Every Sunday, I will share a quote from something I’ve been reading. The hope is for you, dear reader, to share your thoughts on the quote and related issues and perhaps pick up some reading material along the way!
The Gospels and Contemporary Biography
The question of the genre of the Gospels and whether they are to be considered to have historical content is clearly one which is central for Christians. One way we can explore this question is by looking at writings which are contemporary with the Gospels. Simon Swain, in his essay “Defending Hellenism,” which itself shows how various first century Pagans used apologetics against Christians, provides some interesting insight into this issue:
Philostratus has… a biographical aim. In the Roman imperial period, biographical records came to function as vehicles of belief systems, pagan and Christian. (180, cited below)
Swain is specifically discussing a work by Philostratus, In Honour of Apollonius. He notes that the aim of this work is to provide not so much a modern understanding of biography, but a “way of life of that individual…” The genre of Bioi, first century biographies, were both filled with historical teachings but also served a[n]–apologetic–purpose. This is not to say that the documents themselves are false or that anything contained therein is a fabrication. Instead, it is to acknowledge certain aspects of writing in the ancient world which differ from our own understanding of how biographies should work. For the study of the Gospels, then, it provides a way to avoid limiting them to wooden reports of what happened and allow us to see the theological thrust of the writers.
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Simon Swain, “Defending Hellenism: Philostratus In Honour of Apollonius” in Mark Edwards, Martin Goodman, and Simon Price, eds., Apologetics in the Roman Empire (New York: Oxford, 1999).
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