flaw, I think these are points worth making.

- Because of the nature of modern culture and modern scholarship, some issues tend to be underappreciated or ignored in certain contexts. A book like this one is unlikely to say much, if anything, about the Divine inspiration of the gospels. I don't remember the subject coming up in the book in any significant way. But, whatever the merits of bracketing that kind of issue in a book like this one, whether the gospels are inspired scripture has major implications for what we make of their historicity and other characteristics. We've written a lot about the evidence for the Divine inspiration of scripture, such as here, here, and here.

- The book doesn't say nearly enough about what the earliest interpreters of the gospels tell us about the documents. Comparing the gospels to other ancient biographies is helpful, but so is looking at how the earliest interpreters of the gospels viewed their genre, historicity, how to explain alleged inconsistencies among them, and other relevant issues. Keener, et al. sometimes note that ancient biographies ranged across a spectrum. Looking at the earliest sources who commented on the gospels is one of the ways of judging where the gospels fall within that spectrum. But the index of "Patristic And Other Early Christian Sources" takes up only about one page (425-6), whereas the "Other Greek And Latin Works And Authors" index, for example, takes up about thirty pages (426-57). I don't object to having so much of the latter. I do object to having so little of the former. And when you look at what's included in the index of early Christian sources, so many of the most important ones are absent.

- I don't think the book says much, if anything, about the significance of the gospels' being more analyzed than other ancient biographies. As far as I know, no other biographies from antiquity were analyzed nearly as much as the gospels were in the ancient sources that are extant, and none are analyzed as much today. Both contexts are important. People often object to the multiplicity of interpretations of documents like the gospels, and the objections that are raised to the contents of the gospels are often ones that have been circulating and popularized for centuries. Other ancient biographies haven't been scrutinized nearly as much as the gospels have been. That's significant in a lot of contexts. For example, how much can other ancient biographies be corroborated by something like what the gospels underwent, involving century after century of such hostile critiques by enemies starting so soon after the biographies were written? How many other ancient biographies have such early and widespread evidence pertaining to their authorship, genre, text, etc.?

- Keener and his colleagues date all of the gospels to about 70 A.D. or later, and they allow for the passing of decades rather than just months or years between Mark and the other Synoptics. Whether they do so because they accept such late dates or just for the sake of argument, they should have made a case for earlier dating. I think all of the Synoptics should be dated to the mid sixties at the latest, for reasons I've outlined elsewhere.

- A popular objection to the gospels in some circles these days is that they don't cite sources enough, in contrast to some other ancient biographies. As I mentioned earlier in this series, the book by Keener, et al. responds to that objection to some extent, but I think they should have said a lot more about it. Here's a post where I've addressed the subject.

- One of the explanations for why the gospels don't tell us more about their sources is also relevant to a lot of other issues addressed by Keener and his colleagues. Biographies coming from such well-placed sources (apostles and associates of apostles) would have less of a need to cite sources accordingly, much as well-placed sources in our day often write newspaper editorials, magazine articles, books, etc. without citing many or any sources. If you're an eyewitness, or even if you're closely associated with eyewitnesses without being one yourself, people tend to accept what you say with less or no documentation. So, the traditional authorship attributions of the gospels, if correct, would go a long way in explaining the lack of source citation in the gospels. But Keener, et al. don't say much about gospel authorship. We have a lot of material on the subject in our archives. For example: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John.

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