Ancient biography or in the Greek language Βιοι, Bioi ; “Lives” was—by ancients like Plutarch, Tacitus, and Lucian—seen as very important literature during ancient times. It is handled today within the domains of New Testament and Greco-Roman literary criticism as an inclusive literary genre. Bioi was based on a particular individual, but not as a means to an individual self but against the social backdrop of family and community. The end result is that the writer purposefully presents a kind of anti-psychological person. What is highlighted is their, “character, achievements and lasting significance” while at the same time deliberately setting them up as a public example. Bios, or Βιος (Greek for “life”), as literature is really a conduit that transmits, within a culture; social, religious and political heritage showing individuals as, “representative types rather than as unique individuals.”
Biography as literature developed by mingling with other literary genres in the first place. What are the “genera proxima” of ancient biography consist of, “political polemic, religious discourse, but especially history and encomium”. Bioi, because of its inherent flexibility, becomes a framework for authors to use various types of short and long literary forms. The literary forms however are not to be considered independent genres in of themselves, nor does the appearance of one literary form fully demonstrate actual Greek biography. Short literary forms lend themselves to defining the literary genre in ways that when compared to longer forms, tend to have more immediately noticeable complex interactions in-between themselves and with other literary genres. Ancient biography generally consists of; anecdotes, maxims, memories of a distant act and then finally there are sayings of an individual. Anecdotes are a type of memory or reminiscence, captured within a narrative of an interesting or amusing event. They are not irreducibly complex for biography and the presence of anecdotes are not necessary for biography. However anecdotes are known as the “argument or ingredients” of Greek and Roman biography. Maxims or what are generally recognized truths about ways of conduct are, within the Greek world of classical antiquity called ginomai (γίνομαι). Generic ginomai are not attributed to a definite person and so lack narrative framework, they are considered proverbial sayings. Reminiscences (Ἀπομνημονεύματα, Apomnemoneumata) are recalling of a distant saying, act or experience. They are constituted by chreia (χρεία; singular, sounds like “be-a”), and are like anecdotes as they are also a type of reminiscence (apomnemoneumata). Differentiating themselves chiefly in length. A chreia is a small, self-contained unit of rhetoric used within ancient literature like the Gospels of the New Testament that would enable readers to easily commit the sayings of Jesus to memory for later oral repetition.
Chreiai (χρεῖαι, plural and sounds like “may-I”) for the most part are found in the ancient textbooks called Progymnasmata (Προγυμνασματα) or Preliminary Exercises during the 1st through the 5th centuries AD. There was rigorous method to determine what is to be considered chreia. It has to satisfy essential criteria, which are; (1) It is well-aimed or apt, (2) expressed concisely, (3) attributed to a person, and (4) useful for living. A classic example of a chreia that satisfies all four criteria is; “Diogenes the philosopher, on being asked by someone how he could become famous, responded: ‘By worrying as little as possible about fame.” Chreia are, although primarily expressed in shorter form can actually be, “formulated in various lengths and forms to function well in a variety of settings in discourse.” Chreiai may have objections or comments appended that would expand its original form. Narratives are longer though than any length chreia and so ancient readers would recognize the difference. Proper application of sayings and action chreiai, “discloses the persons to whom they are attributed and focuses one’s thought on particular aspects of life.” There are also longer forms of narratives like novellas (romantic tales), speeches and dialogues. Dialogues usually take place within a setting of a teacher addressing a student.
It would be hard to over emphasize the attribution of the chreiai to a particular person, because this is the aspect which distinguishes it from other forms. An unattributed saying or an interesting event may be “well-aimed”; in other words, its import may be humorous, virtuous, religious, or philosophical. But the attribution of a saying or act to a particular person displays aspects of life, thought, and action in a mode which integrates attitudes, values, and concepts with personal, social, and cultural realities. The people featured in chreiai become authoritative media of positive and negative truths about life.
… Charles Talbert has proposed a typology based exclusively on five possible functions of biography: (1) to provide a pattern to copy, (2) to replace a false with a true image of the teacher worthy of emulation, (3) to discredit a teacher, (4) to indicate where authentic tradition is to be found, and (5) to validate or provide an interpretive key to a teachers doctrine.
David Aune accepts the view Charles Talbert reached in his 1977 work titled What is a Gospel? The Genre of the Canonical Gospels. Talbert pioneered the work of taking on Bultmann to get back to the traditional view. Talbert produced not only scholarship that advances past that of his predecessor Friedrich Leo (with his simplistic yet helpful two-fold typology), but also Fritz Wehrli in 1973 and Klaus Berger in 1984. A substantive foundation also resulted from which to draw on for an informed view on not just Greco-Roman biography as a literary genre, but also the literary environment of the gospels. There however still remains something missing according to David Aune. A correct analysis of Greco-Roman biography is achieved when, “many examples of this literary type have undergone detailed literary analysis…” Something which as of the time of the work of David Aune on the topic in 1988 “has yet to be achieved.”
It was in the nineteenth century that biographies began to be changed away from public career and focused more on the personal interior of the subject. The subjects “upbringing, formative years, schooling, psychological development and so on” were the focus and so made the gospels look less like ancient biography (bioi). The gospels began to be seen against the backdrop of modern biography and so were dismissed as biography. What resulted in the 20th century was the form critical view that the gospels are, “popular folk literature, collections of stories handed down orally over time” rather than the traditional view of bioi of Jesus. This began the view describing the gospels as “sui generis” or unique literature, especially by Rudolf Bultmann within his work of 1972. Rudolf Bultmann is perhaps best known as a critic of the gospels as bioi. Instead opting to categorize them as basically fictional myth. The fatal flaw however within the work of Bultmann in the area of the gospels as myth was his comparison to modern biography as opposed to ancient biography. Charles H. Talbert with his work of 1977 then pioneered the sway in proper thought away from myth to the comparison of the gospels to bios as a genre (ancient biography).
Contemporary and Later
Ancient readers (of the first and second centuries AD especially) would have high esteem for contemporary biography, namely a biography written during the lifetimes of the eyewitnesses to the sayings and events of an individual. Contemporary biography is opposed to later biography which was not favored nor revered as much for its substance within the literate and learned culture of the time. Reading a text written during the lifetime of eyewitnesses meant that facts could be checked, and stories followed up. Thus contemporary biography was favored because of its ability to cohere historically with reality. Later biography was and is still seen within the academic world as being composed hundreds of years after the life of the individual. While there can be bits and pieces of actual history about the person being covered, favor still goes with contemporary biography. This favoritism however does not remain in regard to the ways of ordering events for ancient biographies. Ancient biographers handled the recording of events as strictly chronological or linear, and thematically or topically.
Peripatetic and Alexandrian
During especially the fourth century BC different schools of thought formed about how to write about the lives of certain people who deserved so. There are two major types. First is the Peripatetic or what can be called chronological biography. This is so, but to a degree in Lives by Plutarch. Second is the Alexandrian way of writing biography, also referred to as a topical or thematic arrangement of events for biographical material. Alexandrian biography originated from within the, “grammarians at the Museum at Alexandria who were also under the influence of Aristotle.” This particular two-fold typology of ancient biographical literary composition is traced originally to the work exceptional work, Die griechisch-romische Biographie nach ihrer litterarischen Form (Greco-Roman Biography According to Its Literary Form) by Friedrich Leo (1851 to 1914). A German classical philologist. Leo however did not take into account a single biography in which incorporated both Peripatetic and Alexandrian.
The more written about an event (duration), and the amount of times the same event is mentioned (frequency) help identify narrative structure. Narrative structure is determined then by the; order of events (chronological or topical), duration and frequency. Within the Peripatetic school of biographical writing the narrative structure is chronologically arranged by a predictive first to last order of events.
Representative types, the character of an individual, selectivity of the arrangement of events and sayings of the individual are all utilized to help build thematic or Alexandrian structure of bioi. Plutarch implies just as much within the introduction of his biography on Alexander the Great. Although Plutarch practiced history throughout his bioi, he famously juxtaposes Peripatetic and Alexandrian biography and underscores exactly which would be at the forefront in his Life of Alexander. Plutarch demonstrates naturally what happens in the construction of ancient biography. The author begins outlining a case, or an argument for or against the way life was lived by that person. This in of itself is encomium. Encomium is a very important type of rhetoric in praise of a person or thing. At the very least rhetoric in this narrow sense, influenced by encomium, allowed the systematic topical arrangement and style of bioi. Biographers and the ancient pedagogy of Greco-Roman culture more generally, was very conscious of the effect that encomium had on readers and students, for learning and teaching. Ancient biographers always wrote, “in the light of the influence of encomium …” Rhetoric and topical arrangement of biography were not the same genre during classical antiquity, and neither was history and biography. Rhetoric was used, influenced by the effects of encomium, within bioi in order to illustrate, “the particular situation of each Life.” Fluid interaction of this type is characteristic of bioi as an ancient literary genre.
A New Atmosphere
Arnaldo Momigliano, a notable and influential scholar of ancient biography and historiography during the 20th century laid out all relevant texts and reasoned that the appearance of the gospels coincide with a “new atmosphere” in writing. The new atmosphere managed to carry into the second century evidenced by several writings such as Agricola by Tacitus, and even Lucian’s Demonax.
Lucian a traveling sophist (or philosopher) wrote with rhetoric mostly for entertainment rather than for persuasion. Among the chief characteristics noting the change from first to second century AD biographical writings Momigliano points to the concentration of connection between the living and the dead. It seems the life of Jesus Christ, couched within eccentric religious-theological context, could fit nicely in this ancient literary niche.
The wise man, the martyr, and the saint became central subjects of biography in addition to the king, the writer, and the philosopher.
Loveday Alexander considers the position of Momigliano and agrees. Agricola reflects this concentration on death and life quite well as it is generally focused on elegy. It is then maintained through expression under the genre of ancient biography (Greek: biographia). The new atmosphere of ancient biographical writing however changed into conscious hagiography, not biography, in the second century. The “philosophical-religious interest” guided the transition. Founded in writings by Lucius Flavius Philostratus (172 to 247AD). Philostratus’ writings were in the third century, about Apollonius of Tyana of the second century who was a Pythagorean and supposed wonder-worker, called the Bios or Life of Apollonius of Tyana. This bios by Philostratus contained, “historiography, romance, travelogue and the novel, as well as rhetoric.” The supposed works of wonder performed by Apollonius of Tyana are claimed to be based on his disciple Damis’ reminiscences (apomnemoneumata), but may be in fact purely fiction.
Damis’ reminiscences, on which it claims to be based, may be no more than an elaborate fiction; and, by the third century, when Philostratus is writing, we have to reckon with the real possibility that the story of Apollonius is being consciously marketed as a pagan rival to the gospels.
Drawing also on the work of the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher named Philo of Alexandria (20BC to 50AD) and his allegorical biographies like On Abraham it is hard to find parallels. However it is Philo’s other works, like the Life of Moses that offer parallel. The Life of Moses is Philo’s most Greek and allegorical works. It is similar to the biographical works of Isocrates and Xenophon. According to Loveday Alexander this particular work of Philo not only defines contours of the precise narrative structure used by the gospel writers, but also bridges cross-cultural contact. Philo employed the Greco-Roman literary genre because of the framework of flexibility allowed. Within “biographical narrative” as a way of writing in the first century AD, cross-cultural contact and impact occurs between Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures.
It suggests at the very least that biographical narrative provided a point of cultural contact between Greek and Jew, a flexible and readily comprehensible framework that could be moulded without difficulty to reflect the ideology and cultural values of a particular ethical tradition.
The Gospels as Bioi of Jesus
In the 21st century there is widespread recognition, among critical scholars who actively research, write and debate in the field of ancient biography studies, that the canonical gospels fit within and are understood by realizing that they are ancient Greco-Roman biography. A literary genre called lives (Greek: bioi; Latin: vitae). Greco-Roman culture of the first century AD is understood to have influenced the gospel writers, giving a realm of literary freedom of expression necessary for their goals pertaining to their subject of interest. Therefore, in accord with scholarship the gospels should not be read with skepticism, nor with kerygma as the linchpin of all criticism, but rather with the assumption that each authors intent was to convey the life or bios of Jesus Christ.
- David E. Aune, Greco-Roman Literature and The New Testament: Selected Forms and Genres (Society of Biblical Literature 1988), pg. 107.
- David E. Aune, Greco-Roman Literature and The New Testament: Selected Forms and Genres (Society of Biblical Literature 1988), pg. 109.
- Stanley E. Porter, Handbook of Classical Rhetoric in the Hellenistic Period, 330 B.C.-A.D. 400 (Brill Academic Publishers 2001), pg. 374
- Arnaldo Momigliano, The Development of Greek Biography (Harvard University Press, Expanded Edition 1993), pg. 68.
- David E. Aune, Greco-Roman Literature and The New Testament: Selected Forms and Genres (Society of Biblical Literature 1988), pg. 2
- David E. Aune, Greco-Roman Literature and The New Testament: Selected Forms and Genres (Society of Biblical Literature 1988), pg. 3
- David E. Aune, Greco-Roman Literature and The New Testament: Selected Forms and Genres (Society of Biblical Literature 1988), pg. 111
- David E. Aune, Greco-Roman Literature and The New Testament: Selected Forms and Genres (Society of Biblical Literature 1988), pg. 4
- Charles H. Talbert, What is a Gospel? The Genre of the Canonical Gospels (Fortress Press 1977), pg. 92-93; This is specifically where the Talbert typology of five characteristics, or “five possible functions of biography” that Aune refers to can be found. They are what is referenced and quoted above in David E. Aune within; Greco-Roman Literature and The New Testament: Selected Forms and Genres (Society of Biblical Literature 1988), pg. 109.
- Fritz Wehrli, “Gnome, Anekdote und Biographie,” Museum Helveticum, 30 (1973)
- Klaus Berger, “Hellenistische Gattungen im Neuen Testament,” Aufstieg und Niedergang der romischen Welt, Part II, Vol. 25/2 (1984)
- Stanley E. Porter, Handbook of Classical Rhetoric in the Hellenistic Period, 330 B.C.-A.D. 400 (Brill Academic Publishers 2001), pg. 507
- Rudolf Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition (1972), pg. 369-374
- Stanley E. Porter, Handbook of Classical Rhetoric in the Hellenistic Period, 330 B.C.-A.D. 400 (Brill Academic Publishers 2001), pg. 508
- Charles H. Talbert, What is a Gospel? The Genre of the Canonical Gospels (Fortress Press 1977)
- David E. Aune, Greco-Roman Literature and The New Testament: Selected Forms and Genres (Society of Biblical Literature 1988), pg. 108
- Plutarch, Life of Alexander;”IT being my purpose to write the lives of Alexander the king, and of Caesar, by whom Pompey was destroyed, the multitude of their great actions affords so large a field that I were to blame if I should not by way of apology forewarn my reader that I have chosen rather to epitomize the most celebrated parts of their story, than to insist at large on every particular circumstance of it.”
- Stanley E. Porter, Handbook of Classical Rhetoric in the Hellenistic Period, 330 B.C.-A.D. 400 (Brill Academic Publishers 2001), pg. 373
- Stanley E. Porter, Handbook of Classical Rhetoric in the Hellenistic Period, 330 B.C.-A.D. 400 (Brill Academic Publishers 2001), pg. 377
- Arnaldo Momigliano, The Development of Greek Biography (Harvard University Press 1993), 104
- Stephen C. Barton, The Cambridge Companion to the Gospels (Cambridge University Press 2006), pg. 26-27
- Stephen C. Barton, The Cambridge Companion to the Gospels (Cambridge University Press 2006), pg. 28
- Charles H. Talbert, What is a Gospel? The Genre of the Canonical Gospels (Fortress Press 1977), pg. 193
- David E. Aune, Greco-Roman Literature and The New Testament: Selected Forms and Genres (Society of Biblical Literature 1988), pg. 121
- Subject: Establishing the Gospels’ Reliability By William Lane Craig; “Something of a consensus has developed within New Testament scholarship that the Gospels are closest in genre to ancient biographies ( “Lives,” as they are called, as in Plutarch’s Lives of Noble Greeks and Romans).”
- J. W. Rogerson and Judith M. Lieu, Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies (Oxford University Press 2008), pg. 437
- Mark Allan Powell, Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey (Baker Academic 2009), pg. 82
- Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (IVP Academic 2010), pg. 127
- The Gospels as Historical Biography By Dr. Richard Bauckham. February 15, 2011.
- Craig S. Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Baker Academic 2011), pg. 35; Keener states; “The Gospels and Acts belong to the biographic and historical genres, respectively, with the Gospel of Luke possibly straddling both.”