In this thread I’ve been talking about how I conceived of my New Testament textbook, some 20 years ago now, as a rigorously historical introduction. I’ve been stressing that one of the ways it is historical is that it takes seriously the Greco-Roman milieu out of which it arose, and that one of the key implications is that one needs to read the NT books in light of the ancient genres which they employ. My argument in the book (and in general!) is that if you misunderstand how the ancient genre works, you will misunderstand the book. The Gospels, I argue, are written as Greco-Roman biographies. Here is an excerpt where I describe what that means and why it matters, again from the first edition of my textbook.
We have numerous examples of Greco-Roman biographies, many of them written by some of the most famous authors of Roman antiquity, for instance, Plutarch, Suetonius, and Tacitus. One of the ways to understand how this genre “worked” is to contrast it with the way modern biographies do, following the principle that we can learn something only in light of what we already know. In all this we must constantly bear in mind that by their very nature literary genres are highly flexible: just think of all the different kinds of “novels” or “short stories” you have read.
Most modern biographies are chock-full of data: names and dates and places and events, all with a concern for factual accuracy. A modern biography, of course, can deal with the whole of a person’s life or with only a segment of it. But typically they are concerned with both public and private life, and with how the character both reacts to what happens and is changed by it. In other words, the inner life of a person, his or her psychological development based on events and experiences, is quite often a central component. In particular, the correct perception of the inner life with its undulations and transformations — sometimes discussed explicitly, but often subtly — 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 can also be used to entertain, of course — since they are for the most part written to sell! — and often to propagandize as well, as when they concern political or religious figures.
Most ancient biographies were less concerned with…
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