Were the Miracles of Jesus invented by the Disciples/Evangelists?


Posted: Dec 10, 2001, minor addition Jun/2002, pushback added Jan/03  |   Back to the Miracles Index  |  Summary



5. Did the authors consciously create the gospels to be 'historical romance' or 'historical fiction'--novels based perhaps on a real individual, but not necessarily so--and therefore not something to be taken as real history or real biography? Under this understanding, the gospels would have been known to be fictitious by their readership, and have been read for entertainment and/or moral instruction. The inclusion of miracles in these narratives would not have been understood as implying any historical reality to those elements of the narrative.

At first blush, this question can also be easily answered in the negative, since these genres (a) didn't exist in wide enough influence in the first half of the first century AD; and (b) the few examples which were early forerunners manifest radical differences from the gospel narratives. This can be said at least for the writings of Mark and Luke, who are generally considered to have written for Graeco-Roman audiences.


Morgan points out that narrative fiction was not written down for the first time until right around our period!:


"Storytelling was no doubt practiced throughout antiquity, but narrative fiction remained at an oral, subliterary level until the emergence of the literary romance, perhaps in the first century" [Lies and Fiction in the Ancient World, Gill and Wiseman (eds), p.176)



Modern historical fiction, as we know it in the West, is a later development from the Graeco-Roman novel or 'romance'. The Graeco-Roman novel was 'born' late in the Hellenistic Period (300-30 BC), and came into its "developed form" in Roman Imperial times (30 BC - 300 AD). It became a major influence in Late Antiquity, and  influenced the Middle Ages through the "Big Five" Romances (all of Roman Imperial Times):


"Antiquity never created a special term for its 'novels'. In Aristotle's day the genre did not exist. Only in middle or late Hellenistic times, in the last centuries BC, can we watch--or rather, infer from  the scanty evidence--how a new type of prose literature begins to be produced and distributed in the Greek-speaking countries around the Eastern Mediterranean." [HI:TNIA:3]


Before Hellenistic times--in the Classical Period--the only forms of prose fiction were the mime of Sophron and the Socratic dialogue. [HI:BLFAG:195], and in the Roman period if you wanted to write fiction, you wrote in poetic or dramatic forms--not in prose (which we have noted earlier/often).


However, we DO seem to have the rise of the "novel" genre in late Hellenistic times, but this genre is identified with the 'historical romance', and is altogether different from the gospel genre. These 'romances' are characterized in terms familiar today:


"Ancient romances, or novels, are modern terms that scholars use for a number of ancient narratives that typically involve an extraordinarily beautiful young couple who fall in love but who must endure various temptations, hardships and humiliations before they, with the help of the gods, can live happily ever after." [Hock, in [HI:DictNTB, s.v. "Romances/Novels, Ancient"]]


"The novel may be looked upon as the myth of late Hellenism: with its central theme of the lonely traveler searching for his beloved, it is an expression of the individual's sense of isolation in the world." [HI:TNIA:89]


"novel: romantic narrative in rhetorical prose" [definition given in [HI:COCCL]]


"Mostly, we are concerned with simple adventure stories which have love, travel and violence as their main constituents. Sometimes violence is replaced by a stronger admixture of emotions, by a marked taste for sentimentality. In both cases, the result is light reading for a comparatively broad audience. The setting may be historical, but in the center of these fictitious narratives are placed the experiences of private individuals, tossed about by fate in a world unmistakably Hellenistic." [HI:TNIA:3]


"The travel motif is thus to be found both in the tales of travel and in the novels, though in different forms. In the novels traveling is above all movement between places of action, and it is confined to the Mediterranean Sea and adjacent countries, with Mesopotamia as the eastern and Ethiopia as the southern terminal point. The dangers threatening the travelers are weather, pirates, and brigands--not sea monsters or men with dog's heads." [HI:TNIA:118]


"Travelling adventures and the passion of love are the stock subjects of the Greek romance." [HI:AHGL:858]



Not only are the characteristics/themes of the genre in radical discontinuity with the gospel literature, but the novel genre appears in its force too late to have been a serious influence on NT formation:


"Five classic Greek romances have survived intact and are readily available in English translation. They are, in chronological sequence, Chariton’s Chaereas and Callirhoe, Xenophon’s Ephesian Tale, Achilles Tatius’s Leucippe and Cleitophon, Longus’s Daphnis and Chloe and Heliodorus’s Ethiopian Story. Chariton may have written his romance as early as the mid-first century a.d. and certainly by the early second. The next three—Xenophon, Achilles Tatius and Longus—all belong to the second century A.D., the first two to the early part, the last to the latter part of the century. Heliodorus’s dates have been less secure, vacillating between the third and fourth century, but recently resolved in favor of the fourth…These five complete romances are the most important examples of the genre, but hardly the only ones. References in literature point to other romances—for example, Philostratus mentions a romance called Araspes and Panthea and attributes it to the early second-century sophist Dionysius of Miletus (Vit. Soph. 524). Summaries of still other romances are preserved in the Bibliotheca of Photius, ninth-century patriarch of Constantinople. But it is the sands of Egypt that continue to provide new, if very fragmentary, papyrus evidence of previously unknown novels, about a dozen to date, all of which are now readily available." [Hock, in [HI:DictNTB, s.v. "Romances/Novels, Ancient"]]


"The discovery of papyri has pushed back the chronology of the extant novels to dates far earlier…Most of the novelists known to us now appear to have written in either the first or the second century A.D. One, however, is evidently of a later date (Heliodorus, fourth century AD)" [HI:FAHNJ:149]


"The language and connection with historical events warrant the assumption that the romance emerged even earlier, perhaps as early as the first century A.D." [HI:AHGL:857; Lesky points out that we seem to have an indication that the Ninus Romance may be a proto-type of the genre, dating before the turn of the millennium, but this, of course, would not constitute adequate paradigm-force for the next-in-chrono-order gospel lit.]


Although, as Hagg and others noted, we have very little pre-AD data for Greek romances, we might note that "Hellenistic Judaism" might have produced two early 'versions' of romance works. Tobit in the OT Apocrypha is generally considered to be a fictional romance (although of a 'short story' length)  of the Hellenistic type, with the presence of the characteristics of love and a dangerous journey present in slightly modified form--see The New Jerome Biblical Commentary: "This is best described as a Hebrew romance…its fictional character…The form of the successful quest in the central part of the book puts it in the genre of romance." And Joseph and Asenath, although recently re-dated to Late Antiquity by Ross Kraemer, is a romance 'short story'  previously dated to the turn of the millennium. But these works--as all G-R novels during our period--do not 'look like' the gospels very much at all, and there is some dispute as to their being included in this genre.


There were Roman novels, also, but these are very different from BOTH the Greek novels (above) and the gospels. They are also later than the formation of the gospel content (if not the gospel writings themselves), and were likely influenced BY the gospel literature:


"As we have seen, the Greek novel is mainly serious in tone and purpose, an ideal novel of love and sentiment. Only Achilles Tatius among the surviving five differs from this pattern, with his slightly ironical distance from his hero and the events of his story. By contrast, in Latin two voluminous prose novels exist of a distinctly different kind: the Satyricon by Petronius and the Metamorphoses, or The Golden Ass, by Apuleius. They are realistic and comic, with a strong tendency towards satire and burlesque. The author of the Satyricon is in all likelihood identical with the Petronius who was Emperor Nero's arbiter elegantiae, 'Arbiter of Taste', and whose character, career, and death are poignantly described by Tacitus in his Annals. If this is the case, the novel dates from c. AD 65. Apuleius, a hundred years later, was an African by birth and a sophist of the kind we have already encountered, though his primary language was Latin. His Metamorphoses has been variously placed in the mid- or late second century AD. Both novels show a sometimes bewildering mixture of high and low elements, of advanced literary exercises and low-comic or pornographic scenes. The authors belonged to the upper stratum of society and evidently did not have to hide behind any pseudonyms. Their books, being from the very beginning intended as sophisticated entertainment for a literarily cultivated audience, have to this day retained a much higher literary reputation than the ideal Greek novel." [HI:TNIA:166]


"Petronius's treatment of this motif [the Last Supper] is not only the most brilliant in extant fiction but also, as we have observed, the earliest. Like so much else in the history of imperial fiction, it dates from the reign of Nero. It was a portent of the impact that the tales of the evangelists were to have on the imagination of writers and readers in the Graeco-Roman world for several centuries to come…Yet, as the popularity of the novelists grew--and the papyri increasingly suggest that it did--it was perhaps not surprising for the Christians to pick up in turn and to exploit the very genre that seemed to have come into being, to some degree, as a response to stories of theirs that were now enshrined in the canonical Gospels. By the early third century at the latest, the Christians, to our knowledge, had acquired at least one major novel of their own along the lines of the polytheist ones and in evident imitation of them (tn: Bowersock here is referring to the Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions)." [HI:FAHNJ:140,141; notice that Bowersock here implicitly argues that the gospels were NOT the 'first novels' of the Christians.]


"Unfortunately, Pervo sees novels as an influence on Acts--which is implausible for chronological reasons." [HI:FAHNJ:139, note that Bowersock here makes Acts, which is clearly later than the gospels, chronologically prior to the novel literature, as a major influence.]


"But there can be no denying that the explosion of fiction in the Roman empire represents something quite new. It is a part of the history of that time, in all probability not an insignificant part. Although it is hard to discover why it arose and what were the sources of its popularity and diffusion, it is not so difficult to see when it all began. That may ultimately provide a clue as to why it began. The beginning of the massive proliferation of fiction can be assigned pretty clearly to the reign of the emperor Nero, in the middle of the first century of the Christian era." [HI:FAHNJ:22]



So, it's pretty safe to say that the gospel literature was not meant to be understood as 'historical romances' or as 'novels'--Greek or Roman.


Interestingly enough, we can adduce some additional support for this non-influence position from the positive evidence for LATER influence of the novel on two genres that were 'pure' earlier. In other words, we can see how the novel affected later works, and this contrasts with the character of our earlier canonical literatures:


First, the canonical Acts of the Apostles shows no sign of being influenced by the novels/romances, whereas many of the post-canonical Acts manifest both the exotic travel motif and the 'romantic' motif (albeit sometimes quite carefully 'sanctified'…smile):


"Plumacher…who sees Luke [in Acts] as dependent on Hellenistic historiography for his model, but never using elements drawn from it to arouse interest or decorate his narrative to make it palatable to Hellenistic tastes. It is just this, it seems to me, that the authors of the apocryphal acts are doing." [Paul Achtemeier, "Jesus and the Disciples as Miracle Workers in the Apocryphal New Testament", in Fiorenza, Aspects of Religious Propaganda in Judaism and Early Christianity, NotreDame:1976, p.184n110]


"One of the contributions of the later Hellenistic period to Greek literature was the novel (=romance). The genre is hard to define, but it had certain characteristics, among them the theme of a couple separated from one another, yet remaining true despite great pressures against such a course of action. This theme, completely foreign to canonical Acts, appears, in adapted form, with startling regularity in the second- and third-century Acts." [Achtemeier, op. cit. p162f]


Second, the simple bios /biography form, (used by the gospels of Jesus)--when combined with the novelistic elements of foreign travels, paradoxical discussions on exotic plant life, and other romantic trappings--yield the 'novelistic biography' of Philostratus' Life of Apollonius. Hagg points out that in this case biography/bios has been almost obliterated by the influence of the novel:


"In later times, at the beginning of the third century AD, novel and biography meet in a remarkable and influential work, Philostratus' Life of Apollonius, the sage from Tyana. Apollonius, who lived in the first century AD, is in Philostratus' version a kind of Christ figure, but a traveling one, with the whole Mediterranean world and the Orient as far as India in the East and Ethiopia in the South as his field of action…In writing his Life of Apollonius Philstratus was no doubt strongly influenced by the sophistic novels; the historical core almost disappears in the romantic pulp. Philosophic conversations and geographic, ethnographic, and biological digressions focusing on paradoxical phenomena in animal and plant life are to be found in proportions similar to, for instance, those in Achilles Tatius." [HI:TNIA:115-7]


The very absence of such elements from the gospels and from the canonical Acts offers strong support for the non-influence of the novel genre on their production--especially when seen against the backdrop of these second- and third-century hybrids.



But there were OTHER types of  fiction than the romance/novel, some of which were in prose. Bowersock gives us the four major types:


"If we step back to take a broader view of the fictional production of the Roman empire, it becomes apparent that this vast output encompassed four major types: fantastic tales, Homeric revisionism, tragic or romantic novels, and comic or satiric novels." [HI:FAHNJ:21]



Of these, none fit the character of the gospels:


1.        The fantastic tales genre (paradoxography) consisted of random collections of bizarre stories, unified only in their ability to entertain. We have noted in an earlier piece that these were light-reading and amusement types of literature, represented perhaps by  Phlegon's "Books of Marvels" (written under Hadrian). They are not biographical, didactic, religious, or even mythological in character.


2.        The Homeric revisionism works were ABOUT Homeric subjects and characters (not contemporary ones like Jesus), and sometimes, even in poetic form. They offered alternative versions/interpretations of the ancient past, and did NOT deal with contemporary events. The gospels bear no resemblance to these revisionists works (one was actually named "anti-Homer").


3.        The tragic and romantic novels are the category we have already shown above to be different from the gospel lit.


4.        The comic or satiric novels (new in the Imperial period) certainly could not be said to include the gospels in their membership, as evidenced by both the content (often lewd) and often by the literary markers (e.g., introductions and tone).


So, even with this broader category of 'fiction', we STILL don't come up with a paradigm genre that would suggest that the gospels were intentionally and ostensibly fictional (with or without the miracles).


We might also note that narrative fiction was not 'accepted' for centuries after Jesus. The fourth century emperor Julian complains about it in Epistles 89.301b:


"…but we must reject all the fictions (plasmata) composed by writers of the past in the form of history (en historias eidei), narratives of love and all that sort of stuff."


Morgan points out:


"Julian here singles out the two defining characteristics of Greek novels which are most likely to have caused their critical neglect: their content (erotic) and their form, which is what concerns us here. It is not just that they are fictional. The problem is that novels are fictions couched in a form appropriate to and implying something else: factual history. What makes them dangerous is that they blur an essential dividing line between truth and untruth, that they invite a confusion between what is and what is not real. It is not difficult to see what characteristics might promote this confusion: the narrative mode shared with history, and the use of prose for fiction…'There is some distance between prose and fiction' (Reardon FGR, 49)- Verse highlights a text's distance from ordinary speech, its artificiality, its status as linguistic construct, the fact that it is not real. Prose, on the other hand, carries implicit claims to factuality. It is conventionally the medium of literature of information and analysis. And because it is closer to the 'natural' language of normal speech, it is able to take itself for granted, to ignore its nature as medium and so pretend to a transparency denied to verse" [Lies and Fictions in the Ancient World, Gill and Wiseman, p.178f]




Pushback: "Glenn, I am confused…do you mean to say that no one wrote a fictional story about a private individual in all of pre-Christian history? Surely civilizations other than Greece produced literature--what about them?  I find it difficult to believe that the scholarly assessments given above exhaust the range of possibilities?


Good question.


There are, of course, several examples of vignettes of private individuals, but you would be surprised at how few examples of prose fiction, of a narrative third-person biographical posture, about a non-royal non-mythical human, of novel-length that can be found in the ancient world (at least that part of the ancient world which possibly could have influenced the evangelists). They all are either in poetry, or about gods or rulers, or about travels/adventures, or consist of instruction/didactic parables, and/or they are less than 4-5 pages in length.


1.        The possible candidates from the vast corpus of Akkadian literature are almost none--I cannot find a single one in the two-volume anthology by Foster [BTM].


2.        The possible candidates from the vast corpus of Egyptian literature are almost none--I cannot find a single one in the three-volume anthology by Lichtheim, even though there are 9 'Tales' listed [HI:AEL3].


3.        There are 'related' genres in the ANE (fictional autobiography, court tales, human-divine interactions), offering examples of Adapa (Mesopotamian), Sinuhe (Egyptian), and Keret and Aqhat (Canaanite), but these are either in poetry or fail on one or more of the defining characteristics given above. Of these, for example, only Sinuhe is in prose (the others are all in epic poetry), and Sinuhe itself is autobiographical in genre. (For other characteristics of these works, see chapter 2 in [HI:AILCC].)


Although we might broaden the criteria to include royal figures (arguing somehow from the Son of David, King of Israel theme?), this doesn’t help any since ALL of the royal ANE tales are in poetry (as fitting the gods, of course).


So, we are going to be forced back into looking into the G-R/Hellenistic literary world to find our genre paradigm, and the general consensus today is that it is to be found in the Greek bioi. The Greek bioi are about real people, and those at the heart of the genre (as opposed to hybrids, such as by Philostratus) purport at the surface of the text to describe non-fictional events and character. [Whether they do or not is a different matter, of course--but ALL expect the reader to take their content/message seriously, from a truth standpoint.]


And we should point out here that the long search for a genre for the gospels--only recently celebrated in Burridge's work--implies that ancient literature outside of G-R culture DID NOT offer a convincing candidate. The various genre possibilities advanced over the recent past in NT scholarship were all too remote to be credible, and so we would EXPECT not to find close pre-exemplars in ancient history. The isolated anecdotes and vignettes of heroes, and miracle-workers, and seers, and rabbis, and everyone else simply did not provide a suitable genre for the gospel writers to use in describing the life and love of their Lord.


We will see this in much more detail when we study the various pre-Christian 'divine men' or 'wonder workers' of the Hellenistic world, but for now let us note that NONE OF THESE figures were described in literary forms that were chosen by the evangelists. Whatever we know/believe  about the alleged pre-Jesus wonder-workers, it doesn’t come from gospel-like literature. The data comes from a host of sources--inscriptions, prayers, hymns, incantations, letters, poems, songs, anecdotes, liturgies, etc--but NOT from a Graeco-Roman bioi of pre-Christian provenance. There are scores and scores of alleged miracle-workers, but almost none of them have narratives of their work or life (part of the reason, of course, is that the vast majority of them only have 'one isolated miracle' to their credit). There are many healers, but almost no bioi of them. There are many seers and prophets, but almost no birth-to-death narratives of their words and deeds. But more on this later…



Pushback:  Hey, what about Xenophon's Cyropaedia?  Wasn't that a fictional work (not a Socratic dialogue) written before Christ?  I personally find it too remote in time and different from the Gospel genre to be credible as an objection to your argument, but it at least deserves mention as a pre-Christian fiction, IMHO.


Well, when I first did the research for this article, I was puzzled by this work of Xenophon, but the sources seemed to indicate that everybody else was, too… It's like it is a unique genre-animal, and the thing it MIGHT be closest to is some kind of historical fiction--but NOT a true historical novel.


Let's look at some of the issues with this:


1. In Hagg's The Novel in Antiquity, he states that the term 'historical novel' is an inadequate description for the Cyropaedia:


"The novelist's older namesake, Xenophon of Athens - the disciple of Socrates who let himself be recruited for a daring expedition far into the Persian Empire and then reported his adventures in the Anabasis - in later years also wrote a romanticized biography of the founder of the Persian Empire, Cyrus the Great, the so-called Cyropaedia or 'Education of Cyrus', His intention was not primarily to impart Persian local colouring or to reconstruct a historical course of events. The book is a mirror for princes in which Cyrus embodies Xenophon's own moral and political ideals, which were in their turn more Spartan and aristocratic than Athenian and democratic. The Cyropaedia is sometimes characterized as a historical novel, for want of any really adequate designation: the amount of pure fiction is too great to allow it to be called history or biography, in the modern sense. If we leave the terminological question open, we note it as particularly interesting in our context that Xenophon inserts into the Cyropaedia a romantic and tragic love story, which agrees in tone and setting as well as in some specific details with the later Greek novels, in particular Chariton's. But what is the main thing in the novels is in Xenophon just one constituent of a whole which has quite different aims." [HI:TNIA:113]



2. In Hagg's discussion, this work is placed in the chapter entitled "The Literary Pedigree of the Novel". The works discussed are pre-cursors, and contributors to, the novel genre. But his chapter is explicitly about non-novels--they are progenitors, as it were, but not novels themselves [as can be seen from the quote above, obviously]. The genres that 'fed into' the novel (as listed by Hagg) are these: The Epic (e.g., the Odyssey), Historiography (e.g., Herodotus--Xenophon is mentioned here), Biography (e.g., Appollonius, although late in our period), Fantastic Travel Tales (e.g, Marvels beyond Thule, also somewhat late for us), and Erotic Poetry (e.g, Parthenius). He mentions other genres that influenced the novelists:


"Much more could be said. In fact it would be possible to write a history of almost the whole of Greek literature from the point of view of the novel, so eagerly did the novelists gather their flowers in the most widely different localities. The most important omissions in the present survey are, in the domain of prose, rhetoric - the courtroom orators in particular practised the art of the graphic description of a dramatic course of events with great skill - and short story writing, which burgeoned in the Hellenistic period: some glimpses of the 'novella' will be given in the chapter on the Roman novels. Drama too is important. Euripides did not exclusively write plays of the kind which earned him the addition 'most tragic' of poets; during one short period of his career he also produced what Gilbert Murray called his 'romantic dramas', in which adventurous intrigues in foreign surroundings, romantic love, female beauty (Helen!), and happy endings inevitably make one think of the novel, The New Comedy of Menander, though keeping to the local Athenian setting, in many other ways follows in Euripides' footsteps: New Comedy, with its intrigues, characterization, and function of entertainment is the nobler half-sister of the novel."  [HI:TNIA:122-124]


But these are not novels. There are plenty of fictional passages (intentional and otherwise) in the historians of antiquity, but this does not classify their genre as 'historical fiction' or 'historical novel'. At the level of genre--our question here--the Cyropaedia is NOT a true historical novel. It contains  'fiction' in a setting of 'historical fact', but it's not considered 'narrative historical fiction' as its core, definitional genre (cf. the opening quote by Gill and Wiseman, at the beginning of this article).


3. Although there are those who DO call the Cyropaedia a 'historical novel' or 'romance' (e.g. Tatum), we have already seen that the modern definitions of these ancient genres make this attribution dubious. The work is actually very difficult to classify genre-wise with various suggestions being made: idealized portrait as propaganda (Yamauchi, [OT:PAB:56]), drama (Christopher Nadon, Xenophon's Prince--Republic and Empire in the Cyropaedia, UCPress:2001, p.24), allegorical biography ( http://www.shsu.edu/~his_ncp/XenCyr.html), a biography with overtones of politeia-literature (i.e., political philosophy; Momigliano, Deborah Levine Gera--see below) , philosophical history/utopian history (Fornara, [NHAGR:175f]; also Momigliano: "a well-defined philosophic utopia of a type known also from other Socratics", [CFMH:10]), hagiography ([HI:AGLS:239]), "a proposal for a system of civic education" (Too (ed), Education in Greek and Roman Antiquity, Brill:2001, p. 18), and the "education of …" genre within biography (Breisach, [HAMM:26]). Sometimes this difficulty of genre-classification (Lesky said "It is difficult to allot a place to the Cyropaedia"…[HI:AHGL:620]) is expressed in the use of sneer-quotes around the designation of 'historical novel' (e.g., Kurke's article in [HI:LGRW:155]) or qualifiers like "essentially" or "basically". It is just too polymorphous a work to categorize as a foundational, precedent-creating 'historical novel'.


4. But the most recent detailed study of the genre of this work was done by Deborah Levine Gera, in Xenophon's Cyropaedia--Style, Genre, and Literary Technique (Oxford Classical Monographs, OUP:1993). Her observations/results are worth citing at length, and they show that the genre was essentially didactic, in the political writing arena:


"In reality the Cyropaedia contains a great deal more than Xenophon has promised at the outset. There is a description in Book 1 of Cyrus' family, appearance, and personality, and of the education he received; so too part of Book 8, the final book, is devoted to a detailed exposition of the way the Persian ruler administered his vast empire and the means he used to school his many subjects to obedience. In the intervening books Xenophon tells of Cyrus' rise to power: how he acquired useful allies, won important victories, and established an empire. This is, however, only a small portion of the work, which includes much that is less directly related to Cyrus' actions and achievements. The story of Panthea and Abradatas, Tigranes' sophistic debate with Cyrus, Cambyses' exposition of the various branches ' of tactics, Xenophon's own thoughts on the principle of division of labour--to name just a few examples-all reflect Xenophon's interests and enthusiasms, but are not directly related to his Persian hero's success as a ruler. The Cyropaedia is above all a didactic work, its author's vehicle for developing and discussing his own cherished ideas and interests. In this work Xenophon touches upon many areas covered in his other writings, and he uses a variety of literary forms which he has used elsewhere-philosophical dialogue, encomium, history, military memoirs, technical handbook-to present these favourite themes and topics. The narration of the life and deeds of Cyrus the Great is, in essence, a convenient framework, a peg upon which Xenophon hangs reflections and ideas of his own. Cyrus is not the real impetus for the Cyropaedia but is more akin to a tailor's dummy, a useful figure to be clothed as his author likes. Thus Xenophon improvises freely with the facts of Cyrus' life, altering historical circumstances to suit his literary and didactic purposes, even while making use of the narrative framework which the historical Persian's well-known deeds provide." [p. 1-2]


"Xenophon himself makes use of biographical materials in several of his other works. The Memorabilia, Xenophon's recollections, so to speak, of Socrates and his conversations, is a form of biography; as with Cyrus in the Cyropaedia, the portrait of Socrates is often more idealized fiction than actual fact." [p.6]


"It has long been recognized that the leading character of the Cyropaedia [tn: Cyrus the Great] has much in common with Cyrus the Younger in the Anabasis. The two are similar in character and personality, both go through the same educational curriculum, and they even have friends and followers of the same name. Xenophon's portrait of Cyrus the Younger makes it clear that he admired the Persian prince, and he seems to have seen the younger Cyrus as taking after his famous ancestor in more than name alone, for he claims that of all the Persians who lived after Cyrus the Great, Cyrus the Younger was the most kinglike and the most deserving of an empire (Anab. 1. 9. 1). It seems that at first Xenophon compared Cyrus the Younger to his illustrious namesake and then later,  when writing the Cyropaedia, reversed the situation and projected qualities of the younger man backwards in time, assigning them to his ancestor of long ago. When painting the portrait of his model hero in the Cyropaedia, Xenophon had the figure of an authentic Persian leader (actually named Cyrus), whose qualities of leadership he particularly admired, ready at hand." [p.11]


"The remaining question raised by the framework of the Cyropaedia is Xenophon's choice of introduction. Why does he present the Cyropaedia--a wide-ranging, varied work--as the end-product of his reflections on the various types of constitutions and the difficulties involved in ruling men well? The answer appears to be that Xenophon wished to ensure the work a place within the tradition of political treatises or politeia literature. By Xenophon's time various kinds of writings on civic constitutions were in circulation. There were political pamphlets describing the constitution or way of life of an existing polis, with its advantages and drawbacks (e.g. the 'Old Oligarch' on Athens or Xenophon's own Lacedaemonion Politela), as well as more theoretical discussions of the best possible form of government. The debate on the three constitutions (democracy, monarchy, and oligarchy) found in Herodotus (3.80-2)--a discussion, it should be noted, between Persian nobles--is one of the earliest extant examples of such theoretical reflections. Xenophon's own Hiero, a conversation between Hiero and Simonides on the uneasy life of the tyrant and ways for him to become more benevolent and improve his regime, can be seen as another work of this kind. Other contemporaries of Xenophon shared his interest in monarchy and the possibilities inherent in the rule of an enlightened monarch -Isocrates' To Nicocles and Evagoras, and Antisthenes' lost work Archelaus or On Kingship come to mind-and perhaps these fourth-century writers were influenced by the strong men of their time: Evagoras of Cyprus, Dionysius of Syracuse, Jason of Pherae, and Archelaus of Macedonia.…Other politeia compositions were more imaginative works, in which ideal constitutions were constructed and described in detail. Hippodamus of Miletus may have been the first to describe an ideal politeia and Plato's Republic is, of course, the outstanding representative of writings of this kind. Xenophon, it seems, wants his readers to view the Cyropaedia as another such work. In fact, the Republic has been described by one modern commentator as a 'Cyropaedia without the historical setting of Xenophon' ." [pp. 11-12]


"Still, in his introduction Xenophon signals to this readers that he too has been troubled by the instability and fluctuation of government in the Greek world and that the Cyropaedia is not merely an idealized portrait of a Persian ruler of long ago, but his contribution to the political theory of his own time." [p.13]



5. By the time we arrive at the category of utopian or political treatises--irrespective of the literary devices used within a text--we are very, very far from clear historical novels and romances [as well as from Greek Bioi]. And, it seems that the best 'place to allot' to the Cyropaedia is perhaps in the category of politically-oriented 'education proposals'. So, Too [Education in Greek and Roman Antiquity, p.12-13]:


"Furthermore, antiquity seems to have produced a whole body of writing which was consciously concerned with, an often declared itself as concerned with, paideia [education] because this was a political issue. Much of the Platonic corpus is concerned with the education of young men and indeed whole communities, precisely because the formation of the soul was the means by which the ideal community should be formed. The philosopher-king of the Republic speaks emphatically to the intricate connection between knowledge and power. Aristotle devotes sections of his works, especially the Politics, to venue of how to instruct and socialize children and young people within the civic community. As with Plato, it is understood that what children hear, read, and watch determines who they will be and in turn, what the community they inhabit will become, and so, these influences are rigorously regulated. Also, in the fourth century Xenophon's Cyropaedia, quite literally 'the education of Cyrus', concerned itself with the nurture and subsequent career of the Persian prince, while Isocrates showed that paideia might involve the instruction of the adult. He addressed issues of the leader's education for rule in his Cypriot trilogy Evagoras, To Nicocles, and Nicocles. In the Areopagiticus he celebrates the ancestral Areopagus court as the body which historically education the Athenian people, while in the Antidosis he defends Athens as the educator of Greece as a result [of] the city's own cultivation of rhetorical paideia."



The bottom line here seems to be that scholars do not include the Cyropaedia in the category of Historical Romance or Historical Novel (as under discussion in this series--not modern analogues thereof) because of its overall lack of conformity with the defining characteristics of that genre. Instead, they place (still only hesitantly) this work into other categories, with modern interpreters leaning toward political and civic writing (which contained imaginative works and imaginative elements). These are some of the reasons I omitted it from my discussion at first, and it just seemed so 'unusual' that it almost defied categorization--at least for this question on historical novels and historical romances. Just being a (somewhat) fictional work [much of it was historical truth, of course] doesn’t place it into these categories (compare fictional discussions within philosophical dialogues--fictional, but not 'historical fiction' or novel or romances).


Now, I confess that there is some confusion/overlapping here between genre of a piece and use/intent of that piece. One could write an extended fable with a didactic and political intent (e.g. Animal Farm). One can write a fictional novel for the purpose of teaching good morals to someone (e.g. Little House on the Prairie) or for espousing a particular philosophy (e.g. Atlas Shrugged). But what IS clear is that the defining genre characteristics of the first novels and romances in Antiquity are NOT found in the proper 'mix' within Xenophon's work. So, regardless of what the mix of fiction/fact about Cyrus is in the Cyropaedia, the work itself is NOT in the genres we are concerned with here. We may not have a good, crisp genre category for it ('place to allot to it'…smile)--as the scholarship cited above clearly indicates!--but we have two genres that we know it does NOT fit into (however much it might have been a one-among-many precursor of).


I should also point out that even modern historical fiction does not alter the events of famous figures--as did Xenophon. With the main exception of modern Alternate History writing (e.g., in which the Master of Sinanju actually killed Hitler), historical fiction either (a) develops additional fictional elements in the lives of historical personages (e.g., a mistress for a great leader, inner struggles of some famous figure, an unknown brother of the Queen); or (b) develops the entire fictional story about fictional peoples/families in a historical setting, with the famous figures merely being the 'framework' (e.g., Gump shaking hands with the President, some little girl having a life-changing experience bumping into a famous lady, Tom Sawyer). But in neither case does the author change known facts about the leader. That would not be 'historical fiction' as we understand it today. In Xenophon's case, there were several major changes made--which would have been obvious to the educated readers/listeners of his day (e.g., Cyrus dies in bed peacefully in Xenophon, whereas 'everybody knew' that he died in the battle against Massagetae).


Xenophon's work had considerable influence in G-R antiquity, with many writers emulating the 'idealized biographical portrait' approach to teaching morals and/or exposing the public/students to exemplars of virtue or leadership (exempla). But all things considered, it is vastly different from both the early romances of Antiquity and vastly different from what we find in the gospel literature. And of course, as I suspect your question implied at the end there, Xenophon didn’t invent any miraculous deeds for Cyrus…(smile)






  1. "Western" historical fiction is a late development, and was not in existence until long after the New Testament period.

  2. The 'novel' or 'historical romance' in antiquity was centered around themes that are not present in the gospel literature, indicating a radical difference of genre.

  3. The chronological development of the 'historical novel' genre argues that it was NOT an influence on the development and writing of the gospel narratives.

  4. The Roman versions of the Greek novel differed radically in character from both their Greek predecessors and from the gospel narratives.

  5. The Roman novels seem to be influenced by the gospel literature, and not vice versa.

  6. The visible evidence of the influence of the novel on later post-canonical (apocryphal Acts) and later non-Christian (Philostratus' Life) works--when contrasted with the absence of such evidence in the gospels and Acts--argues strongly that the novel did NOT exert any influence on the canonical literature.

  7. Even the other categories of fiction that appeared under and after Nero are at far remove from the gospel narratives.

  8. The ancient world--outside of Greece and Roman--provide us with NO plausible literary exemplars for the gospels.

  9. Even the plausible category of 'miracle worker' in G-R culture left very little literary residue, and what literary trails ARE in evidence show little--if any--similarity to the gospel genre. There just weren't any paradigm genres except bioi for the evangelists to use at that time.

So, it seems clear to conclude that the evangelists did NOT pattern/create the gospels--with their miracles of Jesus--after some 'historical fiction' genre or intent.



On to the next one…


Glenn Miller

Dec 10, 2001

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