Luke & Plutarch

Here are excerpts from the opening few paragraphs from Plutarch’s Lycurgus

There is so much uncertainty in the accounts which historians have left us of Lycurgus, the lawgiver of Sparta, that scarcely anything is asserted by one of them which is not called into question or contradicted by the rest. Their sentiments are quite different as to the family he came of, the voyages he undertook, the place and manner of his death, but most of all when they speak of the laws he made and the commonwealth which he founded. . . . But notwithstanding this confusion and obscurity, we shall endeavour to compose the history of his life, adhering to those statements which are least contradicted, and depending upon those authors who are most worthy of credit.

Now consider this opening to the Gospel of Luke, which curiously enough was written a basically the same time.

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

Luke 1: 1-4. What we have here is two first century writers, attempting to recount the life of a significant figure, but feeling compelled from the outset to acknowledge that others have set out to do the same thing. Luke’s author is a bit more self-assured than Plutarch, which is reasonable I suppose given that Plutarch was considerably more separated from his subject.

Mortimer Adler’s notion that Western literature is a conversation is compelling to me. Obviously, reading the works that his group selected to be Great only reinforces that notion. But I think it is crucial to recognize that the Bible is also a “Great Conversation,” and this passage from Luke makes it pretty explicit.

A final note, one can promote an allegorical reading of the creation myths without abandoning the notion of a divinely inspired, even divinely authored Bible. Why shouldn’t God communicate morals to God’s people through a parable? The opening to Luke, on the other hand, seems to strain that notion to the breaking point–at least, if the other accounts include Matthew and Mark. (John wouldn’t be written for some time after Luke.)

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