Helen Bond’s The First Biography of Jesus– Part Seven

Helen Bond’s The First Biography of Jesus– Part Seven May 21, 2020

BEN: On p. 29 you make an important distinction— namely that while the OT has much influence on the content of the Gospels, it has little or no influence on its form, as there are no biographies writ large in the OT. I agree with you about this. Can you unpack this important distinction a bit for our readers?

HELEN:

I think there’s always a danger when you’re focusing on one aspect of the gospels that people will assume you’re downplaying other things. I completely accept that Mark is drenched in the Jewish Scriptures, his whole outlook reflects the Scriptures and his language borrows from the LXX with every phrase. But the fact is that there are no biographies as such in the Scriptures – there are lengthy sagas, telling of the relationship between God and Israel, there are even books named after individuals or collections of prophecies, but in neither case do we really have anything approaching a biography which focusses on a particular life. Interestingly the rabbinic tradition also didn’t develop in the direction of biography – despite the wealth of anecdotes connected with individual sages, no one seems to have thought to gather them together into biographies (indeed, the idea seems wrong, as if it would give the teachers a higher status than they deserved). It’s only in literature very much influenced by Graeco-Roman forms that we find biography, so Philo manages to blend a Scriptural understanding of the world with biography (his Life of Moses is a magnificent example), and Josephus writes not only an autobiography but shapes the first half of his Antiquities as a series of biographies of great men. And various other pseudepigraphical works veer in this direction.

One of the features that I find fascinating in all of this is that for Mark to be able to write anything at all in Greek he must have been through the traditional Greek education, which focused largely on copying out bits of Homer (there’s no evidence for any kind of parallel Jewish educational system). So I assume that he knows the Greek tradition and its values well, but chooses to write in the style of the LXX and to draw his values and worldview largely from the Scriptures.

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