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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

The Gospels and Ancient Biography

a. Ancient Lives

In order to determine whether the gospels are a form of ancient biography, it is necessary to examine the generic features shared by ancient ‘lives’, or bioi—the word biographia does not appear until the ninth-century writer Photius of Constantinople (Bibliotheca, 181 and 242; see Momigliano 1971: 12). From the formal or structural perspective, they are written in continuous prose narrative, between 10,000 and 20,000 words in length—the amount on a typical scroll of about 30–35 feet in length. Unlike modern biographies, Graeco-Roman lives do not cover a person's whole life in chronological sequence, and have no psychological analysis of the subject's character. They may begin with a brief mention of the hero's ancestry, family, or city, his birth and an occasional anecdote about his upbringing; but usually the narrative moves rapidly on to his public début later in life. Accounts of generals, politicians, or statesmen are ordered more chronologically, recounting their great deeds and virtues, while lives of philosophers, writers, or thinkers tend to be more anecdotal, arranged topically around collections of material to display their ideas and teachings. While the author may claim to provide information about his subject, often his underlying aims include apologetic, polemic, or didactic. Many ancient biographies cover the subject's death in great detail, since here he reveals his true character, gives his definitive teaching, or does his greatest deed. Finally, detailed analysis of the verbal structure of ancient biographies reveals another generic feature. While most narratives have a wide variety of subjects, it is characteristic of biography that attention stays focused on one particular person, with a quarter to a third of the verbs dominated by the subject, while another 15 to 30 per cent occur in sayings, speeches, or quotations from the person (see Burridge 1992: 261–74; 2004: 308–21).

b. The Gospels as Lives of Jesus

Like other ancient biographies, the gospels are continuous prose narratives of the length of a single scroll, composed of stories, anecdotes, sayings, and speeches; thus they share the same ‘external’ generic features. Their concentration on Jesus' public ministry, from his baptism to his death, and on his teaching and great deeds is not very different from the content of other ancient biographies. Similarly, the amount of space given to the last week of Jesus' life, his death, and the resurrection reflects that given to the subject's death and subsequent events in works by Plutarch, Tacitus, Nepos, and Philostratus. Verbal analysis demonstrates that Jesus is the subject of a quarter of the verbs in Mark's Gospel, with a further fifth spoken by him in his teaching and parables. About half of the verbs in the other gospels either have Jesus as the subject or are on his lips: like other ancient biographies, Jesus' deeds and words are of vital importance for the evangelists' portraits of Jesus. Therefore, these marked similarities of form and content demonstrate that the gospels have both the external and the internal generic features of ancient biographies.

My comparison (Burridge 1992) of the gospels with Graeco-Roman bioi or Lives demonstrated this generic relationship, refuting the previous sui generis approach of the form critics. This has been confirmed subsequently by the similarly detailed work of Frickenschmidt (1997), and the biographical hypothesis has now become the accepted scholarly consensus. It has been queried by Collins (1995), who also rejects the unique approach but prefers to see Mark at least as historical monograph. Wills (1997) and Vines (2002) have compared the gospels with early novels, especially those from a Jewish background, but without great success or acceptance (see Chapter 25 above). Increasingly, gospel scholars and commentators now take the biographical genre of the gospels as their starting- point, while the debate has moved on to the implications of this for their interpretation (see Burridge 2004: 252–88).

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