The New Testament and its Literary Environment
A comment in response to a recent posting poses questions about the literary relationship of NT writings to the larger world of classical literature. Specifically, we can ask whether we see evidence of NT authors either quoting or identifiably alluding to “pagan” texts/authors, and also whether in a less direct way NT writings may reflect the larger literary environment of the Roman period.
With regard to the first question, in fact it is remarkable how few indications there are that NT writers drew consciously on classical literature. Indeed, as to direct and identifiable citations, they can be counted on the fingers of one hand! There is, for example, the index of citations and allusions in the back of the Nestle-Aland Greek NT. Here you find the well-known allusion to Aratus (Phaenomena 5) in Acts 17:28, a possible allusion to Euripides (Bacchae, 795) in Acts 26:14, another possible allusion in 1 Cor 15:33 (to Menander), and possibly an allusion to Heraclitus in 2 Peter 2:22. In Titus 1:12, the Cretan poet cited has often been identified as Epimenides (listed in the 27th edition of Nestle-aland, though not, I note, in the 28th edition).
By contrast, the quotations and allusions to biblical (OT) and extra-canonical Jewish texts comprise a double-column list running some 42 pages. Confining ourselves solely to direct citations (in which a NT author directly indicates that he is citing a text), these are almost entirely to these biblical/Jewish texts. It is really striking that the NT authors so clearly align themselves with the biblical/Jewish literary traditions, and make so little effort to draw consciously on and to cite the larger literary world of their time. Clearly, they were either unable to do so, or uninterested in justifying and articulating their intended messages with reference to the literature of classical antiquity.
On the other hand, there are good reasons to think that in more indirect ways their “literary environment” had some influences on them. For example, with others, I think it right to see the narrative (canonical) Gospels as reflecting the then-emergent interest in biographical-type writings, perhaps more clearly evident in Matthew and Luke. In Luke-Acts, especially, we likely have an author with some knowledge of literary conventions and genres of his time.
There have been a number of proposals about how to identify and locate the literary genre of Acts (e.g., as history, as novel, as technical monograph), and one of our recent PhD students, Sean Adams, will soon publish his thesis in which he contends that Acts draws on “collected-biography” conventions in its account of early Christian leaders (you can see more about his forthcoming book on the Cambridge University Press site, here).
Others have proposed that, for example, the Gospel of Mark is shaped by Homeric narratives (Dennis R. MacDonald), or by Greek tragedy (G. G. Bilezikian), but it is a major problem that ancients (whose acquaintance with classical literature was better than ours) show little awareness of such ideas, and these proposals have not (yet) won wide assent. It’s entirely plausible to think that NT writers, as people of their time, had some exposure (in varying degrees) to the literary culture of the larger Roman era, and that their writings reflect something of some of the conventions. But, after we make this general allowance, it’s actually difficult to demonstrate persuasively much in the way of direct literary influences.
For a good introduction to the topic, I think David Aune’s book, The New Testament in Its Literary Environment (1987) is unsurpassed.