.Genre of Gospels, Acts and OT Primary History: INDEX
by Neil Godfrey
By genre here I mean the general character of a work, whether it be history or biography, prose epic or novella — or at least the rough ancient equivalents of those. Questions of intertextuality (and its sister midrash) I have relegated to techniques of how certain literature was composed regardless of its genre. Nonetheless I am sure I have succumbed to some blurring of the concept in the list chosen below.
Posts by Tim Widowfield are so indicated. All others are by me.
Genre of Bible’s Historical Books
Bible authors did not think of writing history in this modern European way. In The Canaanites and Their Land Niels Peter Lemche writes:
Rather than writing history, the Israelite historians composed a novel, the theme of which was the origin of Israel and its ancient history. (p. 158)Ancient Israelite — or rather early Jewish — society was hardly interested in a scholarly presentation of the hard historical facts; they understood history to contain a significant narrative in which their own fate in the past, in the present and also in the future would be exposed. History writers were therefore free to convey their message to their readers in the form they had themselves chosen and were not bound to present a true picture of what had actually happened. A narrative would be considered true and genuine if its message was understood and accepted by the audience, not because it was true to the facts of past history. (pp.159-160)
Genre of the Gospels
The Genre of the Gospels: How the Consensus Changed (Part 1)
by Tim Widowfield
Part 1: A Sea Change
Ultimately, the problem with identifying the genre of the synoptic gospels as Hellenistic biographies or Graeco-Roman histories is that these terms are insufficient to describe their form, genesis, and purpose.Published in 1989 by SCM Press, Studying the Synoptic Gospels remains one of the best resources for learning about the first three books of the New Testament. Not a week goes by that I don’t take it off the shelf and refer to it. Sanders and Davies cover most of the important subjects related to synoptic studies, and they do it in an engaging and evenhanded manner. Each subject receives appropriate coverage, with suggested “further readings” that can take you even deeper.
Studying the Synoptic Gospels treats the question of genre quite seriously, devoting one chapter for each gospel. The chapter on Matthew for example, continues for 14 pages, touching on its various features — how it resembles different forms of known, contemporaneous literature, how it uses the traditional material, etc. In the end, the authors conclude:
The most satisfactory definition of the genre is ‘a theodicy about the creation and recreation (see palingenesia, ‘new world’, 19.28) which is centered in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.’ (p. 264, italics original)The authors contend that although in some ways Matthew’s gospel resembles a βίος (bios), it also has some striking differences, and in the end it is a wholly inadequate description. Mark has even less in common with ancient literary biographies. They write:
The form of the Second Gospel is, however, even less like a Hellenistic biography than that of Matthew. It does not begin with birth stories, and, if 16.8 is the original ending, it is quite without parallel. (p. 267, bold original)The authors grant that Luke has even more in common with Hellenistic biographies than the first two gospels.
It is fair to say that Luke-Acts could not have existed in its present form without knowledge of Graeco-Roman texts. . . . But, to return to the preface, the truth for which the work offers Theophilus assurance is not just the accurate reporting of past events, nor the discernment of patterns of history, nor the exact depiction of a holy community worthy of imitation or admiration, but the story of the creator God who repeatedly offers people salvation, through prophets, through Jesus and through his apostles, and whose sovereignty is about to be finally established by replacing the kingdom of Satan on earth with that of God. Historical motifs are swallowed up by eschatological, and history is understood from the perspective of creation and recreation. (p. 297, emphasis added)Ultimately, the problem with identifying the genre of the synoptic gospels as Hellenistic biographies or Graeco-Roman histories is that these terms are insufficient to describe their form, genesis, and purpose.
Now compare Sanders’ and Davies’ careful, detailed, and sober conclusions to this quote from the Fortress Introduction to the New Testament by Gerd Theissen:
The gospel is a variant of the ancient ‘life’, which was widespread in the non-Jewish world: the gospel is an ancient bios (a better term to use than ‘biography’), though a bios of an unusual kind. (p. 16, Nook edition, 2004, bold and color emphasis added)Theissen notes that writings centered on a single person were quite unknown in the Old Testament. How did a sect that started within Judaism come to employ a genre that was so unlike anything known in Jewish religious writings up to that point? He says:
The change to a Gentile audience encouraged a trend to develop the Jewish form of the prophetic book (as we have it in Q) into a Hellenistic bios. In the non-Jewish milieu there was nothing strange about concentrating a literary genre on a person. (p. 86, Nook edition)In fact, Theissen contends that the gospels could only be written once the new sect had become predominantly gentile.
In the monotheistic milieu of Jewish Christianity it was impossible to write a bios of Jesus in which there was even the slightest indication that on the basis of his own words and works Jesus had claimed to be God or Son of God. That would have been blasphemy. (p. 86, Nook edition)
Not only did the consensus change, but a new, ready-made narrative to explain (and denigrate) the old consensus became “common knowledge.”From the same year (2004), Bart Ehrman’s introductory text book, The New Testament: a Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, came to the same conclusion:
Many recent scholars have come to recognize that the New Testament Gospels are a kind of ancient biography. (p. 64, bold and color emphasis added)Consensus in biblical scholarship tends to move slowly. It takes time for new perspectives to become known, with successive scholars fleshing out new theories. We expect to see lots of give and take, reappraisals, retrenchment, and so on. However, in the case of gospel genre, something earthshaking must have happened between 1989 and 2004 that caused a fundamental change in the consensus.
Not only did the consensus change, but a new, ready-made narrative to explain (and denigrate) the old consensus became “common knowledge.” Ehrman explains:
Until recently, modern scholars generally agreed that the New Testament Gospels were unlike anything else in all of literature, that they were an entirely new genre invented by the Christians, and represented by only four surviving works. The Gospels were obviously about the man Jesus and thus were somewhat like biographies, but compared to modern biographies, they appeared altogether anomalous. (p. 62, bold emphasis added)Theissen and Ehrman are in fact describing a widely held consensus in scholarship today. What was it that so abruptly and decisively changed the minds of a majority of NT scholars? Largely, we have to credit Richard Burridge’s book, What Are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography (first published in 1992, updated in 2004). Vridar readers will no doubt recall Neil’s review, “Are the Gospels Really Biographies? Outlining and Questioning Burridge.”
Though other similar works preceded it (especially Charles Talbert’s What Is a Gospel?), Burridge’s book and its subsequent reception by scholars led to a sea change in they way people think about the gospels. Burridge himself seems to have greeted the reception and tidal change with a mixture of surprise and delight. Chapter 11, “Reactions and Developments” charts the history of the genre debate after the book’s first publication in 1992, and notes that at least two of NT superstar scholars have treated the Burridge thesis favorably, warmly embracing its conclusions. James D. G. Dunn, for example, “uses my work to argue for the biographical genre of the gospels as a basis for his latest reconstruction of Jesus.” (Burridge, p. 287)
Coming up nextIn this series, we’ll take a look at the history of gospel genre studies in the 20th and 21st centuries. We’ll start with the work of the form critics, especially Karl Ludwig Schmidt, whose work today is largely ignored, widely misunderstood, and mostly still untranslated from the original German. We’ll see how the English-speaking scholarly world continues to misunderstand the pioneers of Formgeschichte (Bultmann, Dibelius, and Schmidt) and discover how a naive misapprehension of their work has contributed to the new consensus.
After that, we’ll take a look at the work of Burridge and others who have shaped the new consensus, and we’ll examine the psychological receptiveness of the scholarly community who almost seemed to be waiting for someone to tell them, “It’s OK to believe that the gospels are biographies.” Why were they so receptive to the message? And how does the belief that the gospels are ancient biographies affect the quest of for the historical Jesus?
The Genre of the Gospels: How the Consensus Changed (Part 2)
by Tim Widowfield
Part 2: Two ParablesBefore we discuss Karl Ludwig Schmidt’s views on the genre of the canonical gospels, I want to present two parables that I hope will drive home some basic concepts. A review of the recent scholarship on the subject reveals a distressing amount of misunderstanding here. I hope the following illustrations will help clarify two of Schmidt’s fundamental ideas.
Imagine for the moment that Richard Burridge has a younger brother, Bucky Burridge, who is an up-and-coming zoologist. One day while visiting an Australian museum of natural history, he comes face to face with a stuffed and mounted platypus. He has never seen a platypus before, and he is struck by its features. In many ways it is like nothing he has ever seen, but after careful consideration, he believes he knows the proper classification of this so-called “mammal.”
Bucky hunts down the curator of the museum and asks for a few minutes of his time. “Did you know,” he asks the curator, “that you have classified a duck as a mammal?” The curator is confused, so Bucky drags him back to the exhibit of the platypus.
He points at the display case, tapping the glass. “The placard identifies this duck as a mammal!” says Bucky with a frown.
The curator pauses to make sure Bucky is serious, then tactfully asks, “Why do you think it’s a duck?”
“Well, it’s true,” says Bucky, “that it is a rather unusual looking duck. However, I am a zoologist, and I can assure you there are clear markers. First, we can see the obvious physical features: the bill and the webbed feet.”
The curator clears his throat. “Ah, yes. But . . . how do you account for the four legs and the fur?”
“Good point, but irrelevant. At first those features nearly had me convinced that it’s a mammal. But then I noticed from the description on the placard that the female lays eggs! And we all know that mammals are warm-blooded, furry creatures who bear live young.”
“Actually, if I may interrupt,” says the curator, “that isn’t quite correct. Mammals may or may not bear live young. What clearly distinguishes the platypus as a mammal is the fact that the female secretes milk. Mammals have mammary glands. More than that, the DNA evidence is indisputable. They belong to an order of mammalia called monotremes — mammals that lay eggs.
“Furthermore, you should know that by definition, all birds have feathers, wings, and two feet. So even if you weren’t sure about the mammalian classification, it cannot be a bird.
“Are you sure you’re a zoologist?!”
Knowing where something came from is crucial for understanding what it is and for knowing how it fits within a given classification scheme. Even if it appears to possess one or more defining characteristics of a species, its genome may tell a different tale.Where did Bucky go wrong? First, he mistook superficial features as identifying features. Second, he ignored important contradictory attributes. Of course, he also hadn’t done his homework on the mammalian family tree. And if he’d been up on his reading, he would have known about the DNA evidence.
Here are the lessons we should learn from the parable:
- We must learn to distinguish between extraneous features and identifying features.
- Contradictory features and missing features are just as important as other seemingly important observed features. Beware of confirmation bias.
- Knowing where something came from is crucial for understanding what it is and for knowing how it fits within a given classification scheme. Even if it appears to possess one or more defining characteristics of a species, its genome may tell a different tale.
Let’s suppose that Richard Burridge has a younger sister, Becky, who is an art historian. While visiting a small town in the American Midwest she happens upon a local museum. She finds, to her delight, a superb example of a commemorative quilt.
Following the panels from left to right, the quilt tells the story of the town: the settlers arriving from the old country, tilling the soil, building the local pottery, raising their families, selling their grain, feeding their cattle. Becky has never seen anything like it.
She asks the pleasant older lady at the information desk, “To whom may I speak concerning the tapestry hanging in the main hall?”
“You mean the quilt?” asks the lady.
“No, it’s a tapestry,” Becky insists. “I would love to meet the artist.”
“Well, a lot of the women who stitched it together back in ’52 are dead. However, I’m pretty sure Mrs. Svenson is still alive. She’s moved away now, though — lives with her daughter out in California.”
Becky shakes her head. “You don’t understand. A work that beautiful, that powerful — it has to be the work of an inspired artist. The tapestry bears the strong sense of intent; the hand of the artist is evident in every stitch.”
“I don’t know what to tell you, ma’am. The town got together and decided to create a commemorative quilt for the town’s centennial celebration. There were about 30 or so ladies who worked on different parts of the quilt. The older women, they sorta ran the show. Each of the panels tells a story, how our grandparents and great-grandparents remembered it, anyway. And one lady was in charge of each panel. She was given a lot of leeway, so that’s why the panels all look different. It’s a fine example of American folk art.”
Becky says, “I sorry, but I’m an art historian. This tapestry is more than folk art.”
The nice lady continues, “You keep calling it a tapestry. But it’s a quilt.”
“I happen to know that a tapestry is a hanging piece of textile art,” Becky explains. “So while you may think of it as ‘just a quilt,’ it is in fact a piece of high art. I don’t suppose you’ve heard of the Bayeux Tapestry, have you?”
“Ma’am, it may surprise you to know that I’ve visited Reading, and I’ve seen the replica. Our quilt has some things in common with the Bayeux Tapestry — it’s an object made of fabric that hangs on a wall; it’s a piece of art that we’re proud of; it tells a story. But what you seem to forget is that a tapestry is woven. The Bayeux Tapestry was embroidered. So technically, it isn’t actually a tapestry. On the other hand, a quilt is stitched together from swatches of fabric. It is certainly not a tapestry.
“And besides that,” she adds, raising her voice slightly, “there’s no shame in calling it folk art. I don’t suppose you have heard of the Quaker Tapestry, have you? It’s also a large, hanging collection of embroidered panels, but it’s the work of a community.
“Are you sure you’re an art historian?!”
Works of art (or literature) created by a group or “folk” — i.e., folk art (or community-generated narratives such as the gospels) — are categorically different from works of high art (or literature) that are created by individuals.Where did Becky go wrong? First, like her brother, she was not aware of the crucial identifying features of a tapestry or, for that matter, a quilt. Second, and more importantly, she had convinced herself that she was looking at a piece of “high art,” which drove her to the erroneous conclusion that there was a level of intentionality, control, and artistic focus that was in fact absent.
Further, she mistakenly thought of “folk art” as inferior to “high art.” Finally, she did not fully understand that the quilt, which was the product of a community, could not be compared to a piece of so-called “fine art.” She was trying to compare apples to oranges.
What can we learn from this parable?
- Once again, we need to be aware of identifying features versus extraneous features.
- Works of art (or literature) created by a group or “folk” — i.e., folk art (or community-generated narratives such as the gospels) — are categorically different from works of high art (or literature) that are created by individuals. The terms high and low art (or high and low literature) do not represent judgments as to their beauty or worth. They are simply terms of art.
- As we stated above, knowing where something came from and how it came into existence is crucial for understanding what it is and for knowing how it fits within a given classification scheme.
What do the parables have to do with Schmidt?As we will see in greater detail in the next installment, Schmidt criticized those who compared the gospels to ancient biographies on several grounds. He notes, for example, that Clyde Weber Votaw (see “The Gospels and Contemporary Biographies” at JSTOR) focused on several extraneous features that seemed to indicate that the gospels fit in the category of Greco-Roman biography while ignoring important, defining characteristics that are missing.
Schmidt also painstakingly demonstrated that the gospels are products of a community and belong to the realm of Kleinliteratur (“small” or folk literature), not Hochliteratur (“high” literature). The resulting product and its various attributes are constrained by the community that created and remembered the constituent pieces — viz., the pericopae that comprise the gospels — as well as the overall theological concerns of the community.
You can agree or disagree with Schmidt’s conclusions. However, what has happened over the past couple of decades is that scholars have so misunderstood Schmidt that they’re fighting a cartoon caricature of the great form critic. In some cases, they’ve conflated Bultmann’s views with Schmidt’s. In others, they simply don’t seem to have a clue as to what Schmidt was driving at.
If he were living today, Karl Ludwig Schmidt might ask, “Are you sure you’re a New Testament scholar?”
Next time: Schmidt on The Place of the Gospels in the General History of Literature.
The Genre of the Gospels: How the Consensus Changed (Part 3)
by Tim Widowfield
Part 3: K. L. Schmidt: Placing the GospelsWhen it comes to the form critics, NT scholars don’t know Schmidt. But to be fair, for a long time — all of the twentieth century in fact — they had a reasonable excuse. None of Karl Ludwig Schmidt’s works had been translated into English, and unless you could grapple with his dense, rambling, arcane German prose, you had to rely on reviews and summaries from bilingual scholars.
An act of parricideIn 2002, however, one of Schmidt’s major works became available to the English-speaking public. Anyone with an interest in the gospel genre debate now has easy access to The Place of the Gospels in the General History of Literature at popular prices. I’m assuming it didn’t sell well, because right now it’s going for $2.45 (US) at Amazon, and when my copy arrived back in February, it had a black mark across the top. It has landed in the book equivalent of the cut-out bin.
If you have any interest at all in form criticism or NT German scholarship, John Riches’ introduction alone is worth the price of the book. Riches notes that it took an unconscionable amount of time for The Place of the Gospels to be translated into English.
The appearance in English, nearly eighty years after its first publication, of one of the major works of early-twentieth-century German gospel criticism, represents yet another triumph of the persistence of the few over the indifference and hostility of the many. In this way, Schmidt’s article in the Eucharisterion Festschrift joins William Wrede’s Messianic Secret (1901: 1971) and Rudolf Bultmann’s History of the Synoptic Tradition (1921: 1961) as works that have waited too long before they were made available to those without easy access to German. This leaves Der Rahmen der Geschichte Jesu [The Framework of the History of Jesus] as the last of the major works of the form critics still to be translated. Is this too little too late, or is there still an opportunity for a serious appraisal of the form critics? (p. vii, bold emphasis added)We’ll save Riches’ strong criticism of current scholarship for a later post. For now, let me pique your curiosity with some choice words about how the work of the form critics has been twisted to serve antithetical purposes.
Thus a movement within the discipline that has firm roots within the tradition of form-critical studies of the gospels ends up, by a strange sleight of hand, by denying its origins. One might have expected a fuller account of this parricide; in practice what is offered is usually no more than the briefest dismissal of the main tenets of the form critics with little attention to the wealth of detailed argument with which they were supported. (p. x, bold emphasis added)We have seen this before, time and time again, in modern biblical scholarship. They don’t know Wrede. They don’t know Wellhausen. And they certainly don’t know Schmidt.
BackgroundSince the beginning of the “scientific” study of the New Testament, scholars have argued over the genre of the gospels. Should we look for their antecedents in Jewish writings, Greek writings, both, or neither? If you read historical summaries by current scholars, they’ll tell you that Ernest Renan was the first to make the (in their view correct) assumption that the gospels are biographies. Richard Burridge writes:
The . . . introduction [to The Life of Jesus] reveals that Renan’s main sources are the four canonical gospels, assumed to be biographies, with the evangelists as the biographers of Jesus. Furthermore, the gospels belong to a subgroup of the wider genre of biography: ‘They are neither biographies after the manner of Suetonius, nor fictitious legends in the style of Philostratus; they are legendary biographies.’ (p. 4, What Are the Gospels?, emphasis added)Often, Clyde Votaw gets the credit for first suggesting that the gospels are specifically Hellenistic biographies. You can read his 1915 article at the Internet Archive. Burridge and Charles Talbert (What Is a Gospel?) agree. Talbert concludes:
Votaw and Renan recognized the similarities between the gospels and Graeco-Roman biographies and assumed they belonged to the same genre. (p. 2, Talbert)Today the consensus appears to be nearly unanimous. Curiously, the notion of a gospel fitting into a genre is, we are told, quite recent. In Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Larry Hurtado writes:
The question of the genre of the Gospels is basically a modern issue, characteristic of the modern historical investigation of the NT. Our cultural and chronological distance from the first-century setting and our modern desire to overcome this distance through accurate knowledge of the past fuel the attempt to analyze the Gospels in their literary context. (p. 277, emphasis added)Framing the issue this way could lead the casual reader to think the question had never arisen until the 19th century, and that Hurtado’s “modern desire” is driven purely by the quest for “accurate knowledge of the past.” But of course the question of genre was an ancient issue, too. In How Did Christianity Begin? Michael Bird reminds us that Justin Martyr categorized the gospels as “memoirs”:
This designation has obvious affinities with the “Lives” written about ancient figures, including Xenophon’s Memorabilia, which is a biographical account of the life of Socrates, Philo’s Life of Moses, Tacitus’ account about his father-in-law, Agricola, and Lucian’s Life of Demonax. The most analogous genre to the gospels, then, is the Bios or Vita, which is essentially a biographical narrative about a particular individual. (p. 104)Bird cites Burridge, of course, but Burridge himself never mentions Justin’s apologia in What Are the Gospels? Schmidt, however, does mention him. Of Justin he writes:
He was in the unenviable position of having to make the gospel (peculiar as it was) understandable as literature not only to non-Christian bystanders but also to himself, because in an important sense the gospels — the “so called” gospels (ἄ καλεῖται εὐανγγέλλια;τὸ λεγόμενον εὐαγγἐλλιον) — were strange to Justin too. (p. 10, emphasis added)Moreover, Schmidt explains, it was important for Justin to categorize the gospels as such, in order to raise their status:
In Justin the apologetic outlook is decisive; he is determined to elevate the cultural level of Christianity, and to that end he employs the designation “memoirs” to locate the gospels in high literature. (p. 10, emphasis added)Theodor Zahn was more than happy with Justin’s assessment. Schmidt quotes from Zahn’s Geschichte des neutestamentlichen Kanons:
Zahn . . . asserts, “The name was excellently chosen and aptly suited to give literary-minded Gentiles the right picture of the genre of the Gospels.” But there is something else that matters even more to Zahn: for him the apomnemoneumata is the surest confirmation of the reliability of the Gospels, since it means that they must have actually been “memoirs” of the apostles, just like Xenophon’s “memoirs” of Socrates. (p. 10, emphasis added)
If we categorize the gospels as memoirs, histories, or Graeco-Roman biographies, we imbue them with implicit reliability and an air of authenticity.We’re barely out of the starting gate and we’re already confronting misconceptions that will plague us throughout this study. The urge to categorize the gospels in order to make them understandable, respectable, and authoritative emerged almost from the start. We did not have to wait for modern scholarship’s keen critical eye. Naturally, if your goal is to prove that the gospels are biographies, it’s more palatable to cite Renan, a respected modern scholar, first, rather than Justin, whose motives were clearly centered on Christian apologia.
I suggest that this result is not an accident.
I suggest that this result is not an accident.
Furthermore, Zahn’s motives persist today. If we wish to know anything about the historical Jesus, we must rely solely on the gospels. But how reliable are they? If we categorize them as memoirs, histories, or Graeco-Roman biographies, we imbue them with implicit reliability and an air of authenticity. I suggest that this result is not an accident.
In our next installment we’ll continue with Schmidt’s thesis, covering the terms Hochliteratur and Kleinliteratur.
The Genre of the Gospels: How the Consensus Changed (Part 4)
by Tim Widowfield
Part 4: Hochliteratur (high literature) and Kleinliteratur (low literature)
TranslationsTo understand Karl Ludwig Schmidt’s argument concerning the genre of the canonical gospels, we need first to understand his usage of the terms Hochliteratur and Kleinliteratur. These terms are difficult to translate into English, because we lose the nuance of the German words, while picking up unwanted baggage from their English equivalents.
Literally, they mean “high literature” and “low literature,” and that’s exactly how they’re rendered in The Place of the Gospels in the General History of Literature. However, in some translations of form critics’ works, you’ll see them left untranslated. Sometimes you’ll see Kleinliteratur translated as “folk literature” or “popular literature.” The translator of our text, Byron R. McCane, chose to translate the terms literally, since for him to leave terms untranslated is an admission of defeat. I’m not sure I agree with that position, but at least he has his reasons. There’s no right or wrong approach, I suppose.
No new thing under the sunMcCane is certainly wrong, however, about the origins of the terms. He writes:
Many scholars who discuss Die Stellung [i.e., The Place (of the Gospels)] choose not to translate these German terms. They are, after all, neologisms created by Schmidt to designate specialized literary categories. (p. xxxii, emphasis added)The terms are not neologisms; they predate Schmidt. As far back as 1919, Martin Dibelius used Kleinliteratur in From Tradition to Gospel. In the first edition (Tübingen, 1919) he wrote:
In erhöhtem Maße wird dies alles von der sogenannten Kleinliteratur gelten. (p. 1, emphasis added)In the English translation this sentence reads:
What we have said is true also in humbler forms of literature. (p. 1, emphasis added)You can find the terms in discussions of literary works dating as far back as the late 19th century. A quick survey of Google Books reveals that Hochliteratur and Volksliteratur were in use at least as far back as 1891. Conceptually, then, the terms and the concepts behind them had been current in German academia (viz., history of literature, literary criticism, etc.) for a couple of decades before Schmidt’s The Place of the Gospels was published.
McCane is hardly alone. I can only guess that most people who have read (or claim to have read) Dibelius are familiar only with the second edition of From Tradition to Gospel (1933), and are unaware of the first edition (1919). It’s also a bit hard to trace the usage of these terms, because when translators convert them into English, you never know what you’ll get — Low literature? Folk literature? Folk tales? Popular literature? Humbler forms of literature?
The ideal type is a fiction: a tool that we use to help us better comprehend the issues at hand. It’s a subjective model of the problem domain, not an objective definition of reality.Before we continue, let’s review the concept of ideal types. If we were to envision the ideal parliamentary democracy, we would list the defining characteristics — some integral, others peripheral — generally held in common. We would not expect any particular, real-world parliamentary democracy to have every one of these characteristics. That does not mean they are something else. Nor does it mean that our ideal type is invalid. On the other hand, if a nation-state coincidentally shares a few peripheral characteristics or partially shares one of the core characteristics, that doesn’t mean it has magically become a parliamentary democracy.
Likewise, if we created a list of all the defining characteristics of Hochliteratur or Kleinliteratur and compared that list against extant works of literature from the ancient Greco-Roman world they won’t all correspond perfectly against the ideal types. That’s because, as we all should know, the ideal type is a fiction: a tool that we use to help us better comprehend the issues at hand. It’s a subjective model of the problem domain, not an objective definition of reality.
Suppose someone reminds us that the old Soviet Union had a representative body, which according to our model (so he thinks) would place it in the parliamentary democracy category. He next points to the United Kingdom, which is a constitutional monarchy, while our ideal type says that most parliamentary systems are republics. He says that he has thereby proved that our “rigid types” do not work properly and are invalid. Clearly we should scuttle the whole thing and start over.
We would explain that he has misunderstood at least one of the criteria. The representative body must be freely elected from a slate of candidates, usually from two or more political parties. Not only that, but he has misunderstood the concept of ideal types.
Similarly, we will see that some modern scholars brush aside Schmidt’s ideal types for various reasons, including that they are “rigid categories” that do not realistically represent the continuum of literary output in the first and second centuries CE. Others will point out that some of the gospels (especially Luke) possess some degree of one of the attributes central to Hochliteratur. In Sowing the Gospel, Mary Tolbert writes:
Schmidt’s category of Kleinliteratur would be similar to what literary scholars today might classify as folktales. Since most biblical critics now recognize the distinctive hands of individual authors behind each of the Gospels, they automatically become part of Schmidt’s Hochliteratur, and the categorization that Schmidt proposed, as important as it was for form criticism, no longer serves any useful purpose in Gospel studies. (p. 60, footnote 39, emphasis added)Tolbert’s bizarrely and utterly wrong conclusions are based on a misunderstanding of Schmidt’s definition of Hochliteratur and, it would seem, a mistaken conception of ideal types. So let’s look at those characteristics in detail.
Defining features of Hochliteratur
- Authorial presence. (The single most salient feature of Hochliteratur.)
- A strong “I” is present throughout the text.
- The author has a distinct personality.
- The work is constructed according to a plan; the framework governs its construction.
- We know the author’s name.
- Judicious use of sources.
- The author deals openly with his sources and maintains a critical distance from them.
- If sources conflict, the author will evaluate them.
- If a source is deficient, the author will say so.
- An appreciation of the craft.
- The author is aware of and at least tries to employ sophisticated rhetorical devices.
- Ancient authors and readers of Hochliteratur prized literary polish.
- A title.
- Background information.
- Nationality of the subject.
- Family history.
- Verbal portraiture.
- Physical description.
- Moral character.
- Topographical and chronological coherence.
Defining features of Kleinliteratur
- Authorial absence.
- There is no strong “I” in the text.
- The personality of the author is indiscernible.
- The author is anonymous.
- The product of a cult or community.
- The shape of the narrative is governed by the tradition; the author has little input.
- The controlling unit is the individual story, not the collection.
- Tradition constrains the author.
- Sources are implicitly trusted.
- Authors use sources, but do not wrestle with authenticity.
- Source material is presented as the authoritative truth.
- Message overshadows method and medium.
- Language is usually simple, vernacular, sometimes rough and raw.
- The authors do not imagine they are writing great literature.
- Source stories are stitched together with “and then” or “sometime later,” with no great regard for chronology.
Gospel genre, reconsideredAlthough in the very broadest sense, the gospels are some sort of biographical literature, Schmidt argues that a gospel is not so much the story of Jesus, but stories of Jesus. They are the end product of a long process that begins with oral story-telling, continues with the collections of those stories (some in written form, some held in collective memory), culminating in the stitching together of the pericopae by the evangelists.
The fundamental reason for the overall shape or framework of the gospels goes back to the differences between the author of a Greco-Roman biography on the one hand and a gospel redactor on the other. The former is a conscious, educated author who has set about the task of creating a work of literature. The latter is a compiler of existing stories within a community. He may subtly change the stories, trimming or adding bits of material here and there, but he is clearly a redactor and not, strictly speaking, an author.
In the next post, we’ll cover the recent criticisms of Schmidt’s model. Do modern scholars know their Schmidt?
The Genre of the Gospels: How the Consensus Changed (Part 5)
by Tim Widowfield
Part 5: More on Karl Ludwig Schmidt’s ideal typesAt the close of the previous post in this series I promised we’d talk about the modern critique of Hochlitertur (high literature) and Kleinliteratur (low literature), but first I want to explain better why these categories are important to understanding the genre of the gospels. Philip Jordan’s comment on the previous post has convinced me I need to try to take one more crack at it.
The Panda’s ThumbMany of you have probably read Stephen Jay Gould’s great essay “The Panda’s Thumb” (warning: PDF), as well as his book by the same name. In it, he explains that the Panda’s sixth digit (but not really a digit at all) is an evolutionary contrivance.
I invoke Gould’s name and cite his work not to argue the merits of natural selection, but to ask a simple question:
“When is a thumb not a thumb?”Functionally, this little appendage behaves like a thumb. The panda uses it to grip bamboo shoots and strip off the leaves. But what exactly is it? From a strict anatomical perspective, a true thumb is a digit with internal phalanx bones. By that definition, the panda’s sixth digit can’t be a thumb, because its internal skeletal structure is composed of a modified radial sesamoid.
But why would it matter, one way or the other? Well, in ordinary speech, it doesn’t matter. It’s a thumb. But if you wanted to learn anything “scientific” about the panda’s thumb, and you started from the analogy of a primate thumb, you’d be way off track. As we said earlier, the true thumb is a modified digit that opposes the other four fingers. The panda’s thumb is physiologically different. It arose through an evolutionary process quite distinct from our own.
Here we see plainly illustrated the important difference between a functional description of an object and a thorough analysis of that same object. We can categorize objects according to visible characteristics as well as their usage in the real world. Such categorizations are valid, but only in a superficial way.
At the risk of overloading this post with more analogies, we used to categorize algae according to size, shape, color, and other visible characteristics. However, genetic analysis performed in the late 20th and early 21st century has shown that these classifications were wrong. The details make pretty dull reading if you’re not into science, but suffice it to say, superficial characteristics can often be misleading. (If you’re curious, look up red algae, taxonomy, and systematics on Wikipedia for starters.)
When is a biography not a biography?So what does all that have to do with gospel genre? At the outset of Part Two of The Place of the Gospels in the General History of Literature, Schmidt summarizes Part One, which concentrated on his critique of scholars who would put gospels in the genre of Hellenistic biography, Greek memoirs, Jewish biography, etc. He writes:
In our critical review of earlier studies, we repeatedly ran into one fact that proves that analogy is the only sensible and productive method, and now we must take full advantage of all its ramifications: a Gospel is by nature not high literature, but low literature; not the product of an individual author, but a folk-book; not a biography, but a cult legend. (p. 27, Schmidt’s italics)In other words, we must look for analogous writings among other examples of folk literature in order to make sense of the gospels. He continues:
Faint hints to the contrary do not change the total picture in the slightest. Luke may well have possessed the skills of an author, but he could not and would not have produced a biography of Jesus. (p. 27, bold emphasis mine)To bring us back around to our discussion of the panda’s thumb, think of it this way:
|Pandas||The panda has an appendage that looks like a thumb.||We can better understand the panda’s thumb — its structure and its origins — by analyzing primate thumbs.|
|Gospels||The gospels in some ways look like biographies.||We can better understand the gospels — their structure and their origins — by analyzing other kinds of ancient biographies.|
Why does it matter?
Elevating the gospels to high literature hinders our understanding of them. I know it comforts people to think of them as biographies, especially because it lends an air of unwarranted historic authenticity. But understanding the gospels requires us to see correctly the process by which they emerged.Let me offer my own take on the matter. When we compare the gospels to one another and find discrepancies, we would like to explain those differences. Why would Matthew change something that Mark wrote (or vice versa, if you don’t buy into Markan priority)?
For example, why would Matthew change the one Gerasene demoniac into two Gadarene demoniacs? Further, why would he drop the name “Legion”? If we are under the delusion that the gospel of Matthew is a Greco-Roman biography, then we must also imagine a biographer, a man poring over his sources and critically evaluating them. Surely all twelve apostles had witnessed the exorcism of the legion of demons and jotted down the experience in their “running notes.” Perhaps most of Matthew’s “many sources” said there were two guys, while Mark said there was just one guy. Maybe only Mark had the name “Legion,” while in the other sources the demons were anonymous.
I know the foregoing discussion might border on the absurd, but it’s the kind of thing that can happen when we get the genre wrong. As Schmidt shows, after painstakingly comparing them to other examples of folk literature, the evangelists were not authors, but redactors. They compiled and edited their source material, constrained by the communities for whom they were writing and of which they were members. Matthew’s motivations for changing Mark were clearly theological, not historiographical.
Elevating the gospels to high literature hinders our understanding of them. I know it comforts people to think of them as biographies, especially because it lends an air of unwarranted historic authenticity. But understanding the gospels requires us to see correctly the process by which they emerged. Theological and sociological pressures shaped these four books into their final forms. We should focus on how these factors contributed to the shape of the gospels and dispense with the fiction of gospel-biographers.
The Genre of the Gospels: How the Consensus Changed (Part 6)
by Tim Widowfield
Part 6: Criticisms of Schmidt’s Literary DesignationsIn this post, we’ll cover some of the more recent negative assessments of Karl Ludwig Schmidt’s designation of gospel texts as Kleinliteratur versus Hochliteratur.
A cultural insult?As you recall, the reason Schmidt categorized the gospels as Kleinliteratur had to do with their structure and their core characteristics. It also made sense, given his theory that the gospels arose over time from a religious group. However, here’s what The Westminster Dictionary of New Testament and Early Christian Literature and Rhetoric (edited by David E. Aune) has to say on the matter.
New Testament texts were categorized as Kleinliteratur, in contrast to the Hochliteratur produced by and for the educated upper classes of the Greco-Roman world. The social correlative of this typology was that Christians were thought to have been drawn almost exclusively from the lower classes, a view now widely regarded as inaccurate. The dichotomy between Hochliteratur and Kleinliteratur derived linguistic support from the widespread opinion current earlier in this [the 20th] century that the Greek language of the first century C.E. could conveniently be divided into two major types, literary and nonliterary Koine. (p. 278, emphasis mine)But that wasn’t Schmidt’s argument. The gospels, he argued, arose gradually within the community, beginning with individual stories (pericopae) in the oral tradition. Their place in Kleinliteratur had very little to do with social or economic status and everything to do with process and origins.
Richard Burridge, unsurprisingly, takes up the cause and waves the banner as well. In What Are the Gospels? he writes:
Any attempt to ask literary questions about the gospels, and in particular, their genre, is automatically precluded in advance . . . The form critics’ distinction merely has the effect of removing the gospels from any discussion of their context within the first century on the grounds that they do not share some predetermined literary aspirations. However, as Suggs has pointed out: ‘The alleged lack of literary expertise on the part of the evangelists is not a valid objection . . . books of any genre may be poorly written.‘ [He’s quoting M. J. Suggs from The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Supplementary Volume, 1976 ed.] Much more detailed and accurate study of the various genres, types and levels of first-century, and especially Graeco-Roman, literature is needed. (p. 11, emphasis mine)
It isn’t the quality of the finished product that defines the category. Rather, it’s the author’s intent, his process, and his raw materials.Burridge’s text reads like a scorching indictment, and it certainly would be . . . if it had any contact with reality. Schmidt himself elaborates upon a case of poorly written Hochliteratur. He writes:
|Diogenes Laertius was an incompetent biographer, for he haphazardly produced a great number [of] biographies (they were more like rapidly dictated, uneven leaflets!), whereas the gospel tradition was a natural process — not a belabored product but a lush growth. The same standard of judgment cannot possibly be applied to both the gospels and Diogenes Laertius, since he tries to pass himself off as an author, writing a long foreword and naming his sources, and still manages to produce an incoherent work. (The Place of the Gospels, p. 5, emphasis added.)|
Reassessing LukeSchmidt, of course, did point out the inadequacies of the evangelists. In particular he disagreed with the current prevailing favorable view of Luke as an author, concluding that “his abilities were strangely unequal to his intentions, that the material imposed restrictions on him.” He quotes Franz Overbeck (Historische Zeitschrift, 1882), who had a slightly higher opinion of Luke as an author:
The third evangelist completely fails to achieve his purpose, which was to shape the material of the gospel tradition into historiography — a dilettante’s idea, and small wonder that the dilettante betrays himself . . . And yet Luke is often praised as a skilled author. He is that, but he exercises his skill on reluctant material and so comes to grief. Luke treats as history that which was not history and was not handed down as history. But he respects the tradition, and thus a chasm yawns open between the traditional material and the form in which he wants to put it. (The Place of the Gospels, p. 84, emphasis mine)According to Schmidt, then, at least one evangelist showed some “predetermined literary aspirations” (in direct contradiction to what Burridge claimed), but he failed to create a work of Hochliteratur because the nature of the traditional material and his respect for it kept him from doing so. In the end, the Gospel of Luke is a more polished and refined version of Mark with added material (i.e., Q and L) and with different theological motives, as well as a spiffy introduction; however, it is still a gospel and not a bios. It remains tied to its roots in the early Christian community.
For those of you who are keeping score at home
- Burridge implied that the designation of the gospels as Kleinliteratur was a preconceived notion that “precluded” any literary questions. It was not. The designation occurred as a result of form-critical analysis — a conclusion, not a preconception.
- Burridge claimed that the designation of the gospels as Kleinliteratur stemmed
from the fact that the form critics believed the evangelists had no
literary aspirations or expertise. He is wrong for three reasons:
- Lack of literary skill was not the criterion for calling them Kleinliteratur.
- Incompetent writers could and did write poor works of Hochliteratur.
- Schmidt acknowledges that Luke had “literary aspirations” but failed despite his intentions.
Are the ideal types too rigid?Today’s scholars complain that Schmidt’s classification schema does not provide for enough flexibility. They argue that ancient writings cover a broad range of styles with various levels of sophistication. David Aune in The New Testament in Its Literary Environment writes:
Nineteenth-century New Testament scholars [apparently referring to Franz Overbeck] confidently contrasted Hochliteratur (“cultivated literature”), produced by and for the educated upper classes of the Greco-Roman world, to Kleinliteratur (“popular literature”), which originated with the lower classes and to which the compositions of the New Testament were assigned. . . .It’s true that Overbeck wrote in the 19th century, but he contrasted Hochliteratur to Urliteratur (“primitive literature”). We don’t see the term Kleinliteratur emerge until the second decade of the 20th century. At any rate, Aune’s focus on class distinction as the reason that those “nineteenth-century” [sic] scholars classified the gospels as Kleinliteratur is at the very least misguided. His incorrect definitions of the terms adversely affect his understanding of the classification system. (And as we’ve explained in earlier posts, to complain about their “rigidity” is to betray a complete misunderstanding of ideal types.)
Recent studies have made it increasingly clear that the antithetical categories of Hochlitertur and Kleinliteratur have value only as ideal types at opposite ends of a complex spectrum of linguistic and literary styles and levels. The pyramidal character of ancient society had an impact on literary culture as well as on other aspects of social and cultural life. (p. 12)
Harry Y. Gamble also ties socio-economic class to literary categorization. In Books and Readers in the Early Church, he writes:
The scheme of Hochliteratur-Kleinliteratur correlates poorly with a movement that was neither aristocratic nor vulgar but something in between. (p. 20)I suppose the thought of “middle-class” Christian origins is comforting, but it unfortunately misses Schmidt’s points entirely. Gamble complains:
Under the influence of Overbeck and [Gustav Adolf] Deissmann, and form criticism, it became customary for New Testament scholars to classify early Christian writings as Kleinliteratur, in contrast to Hochliteratur, and thus to minimize their literary dimensions and diminish the literary culture of the early church. (Books and Readers, p. 17)One could read the above statement and come away thinking that the form critics’ ultimate purpose was to slight the NT and the early church. Since this mistaken impression appears throughout current scholarly writings, it bears repeating: The designation of Kleinliteratur is not an insult. It merely describes the essential nature of a written work.
Gamble’s actual argument is that the form critics were fixated on the idea that the canonical gospels were distilled out of the oral tradition and that they retained enough of the character of that oral tradition to reveal insights into the history of their formation.
For [the form critics], the notion of Kleinliteratur signified not so much a distinction of Christian literature from Greco-Roman literature as a differentiation of cultures: primitive Christian culture as oral, Greco-Roman culture as literary. (Books and Readers, p. 16)Schmidt dealt with this very question — the comparison of literature based on cultural background — in the second chapter of Part One in The Place of the Gospels. He evaluated Theodor Zahn‘s comparison of Jewish and Greek literature. Zahn had concluded: “The author of our first Gospel knew absolutely nothing about the art and form of Greek historiography. It reads like a work of Old Testament history.“ And while Schmidt agreed with that conclusion, he could not accept Zahn’s methodology.
[His] method of contrasting Israelite and Greek literature is completely wrong. He makes the same mistake as J. Weiss, who, as we have seen, played off popular Jewish literature against cultivated Greek literature. Zahn’s comments about the opposition between Old Testament folk historians and Greek literature completely miss the point of the question about Judaism and Hellenism. For there are Greek documents of which Zahn fails to take note.Hence, Schmidt believed that to find the proper place of the gospels within the whole of literature, one needed to compare them to other examples of folk books — a.k.a. popular literature, a.k.a. Kleinliteratur. Their essential nature as folk works transcends culture. In other words, for the form critics, Kleinliteratur is exactly the opposite of a “differentiation of cultures.” It is instead a differentiation of basic literary characteristics.
[Hugo] Gressmann and Dibelius may cite Jewish parallels to the gospels, but they do not think of them as part of a general opposition between Judaism and Hellenism. Rather, they both speak of folk narratives and folk books, thereby emphasizing the concept of the popular, a concept that transcends the question of Judaism and Hellenism. (p. 18, emphasis mine)
Returning to the question of the supposed inflexibility of the categories, Burridge writes:
Crucial to both Schmidt and Bultmann was the distinction between Hochliteratur and Kleinliteratur. The two types of literature are seen in very rigid terms — and ne’er the twain shall meet. (What Are the Gospels? p. 11, emphasis mine)Burridge would have us abandon the “dyadic” categorization model and replace it with — what exactly? Apparently, with some sliding scale that allows us to evaluate each literary work individually according to its features.
So, for example, we note that the Gospel of Matthew contains a genealogy. Under the Burridge sliding-scale model, we would note that this feature indicates he cared about the origins of Jesus, which is a feature found in Greco-Roman biographies. If we can pile up a reasonably large list of these features — however superficial they may be — we can call Matthew a biography. Alakazam!
Does it matter that “the author of our first Gospel knew absolutely nothing about the art and form of Greek historiography“? Evidently not.
Undermining the foundationHere we see the reason for the disdain for Schmidt’s categories. In order to make the NT world safe for the notion of gospel-biographies, the “old, outdated, rigid” classification system of ancient literature had to go. The chipping away of the form-critical foundation began in the early 1970s, and with steady pounding over the decades it has largely succeeded.
Unfortunately, rather than meet Schmidt’s arguments head on, scholars chose to create their own version of what they thought the terms meant. Worse than that, one is hard pressed to find a single modern scholar who engaged with Schmidt’s specific and numerous reasons for placing the gospels in the category of Kleinliteratur. Instead, modern scholars have complained that the categories are “too rigid” or that they are based on outmoded (and perhaps unfair) socio-economic prejudices. However, as we’ve examined each of their complaints we find they are based on misconceptions, often easily contradicted simply by reading the source materials.
But the worst is yet to come. In the next post, we’ll look at the idea that the gospel genre was unique.