The genre of the gospels.

What kind of text is a gospel?


Related text(s).
Lives of the prophets.
Life of Adam and Eve.
Twelve Caesars (by Suetonius).
Evagoras (by Isocrates):

Hodoi Elektronikai: Evagoras (Greek).
Perseus: Evagoras (Greek and English).
Classic Persuasion: Evagoras (English).
Agesilaus (by Xenophon):
Hodoi Elektronikai: Agesilaus (Greek).
About: Agesilaus (English).
On Famous Men (by Cornelius Nepos):
Bibliotheca Augustana: On Famous Men (Latin).
Tertullian Project: On Famous Men (English).
Parallel Lives (by Plutarch):
Hodoi Elektronikai: Lives (Greek).
Wikisource: Lives (Greek and English).
Perseus: Lives (Greek and English; scroll down to Plutarch).
LacusCurtius: Lives (English).
Asiaing: Lives (English; 2 .pdf files).
Agricola (by Tacitus):
Latin Library: Agricola (Latin).
Forum Romanum: Agricola (Latin and English).
Ancient History Sourcebook: Agricola (English).
Sacred Texts: Agricola (English).
Demonax (by Lucian):
Toxolyros: Demonax (Greek).
Google Books: Dindorf edition of Lucian, volumes 1, 2, 3, 4 (Greek; Demonax appears on hardcopy pages 368-383 or PDF pages 377-392 of volume 3).
Sacred Texts: Demonax (English).
Apollonius (by Philostratus):
Hodoi Elektronikai: Apollonius (Greek).
Livius: Apollonius (English).
Sacred Texts: Apollonius (English).
Mountain Man: Information on Apollonius.
Lives of the philosophers and sophists (by Eunapius):
Tertullian Project: Lives (English).
Augustan History (Historia Augusta or Scriptores Historiae Augustae):
Latin Library: History (Latin).
Intratext: History (Latin).
LacusCurtius: History (Latin and English).

Useful links.
Biography at Wikipedia.
Ancient Biography at About.

Four gospels.

Charles H. Talbert, What Is A Gospel?, page 42:

It would seem, therefore, that early Christians were aware of the Mediterranean myth of the immortals and utilized it in one way or another in their proclamation of Jesus. When they employed this myth in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke-Acts as a principle by which to order the Jesus materials, they were doing what pagan and Jewish writers had already done and were doing. The sweeping statement that Graeco-Roman biographies were not mythical is inaccurate. The mythology of the immortals was used by some as the frame for their story—as do the synoptic gospels.

Charles H. Talbert, What Is A Gospel?, page 78:

If no Graeco-Roman biographies, even if controlled by myth, employed the katabasis-anabasis mythology [found in the gospel of John], what does this fact imply for our genre discussions? It seems to me that it is the fact that John, like the synoptic gospels and certain Graeco-Roman biographies, is ordered by myth that is important rather than which myth is employed. First, it is customary to regard Mark and John as belonging to the same genre, whatever it is, even though they are structured in terms of different myths. If the rule applies to these two gospels, why not to the mythical biographies? Second, Clement of Alexandria in his Miscellanies 6:15 verbalized a Mediterranean conviction.

If then, according to Plato, it is only possible to learn the truth either from God or from the progeny of God, with reason we, selecting testimonies from the divine oracles, boast of learning the truth by the Son of God, prophesied at first and then explained.

Given this mentality, both myths (immortals and descent-ascent) would function in similar ways. They would serve to underwrite the divine authority of the subject so described. Finally, it must be remembered that genres are not wooden, static entities.

Robert M. Price, Deconstructing Jesus, page 213:

[T]hanks to Koester, Robinson, and Talbert, the gospels' similarity to and probable dependence upon the aretalogy genre are being more and more recognized. But something seldom noticed is the striking fact that the gospels also match certain features often found in a related genre, that of the ancient romance novels. This should not surprise us, since these genres (like all genres) are not airtight. The ancient romances and the aretalogies tend to shade over into one another. For example, The Alexander Romance and Philostratus' Life of Apollonius of Tyana have equal elements of both types.

Robert M. Price, Deconstructing Jesus, page 221:

As Charles H. Talbert has shown, the canonical gospels, even in their present form, would not have been hard for an ancient reader to recognize as official (and fictive) hero biographies compiled by a philosophical movement to glorify their founder.*

* Charles H. Talbert, What Is a Gospel? The Genre of Canonical Gospels (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977).

Richard Burridge compares the gospels with Greek and Roman βιοι, loosely translated as biographies, across four main points and a variety of subpoints in his influential work, What Are The Gospels?. He lists these points in chapter 5 (pages 105-123):

  1. Opening features.
    • Title.
    • Opening formulae, prologue, or preface.
  2. Subject.
    • Analysis of verb subjects; which nouns appear in the nominative case most frequently?
    • Allocation of space; how much space is used for the birth, for the death, or for important events?
  3. External features.
    • Mode of representation; poetry or prose?
    • Meter (offered hypothetically; not found to be present or significant in most βιοι).
    • Size and length; number of words and of scrolls required.
    • Structure or sequence; chronological or topical arrangement?
    • Scale; how broad a canvass does the author paint on?
    • Use of literary units; anecdotes, songs, dialogues, maxims, et cetera.
    • Use of sources; written and oral.
    • Methods of characterization; how does the author characterize his subject?
  4. Internal features.
    • Setting.
    • Topics (topoi) or motifs; ancestry, birth, childhood, words and deeds, death.
    • Style; high brow, educated, popular.
    • Atmosphere; tone, mood, attitude, and values.
    • Quality of characterization.
    • Social setting and occasion.
    • Authorial intention and purpose; encomium, example, information, entertainment, preservation of memory, instruction, apologetic or polemic.

Richard A. Burridge, What Are The Gospels?, page 136:

Even Satyrus has a summing-up phrase to introduce the death: 'These were the things which happened to Euripides while he was alive; as for his death...' (Frag. 39.XX.22-26). Momigliano sees this as a definite indicator of genre: 'The text of the papyrus, with its clear transition from a section dealing with the life to a section dealing with the death of the poet, seems to make the biographical intention unmistakable.*

* Momigliano, [The] Development [of Greek Biography], p[age] 80; see also, Stuart, Epochs [of Greek and Roman Biography], p[ages] 181-3.

Richard A. Burridge, What Are The Gospels?, page 136:

The one exception [to the rule that biographies include a death account] is Isocrates, who concludes with an evaluation of Evagoras, exhorting Nicocles to follow his father, but with no mention of his death. Aristotle tells us that Evagoras was murdered (Pol. 1311b) and in a rhetorical encomium such embarrassing, nonlaudatory material was often omitted; thus we have a clear reason for our one exception of a βίος ending without the death.

Richard A. Burridge, What Are The Gospels?, pages 137-138:

Satyrus has been criticized for this predilection [to recount anecdotes]: 'Evidently anecdotes amused Satyrus and facts, as such, did not. He cared about literary style, but he neither cared nor knew about history.'1 Other fragments of Satyrus preserved in Athenaeus also show this liking for anecdote, particularly if sensational or outrageous.2

1 G. Murray, Euripides and His Age, [seco]nd ed[itio]n (O[xford] U[niversity] P[ress], 1965), p[age] 10.
2 See Tronson, 'Satyrus the Peripatetic', J[ournal of] H[ellenic] S[tudies] (1984), p[age] 118.

Close examination reveals that these literary forms are present in all the βίοι, forming the stuff of their narrative. Evagoras betrays its rhetorical influence through units of formal oratory: pooimion, comparison, exordium, apostrophe. On the other hand, units which might be classed as 'legends' or 'miracle-stories' are found in the Moses [by Philo].

Richard A. Burridge, What Are The Gospels?, page 139:

In the Hellenica, Xenophon shows that he knows, and disapproves, of certain aspects of Agesilaus' conduct (such as his dealings with Pharnabazus of Sphodrias); these are absent in Agesilaus itself: 'He was clearly aware of failings which he felt it his duty, as a biographer, to suppress.'*

* J. K. Anderson, Xenophon, p[age] 168; for full details, see p[ages] 167-71.

Richard A. Burridge, What Are The Gospels?, page 144:

Isocrates is clear: 'everyone knows that those wishing to praise someone must depict him with more good qualities than he really has, while his attackers must do the opposite' (Busiris 4). .... Stereotype is common in character analysis: Nepos' account of Atticus' loyalty and economical attitudes (e.g. Att. 13) is too good to be true....

Richard A. Burridge, What Are The Gospels?, page 161:

However, in addition to his literary purpose, Plutarch has a moral problem: the principle of divine retribution dictates that bad men's lives and deaths show that crime does not pay and good men's the reverse. An ignominious death after Cato's apparent failure to stop the evil against which he fought all his life has to be balanced: 'His attempt to prove that the good are rewarded, by relating elaborate funerals for the unjustly afflicted, also seems contrived.'* So Cato is declared to be 'Saviour' (σωτῆρα) by the immediate gathering at his door of 300 senators and the people of Utica (71.1). Great honours, decoration and a procession are given to the body, and it is buried near the sea 'where a statue now stands, sword in hand'—a romantic, yet victorious image (71.2). Even his enemy, Caesar, is brought on to speak well of him (72.2). All of this contrives to give a triumphant end to the βίος.

* F. E. Brenk, S.J., In Mist Apparelled, p[age] 270.

.... Geiger demonstrates the similar pattern in the deaths of Cato here and of Thrasea Paetus in Tacitus' Annals: both deaths are consciously modelled on the death of Socrates, as is shown by Cato's last reading of Socrates' final dialogue (Phaedo).*

* [Joseph] Geiger, 'Munatius Rufus', Athenaeum, 1979, p[ages] 61-5.

Richard A. Burridge, What Are The Gospels?, page 177:

The question of stereotype arises here too; Agricola's character [in the Tacitean work about him] is sometimes thought to be overdone, almost too good to be true....

Richard A. Burridge, What Are The Gospels?, page 238:

It is possible that Acts, like the gospel [of Luke], is linked to the βίος literature, either as a list of the Lives of the main subject's followers,* or as a βίος of the church, in the manner of Dicaearchus' biographical work on Greece, Περὶ τοῦ τῆς Ἑλλάδος βίου, mentioned above.

* As Talbert suggests, Literary Patterns, Theological Themes and the Genre of Luke-Acts, p[ages] 125-43; What Is a Gospel?, p[age] 134.

Richard A. Burridge, What Are The Gospels?, page 70:

Diogenes also makes use of material from Dicaearchus of Messene; his work, Περὶ βίων, may have been a collection of βίοι, and there is an interesting use of the word βίος in his account of the development of Greek civilization entitled Περὶ τοῦ τῆς Ἑλλάδος βίου.*

* For the influence of Dicaearchus upon the late Republic at Rome, especially on Atticus, Nepos and Varro (who followed the idea of βίοι of a people with his De vita populi Romani), see Elizabeth Rawson, Intellectual Life in the Late Republic (London: Duckworth, 1985), p[ages] 101-3.

Richard A. Burridge, What Are The Gospels?, page 218 (emphasis his):

Thus, there is a high degree of correlation between the generic features of Graeco-Roman βίοι and those of the synoptic gospels; in fact, they exhibit more of the features than are shown by works at the edges of the genre, such as those of Isocrates, Xenophon, and Philostratus. This is surely a sufficient number of shared features for the genre of the synoptic gospels to be clear: while they may well form their own subgenre because of their shared content, the synoptic gospels belong within the overal genre of βίοι.

What follows herebelow is a brief collection of various interesting discrepancies among the biographers of Alexander of Macedon.

Arrian, Anabasis 4.14:

Aristobulus says that Callisthenes was carried about with the army bound with fetters, and afterwards died a natural death; but Ptolemy, son of Lagus, says that he was stretched upon the rack and then hanged. Thus not even did these authors, whose narratives are very trustworthy, and who at the time were in intimate association with Alexander, give accounts consistent with each other of events so well known, and the circumstances of which could not have escaped their notice. Other writers have given many various details of these same proceedings which are inconsistent with each other; but I think I have written quite sufficient on this subject.

Arrian, Anabasis 5.20:

[Alexander] then left Craterus behind with a part of the army, to erect and fortify the cities which he was founding there; but he himself marched against the Indians conterminous with the dominion of Porus. According to Aristobulus the name of this nation was Glauganicians; but Ptolemy calls them Glausians. I am quite indifferent which name it bore.

Arrian, Anabasis 7.22:

The following story is told. Most of the tombs of the Assyrian kings had been built among the pools and marshes. When Alexander was sailing through these marshes, and, as the story goes, was himself steering the trireme, a strong gust of wind fell upon his broad-brimmed Macedonian hat, and the fillet which encircled it. The hat, being rather heavy, fell into the water; but the fillet, being carried along by the wind, was caught by one of the reeds growing near the tomb of one of the ancient kings. This incident itself was an omen of what was about to occur, and so was the fact that one of the sailors swam off towards the fillet and snatched it from the reed. But he did not carry it in his hands, because it would have been wetted while he was swimming; he therefore put it round his own head and thus conveyed it to the king. Most of the biographers of Alexander say that the king presented him with a talent as a reward for his zeal, and then ordered his head to be cut off; as the prophets had expounded the omen to the effect that he should not permit that head to be safe which had worn the royal fillet. However, Aristobulus says that the man received a talent; but also received a scourging for placing the fillet round his head. The same author says that it was one of the Phoenician sailors who fetched the fillet for Alexander; but there are some who say it was Seleucus, and that this was an omen to Alexander of his death and to Seleucus of his great kingdom. For that of all those who succeeded to the sovereignty after Alex ander, Seleucus became the greatest king, was the most kingly in mind, and ruled over the greatest extent of land after Alexander himself, does not seem to me to admit of question.

Arrian, Anabasis 2.3:

It is said by some that when Alexander could find out no way to loosen the cord and yet was unwilling to allow it to remain unloosened, lest this should exercise some disturbing influence upon the multitude, he struck it with his sword and cutting it through, said that it had been loosened. But Aristobulus says that he pulled out the pin of the wagon-pole, which was a wooden peg driven right through it, holding the cord together. Having done this, he drew out the yoke from the wagon-pole. How Alexander performed the feat in connection with this cord, I cannot affirm with confidence. At any rate both he and his troops departed from the wagon as if the oracular prediction concerning the loosening of the cord had been fulfilled. Moreover, that very night, the thunder and lightning were signs of its fulfilment; and for this reason Alexander offered sacrifice on the following day to the gods who had revealed the signs and the way to loosen the cord.

Arrian, Anabasis 2.4:

Alexander now fell ill from the toils he had undergone, according to the account of Aristobulus but other authors say that while very hot and in profuse perspiration he leaped into the river Cydnus and swam, being eager to bathe in its water. This river flows through the midst of the city and as its source is in mount Taurus and it flows through a clear district, it is cold and its water is clear. Alexander therefore was seized with convulsions, accompanied with high fever and continuous sleeplessness.

Arrian, Anabasis 3.3:

Ptolemy, son of Lagus, says that two serpents went in front of the army, uttering a voice, and Alexander ordered the guides to follow them, trusting in the divine portent. He says too that they showed the way to the oracle and back again. But Aristobulus, whose account is generally admitted as correct, says that two ravens flew in front of the army, and that these acted as Alexander’s guides. I am able to assert with confidence that some divine assistance was afforded him, for probability also coincides with the supposition; but the discrepancies in the accounts of the various narrators have deprived the story of certainty.

Plutarch, Life of Alexander:

Besides this, when they were out of their way, and were wandering up and down, because the marks which were wont to direct the guides were disordered and lost, they were set right again by some ravens, which flew before them when on their march, and waited for them when they lingered and fell behind; and the greatest miracle, as Callisthenes tells us, was that if any of the company went astray in the night, they never ceased croaking and making a noise till by that means they had brought them into the right way again.

Plutarch, Life of Alexander 46:

Here many affirm that the Amazon came to give him a visit. So Clitarchus, Polyclitus, Onesicritus, Antigenes, and Ister tell us. But Aristobulus and Chares, who held the office of reporter of requests, Ptolemy and Anticlides, Philon the Theban, Philip of Theangela, Hecataeus the Eretrian, Philip the Chalcidian, and Duris the Samian, say it is wholly a fiction. And truly Alexander himself seems to confirm the latter statement, for in a letter in which he gives Antipater an account of all that happened, he tells him that the King of Scythia offered him his daughter in marriage, but makes no mention at all of the Amazon. And many years after, when Onesicritus read this story in his fourth book to Lysimachus, who then reigned, the king laughed quietly and asked: Where could I have been at that time?

Arrian, Anabasis 3.4:

Having heard what was agreeable to his wishes, as he himself said, he set out on the journey back to Egypt by the same route, according to the statement of Aristobulus; but according to that of Ptolemy, son of Lagus, he took another road, leading straight to Memphis.