Are the Gospels ancient early-empire histories/biographies of Jesus?

  • Our question

    a man stands over a roman colosseum holding a book with Jesus's face holding

    Do the Gospels implicitly self-identify as information-based Greco-Roman biographies, comparable to Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars? Are they likewise comparable to to Tacitus’ Agricola, Plutarch’s Cato Minor, Lucian’s Demonax, and Philostratus’ Apollonius of Tyana? Do the Gospels fit well within the recognized genre of Greco-Roman “bioi” (biography), or—in the case Luke-Acts—Greco-Roman historical monograph more broadly?

  • What historians are saying

    • Craig Keener: “Most Gospels scholars today view the Gospels as belonging to the genre of ancient biography. Both supporters and detractors now recognize this general consensus…. Arguments concerning the biographical character of the Gospels have thus come full circle: the Gospels, long viewed as biographies of some sort until the early twentieth century, now are widely viewed as biographies again.” [Christobiography (Eerdmans, 2019), 41, 43.]
    • Philip Stadter: “Philosophical biography brought out the moral character of its subjects and the relation of their teachings to their lives. Aristoxenus, a pupil of Aristotle, wrote on Pythagoras, Archytas, Socrates, and Plato; Hermippus in the third century wrote Lives of many philosophers, as well as lawgivers and other figures. Diogenes Laertius’ extant Lives of the Philosophers continues the tradition. Since such lives are usually heavy in sayings, as in Lucian’s Demonax, they may be difficult to distinguish from apophthegm collections. The Gospels also belong to this category, as does Philostratus’ novelistic Life of Apollonius of Tyana.” [“Biography and History” in A Companion to Greek and Roman Historiography vol. 2 (), 528, 530.]
    • David Aune: “Craig Keener argues convincingly that ancient readers of Greek and Latin biographies from the period of the early Roman Empire (e.g., Cornelius Nepos, Plutarch, Suetonius, and Tacitus) had the same expectation as those who read the Gospels, expecting them to preserve the gist of what their subjects had actually said and done.” [Christobiography (Eerdmans, 2019), 3.]
    • Vernon Robbins: “[There is c]omprehensive information showing the relation of New Testament Gospels to early Roman Empire biography” [Christobiography (Eerdmans, 2019), 2.]
    • John Moles (Classicist): “[It was] always the obvious reading” [“Cynic Influence upon First-Century Judaism and Early Christianity?” in The Limits of Ancient Biography. Eds McGing & Mossman (Classical Press of Wales, 2006), 99.]
    • Graham Stanton: “…the gospels are now widely considered to be a sub-set of the broad ancient literary genre of biographies.” [Jesus and Gospel (Cambridge, 2004), 192.]
    • R.T. France: “[f]ifty years ago we were drilled in the critical orthodoxy of the form-critical school which insisted that the gospels were not to be seen as biographies, but since then there has been a massive swing in scholarly opinion on this point, and increasingly sophisticated study of the nature of biographical writing in the ancient world has led to a general recognition that, for all the distinctiveness of its Christian content and orientation, in terms of literary form Mark’s book (and those of Matthew, Luke and John) would have seemed to an educated reader in the first century to fall into roughly the same category as the lives of famous men pioneered by Cornelius Nepos and soon to reach their most famous expression in the ‘Parallel Lives’ of Plutarch’.” [The Gospel of Mark (Eerdmans, 2002), 5.]
    • Pheme Perkins: “Comparing the Synoptic Gospels with other ancient ‘lives’ makes a plausible case for regarding them as biographical rather than fictional in intent.” [Introduction to the Synoptic Gospels (Eerdmans, 2009), 2.]
    • Richard Burridge: “[t]his biographical understanding of the gospel genre has been subsequently confirmed in similarly detailed work by Frickenschmidt (1997) and has now become the accepted scholarly consensus.” [“Gospel as Genre,” in Encyclopedia of the Historical Jesus, ed. Evans (Routledge, 2008), 234.]
    • Richard Bauckham: “Lemcio’s work coheres strongly with the general, though quite recent, acceptance in Gospels scholarship that, generically, the Gospels are biography — or, more precisely, they are biographies (bioi) in the sense of ancient Greco-Roman biography.” [Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Eerdmans, 2006), 276.]
    • Grant Osborne: “The evangelists were anchoring their faith in the events of Jesus’ life, and so ‘the contemporary believer must go back to history.’ [“History and theology in the synoptic gospels” in TrinJ 24NS (2003): ]

    This all stands despite a few dissenters:

    • Richard Pervo: “[The Gospels] can be understood as fictional biographies roughly analogous to the Alexander-Romance, the Life of Aesop, or Philostratus's novel about Apollonius of Tyana. The activity of shaping various independent stories about Jesus into a coherent narrative plot required compositional strategies very much like those about Jesus into a coherent narrative plot required compositional strategies very much like those of fiction. [“The Ancient Novel Becomes Christian," in The Novel in the Ancient World, ed. Schmeling (Brill, 1996), 689.]
  • History: The New Consensus

    The conclusion that the gospels are Greco-Roman biographies represents an exciting and dramatic change in more recent New Testament studies. As one scholar explains:

    • Michael Licona: “In the middle of the twentieth century, most New Testament scholars regarded the Gospels as sui generis. Then in 1977, Charles Talbert proposed that the Gospels belong to the genre of Greco-Roman biography, and others made similar proposals in the years that followed.Richard Burridge believed their conclusions were mistaken and set out to refute them. To his surprise, he concluded that the Gospels indeed belong to Greco-Roman biography, and his resulting book, What Are the Gospels?, has become the definitive treatment on the subject. Today, a growing majority of scholars regard the Gospels as Greco-Roman biography. [Why are there differences in the Gospels? (Oxford, 2016), 3.]
    • Craig Keener: “It was his resulting forceful Cambridge monograph that largely effected the paradigm shift in Gospels studies. He shows how both the Synoptics and John fit this genre.” [Christobiography, 43.]

    Burridge listed features which must be analyzed to determine a work’s genre:

    • Opening Features (Title, Opening formulae/prologue/preface)
    • Subject (Analysis of the verbs' subjects, Allocation of space)
    • External Features (Mode of presentation [e.g. oral, prose, drama, voice], Metre, Size and length, Structure or sequence, Scale, Literary units, Use of Sources, Methods of Characterization, Summary
    • Internal Features (Setting, Topics/topoi/motifs, Style, Tone/mood/attitude/values, Quality of characterization, Social setting and occasion, Authorial intention and purpose, Summary)

    He then analyzed these features in the following:

    [5 Earlier Biographies:]
    Isocrates (436-338bc) Evagoras
    Xenophon (427-354bc) Agesilaus
    Satyrus (2nd century BC) Euripides
    Nepos (99bc-24bc) Atticus
    Philo (30bc-45ad) Moses

    [5 Later Biographies:]
    Tacitus (56ad-113) Agricola
    Plutarch (45ad-120ad) Cato Minor
    Suetonius (69ad-122?) Lives of the Caesars
    Lucian (120ad-180+) Demonax
    Philostratus (170ad-250) Apollonius of Tyrana

    Finally, he examined the gospels for these features and concludes:

    • Richard Burridge: “Thus, there is a high degree of correlation between the generic features of Graeco-Roman Bioi and those of the synoptic gospels; in fact, they exhibit more of the features than are shown by works at the edges of the genre, such as those of Isocrates, Xenophon and Philostratus. This is surely a sufficient number of shared features for the genre of the synoptic gospels to be clear; while they may well form their own subgenre because of their shared content, the synoptic gospels belong within the overall genre of Bioi.” [What are the Gospels, 218] (Note: He concludes the same for the Gospel of John, p. 239)

    The following opinion represents what most scholars will say these days on the subject:

    • Charles Talbert: “This volume [Burridge’s] ought to end any legitimate denials of the canonical Gospels’ biographical character.” [Review of What Are the Gospels? by Richard A. Burridge. JBL 112 (4, 1993): 715.]
“Yes, after all…
  • Ancient bios and letters predominated

    Among the various kinds of literature that circulated, Greco-Roman biographies was fairly dominant.1 This is relevant because, even absent their resembling biographies so much, it would recommend for us to take the gospels as biography as a matter of default, provided they are not letters.

    1. Craig Keener: “[b]iographies, like letters, were among antiquity’s most common genres…” [Christobiography, 41.]
  • The Gospels internally match ancient bios

    The Gospels fit as biographies, internally exemplifying the quintessential family characteristics.

    This page analyzes 11 arguments:

    • Histories/bios are continuous prose narrative, lacking rhythmic structure or other abnormal flow, and the gospels display this continuous prose narrative perfectly.
    • Histories/bios self-identify as witness testimony, and the Gospels do precisely this (e.g. see Luke 1:1-4; they also use/cite witness names so-as to appeal to their authority.)
    • Bios are around 10-25k words long, unlike many other genres like dramas, and this range is precisely where the Gospels fall in to.
    • Bios continually focus on a main character, and the Gospels do this in how they continuously focus on the character of Jesus of Nazareth.
    • Bios illuminate via narrating key words & deeds, and the Gospels do precisely this in showing how Jesu s interacts with various kinds of persons and situations, particularly when they are especially insightful regarding who Jesus is and what he is about.
    • Bios focused on an influential figure.
    • Bios gave a telling sample of the character’s life.
    • Bios consist of, anecdotes, and speeches.
    • Content-Arrangement prioritizes character-illumination.
    • Bios don’t opine on the words & deeds.
    • Bios on miracle-working sages were hot.
    • The Gospels claim to be histories.
    • The Gospels internally match ‘histories’.

    So, as far as their internal features, the Gospels specifically super-resemble early empire biographies, and we know they were written in the early empire era. This is not to say these features are all unique to Greco-Roman biographies, but rather that together they show the Gospels have a "family resemblance" to the genre which is quite decisive. And so of course, absent word of the author's own explicit testimony, this resemblance and bearing of the relevant features is the most you can ask for in determining a work's genre. This all successfully suggests the Gospels were indeed patterned after Greco-Roman biographies and ask to be read as such.

    But no...

    • Gospels are not literarily sophisticated.
    • Mt and Lk borrowed much from Mk.
    • Gospels didn’t discuss their sources.
    • Gospels were Jewish documents.
    • The Gospels include propaganda.
    • Gospel’s main character was flawless.
  • Gospels are honest historical accounts of Jesus’ life

    person writing at table with a speech bubble of jesus and a thought bubble of jesus

    Rather than inventing Jesus-biography, the authors of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—as editors/redactors—were honest in writing their Gospel reports.

    This page analyzes 8 arguments:

    • The originating Gospel/NT content seems honest.
    • Gospel authors faithfully copied their sources.
    • Gospels relayed Jesus-bio info (didn’t create it).
    • Readers took them as bios.
    • Gospel authors wouldn’t lie-invent Jesus-bio.
    • Mt/Mk/Lk/Jn are accurate where checked (trend).
    • Gospels display sacrificially honest restraint.
    • Gospel authors strove for witness-based Jesus-bio.

    This is relevant because biographies are histories, and being a history was in fact the defining characteristic biographies (along with its emphases).

  • Gospel authors strove to relay only witness testimony

    A man holds a microphone up to another man whose head is an eyeball. The interviewer simultaneously holds his hand up to the face of a third person who is trying to talk to him.

    The gospels strove to be witness-based, recording witness testimony as closely as possible.

    A full page will analyze 6 arguments:

    • Gospel claims are all inherited/sourced.
    • Early Empire biography self-identifies as witness-based.
    • Gospels did check with witnesses.
    • Esteemed Christians’d hate to be exposed.
    • Gospels authors prized witness testimony.
    • Gospels were big projects (honor).

    This is relevant because historiography in general labored to be witness-based. (Relatedly, the gospels prized witness testimony, as did histories.)