The Gospels are Ancient Biographies

By Luke Lancaster

Many people see the Christian Gospels of the New Testament to be mere fairy tales. This is totally false. Dr. Brant Pitre’s book, “The Case for Jesus,” and Dr. Richard Burridge’s work, “What are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography” make the case that the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are truly in the literary form of ancient biographies. See a few examples: the Jewish historian Josephus’s ancient biography of himself in 99 AD; the Greek historian Plutarch’s biographies between 90-100 AD; the Roman historian Suetonius’s biographies in 120 AD; and Lucian’s biography about his teacher Demonax between 150-180 AD. These ancient histories parallel the Gospels. This article will compare the way an ancient life of a historical figure such as Alexander the Great or Caesar Nero was recounted with how the Gospels recounted the life of Jesus.

The principal focus of an ancient biography is on the birth, public life, and death of a person. The birth of the figure is not always recounted, which is why the Gospels of Mark and John are perfectly justified in not recording the birth of Jesus. Some biographies do recount the birth, such as Matthew and Luke do with the birth of Jesus (Mt. 1-2, Lk. 1-2). The primary focus of ancient biographies is on the public ministry of the individual in question, which is why the Gospels focus substantially on the public ministry of Jesus. See the massive chunks of Matthew 3-25, Mark 1-13, Luke 3-21, and John 1-12. Finally, early biographies refer to the death of the figure, as do the Gospels in regard to the death of Jesus (Matthew 24-27, Mark 14-15, Luke 22-23, John 18-19).

Ancient Greco-Roman biographies average around 10k – 20k words, which are about how many words that fit into the length of an ancient scroll. The four Gospels average around the same, with Matthew writing 18k words, Mark writing 11k words, Luke writing 19k words, and John writing 15k words. Early biographies are medium length works and are in no way close to the five-hundred-page histories given by contemporary historians.

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke outline the pedigree of Jesus, which is oftentimes a typical feature of ancient biographies. Matthew 1:1 says, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” Luke 3:23, 31, 34 says, “Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age, being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph…the son of David…the son of Abraham.” Compare this with a few ancient lives like Lucian’s and Josephus’s. The historian Lucian writes that Demonax, “was a Cypriot by birth, and not of a common stock as regards civic rank and property” (Life of Demonax, 3). Josephus says in his ancient biography, “My family is no ignoble one, tracing its descent far back to priestly ancestors…Moreover, on my mother’s side I am of royal blood…My great-grandfather’s grandfather was Simon” (Life of Josephus, 1). The lineage of the historical figure is frequently a feature of early biographies.

Ancient biographies can be arranged according to topics or by chronology. For instance, Suetonius says in his biography of Caesar Augustus, “Having given as it were a summary of his life, I shall now take up its various phases one by one, not in chronological order, but by categories” (Life of the Deified Augustus, 9). Similarly, the Gospels are not always concerned about chronological order. One Gospel might say that Jesus performed miracles after leaving one city, while another Gospel might say that Jesus went to preach after leaving that city. These differences do not necessitate that the Gospel writers erred, for they may have focused topically. Modern biographies are focused on exactitude, but ancient biographies like the Gospels were not always like that.

The Gospels do not recount a comprehensive history of Jesus, and ancient biographies were no different. The history given by Lucian says, “These are a very few things out of many which I might have mentioned, but they will suffice to give my readers a notion of the sort of man he [Demonax] was (Life of Demonax, 67). Plutarch says in his life of Alexander the Great that “the multitude of deeds to be treated is so great that I shall make no other preface than to entreat my readers, in case I do not tell of all the famous actionsnor even speak exhaustively at all in each particular case.” (Life of Alexander, 1.1). This idea fits right alongside the Gospel of John, “Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25). Ancient histories like the Gospels were not all exhaustive, but only focus on the parts most important in their minds. Modern biographies attempt to be comprehensive, but ancient biographies did not.

Ancient biographers attempt to chronicle historical information, just like the Gospels. Consider Lucian, “I speak with reference to the Boeotian Sostratus…and to Demonax, the philosopher. Both these men I saw myself” (Life of Demonax, 1). Lucian gives actual history, and this is true because he is an eyewitness. Josephus similarly attempts to write accurate history, and this can be seen from his biography, “Having reached this point in my narrative, I propose to address…[those] who, while professing to write history, care little for truth, and either from spite or partiality, have no scruples about falsehood. The procedure of such persons resembles indeed the forgers of contracts, but, having no corresponding penalty to fear, they can afford to disdain veracity…[But] veracity is incumbent upon a historian (Life of Josephus, 336-339). Josephus knows that historians need to provide accurate history.

The Gospels of Luke and John write historical knowledge in the same way as the ancient biographers. Luke’s Gospel says, “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account (Luke 1:1-3). This prologue by St. Luke mirrors prologues from other historians like Herodotus, Thucydides, and Josephus. Luke emphasizes that he is writing a “narrative,” which is the term used by ancient biographers. He writes true history based on “eyewitnesses” like Lucian. Compare this also to what John’s Gospel has to say, “But one of the soldiers pierced his [Jesus’s] side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. He who saw it [John] has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth—that you also may believe” (John 19:34-35). St. John knows that he is an eyewitness and has the veracity of a like Josephus. The Gospels fit into the class of writings known as ancient biographies like Lucian and Josephus.

Although modern histories are concerned about word for word accuracy and precision, ancient histories like the Gospels were not. The works of antiquity attempt to convey only the substance of what people said. Consider the ancient historian Thucydides, “With reference to the speeches in this history, some were delivered before the war began, others while it was going on; some I heard myself, others I got from various quarters; it was in all cases difficult to carry them word for word in one’s memory; so my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said” (History of the Peloponnesian War 1.22.1). Thucydides used multiple reliable sources (like Luke’s Gospel – see Lk. 1:1-3) and only attempted to write the “general sense” of what was said. The Gospels oftentimes speak of the same events (such as the feeding of the five thousand), but they are worded differently. This is because only the substance needs to be recorded for early works.

The Gospels are in the genre of ancient historical biographies. They are not pagan myths about Zeus or the “once upon a time” fairy tales. They also are not like contemporary biographies, where every detail is recorded verbatim and in chronological order. The Gospels make no attempt to describe the physical appearance of Jesus or his early life, for many details are left out. But that is all acceptable if the Gospels are understood within their proper class. To attempt to make the Gospels fit into the genre of contemporary biographies is to make a huge mistake. Yet sadly, many people have done so. These people need to understand the issue of genre.