Spider-Man and the Gospel Genres

While checking out Bible and Interpretation’s ‘Featured News’ section as I normally do, I came across this interesting looking article on the so-called Spider-Man fallacy.  I am always interested in the question of comics and their adoption of biblical themes (at times) or their shared motifs with ancient literature (because it is fun), so I clicked on the link.  I was surprised to see that the article was written to analyze an argument from an atheist about the nature of the Gospel genre.  The atheist (who is not named and so will remain our anonymous antagonist, even though this is unfair–I much rather prefer to have a name with an argument) gives this argument:

Archaeologists 1,000 years from now unearth a collection of Spiderman comics. From the background art, they can tell it takes place in New York City. NYC is an actual place, as confirmed by archaeology. However, this does not mean that Spiderman existed.

Though one has to admit, this would make a fun comic adaptation.

So the whole case is presented as if the scenario given by the atheist is essentially the same story surrounding the Gospels: a mythical figure set into a historical backdrop like New York City, who has interactions with real historical figures (like the mayor of New York City vs. Pontius Pilate, Herod Antipas, or Herod the Great).

I don’t like this logic.  The whole argument is a case of special pleading.  This particular anonymous atheist detractor seems to lack some basic knowledge about textual criticism, particularly how long we’ve had copies of the manuscripts (at least 1600 years–not 1000 years).  The argument also forgets that the comic strip is illustrated and we should hope that in 1000 years from now, humans still have full-text books (one would hope that illustrations don’t become the dominant form of media and story telling!) and still have comic books (though I wonder what their Justice League of the Future will look like).  So the whole argument is a wash: it presumes too many factors and asks you to accept too many unknowns (e.g., it asks you to pretend as if scholars in 1000 years won’t be as dorky or nerdy as we are today–something I highly doubt).

But that doesn’t mean the author of the refutation–Robin Schumacher–makes a good case against it either.  In fact the author of this piece for the Christian Post makes some surprising blunders (seemingly out of bias).  The biggest one is in their use of genre criticism:

However, such thinking has been discredited due to the work of a number of scholars, most notably Richard Burridge and his work What are the Gospels – A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography. Burridge, dean of King’s College in London, is a classicist who originally set out to disprove the thesis that the Gospels fit within the genre of ancient biography, but during his research, the evidence he uncovered caused him to reverse his opinion.

Those who think the Gospels don’t match the category of ancient historical biography confuse our current models of biography with those of the ancient world.

via Jesus and the Spiderman Fallacy | The Confident Christian.

The problem is that Robin Schumacher has it backwards.  Those who think the Gospels are ancient historical biography are the ones confused.  And Burridge is not the only one, along with Schumacher, who has it backwards.  We’ll look at Burridge, but I also want to focus on two other scholars who have argued similar positions: Darrell Bock and Craig Keener.

Let’s consider the basic proposition that the Gospels fit the genre of Greco-Roman biography.  Bock writes:[1]

What specific type of literature is a gospel?  How would an ancient reader have classified it?  …recent work has shown that the gospels read much like ancient Greco-Roman biographies and that the issue of bias does not preclude a discussion of historicity. A…concern for truth is present in the Gospels.  When we encounter a gospel, we are reading a literary form that the ancient world recognized as biographical…. Ancient biography gives us the portrait of a key figure by examining key events of which he or she was a major part as well as giving us glimpses of the hero’s thinking.  They tend to present a fundamental chronological outline of key periods starting with the birth or the arrival on the public scene….  Such biographies often concentrate on the controversies surrounding the key figure, especially the events that lead to a dramatic death, if that is part of the history.   It is this kind of work that we read as we turn out attention to the Gospel accounts as they present to us, as history, the life of Jesus.

Bock’s position, as is the position of many scholars of the historical Jesus, is one that visualizes the Gospels as histories—though not very good ones—of the life of the figure of Jesus.  So, the argument goes, there is something in the Gospels about a historical figure; it may not be much, which is the view of many scholars particularly those involved in the so-called ‘third quest’ and the Jesus Seminar, but there is somethingKeener agrees:

“In recent decades, as scholars have examined the best ancient analogies for the Gospels, it has become increasingly clear that the Gospels were designed as biographies—though as ancient rather than modern ones.”

This line of thinking did not come about ex nihilo.  In 1977, Charles Talbert[2], while not the first to suggest it, was the earliest contemporary historian to argue persuasively for Greco-Roman biography as the genre of the Gospels; a work more recently published, though still over fifteen years old, was published by Richard A. Burridge addressing the same issue–and the one with which Schumacher is familiar.[3]  But in the time between Burridge’s first publication and the present, several other investigations have been made into the study of genre and the Gospels. Most notably is the analysis by Michael Vines, where he takes Burridge, and David Aune as well, to task.[4] His most relevant point, in this author’s opinion, is that the Gospels do not focus on biographical aspects but on theological ones.  Burridge’s case rests on whether or not the Gospels imitate, unconsciously or purposefully, the genre of Greco-Roman biography (though he admits that the option is there that they only do so coincidentally).  However, the Gospels do not imitate Greco-Roman biography as Burridge, Aune, and Talbert believe and this is easily demonstrated.

The Greco-Roman biography of Apollonius of Tyana by Philostratus is not one continuous narrative but, rather, the story of his life as discussed by Philostratus.  Philostratus not only gives us his sources (personal letters and the will of Apollonius himself—whether real or not, reports about him located at shrines, Damis of Hierapolis, Maximus of Aegeae, and so forth), he analyzes his sources (why he chose not to use Moeragenes), debates points of Apollonius’ life against his sources (cf. 1.23-24), inserts anecdotes; there is no question that the story is being recounted by Philostratus.  Most important, perhaps, is that Philostratus is not telling us the story to explain a theological point (though, as any piece of ancient literature, it is designed and rhetorically structured), but he is engaging the source material for the purpose of writing about the life of Apollonius.

It helps the Classicist case that we also have contemporary attestation to Philostratus…

…and also to Apollonius.

The Gospels, however, present a continuous story line with no pause, no discussion of method, no discussion of sources, no anecdotes, and make appeals to theological nuances like Jesus’ divine mission (Mark 1:1-3, for example).  These sorts of traits go against the grain of Greco-Roman biography.  As dubious as the historicity of Apollonius may be, his biography is actually sounder and more credible than that of the Gospels precisely because (a) we know who wrote it and (b) our narrator discusses his sources, allowing us to analyze his methods.

When one looks critically at the Gospels, one can easily see what I mean.  The Gospel authors were not writing independently, but were written for what are clearly different theological, political, and exegetical reasons, one after another over a period of at least 100 years.  And as I mentioned, they don’t name their sources, ever, but it is clear that Matthew and Luke had copies of Mark; a fact to which Keener admits, but he glosses over the fact that they don’t ever cite each other.  Keener greatly overstates his position when he writes that:

“…Matthew and Luke (whom we can best test) use their sources very carefully by ancient standards.… This does not mean that these writers concerned themselves about telling every detail in exactly the way that they received it—most ancient audiences expected writers to exercise more freedom than that—but that, by the standards we apply to their contemporaries, the Gospels are remarkably useful sources.”

If by using their sources “very carefully,” Keener means to admit that the authors changed, adjusted, or otherwise ignored each others’ works extensively (i.e. purposefully changed accounts from other Gospels in creating their own) then he is correct; they did utilize each other quite remarkably; so remarkably, in fact, that some scenes which occur in two Gospels appear as a parable in another.  Some vanish entirely!  Others are so chronologically garbled that Keener will be hard pressed to explain how it could have happened with such diligent and thorough authors utilizing their sources so carefully.  If the events of Jesus’ life could so easily be invented, removed, or altered so often, then clearly the authors of the Gospels were not interested in preserving the historical Jesus.  How could they have been?  They went out of their way on certain occasions to manipulate the narratives to show us a Jesus that was of the minds of their own socio-cultural settings, their own interests washing away whatever theological agenda their predecessors held.  Why would this occur if they were “very carefully” utilizing their sources?  Careful use seems not to have bothered them much at all.  When thinking of an example of such an occurrence in the texts, the fig tree is one that comes to mind almost immediately.

In Matthew, Jesus has just finished cleansing the temple after a very triumphal entry into Jerusalem and he was already running away to Bethany to escape the guards who were looking to kill him.  He sleeps the night there and awakens the next day to head back into the city; along the way back Jesus decides he is hungry.  Luckily for him, fig trees were abundant.  Unlucky for the fig tree, it was out of season.  Jesus becomes infuriated; he had called but the tree had not answered.  Throwing what, in my opinion, is not much different than a childish temper-tantrum, he curses the tree and it withers “at once.” (Matt. 21:19)   The disciples all marvel and even ask each other “How did the fig tree wither at once?” (Matt. 21:20)  With a little teaching that follows, this ends Matthew’s fig tree story.  This event might be historical.  But the Gospel authors, who Keener suggests were far more knowledgeable of the circumstances of the accounts than we are, do not seem to come to any particular consensus about it.

Mark portrays Jesus as just making it into the city before realizing he must leave again.  After what seems to have been an exhausting day of entrances, it’s off to Bethany he goes to spend the night as it was “already late” (Mark 11:11).  Awaking the next morning, Jesus and his companions make their way back to Jerusalem.  And as before, on their way, Jesus became hungry; he had to build up his strength for all the table-throwing and scolding later on, it seems.  He approaches the fig tree, out of season, and curses the fig tree.  All of his disciples heard this curse. (Mark 11:14)  After a long day of cleansing the temple, throwing over tables, they again departed from the city to escape the plotting priests and scribes.  The next morning the disciples saw the fig tree withered away and “remembered” (ἀναμνησθεὶς) in Mark 11:20.

Luke, Keener’s prized historian and biographer, seems to have completely dismissed this event as it is described in the other two accounts.  Luke visualizes this narrative completely differently, presenting it as a parable instead. (Luke 13:6-9) In fact, the parable is told far from Jerusalem to the north, in Galilee, a full six chapters before the Triumphal Entry occurs in Luke’s narrative (essentially throwing off the chronology). An interesting aside might be to note that Luke doesn’t seem to recall ever spending the night in Bethany during his stay near Jerusalem with Jesus. Some might find Luke’s ignorance of this account rather embarrassing, especially if they are trying to argue for the historical accuracy of the Gospel of Luke.

John is not only clueless of the withering of the fig tree, but he doesn’t even present it as a parable!  Instead, John “remembers” Jesus calling Nathanael from under a fig tree (John 1:43-48), but beyond that, he is completely ignorant of any cursing, withering, fig tree incident.  But Matthew clearly writes that all the disciples marveled.  Not some, not a few, not two.  This is odd–as Keener points out, Matthew and Luke both had access to Mark, yet Mark states that all the disciples saw the fig tree withered the next day.  If Matthew and Luke cared so greatly about the accurate reporting of historical events, why did they change this part of Mark’s narrative?  If they “construed Mark as biography as well,” as Keener suggests, why did they alter (or remove entirely) this scene from their narratives?

Conspiring authors? Perhaps that was the intent, but they didn’t listen to each other.

This is only one example; there are countless more.  Many scenes from Mark are re-imagined, become a parable, are marginalized, or disappear from other canonical Gospels.  When there are multiple stories of a similar account, yet are usually different, one should be suspicious.  This is an example, not of memory recall nor of concise and careful source-use, but of authorial intent; purposeful, deliberate altercations of a narrative.  According to Keener, however, the Gospel authors are more useful as sources for a historical tradition than Arrian.  That thinking just makes no sense at all.

Any familiarity with Arrian’s Anabasis Alexandri would immediately illustrate the difference in quality and demonstrate actually care for source material.  In fact, if one were looking for an example of Burridge’s ideological history written with coincidental and, perhaps, even unconscious links to Greco-Roman Biography, Arrian’s Anabasis Alexandri is the best one we will find; yet it is dramatically unlike anything we see with the Gospel accounts.  In the very opening of his first book, he explains part of his method to the reader:

Wherever Ptolemy and Aristobulus in their histories of Alexander, the son of Philip, have given the same account, I have followed it on the assumption of its accuracy; where their facts differ I have chosen what I feel to be the more probable and interesting. (Anabasis Alexandri 1.1)

Like Philostratus, Arrian compares his sources, especially when they conflict (e.g., Anabasis Alexandri 3.30.4-6). His sources, therefore, are also subject to criticism and evaluation (since we actually know what they are). Here with Arrian, as before with Philostratus, there is a direct engagement with the sources; one is not reading a story.  While some events display traits of a narrative, the reader is able to interact with it, to analyze the history with the narrator.  With the Gospel accounts there is no interaction with the narrative; the reader is moved along with the story, unable to analyze and critique it and, instead, is told that how the author of the Gospels wrote it is precisely how it occurred.[5]  There is never an instance where the Gospel authors take two separate accounts of an event and openly discuss which is more likely to have occurred, even though each Gospel portrays similar events differently, in different chronologies, with different individuals, and sometimes within different contexts and even locations.  What one reads is what one gets and, in almost every instance, what one gets is a theologically-driven exegetical interpretation of the Hebrew Bible.[6]

Lycurgus

One final thought on the subject: It is also worth mentioning here that some Greco-Roman biographies are based upon completely fictional figures, like Plurtarch’s biography of Theseus.  There were no laws or edicts in antiquity about what one could or could not write or how they could write it (such laws do exist today, though mainly in confessional institutions).  Authors emulated the parts of works they liked and were not limited by genre, per se.  Such was the process of imitation, even going back to the days of Aristotle (Poetics 1447a-b).  An example one might find of a fictional hero who is historicized in a Greco-Roman biography is Lycurgus, the legendary lawgiver of Spartan lore.  Plutarch dedicates a biography to him, complete with genealogy; but his attestation goes well beyond this.  Lycurgus gets honorable mentions and is discussed by Plato (Republic 10.599d), Aristotle (Politics 2.1270a, Rhetoric 2.23.11), Xenophon (Constitution of the Lacedaimonians 1), Polybius (Histories 4.2, 6.10), Josephus (Against Apion 2.220), Isocrates (Panathenaicus 12.152), Epictetus (Discourses 2.20), Tacitus (Annals 3.26), and Livy (History of Rome 38.34) to name a few.  But it is unlikely that Lycurgus was any more real than Romulus, of whom several Greco-Roman biographies are extant (Plutarch, Romulus; also Livy dedicates his first book of From the Founding of the City to the life of Romulus; stories of his life and deeds can also be found in ancient historiographies (e.g., Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities 2).  The figure of Romulus is attested in works from Ovid (Fasti), Cicero (Laws, Republic), and to Tertullian (Apology). It may also be useful to note in passing that among these selected works mentioning Romulus there exists a tale of his death, resurrection, and rebirth to the figure of Quirinus.   This is merely to point out that even if the Gospels were portrayed as Greco-Roman biographies, it would not imply eo ipso that they are historically useful.

At the end of the day, Schumacher does not take into account the differences between the genre of a real Greco-Roman biography like one written by Philostratus, Plutarch, or Arrian, and the narrative stories of the Gospels.  Like Burridge and Keener, Schumacher only focuses on the superficial similarities of the genre, rather than a real detailed analysis like I have provided here.  This seems to be the trouble with some apologist commentators who lack a strong or dedicated Classics background.

But while Schumacher, et al, may be wrong, so is the anonymous atheist.  Making anachronistic comparisons are misleading and overstate their case.  One cannot (or should not) use modern genres as a useful comparison; instead, ancient epics or ancient Jewish fiction writing would have made a more palatable choice (like Michael Vines or Thomas Thompson argue).  So no one really seems to be the winner in this debate.  But that is often the case when I come across a discussion between a Christian apologist and an atheist when it comes to the Bible–a lot of misunderstandings, a lot of miscommunication, a lot of talking past one another.  And this is rather unfortunate.

On the plus side, I got to demonstrate, once more, how completely logically flawed it is to associate the Gospels with Greco-Roman biography.


[1] Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods (Grand Rapids, Baker Academic: 2002), 214.

[2] What is a Gospel? The Genre of the Canonical Gospels (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977)

[3] What Are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992)

[4] Vines, The Problem of Markan Genre: The Gospel of Mark and the Jewish Novel (Academia Biblica 3; Atlanta: SBL, 2002), 7-19.

[5] While Arrian’s methods are exceptional, they fall short of modern standards. Even though he is a step above the typical ancient historian, his work is not perfect. He openly equates “interesting” stories with “probable” stories and, as one of his reasons for choosing Ptolemy as a source, states that it is because he was a King and “it is more disgraceful for a king to tell lies than anyone else.” (Anabasis Alexandri, Preface 1-3) Still, if a good historian like Arrian, whose methods are far superior to those of his contemporaries, those before him, and many after, can succumb to these sorts of biases, one should be more concerned with how much bias and error effects those writers of lesser quality. Not even the author of Luke, with his brief preface to Theophilus, can come close to this methodology.  R. Carrier argues this persuasively that Luke does not function well as a historian or biographer; see his discussion in Not the Impossible Faith: Why Christianity Didn’t Need a Miracle to Succeed (Lulu Press, 2009), 173-87.

[6] This author tends to agree with the statement on the Gospels by Samuel Sandmel, “If the historical statements they make chance to be reliable, this is only coincidence,” from ‘Prolegomena to a Commentary on Mark,’ in Two Living Traditions: Essays on Religion (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1972), 149.

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5 Responses

  1. Good analysis. I got into it with Hoffman over just these sorts of issues. He simply would not let go of bashing on the straw man that I was trying to say that ancient historiography was completely rationalist and that the miracles in the gospels differentiate them totally from works with historical interests, when the point I was making was the same as yours here when you point out the markers of methodology in e.g. Arrian and the gospels’ complete lack of same.

    I was trying to talk about treatment, literary style, not beliefs, and he kept trying to ridicule me for claiming that e.g. Livy didn’t believe in the supernatural.

    Which is just by way of saying that it’s not only apologists who are hung up on some problematic ideas about genre and the literature of antiquity. I also hate it when they stress ancient: “see, they’re ancient biographies, not modern ones, so you can’t expect X, Y, and Z.” But it’s not the point, it’s a total misdirection: we’re comparing them to actual ancient biographies, and nobody said anything about modern standards of reporting except you!

    I’ve never got much traction making these points (probably because it was in the course of defending mythicism), I hope you manage to fare better with them.

    -C.J. O’Brien

  2. Did, you know Spider-Man was crucified in Uncanny X-Men 190?

  3. […] Tom Verenna writes, critiquing both an atheist and a Christian: […]

  4. […] his work What are the Gospels – A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography.  Tom Verenna responds in Spider-Man and the Gospel Genres – the so-called Spider-Man fallacy. “how completely logically flawed it is to associate […]

  5. […] to interact with Tom’s posts challenging the biographical classification of the Gospels here, here, here, here.  Lets start with a few […]

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