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The Gospels and Ancient Biographies

The Gospels and Ancient Biographies

Jesus Christ
Oral and written tradition
The Gospel of Matthew
The Gospel of Mark
The Gospel of Luke
The Gospel of John
The meaning for today

From ‘Notes on the Formation of the Gospels’, by John Wijngaards;
published in Background to the Gospels (Bangalore & Ann Arbor 1981)
and Together in My Name (London 1991).

It was at Antioch that believers were called ‘Christians’ for the first time. The significance of the name should not escape us. They were known as the followers of Christ. Who was this ‘Christ’? people would ask. They had heard about famous kings, generals and philosophers who had lived in the past. Where did Jesus Christ fit in?

The Romans and Greeks learned about their heroes in history books and biographies written by prominent authors. The public libraries of hellenistic cities contained thousands of scrolls. Among them must have been copies of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives and Suetonius’ two works The lives of the Caesars and On Illustrious Men. Both authors lived in the first century: Plutarch from 46 to 119 AD, Suetonius from 69 to 122 AD. Many such biographies must have existed, even though many have not survived to our day. Read: F.G.KENYON, Books and Readers in Ancient Greece and Rome, Oxford 1932.

Jesus, of course, was a religious leader. But here too ‘lives’ played a role. The influential Athenian philosopher Socrates was widely known through accounts of his life and his teaching in Plato’s Dialogues and Xenophon’s Memorabilia. The Jew Philo of Alexandria introduced Moses to Hellenistic audiences in a biography of the prophet that presents him as a classical political and religious hero. Philostratus left us a life of the miracle-worker Apollonius of Tyana. Other works of this nature were On the life of Pythagoras by Iamblichos, The Discourses of Epictetus by Arrian and The Lives of Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius.

The Gospels differ in many respects from these Hellenistic biographies. Yet we need to have little doubt that for many Greek readers they would roughly fall into the same category. The Gospels show techniques of composition reminiscent of Graeco-Roman rhetoric and of classic Greek drama, but their main thrust was the presentation of Jesus. ‘The Gospel of Mark, for instance, partakes of the form of a biography that depicts a disciples-gathering teacher - from the high point of his career to his death’ (V.ROBBINS, Jesus the Teacher: a Socio-Rhetorical Interpretation of Mark, Philadelphia 1984, p.10.)

For a discussion on similarities and dissimilarities between the Gospels and Graeco-Roman ‘lives’, see C.W.VOTAW, ‘The Gospels and Contemporary Biographies’, American Journal of Theology 19 (1919) pp.45-73, 217-249; C.F.EVANS, The New Testament Gospels, London 1965, pp.7-15; R.P.MARTIN, Mark - Evangelist and Theologian, Exeter 1972, pp.18-22; F.G.DOWNING, ‘Contemporary analogies to the Gospels and Acts’, in Synoptic Studies, ed.C.M.TUCKETT, Sheffield 1984, pp.51-65; read also G.G.BILEZIKIAN, The Liberated Gospel: A Comparison of the Gospel of Mark and Greek Tragedy, Grand Rapids 1977.

John Wijngaards

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