BMCR 2020.05.26

How the Gospels became history: Jesus and Mediterranean myths

M. David Litwa, How the Gospels became history: Jesus and Mediterranean myths. Synkrisis. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019. ix, 298 p.. ISBN 9780300249484 $65.00.


In How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths, M. David Litwa “compares stories in the canonical gospels with stories often classified as Greek and Roman myths” (1) to argue that the evangelists used the rhetoric and tropes of ancient historiography (historia) to “convince readers that [the evangelists] spoke of real- and thus ‘true’- events” (3). In making this argument, Litwa closely analyzes the literary structures of Greek and Roman historiography and mythography (mythoi) to demonstrate that ancient authors considered historiography the genre of ‘truth,’ despite those same authors often consciously misrepresenting the past. The evangelists could have imitated any genre of literature, but they deliberately chose the genre that had the most symbolic capital related to truth. In so doing, Litwa argues that scholars must analyze the themes and similarities of ancient literature, and that it is insufficient to analyze “individual words, phrases, and ideas that are similar,” but are “not necessarily genetically related” to prove causation (46).

The body of the monograph is 222 pages divided into seventeen chapters, including introduction and conclusion, with a further 44 pages of endnotes. The first two chapters establish the argument and the theoretical basis for the book and subsequent chapters analyze specific themes. Litwa identified thirteen wide-ranging characteristics and tropes from mythography and historiography that influenced the rhetoric of the evangelists, some of which reached far back into the misty past of Greek mythography.[1] Each of those characteristics are situated as an interdisciplinary research question rather than within the strict divisions of an academic field, so those looking for strict disciplinary interpretations might be disappointed. Each chapter concludes with a small bibliography for further reading, though there is no overall bibliography, so readers must carefully scan the endnotes. The book is written well, in a style that nicely blends readability with complexity. There are places where Litwa simply cannot avoid disciplinary jargon, however he is careful to usefully explain definitions and secondary meanings for non-specialist readers.

Litwa analyzes the gospels as his foundational source material and uses examples from Greek and Roman mytho- and historiography to demonstrate Christian imitation. He uses a wide range of literary examples featuring the important figures of antiquity to make his argument, including leaders, such as Achilles and Moses; the authors, including Cicero and Petrarch; and the thinkers, including Pythagoras and Philostratus. Using such a spectrum of historical figures allows Litwa to demonstrate over the course of the monograph that the evangelists were well-read and knowledgeable about the historiographic and literary traditions of which they were heirs, a fact that is not immediately apparent from the unadorned rhetoric of the gospels. The consistency with which Litwa argues for the sophistication of the evangelists’ education throughout the work indicates that he believes this to be an important paradigm that must be engaged further. His argument inspires questions, perhaps for future work, about the extent to which early Christians who received the gospels, as opposed to writing them, would have recognized contemporaneously that the gospels contained mythic and historiographic elements.[2] He is often quite explicit when he wishes to address specific points of modern scholarship, for example critically analyzing Raymond Brown’s claims about the “child in danger” story in Matthew (120) or Dennis R. MacDonald’s theory of mimesis (47-50), while also more generally speaking to mythologists (23), scholars of comparative literature (47), genealogists (78), and biblical theologians throughout.

Litwa focused on the rhetorical connections between the synoptic gospels and works of ancient mytho-/historiography, but did not include consistent explanations of the cultural contexts of these works. Litwa’s stated purpose is to provide a literary analysis and he himself makes the point that “the similarities between select gospel and Greco-Roman stories is due to a similarity in cultural setting” (62), but does not systematically explain that setting. For example, a fuller explanation of “cultural setting” that provides a more substantive defense of the assumption that Judaic and early Christian groups on the territorial fringes of the Empire had absorbed Hellenistic culture equally and fully by the time of the gospels would have been appreciated. The repercussions of the fire in Rome in 64 and the revolt in Jerusalem in 70, would have given early Christians immediate and potentially life-threatening reasons to make the gospels appear as historical as possible in order to avoid further ostracization.[3] A similar point can be made about the other ancient works that Litwa uses, for he considers them largely ahistorically and some are quite far removed from the century of the gospels. For example, chapter 3 features an analysis of mythic incarnation stories using such examples as the synoptic Incarnation stories, Pythagoras, and the Iliad. The synoptic gospels and the Iliad are separated by as many as ten centuries and, for example, since the city of Rome might have even been founded when the Iliad was written, the stability of literary themes must be more carefully demonstrated. He does briefly discuss purposeful anachronisms in biographical writings, such as Philo classicizing Moses into a distinctly Greek hero (130) or Jesus as a pharmakos (158), but a more systematic consideration of the broader historical context could have demonstrated the “genetically related” and causative nature(s) of his literary examples.

The organization of this book conveys Litwa’s argument; however, the organization of the chapters containing those examples is neither sequential nor systematic and a given chapter does not necessarily contain an argument that directly connects to those surrounding. Litwa marshals an impressive corpus of examples in pursuit of a comprehensive treatment of ‘mythic historiography’ and that corpus does demonstrate the ubiquity for which Litwa is arguing. While readers will understand the thesis of the book, a more systematic organization with chapters in a clear, sequential order or perhaps sectioned into conceptual similarities would have more clearly demonstrated causation and linkage, and aided readers in the interpretation of a wide range of literary examples from multiple cultures.

Overall, How the Gospels Became History provides an excellent consideration of the literary connections of the ancient Mediterranean and demonstrates conclusively that the evangelists inherited and imitated the Greek and Roman historiographical tradition. Litwa’s ability to clearly explain the literary connections for each topic makes this an outstanding book for early- and mid-career scholars, graduate students, and capstone-level undergraduates.

I must also praise the editors and designers at Yale University Press. I noticed no typographical errors or problems with the text, and, from the selection of typeface to the choice of paper, it really is a beautiful book.


[1] Because there are many short chapters in this book, it will not be possible consider each chapter in turn. Please see the preview at the beginning of this review for a list of chapter topics.

[2] For a slightly later example, see Justin Martyr on the virgin birth in The first Apology: addressed to the Emperor Antoninus Pius. Prefaced by some account of the writings and opinions of Justin Martyr, ed. John Kaye (Edinburgh, 1912): 1.22.

[3] A point that could also speak to Litwa’s confidence that if the gospels had been written by eyewitnesses, then they would have named themselves as a matter of course (196).