Doston Jones on Studying the Bible as Literature

Back in July, Doston Jones asked whether the New Testament authors were influenced by Greco-Roman literature. This may seem absurd: how could they not have been influenced? But there are certain Christians of the fundamentalist variety who think that the New Testament is utterly unique due to its divinely inspired origins. But the topic Jones discusses in this post is far more important than the never-ending battle with fundamentalism. It strikes at the very heart of New Testament studies itself. The only way to fully appreciate the New Testament texts is to start with their own literary context. Jones aptly writes,

The books comprising the Bible were not written in a cultural or literary vacuum. The authors of the New Testament were highly educated in compositional Greek prose (albeit in a society in which less than 5% of the population possessed such literacy). Having high-level Greek literacy and compositional skills meant that the NT authors were likely of a privileged socio-economic status, and through their education they were certainly exposed to and familiar with popular volumes in Greco-Roman literature.

As an example of this influence, Jones turns to the Acts of the Apostles and compares the so-called conversion story of Paul with the Bacchae, a play by the ancient Greek playwright Euripides. The key part is the similarity between Acts 26:14 and Bacchae 795. In Acts, Jesus says, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads [πρὸς κέντρα λακτίζειν]” (NRSV). In the Bacchae, the deity Dionysus says to Pentheus, “I would pay him sacrifices rather than kick against the goads [πρὸς κέντρα λακτίζοιμι] in rage – a mere mortal taking on a god” (Bacchae 795).[1]

This verbal similarity isn’t the only parallel between the account in Acts and the account in Bacchae. But rather than steal Jones’ thunder, I’ll simply urge you, the reader, to click on the link above. I will add this: the influence of Greco-Roman literature is everywhere, down to the very genre of literature that the Evangelists chose to employ when talking about the life and death of Jesus – bioi. Helen Bond in her book The First Biography of Jesus: Genre and Meaning in Mark’s Gospel observes that among the closest analogies to Mark’s Gospel are texts like Xenophon’s Memorabilia, Lucian’s Demonax, among others.[2] Mark’s “decision to write a biography – a literary form that was immensely popular within the Greco-Roman world and yet strangely uncommon within Jewish circles – may…suggest an attempt to appeal to the sorts of people who were familiar with this type of literature,” she writes.[3]

Per the ending of Jones’s piece, he is planning to say more about the influence of various sources upon the New Testament authors. I’m looking forward to reading his thoughts on the subject.

[1] Translation taken from Euripides, Iphigenia among the Taurians; Bacchae; Iphigenia at Aulis; Rhesus, translated by James Morwood (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

[2] Helen K. Bond, The First Biography of Jesus: Genre and Meaning in Mark’s Gospel (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2020), 6. See my review of Bond’s work here.

[3] Bond, The First Biography of Jesus, 90.

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