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The Gospels as Historical Monographs?

Adela Collins commentary on Mark for the Hermeneia series offers a wealth of Greco-Roman parallels to the Gospels, but she also offers her own helpful typology of ancient biographical literature on pages 30-32:

  • Encomiastic biography is a subtype of epideictic rhetoric that exalts a subject (e.g. Isocrates, Evogoras; Xenophon, Agesilaus; Polybius, lost Philopoimen).
  • Scholarly or peripatetic or Aristotelian biographies focus on authors, philosophers, or occasionally rulers and they may either be impartial or satirical reviews of their subject (e.g. Satyrus, Euripides; Diogenes Laertius, Lives).
  • Didactic biographies instruct about a subject’s way of life to instill allegiance to it (e.g. Philo, Life of Moses; Iamblichus, Pythagorean Way of Life).
  • Ethical biographies deliberately promote a moral or an ethical-psychological system (e.g. Plutarch, Lives of Cato the Younger or Pompey)
  • Entertaining biographies satisfy the curiosity of readers about heroes, poets, or rulers (e.g. the lives of Homer, Aesop, Secundus, Heraclides, and Plutarch’s Antony) (32).
  • Historical biographies have a wider concern for the series of cause-effects in the political arena rather than just narrowing on a subject’s individual private life (e.g. the Life of Caesar; Tacitus, Agricola; Seutonius, Lives of the Caesars).

It should be noted that, while Collins finds affinities between the Gospels and the historical and didactic biographies (e.g. Plutarch’s Lives; Lucian’s Demonax) (33, 43), she prefers to classify Mark’s Gospel as an “eschatological historical monograph” about the origins and destiny of an ethnic group culminating in the climax of Israelite history and its universal implications in the new age (cf. Mark 13:10) (18). She follows John Van Seters’ definition of history as  “the intellectual form in which a civilization renders account to itself of its past”; the biblical historians collected a range of disparate material and interpreted it through the lens of Israel’s national history and destiny (37-39).

How did the historiographical genre develop? She cites Aristotle (Rhet. 1.4.13 [1360A]) and Quintilian (Inst. Orat. 2.4.2) on history as primarily about memorable deeds, particularly in the realm of politics (35). Historiography was rooted in ancient mythography, ethnography, travel reports, and chronography; Herodotus collected such data and gathered it in sequential development (35-36). Historia means inquiry or investigation, stressing the role that the interrogation of witnesses and synthesizing their reports into a continuous narrative, though some historians were less diligent than others in testing their sources (36). There was a tension between interviewing eyewitnesses and visiting specific locales as opposed to relying on written documents or freely inventing stories (36). The presence of hagiography about prophetic figures or extravagant ethnographic tales shows that the miraculous could be a part of ancient history writing, though Greek historiographers like Herodotus or Polybius tended to have the divine indirectly working through human agency via dreams or “Fortune” (39-40). Since often great individuals were perceived to set history into motion, historians could write biographical accounts about individual heroes in the Hellenistic and Roman periods (36-37).

According to Collins, Mark’s Gospel fits a short historical monograph. It rarely has direct divine intervention apart from the baptism, transfiguration, and resurrection narratives and the spotlight generally stays on the human level of interaction rather than the unseen divine world operating behind the scenes (40). Like other biblical historians, the evangelist does not identify himself or his aims and its low literary level and episodic style corresponds to some histories (e.g. some Hebrew Bible historiography, Herodotus, Cleitarchus, Duris, Curtius Rufus, Livy) (41). Mark’s emphasis on the miraculous was also present in ethnography (41). The subject and scope of historia was often politics or war, but individuals (e.g. Alexander the Great, Agathocles of Syracuse, Attalus of Pergamum, Ptolemy IV Philopator, Antiochus the Great, Hannibal, Tigranes of Armenia, Pompey) or cultural and religious subjects could be the focus (41). Universal histories were longer, but historical monographs were shorter (41). The only difference from other historical monographs is that Mark’s Gospel is infused with eschatology (42-3). She concludes that Mark wrote a “historical monograph that focuses on the activity of a leading individual” (43).

The key difference over whether classifies Mark as a historical monograph or a biography is whether its main emphasis falls on the full eschatological redemption of God’s people (historical monograph) or on a particular subject to whom we owe our allegiance as our messianic teacher and deliverer (bios).

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