The Bible is typically studied as a work of theology and also as historical narrative. But can we study the Bible as…literature? What might we discover about the Bible if we examine its content from a literary standpoint? How might this impact some of our assumptions about the Bible?
The books comprising the Bible were not written in a cultural or literary vacuum. The authors of the New Testament were highly educated in compositional Greek prose (albeit in a society in which less than 5% of the population possessed such literacy). Having high-level Greek literacy and compositional skills meant that the NT authors were likely of a privileged socio-economic status, and through their education they were certainly exposed to and familiar with popular volumes in Greco-Roman literature.
In view of that, is it possible that some of the narratives found in the New Testament were influenced by other themes and motifs featured in well known Greco-Roman narratives?
As a quick example, let’s consider the book of Acts. A familiar and pivotal aspect of Acts is the story of Paul’s conversion. Acts 26:15 relates that Paul, an opponent and persecutor of Christians, had an unexpected spiritual epiphany in which he heard the voice of Jesus say to him “Saul, Saul, why persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.”
So, what makes this passage significant? It strongly appears that the Acts narrative of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus is taken in large part from the pages of Euripides’ popular play “The Bacchae.” In this narrative, the persecutor Pentheus is ironically converted despite himself to the faith of Dionysus by an unwelcome personal epiphany of the Dionysian god (sidebar: Dionysus is also known for miracles such as turning water to wine). During this sudden encounter, Pentheus hears a voice from Dionysus – the persecuted deity, who says to Pentheus in a voice from heaven: “You disregard my words of warning… and kick against the goads.”
Yes, that same phrase appears in The Bacchae and in the same exact narrative context as found in Acts. When examining New Testament writings, it pays to be at least moderately familiar with Greco-Roman literature from antiquity, as these uncanny parallels with Biblical writings would otherwise go completely unnoticed.
Another peculiar “tell” pointing to literary borrowing is that the Acts narrative claims Jesus spoke to Paul in a Hebrew dialect. But the idiom “to kick against the goads” is specifically a Greek pun found only in pagan literature and is not found in any Hebrew or Aramaic source, nor was it used by any Jews in antiquity. So it’s quite the awkward coincidence that Jesus (while speaking in Hebrew) quotes a Greek pagan proverb to Paul in the exact same situation as found in a popular pagan play. Namely, both cases feature an impromptu conversation between a persecuted god and a notorious persecutor who serendipitously converts to faith as a result.
Another notable and relevant tidbit is that not only does Paul himself never mention this experience, but Acts differs in material respects from what Paul does say about his conversion in the epistle to the Galatians.
Ask yourself a serious question. Do you think it is more likely that: 1) Acts provides a reliable and historically accurate report of Paul’s conversion as it actually occurred; or 2) the author of Acts created a theologically compelling narrative of Paul’s conversion by adapting and reworking the template of other known literary sources for the purpose of conveying a spiritual and rhetorical point? Be honest with yourself. What’s the most parsimonious explanation?
If further evidence of inspiration from the Bacchae were needed, we can look at Acts 16:25-26.
“Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened.”
“The chains on their legs snapped apart by themselves. Untouched by any human hand, the doors at once swung wide, opening of their own accord.”
When we see multiple examples of these sorts of uncanny literary and thematic parallels between the same two works or same two authors, it further bolsters the case for literary interdependence and narrative influence.
Whoever penned Luke-Acts was obviously an educated author. It should be noted he also cites a Socratic saying in Acts 5:29 (from Plato’s Apology, 29d) in a context where the apostles are being persecuted (like Socrates) and pressured to conform to standard religious notions. At times, “Luke” is explicit about his source, such as when he has Paul cite Aratus. It may be possible to craftily explain away one instance…but several? Parsimony must prevail.
You might nonetheless insist that all the aforementioned literary, thematic, and linguistic similarities are just mere happenstance. Yet, the principle of Occam’s Razor and also “common sense” suggest it’s much more probable that the highly educated author of Luke-Acts, himself being familiar with the most popular written works composed by some of the most popular playwrights and poets of the ancient Gentile world, used techniques of Greek literary imitation to adapt aspects of those works to the construction of his own narrative.
A continued examination of the New Testament from a literature standpoint reveals that the Gospels and Acts are replete with narrative and literary influence from multiple sources – most notably the Old Testament, Greek texts such as the works of Homer & Euripides, and the historical writings of Flavius Josephus. More on that to follow.