by Tim Widowfield
Part 5: More on Karl Ludwig Schmidt’s ideal types
At 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 Thumb
Many 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.