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Charles H. Talbert on the Gospels as Biographies

Charles H. Talbert (What is a Gospel: the Genre of the Canonical Gospels [London: SPCK, 1978) helped to revive the case that the Gospels were basically equivalent to ancient bioi (the plural of bios or “life”). Talbert defines a bios as a “prose narrative about a person’s life, presenting supposedly historical facts which are selected to reveal the character or essence of the individual, often with the purpose of affecting the behavior of the reader” (17). It differed from historiography in its focus (i.e. an individual subject versus the primary influences in the social or political arena), its type of narrative (i.e. individual anecdotes or interconnected narratives with cause and effort), and its function (i.e. encomium or peripatetic praise, informative Alexandrian biographies, romances that entertain or stir the emotions, and histories that instruct politicians or please the citizens) (16-17).

Talbert challenges the form critics directly on their arguments that the Gospels cannot be ancient biographies due to their mythic structure, their cultic-function, and their world-negating attitude (3, 6). Thus, chapters 2 and 3 argue that the Synoptic Gospels presuppose the narrative structure that informed the stories about the Immortals from their unusual birth to their postmortem ascent and the Fourth Gospel relies on the katabasis-anabasis pattern (descent-ascent) of a divine being (e.g. Lady Wisdom, angels). Chapter 4 looks at how biographical subjects may be recipients of cultic devotion. Chapter 5 contends that the evangelist’s expectation of the eschatological denouement of history did not lead them to reject the world with its profane literature and, like other biographers, the evangelists employed mixed materials (e.g. parables, aretalogies, and wisdom sayings) to correct one-sided distortions of a historical subject’s legacy. He answers further objections: the static characterization techniques employed by the evangelists are no different from the flat characters in other biographies (3), not all ancient biographies were elite literature as the popular Life of Aesop was as much of a bibliography as Plutarch’s Lives (4), and it seems odd to set Luke-Acts apart as historiography from the genre of the other Gospels (6).

Talbert’s work is most famous for offering a new typology of ancient biographies that aimed to replace Friedrich Leo’s classification of biographies under the labels Encomium (e.g. Isocrates, Evander; Xenophon, Agesilaus; Tacitus, Agricola), Peripatetic (e.g. Plutarch, Parallel Lives), Alexandrian or grammarian (e.g. Seutonius, Lives of the Twelve Caesars), and Romance (e.g. Life of Aesop) (92-3). Talbert’s typology is based on function:

  • Type A biographies offer a pattern to copy (Lucian, Demonax) (94).
  • Type B biographies correct a false image of a subject (Xenophon, Memorabilia; Philodemus, Epicurus, Philostratus, Apollonius of Tyana; Porphyry, Pythagoras) (94-95).
  • Type C biographies seek to discredit a subject (e.g. Lucian, Passing of Peregrinus; Alexander the False Prophet) (95).
  • Type D biographies address concerns about a subject’s successors (Diogenes, Lives of Eminent Philosophers) (95-96).
  • Type E biographies legitimate or offers the hermeneutical key for understanding a subject’s teachings (Porphyry, Plotinus) (96).

Talbert would place the biographies of rules in all of the categories except for type D (96-97). Philosophical Schools may use type C to discredit rival teachers, B to rehabilitate a philosopher in response to a rival school’s polemic, or D to claim to be true successors of a philosopher (105-6). Mark’s Gospel fits type B in polemicizing against distorted Christologies that neglect Jesus’ mission to suffer and is informed by the structure of the Immortals (134). The two volume work Luke-Acts belongs to type D as a succession narrative about the church after Easter and type B in that it refutes imminent eschatological expectations (107-8, 134). Matthew’s Gospel corresponds to type E in legitimating and interpreting Jesus’ life and teaching and type B in correcting deficient Christological views that overlooked Jesus’ fulfillment and fidelity to the Hebrew Scriptures (108, 134). Finally, John’s Gospel also exemplifies type B in correcting lower Christological views by presenting Jesus as a descending-ascending redeemer (135).

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