Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Greco-Roman bioi and traditional authorship of the Gospels

Yesterday at a lunch with a well-known apologist, the "bioi thesis" about the Gospels came up, as did the fact that the famously bull-dog-ish inerrantist Norm Geisler is opposed to the thesis. I don't follow Geisler and haven't read anything he's said about that specific topic, and I'm not an inerrantist in the usual sense of the word, but I launched into a little rant (so I'm told by on-lookers) about how it's actually understandable that someone would have problems with the thesis as it's currently being promoted. And especially that Geisler would.

One of the most difficult points here is that there are various things one could mean by saying that the gospels "are" something so specific as Greco-Roman bioi.

What people naturally think when they hear that scholarship is now showing this is that scholarship is giving us good reason to believe that the authors of the gospels were actually influenced by Greco-Roman literature and were consciously working in such a specific literary genre. Well, I've read Burridge's locus classicus on the subject, and I'm here to tell you that Burridge gives no strong defense of any such clear, causal thesis. He has only a few pages even touching on that specific question, and the arguments there are very weak. They are mostly arguments for the bare possibility of such influence, which in turn are sometimes based upon the assumption that the books were not written by the traditional authors (more about that in a moment). In addition he has a couple of very weak arguments such as, for example, the hypothesis that Matthew and Luke were deliberately including infancy narratives and genealogies for Jesus in order to bring their works more into line with the conventions of Greco-Roman bioi, in contrast to Mark, which still (Burridge thinks) "counts" as being in the genre by family resemblance but which has fewer of the characteristics. Now, this is a really poor argument. Jews were obsessed with genealogy. Of course Matthew would include one if he thought he had one! Moreover, all of this material is of intrinsic interest. If either Matthew or Luke believed he had information about Jesus' genealogy and infancy, it would be worth including for its own sake. No Greco-Roman influence is necessary.

For the most part, however, Burridge is more like a person sorting rocks by color. "Greco-Roman bioi" is like "the blue rock pile." He puts very little energy into arguing for a causal thesis, being more interested in what he himself calls "family resemblance." But rocks may end up in a blue pile because they were painted blue or because they have different kinds of minerals in them, and so forth. A generic family resemblance claim is just a thesis about the very general characteristics of the narratives, and those characteristics are so broad that they don't require any very specific causal history to explain them beyond the obvious intention to write a medium-length, generally historical work about the life of a particular individual. It's unfortunate, then, that such a specific term as "Greco-Roman bioi" has come to be used, because it sounds like something technical that really means that the best explanation is actual literary influence. Burridge even hypothesizes that one or more of the gospels may have fallen into the bioi genre by accident! But of course if that were the case, then the genre designation itself gives us no independent evidence, beyond what we could have gathered in much less specific terms, regarding the author's intentions. That is, we can't infer, "Because this author considered himself to be writing within the Greco-Roman bioi genre, he and his audience would have had such-and-such expectations about his relationship to truth."

Of course, simply by reading the gospels with common sense, one can see that they intend to be presenting memoirs of Jesus that are truthful. As C.S. Lewis once said, anybody who thinks the gospels are myths doesn't know anything about myths. But that sense of "genre" is not something we particularly need classical learning to gather, nor does it give us additional information.

Originally I believe that the bioi thesis was welcomed as a corrective to the ludicrous view that we have no idea whether or not the gospels are intended to be historical. In that sense, the bioi thesis was seen as giving us a "floor" to the amount of ahistoricity to attribute to the gospels: They wouldn't be less historical than this, because they are really intended to be biographies of Jesus.

But when scholars grabbed the thesis and ran with it, and especially when they considered that it could be taken as established that there was actual Greco-Roman influence on the intentions of the gospel authors, something rather different happened. Repeatedly, one apologist has argued that the gospel authors would have considered themselves "licensed" to change things in the gospels because they were writing in the bioi genre, and the bioi genre "allowed" for such license. But this is a confusion. Burridge never argues that anything that falls into his family resemblance pile would have been written by an author who considered himself licensed to change historical fact! Rather, the genre itself (the pile of "blue rocks") contains some documents that, scholars think, bear a somewhat looser connection to historical facts. So it is the genre as a whole that is "flexible," in the sense that it contains both less and more stringently historical works, not the individual authors that are "flexible," in the sense that they all consider themselves licensed in virtue of the genre to change historical facts.

When the "Greco-Roman bioi" thesis is used in this way to argue for a sense of license, it produces a ceiling to the reliability of the accounts. It implies that we shouldn't consider them to be more precise, more accurate, more reliable than such-and-such a level, because after all, they were writing "Greco-Roman bioi," so they would have thought of themselves as "licensed" to take some liberties with the facts. But that has never been established at all.

Moreover (and this is where I get to my title), if one really takes it that the authors of the gospels were educated in such a way as to be actually influenced by Greco-Roman literature, this is negatively relevant to the traditional ascriptions of authorship. It may not be strictly impossible, but it isn't very probable that John the son of Zebedee, Matthew the tax collector, and Peter the fisherman and apostle (to whom the content of Mark is attributed), or his young Jewish relative John Mark, would have been trained in Greco-Roman literature. Indeed, the higher probability is that they had little or no contact with it at all. Luke the physician might be different, given that he was probably a Gentile and writes a particularly high type of Greek.

As I mentioned above, Burridge, in arguing for the possibility of contact with Greco-Roman literature, assumes that the traditional ascriptions of authorship have no scholarly weight. This is understandable. He's a classicist and is just taking "mainstream New Testament scholarship" at face value. So, for example, he says that someone in the Johannine community, which wrote the gospel of John (!), might have been classically educated.

Nor am I bringing this up in a fundamentalist fashion: "Oh, noes! If I accept this thesis I may have to abandon traditional authorship. What shall I dooooo??"

The point, rather, is this: The traditional authorship of the gospels has extremely strong external evidence for it, evidence that would be accepted without question if these were any other ancient documents. The pull against traditional authorship has been entirely driven, originally, in the messed-up field of New Testament studies, by hyper-skeptical biases. Then even some conservative and evangelical scholars have gotten nervous and diffident, because they don't want to go up against the whole field, so they are unwilling to take their stand on the strong external (and internal) evidence. So they may believe in traditional authorship themselves but are unwilling to say that this is the only reasonable position, given all the evidence.

To the extent that we have strong evidence for the traditional authorship of, say, John (and we do) or of Matthew, we have reason to be skeptical about the thesis that the author of John was actually influenced by Greco-Roman bioi. And as for the claim that a young Matthew "would have been taught" some literary compositional devices of Greco-Roman writing as a boy in school, there is reason to be very skeptical indeed. That is going not only far beyond the evidence but, indeed, contrary to the evidence. (Moreover, the idea that these "compositional textbooks," which were giving writing exercises, were teaching kids that it's totally okay for serious history to fictionalize is dubious in itself.)

I've already said some of this in earlier posts (here, here, and here), but I think it needs to be repeated because, as I heard at lunch yesterday, "The bioi thesis is where scholarship is at right now." This appeal to "where the scholarship is at" just really doesn't impress me. There are much more robust and direct ways to argue that the gospel authors were writing true history than a round-the-barn, weakly supported thesis that they viewed themselves as writing within a Greco-Roman genre. And an approach that doesn't try to do it that way also doesn't saddle itself with a causal thesis that pulls against the strong evidence for traditional authorship. And no, it shouldn't matter if nobody outside of the evangelical world takes traditional authorship of, say, Matthew and John seriously. Who cares? Popularity is not a good test of truth or of evidential strength. Moreover, to the extent that "the bioi thesis" is now being used to undermine a strong concept of the reliability of the gospels, it's doing harm, so it isn't a bandwagon we should be eager to jump on. If that's what's bothering Geisler, then I must say that I can't view him as a witch-hunter or a scholarly knuckle-dragger on account of his opposition to the thesis. There are reasons to be concerned here and to call for a rethinking, and not only from an inerrantist perspective.


Patrick said...

In 2008 New Testament scholar Armin Baum published an article in “Novum Testamentum” entitled “The Anonymity of the New Testament History Books: A Stylistic Device in the Context of Greco-Roman and Ancient Near Eastern Literature“, in which he rejects the idea that the roots of the historical book of the New Testament lie in the Greco-Roman literary tradition. Here is the the abstract:

“The anonymity of the NT historical books should not be regarded as peculiar to early Christian literature nor should it be interpreted in the context of Greco-Roman historiography. The striking fact that the NT Gospels and Acts do not mention their authors' names has its literary counterpart in the anonymity of the OT history books, whereas OT anonymity itself is rooted in the literary conventions of the Ancient Near East. Just as in the OT, where the authors of books that belonged to the genre of wisdom and prophetic literature were usually named while historical works were written anonymously, only the NT letters and the Apocalypse were published under their authors' names while the narrative literature of the NT remained anonymous. The authorial intent of the Gospels' anonymity can also be deduced from its ancient Near Eastern and OT background. Unlike the Greek or Roman historian who, among other things, wanted to earn praise and glory for his literary achievements from both his contemporaries and posterity, the history writer in the Ancient Near East sought to disappear as much as possible behind the material he presented and to become its invisible mouthpiece. By adopting the stylistic device of anonymity from OT historiography the Evangelists of the NT implied that they regarded themselves as comparatively insignificant mediators of a subject matter that deserved the full attention of the readers. The anonymity of the Gospels is thus rooted in a deep conviction concerning the ultimate priority of their subject matter.”

barry said...

"The point, rather, is this: The traditional authorship of the gospels has extremely strong external evidence for it, evidence that would be accepted without question if these were any other ancient documents."
------------I'd like to have a discussion with you about whether your comment is true. I claim that traditional authorship for Matthew and John (i.e., the only two of the 4 canonicals with any possibility of being written by an eyewitness himself) is exceptionally weak, and that the anonymity thesis is more reasonable.

Shall we start with Matthew, and the internal evidence for authorship by apostle Matthew?


Lydia McGrew said...

Actually, in the comment you quoted, I focused on external evidence.