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The Biographical Moses

The Christian Empire required new models of identity, power and authority that could replace the traditional models of Roman civilization. Moreover, the expansion of the Church meant that questions of defining Christianity and Christian leadership became highly controversial and explosive. Suddenly new groups such as Roman administrators and courtiers or uneducated upstarts also applied for the influential posts as bishop. In this struggle, the figure of Moses turns up as an extremely suitable figure intimately connected with questions of authority and power and, related to this, with the risk of dissension and discord.

See Also: Recasting Moses (Peter Lang Pub Inc, 2012)

By Finn Damgaard
Ph.d., postdoctoral researcher
University of Copenhagen
January 2013

Contemporary literature and cinema has long been characterized by a (auto-)biographical trend. In Scandinavia, for instance, the Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume autobiographical novel My Struggle (2009-2011) has generated an enormous interest. His autofictional project is, however, not a novelty, but is part of a widespread phenomenon that has become increasingly more popular, since the French writer, Serge Doubrovsky, coined the term “autofiction” in 1977. Biographical works in diverse media have also for long been extremely popular. The biographical trend is also noticeable in Biblical films which are usually directed as biopics. Think of big-screen retellings of the life of Moses such as The Ten Commandments (1956) by Cecil B. DeMille and the animated Prince of Egypt (1998) by DreamWorks. Report has it also that both Ridley Scott and Steven Spielberg are set to direct new biopics of Moses. The “biographical readings” of the Moses narratives are, however, not as obvious as usually assumed when one reads the Pentateuch. Here Moses is not as central as we might expect in light of the modern biographical interest in the figure.

A culture of imitation

The biographical interest is, however, not new. As Simon Swain has argued, Greek and Latin literature of the Roman Empire also displayed “a marked biographical trend” (Swain 1997:1). Ancient culture was a culture of imitation. Great men of the past were repeatedly presented as representative types of virtues or vices, and ancient authors often made use of comparison as an important means of moral characterization. This practice features heavily in encomia (a genre meant to praise the subject) such as Isocrates’ Evagoras and Xenophon’s Agesilaus, where the subjects are compared to their advantage with a past or contemporary Persian king; and both Aristotle, Quintilian and later Menander Rhetor recommended that comparison be used in encomia. Comparison was also normally included in the Greek textbooks of rhetorical exercises. Biographical interest was, however, not restricted to encomia. It was found in many other types of writings: most noticeably in the lives of philosophers, kings, politicians and generals, but also in other genres such as funeral orations, historiography, martyrology and hagiography. A great many imperial biographies were produced in which comparison also became an important rhetorical device, as for instance in Plutarch’s Parallel Lives.

A war of biography

Also within the Jewish and Christian tradition, biographical interest became increasingly important for the way the Biblical figures were recast. Biblical figures became proverbial for different virtues, they were used in comparison and their lives were rewritten, expanded, retold and set forth as examples to be followed. The comparison of one figure with another may have been especially popular within the Jewish and Christian traditions because an analogical mode of thinking was already at the heart of the Biblical tradition itself. In the Old Testament, almost every book is charged with allusions to things and events in other Biblical books, and figures resemble previous figures (Fishbane 1985:372-379). Interpreted theologically, the typological pattern was taken as a sign of God’s divine activity within history. The same kind of analogical thinking also prevailed in the early Christian tradition and later on.1 Thus with the growing influence of Christianity in the Roman Empire, the Biblical narratives gradually replaced pagan myths and Roman history as the most important commemorative narratives. The exempla of the past were now to be found among the Biblical figures such as Moses rather than the traditional exemplars of the Roman Empire. In the Life of Constantine by Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 263-339), for instance, Constantine was not a new Augustus, or a new Trajan, but rather a new Moses. The same interest can be found in the works of the Cappadocian Fathers (Basil the Great [330-379], his brother Gregory of Nyssa [c. 332-395] and their close friend Gregory of Nazianzus [c. 330-389]). While the Biblical figures have replaced all allusions and references to pagan figures in Gregory of Nyssa’s encomium on Basil, the Biblical figures appear somewhat surprisingly side by side with pagan figures and imagery in Gregory of Nazianzus’ encomium on Basil. Upon close-reading of the encomium, it appears, however, that Gregory alludes to pagan figures when he speaks about his and Basil’s time at the Academy of Athens, while he later on alludes to Christian figures. In so doing, Gregory wanted to demonstrate how these different cultural narratives underwent a change within the life of Basil: in Athens, Gregory and Basil were like Orestes and Pylades, while later they became like Barnabas and Paul.

This process of Christianisation did not of course happen without a shot being fired. Pagans still took exemplary figures from their own past and turned them into literary models for a pagan life.2 Christians and their rivals were thus engaged in an intricate competition, which Averil Cameron has labelled a “war of biography” (Cameron 1991:145).

The ideal death vs. the ideal life

As is often noted, the transformation of the Roman Empire into a Roman Christian Empire called for new literary responses. If, in the early Christian era, “to be a Christian was to suffer”, as Judith Perkins has claimed in her analysis of martyr narratives (Perkins 1995:32),3 the reign of Constantine required new representations of what it meant to be a Christian. With the Peace of the Church, the martyrs won and their persecutors lost. Though the discourses of martyrdom were adapted to fit the new circumstances and accordingly continued to play a major role in the post-Constantinian church (cf. Grig 2004:25-26), these discourses were now also supplemented by other Christian discourses that did not aim at giving an account of the ideal death or of suffering as the proper expression of Christian faith, but rather at presenting the ideal life.4 While one of the literary techniques employed in the martyr acts was to present the martyrs as imitators of Christ in his suffering and death,5 the authors of the 4th century gradually began to find models in the Bible for life as a whole.6

In addition, the political and social changes that occurred with the transformation of Christianity into a political phenomenon and with the bishops’ new social position as imperial bishops also called for new literary representations of the ideal Christian leader. The Christian Empire required new models of identity, power and authority that could replace the traditional models of Roman civilization. Moreover, the expansion of the Church meant that questions of defining Christianity and Christian leadership became highly controversial and explosive. Suddenly new groups such as Roman administrators and courtiers or uneducated upstarts also applied for the influential posts as bishop.

Moses, the emperor and the bishops

In this struggle, the figure of Moses turns up as an extremely suitable figure intimately connected with questions of authority and power and, related to this, with the risk of dissension and discord. While the biographical portrait of Moses as a political figure of authority and power was hardly applicable in Christian discourses of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, it became the centre of interest during the 4th-century. For Eusebius, Moses as a political figure was extremely convenient as a “Christian” peer of the emperor. Gregory of Nazianzus also used the figure of Moses to establish his own model of leadership and he applied the figure to himself in order to justify himself as the right metropolitan bishop of Constantinople. Gregory makes use of the figure of Moses at several points in his life, but his use of the figure seems to culminate in his orations during the tumultuous years of 379-381 in Constantinople and in his autobiographical writings about those years. In these writings, he bases his own authority more on a personal vision (which is described as resembling that of Moses) than on any institutional ordination, and similarly to Moses, he is troubled by an ever-present fear of inadequacy. However, with the description of his own contemplative experience as resembling Moses’ ascent he actually claims that he himself lives up to the high standard of personal sanctity which he finds is required for holding the office of bishop. Gregory of Nyssa also used the figure of Moses in his encomium on Basil in order to portray the true Christian bishop. However, he does not restrict his use of Moses to Basil alone, but claims that Moses is a figure to be imitated by all. Gregory stresses Moses’ and Basil’s spiritual qualities and connects these qualities with the fact of their leading a contemplative life, probably in a polemic against Helladius, the new metropolitan bishop of Caesarea, whose spiritual qualities fell short of Gregory’s ascetic ideal.

The revival of the memories of Moses

However, as I argue in my book Recasting Moses, the new emphasis on Moses as a figure of authority and power that is relevant to contemporary situations was no more new than that it actually revived traditions of 1st-century Jewish biographical and autobiographical narratives. The political focus on Moses and his relation to the issue of factionalism and unity was extremely important for the biographical and autobiographical uses of Moses in 1st-century Judaism. For Philo and Josephus, the figure of Moses embodied the true qualities of leadership: in the Life of Moses, Philo portrays Moses as a king, the true philosopher-king, who surpasses even the Roman emperors, and he depicts Moses as a model to be imitated by his own Jewish, Alexandrian Diaspora community. Josephus, by contrast, recasts Moses in his Jewish Antiquities as a mild and successful general who time and again overcomes factions and discord. In portraying Moses in this way, Josephus creates numerous parallels between his portrait of Moses and his self-portraits in the Jewish War and the Life. The Moses narratives are also employed in relation to the issue of factionalism and unity by Paul in 1 Corinthians, and he implicitly appeals to Moses’ leadership when he puts himself on a par with him in 1 Corinthians and Romans 9-11.

The intertextual relationship between the 4th-century Christian and 1st-century Jewish biographical uses of the figure of Moses cannot, however, be explained only as a matter of influence. The resemblance rather demonstrates that the character of Moses and the political and biographical potential of the Moses narratives had been overlooked since it was not really applicable in the intervening centuries, most likely because it contradicted the Christian self-image as one of suffering. By contrast, the figure of Moses was part of certain other Christian discourses in the 2nd and 3rd centuries such as Christology with its comparison of Jesus to Moses and the historiographical discourse concerning the antiquity of Christianity with its claim that Greek culture had been dependent on Moses.

The biographical Moses

Usually, the emergence and evolution of early Christian biographies is seen as an innovative fusion of martyr-acts, philosophical lives and other secular panegyrics and encomia with Biblical biographical narratives (Wilson 1998:107). In fact, it seems likely that a synthetic approach is the more profitable one for understanding the emergence and evolution of early Christian biographies and hagiographies, and I think we should add even one more set of intertexts into this melting pot, namely the interpretative tradition within Jewish biographical and autobiographical narratives. Though the Pentateuchal Moses narratives were not really a biography of Moses, the figure became important for later biographical thinking, and it seems therefore appropriate if we soon again will meet him in grand biopics on the big screen.


Cameron, Averil, Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire: The Development of Christian Discourse (Berkeley, Los Angeles & London: University of California Press, 1991).

Damgaard, Finn, Recasting Moses. The Memory of Moses in Biographical and Autobiographical Narratives in Ancient Judaism and 4th-Century Christianity (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2013).

Droge, Arthur J. & James D. Tabor, Noble Death: Suicide and Martyrdom among Christians and Jews in Antiquity (San Francisco: Harper, 1992).

Fishbane, Michael, Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel (Oxford: Oxford University of Press, 1985).

Grig, Lucy, Making Martyrs in Late Antiquity (London: Duckworth, 2004).

Kelley, Nicole, “Philosophy as Training for Death: Reading the Ancient Christian Martyr Acts as Spiritual Exercises”, Church History 75 (2006), 723-747.

Lieu, Judith, Neither Greek nor Jew? Constructing Early Christianity (London: T & T Clark, 2005).

Perkins, Judith, The Suffering Self: Pain and Narrative Representation in the Early Christian Era (London: Routledge, 1995).

Swain, Simon, “Biography and Biographic in the Literature of the Roman Empire”, in Portraits. Biographical Representation in the Greek and Latin Literature of the Roman Empire, eds. Mark J. Edwards & Simon Swain (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997).

Wilson, Anna, “Biographical Models: The Constantine period and beyond”, in Constantine: History, Historiography and Legend, eds. Samuel N. C. Lieu & Dominic Montserrat (London: Routledge, 1998), 107-135.

Young, Frances M., Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997).


1 In the last decades there has been an important discussion concerning the proper use of the term “typology”. Whereas the term was earlier seen as indicating the use of a diacronic, historical method (primarily used by the Antiochenes) in contrast to Alexandrian allegory, most scholars now agree that the term should only be taken “as a heuristic term to distinguish interpretative or compositional strategies which highlight correspondences, not just at the verbal level, but at the level of mimetic sign” (Young 1997:200).

2 Porphyry, for instance, portrays Plotinus as a Socrates and Odysseus in his Vita Plotini.

3 This does not mean, of course, that all who read the martyr acts thought of themselves as preparing for death at the hands of the Romans. The martyr acts rather allowed Christians to internalise the ideals exemplified by the martyrs, i.e. to cultivate a particular kind of self which Perkins has coined a “suffering self”.

4 Symptomatically, Eusebius was occupied with writing both the Vita Constantini and De Martyribus Palaestinae.

5 While the majority of scholars think that the martyr acts are constructed in continuity with the suffering of Jesus, a minority finds that “it is remarkable how little is made of this” (cf. Lieu 2005:222). For the argument that the martyr acts construct martyrdom as a parallel imitation of the death of Jesus, see for instance Droge & Tabor 1992:119 and Kelley 2006:743-746. Already Paul claimed to imitate Christ in his suffering and death (2 Cor 4:8-12; 12:7-10; Phil 1:19-21; 3:8-11). The death of Stephen in Acts 6:8-7:60, which also parallels the death of Christ and the continuing persecution of the apostles by the Jews in Acts, may also have helped create the genealogy of the suffering Church (Stephen later receives the title “protomartyr”).

6 This is not to say that hagiographic narratives did not represent Christianity as a community of sufferers.

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