Mythicism, Miraculous Conceptions and Ancient Historians

Over in a discussion at Debunking Christianity about mythicism and a recent post of mine, a proponent of mythicism claimed that ancient biographers and historians, unlike the authors of the Gospels, were not prone to include legends about such matters as miraculous conceptions.

Although at that point we were talking about Socrates, in fact we have a miraculous conception attributed to Plato within a short period after his death, if not indeed earlier. The story is attributed to Speusippus, Plato’s nephew, and probably first recorded by Diogenes Laertius. The story claims that Apollo was the true father of Plato.

If some were skeptical of such claims, some also made them and believed them about this historical figure. And while some developed similar stories about Jesus, others within Christianity rejected the doctrine of the virginal conception.

There certainly are distinctions to be made among ancient historians, and some are more credulous and others more skeptical. But it is not true that we have a simple dichotomy with mythical Gospels on one side and accounts of other figures like philosophers on the other. The Gospels incorporate legends about Jesus of a similar sort to those which grew up around other actual historical figures in the Greco-Roman world.

  • http://www.didaskelion.org Erlend

    and Caesar’s crossing the rubicon was meant to be the result of divine interference/guidenace, and add to this no-one knew where the Rubicon was for centuries. Suspicious huh. Guess these are clues that Julius Caesar really didn’t do the things the historians claimed he did.
    Don’t get me started on the miracles surrounding the stories of Constantine’s military campaigns.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_MUIGGGWVZRPI7DRSO4ENSPPHCQ ConnorO

    The contrasts are instructive though. The origin of the story of the miraculous conception of Plato by Apollo appears to be due to his nephew Speusippus, and was circulating possibly during Plato’s lifetime, or at the latest shortly after his death, among Athenians who knew him and his relatives.

    It was the sort of story that circulated about especially esteemed or successful people in antiquity. It was a way of accounting for their extraordinary careers, as no one could be so successful without the patronage of the god. A modern equivalent would be a saying like “He lived a blessed life” or “Somebody up there must be looking out for him”. There is no evidence that it was anything but a poetic expression of this kind of idea, or that anyone believed it as a literal fact.

    Furthermore, it’s not as if Plato’s biographers tell this story uncritically, or as a substitute for actual information about his birth and parentage because it was unknown. There is no parallel to Matthew and Luke here, who created theological narratives about an at best dimly known figure from the past because there were no relatives or anyone who knew anything about his birth.

    If this is by way of propping up the idea that the genre of the gospels is Greco-Roman biography, it fails. The crucial differences are not necessarily the kinds of stories told, but the way in which and how critically they are incorporated and the explicit or implicit use of sources, like Speusippus. If Luke began with a mundane account of Jesus’s birth, and followed that with, “Though, some say…” or “Legend has it, however…” and proceeded with the nativity story as we have it, his ancient audience would have understood that they were reading a biography, and they would have known exactly in what spirit to take the tale, and with how much salt. The gospels are not Greco-Roman biography.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_MUIGGGWVZRPI7DRSO4ENSPPHCQ ConnorO

    The contrasts are instructive though. The origin of the story of the miraculous conception of Plato by Apollo appears to be due to his nephew Speusippus, and was circulating possibly during Plato’s lifetime, or at the latest shortly after his death, among Athenians who knew him and his relatives.

    It was the sort of story that circulated about especially esteemed or successful people in antiquity. It was a way of accounting for their extraordinary careers, as no one could be so successful without the patronage of the god. A modern equivalent would be a saying like “He lived a blessed life” or “Somebody up there must be looking out for him”. There is no evidence that it was anything but a poetic expression of this kind of idea, or that anyone believed it as a literal fact.

    Furthermore, it’s not as if Plato’s biographers tell this story uncritically, or as a substitute for actual information about his birth and parentage because it was unknown. There is no parallel to Matthew and Luke here, who created theological narratives about an at best dimly known figure from the past because there were no relatives or anyone who knew anything about his birth.

    If this is by way of propping up the idea that the genre of the gospels is Greco-Roman biography, it fails. The crucial differences are not necessarily the kinds of stories told, but the way in which and how critically they are incorporated and the explicit or implicit use of sources, like Speusippus. If Luke began with a mundane account of Jesus’s birth, and followed that with, “Though, some say…” or “Legend has it, however…” and proceeded with the nativity story as we have it, his ancient audience would have understood that they were reading a biography, and they would have known exactly in what spirit to take the tale, and with how much salt. The gospels are not Greco-Roman biography.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @ConnorO, I certainly think that the Gospel authors were at best uncritical biographers, and probably did not only repeat stories that ought to have been treated with skepticism, but probably invented some of their own as well. But ultimately the Gospels share at least some key features with Greco-Roman Bioi, and never seem to have been read as works intended merely for entertainment in antiquity. They are stories about Jesus with a theological axe to grind, but not works of pure fiction.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_MUIGGGWVZRPI7DRSO4ENSPPHCQ ConnorO

    What are these “key features”? I’ve read Burridge and I find his treatment superficial and tendentious, so if that’s what you’ve got, just say “I agree with Burridge” and we can cut this short.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    I’m tempted to say I agree with Burridge just to avoid prolonging the discussion unnecessarily! :-)

    But I don’t think that all the similarities he notes are equally unpersuasive (we always run with our thesis as far as we can for better or worse when working on a PhD), and feel that the analogy that John A. T. Robinson drew between the Synoptics and John and the accounts of Socrates offered by Xenophon and Plato to be helpful.

  • Pingback: Dispraxis

  • JoeWallack

    “What are these “key features”? I’ve read Burridge and I find his treatment superficial and tendentious”

    JW:
    I’ve indicated in my review of Burridge’s book:

    http://www.amazon.com/What-Are-Gospels-Comparison-Graeco-Roman/product-reviews/0521483638/ref=cm_cr_pr_hist_1?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=0&filterBy=addOneStar

    that “Mark” parallels better to Oedipus the King, a classic Greek Tragedy, than Suetonius, The Life of Julius Caesar, a classic Greco-Roman bios and has every/close to every significant element of Greek Tragedy. As far as “Mark” paralleling to Greco-Roman bios(GRB) I see the distinguishing characteristics of GRB as:

    1) Use of witness testimony as sources -

    “Mark” has a primary theme of discrediting supposed witnesses and crediting non-witness testimony (The Jewish Bible, Paul, faith). This suggests what he has in mind is anti-bios genre

    2) Limiting of story to the subject -

    As Burridge rightly notes, the Synoptics match here. “Mark” though limits Jesus’ story to his Mission, nothing before and nothing after. This would be unknown in bios, a story limited to a mission.

    3) Emphasis on character of the subject -

    Another clear match to the Synoptics. Again though, an apparently unique twist to “Mark”. Jesus’ character is Action in the Ministry and than reverses to Inaction in the Passion. Unknown in bios.

    Putting these together, 2) and 3) are possible in Greek Tragedy and parallel decently to Oedipus whereas the Mission limit and reversal of character do not appear to be possible in GRB.

    It’s fair to say than that “Mark” parallels better to Greek Tragedy than GRB.

    Another genre to look at is “Religious”. I suspect “Mark” also parallels better to this  genre than to GRB.

    Regarding subsequent Gospels having better parallels to GRB, this is not evidence for historicity, it is evidence against historicity, since we know that “Mark” is the base and the MOVEMENT is towards a genre of GRB.

    GRB as a genre clearly tries to avoid the Impossible because it does not sound historical. Those who deny this have not read much GRB. Those who posture that the preceding sentence is false because there are instances of the Impossible in GRB, have a different problem.

    Joseph

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    You are missing a more obvious conclusion, which is that the Gospels are precisely the sort of popular view of a historical figure that ancient Greek and Roman historians were aware of but rightly treated with skepticism. To suggest that Mark more closely resembles a Greek tragedy is to ignore that there are at least as many differences from that genre as from biography. Popular, uncritical biography seems a closer fit.

  • Anonymous

    @James

    What say you, then, concerning Michael Vine’s thesis that the Gospel of Mark best fits the category of Jewish novel?  A similar conclusion was reached by Mary Anne Tolbert, though Vines is more theoretically anchored.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

      My own response is I do think Mark resembles a Jewish novel more than most bios. Unfortunately, it seems that a number of these novels were taken to be true accounts by a lot of people, Christians in particular-as evidence survives from the period on how they took the works. So while Jonah, Ruth and Daniel are three examples of Jewish novels, early Christians seem to have taken them as true accounts. So if Mark was writing the life of Jesus and he used the template of the presentations of Ruth, Jonah or Daniel, this does not mean that he believed he was writing fiction as the authors of those works were aware they were writing fiction because Mark believed them to be true accounts. For example, let us say that Mark is a work of fiction, a novel. Does that mean the author of the Gospel of Rama Krishna, a work patterned on the Gospel of Mark, intended it as a fictional work on a fictional hero? Of course not (my edition has a photo of R.K. on the front page).  
       
      That Mark is patterned on a Jewish novel does mean that we aren’t going to see many of the asides to discuss sources that we see in Bios, and Mark feels free to create dialog to accompany received sayings and to tie together his episodes.  He is aiming to create an account that is ultimately a good story which will increase the chances of it achieving its goal, inform about the beginning of Christianity.  Since mark is intending to have this circulated among Hellenistic historians, there is no need for him to conform to their standards in the same way Doherty does not feel the need to conform to academic standards because that is not his target audience.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @Gilgamesh42:disqus , I actually think that is a pretty good match as far as genre is concerned. It bears emphasizing, though, that many of the novels of the period in question were what we would call historical fiction – fictionalized tales about historical figures. And since we have no evidence of the Gospels being read, circulated or performed for entertainment purposes, it seems to me that it makes sense to regard the Gospel as “theological novels about Jesus” aimed at providing Christian readers and hearers with information about the central figure that was at their religion’s core. Much of the information in the Gospels may be legend or simply unreliable, but as with other historical fiction novels then and now, I don’t think that all that we find in them is without any basis in history.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X