When talking about the New Testament with skeptics, I’m often confronted with something along the lines of, The New Testament writers never cite their sources of information. They never criticize their sources. Therefore, they seem to be written as fiction. What if the Gospels writers never explicitly cited their sources of information? Would such an objection undercut the reliability of the New Testament? Or, could it be that critics and Christians alike have missed something about the nature of first-century biographies?

While we may have serious concerns about the citation methods used in the Gospels, looking at the nature of biographies in antiquity, our doubts should vanish. Plutarch, a biographer of antiquity, is credited with writing about 60 biographies, 50 of which we still have. His works include biographies of Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, and other prominent Greek and Roman figures. While examining his work, there is a striking resemblance between the structure of his biographies and the Gospel literature. For example, in Plutarch’s biography of Julius Caesar, Plutarch recounts the impeachment of Dolabella, stating, After his return to Rome he (Caesar) impeached Dolabella for maladministration of his province, and many of the cities of Greece supplied him with testimony.[1] Which cities specifically? How many people from each city and what were the names of these people? These are answers Plutarch doesn’t divulge. Now, compare a passage from Luke and a passage from 1 Corinthians 15 with Plutarch.

In as much as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have    been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also having followed all things closely for some time past to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty  concerning the things you have been taught. – Luke 1:1-4

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised, on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to  Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. – 1 Corinthians 15:3-8.

While these New Testament passages are structured similarly to Plutarch’s writing on Julius Caesar, the reader may still wonder, why not go into detail about the sources in any of these passages? First It could be that the sources are not the main thrust of the text which was standard for ancient biographers. Second, for those receiving the biography, it would have been familiar knowledge about the event or the claims[2] and thus, there would have been no need to mention specific sources. Third, it was merely the literary style of the time. All of these explanations are reasonable options for why Plutarch, Luke, and Paul don’t specifically mention where they got their information from. These explanations should serve to show that the objection mention above is not sufficient to toss out the claims of the Gospels or the events documented by any of the authors. Dr. Mike Licona, a New Testament scholar noted in his book, Why are there Differences in the Gospels:

Accordingly, we should not be surprised when the evangelists employ compositional devices similar to those used by ancient biographers. In fact, we should be surprised if they do not…the practice of writing history and biography as we know them today is a product of the nineteenth century.[3]

While the issue of citing sources seems like a valid criticism of the Gospels, a proper understanding of the time, culture, and literary devices used to document biographies reveals that the Gospels are similar to the work of a well-respected biographer of antiquity, Plutarch. If one wishes to dismiss the Gospels as biographies, they can. But, they do so against the evidence. As Christians, we can be assured that what we have are early accounts of the life of Jesus based on substantial testimony.

 

Footnotes:

[1] http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/e/roman/texts/plutarch/lives/caesar*.html

[2] It should also be noted that the Gospel accounts were written earlier and closer to the events than that of Plutarch. For example, Plutarch’s biography of Alexander the Great is written 400 years after his life. The Gospels are within a generation.

[3] Mike Licona. Why are there Differences in the Gospels?  Page 5,16.

[4] Photo Credit: www.crosswalk.com

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