As modern readers, we have preconceived notions about how literature works. We may think of history as a strict chronological retelling of events and biography as character development with chronology. These concepts inform our reading of contemporary texts, but they can hinder us when we read ancient texts like the Gospels. There is no apples-to-apples comparison when it comes to modern and ancient texts.
Nonbiblical ancient texts, however, can give us insight into the Gospels. One such text is Parallel Lives, written by the Greek philosopher Plutarch (ca. AD 46–120). This work portrays the lives of famous men from history and legend. Consisting of 50 biographies, Lives includes 46 that are paired—one Roman and one Greek—to highlight common virtues and vices. Examining Plutarch’s collection of biographies alongside the Gospels can help us understand the Gospel writers’ choices as they compiled their biographies of Christ.
In Lives, Plutarch was not interested in being exhaustive or uniform; instead, he selected the most significant details from his material. He openly acknowledged this in his study of Alexander the Great:
The multitude of the deeds to be treated is so great that I shall make no other preface than to entreat my readers, in case I do not tell of all the famous actions of these men, nor even speak exhaustively at all in each particular case, but in epitome for the most part, not to complain. 1
From the points he chose to highlight in each account, we can identify events and characteristics that Plutarch considered particularly telling. For example, Plutarch rarely mentioned women in his accounts, but in the case of Mark Antony and Demetrius, women feature prominently. We can see that Plutarch considered each man’s interactions with women as telling of his character. 2 Antony’s troublesome relationship with Cleopatra caused him to struggle on the battlefield, yet Demetrius remained a noble warrior despite his poor relationships.
The Gospel authors are similarly selective. John admits that he’s not presenting readers with an exhaustive retelling of events: “Now Jesus performed many other miraculous signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not recorded in this book” (John 20:30). The other Gospel writers also feature a selection of the events and teachings of Jesus’ life. Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5–7) includes more material than Luke’s Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:17–49) and focuses on the application of Old Testament passages. Matthew intentionally presents Jesus in light of His Jewish heritage. In contrast, Luke focuses strongly on ethics, so he includes material Matthew does not, such as John the Baptist’s specific ethical commands to Roman soldiers (Luke 3:14).
Plutarch’s primary concern was character development, not chronology. The details he chose to include reveal his subjects’ very souls:
For it is not Histories I am writing, but Lives; and in the most illustrious deeds there is not always a manifestation of virtue or vice, nay, a slight thing like a phrase or a jest often makes a great[er] revelation of character than battles where thousands fall … so I must be permitted to devote myself rather to the signs of the soul in men, and by means of these to portray the life of each, leaving to others the description of their great contests. 3
Plutarch wanted to feature events in these men’s lives that exemplified their virtues and vices, allowing readers to gain a sense of their character. He wasn’t interested in retelling their public histories; he strove to create a more intimate portrait.
Similarly, the Gospel authors want to convey Jesus’ teachings and actions for the overarching purpose of explaining who He is: “But these are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (John 20:31). To do this, they sometimes arrange events in surprising ways—often by theme, not chronology. For example, John presents Jesus’ cleansing of the temple as one of the first public acts in Jesus’ ministry, while the other three Gospels place it toward the end of His ministry (compare John 2:14–22; Matt 21:12–13; Mark 11:15–17; Luke 19:45–46). By doing so, John establishes Jesus’ authority early in his account. Luke places Jesus’ rejection in Nazareth before His ministry in Capernaum, when arguably the chronology is reversed (compare Luke 4:23 with 4:31–37); this shows that opposition to Jesus began at the start of His ministry, even from those who grew up with Him and should have welcomed His message.
In his writing of Lives, Plutarch’s goal was moral instruction. For instance, he presented the accounts of two major rulers—Theseus, the founder of Athens, and Romulus, the founder of Rome. Through their brave and noble deeds, both men rose from humble parentage to greatness, each founding a “most illustrious” city. Yet both men also failed to remain virtuous: Plutarch noted that “each resorted to the rape of women … and even in their last days both are said to have come into collision with their own fellow citizens.” 4 He concluded:
Although Theseus and Romulus were both statesmen by nature, neither maintained to the end the true character of a king, but both deviated from it and underwent a change.… For the ruler must preserve first of all the realm itself, and this is preserved no less by refraining from what is unbecoming than by cleaving to what is becoming. 5
By highlighting the twofold moral imperative that enables rulers to rule well—avoid evil and cling to good—Plutarch implicitly asked the reader to live this out on a personal level.
The Gospel authors also aim for moral instruction, but they do so by bringing readers into contact with Jesus. John explains that he writes so that “by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). The other Gospel writers have the same goal. In Mark 8:29, Peter makes an important profession about Jesus: “He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered Him, ‘You are the Christ.’ ” Immediately after this, Jesus rebukes Peter for denying His coming passion (Mark 8:33). By including this event, Mark presents the reader with the same choice: Either reject Christ’s death and resurrection, or accept them fully as part of Jesus’ messianic ministry.
Although the goals of Plutarch and the Gospel writers, as well as the manner in which they bring about these goals, are similar, the two texts are not the same. Plutarch illustrated the character of mortal men to instruct the character of mortal men. The Gospel authors write to introduce us to Jesus Christ, the Son of God, so that we might become like Him. Plutarch hoped readers would be changed as they encountered these Lives. The Gospel authors hope for even more: When we encounter Jesus in the Gospels, we leave changed—not just morally or ethically, but spiritually and relationally. By reading about Jesus in the Gospels, we come in contact with the one life that truly mattered.
For more on the Gospels as genre, pick up Richard Burridge’s What Are the Gospels? Go to Logos.com/GospelGenre
Biblical references are from the New English Translation (NET).