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The Gospel as an Aretalogy?

What is an Aretalogy? Moses Hadas and Morton Smith labelled Luke’s Gospel, Porphyry’s Life of Pythagoras, Philo’s Life of Moses, and Philostratus’ Life of Apolonius of Tyana as aretalogies, a type of biography about a subject’s supernatural birth, wisdom, miracles, defiance of tyranny, martyrdom, and post-mortem vindication.

In Smith’s article, an aretalogus was a “teller of miracle stories” (175): they may be temple functionaries writing hymns to Isis, entertainers at dinner parties  (e.g. Seutonius, Augustus 74), or spinners of myths (e.g. Juvenal 15.16; Manetho Apotelesmaticorum 4,445-49) (174-75). Aretalogia is “telling tall stories and the praises of a god” (175-76). Despite the lack of any extent texts for this genre, Smith notes a miracle story entitled Dios Hēliou megalou Sarapidos aretē (p. Oxy. 11, 1382, lines 22ff [2nd cent CE]) and a thanksgiving inscription which reads aretēn Amenōtou (Egyptian Museum, Cairo, No. 67300 [261/60 BCE]) (176). Smith admits that, though the term Aretalogia is used for reporting or the reports themselves (Manetho 4.445ff.; Sir. 36:13, 19), it might have not constituted a distinct literary form (“genre”) but these accounts had distinctive content about a hero’s wonderful deeds (196). Few miracle collections survive outside of scattered references or inscriptions and, unlike the Gospels, are lacking the kind of linking material that make up a coherent narrative bios or “life” (cf. 177-8 n. 27, 178). Philostratus’s source for his biography of Apollonius was Damis’ notes (hupomnēmata) that allegedly had prophecies, sayings, travels, post-mortem appearances, and miracles (177-9). Elite writers did not touch on prophets, magicians, or savior figures unless they entered into the realm of politics (e.g. Thucydides 7.50.4 on prophets who led the admiral Nicias astray, Livy 39.15-16 on the Roman suppression of the Bacchanalia; Josephus War 2.258-64 on false prophets or messiahs) or to hold them up for mockery (Origen, Cels. 7.9 on possessed prophets in Palestine or Lucian’s satire of Alexander or Peregrinus) (179-81).

Even so, the ancients knew of deities or daimones in human guise, demigods who achieved deification, the heroization of benefactors or rulers, historical figures with pretenses to divinity (181-2), and the goal of deification through philosophy, mystery cults, or magic(182-84). The issue with categorizing the ‘divine man’ (theios anēr) into types (prophet, magician, ruler, athlete, philosopher, doctor, poet) is that the borders are fuzzy and one’s god is another’s magician (187). Smith (wrongly) believed that Jesus fit the ancient type of the “divine man” better than the Jewish categories of a prophet or messianic figure (196) and reconstructed an aretalogy underlying Mark 1-10 that runs from the baptism epiphany to the transfiguration (197-8). Not only does Smith’s thesis suffer from a lack of any extant parallels for an alleged aretalogical genre, but the whole generalized concept of the “divine man” from a range of different figures in antiquity has faced significant criticism (see the second bibliography below).


  • Hadas, Moses and Smith, Morton.  Heroes and Gods: Spiritual Biographies in Antiquity.  London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965.
  • Smith, Morton.  “Prolegomena to A Discussion of Aretalogies, Divine Men, the Gospels and Jesus.” Journal of Biblical Literature 90 (1971): 174-199

Bibliography on the Theios Aner

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