The Gospels and Greek Culture, Part 4a: The Genre of the Gospels - Historiography
Updated: Dec 15, 2021
This post is the fourth in a series that has been adapted from my MA thesis which I wrote over the summer of 2020.
This section of the Gospels and Greek Culture series explores the genres that the Gospels could possibly fit into which have connections with Greek culture: historiography (historical writing); ancient biós (biography - part 4b); and Greek tragic drama (part 4c). Looking at these connections and their implications provides a broader context to the discussion of Jesus’ representations from part 3, and it also helps us to further appreciate the Gospel writers’ linguistic choices as discussed in chapter 1, giving a much more complete picture of how the Gospel writers engaged with Greek culture when writing their accounts.
Before we start, however, we have to look at what the concept of genre actually means. Classifying a text as belonging to a particular genre means an automatic creation of expectations by the author for the reader. It tells the reader what they should see in the text’s content, structure, and messages, even though the specifics of those things are unknown until the text itself is read. However, when we assess ancient genres, we have to be aware that the concept of genre was not the same in the 1st century AD as it is in the 21st, and there weren't nearly as broad a range of categories as there is today, plus texts often displayed overlaps and fluid boundaries with regard to themes and topics. This is especially true for historiography and biós - although it seems that there was some form of distinction between the two by the 2nd century AD, biós was not its own genre at that point. This means that we can't necessarily attempt to classify ancient texts according to a specific set of rules or literary elements unless the ancients themselves defined them so when it comes to the Gospels, there are no specific criteria that have to be fulfilled, just parallels with the types of ancient literature that we're aware of.
It's important to note here that the 4 Gospels have generally been considered as being sui generis - their own genre. This was largely due to comparisons with modern genres, leading to a lack of sufficient assessment within their own historical context. In more recent academic work, however, this mistake has been recognised and the need to assess them against the literary background of the 1st century AD, not that of the modern day, has been highlighted.
Furthermore, the idea of sui generis is in itself somewhat problematic when it comes to the Gospels. As we have seen in the previous parts of this series, the Gospel writers were consistently intentional in their language, techniques, and the parallels they highlighted between their accounts of Jesus and the contemporary culture. We can clearly see that these connections were made in order to provide their readers with familiar literary elements so that the authors’ message about Jesus would be more accessible, and in a similar way, it was necessary for the Gospels to have a genre, however broad, in order to be properly understood. Had they been sui generis, it is unlikely that they would have been widely appreciated or understood at all, so it is highly unlikely that they were intended to be the start of a new and unique genre.
The Gospels as Graeco-Roman Historiography
By the time that the Gospels were being written, the traditions of Greek historical writing had already been in place for over five centuries. We see the beginnings of recounting the past in poetry such as Homer’s Iliad (and no doubt through oral tradition before that), and by the 1st century AD, there was already a wide range of historiographical works. Their purpose was to accurately record history for posterity, but this didn't prevent the author's own views from coming through in the texts or the acceptance of divine intervention as a potential influence on what happened.
The main reason for the Gospels’ association with Graeco-Roman historiography has been the style of the books of Luke and Acts, in particular the preface to Luke’s Gospel, as well as their general nature as informative about the life of Jesus and the formation of the early church.
Graeco-Roman Historiographical Conventions
There are a lot of elements in the Gospels that point towards the genre of Graeco-Roman historiography, especially in the preface to Luke’s account. It's clear from verses 1-2 of chapter 1 that Luke is aware of previous accounts of Jesus’ life and he does acknowledge them, whilst also expressing his desire in verse 3 to write his own. This is something that can be seen in the works of historians such as Arrian (writing in the early 2nd century AD), who also acknowledges the previous works of Ptolemy and Aristobulus as accurate accounts which he uses as his sources. There's also Luke’s use of particular language (as discussed in part 2), which shows us that he wants to place himself within a historiographical setting; saying that he wants to produce an orderly and well-researched account is what sets him apart in this way from the other Gospels which, although also historically accurate, show a lot less of an explicit concern with historical exactitude, precise locations or dates.
This leads us to discuss the idea of reliable sources, which Greek historiography was especially concerned with. Within the Greek historiographical tradition, eyewitnesses were considered to be the most valuable sources of information, and it's obvious from Luke’s preface that he thought the same. The fact that Luke mentioned that he had thoroughly investigated gives him more credibility in the eyes of the ancient reader, which allowed him to promote the more apologetic (i.e. defensive of the Christian faith) side of his work. If the traditional views are correct and the account was written by Luke the physician between 80-85 AD, then his proximity to the eyewitnesses of the events he describes certainly gives his account greater plausibility. This is given further grounding by the phrase ‘peri tón peplrophoréménón en hémin' - 'The things that have been fulfilled among us' - which tells us that the events being described happened within the author’s lifetime; something also in line with the recommendations of respected Greek historians such as Herodotus and Thucydides, who both write about the importance of recounting recent events as opposed to those that happened much longer beforehand.
Adhering to these conventions meant that the Gospel writers, particularly Luke, clearly aimed to show the reader that their accounts as historically accurate, thoroughly researched, and corroborated by eyewitnesses in order to emphasise their credibility.
Another aspect in which the Gospels resemble various Greek historiographical works is their accepting view of divine providence and intervention. Although the more humanistic views of Thucydides and Polybius have previously implied that Greek historical writings looked to exclude the divine as a possible influence on events, it was still perfectly acceptable for many writers of history that the gods might take part in the shaping of history. For example, Herodotus is of the opinion that, ‘There is plenty of convincing evidence that the divine plays a part in human affairs’. Similarly, the famous guiding of Alexander’s army to the shrine of Ammon at Siwah by two snakes receives this evaluation from Arrian: ‘I have no doubt whatever that he had divine assistance of some kind – for what could be more likely?’.
Of course, this is a major theme in the Gospels by the very nature of their subject, Jesus. The most obvious of these occasions are perhaps the appearances of messengers from God, who signal Jesus’ birth and death as supernatural events which change the course of history. Though the authors' inclusion of divine intervention in itself doesn't mean that they were drawing particular influence from Greek historiography, it's still a parallel to consider.
Alternatives to Graeco-Roman Historiography
There is a strong case, however, for the Gospels matching Jewish historiography instead of Graeco-Roman historiography. Firstly, we have to consider that the Gospels were left as anonymous texts. This was highly unusual for Graeco-Roman historiographical works; the author always named themselves. This kind of practice is much more in line with the Old Testament tradition, in which almost every book was also left anonymous. Not only this, but the clear vernacular style, lack of first and second person references from the narrator, and the ‘kata + [author]’ titles (the Greek kata + a name means of/from that person) tell us that the authors of the Gospels wanted to keep the focus of the reader on the content of their accounts, not on any particular writing skill that they themselves might have as authors, as this could have detracted from Jesus as the main focus. This kind of title signified the authors’ roles as relayers of information, instead of the normal genitive of authorship (i.e. what would translate directly as '[Author]'s Account') which asserted the writer’s ownership of the text and its creation. The inclusion of direct speech also resembles the Jewish historiographical tradition; Graeco-Roman works typically reproduced speeches indirectly.
It's also important to recognise that Luke’s preface (Luke 1:1-4) has also be considered as suiting the typical preface of an ancient scientific treatise instead of a historiographical work. Not only is Luke’s preface significantly shorter than many historiographical prefaces, which often took up multiple sections of the first book, but it also matches the style of other prefaces of treatises on science from that time period in both its sentence structure and dedication in the vocative (the grammatical case that speaks directly to the intended reader - in this case, Theophilus). This would certainly make sense if Luke was indeed the physician he is thought to have been, as this would have made him a reader of scientific treatises and it's therefore likely that he would have mirrored this style in at least some parts of his work.
In reality, the parallels between the Gospels and this genre are sparse; definitely too few to place them within the genre of Graeco-Roman historiography as an overall category. However, it can't be denied that the wording of Luke’s preface certainly appears as an attempt to place himself within the Graeco-Roman historiographical tradition despite its similarities to a more scientific preface, and the adherence to historiographical conventions combined with the inclusion of divine providence certainly allow for this kind of reading. Although there are aspects that mirror a more Jewish historiographical origin than a Graeco-Roman one, the Graeco-Roman elements encourage the reader to consider the Gospels as accurate historical accounts that have significance both in a historical and a contemporary setting.
Read Part 4b: 'The Genre of the Gospels - Biography' here.
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