Helen Bond's new study explores what a biography was
It is now more or less a consensus that the Gospels of the New Testament were biographies (bioi), which leads to two observations: first, that they are not quite like the recent monster biographies we find about well-known people and, second, that what they were then like needs some explanation.
Biographies of the ancient world are not like the admired biographies of our day: a complete biography with full awareness of all the scholarship and thoroughly documents, including private letters and even interviews with relatives. Rather, the ancient world was a mixture: depending on purpose and aim and audience, one could mix history with encomium (more or less praise of the person) along with character study and development. Sometimes serious, sometimes humorous. Sometimes chronological, sometimes not. Sometimes a plot while other times a jumbled mess of stories and sayings.
There was no such thing as a genre that authors had to follow.
Which is why one can say Mark is a biography and it not fit some elements of Greco-Roman biographies. But, as Bond and others show, a biography did both commemorate someone’s life, usually a great person, and it held that person up for emulation.
When you read one of our Gospels what do you see along those lines?
Hence, there is in the Gospels this kind of “watch Jesus and be like him” dimension. His life was both earth-shatteringly unique and yet paradigmatic.
There was also character: what kind of person was the one about whom the biographer wrote? Kind, powerful, heroic, military guy, teacher, politician, religious, philosophical? What were teh vices? the virtues? What character traits of Jesus come through the texts?
A person’s birth and early life as well as a person’s ending come in for special considerations in ancient biographies. The Gospel of Mark, you know, has nothing on the early life of Jesus while both Matthew and Luke fill in the blanks. John goes deeper: to the origins, but he has nothing on the early life of Jesus. The Gospels, however, are heavily imbalanced toward the end of the life of Jesus – the last week especially. The noble death, then, was big in the ancient biographical tradition. The Christians took this to the next level.
What about accuracy? The moralizing or making paradigmatic the person led, of course, to exaggerations and even fictions at times. The best term for those biogrphies seems to be “idealize.” That they did, and when they did some distortion of history was in the offing. Ancient historians were more tied to facts than biographers. The aim of the biographer was not simply history and fact, but presentation of the character and virtue and value of that person.
One more consideration concludes Bond’s study: various sorts of biographies. In that the elements of a biography are so diverse in the ancient world, so too the various sorts – so she wisely concludes that sorting out biographies into various genres is not helpful. I agree.