Greco-Roman Biographies and the NT Gospels

In a video lecture entitled, “Why are there differences in the Gospels?,” Mike Licona explains that the common view of the gospels is that they are biographies of Jesus of Nazareth. Thus, they should be viewed within the larger context of Greco-Roman biographies which followed the historiographical standards of the day but with some flexibility. Licona mentions Plutarch as a good writer who wrote many biographies during the first century, and so Plutarch’s writings and his literary techniques can help readers better understand the gospels. Licona submits several literary techniques that can be specifically applied to the synoptic problem.[1] But first what is the problem that Licona is addressing.

As individuals study the four canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), they may notice that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke resemble one another, whereas the Gospel of John does not share their resemblance. The resemblance of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke led a late eighteenth century German biblical scholar named J.J. Griesbach to refer to them as the Synoptic Gospels. The term synoptic is derived from the greek word συνόψις (synopsis) meaning “seeing together.”[2] Thus, the Synoptic Gospels are often closely examined in relation to one another.

As scholars have viewed and studied Matthew, Mark and Luke together, they have arrived at a consensus that based on the similarities and nuances between these three gospels, they are dependent on one another at a literary level. In view of this literary relationship, the Synoptic Problem has emerged. Mark Goodacre defines the Synoptic Problem as “the study of the similarities and differences of the Synoptic Gospels in an attempt to explain their literary relationship.”[3]

Licona approaches the differences of the synoptic problem by arguing that the gospel writers used similar techniques as Plutarch and other biography writers of the first century. Licona first points out that Plutarch used compression which is a technique where two events are compressed into one event. Licona explains that the gospel writers use compression. For example, Matthew compresses the narrative of Jairus’ Daughter (Matt 9:18-26; Mark 5:21-43; Luke 8:40-56) and the narrative of the fig tree (Matt 21:18-22; Mark 11:12-14, 20-25).

Secondly, the gospel writers use a transferal technique which substitutes or pushes out of the way certain aspects of the narrative. An example of transferal is the narrative of the request by the mother of James and John in the Gospel of Matthew (20:20-28) whereas Mark’s account transfers the request as coming directly from James and John (10:35-45).   Another example of transferal is in the account of the healing of the centurion’s servant. Luke 7:1-10 portrays the centurion’s servants interacting with Jesus while Matthew 8:5-13 transfers the interaction to the centurion.

Thirdly, the gospel writers use a technique called displacement which involves the transferring of an event to another time. An example is with the narrative of Jesus cleansing the temple. Matthew 21:12-17, Mark 11:15-19, Luke 19:45-48 place the event late during Jesus’ ministry whereas John 2:13-16 displaces the event early in Jesus’ ministry.

Licona’s explanation for the differences in the gospels is an adequate argument. Using source criticism and redaction criticism, we know that the gospel writers were dependent on oral and written sources while at the same time redactors of the material for their own theological and ministerial purposes. Licona’s comparison of Plutarch with the gospels adds another layer to gospel studies. It helps us read the gospels according the literary rules of the first century rather than reading them according to our present literary or historical standards.


[1] https://youtu.be/vYfSf9NgeOQ [2]Donald A. Carson, et al. An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), 19.[3]Mark Goodacre, The Synoptic Problem: a Way through the Maze (T & T Clark International, 2007), 16.