The Gospels and Greek Culture, Part 4b: The Genre of the Gospels - Biography
Updated: Dec 15, 2021
This post is the fifth in a series that has been adapted from my MA thesis which I wrote over the summer of 2020.
The Gospels as Graeco-Roman bíos
In more recent scholarship, the Gospels have widely been seen as fitting the genre of ancient Graeco-Roman bíos. Even though bíos was not its own genre in the 1st century AD, it had begun to be defined as separate from historiographical works, most essentially in that the main focus was much narrower – it examined an individual and their character instead of reporting on wider events. However, it's still clear that the category of bíos is very much rooted in historical writing, which is where we find sections dedicated to the lives of significant figures within an overall historiographical work, such as Polybius’ praise of Scipio’s character, or Xenophon’s Agesilaus. It's therefore important not to dismiss the discussion from above about the Gospels as historiography; even though they do not fully correspond to the genre, we still have to recognise that this is where their biographical nature can find some of its origins.
As well as historiography, there are also some elements of other ancient literary categories that could be combined and adapted to form a bíos. These include elements of philosophy and moral teaching; encomium; politics and rhetoric; religious teaching; polemic; entertainment; narrative; and discourse. The lack of rules for the shaping and combination of these things meant that the authors of bíos could write their accounts exactly according to the message they wanted to convey about their subject, as well as reaching either a very specific or very broad audience, depending on the genres they drew from. Similarly to historiographical works, they could be used to tell the reader about historical events, but within bíoi, there was usually a much larger emphasis on morality and philosophy, even if this emphasis was mostly conveyed indirectly through the subject’s actions.
There are four sub-genres of Graeco-Roman bíoi as specified by Berger: Encomium or laudatory bíoi (e.g. Isocrates’ Evagoras, Xenophon’s Agesilaus, Philo’s Moses); the Peripatetic type - 'a chronological representation of the moral character of a person as seen through their actions’. (e.g. Plutarch’s Lives); the popular type (e.g. The Life of Aesop); and the Alexandrian type, which was a more systematic representation of the subject’s life (e.g. Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars). Aside from their focus, other particular features of Graeco-Roman bíoi that we can see paralleled in the Gospels include their structure, the way that Jesus is characterized, and the apparent anticipated audience.
The association of the Gospels with bíoi is mainly due to their focus on the person of Jesus. Of course, this is the case with all Graeco-Roman bíoi, being the factor that generally separated them from historiographical works. This focus is demonstrated in several ways, particularly the settings of the narratives which are centred on the person of Jesus, not a physical place: the narratives are always relevant to him. This is true even when the topic turns to figures such as John the Baptist or the Pharisees’ as they plot against Jesus; the narrative consistently points towards or talks about Jesus with very few exceptions, even when he is not physically present. This is especially obvious when we analyse the verbal subjects: across the 4 Gospels, Jesus is made either the subject or speaker of 52.58% of the verbs on average. A similar average can be seen in other later Graeco-Roman bíoi, especially Lucian’s Demonax, in which Demonax is the subject or speaker of 53.3% of the total verbs. Although this in itself does not make a work a bíos, it reinforces the idea that the audience’s attention was consistently directed towards the person of Jesus as opposed to his surroundings.
There's also the use of a Greek literary technique known as synkrisis – the use of a secondary character to highlight the importance of the main subject - in the Gospels in order to emphasise this focus. This is done by bringing the two together and developing them simultaneously, then later showing how they are different from each other. We see the beginnings of this with characters such as Achilles and Patroclus throughout Homer’s Iliad, and centuries later, its full utilisation is key to Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. The technique of synkrisis is used in each of the Gospels in relation to Jesus and John the Baptist, but especially in Luke’s account with the inclusion of both of their birth stories, as well as John’s explicit negations of the idea that he was the Christ. Each of the Gospels also refers back to the prophecy of Isaiah 40:3, naming John as the one who was sent to ‘prepare the way’ for the coming of the Messiah, thereby further drawing attention to the fact that his purpose is to point the reader towards Jesus.
Characterization in Graeco-Roman bíoi was rarely done directly, instead, the reader is generally invited to assess the character of the subject themselves through observing the subject’s actions. This is especially true of the Gospels – there is virtually no comment on Jesus’ personality, character, or virtues, but the writers consistently draw attention to these things by focusing on the way in which he interacts with both God and the people around him.
Jesus’ relationship with God is a primary way in which the Gospel writers characterize him. This is shown through how he prioritizes this relationship above everything else, such as staying behind at the temple in Jerusalem as a boy, the clearing of the temple, and the choice he makes in Gethsemane to accept his fate on the cross. It is these episodes in particular that show us how Jesus acts according to the will of his Father first and foremost. This is comparable with the piety of other figures represented in Graeco-Roman bíoi such as Apollonius of Tyana, whose time spent at the sanctuary of Asclepius and learning of philosophy during his youth clearly provides a foundational connection with the gods which shapes his actions in adulthood. This can also be seen in Philo’s Moses, who is presented as wise beyond his years as well as pure in spite of the royal luxury around him.
Jesus is also characterized by the way in which he relates to the people around him. He is always shown as compassionate in that he heals people for the sole purpose of helping them without any benefit to himself, and there is a particular kindness which he shows to those who were social outcasts, such as the Samaritan woman at the well, or the ten lepers. There are also the episodes of the healing of the two blind men (Matthew 9:27-34), or the healing of the crippled woman (Luke 13:10-17), which not only hold no personal benefit for Jesus, but they provoke the Pharisees further to plot against him. It is the significant emphasis on this characterization with a total lack of the narrator’s own opinion that leads the reader to make their own judgement about Jesus’ personality, character, and virtues.
However, there is still clearly an aim within each Gospel to praise and honour Jesus, aligning them closely with the laudatory bíos type. We see this primarily in his death and resurrection, which highlight that he was both innocently condemned and that he was deserving of divine glory. His death is clearly presented as a plot by the Pharisees, and the injustice of it is amplified by the guilt felt by Judas as Jesus’ betrayer. However, the combination of this with Jesus’ numerous predictions of his death show that this was a moment both planned and deemed necessary by God. The resurrection appearances then demonstrate Jesus’ divine glory, especially in passages such as the miraculous catch of fish in John 21:1-14 which show him performing miracles in addition to him being raised from the dead. It has been argued that this is comparable in a way with the story of Apollonius of Tyana, who reportedly came back from the dead, however, the only reference to this in Philostratus’ account comes in the amazement of one of his disciples who had heard rumour of Apollonius’ death.
Furthermore, each of the Gospel authors make it clear that we as the readers need to imitate Jesus and believe in him as the Son of God, presenting him as a figure worthy of emulation in a similar way to Plutarch in many of his Lives. In the Aemilius, for example, he writes this:
‘I treat the narrative as a kind of mirror and try to find a way to arrange my life and assimilate it to the virtues of my subjects. […] [I] observe ‘his stature and his qualities’ and choose from his achievements those which it is particularly important for me to know. […] And could one find a more effective means of moral improvement either?’
In the Gospels, this kind of attitude is emphasised by means of a focus on themes such as discipleship, personal transformation, and faith, all of which are indicative of the reaction someone should have after encountering Jesus.
Composition and structure
Ancient bíoi followed a vaguely chronological structure in that they generally started with the subject’s birth and ended with their death but between the beginning and end of their life, the material was often arranged by theme instead. This is particularly clear in accounts of the lives of philosophers or writers as opposed to politicians or military leaders, which meant that the author could emphasise certain virtues or a particular message that they wanted to convey. This was mostly done through an arrangement of their acts which allowed for thematic materials to naturally follow; for example, Lucian has a section specifically dedicated to anecdotes about Demonax’s character, which is followed by a loosely arranged collection of stories and his sayings. This kind of thematic arrangement is very much present in the Gospels, arguably with the exception of Luke.
Matthew, in particular, arranges his gospel by topic, following the general arrangement of Jesus’ birth and heritage (chapters 1-2); the beginning of his ministry (3-4); teachings on righteousness (5-7); miracles (8-9); mission and discipleship (10); parables about the kingdom of God and its growth (13); rules for the church (18); teaching against the Pharisees (23); the end times (24-25); and the account of his death and resurrection (26-28). Although there are other parts that don't fall into a particular part of this arrangement, this kind of structure allowed Matthew to both amplify areas of Jesus’ teaching (especially the contents of the Sermon on the Mount) and character, and ensure that his writing was clear and accessible to the reader, which wouldn't necessarily be the case if he'd written chronologically.
A setting of a person as opposed to a place or event, as discussed in the focus section above, also means that this kind of topical arrangement is possible because it allows for a certain amount of flexibility in terms of chronology which wouldn't necessarily fit into a historiographical account. We see this in the majority of Graeco-Roman bíoi from the same era, which tended to lack historical markers and instead allowed the reader to interpret the text via a more thematic structure without interruption, creating a narrative that is perhaps easier to read. For example, Philo’s Moses is especially lacking in temporal markers, even though the exodus of the Hebrew people from Egypt and their subsequent 40 years in the wilderness had an extremely prominent place in Jewish history. This may be down to the fact that the majority of Philo's works were mainly aimed at Jewish readership and so there was an assumption that the reader would already know when the Exodus took place, but a closer look at Moses 1.1-3 suggests that Philo intended to make Moses’ life known to those who previously knew nothing about him, which would make the absence of a more chronological structure seem unusual if it weren't for the tendency of bíoi to not include temporal markers. By mirroring the composition of a bíos, then, the Gospel writers were able to highlight particular events, most of all on Jesus' death and resurrection, which takes up an average of 16.45% in each Gospel.
It has also been argued that the Gospels suit the bíos genre because of their appeal to the same type of audience as other bíoi of the time. This argument is primarily based on their popular style, which would have allowed the Gospel writers to reach as large an audience as possible. This is certainly supported by the analysis of language in part 2 of this series, fitting especially well with the idea of the Gospels’ message being for everyone.
Furthermore, if we compare the Gospels with the example of the anonymous Life of Aesop as part of the ‘popular’ sub-genre, then there are multiple parallels there. Arguably the most significant parallel is that both figures communicate a great deal of their teachings through parables and fables. In the case of Jesus, he consistently uses analogies that draw from everyday situations which the listeners would be familiar with. For example, he often uses agricultural settings for his analogies, such as the parable of the growing seed or the lost sheep. The familiarity of the context meant that Jesus’ teachings were comprehensible for anyone who heard or read them, making them accessible for a wide audience regardless of social class.
There is a particular focus in both the Life of Aesop and the Gospels on the lifting up of the marginalised, which undoubtedly was a theme both aimed at the rich and the poor. In the Life of Aesop, this is shown primarily through the rise of Aesop himself; an ugly Phrygian slave who is able to progress because of his intelligence and ability to tell stories, whereas in the Gospels, we see that Jesus does this for others.
We also need to consider the Gospels’ length which is within the average length of Graeco-Roman bíoi – between approximately 10,000-25,000 words. Though this in itself doesn't necessarily make the Gospels bíoi, the issue is the setting in which they could be read because of this size; i.e. whether or not they could be read in one sitting, and whether they were meant for public or private readings.
I think it is perfectly feasible to classify the Gospels as Graeco-Roman bíoi in light of the exploration above. Their popular and laudatory style provide the perfect appeal to a broad audience, which was clearly the aim of the writers. Even though bíos was not a defined genre at this point, it's clear that the parallels the Gospel writers drew with contemporary bíoi were very much intentional. The way they did so meant that they were able to praise Jesus’ character whilst also allowing the reader to decide for themselves as to his character and virtues.
Read Part 4c: 'The Genre of the Gospels - Greek Tragedy' here.
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