Bowersock’s Fiction as History

Summer reading continues. I am behind on summaries so I’m not even going to pretend to catch up with the backlog, but start with the most recent. I read Bowersock’s Fiction as History: Nero to Julian this afternoon, a series of lectures given in 1991.

I know why it was recommended to me – it offers a sort of alternative interpretation of the relationship between the gospels and Greek-Roman fiction of the period. Namely, Bowersock’s thesis, which is first only hinted at before being given in earnest in the last lecture, is that the gospels (or, rather, the narrative they contain) started a literary fad of sorts during the reign of Nero. Greek novels like Chaereas and Callirhoe and similar ilk are not merely contemporaries, but reflections of the influence of the singular Christian narrative, which represents something unique, coming out of a Jewish narrative tradition that is intellectual and has a scripture, rather than ritualistic like the pagan polytheism absent of scripture that marks Hellenistic and imperial religion. By the second century there has been enough cross-pollenation that Celsus recognizes the gospels for what they are – the same sort of fanciful tales he’s seen elsewhere.

I have some problems with this picture. Now there is little to argue with when it comes to his emphasis on context and time period, and complex rather than simple this-was-first-and-this-was-later literary relationships. That’s all good. However, the timeline is really fuzzy, and the extent of Christian influence seems overstated.

Let me explain that, in reverse order.

It is important to realize that there weren’t that many Christians in the first century. By Nero’s reign (54 to 68 CE) I see little reason to think there are more than five to six thousand Christians in the entire West, if that, including larger populations in Jersusalem, Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch, and if Revelation and Paul’s letters are any indication, a mess of cities in Asia Minor and Syria. By 100 CE, there /might/ be twice that. They were certainly growing quickly – if Stark’s estimates are right, 40% or 50% a decade – but in 54 they were still a minor cult of the larger Jewish religion, not really even a blip on the imperial radar. Pliny the Younger, early in the second century, a young, well educated administrator, doesn’t seem to have even heard of them before the occasion of his letter, and he was ruling over a fair number of them.

Far more important, though, is that the gospels hadn’t been written yet. The consensus dating for Mark these days is 65-70. I vote 70 or 71 myself, but let’s say it’s 65 for argument’s sake. Is that enough time for a gospel intended for a Christian audience to start a sweeping literary trend, three years until 68 and Nero’s end – not to mention a gospel that got an aggressive edit and expansion with the intent of replacing it, within 10-15 years in the form of Matthew, not to also mention the next two gospels? One thing Bowersock doesn’t mention is the cult of personality surrounding Nero’s death, which is a more likely culprit for resurrection/divinity tales. Nero was the Elvis of the 1st century – there was a widespread belief for a time that he was going to return to the building/empire and ruthlessly take care of business, thank you very much.

In any case the Christian ‘gospel’ before Mark, let’s say around Nero’s rise to power in 54,  is a sketchy affair. There’s a resurrection but no empty tomb, some liturgy but only the roughest sort of theology (Paul seems to invent his on the fly from letter to letter) though it is unusually scripture-based, and some sort of passion narrative, but it’s quite short, not nearly as developed as Philoctetes’ tale, and doesn’t have all of the wonderful ironies that Mark will introduce to it later and which offer the real parallels to contemporary Greek fiction. So it surprises me that Bowersock doesn’t center his theory on Mark – perhaps because much of that territory has already been covered by Frank Kermode? Maybe he feels out of place in source criticism? Both? Don’ t know.

This leads to the dreaded SO WHAT question. What comes out of this thesis? Most of us, I think, know that Celsus had the better argument on the gospels in the second century, linking them to fiction and mythology, but Origen in the third century, regardless of the tank-sized holes in his apology, won hands down and along with the general robustness of his religion, set the stage for the domination of his basic system of interpretation for the next, oh, 1600-1700 years. For my part, I am more interested in how Origen ‘won’ and Celsus ‘lost’ in the big historical p[icture than on who was right about the nature of the gospels – I want to know why and how they were persuasive. But then again, I’m a rhetorican and we don’t care about truth, even abstractly, as a general rule (though there are notable and stubborn exceptions). Lucian and Celsus, Bowersock’s initial examples, are in good company in my relative-truth-welcome discipline. So I have to ask – if Bowersock is right, and the gospels started a literary trend, how did the gospels come to be scripture? Why aren’t churches offering readings from Chaereas and Callirhoe instead of Matthew? The answer, unfortunately, involves genre (a word Bowersock doesn’t seem to like at all), audience, and by extension, the nature of the imbedded claims. C&C offers entertainment. Matthew offers a way to rethink your grubby earthly existence and rationalize your upcoming grisly death. If you’re like Celsus, of course, they’re BOTH entertainment, but how many humans are like Celsus? Even today, there aren’t many, but there are always plenty of Origens.

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