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

Helen Bond’s The First Biography of Jesus– Part Ten May 26, 2020

BEN: On p. 52 you make a helpful distinction between an interest in personality and an interest in character on the part of ancient biographers. Can you unpack this idea a bit for the readers?

Yes, this comes from the Classicist Christopher Gill but has been taken up by Christopher Pelling too (who has worked so much on Plutarch). The basic idea is that ‘personality’ involves all the quirkiness and idiosyncrasies that make us the unique humans that we were, while ‘character’ is an accumulation of various character traits. Importantly, biographers tended to be much more interested in character than personality. So even a great writer such as Plutarch, for example, is far less interested in getting under the skin of his heroes and showing ‘how they tick’ as presenting them as possessors of a set of virtues. This is why actors in biographies can tend to be rather flat; the more the hero is held up as a model worthy of imitation, the flatter he tends to be. So it’s possible to talk about ‘a person like X’ in a biography (where character is involved) but far less easy to talk about ‘a person like Medea, or Oedipus etc’ (where personality is involved). It’s not that ancients didn’t have a sense of the depths and intricacies of character, it’s a genre thing.

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