The Genre of the Gospels: How the Consensus Changed (Part 7)
by Tim Widowfield
Part 7: The Uniqueness of the Gospels
What Schmidt saidWhile researching this topic, I found an unexpected great source (for this and for other topics) in New Synoptic Studies: The Cambridge Gospel Conference and Beyond, edited by William R. Farmer. Inside, an essay by Joseph B. Tyson entitled “Conflict as a Literary Theme in the Gospel of Luke” provides one of the clearest, most succinct, and correct summaries of Karl Ludwig Schmidt’s view of the gospels I have seen in print. He writes:
The conception of the gospels as distinct from literary texts was made in the early part of this century, perhaps most convincingly by K. L. Schmidt in 1923. Schmidt’s fundamental contribution was his distinction between Hochliteratur and Kleinliteratur. Hochliteratur is literature that displays some authorial consciousness and some attention to aesthetic style and organization. (p. 305, emphasis mine)I couldn’t have said it better myself. Where so many scholars stumble over misconceptions about what they think Schmidt said or what they want him to have said, Tyson pretty much hit the nail on the head.
For Schmidt, not even Philostratus’s Life of Apollonius of Tyana may be compared with the gospels. In it, the author speaks directly to the readers and does so throughout the book; he sets forth the complete plan of the work at the beginning, and he refers to the oral and written sources he used. That is to say, Philostratus’s book belongs in the classification, Hochliteratur, because it displays authorial consciousness. It is a literary biography, which genre has a strict form, one that emphasizes literary merit often at the expense of historical accuracy. (p. 305, emphasis mine)Tyson has read Schmidt’s work and understood it. I could almost weep.
By contrast, Kleinliteratur is basically folk literature, a form of literature made up of material that had initially circulated orally. A writing of this type is largely a compilation of unconnected traditions. In Kleinliteratur there is little sense of structure, and the chronology is vague, consisting only of such phrases as “after that,” “later,” “on another occasion,” etc. (p. 305, emphasis mine)Exactly so. Schmidt identified a combination of key attributes — lack of authorial presence, the disjointed narrative, etc. — that demonstrate that the gospels are “folkbooks,” not biographies. Tyson continues:
There is no attempt to explain actions by recourse to internal reasonings. Connections are sometimes, but not always, provided between episodes. Only the main character is stressed, while the others retreat into the background. Schmidt concluded that the gospels belong in the category of Kleinliteratur. “Das Evangelium ist von Haus aus nicht Hochliteratur, sondern Kleinliteratur, nicht individuelle Schriftstellerleistung, sondern Volksbuch, nicht Biographie, sondern Kultlegende.” (p. 305-306, emphasis mine)We must stress this point again. Schmidt’s verdict on the gospels was not a preconceived notion, but the result of a long and careful study.
You don’t have to agree with him; however, if you want to argue that Schmidt was on the wrong track and that, for instance, the gospels are actually Greco-Roman biographies, then you really ought to engage the material as it is.After this admirable stab at a summary of Schmidt’s thesis, we now come to the topic at hand: the uniqueness of the gospels.
Schmidt was willing to say that the gospels are unique. But he insisted on limiting the uniqueness to the end product, the written texts. The individual parts, namely, the sayings and stories of Jesus which make up the gospels, are similar in form to the individual items of folklore generally. The gospels are collections of stories and sayings, and they were created in response to the needs of the community, especially the cultic needs. Their uniqueness is to be seen in the compilation of folk elements in service to a cultic need, but not in the folk elements themselves. (p. 305-306, emphasis mine)At the risk of boring you with repetition, let me restate that. The finished products, the completed literary objects themselves, are unique. However, the internal stories have analogs in the world of folklore, both past and present. Hence, the “collage” created by the evangelists, working as redactors of traditional material, was unique, but only because the circumstances were unique.
These are not difficult concepts. It should be fairly easy to understand what Schmidt was driving at. You don’t have to agree with him; however, if you want to argue that Schmidt was on the wrong track and that, for instance, the gospels are actually Greco-Roman biographies, then you really ought to engage the material as it is.
What Schmidt didn’t sayIn almost any field of study, you can consult a generally available college-level survey textbook and trust what you find there. Even for subjects that remain controversial, such as the origins of the American Civil War, you can usually trust the leading scholars in the field to get the basics right.
True, they may argue over interpretation and significance, but you wouldn’t, for example, expect a modern historian to misrepresent Alfred T. Mahan. Today, we might disagree with Mahan’s analysis about the importance of sea power and we might feel a little uneasy about his thoughts concerning Manifest Destiny. However, no reputable historian would write that Mahan was against building up the navy for the purpose of projecting power around the globe and protecting “national interests.”
Unfortunately, New Testament studies are different. If you want to know what William Wrede, Martin Dibelius, or Rudolf Bultmann actually said, you simply must go back to the source and check it.
And we don’t need to dwell on why things are this bad at the moment. For now let’s just leave it at this: “Don’t trust. Verify.”
They sort of read BultmannOne reason scholars mangle Schmidt’s ideas is that they confuse him with Bultmann and Dibelius. Remember, form criticism was never in style in the Anglo-American scholastic world (with very few, notable exceptions), so its concepts were brought in late and often absorbed through the filter of hostility.
If modern scholars are familiar with any of the form critics it’s probably Bultmann. They probably own a copy of History of the Synoptic Tradition (HST) or at least know someone who does, and they might have even skimmed the last chapter.
It was in that last chapter where Bultmann departs from Schmidt. In John Riches’ opening essay in The Place of the Gospels (PG) he writes:
One of the problems about this blanket treatment of the form critics’ views is that it blurs certain important disagreements between Schmidt and Bultmann. These can be most clearly documented in the concluding pages of Die Geschichte der synoptischen Tradition, to which [Richard] Burridge [in What Are the Gospels?] refers. There Bultmann quite explicitly distances himself from Schmidt, agreeing with Schmidt that folk collections (volkstümliche Sammlungen) share certain characteristics with the gospels, while insisting, nonetheless, that they differ in that “they do not tell of an admired human personality but the Son of God, Jesus Christ, the Lord of the congregation, in that they have developed out of the Christ-cult and remain linked to it.” (PG, p. xviii, Riches’ English translation of Bultmann in Geschichte, p. 398, bold emphasis mine)Anyone who has a passing familiarity with The Place of the Gospels should be aware of the fact that Schmidt continues in detail for several chapters, looking for analogs of the gospels. To suggest that Schmidt thought that the gospels were utterly unique would seem to indicate that one has missed the point entirely. As we shall see, modern scholars will often use the term sui generis, implying that Schmidt thought the gospel genre popped into existence out of thin air, having no kin with any other writings from any place or in any time in history.
John Riches continues:
This conflation [of Bultmann and Schmidt] accounts, I assume, for the surprising charge against Schmidt that he refuses to look for analogies (of any kind) for the gospels, whereas this is clearly the central intention of “The Place of the Gospels.” Not only does he look for them (as, indeed, does Bultmann), but he is convinced he has found them in the popular collections of the Apophthegmata Patrum and the Francis and the Faust legends. (PG p. xviii, bold emphasis mine)Note well what Riches is saying. Not only did Schmidt not believe that the gospels were sui generis, but he spent a great deal of time and effort looking for analogous literature in order to understand them better. In fact, he believed he had found similar folk books that were constructed along the same lines.
There is, moreover, a further confusion that creeps into Burridge’s treatment of Bultmann, which concerns the extent to which Bultmann addresses the question of the genre of the gospels at all. Here Bultmann’s views are similar to those of Schmidt. It is not the case that Bultmann concludes “that we cannot even talk in terms of genre for the gospels.” [quoting Burridge from p. 11 of What Are the Gospels?] What Bultmann argues is that the gospels are not literary forms — not, that is, the product of a developed set of literary conventions, ones, moreover, that are consciously developed and discussed by the author. (PG, p. xviii, bold emphasis mine)And here is where Bultmann begins his departure from Schmidt:
[The gospels] are, according to Bultmann, expanded “cult-legends.” And legend is a generic term. But it is true that Bultmann adds, rather confusingly, that they are sui generis, that they constitute a new genre, distinct from all others. It is at this point that Schmidt and Bultmann differ. (PG, p. xviii, bold emphasis added)Having read a little bit of Bultmann, they think they’ve understood Schmidt.
Burridge defends himselfThe second edition of What Are the Gospels? came out after Riches’ essay, and Burridge takes the opportunity to respond. Burridge concedes a little, but then digs in deeper:
Of course, Schmidt was looking for analogies for the gospels in his ‘Stellung’ — place or setting — of the gospels within literature, while Bultmann particularly stressed their uniqueness. Yet McCane’s translation ends with Schmidt talking about the ‘uniqueness of “early Christian literature”‘ with the ‘various parallels adduced here … sharpening the eye for that which is unique to primitive Christianity’ (pp. 85-6). Overall, Riches’ provocative article is an attempt to defend form-critical approaches, against an ‘English-speaking world’s resistance’. In contrast, I think the mood of gospel studies has moved even further in the direction of literary studies of the gospels as finished products of conscious authors over the last decade or so — and thus further away from Schmidt’s conclusions. (What Are the Gospels, p. 284, bold emphasis mine)The shift in NT studies is undeniably true. Whether that’s a good thing or not is another matter entirely.
Even Riches who considers that ‘whatever else the evangelists were, they were not ancient biographers’, admits that ‘in compiling and presenting the traditions of Jesus’ words and sayings, of his life and death, they were inevitably inviting comparison with ancient biographies’. This comparison is at the heart of our current work, but something which Schmidt would not have accepted. However, I agree with Riches that Schmidt’s work has been ‘neglected’ and share his hope that this translation and introduction will contribute to the continuing debate about the genre of the gospels. (p. 284-285, emphasis mine)I take the statement in bold above to mean that Burridge thinks Schmidt would not have accepted the comparison of gospels to ancient biographies. While it’s true that Schmidt adamantly opposed the notion that the gospels were some form of Greco-Roman biography, I think it’s important to recall exactly what he wrote:
Since the gospels do represent biography of some sort, however, we need to clarify the essence of ancient biography. (p. 1, emphasis mine)For Schmidt, the crux of the matter is not the fact that gospels have certain general features that resemble biographies, but instead the fact that they are missing core, essential elements that constitute identifying features of Greco-Roman biographies specifically, and Hochliteratur generally.
Some like to speak of “biography” even when these features [i.e., portraiture, a well-defined scheme, a strong authorial presence, etc.] are lacking, but in such cases it is better to introduce a new concept, perhaps that of folk biography, that is, popular biography. In any event, the essential thing is never to lose sight of the marks of low literature [Kleinliteratur], of a folk book. (p. 33, emphasis mine)
A remarkably pervasive straw manI’m reluctant to use the term “straw man,” since it’s so overused on the web, but it’s too apt a description to ignore. Saying Schmidt thought the gospels were sui generis gives modern scholars the excuse to brush him aside with a quick “tut-tut” and a snort.
We are invited to imagine how readers could possibly understand a literary work that had “no genre” or were somehow utterly unique in the universe of written works. “How could anyone make sense of them?!” Why, they might as well consist of random words on the page.
In the next post, I’m going to focus on a seminal piece by John C. Meagher, published back in 1983 that had long-lasting ramifications for the fate of Schmidt’s hypothesis and the larger question of the genre of the gospels. In this essay, he confronts the “K. L. Schmidt hypothesis of the literary uniqueness of the gospels” and discusses the possibilities offered once we “depart from Schmidt.”
The Genre of the Gospels: How the Consensus Changed (Part 8)
by Tim Widowfield
Part 8: Attacking the foundations: The “uniqueness” of the gospels
A meeting of the mindsThe form-critical consensus about the nature of the gospels had begun to crumble by the 1970s. No clear new way forward had emerged, but discontent with the current consensus was clearly growing. By the start of the next decade the time was ripe for someone to take a hammer to the rotting timbers and to begin laying the footer for the new structure that would take its place.
On the 5th and 6th of November 1980, the Southwestern Theological Seminary hosted a “Colloquy on New Testament Studies.” (You can read the proceedings in a book by the same name.) An important event in the history of NT scholarship, this colloquy attracted around 200 scholars and students, with many of the field’s luminaries — E. P. Sanders, Bruce M. Metzger, Vernon K. Robbins, and several others — in attendance.
In accordance with the theme, “A Time for Reappraisal and Fresh Approaches,” the colloquy’s seminars covered:
- The synoptic problem
- Gospel genre
- Pauline chronology
The seminar on Pauline chronology received comparable treatment, with a response following the “Seminar Dialog.” It was, after all, only fair to hear both sides of the story.
Enter John C. MeagherUnfortunately, when it came time to demolish Karl Ludwig Schmidt in the seminar on gospel genre, nobody stepped up to provide a response. When John C. Meagher came forward to not praise Schmidt, but to bury him, no one uttered an opposing word.
By all accounts, the seminar’s moderator, Charles H. Talbert, had made an excellent choice. In selecting Meagher, he had picked a first-rate scholar with three doctoral degrees. If anything, as an expert in Shakespearean literature and the New Testament, with a solid background in the history of literature and widely hailed as a “brilliant” scholar, Meagher was perhaps overqualified.
Talbert writes that the program committee wanted a fresh perspective on the issue; so they . . .
. . . looked for someone who was not already registered on the genre question but who had competence in literary, theological, and exegetical matters. Professor John C. Meagher of St. Michael’s, the University of Toronto, seemed an ideal selection. Meagher was assigned the topic, “The Implications for Theology of a Shift from the K. L. Schmidt Hypothesis of the Literary Uniqueness of the Gospels.” (Colloquy p. 197, emphasis mine)
A loaded question
We should feel somewhat comforted that Talbert’s committee chose someone “not already registered on the genre question.” And given his background and expertise, we might have held out some hope that Meagher would examine closely the implications of the question and the poison pill embedded within.Talbert, as you recall, had already decided for himself that Schmidt was wrong, writing in What Is a Gospel? (originally published in 1977, reprinted in 1985):
Our study has shown that there exists a conjunction of similarities (mythical structure, cultic function, attitude of inclusive reinterpretation) between the canonical gospels and certain Graeco-Roman biographies. The implication would seem to be that the gospels and the biographies belong to the same literary genre. (What Is a Gospel?, p. 134)He concluded that Schmidt believed the gospels were sui generis, utterly unique in the universe of literature. Talbert rejected that idea and went looking for analogous works of literature, apparently unaware that Schmidt himself had embarked upon that same quest half a century before. The key difference, of course, was that Schmidt correctly searched for analogs among folkbooks and other works of Kleinliteratur.
Talbert claimed that the majority of his contemporaries directly engaged in genre research had already abandoned the old Schmidt consensus, citing a “significant shift in scholarly opinion.” For Talbert, it was merely a matter of time before they figured out “exactly how the Gospels fit into the bios literature.” He writes:
At the present moment, among those who are working with the problem most directly, the burden of proof seems to have shifted from those who wish to falsify the Schmidt-Bultmann hypothesis of the literary uniqueness of the Gospels to those who would deny that the canonical Gospels belong in some way to the biographical genre of Mediterranean antiquity. (Colloquy, p. 200)We should feel somewhat comforted that Talbert’s committee chose someone “not already registered on the genre question.” And given his background and expertise, we might have held out some hope that Meagher would examine closely the implications of the question and the poison pill embedded within.
Our hopes are soon dashed as Meagher states his intentions in the second paragraph:
What [the seminar title] lacks in euphony it makes up in wise engagement with an important issue, and is a tribute both to the sagacity of whoever invented it and to the general sense of intellectual responsibility of a discipline which, unlike most others, continues to take seriously the scholarly work that was produced before most of us were born. (Colloquy, p. 203)So from the outset we find that he accepts the characterization of the “K. L. Schmidt hypothesis” as a truism. But Meagher is nothing if not thorough. Surely at some point in the next 60 pages either Meagher or someone on the distinguished discussion panel will remember that Schmidt actually wrote that only the finished products were unique, and that we could learn quite a bit by studying other analogous works.
Off to a good startMeagher reminds us that Justin Martyr had characterized the gospels as “memoirs of the apostles.” Hence, he was the first to take a stab at assigning a genre to the gospels. But Justin was wrong.
The gospels are not memoirs. They conspicuously lack the characteristic personal reminiscing voice that belongs to that literary type. What then are they? And in what way does it matter? (Colloquy, p. 205, emphasis mine)In a footnote, Meagher concedes that “in a sense, of course, they are [memoirs].” However, he thinks we’ll gain no profit from “following Justin’s generic lead.” Schmidt would have disagreed with that assessment, for they are nothing like memoirs. The gospels may be in some very general sense biographies (which Schmidt freely admitted); however in every important sense they are unlike all forms of ancient Hochliteratur.
Answering the questions above (what are the gospels and why does it matter?), Meagher admits that the gospels really are, in some sense, unique:
Apparently, what we call gospels were perceived very early as special forms of literature, sui generis in character. There is nothing just like a gospel except another gospel.He is arguing against what he perceives to be trivial uniqueness. As Margaret Mead put it, “Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.”
Does that make the gospels unique? Yes and no. Yes, insofar as the gospels have shared characteristics that simply do not occur in any other extant literature, except in imitation of the four canonical books. But also, no, insofar as the gospels share characteristics with other literary types. If the gospels are unique, so are the Upanishads, the Talmuds, and the Screwtape Letters. (Colloquy, p. 205, emphasis mine)
Uniqueness may be taken for granted. What matters is to locate the relevant sorts of nonuniqueness by which we come to tune in properly what is being offered, so that our appropriation of the offering may be apt. (Colloquy, p. 206)It’s unfortunate that he chose to use such stilted prose to make a crucial point. Luckily, he restates it a few lines later in plain English:
The gospels were put together for the purpose of being read. Read as what? (Colloquy, p. 206, emphasis mine)As works of literature, Meagher admits the gospels are unique, however:
To know how to read them, we must go beyond this trivial truth to discover just what sorts of nonuniqueness guided their authors into the supposition that their readers would understand them. And that is precisely what Karl Ludwig Schmidt proposed to do, while asserting that their measure of environmental nonuniqueness made their measure of literary uniqueness both large and important. (Colloquy, p. 206, emphasis mine)
The question of genre: “Read as what?”Well, that was a mouthful. Let’s step back a moment and get a handle on what Meagher and the genre critics are talking about. When we pick up a written work, whether consciously or not, we look for cues as to how to read it. The well-worn example goes something like this: You pick up a sheet of paper. At the top you read, “Dear Bob,” and at the bottom, “Sincerely, Mary.” You know it’s a letter of some sort. And because you understand the conventions of the genre, you know that Mary’s use of the word “dear” does not necessarily indicate any sort of special affection.
The forms and structures of literary works tell us how to read something. Is it history? Is it a work of fiction? Biography? We look for features to give us clues. We search for elements that this work might have in common with other writings in order to establish a framework of understanding.
If readers look for points of contact with other analogous works to help them understand a given piece of literature, then by the same token authors must also be drawn to literary conventions that will help them convey their message. And similarly, as readers may or may not be aware of the search for literary clues, authors may be unconscious of their reliance on convention. But rely they must, for if they stray too far outside the boundaries of convention, they risk not being understood at all.
Meagher writes that “meaning can be offered and received in discourse only by passing through a matrix of shared conventions.” (Colloquy, p. 211) For this and other reasons, he will be skeptical of any appeal to uniqueness.
Are unique works necessarily unintelligible?Meagher asserts that uniqueness in literature is “implausible, by the normal canons of procedure in literary history, where the usual presumption is against uniqueness.” Burridge, with similar disdain, dismisses the very possibility of uniqueness, writing:
It is hard to imagine how anyone could invent something which is a literary novelty or unique kind of writing. Even supposing it were possible, no one else would be able to make sense of the work, with no analogy to guide their interpretation: ‘One cannot imagine a writer successfully inventing a genre for him or herself; for a genre to exist some form of reader recognition, of social acceptance, is necessary.’ (What Are the Gospels?, p. 12; quoting Jeremy Hawthorn, Unlocking the Text: Fundamental Issues in Literary Theory, p. 45)Is this assertion really true? Do we have access to any current examples of works, which like the gospels have well-known analogs in their constituent parts, but are unique in their literary wholes? I think we do.
Like many American boys born in the 1950s and ’60s, I consumed science fiction voraciously. I read novels, short stories, novellas; watched movies, television shows, etc. Of course, science fiction or “speculative fiction” (a term often attributed to Robert Heinlein, but which never seemed to stick) is a sub-genre. Its authors used the common forms of fiction — the short story, novella, novel, screenplay, or radio drama — to convey their peculiar subject matter.
I found great joy in going to the library, picking a book at random, knowing nothing about the author or the work, except what I could glean from the dust jacket or imagine by looking at the gaudy cover art. As Meagher rightly indicated, when you pick up a book, you (perhaps subconsciously) think, “This work was intended to be read as what?” And to me it would quickly become apparent — it was a novel, or a compendium of short stories by different authors, or a series of short stories with the same main character, or something else.
On the question of genre, one science fiction work stands out for me as defying categorization, and that’s The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. Are we reading chapters in a novel, or individual stories? Did the author initially have an overall plan, or was it pieced together after the fact? Am I reading the story of the human colonization of Mars, or stories of the future conquest of the red planet? Just what is this?
Fortunately for us, Bradbury himself answered the question.
He has called it a “half-cousin to a novel” and “a book of stories pretending to be a novel.” As such, it is similar in structure to Bradbury’s short story collection, The Illustrated Man, which also uses a thin frame story to link various unrelated short stories. (Wikipedia, emphasis mine)The observant reader will note a parallel with the form critics’ assessment of the gospels. Could we not properly describe them as “a collection of Jesus stories pretending to be a biography”? I think that’s an eminently defensible position.
In a very real sense, The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man are unique works that cannot be duplicated today. One obvious reason, of course, is that Ray Bradbury is no longer with us. However, beyond that, the stories themselves are from a unique period in literary history. After World War II, a remarkable number of authors were able to eke out a living writing short stories for magazines.
It was a golden age for short fiction — for “serious” fiction as well as for genre fiction such as mysteries, westerns, and science fiction. An avid reading public (which would later nearly evaporate with the advent of television) eagerly awaited the next edition of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Amazing Tales, or The Saturday Evening Post. In the world of science fiction, giants in the field were writing stories we would later consider “classics.”
Something unique this way comesIn another significant sense, Bradbury’s two “half-cousins to a novel” are unique, in that he had not originally intended the stories to be arranged as a single work. The larger, sequential narrative framework, including the “interstitial vignettes” came later. (Recall how Schmidt described the narrative framework that links the pericopae in the synoptic gospels as secondary and redactional.)
For these reasons, The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man are unique, and not just trivially but in real, substantive ways. Naturally, unlike the gospels, Bradbury’s works are not Kleinliteratur; however, like the gospels nothing else quite resembles them, and there will never be anything like them again.
Yet as a teenager, I was able to pick up and read Chronicles with no trouble at all. Perhaps at first I could enjoy the book simply as a compendium of short stories, but the framework quickly became clear. Make no mistake. I was reading a unique work of fiction, but despite the dire warnings from modern gospel genre experts I had no trouble making sense of the work.
The foregoing discussion should, I hope, come across as simple common sense. However, it has for the most part remained unspoken. Not that I would fool myself into thinking a couple of amateur scribblers at an obscure blog will make any difference, but it still needs to be said. This specific criticism leveled at Schmidt — namely that the gospels cannot be unique — is fundamentally flawed. Schmidt said only that gospels as a whole were unique. And as we have seen, although a finished product may be substantively unlike any other, it can still be understood, as long as the constituent parts are presented in recognizable forms.
We don’t know for certain how early Christians read Mark, but it is reasonable to assume that it was read aloud to congregations in full and in part. I see no reason to presume that every time Christians sat down together to read Mark that they read the whole thing. Sure, given its length and simple language, it isn’t difficult to do. However, we can easily imagine them reading only from the Passion during Easter or from Jesus’ Baptism just before somebody was baptized. Similarly, a congregation might have read the story of the Last Supper just before taking Communion.
Even if a gospel in its entirety was unlike any other work, we would not expect people listening to the “stories of Jesus” to have any problem at all understanding it. And it baffles me how such a red herring became a key factor in the destruction of the so-called Schmidt-Bultmann consensus.
In the next post, we’ll continue with Meagher’s watershed essay.
The Genre of the Gospels: How the Consensus Changed (Part 9)
by Tim Widowfield
Part 9: “A searching critical blitz of the Schmidt hypothesis”The previous post in this series began a critical analysis of an essay by John C. Meagher, delivered at the Colloquy on New Testament Studies back in 1980, before such well-known figures in the New Testament world as Charles H. Talbert, Vernon K. Robbins, and William R. Farmer. This post continues with Meagher’s “searching critical blitz”* of what most scholars believe is Karl Ludwig Schmidt’s hypothesis.
What Meagher got rightSome of Meagher’s criticisms of Schmidt’s views on the gospels were correct. Schmidt sometimes displayed far too much naive optimism when it came to the fidelity of the evangelists (and the tradents they followed) to the Jesus tradition. It is quite clear that each evangelist altered the tradition to fit specific theological views. Thus, Meagher was right in criticizing Schmidt for asserting that the gospels have a certain intrinsic reliability simply by virtue of their genesis as folk books. He summed up Schmidt’s views in Colloquoy on New Testament Studies:
The content of the gospels was brought to the brink of compilation by a transmissional tradition graced by “the fidelity to the material which characterizes all popular tradition” and it is this that assures its reliability — “that the people as community became bearer and creator of the tradition makes its content reliable.” (p. 207, quoting Schmidt in The Place of the Gospels in the General History of Literature, emphasis mine)While we may correctly view Schmidt’s comments as overly optimistic at times, we should also point out that at other times during his analysis in The Place of the Gospels, he is careful, rational, and properly skeptical.
What Meagher got wrongHowever, on the whole, Meagher’s attack on the Schmidt hypothesis fails, because he — for whatever reason — was convinced that Schmidt believed that the gospels were utterly unique, and therefore any investigation into analogous works would be a waste of time because:
. . . the unprecedentedness is of the essence and that the possible analogues can only be misleading as an interpretive instrument. (Colloquy, p 213)Here is the point at which Meagher went astray. He showed abundant familiarity with Schmidt’s work, as found in the German edition of The Place of the Gospels in the General History of Literature and in Twentieth-Century Theology in the Making (Harper, 1971). Meagher peppered his essay with footnotes and many quotes from both works. Hence it is all the more strange that he continually missed the clear evidence that Schmidt, in fact, did not think that “possible analogues [of the gospels] can only be misleading as an interpretive instrument.”
On the contrary, in Part Two of The Place of the Gospels, which spans 60 pages and examines 12 different literary examples as analogs to the gospels, Schmidt explained the purpose of the section in his introduction by affirming that “analogy is the only sensible and productive method.” (p. 27)
Meagher found Schmidt’s rejection of possible analogs (despite what Schmidt actually wrote) unwise and untenable. Moreover, it was unproductive. In other words, because scholars following Schmidt had thought the gospels were unique and that comparing them to other works would be fruitless, they had focused only on those four canonical books themselves. In Meagher’s words:
The unique gospels did not render up their secrets to interpreters who respected them as such, or become translucent vessels of a central and discernible Christian truth. . . . Competing attempts to pluck out the heart of the mystery and formulate the esoteric tradition of Jesus implicit in the gospels’ structure had their day and faded. The attempt to do without the usual interpretive controls does not appear to have been successful. We wound up not much more skillful in reading a gospel than we had begun, not much wiser about how to understand what a gospel means to be. In the circumstances, one is naturally attracted in the routine supposition, suspended only by the hope engendered by Schmidt and his colleagues, that despite evident dissimilarities to other known literary forms, a gospel may have sufficient kinship to be provided with interpretive clues. (Colloquy, p. 216, emphasis mine)Just to be clear, the “routine supposition” to which Meagher referred is the normal presupposition that literary works are not sui generis, that their authors mostly likely relied on forms with which they were familiar and that they expected their audience would understand. If Meagher’s preceding comments weren’t sufficiently clear, here’s one final indictment.
I acknowledge that the cultic embedding of the folk-traditions of earliest Christianity undoubtedly produced their own special signals, probably less casual than in the forms of popular lore that he recognized to be legitimately analogous. But to argue Schmidt’s position against the analogies entails a burden of proof which Schmidt and his successors do not seem to have shouldered. (Colloquy, p. 217, emphasis mine)I’m almost at a loss for words. Remember that what Meagher believed and wrote about the Schmidt hypothesis was in fact the emerging dominant perspective at the time. Nor should we underestimate the impact of Meagher’s essay on the future of genre studies. In fact although earlier in this post I referred to Meagher’s analysis as a failure, because it rests on faulty premises, we must acknowledge that it was a success in that his point of view won out.
The narrative espoused by modern genre critics in New Testament studies says that scholarship had, essentially, wasted decades in futile analysis of the gospels, because the Schmidt (or Schmidt-Bultmann) consensus declared that the gospels were unlike any other literary work in the history of humankind and that comparing them to other forms of literature was a waste of time.
Now, over 30 years since the Colloquy, I think it’s fair to say that the new consensus has spread beyond the small circle of genre critics. The consensus has its own legendary history: a group of intrepid scholars refused to accept the status quo and went looking for literary analogs to the gospels. The historical fact that Schmidt also went looking for analogs, found them, and learned from them is lost knowledge. And since the actual facts don’t correspond to the “received truth,” we should not expect anything to change.
What Schmidt learnedAs we discovered from reading The Place in the Gospels, Karl Ludwig Schmidt believed that a close study of the gospels revealed that they were not works of “high literature” (Hochliteratur), but were instead books created from a cultic community. The were not so much written, but redacted from the community’s store of oral and written folk tales. It stands to reason, then, that if we study other works that were assembled in a similar manner — i.e., analogs — we may gain some insights into the gospels.
. . . both Schmidt and Bultmann thought that studying gospel analogies had at least limited validity. To say they believed that analogies had no validity at all contradicts what they plainly wrote.One note in passing: Rudolf Bultmann believed even more strongly in the uniqueness of the gospels than did Schmidt. Even so, he recognized the validity of studying their analogs, at least to a point. In Twentieth-Century Theology in the Making, he recapitulates Schmidt’s findings in The Place of the Gospels, and writes:
However, all these analogies are valid only to a certain degree. The gospels resemble them in so far as  their authors are in no sense literary personalities, in so far as  they gather together a tradition consisting of individual deeds and sayings of their hero without any scientific purpose, and in so far as  they lay no value in chronology, consistency of content, or psychological motivation and characterization. The gospels differ, however, not only in that they have no interest in story-telling for its own sake (apart from later imitations [i.e., later apocryphal gospels]), which is a frequent element in the analogous literature, . . . but above all in that in the gospels the material is ordered from one dominant point of view. (Theology, p. 88)He goes on to explain his now well-known position that the gospels serve a specific kerygmatic function and that they derive their uniqueness from the fact that they emerged from “the cult of Christ, and their unity is provided by the Christ myth.” (Theology, p. 88, Bultmann’s italics)
We should expect, of course, that any analysis of analogs will reveal similarities and differences, and that we can learn from both. But note well what Bultmann is saying. The common features in other examples of “low literature” (Kleinliteratur) noted by Bultmann above have to do with their constituent forms, methods of construction, and authorial perspectives. In other words, they share features that have specific interest to a form critic, or, for that matter, anyone interested in the history of the formation of the gospels. Even if the function of a gospel as a whole is markedly different from the analogous literature, their forms may be sufficiently similar to help us understand more about how the gospels came to be.
Finally, let’s acknowledge that both Schmidt and Bultmann thought that studying gospel analogies had at least limited validity. To say they believed that analogies had no validity at all contradicts what they plainly wrote.
Now that we’ve cleared that up, what did Schmidt learn from his study of gospel analogs?
The framework is “loose and weak”In Chapter 4 of The Place of the Gospels, Schmidt looked at a “rich storehouse” of folk traditions in a work called Les littératures populaires de toutes les nations. A common characteristic of these folk tales based on oral tradition is the thin framework that binds the various stories together.
A basic characteristic of oral tradition is that it takes the form of variations, many of which can stand side by side in the same narrative, showing just how unimportant the “connections” are. On the whole, in fact, the connections are quite secondary. The links between individual units are loose and weak, and they provide no basis for either chronology or psychology. (p. 38)Schmidt’s quotation from Émile Amélineau in Monuments pour servir à l’histoire de l’Égypte chrétienne is particularly apt:
I must tell the reader about several distinctive features in the Egyptian style of composition. Over and over in Coptic texts, and in ancient hieroglyphic and hieratic texts, we find expressions like these: “many days after that . . . much later,” and so on. Statements like these mean absolutely nothing, or mean simply “the next day.” Egyptian storytellers generally attach no significance to precise notions of time; these stock phrases rolled gently off the tongue, and that was all that was needed. They served as vague expressions, as we would commonly say, “and then” or “after that.” Chronological reconstruction cannot be built on this kind of data. (p. 38, emphasis mine)So it is with the gospels. The implications are clear. Mark is not an inept author of a Greco-Roman biography of Jesus. He is, rather, a typical redactor of oral tradition, where the focus is on the individual story unit. If Schmidt is correct, then focusing on the framework in order to glean chronological and geographical details about Jesus’ ministry will be at best useless and at worst completely misleading.
Actually, Schmidt would have disagreed with what I just wrote there. He, perhaps again too optimistically, did not think “that all the specific details in the framework are secondary and thus historically worthless.” (p. 43) He defends this belief by explaining that some of the details “are so personal and at the same time so vague,” that they may indeed be residual authentic history. The problem, of course, with Schmidt’s theory that the framework is not all “husk” is that we have no credible methodology for extracting such authentic details.
Details come; details goA close comparison of the synoptic gospels reveals that vague and personal details appear not merely in the framework, but are embedded in the stories themselves. Consider, for example, the odd detail we learn in Mark’s version of the Passion, in which we are told the names of Simon of Cyrene’s children. Some scholars are convinced that such a throwaway line as this must indicate historicity. In The Gospels for All Christians, Richard Bauckham whimsically theorizes:
That Matthew (27:32) and Luke (23:26) omit reference to the sons of Simon of Cyrene might be due simply to their habitual practice of abbreviating Mark. It might indicate that they were less confident than Mark that readers of their Gospels would know of Alexander and Rufus, which would be consistent with the hypothesis that Alexander and Rufus were well known in some, but not all, of the churches to which Mark could expect his Gospel to circulate. Finally, the difference between the Synoptic evangelists here might indicate that Alexander and Rufus were alive when Mark wrote, dead when Matthew and Luke wrote. (p. 25, emphasis mine)But do details such as these allow us to draw any reliable inferences? It’s true that when compared side by side Mark’s versions of the same pericopae are usually longer and contain greater detail. Is that because Mark is later and he tends to pad out the stories, or is it because Matthew and Luke are later and tend to remove the fluff? That isn’t some peripheral question borne of idle curiosity, but a primary concern of form criticism. If the transmission of literature follows basic rules that we can depend on (as Bultmann and Dibelius asserted), then we should be able to determine the “direction” of the tradition.
When Schmidt studied the folk-book tradition of Doktor Faust, he found many parallels to the gospels, especially in how they were formed and transmitted. With respect to the inclusion and omission of details of time, place, and person, he noted:
If we follow one story down through the various editions, we often find that a later Faust-book leaves out specifications of time given by an earlier one; yet details of time often show up for the first time in later editions either to stick fast or drop out again later. The same goes for descriptions of places and people. We notice, therefore, a two-way process at work: specific situational details become attached to some stories that previously did not have them, but they also disappear from stories that previously were outfitted with them.This phenomenon, by the way, is certainly not limited to the Faust tradition. Earlier in chapter 4, Schmidt noted in passing the same sort of thing going on in other folk traditions, writing:
It is exactly the same with the gospels. Thus we learn from the Faust-books that an excess or surfeit of framing details cannot be the basis for firm conclusions about either the temporal setting of a story or the historical worth of a tradition. The vexed question of whether Mark or Matthew is more original (either because Mark has such a wealth of situational details or because Matthew has so few) can never be settled, since the course of the tradition shows equal tendency toward expansion and abbreviation. (The Place of the Gospels, p. 50, emphasis mine)
New place designations and characters, which either were not in, or different from, those in the original edition, can appear out of nowhere in later editions and even in the final redaction. (p. 38, emphasis mine)
The implications for form criticismIf you are familiar with its history, you’ll recall that one the criticisms leveled at Formgeschichte is the fact that its most ardent practitioners made contradictory assertions about the “laws” governing the transmission of the tradition from oral stories to written gospels. On the one hand Bultmann said that the earliest authentic nuggets were small and that they accreted details as they were handed down. On the other hand, Vincent Taylor said the earliest forms of the stories were full of details, and that the nonessential parts eroded away. Who was correct?
E.P. Sanders and Margaret Davies put it this way in Studying the Synoptic Gospels:
We may put the issue like this: are the minor details in Mark (e.g. the paralytic was carried by four people, Mark 2.3) eyewitness details which have not yet been rounded off (so Taylor), or supplementary details put in by later hands for the sake of verisimilitude and colour (so Bultmann)? (p. 127)The authors ultimately conclude:
When we study in detail the form critical ‘laws’ of development and change of the material, we discover that none of them holds good. [At this point, Sanders cites his own work, The Tendencies of the Synoptic Tradition] . . . Individual retellers might expand or abbreviate, might elabourate or epitomize. There are no general laws about length and detail. This negative judgment applies to Taylor’s proposals as well as to those of Dibelius and Bultmann. (p. 128)I have only recently ordered The Tendencies of the Synoptic Tradition, but from what I can glean from a search in Google books, Sanders was unaware of the fact that Schmidt anticipated his conclusions several decades earlier. We have to wonder, didn’t anybody read Schmidt? Not even Bultmann?
The need for a “critical blitz”Having said all that (and I do apologize for a blog post that’s fast approaching 3,000 words), I agree with Meagher on one thing: we do need to assess the Schmidt hypothesis. However, NT scholarship first needs to get a handle on what Karl Ludwig Schmidt was really saying, address each of his points, judge his findings, and work from that evaluation as a point of departure for a new consensus. If Schmidt was wrong, how was he wrong, and where do we go from there?
Note well that I did not write “re-assess,” because we need to discard the initial assessment, which was fundamentally flawed. It was this flawed evaluation that absolved modern genre critics of any responsibility to understand what Schmidt’s hypothesis really was. By imagining that Schmidt had counseled against looking for parallels, they saw themselves as pioneers. Because they knew only that Schmidt thought the gospels were not biographies, but not why, they mistakenly tossed aside his conclusions as if they were based on some antiquated prejudice or apologetic tendency.
Unfortunately, after taking the “wrong turn at Albuquerque,” NT scholarship has traveled down hundreds of miles of bad road, and so far, the drivers have shown no indication that they realize they’re lost.
* “To the best of my knowledge there has never been a searching critical blitz of the Schmidt hypothesis.”
–John C. Meagher (Colloquy on New Testament Studies, p. 214)
Ancient Novels and the Gospels
by Neil GodfreyThe following notes are taken from pages 74-76 of Mary Ann Tolbert’s Sowing the Gospel: Mark’s World in Literary-Historical Perspective (1989). A wonderful collection of ancient novels can be found in Reardon’s Collected Ancient Greek Novels (1989). Chariton, Xenophon of Ephesus, Achilles Tatius, Longus and others make fascinating reading as they bring us closer to the literary culture in which our gospel authors themselves were embedded. Modern novels are about psychological motives and development. Not so ancient novels. They were about plot and action and the principles of character illustrated through the action. (Tolbert also cites Kermode, whom I feel a little embarrassed to mention again here for who knows how many times now.)
Following is a summary of the characteristics of ancient novels that must affect our views of the gospels, and after the summary I will list a few possible implications.
3 characteristics of ancient popular literature found in the Gospels
1. Historiographic form — the use of historical characters, locations, activities and groups as stereotypical set pieces. The intent was to lend verisimilitude to the story. Thus the Roman rulers, the crowds, the Galilean villages, the Jewish priests and practices, Jerusalem and its Temple, were formal representations or set pieces, not pictures of reality in the modern sense of realism. Tolbert cites Todorov, “Introduction to Verisimilitude,” in The Poetics of Prose, 81-82.
2. Epic substance — The episodic epic plot pattern used the journey to tie separate encounters and adventures together. Episodes often cluster together, not by cause and effect, but by the needs of repetition or thematic parallels.
In ancient novels there are 3 possible points where this episodic chain of events gives way to more developed and intertwined plot patterns:
- The beginning where there is a need to introduce the divine and human levels of the story to follow;
- The central turning point that points to the final recognition scene (this is where a distinct change begins — in the case of Mark it is the first time a human (not a demon) recognizes Jesus, and this begins the passion predictions and the journey to Jerusalem);
- The final recognition scene/s, at the heart of which is the question of identity; these scenes extend over a period of days and are tied together with time references — as in ancient novels (influenced by Homer’s Odyssey) there is a question and answer scene where Jesus declares his identity before the High Priest; Pilate and the centurion offer backhanded recognition of Jesus; Peter in another question and answer scene denies his identity three times. To anyone familiar with the conventions of recognition scenes such a denial at the end rules out any possibility of a happy ending (p.75).
- brief dialogues surrounded by narrative explication
- monologues at crucial moments to review past adventures and reveal some internal agony (only one in Mark — the prayer in Gethsemane)
- crowds (in novels) and chorus (in drama) are used to express general views or opinions on the action
- most characters are minor ones who make only an appearance or two before disappearing; only the hero with a close friend or few faithful servants hold the plot together from beginning to end, “yet even they are often portrayed in a flat, stereotypical, passive, and static manner.”
What room is there for models of oral transmission culminating in authors collecting “pericopes” of “traditions” and stringing them together in loose episodic fashion when the episodic pattern is clearly seen to be a literary creation of creative authors following epic and novelistic conventions of the time?
Why make presumptions of historicity on the basis of historical characters and settings in the gospels when such appearances were common literary conventions that bore no necessary relationship to historicity at all? Especially when we see the same dramatic and epic content typical of the ancient novel genre appearing in the gospels.
The novelistic conventions ought to prompt a rethink about the point of the messianic secret in Mark.
Tolbert’s observation on Mark’s “anti-recognition” scene for Peter at the end further supports the hypothesis that Mark 16.8 was the original ending. Seen in the context of literary conventions, Peter’s emphatic denials doom him from finding a happy resolution. The young man in the tomb tells others that it is not in the tomb or Jerusalem they (including Peter) will find Jesus, but in Galilee. But Peter has already committed the sin of denying his Lord before men and is doomed to be denied by God himself. His tears, like the tears of Eurylochus in the Odyssey after he had so cowardly failed his companions, provoke audience scorn, not pity. A modern reader pities him only on the basis of wanting him to be like the Peter found in Matthew and Luke and John and Acts. Would the Paul who wrote Galatians have felt pity for his tears?
Fiction in ancient biographies, histories and gospels
by Neil Godfrey
It ain’t necessarily so.
Dale C. Allison M. Grable Professor of New Testament Exegesis and Early Christianity at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. In his recent book, Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History, he includes a discussion of recent scholarship on the genre of the gospels and what genre means for the question of whether we can expect to find fictional tales in the gospels.
The question has force, says Allison, because the gospel authors appear to have been “far more interested in the practical and theological meanings of their stories than in literal facticity.” (p. 442)
Pervo and MacDonald on Acts
Allison begins by noting that some scholars have “recently decided that the guild has long misconstrued the genre of Acts, and that the book contains features more typical of light fiction than ancient historiography.” He is referring specifically to the work of Richard Pervo, “Profit with Delight“, which I have covered in detail in a series of posts here. Here also points to Dennis MacDonald’s “Does the New Testament Imitate Homer? Four Cases from the Acts of the Apostles“.
Allison concedes “perhaps they might be right” but he personally doubts it. Nonetheless, he does cite Thomas E. Phillips who wrote: “In the eyes of most scholars, it [Acts] is history — but not the kind that precludes fiction.”
If Acts, what of the Gospels?
“In recent years, several scholars have called attention to possible affiliations between the canonical Gospels and Hellenistic romance, or between the Gospels and Homer.”
Again Allison cites Pervo and MacDonald.Pervo argues that the activity of shaping various independent stories into a coherent narrative involved the same compositional strategies we find in the Alexander Romance, the Life of Aesop or Philostratus’s novel about Apollonius of Tyana. (The Novel in the Ancient World, ed. by Schmeling.)
Many are more aware of MacDonald’s The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark. Allison repeats the common criticism that Mark’s narrative is set in recent times, unlike the stories found in ancient epics. I personally think this criticism is questionable if we apply rely primarily on external controls for dating Mark, in which case it becomes possibly a mid-second century work. Further, the point of the Jesus narrative is to depict a hero at the end of the age, not at the beginning.
The state of play with respect to these studies?
It is perhaps too early to know whether this recent take on the Gospels will lead to a dead end to or a new world of profitable discourse. In the latter case, we will have to rethink much, and perhaps the proposition that the Gospels contain in part or in whole “purely metaphorical narratives” will become not just credible but blindingly obvious. (pp. 442-3)Biography
One will sometimes read a scholar proclaiming dogmatically to lay readers that the Gospels are “biographies” and will be referred to Richard Burridge’s “What Are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography”. The intent of this dogmatic assertion is to convince others that the Gospels do not contain fiction but genuine “biographical” information.
Any scholar who declares this as a “fact” is abusing his status as a scholar and betraying his lay audience. It is more intellectually honest to say, as does Allison,
In the meantime, many scholars remain persuaded that the Gospels are a subspecies of Greco-Roman biography. What would acceptance of that classification imply for the thesis about “purely metaphorical narratives?But even if we were to think of the Gospels as belonging to the biography genre, we are no closer to establishing the ‘literal truth’ of their contents.
Greek and Roman biographers and historians were quite capable of handing on stories that they did not consider factual or about which they had doubts. Often, however, they made this clear. Plutarch told one version of the conception of Alexander the Great, after which he added: “There is another version of this story.” Having then related that second account, he added that Alexander’s mother, Olympia, repudiated it (Alex. 2-3). In this way, Plutarch signaled to his readers that they were not on firm historical ground. The Gospels, however, offer nothing remotely similar. No evangelist confronts us with differing versions of the same story that push us to ask which is true.Is that last section of what Allison says true? I hardly think so. It is only true to the extent that within their own gospels they presented the reader with but one viewpoint. But the evangelists were clearly aware of different versions of a number of stories, and they clearly had to choose between them. Most scholars see Matthew and Luke using Mark as a source, and they sometimes make significant changes to Mark’s story. Mark spoke of a demon possessed man possessed with “Legion”. Matthew spoke of two such men in the same episode. Examples abound.
One is reminded of Origin of the History of Israel by Wesselius. Wesselius compares Primary History (Genesis to 2 Kings) with Herodotus’s Histories. He remarks on the habit of Herodotus to often place varying stories side by side and briefly comment on which one he favoured as the more likely. Wesselius compares this with the habit of the author/s of Primary History to also place contradictory stories side by side, with the difference that the authors did not intrude to make their own comments, but left it to readers to decide. Examples are the two accounts of the creation of man and the rise of King David.
By the time we reach the Gospels, we find authors reading one version of a story (say in Mark) and replacing it with another, without comment. Later Christians were comfortable enough with collating these contradictory narratives into a single canon.
Allison then refers to Ulrich Luz’s commentary on Matthew 1-7 to illustrate the idea of some scholars that the Gospel authors modeled their compositions on the historical books of the Hebrew Bible.
But Allison reminds us that Jews were often sceptical about the pure historical authenticity of the Bible. Talmudic writings suggested that Job was a parable and never historically existed. Philo sometimes discarded the literal meaning of the Bible. Origen and Gregory of Nyssa spoke of “apostate Jews” who considered Genesis contained myths, “which raises the possibility that some who thought of themselves as faithful Jews did likewise.” Allison is focussing on what the ancients themselves believed, but it is also goes without saying that much of Genesis and Exodus is plainly nonhistorical, as is the first book of Histories by Herodotus. Herodotus opened up his history with tales of Io and Europa, Jason and Paris.
Allison argues that the Gospel authors believed that they were writing genuine history or biography. Clearly he rejects the view of John Shelby Spong that I have addressed in recent posts. So in future posts I hope to cover some of the criticisms of Spong’s views.
Meanwhile, we see from Allison’s discussion that genre alone cannot be a sure measure of whether or not a narrative contains outright fiction or not.
Are the Gospels Really Biographies? Outlining and Questioning Burridge
by Neil Godfrey
Richard A. Burridge has been central to the development of wide scholarly agreement that the Gospels are biographies (or technically βιος) with the publication of his doctoral thesis, What Are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography. To analyze their genre he compares the generic features of the gospels with Graeco-Roman biographies.
My own disagreement with BurridgeBefore posting the details of Burridge’s case, I sum up my own reasons for disagreement. But you’re allowed to skip this section if you want.
I have thought that despite the extent of Burridge’s analysis, the βιος genre simply does not describe the gospels, in particular the Gospel of Mark which is my primary interest. What we recognize as ancient Greek and Roman biographies are clearly and directly “about” their subject persons.
The Gospel of Mark, unlike Greek and Roman biographies, is not “about” the person or character of it central figure. And I think this applies to the Gospels generally.
The acts of Jesus in Mark are not written to show what sort of personality or character he had, but to demonstrate that he came from God and was the Son of God. The words of Jesus are not written to inform us about the personality or character of Jesus, but to instruct readers and convey, directly or indirectly, a gospel message. They are about the identity of Jesus, not his life story.
At the end of reading the Mark we know nothing about Jesus as a person. His words and works have only demonstrated that he is a supernatural being who came in the flesh and who is waiting to return again.
Furthermore, and of utmost importance, Mark informs readers of different ways of responding to this man from God (not “man of God”), and much of the narrative illustrates different ways various people respond to him, with implied messages for readers to respond with an informed religious faith.
In other words, Mark (and the Gospels) are about, well, the “gospel” of Jesus Christ. His life does not inspire us to be “like him” because we never learn what he is like as a personality. Jesus is not someone whose life inspires readers. It is his death that moves readers with compassion and horror, but not inspiration. What moves readers is the knowledge that he is God or the Son of God, and that as such his teachings carry authority. He must be obeyed. His works are conveyed to move readers to have correct faith in Jesus, not to reveal his personality or inform us about his character. Jesus comes across as the vehicle for the teaching of God and as a God figure who is still present with the readers and in whom they must have faith.
The gospels, in particular Mark, are about the identity of Jesus and the correct response to him. They are not his biography. The details of the words, actions, narratives are there to establish that identity, or to ensure the correct response to it. They are not there to portray a biography.
But before I elaborate on this in another post, it is necessary to at the very least outline the main points of the book that has been most influential in apparently persuading many that the gospels are biographies.
The biographies Burridge uses for comparisonEarly
Satyrus on Euripides
A. Opening Features1. Title
Whether the titles are original or not, they may suggest that the early church grouped the gospels together into a ‘type’, but they do not indicate the genre. . . . The situation regarding the titles of the gospels is . . . rather complex, but they suggest the books were seen as a literary group together, possibly with a connection with βιος. (p. 187, 188)2. Opening Formulae/Prologue/Preface
So we can relate the opening features of the synoptic gospels to βιοι in that Matthew and Mark begin with the subject’s name, while Luke has a formal preface, with the name occurring later at the start of the main narrative. (p. 189)
B. Subject1. Analysis of Verb Subjects
Burridge does a statistical analysis of the subjects of the verbs in the gospels. He concludes:
These figures are a clear indicator of a strong biographical tendency in the gospels. They cannot ‘prove’ that they are βιοι . . . . but it is evident already that the gospels belong with other works of a clear biographical interest. (p. 191)2. Allocation of Space
. . . the death of Jesus is as important in understanding the significance for the evangelists as the battle of Mons Graupius was for Agricola . . . or the Persian campaign for Agesilaus . . . This means that the evangelists’ concentration on the Passion and death of Jesus can no longer be used as an argument against the gospels being βιοι. (p. 193)
C. External Features1. Mode of Representation
[T]he mode of representation of the synoptic gospels is prose narrative of a fairly continuous nature, just like historiography or βιοι. (p. 193)2. Size
Size is . . . another shared feature between the gospels and βιοι. (p. 194)3. Structure
The gospels’ exterior framework of a chronological sequence with topical material inserted is thus a structure typical of Graeco-Roman βιοι. (p. 196)4. Scale
The scale of the synoptic gospels is narrowly defined, focussing upon one individual. Jesus is nearly always centre-stage: other characters appear in order to relate to him . . . . [T]he gospels . . . all restrict their scale to the person in a manner typical of βιοι literature. (p. 196)5. Literary Units
We have seen how βιοι are also composed of stories, anecdotes, sayings and speeches. . . . Overall therefore, we may conclude that the combination of stories, sayings and speeches found in the synoptic gospels is very similar to the basic literary units used by βιοι. (p. 197, 198)6. Use of Sources
It was common in βιοι to mention any sources used, e.g. Philostratus’ and Philo’s references to oral and written sources. . . . [T]he evangelists [also] had access to oral and written sources, including notes, collections and in some cases another gospel, from which they selected and edited their material. . . . Thus the freedom to select and edit sources to produce the desire picture of the subject is another feature shared by both the gospels and Graeco-Roman βιοι. (p. 198-9)7. Methods of Characterization
The absence of direct character analysis in the gospels is one of the traditional arguments against the gospels being biographies. However, we have seen that this requirement is a modern predilection; the ancient method was to display character through deeds and words. This is precisely what we find in the evangelist’s characterization of Jesus. (p. 199)Needless to say (again), I disagree with Burridge’s claim here. The words and deeds of Jesus, certainly in the Gospel of Mark, do not display the character of Jesus, but demonstrate his identity.
Such indirect characterization by word and deed is not unique to the gospels, but common in ancient literature, including βιοι. Therefore the gospels’ so-called ‘lack of character development’ can no longer be used as an argument against their being βιοι. (p. 199)8. Summary
The external, structural pattern of the gospels is clear: they are works of prose narrative of medium length, with an apparently chronological structure into which topical material is inserted, written on a fairly narrow scale focussed on Jesus, composed from different literary units to portray the central character of Jesus through his deeds and words and the reactions of others to him. Not all of these generic features are unique to βιοι literature; but the overall combination of them reflects the same family resemblance as was seen in our study of Graeco-Roman βιοι. (p. 200)
D. Internal Features1. Setting
The settings in the gospels change as Jesus moves from place to place —
We move to these setting . . . by following Jesus. The dramatic settings are similarly determined, with Jesus centre stage and the focus of the action. . . . This personal focus of the work’s settings on an individual rather than a place or topic, is also a feature of βιοι literature, and so here we have another generic link between the gospels and βιοι. (p. 200)2. Topics
- Even Mark presents knowledge of Jesus’ family; Matthew and Luke contain genealogies, and speak of Bethlehem and Nazareth.
- Mark omits the birth, but so do the biographies of Agesilius, Atticus, Cato Minor and Demonax
- Boyhood and education
- Luke alone scores on this one
- Great deeds
- Miracles of course, and as with βιοι of philosophers, the great teachings are also included
- The synoptic gospels do not hae systematic analysis of Jesus’ virtues in the manner of Agesilaus III-XI, Atticus 13-18 or Suetonius’ Caesars; rather, as with our other βιοι, Jesus’ virtues emerge through stories which display his compassion for the crowd who were “like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34), or his concern or the outcast by his touching a leper, “moved with pity” (Mark 1:41), or his quick mind to avoid the questioner’s trap (Mark 12:17). Such indirect display of the subject’s virtues is common in βιοι. (p. 202)
- Death and consequences
- The concentration on the subject’s death has been shown to be common in βιοι; it was particularly important for Plutarch to explain Cato’s death in detail, because of his apparent failure. . . . Sanders compares [the Resurrection stories] with the appearance of Apollonius of Tyana after his death (Vit. Ap. VIII,31). (p. 202)
Despite some Semitic influence, the style of the synoptic gospels is within the range of contemporary Koiné, and probably similar to popular βιοι no longer extant. Thus the style of the gospels should not be seen as a feature peculiar to themselves. (p. 204)4. Atmosphere
This somewhat serious and respectful atmosphere, tinged with praise and worship, is reminiscent of the atmosphere of some of our βιοι, notably the Agricola and Philo’s Moses, as opposed to the lightness of Lucian and Satyrus. (p. 204)5. Quality of Characterization
As regards the quality of characterization in βιοι, we saw a tendency towards the typical and even the stereotypical, but noted that through the actual stories and anecdotes a much more ‘real’ feel for the character could be obtained. The same pertains to the characterization of Jesus in the synoptic gospels. . . . The portraits drawn by the evangelists are well known: Mark’s Jesus is rather enigmatic and secretive, rushing around doing things ‘immediately’, a miracle-worker, yet one who talks about suffering and who eventually dies terribly alone and forsaken. Matthew shows a Jewish Jesus in continuity with Israel, the ‘new Moses’ who delivers his teaching from the Mount and reinterprets the Law. Luke, on the other hand, stresses the ‘man for others’, with his concern for the outcasts and the lost, for Gentiles, women and the poor, who dies with words of forgiveness for his executioners and acceptance of the criminal crucified with him. . . .Burridge hits the nail on the head in that last paragraph when he turns away from literary analysis and towards millions of believers who believe they “know” Jesus. They know him as they know God, I suggest. And they know him as one who loves them personally now, not as a personality in the past. That personality they believe they ‘know’ is a projection of their own faith and needs, and it latches on to key passages in the Gospels as hooks for this faith and finds something far more than is expressed about the person of Jesus in the past tense in the gospels. We have moved away from literary genre and literary analysis.
However, having said all this, we cannot leave the discussion merely with the stereotype. That there is a ‘real’ character which comes through the portraits and the stories is clear from the millions of different people in different situations who, nonetheless, believe that they ‘know’ this man and try to run their lives as ‘he’ would wish. . . . The tension between the real and the stereotype in the synoptic gospels is thus not dissimilar from characterization in other βιοι. (p. 205)
6. Social Setting and Occasion
Burridge’s discussion here is lengthy and detailed. It is forced to address the problems arising from the anonymity of the gospels and our ignorance about their provenance. We simply don’t know who wrote them or what was “their social setting, geographical provenance or the occasion(s) which prompted their production. Everything has to be gleaned from hints within the texts themselves. . .” Rather than outline Burridge’s discussion here, I will simply quote his conclusion:
At the very least, therefore, there appears to be nothing about this generic feature preventing them being βιοι. (p. 207)7. Authorial Intention and Purpose
- The kind of praise the gospels elicit for Jesus is different from that usually expressed at public funerals of great persons. “[T]he attitude of the gospels to both subject and reader has little of the atmosphere of encomium.”
- Shuler refers to the intention of the evangelists to elicit a response of faith, as well as praise. 1 Peter 2:21 specifically points to Christ as an example to follow, and the most obvious gospel for this is Matthew, whose intention to provide a ‘paradigm’ for discipleship is noted by many redaction critics. (p. 208)
- Best declares that Mark was “not written to provide historical information about Jesus’ even though it does do so.” Lindars says that Luke was interested in telling the story to satisfy the curiosity of the outsiders.
- Entertainment value
- If the gospels were designed to be read aloud, possibly in their entirety, their content and structure needed to be sufficiently interesting to hold the audience’s attention. (p. 209)
- To preserve memory
- If the deaths of eyewitnesses played a part in prompting the writing of the gospels, then this could be a motive. But the belief that Jesus was not dead anyway makes the idea of “preserving his memory” somewhat different from what is normally meant by this.
- This is a major purpose in βιοι and the gospels
- Apologetic and Polemic
- Probably the most common purpose of βιοι in our examples was their use in debate and argument. . . . [Weeden and Bilezikian . . . see] polemic in Mark, directed against the Twelve and traditional Jewish Christianity . . . Luke-Acts may have been used as apologetic for Paul at his trial or, more likely, in the later Jewish/Gentile debate . . .
These aims do not determine the gospels’ genre by themselves, other genres are used for polemic or apologetic . . . However, within the overall context of this study, this congruence of aims between the synoptic gospels and βιοι is another indication of a shared function. (p. 210)Noteworthy, I think, that Burridge turns to 1 Peter and a presumed knowledge of Matthew on this epistle’s author’s part to support his argument that the character of Jesus is presented as an examplar. He is certainly correct to quote Shuler saying that the intention of the evangelists was to elicit faith. But is the Gospel of Mark’s Jesus really an examplar? Maybe, but only insofar as the gospel’s message is to give up your life and put on a new identity and life. In that context Jesus is presented as the model of abnegation of one’s life. This is surely veering towards an ‘anti-biography’ in the normal sense of the word. Jesus is identified as the being behind the human, the one from heaven and still in heaven, and he calls readers to “follow him” to that extent. This is a theological or religious rule, not a portrait of a real “human life”, certainly not one of or about a personality.
The synoptic gospels share the βιοι pattern of internal features: the geographical and dramatic settings are focussed on Jesus, and selection is made from the usual biographical topics. The style and social setting are probably more down-market than our other examples, but they have a similarly serious and respectful atmosphere. The quality of characterization is a mix of the real and stereotype, while the range of purposes is also similar, especially the didactic and apologetic. Overall, therefore, the mixture of internal features is familiar from our study of βιοι. (pp. 210-11)
ConclusionThe above are listed by Burridge as the generic features in common to both βιοι and the gospels. Common elements do not necessarily themselves require a common genre. Burridge relies on the wide range of shared generic features, and on finding them used as extensively in the gospels as they are in the βιοι as decisive.
Future posts will raise questions about the adequacy of Burridge’s proposal.