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The Gospels as Biographies

In my last post I indicated that among the different ways to study the Gospels, one is what I call the “literary-historical” approach. This approach determines the literary genre of a writing, and then sees how that genre “worked” in its own historical context (as opposed to how a similar genre make work today). The Gospels of the NT are widely seen as examples of ancient biography. So it would help to know how biographies worked in Greek and Roman antiquity.

There are numerous examples of biographies from the Greco-Roman world, many of them by some of the most famous authors of the Roman literary scene, such as Plutarch, Suetonius, and Tacitus. As I indicated in my previous post, and need to stress here, these biographies, understood in their own historical context, are different from the biographies we read today. Understanding the differences can be key to recognizing the way any particular ancient biography “worked,” including the Christian examples such as Mark (and the other Gospels). As I contrast ancient with modern biographies here, it is important always to bear in mind that literary genres by their very nature are very flexible. A novel by John Irving is very different indeed from a novel by Charles Dickens. But they have enough formal characteristics in common that we can easily speak of them both as novels.

Most modern biographies are full of data – names, dates, places, and events – all of which show a concern for factual accuracy. A modern biography, of course, can deal with the whole of a person’s life or with only a portion of it. Typically it is concerned with both public and private life and with how the subject both reacts to what happens and is changed by it. In other words, the inner life of the person, his or her psychological development based on events and experiences, is quite often a central component and is used to explain why the character behaves and reacts in certain ways. Thus modern biographies tend not only to inform but also to explain. They also are meant to entertain, of course, and often propagandize as well, especially when they concern political or religious figures.

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The Beginning of Mark’s Gospel/Biography
How To Study the Gospels

27

Comments

  1. Avatar
    VistanTN  February 17, 2014

    This is where I feel the “absolute literalists” fail. To try to take an Elizabethan English translation of the oldest sources available at the time and force it to conform to modern concepts of factual data, science, and history is (to me) absurd on its face. In my own research that only stretches back 100-200 years (mostly) of family history I find much the same thing. Details as “minor” as spelling of names are much less important. Oral history conveys much more about who the person was in some context and not about precise factual details. Yes, I still believe it was divinely inspired — but that isn’t the same as divinely dictated and divinely copied in a way that would conform to changes in literary usage over multiple millenia.

  2. Avatar
    maxhirez  February 17, 2014

    Do you think the authors of the gospels saw what they were writing as biographies in the same way that Tacitus and Suetonius would have seen their own works? Was the genre that came to be known as “gospel” something unique to the Christian (or Jewish apocalyptic) communities?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 17, 2014

      I suppose they did think so. And I’m not sure they would have considered their works in the “genre” of “Gospel.” That term came to be applied to their works only by later readers/editors/users.

  3. Avatar
    J.J.  February 17, 2014

    What’s your take on Mark’s Gospel as an apology instead… to defend who Jesus was and why he died?… and then the other gospels one-upped the defense so they only seem more comprehensive and more like ancient biographies?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 17, 2014

      Yes, I think it definitely fulfills an apologetic purpose. But it is not an apologia by *genre*. (A biography can be apologetic, so can an essay, an epistle, etc.)

  4. Aleph82
    Aleph82  February 17, 2014

    I read in Joel Marcus’s book on Mark that the eponymous gospel was likely liturgical. My inner seven year old is thanking God that it is no longer used in this way.

  5. Avatar
    Muzicindi  February 17, 2014

    THANK YOU! THANK YOU! THANK YOU!
    Your last three posts (including this one) have just enlightened me so much regarding THE GOSPELS!

  6. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  February 17, 2014

    This post is very helpful. Did ancient biographies usually include material about angels and demons or is that unusual? Either way, do we think the Gospel writers really thought that there really were angels and demons? Did the histories of that time also usually include material like talking snakes and talking donkeys and so on and so forth? Did these Old Testament authors really think such events occurred? Separating legend, from the little bit of history underlying the legends, especially when the material is 2,000 years old, seems quite a challenge and I know you have spent most of your life trying to do so. I admire the quest.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 17, 2014

      Yes, angels and demons show up in a number of ancient writings. And yes, most ancient people thought they really existed. I don’t know of too many talking animals, but they do occur in somem places. Better yet, Apuleius’s The Golden Ass, where the main character is *tranformed into* a donkey! Terrific book, veyr funny. But it is clearly meant to be a work of fiction.

  7. Avatar
    Scott F  February 17, 2014

    This always makes me think of the cherry tree pericope is George Washington’s biography, meant to show us who his tremendous honestly was evident even from his childhood.

    • Avatar
      Scott F  February 17, 2014

      The more I look into Parson Weems The Life of Washington, the more I think that biography remained full of hagiography and “borrowing” well into the Enlightenment. To his Enlightened peers’ credit, Weems was called out early for his plagiarism.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 17, 2014

      Yup, I use the example a lot. A made up story that conveys a lesson! Like a lot of the Gospel stories.

  8. Avatar
    drdavid600  February 17, 2014

    So begin at the beginning of Jesus’ public life, his baptism by John (sometimes preceded by fantasies of from where Jesus came). Proceed to tell the teachings and signs. End with a distinctive death and very distinctive resurrection. Such is the genre of the gospels?

    I would rather have a modern biography of my Lord and my Savior, but it would take a truly remarkable God to pull that off. Apparently the real God is limited to movies that repeat more myths than history, with tall, handsome Europeans playing Jesus, the genre of cinematic historical fiction, with the emphasis on fiction. To what end? For some of us, it’s to say, “That’s not the real you, Lord, is it?” So who and what is he, especially now when his days in the flesh are long gone?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 17, 2014

      Ah, different opinions on that. I spell out my view in several places, including Jesus: Apocaylyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.

  9. Avatar
    hwl  February 17, 2014

    “In the ancient world, prior to the formation of modern notions of human psychology that have arisen since the Enlightenment, there was little sense that the human personality developed in light of its experiences and encounters with other people”
    Does this apply only during adult life, or did writers of antiquity thought that as a person moved from childhood to adolescence to adulthood to old age, he has essentially the same personality? Surely the latter is contrary to commonsense, even by standard of ancient psychology?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 17, 2014

      The idea is that the basic personality traits were there already — generosity, intellectual superiority, baseness, depravity, humility, wit, whatever.

  10. Avatar
    Wilusa  February 17, 2014

    Just wondering…approximately how many ancient biographies of this kind, of different religious figures, survive? And approximately how many more are known to have existed?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 17, 2014

      Two great questions. And I don’t know the answer to either! I don’t know of many. I suppose Burridge talks about it (been many years since I read the book). And for a great *spoof* of a religious biography (a lampoon of the genre, of course, presupposes the popularity of the genre) check out Lucian of Samosata’s Death of Peregrinus.

  11. Avatar
    silvertime  February 17, 2014

    Prof Ehrham: Assuming your analysis of Greco-Roman biographys, and by extension the canon and non-canon books of the NT which indicates that much of the material was based on oral tradition(hearsay), how much do you think the individuals and groups who decided on the canon used religious preferences as opposed to what was the most logical and believable. Or put more simiply, do the winners of religious and political thought get to select the topics and/or scripture

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 17, 2014

      My sense is that what they included in the canon they considered to be both logical and believable. They were not 21st century, post-Enlightenment, Americans, and had a very different sense of reality than many of us…..

  12. Avatar
    AndrewBrown  February 19, 2014

    Narrative theology i.e. “gospels” is not biography in either the ancient or modern sense. Plutarch, Suetonius, and Tacitus’s biographies were not based wholly on existing scripture; Plutarch’s Lives do not constantly remind the reader that their subjects did this or that “so that the words of the prophets could be fulfilled;” and rarely are Plutarch or Tacitus’s bios written in chiastic structure, while the gospels are entirely chiastic.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 19, 2014

      Genre is not determined on the grounds of specific content, but on the basis of form. And chiasm is certainly not a requirement of the Gospel genre. (I don’t see it in any of the Gospels, myself; but that’s beside the point)

  13. Avatar
    Adam0685  January 2, 2017

    Mike Licona published a book last month with Oxford Press on differences in the gospels: “Are There Differences in the Gospels? What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography.”

    https://global.oup.com/academic/product/why-are-there-differences-in-the-gospels-9780190264260?cc=ca&lang=en&

    I’m curious about your thoughts on it.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 3, 2017

      I haven’t read it but in my conversations with Mike about it it has struck me that his case does not really make for a good apologetic about the infallibility of hte Bible, but rather explains why there could be so many errors in it (well, gives one explanation; there are lots of others)

  14. Avatar
    jogon  February 12, 2018

    Was it acceptable within the Greco roman biography genre to invent stories to illustrate a purpose? Would the writers and readers be expecting The account to be completely factual or would some fabrication be seen as normal, as opposed to a modern biography where it would be seen as lying?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 13, 2018

      It depends which genre you were reading. Usually biographers tried to tell stories that happened, even if they molded them to their purposes.

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