The Gospels as biography

James McGrath (who is well worth following for his picking up of progressive Christian writers from all over the place) has posted an interesting link to two short essays by Matthew Ferguson on his “Celsus” site. The first of these discusses the conventions of Greek biography of the time, including the more-or-less historical, the completely fantastic and a third genre which falls somewhere between those, “plasma” (not to be confused with a superheated state of matter).

My more conservative Christian friends are keen to say that the Gospels are histories, and at that histories composed very soon after the events described, and have to be regarded as factually accurate as a result. I have tended to point out that even the more reliable histories of the time tend to include events which are almost certainly non-historical, and very often some which are clearly mythological; these two essays give substantial scholarly backing for my view. One thing which particularly stood out to me from the first essay is a quote from a book by Richard Miller, the quote being about Justin Martyr, who was a Christian apologist writing very early in the history of the church (in the early to mid- second century) and is one of the earliest people identified as one of the “Church Fathers”. This reads “Justin Martyr’s First Apology presented the framing contours of the Gospel narrative as having resided within a mythic mode of hero fabulation. Considering the plea’s broader context, one may best summarize the larger argument as follows: ‘We, O Romans, have produced myths and fables with our Jesus as you have done with your own heroes and emperors; so why are you killing us?’ Central to the earliest great apology of the Christian tradition, this grand concession casts a profound light on the nature of early Christian narrative production.”

This was new information to me. If the first, and one of the greatest, Christian apologists was conceding that Christians were making up myths and fables about Jesus, how can we stand here nearly 2000 years later and say that the Gospels are not as Justin thought they were, but are pure history? (I should, I suppose, reiterate that I do not think the category “myth” means that something is without application to our lives or without authority – indeed, myths can govern our lives, as witness the fact that I consider the little pieces of paper in my wallet to have the value of a substantial shopping trolley full of groceries, whereas they are actually only useful as, perhaps, spills with which to light a fire… the value of money is a myth, but one whose more or less universal acceptance makes it possible for us to have a functioning economy. This was made particularly obvious when, some 50 years ago, there was a period when Italian small change became worth more as metal than it was as money, which led to truck-loads of small change vanishing over the French border to be melted down, and a nationwide shortage of small change resulting in shopkeepers wanting to make up small money amounts with sweets.)

As quoted in the essay, Miller goes on to say “Interestingly, the apology did not propose any argument in support of this claim that the two groups of stories were distinguishable by the alleged veracity of the Christian narratives and falsity of the analogous classical Mediterranean narratives; this statement again provided merely an assertion, attempting to assign archaic precedence to Judeo-Christian tradition. The obvious step, were this an attempt at a historical argument, would have been to propose eyewitness testimony attesting to the historicity of such early Christian tales, an argument that may have perhaps appeared compelling considering Justin’s proximity to the region and time period.”

Ferguson goes on to say “And so, both the AR (the Alexander Romance) and the Gospels were equally “novelistic” and “historical.” They were novelistic in a generic sense, due to their their literary conventions (which were atypical of historical biographies), while being historical in the ancient rhetorical sense, due to their audience believing that they depicted real events. Under the modern understanding of historical reliability, however, both texts contain a number of details that modern historians doubt actually occurred within space-time.”

I have also regularly commented that some of the details of the Gospel accounts which my conservative friends consider must be accepted as historical but my scientific rationalist friends consider scientifically impossible (such as the virgin birth, many of the miracles and the resurrection) are details which were incorporated in stories about other historical figures, and notably the Roman Emperors, many of whom were hailed as gods and/or sons of gods. Several of them were credited with miraculous births, as well. If, I argue, I am to take the gospel accounts stating things of this kind as historical, do I not also have to take the accounts of Augustus’ miraculous birth, Tiberius’ divinity or Nero’s resurrection, or the general ability claimed of many emperors to heal by touch, as equally historical?

Ferguson goes on in his second essay to make comparisons with the Alexander Romance. This is actually the extended story about a real person which I most like to refer to as a comparison to the Gospels, as it contains all the elements of miraculous birth, divine parentage and miracles which the Gospels do (although not a resurrection), but suffers from the defect as a comparison that it was composed a lot longer after the events in question. This detailled treatment is fascinating, and again there is a snippet which I was not previously aware of – the presence of a poll tax narrative in all the Synoptic Gospels (including Mark) refers to a tax which was not levied in Palestine until 70 CE, over 30 years after Jesus was supposed to have used such a tax to make a point (“render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s…). The fact that that passage also refers to a tax which has to be paid in coinage, and such taxes were not a feature of colonial administration (as there were few such coins in circulation, at least in the early first century, and this would have made the tax doubly difficult to collect) added to that makes me all the more confident that the story was not composed until after 70 CE, and probably in a major centre or population in which payment in denarii would be the norm – so not in Palestine. This very much agrees with what I have long thought on the basis of the presence of a “prediction” of the fall of the Temple coupled with some aspects which were not typical of the early first century but which were perhaps commonplace in the late first-to-early second centuries, for instance the call of the disciples. There was no system in the early first century by which Rabbis attracted students out of the countryside (as wonderfully described by Rob Bell in an extended talk some years ago), but there was a need for that after the fall of the Temple and all its ancillary functions (including education of aspiring Jewish teachers).

I have not infrequently argued that it would not in fact be beyond the bounds of possibility for Jesus actually to have predicted the fall of the Temple, given the situation in Palestine in the 30s CE, with zealots and sicarii attacking Romans and Roman sympathisers and, by that time, already at least three revolts by putative messiahs. The writing was on the wall, as it were, particularly given Roman governors as brutal as Pilate. Jesus might well have said something of the sort – but it would be irresistible for people writing after the actual fall of the Temple to have picked up on any gentle suggestion and made it into a prophecy.

All of this, from Justin Martyr to the manner of taxation, just reinforces my view that the initial subversive identification of Jesus as Lord (as opposed to Caesar as Lord), which is very early indeed (witness Larry Hurtado’s “One God, One Lord”) prompted followers to imitate the kind of stories told about the Caesars in an equally subversive way. I don’t think they remotely thought that they were writing fiction as we’d understand that term today, I think they thought they were telling stories about their leader designed to underline his importance in exactly the same way as the Romans told stories about theirs. And, of course, the question which Miller restates Julian as asking “so why are you killing us?” is easily answered – it was a question of loyalty. Only the Emperor (or the previous world-spanning emperor Alexander) could be talked of in these terms, and if you talked of someone else, particularly an obscure Galilean tekton, in that way, you were being subversive, potentially revolutionary – and Rome did not brook revolution.

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