Tacitus, Plutarch, and Truth: Thoughts on the Gospels and Genre

In yesterday’s post, I said that it simply didn’t matter whether or not John’s story about Jesus turning water to wine actually occurred because historical fact is not the kind of truth that John was telling. I also suggested that nobody in John’s day would have considered the question important because biography and documented history were not genres that people in the ancient world understood. These, of course, seem like the kind of flippant and faithless statement that academics are always making in order to tear down people’s faith. Like Korihor. Since that is actually not what I was trying to do, I wanted to do a follow-up.

In this case—as in so many others understanding the text requires us to understand its genre—to know what kind of text it presented itself as in a world that had lots of other kinds of texts that resembled it. For example, we do not read a murder mystery the same way that we read the account of a murder in a newspaper. In a newspaper, the person who almost certainly did it is very likely the person who did it. In a mystery novel, the person who almost certainly did it is the one person who we know did not do it. This is not exactly a rule. It is a genre convention. And anybody who grows up in a culture understands this intuitively without having to be told.

The flip side of this is that people who do not grow up in a culture often do not understand the genre expectations of various kinds of texts, which means that we don’t understand how the text is asking us to read it. A Martian anthropologist who read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and tried to use it to understand the British criminal justice system—or just rural life in the United Kingdom in the early 20th century—would fail profoundly unless they understood the expectations of the mystery genre and the way that Agatha Christie both followed and subverted those expectations.

Scriptures, too, have genres, and they are not all a single kind of text called “scripture.” In the New Testament, we find four lives of Jesus, a historical annal, 21 letters, and an apocalypse. None of these is sui generis. They are all genres that existed at the time and had conventions and expectations that would have been shared by their authors and their readers. To understand what the texts mean, we have to understand how the texts mean, and this means understanding the expectations that their original authors and audiences shared. Understanding those conventions

Let’s focus on the gospels, or the Lives of Christ. As it turns out, the Greco-Roman world had plenty of examples of the lives of famous people, many of which have survived to this day. Understanding them all would take a lifetime. Since all we have right now is a blog post, I just want to look at two passages from two of the most famous “lives” of the ancient world—both of which were written right around the beginning of the second century CE—within 30-50 years of the time that the gospels were probably composed.

The first one comes from Plutarch’s Life of Julius Caesar—the most famous Roman and the most famous writer of lives, coming together, in koine Greek to preserve the memory of the greatest man of the age. Near the beginning of the Life of Caesar, Plutarch repeated a story that seems to have been common at the time (we find a similar story in the work of Suetonius), and it absolutely crystallizes Caesar’s confidence, courage, audacity, and charisma:

To begin with, then, when the pirates demanded twenty talents for his ransom, he laughed at them for not knowing who their captive was, and of his own accord agreed to give them fifty. In the next place, after he had sent various followers to various cities to procure the money and was left with one friend and two attendants among Cilicians, most murderous of men, he held them in such disdain that whenever he lay down to sleep he would send and order them to stop talking. For eight and thirty days, as if the men were not his watchers, but his royal body-guard, he shared in their sports and exercises with great unconcern. He also wrote poems and sundry speeches which he read aloud to them, and those who did not admire these he would call to their faces illiterate Barbarians, and often laughingly threatened to hang them all. . . . The pirates were delighted at this, and attributed his boldness of speech to a certain simplicity and boyish mirth. But after his ransom had come from Miletus and he had paid it and was set free, he immediately manned vessels and put to sea from the harbour of Miletus against the robbers. He caught them, too, still lying at anchor off the island, and got most of them into his power . . .  [later he] took the robbers out of prison, and crucified them all, just as he had often warned them on the island that he would do, when they thought he was joking.

Did this actually happen? Apparently, Caesar really did get captured by pirates. Much of the rest of the story does not make sense (30 extra talents would be several million extra dollars, and Caesar was not THAT rich). But this is exactly the sort of boast that Caesar would have made, and that alone tells us something important.

The second story comes from the book Agricola, Tacitus’s account of the conquest of Britania by his own father-in-law, Agricola. Though not his most famous book, it contains the most famous passage that he ever wrote, and one of the most famous passages to come from anywhere in the ancient world. The passage occurs in the speech of Calgicus the Caledonian chieftain, who addresses his army before a great battle with the Roman invaders:

Making concessions and being moderate isn’t going to save us from their tyranny.  They rape the whole world.   When they’ve finished devastating the land they turn their attentions to the sea.  If their enemies have wealth they want it; if they’re poor, it makes no difference, they still hunger for power.  Nowhere, east or west, is enough for them – they’re the only ones who lust after everything alike, rich or poor.  Abduction, massacre, plunder they misname ‘law and order’.  Where they make a desert they call it ‘peace.’

It would be difficult to overstate the impact of this speech. Calgicus deconstructs the legend of the Pax Romana and lays bare the hypocrisy of Rome. Tacitus is rightly seen as the first great critic of imperialism, and his great line “they make a desert and call it peace” resonates to this day as a refutation of colonialism’s pretensions to stability and order.

But these lines did not come from Calgicus, who was addressing his own men on the eve of a battle, in their own language, without anything like the global understanding that these words demonstrate. Tacitus invented the speech, and, in doing so, captured something true and vital that he could not have said directly without putting himself at risk.

Plutarch (46-119 CE)) and Tacitus (56-120 CE) were exact contemporaries of the Gospel writers. They lived at the same time, read the same books, and shared the same understanding of genre conventions and expectations for writing lives of famous people. They and their audience did not share the understanding of documented history that most people have today They did not cite sources. They did not use footnotes. They were not trying to give an exact description of what happened, in what order, with what consequences.

Audiences in the Roman world in the first century CE expected writers of lives to tell stories that captured deep truths. In one paragraph, Plutarch painted an unforgettable representation of Caesar’s personality. In another paragraph, Tacitus captured and exposed the deepest truth of Roman imperialism. It just doesn’t matter if these things actually happened. Perfect historical accuracy was not a genre convention at the time. Clarifying deeper truths was. Just because something happened doesn’t mean that it mattered. And just because something didn’t happen doesn’t mean that it isn’t true.


  1. birdertyler says:

    “Just because something happened doesn’t mean that it mattered. And just because something didn’t happen doesn’t mean that it isn’t true.”

    I can definitely understand if anyone disagrees with me here, but I LOVE this. My hyper-skeptical brain fights my heart all the time because of my historically rigid definition of “truth.” But I’m beginning to understand that although truth may not be relative, perhaps there are different kinds of truth. Different truth genres, if you will. Science is all music theory, classical/orchestral, Steve Reich minimalist – great stuff! Faith is basically jazz. I’m going too far with this. Anyway, great stuff again Michael.

  2. Michael, I agree with you completely regarding the importance of genre, especially when it comes to John’s gospel. I wrote an essay a while back explaining how the wine miracle is connected to Mary’s appearance at the foot of the cross, the only other time she is mentioned by John. My analysis was premised on the ahistorical nature of both events, neither of which appears in the synoptics.

    I shared my essay with my ward and got a lot push back, especially from those who embraced Joseph Smith’s rewrite of the rebuke Jesus directed towards his mother at the wedding celebration. Everyone wanted to soften Christ’s words so has to make his behavior consistent with the manner in which he treated women elsewhere. Which, of course, has nothing to do with the message John was trying to convey.

    For anyone interested, here is a link to my essay: https://thewellexaminedlife.com/the-wine-and-the-cross/

  3. Here’s what Thucydides, historian of and participant in the Peloponnesian War, had to say about the speeches he includes in his history:

    “As to the various speeches made on the eve of the war, or in its course, I have found it difficult to retain a memory of the precise words which I had heard spoken; and so it was with those who brought me reports. But I have made the persons say what it seemed to me most opportune for them to say in view of each situation; at the same time, I have adhered as closely as possible to the general sense of what was actually said.”

    Thucydides is closer to modern historians than most of the ancient world, in that he talks about sources and accuracy. But he believed we could learn something true about the Peloponnesian War by reading speeches he constructed that hopefully hit the same main points as what Pericles (for example) actually said. He probably would find what a modern historian would do–talk about the little we actually know about Pericles’ funeral oration and how we know it–deeply unsatisfying.

    I imagine most authors of ancient scripture followed a similar method even though it didn’t occur to them to say so.

  4. I looked at this post because I was curious about what some member bloggers had to say because my now inactive, atheist children have referred to sources other than church approved sources for gospel information. When I study the gospel I use church approved materials from the gospel library. I find the Standard Works, The Institute Guide, Come Follow Me, and the Liahona take up a lot of my time, so that I don’t have time to look at other sources. When I was a teenager (I’m 62 now) my father told me not to talk myself out of the church. I think many are talking themselves out of the church when they go to other sources before they have studied in depth the materials the church provides. Be careful intellectualizing the gospel. When outside sources contradict what the true gospel says you are on sandy ground.

  5. I’m curious about what you see here that “contradict[s] what the true gospel says,” DE. To me, it seems like this post is trying to show how we can discern and believe the true gospel despite the potentially devastating scholarly criticisms of literalist readings of scripture.

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