The Gospels and Comparable Ancient and Modern Literature

The Gospels and Comparable Ancient and Modern Literature August 26, 2018

Following up on yesterday’s post, there were further topics that Matthew Ferguson explored about ancient biographies of a popular sort and questions of historical accuracy. One of the major points that he highlights is that historical accuracy of details is not a reliable guide to genre. That point may seem counterintuitive, but modern examples will help the point become clear. If you read Little Women, or watch the TV show Little House on the Prairie, there are lots of details that reflect accurate history – the impact of war on families in New England, or place names in Minnesota, to just mention a couple of examples. None of that means that specific details are factual, and that includes major characters. I deliberately included the Laura Ingalls Wilder example precisely because that TV show is based on children’s stories which are in turn based on the author’s actual experiences. As you can hopefully see, the question of what is “factual” and what is “fictitious” is complex and blurry, often cutting across not only specific works but whole genres as well as individual characters who appear in them.

In his “part 1” post on this topic, Matthew also explains that ancient Greek readers and authors had different genres than we do, more of them, and those they had did not consistently overlap with our own ideas of fiction and nonfiction. If the fact that the Greek term for one of those genres was plasma doesn’t persuade you to read the post, probably nothing will.

In his “part 2” post, Matthew explores how the Alexander Romance provides parallels to the work that source and redaction critics engage in with respect to the New Testament Gospels (and others).

I’m also grateful that Matthew, in these and other posts of his, cites and interacts with things that I’ve written that are germane to this subject!

 

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  • John MacDonald

    Certainly another problem with considering we might be dealing with historical fiction is that just because a main character is described as having an encounter with a famous person or event (e.g., Pilate, John the Baptist, The Census of Quirinius, etc) doesn’t mean there is any historical memory there. Analogously, I could write a period piece where the main character has an encounter with an historical person like Abraham Lincoln, but that doesn’t mean such an encounter ever happened – even if my main character was in fact a historical person, like Jesus.

    • John MacDonald

      On the other hand, you can take a known historical person and simply invent stuff, casting him or her in the role of a superhero, like the movie/book “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.” Perhaps “Jesus: The Reconciler!”

      • John MacDonald

        One last thought: Another clue Mark is writing the equivalent of an ancient superhero story is that he calls what he is doing a “euaggelion,” appropriating a piece of Augustan imperial propaganda.

        • The Mouse Avenger

          Well, I don’t know if I would agree with that particular interpretation of Mark’s intentions in writing his Gospel… ^^;;

          • John MacDonald

            Helms and others point out Mark calls what he is doing a “euaggelion,” basically meaning he is writing something analogous to a piece of Augustan imperial propaganda.

            Mark writes: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God” – which closely matches the formula found on a monument erected by the Provincial Assembly in Asia Minor (1st century BCE) regarding Augustus: “Whereas… Providence… has… brought our life to the peak of perfection in giving us Augustus Caesar… who, being sent to us and to our descendants as a savior…, and whereas… the birthday of the god has been for the whole world the beginning of the gospel (euaggelion) concerning him, let all reckon a new era beginning from the date of his birth.”

            I think Mark is basically a propaganda document full of exaggerations about Jesus (eg., miracles, pithy one liners, etc) meant to win converts: “If you thought Caesar was great, take a look at Jesus!”

            Mark’s gospel seems to function on an exoteric level to lure the masses with enticing miracle stories, and on an esoteric level to convey deeper spiritual truths of loving neighbor, widow, orphan, alien, and enemy, to those who have ears to hear.(cf. Mark 4:11).

  • Phil Ledgerwood

    I enjoyed the articles very much.

    One thing, though, is that I don’t think the appeal to Justin Martyr works very well. While it is true he doesn’t appeal to historical evidence for the resurrection, this is also true for any of the other truths of Christianity he brings up, because the whole main argument of the First Apology is that pagan writers wrote things similar to the life and teachings of Christ, but these are distortions of biblical prophecy. His argument isn’t, “You guys create myths about your historical figures and so do we,” it’s, “You have myths about your historical figures that are very similar to our teachings of Christ, and that’s because the teachings of Christ are true and you have them filtered to you by demonic distortion.”

    I really don’t see how anyone could read the First Apology and think that Martyr is just saying, “We’re only doing what you’re doing.”

    But obviously a lot of his argument depends on finding commonality with the teachings around him that are already socially acceptable. The apostle Paul did this a number of times as well.

    • Tom Hanson

      Excellent comment, Mr. Ledgerwood. I wish I had read this earlier and written your comment myself.