The Ancient Greek Biography and the Gospel. With Regard to a Literary Genre


Genology studies of the gospels date back to the beginnings of Christianity. For the first time Justin Martyr felt tempted to make an attempt to determine the genres of the gospels, calling them apomnemoneumata („memories”, „things worth remembering”; 1Apol. 66,3)[1]. Earlier, Xenophon in his work referring to Socrates used the same noun. Besides, in a sense this work has become a pattern of an ancient biography[2].  Determination of the gospel with the use of the same term that refers to the ancient biographies prompts to carry out comparative research into the two literary forms. Such comparative studies would be aimed at portraying similarities and differences between these forms as well as they would give an answer to the question whether the Gospels as literary works can be categorized as the ancient biographies genres or such assumption is not justified. Therefore, in the first place one must briefly describe the main features of the Greek biography, taking into account the stages of the development of the genre and then look at the genre called „gospel”. Only against such a background, one will be able to compare the similarities and differences between the ancient biographies and the gospels and be possible to assign the latter to biographical genre.

1.   The Origins of Greek Biography

The love of the Greeks for the biography first reveals within other literary genres in which biographical elements are deliberately highlighted by their authors. One cannot deny the important role of the Greek padeia that praised heroic and full of glory lives. The heroics of those who were considered the wise or brave warriors were praised. The best and the first were promoted. In lapidary words, this ideal expresses Homeric Phoenix, explaining Achilles:

“Your father Peleus bade me go with you when he sent you as a mere lad,
from Phythia to Agamemnon. You knew nothing, neither of war nor of
the arts whereby men make their mark in council, and he sent me,
with you to train you in all excellence of speech and action”[3].

The phrase „men make their mark in council” should be understood as the art of wisdom, the „excellence of action” means the soldier’s art, and the „excellence of speech” indicates to oratory. Here are the ideals of Greek paideia; people who pursued them perfectly could count on depiction of their actions in the biography, however, those who pursued them less well, but were the members of well-known families could count on their idealization. In poetry, Rhapsody dealt with the glorification of acts of public persons, the court bard who eulogized the events of his master’s life with the words of praise. The first substitutes of subsequent biographies have been rarely written. Homer and Hesiod were aware that Rhapsody might be wrong or magnify deeds of their masters (Theogony 22). However, it does not oppose against a vivid historical interest in the fate of individuals[4].

Except the rulers, kings and warriors (the Battle of Troy), prominent place among the biographical threads of ancient authors had also founders of towns, their legislators and Olympic winners. Described destinies of the first, often acted as a spark to create writings of a historical nature, including history of polis. Over time, an important criterion for assessing the individual has become a virtue (avreth,). Men were glorified for their righteousness and they were rebuked for their evil deeds. With the development of biographical motifs within the limits of literary genres, they were enriched with the emotional aspects: the subjects of the descriptions were not only the actions and deeds of heroes, but also their emotions.

In the sixth century BC, the habit of announcing the biography of Homer before reciting his works became widespread[5]. A century later biographical legend On Homer and Hesiod came into existence. The legend had already had many elements of typical biography: place and date of birth, origin, major life events and circumstances of the death[6]. The first samples of written biographies have been developed in different directions, so we can talk about different types of early Greek biographies. One of them is anecdotal biography which source is an interest in an individual engaged in the affairs of the state. Thucydides, the author of it, puts the following words into the mouth of Pericles:

”[…] in conferring of dignities, one man is preferred before another to public charge, and that according to the reputation not of his house but of his virtue. […] there is in the same men a care both of their own, the public affairs, and a sufficient knowledge of state matters even in those that labour with their hands. For we only think one that is utterly ignorant therein to be a man not that meddles with nothing but that is good for nothing”[7].

Within this mainstream of a work of Ion of Chios, entitled VEpidhmi,ai but known as Notes from the journey arose, in which the author gave the characters of Themistocles, Pericles, Aeschylus and Sophocles the extensive space. An example of political biography with pamphlet, there is a work On Themistocles, Thucydides and Pericles by Stesimbrotos of Thasos which contains a lot of charges and caustic remarks aimed at celebrities of Athens (not mentioned in the title). This work became a source for Plutarch. Thus, in all probability it contains a lot of real historical information. Biographies of apologetic nature appear in the fourth century. Apology by Plato gives rise to them but Xenophon’s The Apology (in full Apology of Socrates to the jury), amplification. Both of these works emphasize – if one may say so – psychological portraits of their heroes[8].

2. The First Biographies

In ancient Greek novels there are a lot of examples of works that describe historical figures whose biographies have been largely modeled and sometimes changed by their authors[9]. The reasons for these changes, additions, exaggerations or hyperboles lie mostly in the purpose of mentioned above works. One may justify them easier by asking about the recipients of the works and the aims their authors set for themselves. Fictional elements added to the biographies by their authors had their limits. In the first place, they could concern the development of the birth records, which were often to be accompanied by extraordinary, remarkable events, promising the future fates of the hero. Episodes or fictitious statements were acceptable only as far as they fell within the limits  of the probability of other events in the life of a hero.

Xenophon perfectly sublimed character traits of Persian King Cyrus the Great in a work entitled Ku,rou Paidei,a. The author gives, criteria that he was guided by, making selection of the material: admiration for this man and education he received, way of the ruling people. Not only had he hesitation in changing the facts but also inventing and adding new ones. Fictional events based on the time when Cyrus was a child and an adult constitute the background for showing his virtues as a perfect ruler. It seems that creating a fictional biography of Cyrus, Xenophon was more interested in making an appeal to form a noble character in his readers, than to convince them of the ruler’s virtues. The author uses principle fabula docet, known in the antiquity, although in this case it is not about a fable but a novel[10]. Therefore, with no hesitation he changed both the factual data and individual character traits of the conqueror of Babylon. Idealizing Cyrus’s character traits, Xenophon portrayed him as an ideal ruler, whose deeds went down in a well-known legend in the areas of the ancient Near East. A truly Socratic striving for perfection was noticeable in all stages of life of the Persian tyrant. Didactic and moralistic element is omnipresent in the work of Xenophon. Hence the frequent redraw of characters that appear to be completely white or black. It is easily observable especially in the speeches put into the mouth of the characters as well as in disputes with adversaries. It is worth mentioning, that both the speeches and debates are literary material often used not only in other works of biographical character in ancient Greek literature but also in the Gospels.

Agesilaos written by Xenophon is a biographical work in which the author glorifies his friend Spartan, ignoring at the same time everything that might bring discredit on the king. He assigns military and diplomatic successes to moral temper of Agesilaos. What is more, according to him main aretai of the ruler includes such traits as righteousness, honesty, courage, prudence and concern regarding the others. All these virtues are rather conventional than individualizing. The hero of the narrative becomes almost an idol, and therefore also the perfect ruler and leader (optima regis et ducis imago). Agesiloas was created shortly after the death of the king and was written according the pattern typical of the earlier work Euagoras by Isocrates[11]. Euagoras is a posthumous praise of the ruler of Cyprus, the father Nikokles. All the deeds of the deceased stem from his virtues (avretai,). Defining the ideal ruler blurs the historical background and personality of the deceased slightly. It should be said, however, that this way of writing the biography impressed strongly the works of later writers[12]. For the first time the reader meets here with the leaving the accepted scheme: birth – the events of life – death, for the benefit of grouping the material into specific themes. Criterion of the division constitutes individual virtues of a given character. In the gospels, the division has a completely different basis but it exists, so it can be placed on the same line of creating and structuring the narrative material. Similarly, mentioned above Xenophon constructs his other eulogic biography, Agesilaos. To a large measure, the over-accenting the King’s virtues deprives the work of its quality of a historical source.

Aristoksenos of Tarentum is regarded as the creator of the peripatetic biography. He is the first one who used the term bios in the title of his work, by which he clearly pointed to the biography – autobiography. Plutarch praises the beauty of his literary work Bioi andron, which survived only in fragments. Thanks to the discovery of the papyrus from Oxyhynchos a fragment of the writing Bioi Eurypidou, survived in a form of a dialogue between three people. It ends with an anecdote about the death of Euripides torn by dogs, but it is preceded by other anecdotes and episodes built on a canvas of popular opinions, largely based on fiction. Slightly younger are Bioi by Hermippos of Smyrna, including biographies of Pythagoras, Aristotle, Gorgias and Isocrates. A characteristic feature of the writing is the use of rhetoric in the descriptions of the death of the heroes[13]. Here too, in addition to fiction, the author reaches for a lot of historical materials. On the other hand, Bioi filosofon, by Antigonus of Karystos reminds a little in its shape of the history of philosophy, enriched with the lives of the Greek “friends of wisdom.” The same quality can be assigned to a famous work of Diogenes Laertius Bioi filosofon, giving an account of the views of famous philosophers in ten books. As a historian of philosophy Diogenes Laertius is a collector and compiler however, as a biographer he did not hesitate to reach for anecdotal and legendary material, which as a result was often deprived of historical value.

Living at the turn of the third and second century by the Black Sea, Satyros of Kallatis is the author of the work Peri bion, containing biographies of philosophers, poets and statesmen.  Until today about twenty fragments of his works preserved in other writers, but the biography of Euripides, published in 1912, turned out to be the most valuable one. It has the form of a dialogue, but it also contains some elements of literary criticism[14].

Philippic living a century earlier than Theopompus may be credited to the historiography, not to the biography, although biographical material on „the greatest man Europe has ever given” (section 27) is impressive.  Genologists say about the new mainstream of Hellenistic historiography, biographical mainstream created by Teopomp (personal history)[15]. The work contains 58 books but describes only 24 years from the king’s life (360-336 BC)[16]. Unlike the idealizing biographies, Teopomp glorifies Philip for his virtues, but he blames him for alcoholism, sexual lust, perversity and intrigues. He keeps, therefore the balance in the assessment of a character. The fact brings together all the work to today’s historiography and biography: the historical truth is ahead of the apotheosis. Slightly different is the thing with the biographies of Alexander of Macedon. The character of the conqueror of the areas stretching from Macedonia through Thrace, Egypt, Syria, and into Asia to the Himalayas during his lifetime became the subject of legends, undergoing a rapid process of heroisation. Callisthenes of Olynthus was a companion of the commander in the expedition against Persia. It is he who is the author of the work Aleksandrou prakseis, which certifies that in the authoritative leaders had almost divine powers. The apotheosis of the character of Alexander surprising a bit, especially when we take into account the fact, that according to every suspicion, Callisthenes was executed in 327 for participating in a conspiracy to kill the king. A continuator of Callisthenes became the helmsman on Alexander’s the flagship, who wrote a book How Alexander was educated was a certain Onesikritos of Astypalaia on the Aegean Sea. He portrayed him as a philosophizing king. The work has the features of moralistic novel, but it is not deprived of fantastic elements[17]. Nearchos of Crete described the history of his friend after his death. First, as governor of Lycia and Pamphylia, and later as the commander of the fleet of Alexander he had a chance to get to know him well. His work Periplous however, has mainly geographical nature. A great objectivity characterized a biography of Alexander the Great, written by satrap of Egypt and the founder of the Lagids’ dynasty, Ptolemy the son of Lagos. The work, whose title has not preserved to our times, is based on his memories and staff notes, and therefore it is free from fantasy and rhetoric. Genologically, however, it becomes rather comparable to the military diary than biography in the proper sense of this word. The title of the work by Aristobulus of Kassandreia is also unknown. In this work he followed the example of Ionic logographers and as a result he often reached for the anecdote and parable[18]. Biographical threads about Alexander also appear in the courtly diary by Chares of Mytilene who in ten books recorded ​​ court episodes from the private life of the ruler. However, Ta kat’Aleksandrou is not a biography in the strict sense. More similar to a biography was the charming narrative Aleksandrou storiai, written by Kleitarchos of Alexandria who did not know the ruler personally, but he based on the works of his predecessors. Historical commentary is intertwined there with the rhetoric digressings from dry facts; thanks to that it is less marked by the advantage of objectivity.

Hieronymus of Kardia became a historian of diadoch. The successors of Alexander who suddenly died in 323 in Babylon were a study honest in factual terms that presented their history in the work entitled Ai` peri, Diado,cwn ~Istori,ai. The impartiality of the events described in the pages of the book is combined with the avoidance by the author of decorative words so fashionable later. The disciple of Jerome, Duris of Samos, dedicated his work to one of the diadochus, Agathokles. The lack of criticism influenced, however, the fact that Duris could not skillfully separate history from mythology. An attitude to evoke desirable emotions in the readers had to leave its mark on the objectivity of reported events[19].

3. The Later Biographies

The anonymous author of the life of Aesop (Bi,oj tou/ VAisopou,), dated to the first century AD, adopted a three-part structure of his work. First he shows proper behaviour of the title character and, then his wrongdoings. Finally, he describes his death. The value of fictionalized biography lies in short episodes that cause that the style of this work is very lasting. A little later is the life of Alexander (Bi,oj kai. pράξεις tou/ VΑλεξάνδρου) by Pseudo-Callisthenes. This largest of the Greek leaders is eulogized not only because of his leadership abilities, but rather because of the ability to find himself in a variety of adventures that he encounters during wandering all over the world.

Philo, Jew of Alexandria decided to make his writings on the Jewish religion similar to the Gentiles[20]. He came from an aristocratic ministry family. His brother, Alexander, was “alabarch”, and nephew (son of Alexander) married Berenice the daughter of Agrippa I. Philo’s  priesthood was strongly Hellenized, he considered Greek as his native language, and he got to know the Judaism thanks to the Septuagint (probably, he did not know Hebrew). Knowledge about Greek comics, tragedians and philosophers (especially Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics) gave him erudition characteristic of his writings. He was the head of this mission, which in 40 AD, went to Rome to address a request to Caligula in order to this one would withdraw anti-Jewish decrees. In his allegorical exegesis of the Jewish scriptures, Philo frequently reaches for interpretation rules coined by Plato and the Stoics[21]. The characters, traditions, stories and events on the history of Israel often gain in Philo certain genologic characteristics of the Greek myths. In the work De vita Mosis, Moses is shown almost in terms of the Greek „God’s men” (qei/oj avnh,r)[22]. The uniqueness of Philo’s writings lie in the fact that their author was extremely sensitive to conflicts between the two traditions to which he belonged, Hellenistic and Judaic. Although with all his heart he clung to monotheism, however, his culture was deep in the Greek philosophical thought. As a result he made an attempt to systematize Jewish thought in Greek terms[23]. He even claimed that the Greek philosophers were inspired by the same God that the inspired authors of the Law, the Prophets and the Writings, and the truth discovered through logical reasoning has been recorded as revealed in the pages of the scriptures[24]. Moses himself is shown by Philo as similar to the Greek philosophers[25].

Extremely interesting for these considerations may be the analysis of works of Plutarch of Chaeronea. The reason is that the author is almost contemporary to Luke. Plutarch writings and the work of Luke come from relatively close period of time and as a result they may reflect contemporary biographical trends, and if so, the study of the writings of the man from Chaeronea can shed light on the literary genre of the Luke’s writings. Plutarch is the author of an impressive number of the lives, but not all of them preserved to our times. The most important are the lives of Heracles and Hesiod of Ascra in Boeotia, Pindar, of Thebes and Crates from the same city, the emperors Galba and Otho and the lives of the 23 pairs of Greek and Roman heroes inserted in Bi,oi Para,llhloi. Plutarch puts a clear aim to himself: he wants to show the truth about a man, without missing his good or bad sides. He avoids the tendency of idealization and apotheosis. The theme of the biography chosen in this way should enable the readers to look at their lives through the prism of the lives of famous people. The artistic assumptions are subordinated to teaching purposes, but teaching does not mean resorting to fiction. Readers thrilled with the examples of people fighting for the betterment of virtues are to be held by them and as a result try to change their own lives[26]. Biographies of Plutarch are arranged according to the peripatetic scheme: birth (origin, upbringing, education) – deeds – the death (the circumstances)[27].

The life of the philosopher by the name that got to the title page of the work by Apollonius of Tanya was described by Philostratus. He put it in the form of traveler’s historical romance. The main character is presented as an itinerant magician, who is accompanied by unusual signs, including healing and even raising from the dead. This work, however, comes from the turn of the second and third century AD, so one can at most justify the thesis that the way of writing biographies present here is much earlier and perhaps this trend was known to the evangelist in some way.

4. The Gospel as a Literary Genre

In the New Testament, the term euvaggeli,on refers to the oral preaching of the good news. Neither the letters, nor the Gospels as literary works are determined by this term. However, since it refers to the saving message that was passed by the early Christians, first in the form of oral transmission, then in small literary forms, and in the course of time one started to determine these books with the use of the term. Several factors influenced the final editing. Strong apologetic factor is noticeable on the pages of these works. This factor most strongly developed during the oral transmission of good news, which encounters the opposition of Judaic communities[28]. Both Christians and Jews referred to the Old Testament (called by the latter the Hebrew Bible). Nevertheless, they differently interpreted the passages that were considered messianic by the followers of Christ (especially some of the psalms and Deutero-Isaiah). This current contains many records, showing the evangelical disputes of Jesus with the Jewish leaders. The primary transmission was also strongly influenced by a social factor. Problems appearing in the first communities demanded the intervention of the Church heads. The converts creating a new community were people, after all, of different races, languages, different religious and social origins. People of pagan origin agreed to these communities caused the greatest dilemmas. A question, to what degree they should adopt Jewish customs was asked.  Great significance had also the fact that the Christianity spread in the Roman Empire. Finally, very important for the final shape of the gospel is the liturgical factor that seems to have the strongest impact on the history of the Passion[29].

Mark is considered the creator of a literary genre called the „gospel”. He inspired the other evangelists. When it comes to the contents, the gospels contain the message of the saving work of Jesus.  According to the adopted pattern some elements were shown as follows: appearance of John the Baptist as a preparation for the coming of Jesus-Jesus’ public ministry, including mainly teaching and making miracles – history of the passion, the death and the resurrection.  Two of the four gospels also include a history of childhood of Jesus (Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2)[30]. Are the works based on such a scheme can be classified as the genre of the ancient biography? Are the features typical for biographies present in the gospels, to such a degree that the gospels may be regarded as genologically homogeneous?

In the ancient Greek literature, the main biographical works or containing biographical threads have been reviewed above. This juxtaposition of works containing biographical threads or biographies themselves tends to lead to the two-fold conclusions: firstly, one should acknowledge that ancient biography belongs to a broader section of historiography[31]. Secondly, one is tempted to make a list of the characteristics of the ancient genre called the bi,oj. It is necessary to ask a question about the issue of the gospel in this perspective.

Several attributes combine the ancient Greek biography and novel with the genre of the gospel. They are following: combining historical and biographical elements with kerygmatic objectives, showing the most typical characteristics of a hero and the most important events of his life, the lack of a systematic and chronological presentation of the development of the hero and the use of the mythical cultural and apologetic elements as a means of expression[32].

In recent years, the statements of most researchers get to the same point. Studying the biographies of ancient philosophers, kings and wise men, C. H. Talbert is convinced that the Gospels can be classified in a similar way because they discuss the „divine man” who appeared as a man, but after his death he returned to the divine sphere[33]. P. L. Shuler considers the gospels as „biographies by the way of encomium”[34], because of their praising tone in relation to Jesus[35]. D. Dormeyer comes to similar conclusions, when he describes the gospels as „erzählende Idealbiographie”[36]. H. Cancik does not hesitate to qualify the gospel directly to the Greek genre bi,oj[37]. A similar opinion expressed N. Casalini[38]. A.M. Tolbert considers that the similarities between the gospels and folk tales about the fate of famous men can be explained either by the direct influence or by the presence in the same literary tradition from which both types of the works have grown[39]. M. Laconia believes one can assign the name biographies to the gospels, on the condition that the term is understood in a very broad sense, as referring to all the works which describe the events in the life of the characters[40].

According to Niklas Holzberg, thanks to episodic structure and not demanding style, four Gospels are closely related not only to the Judeo-Hellenistic stories as Judith or Tobit, but also to fictional biographies in the style of life of Aesop and Alexander[41]. One might add, that it is also related to Hellenistic historiography, which authors sometimes used to decorate their reports with any episodes. The similarity, however, consist in – how would want some proponents of sociological postulate – adding a completely fictional narrative episodes to the narration but in the conscious choice of episodes and such their showing, to achieve the deliberate objective, in the case of the gospel – the theological one[42].

In the exegesis, the essential foundations of the gospel as a literary genre usually include stories about Jesus, his teachings and the descriptions of His passion, death and events after the resurrection. Work of Jesus is described as a continuous narrative starting from the preaching of John the Baptist until the resurrection and christophany. For this reason, around 150 AD, Justin Martyr speaks about the Gospels as „Memoirs of the apostles,” which suggests that according to him the gospel is the story of Jesus that is the description of his life and teachings[43]. Based on this claim, and testing the relations of the gospel with the Hellenistic literature, F. Neirynck is prone to accept the claim that the Gospels are biographies in a broader sens. The author emphasizes that the tendency to search for equivalents of genres return, particularly to the detection of the links with various forms of Hellenistic biographic literature: a popular biography, biography written to correct false perception of the teacher and the presentation of the relevant example to follow; laudatory biography; a demonstrative biography[44].

How does in the face of it look the gospel of Luke? It is amazing that in the Luke’s work the term euvag­ge,lion never appears. The author of Acts does not define his first works, using this term but several times he uses the verb form euvagge,lizomai (Luke 1,19; 2,10; 3,18; 4,18.43; 7,22; 8,1; 9,6; 16,16; 20,1)[45]. An examination of the meaning of the term does not help in determining the literary genre of the work although it may be useful in specifying of the contents of the good news (this is the news that proclaims Jesus Christ or news of Jesus Christ, preached by his disciples; and in this sens the gospel, as a literary work appears as a book containing the message of Jesus and the message about him). Useful, however, can be the term dih,ghsij, which Luke uses with reference to his work (Luke 1, 1)[46]. In general, it means „story”, and in this sense, is used by Plato[47], Aristotle and Polybius; in relation to the gospels, as literary works it was used by Eusebius of Caesarea[48]. Plato and Aristotle used the term dih,ghsij as an antonym to mi,mhsij. According to them, mi,mhsij rather shows and illustrates events[49], dih,ghsij tells about them. In mi,mhsij the reader enters the world of thoughts and feelings of the hero, in dih,ghsij he learns about them from the author, either directly or by heroes or from the omniscient narrator. Gospel of Luke is undoubtedly the dih,ghsij in the sens that it is a story about the events seen through the perspectives of the author. Ancient dih,ghsij usually took on one of two forms: the biographical or historiographical one[50].

The method of history of forms and history of editing developed commonly accepted reconstruction of the formation of the Gospel of Luke (as a matter of fact each of the Synoptic Gospels), showing three successive stages of its formation. At the core of the work of Luke lie ipsissima verba et facta Jesu, ie a historical events: the person of Jesus, his words and actions (the first stage)[51]. After His resurrection, the good news was passed on by oral tradition; at that time were also formed the first so-called small literary forms, that are a small attempts of writing down the teachings of Jesus and describing the events of His life (the second stage). At this second stage of development of the gospels there are two important processes: (1) the interpretation of Jesus’ teaching and actions as well as other events of his life through the prism of Passover, and (2) adaptation the teaching to the needs of the first Christian communities. The third stage, in detail was developed finally by Redaktionsgeschichte, this is the final wording of the gospels, which is influenced by inter alia such factors as the needs of the recipients of these works, theological assumptions of the authors and the concept of the structure and used in them the compositional and stylistic means. Luke himself gives in the prologue to his work an excellent basis for the research in this field (Luke 1:1-4), in which he writes about “the things that have been fulfilled among us” (first stage) and that they were “handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word”, “who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” (the second stage), and that “many have undertaken to draw up an account” – dih,ghsij (the third stage).

5. Is the Gospel an Ancient Biography?

After showing the essential features of ancient biographies and confronting them with the characteristics of the gospel as a literary work, one must ask whether you can accept the idea that the gospel is a subgenre of the ancient biographies[52]. In modern exegesis such a thesis is winning more and more supporters. As a biography, the gospel passes on theological contents[53]. De facto there are very few works that are absolutely homogeneous with regard to the genre. This situation occurs when the author quite deliberately wants to stick to one genologic form. The state of things with the gospels was different: the authors wanted to write a work about facts from the life of Jesus of Nazareth, and although they mainly used the form of biography[54], the newness of this theme required reaching for new forms of expression[55]. There are a few common features between the Gospels and the ancient biographies. The essential list is as follows:

  1. Adhering to thechronology ofeventsin the schematicpresentationof thelife of a manis not the mainpriority ofthe authors.Chronologyis frequentlychangedandsubordinated to the established ideological assumptions(theological)[56]. The authors select events from the life of the characters of their works and present them, sometimes changing their actual order. The structure of the contents of their works do not necessarily runs along chronological lines of episodes from the lives of described heroes. Didactic motifs often decide of the plot of the narration.
  2. The presentationof the materialcovering theactionsand statements oftheherois subordinated toideologicalpurposes. This materialis usuallygroupedand structuredaccording toearlierassumptions; arising in this wayblocksarethematic.
  3. Both theancientwritersandevangelistsset themselves didactic aims and at the same time they took into account thesituation of therecipients.This is not only aboutinformation, but also thepraise ofthe hero and showinghimas an example to followand holding him in memory.Of course, in the biographies, the great men ofGreeceare portrayedas paragon of behaviour in moral and intellectual matters, inthe issues of ruling orperforming the duties ofsoldiers. Slightly differentpatternsare shownin the Gospels, and though Jesus is shownas aTeacher, who should be followed in his foot-steps, there is also a salvific aspect here: Jesus isnotonly the teacher who isto be listened to, but also the Saviour, inwhom one shouldbelieve.
  4. The antique writers similarly to the evangelists, valued rather oralthanwritten sources. Despite these preferences, however, within thebiographythere are othergenres, too. They are usuallysmallerstoriesorproverbs andloges. Both inancientbiographies and inthe Gospels, we finda whole range ofsmaller genresorliterary formsused bytheir authors.Someof these littleliterary formscan beconveyedonlyon the basis ofverbalrelations, the others existedinwritten forms.
  5. The main character of the work is already mentionedin the firstsentences.The entire workis focusedessentiallyaround him; there is not depart from the main subject.Mostspace is devoted tothe mostfruitfulorfamous andrecognized life cycle of thehero.Thecircumstances of the death are also widelydescribed. Presentation of theherois madeessentiallyby thedescriptionof his actionsand the quotationof his utterances. This end is not met by thenarrator’srelation[57].
  6. Actually,the historical background ofthe hero’s life is shown. There areactualgeographical namesandnames ofrulers.Time framesof the described events are also given. Application of genealogyof the main charactersisone of the characteristicsof ancientbiographies; genealogiesare also presentin the gospels.
  7. Descriptions of journeys andrelated eventsare commonfeaturesof ancientbiographies; they also play asignificant rolein the compositionof the gospel.

Apart from the list of similarities, which bring the gospel to the genre of ancient Greek biography, there are also differences. It seems that among the most important one should rank the following:

  1. The Gospels-in contrast to theancientbiographies-do not giveinformation onthe external appearance ofJesus(at most, at the relation ofthe transfigurationscene; and fortheologicalreasons). This factshows thegreatpriorityof Hisactionsand teaching.For theevangelists,the external appearance ofthe herowas not asimportant asHis teachingand the work. Sometimes ancientGreekbiographiesdedicatea lotof place tosuchportraits, especially when theydescribe thehistory ofbravewarriorsin a battle.
  2. The Gospelsdo not containa psychologicalportraitof Jesus.They areabove all,the booksof faith and testimony of the life anddeeds of Jesus. The purpose of the authors is not an accuratedescription of the character traitsanddisposition of Jesus, but it is His message that is at issue. The purpose ofthe gospelis to bringnewreadersto the faith(or todeepen it), rather thanthe aimtoimitate Hisactions andattitudes. This imitationresults from thefaith.Antiquebiographies ofgreat menare writtenabove alltothe reader with his eyes fixed on themain character to find in hima model to follow; the gospelswere writtentoleadto a deep, intimatemeeting with God, who bringsthe gift of salvation.
  3. Powerful influenceof Judaicliterature both in form and content on the gospels causes that the gospels differ in some ways from theancientGreekbiographies. Septuagint, although writtenin Greek,belongs toa literarytreasureof Judaism and has a great impact on the gospels.
  4. The Gospelsmorethanantiquebiographiesorhistoriographiesare dependent on an oral tradition. In general,the Gospelsarepart ofthe establishedoralcatechesis which was recorded in writing, passed on in an already establishedform. Byconstant repetitionof the same wordsand descriptionsof eventsin the oralteaching, a tradition was formed, which was latertranslated fromAramaicinto Greekand even intwoperspectives: the first one is theJudeo and the second pagan and Christian one. After the resurrectionpeoplespeaking GreekappearedamongChristians very quickly. Therefore, the oral traditionabout Jesusbegan to functionin two languages:Greek andAramaic, (althoughevenin Greek translation some of Aramaic wordspreservedin their originalversion).The oral traditionquicklyestablishedsome formsof transmission of events from the lifeof Jesus[58].
  5. Ancient biographiesare about the deadwhosedeedson a permanent basis became a partofthe history ofthe nation or whose thought left its stamp on thedevelopment of the philosophy, poetry and art. The Gospelsdescribe the lifeof Jesus, whom the authorsbelievethatis still alive.This is notonly abiographyof the deceasedJesus, but also of the risenChrist, who is still acting andis presentamong the community of believersto whomthe work isaddressed.

Despite the differences outlined above, it seems that the Gospels might be regarded as a subtype of ancient biographies. They are biographies that were modified through the use within them the other genres, forms and means of expression. They are biographies interpreted by the light of the paschal faith. However, even if the evangelists knew the ancient Greek biographies (it seems to be most likely in the case of Luke), there is no doubt that Judaic thought and literature had a huge impact on the final shape of the works.



Antike griechische Biografie und Evangelium. Die Frage nach der literarischen Gattung

Bis vor kurzem galt in der Bibelwissenschaft die Überzeugung als konsensfähig, dass das “Evangelium” eine literarische Gattung sui generis sei. In den letzten Jahren ist diese Ansicht jedoch zunehmend in Frage gestellt worden, als man begann, vergleichende Studien mit literarischen Gattungen der antiken griechischen Literatur aufzunehmen. Diese Forschungen führen zu einem überraschenden Ergebnis: Das Evangelium lässt sich durchaus als eine Untergattung des antiken biografischen Romans verstehen. Der Autor des vorliegenden Aufsatzes vergleicht vor diesem Hintergrund Merkmale des antiken biografischen Romans mit den literarischen Eigenheiten der kanonischen Evangelien.


[1] He does this probably for the purpose of apologetic. He wants the readers of the gospels see in them a value similar to that attributed to Hellenistic biographical literature; W.S. VORSTER, “Gospel Genre,” The Anchor Bible Dictionary, II, D.N. Freedmann (ed.), New York – London – Toronto – Sydney – Auckland 1992, 1080.

[2] M. LÀCONI, Vangeli sinottici e Atti degli Apostoli, Logos 5, Torino 1994, 76.

[3] Iliad IX, 449-454.

[4] An example of this trend may be a custom of presenting the characters before the fight. Such a self-presentation includes biographical cement; K. KORUS, „Pierwsi biografowie”, in: Literatura Grecji starożytnej, II, Proza historyczna, krasomówstwo, filozofia i nauka, literatura chrześcijańska, ed. H. Podbielski, Źródła i monografie 255, Lublin 2005, 229-230.

[5] It happened for the reason of Theagenes. More on this subject see: I. GALLO, „L’origine e lo sviluppo della biografia greca”, Quad.Urb. 18 (1974) 173-189.

[6] Plutarch also knows such legendary biographies from a later date, Homeri vita Herodotea (supposedly by Herodotus) and De Homero. Rhapsody works gave rise to the information biography. Glaukos of the Region is the author of the work The ancient poets and musicians; Pseudo-Plutarch describes the lives of three famous Greek musicians in De musica; Diogenes Laertios described life of Empedocles; Damastes of Sigejon made public work titled On poets and sophists; Callimachus of Cyrene in the work Images presents the literary achievements of ancient authors, citing the most important facts of their lives; K. KORUS, „Pierwsi biografowie”, 232.

[7] History of the Peloponnesian War II, 37 i 40.

[8] K. KORUS, „Pierwsi biografowie”, 235.

[9] Exegetes’ attempts to show the similarities and differences between ancient biographies and the gospels have been lasted for more than a century. In this regard, it is worth mentioning some leading works: M. HADAS, M. SMITH, Heroes and Gods. Spiritual Biographies in Antiquity, New York 1965; S. SCHULTZ, Die Stunde der Botschaft. Einfhrung in die Theologie der vier Evangelisten, Hamburg 1967; C.H. TALBERT, What is a Gospel? the Genre of the Canonical Gospel, Philadelphia 1977; P.L. SHULER, A Genre for the Gospels. The Biographical Character of Matthew, Philadelphia 1982; D.E. AUNE, The New Testament in Its Literary Environment, Philadelphia 1987; D. DORMEYER, Evangelium als literarische und theologische Gattung, Darmstadt 1989; R.A. BURRIDGE, What Are the Gospels? A Comparison with Greco-Roman Biography, Cambridge 1992; D. DORMEYER, Das Neue Testament im Rahmen der antiken Literaturgeschichte, Darmstadt 1993; M.L. WILLS, The Quest of the Historical Gospel. Mark, John and the Origins of the Gospel Genre, London 1997.

[10] N. HOLZBERG, Powieść antyczna. Wprowadzenie, trans. M. Wójcik, Kraków 2003, 29-32. Literary critics do not agree on the determination of the genre of this work. One can perceive in it different types of novels (historical, political, educational), didactic historical romance, Socratic dialogue, a biography (romance or fictionalized) and even a sketch in the range of the theory of the political system.

[11] R. TURASIEWICZ, „Historiografia: Herodot, Tukidydes, Ksenofont i historycy IV wieku przed Chr.”, in: Literatura Grecji starożytnej, II, Proza historyczna,  krasomówstwo, filozofia i nauka, literatura chrześcijańska, ed. H. Podbielski, Źródła i monografie 255, Lublin 2005, 45.

[12] R. TURASIEWICZ, „Mówcy attyccy”, in: Literatura Grecji starożytnej, II, Proza historyczna,  krasomówstwo, filozofia i nauka, literatura chrześcijańska, ed. H. Podbielski, Źródła i monografie 255, Lublin 2005, 191.

[13] For close analysis see: K. KUMANIECKI, De Satyro peripatetico, Kraków 1929.

[14] J. MAŃKOWSKI, „Satyros”, in: Słownik pisarzy antycznych, ed. A. Świderkówna Warszawa 1982, 409.

[15] R. CONNOR, Theopompus and the Fifth-Century Athens, Cambridge 1968, 13.

[16] K. GŁOMBIOWSKI, „Theopompos”, in: Słownik pisarzy antycznych, ed. A. Świderkówna Warszawa 1982, 458.

[17] T.S. BROWN, Onesicritus. A Stydy in Hellenistic Historiography, Berkeley 1949, 6-10.

[18] R. TURASIEWICZ, „Historiografia hellenistyczna”, in: Literatura Grecji starożytnej, II, Proza historyczna,  krasomówstwo, filozofia i nauka, literatura chrześcijańska, ed. H. Podbielski, Źródła i monografie 255, Lublin 2005, 63-65.

[19] R. TURASIEWICZ, „Historiografia hellenistyczna”, 66-68.

[20] However, C.D. Moldenhawer, creating a catalogue of the Royal Library in Copenhagen did not hesitate to put the works of Philo as the first volume among the Patres Graeci; he did it because of the similar interest between Philo and the Christians in understanding the Old Testament; S. GIVERSEN, „The Covenant – theirs or ours?”, in: The New Testament and Hellenistic Judaism, ed. P. Borgen, S. Giversen, Peabody 1997, 15.

[21] Philosophical theology of the Stoics and the supporters of Plato was at the time very critical of the entire heritage of Hellenistic culture; however Jewish theologians living in the Greek Diaspora were critical to the entire philosophical heritage of the Greeks. The leading thinkers during the period of Philo of Alexandria were more demagogues than philosophers; they did not shun spreading national antagonisms. So when the Jews were in the heat of the allegations, they derived more religious consolation from the biblical history of the exodus than the philosophy of the Greeks. The promise of liberation brought them more hope than a vague reference to „universal spirit.” Ultimately, however, these promises have not been fulfilled, at least not in full, neither the universalised wisdom theology nor the Bible’s promises of liberation managed to save some Diaspora communities when the conflict with Rome reached its climax; J.J. COLLINS, „Natural Theology and Biblical Tradition: The Case of Hellenistic Judaism”, 14.

[22] The Jewish people in the eyes of the Alexandrian are for „the whole inhabited world what the priest is for the state” (De specialibus legibus 2,29).

[23] The stories of the Old Testament were far from the philosophical currents of Greece and one should look for its parallels in the period before philosophy was established, when an important role in explaining the nature of the universe and of human life played myths. Based on previously developed by the Greeks (even by Homer) and the Jewish precursors of Diaspora in Alexandria, Philo read biblical stories in the allegory pattern. His interpretation may give an example of the biblical myth from Genesis, in which Adam is the personification of reason for Philo, whereas Eve is the personification of the senses and the snake symbolizes desire. The fall of our first parents, shows the strength of desire which first affects the senses and finally overcomes also the reason; R.C. SOLOMON, K.M. HIGGINS, Krótka historia filozofii, trans. N. Szczucka-Kubisz, Warszawa 1996, 138-139.

[24] Platonic ideas become thoughts of God for Philo and the soul – according to Plato’s conviction – differs from the body substantially; God itself is a unity that there is at the bottom of diversity of views according to the views of Pythagoras; God is a substance permeating the world, as in the beliefs of the Stoics. In general, however, rational knowledge of God could proceed – according to Philo – only under the terms via negativa; easier for a man is to say who is not God than describe His nature;

[25] D. DEMBIŃSKA-SIURY, „Literatura filozoficzna za cesarstwa”, in: Literatura Grecji starożytnej, II, Proza historyczna,  krasomówstwo, filozofia i nauka, literatura chrześcijańska, ed. H. Podbielski, Źródła i monografie 255, Lublin 2005, 846.

[26] Żywot Peryklesa 2; W. TYSZKOWSKI, „Plutarchos”, in: Słownik pisarzy antycznych, ed. A. Świderkówna Warszawa 1982, 378.

[27] K. KORUS, „Plutarch z Cheronei”, in: Literatura Grecji starożytnej, II, Proza historyczna,  krasomówstwo, filozofia i nauka, literatura chrześcijańska, ed. H. Podbielski, Źródła i monografie 255, Lublin 2005, 241-270.

[28] ”Since the preaching bears fitness to Christ and His words and acts, and since these constitute the essence of the Gospel, the writings which contain the life and words of Jesus come to be given the name “gospel”. The early Christian missionaries pursue both a verbal and a written mission. The written and the spoken word complement one another”; B. FRIEDRICH, eu.agge,lion, in: Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, II, G. Friedrich (ed.), trans. G.W. Bromiley, D. Litt, Grand Rapids 1999, 735.

[29] V. O’KEEFE, „Właściwe pojmowanie Ewangelii”, in: Biblia dzisiaj, ed. J. Kudasiewicz, trans. H. Malewska, Kraków 1969, 76-78.

[30] Two thematic blocks, containing a record of events related to the birth and the childhood of Jesus, the first written by Matthew (Matthew 1-2), the second by Luke (Luke 1-2), are probably the messages taken from two different traditions. The first one, Matthew’s tradition is called Bethlehem, because the described events are focused on the city of David. Luke’s tradition on the other hand, is called the one from Nazareth, although significant role also plays the Jerusalem that is the centre of salvation events for the evangelist. It seems that Matthew looks at the birth and childhood of Jesus with the eyes of Joseph, but Luke put more emphasis on the experience of Mary. Both evangelists, however, read the events from the paschal perspective. Since the fact of the resurrection shows the events recorded in the Gospel of Childhood in the saving light; E. SZYMANEK, Wykład Pisma Świętego Nowego Testamentu, Poznań 1990, 47-48; M. ROSIK, Jezus i Jego misja. W kręgu orędzia Ewangelii synoptycznych, SB 5, Kielce 2003, 35.

[31] V. O’KEEFE, „Właściwe pojmowanie Ewangelii”, 78; D. STANLEY, „Ewangelie jako historia zbawienia”, in: Biblia dzisiaj, ed. J. Kudasiewicz, trans. S. Grygiel, Kraków 1969, 85. Comp.: E. GALBIATI, A. PIAZZA, Biblia księgą zamkniętą?, trans. M. Ponińska, Warszawa 1971,47-54.

[32] J. CZERSKI, Księgi narracyjne Nowego Testamentu. Wprowadzenie historyczno-literackie i teologiczne, Opole 2003, 75.

[33] C.H. TALBERT, What is a Gospel?, The Genre of the Canonical Gospel, 133-135. D.E. Aune, „The Problem of the Genre of the Gospel: A Critique of C.H. Talbert ‘What is a Gospel’”, in: Gospel Perpectives. II: Studies of History and Tradition of the Four Gospels, ed. R.T. France – D. Wenham, Sheffield 1981, 6-90;

[34] The essential features of encomium include: introduction, origin of the character, education, activities, lifestyle, habits and actions. The main difference with the biography lies in the fact that biographers present a whole life of theirs characters, while in encomium they underline mainly their outstanding deeds; J. CZERSKI, Ewangelie synoptyczne w aspekcie literackim, historycznym i teologicznym, 27.

[35] C.H. SHULER, „The Genre(s) of the Gospels”, in: The Interrelations of the Gospels, ed. D.L. Dungan, Leuven 1990, 451-483. Similarly: M. REISER, „Die Stellung der Evangelien in der antiken Literaturgeschichte, ZNW 90 (1999) 1-27.

[36] D. DORMEYER, Das Neue Testament im Rahmen der antiken Literaturgeschichte, 199-228.

[37] H. CANCIK, „Die Gattung Evangelium. Markus im Rahmen der antiken Historiographie”, in: ed. B. Cancik, Markus-Philologie, Tübingen 1984, 85-113. From the point of view of the world of Judaism gospels could be classified as “Prophetenbuch”.

[38] „[…] l’ipotesi che i vangeli siano ‘biografie’ di Gesù di Nazareth è effettivamente prevalente al momento attuale8. Se si segue quindi questa tendenza esegetica, bisognerebbe concludere che anche il vangelo […] sia una semplice ‘vita di Gesù Cristo’, scritta secondo le consuetudini letterarie del tempo in cui fu composto, con tratti stilistici tipici della letteratura popolare, che lo rendono simile per forma ad ‘un romanzo’ (o racconto) storico, secondo un genere molto diffuso nel mondo ellenistico, in cui la verità storica è così strettamente congiunta alle immagini della credenza religiosa che non è più possibile distinguerla da essa”; N. CASALINI, „Marco e il genere letterario degli annunci (o vangeli)”, Liber Annus 53 (2003) 50.

[39] A.M. TOLBERT, „The Gospels in Greco-Roman Culture”, in: The Book and the Text. The Bible and Literature, ed. R. Schwartz, Oxford 1990, 258-275.

[40] „Se anche il termine „biografia” viene usato in un senso larghissimo, per disegnare qualsiasi scritto che vuol narrare la vita di una persona esistita, allora non c’è dubbio, che anche i Vangeli lo siano”; M. LÀCONI, Vangeli sinottici e Atti degli Apostoli, 78.

[41] N. HOLZBERG, Powieść antyczna. Wprowadzenie, 38.

[42] M. WOJCIECHOWSKI, „Ewangelie jako biografie”, RBL 51 (1998) 3, 175.

[43] F. NEIRYNCK, „Ewangelia”, in: Słownik wiedzy biblijnej, Re. B.M. Metzger, M.D. Coogan, Polish ed. W. Chrostowski, trans. T. Mieszkowski, Warszawa 1996, 157.

[44] F. NEIRYNCK, „Ewangelia”, in: Słownik wiedzy biblijnej, Re. B.M. Metzger, M.D. Coogan, Polish ed. W. Chrostowski, trans. T. Mieszkowski, Warszawa 1996, 157-158.

[45] W.F. MOULTON – A.S. GEDEN, A Concordance to the Greek Testament according to the Texts of Westcott and Hort, Tischendorf and the English Revisers, Edinburgh5 1978, 396.

[46] In the Acts, Luke refers to his first work describing them simply as „the book” (logos), such wording, however, does not say much about the genre of the book; see Acts 1.1.

[47] Studies on the texts of Plato led to the determination of three types of dih,ghsij, which can be defined as: „diegesis simple: Las acciones verbales y no verbales de los personajes son referidas por el poeta. Hay una drástica reducción de la información escénica y una total hegemonía de la voz de un informante que absorbe y traduce en su registro todos los discursos de sus personajes; diegesis a traves de la mimesis: Las acciones verbales y no verbales de los personajes son ejecutadas por éstos sin mediación de las palabras del poeta; diegesis mixta: Alternan los relatos de acciones (diéguesis simple) con la presentación inmediata de las acciones de los personajes (discurso directo de la diéguesis a través de la mímesis)”; /cursos/clit/generos_literarios.html.

[48] J.H. THAYER, Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Coded with Strong’s Concordance Numbers, Peabody 1996, 148.

[49] According to Michael Davis, „At first glance, mimêsis seems to be a stylizing of reality in which the ordinary features of our world are brought into focus by a certain exaggeration, the relationship of the imitation to the object it imitates being something like the relationship of dancing to walking. Imitation always involves selecting something from the continuum of experience, thus giving boundaries to what really has no beginning or end. Mimêsis involves a framing of reality that announces that what is contained within the frame is not simply real. Thus the more “real” the imitation the more fraudulent it becomes”; The Poetry of Philosophy. On Aristotle’s Poetics, South Bend 2004, 3.

[50] J.B. GREEN, The Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, Grand Rapids 1997, 2.

[51] Formgeschichte has developed criteria by which you can reach the ipsissima verba et facta Jesu. The most important include: the criterion of repeated tradition (authentic are the words of Jesus, which confirmed by the multiple tradition), the criterion of continuity (authentic are the words of Jesus, which put Palestinian and Aramaic complexion on), the criterion of conformity to the essence of the message of Jesus (authentic these are the words of Jesus, which are in accordance with the essential contents of His message, especially with the messianic and eschatological aspect), the criterion of discontinuity (authentic are the words of Jesus, which are fundamentally different from the ideas propagated by the Judaism of those days and teachers of the early Church); criterion of conformity of words to deeds of Jesus (authentic are the words of Jesus that are in harmony).

[52] M. WOJCIECHOWSKI, „Ewangelie jako biografie”, 179-180. This argument is contrary to the views maintained by last decades. W.S. Vorster gave voice to it: „Convinced by the idea that the gospel were folk literature and not biographies, as some maintained, some scholars asserted that the gospel developer from cult legends and narratives, or the basic outline of the Christian kerygmat”; „Gospel Genre”, 1080; J. KUDASIEWICZ, Ewangelie synoptyczne dzisiaj, Warszawa 1986, 71.

[53] Burridge set himself the aim to show that the opposite is true. He wanted to prove that the Gospels do not have anything to do with ancient biographies. A thorough comparative analysis led him to opposite conclusions; R.A. BURRIDGE, What Are the Gospels? A Comparison with Greco-Roman Biography, 105.

[54] „Luke intends to write a narrative, and in so describing his work he identifies his project as a long narrative, of many events, for which the chief prototypes were the early Greek histories of Herodotus and Thucydides”; J.B. GREEN, The Gospel of Luke, 5.

[55] „The increasing tendency among New Testaments Scholars to refer to the Gospels as ‘biographic’ is vendicated; indeed the time has come to go on from the adjective ‘bio-graphical’, for the Gospels are bios”; R.A. BURRIDGE, What Are the Gospels? A Comparison with Greco-Roman Biography, 243.

[56] J. KUDASIEWICZ, Ewangelie synoptyczne dzisiaj, 68.

[57] K. ROMANIUK, Morfokrytyka i historia redakcji, czyli Form – i Redaktionsgeschichte, Warszawa 1983, 36.

[58] The oldest gospel according to J. G. Herder functioned in the oral tradition and was passed on just in the oral form to missionaries and preachers of the gospel. On this basis, as the oldest one was created Mark’s work as well as Aramaic gospel which was not preserved but Matthew had the use of it; E. LINNEMANN, Is there a Synoptic Problem? Rethinking the Literary Dependence of the First Three Gospels, Grand Rapids 1992, 29-30. Similarly claimed G.Heinrici, F.Godet i P.Fiebig (Heinrici’s disciple) accepting the thesis that the Synoptic Gospels „recorded” the gospels preached by itinerant teachers. E.Jacquier believed, however, that the evangelists used written sketches of oral catechesis; R. BARTNICKI, „Problem synoptyczny dawniej i dzisiaj”, STV 27 (1989), 58-59. J.K.L.Gieseler believed that the gospel was originally passed orally in Aramaic. With the passing of time one started to use the Greek language and the transmission has become the source for the canonical Gospels; M.ROSIK, Ku radykalizmowi ewangelii. Studium nad wspólnymi logiami Jezusa w ewangeliach według św. Mateusza i św. Marka, Wrocław 2000, 39-42.