Tag Archives: The Genre of the Gospels

The Enigma of Genre and The Gospel of John

In an earlier post, I wrote:

Seen from the perspective of believers, the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of John are disconcertingly different. On the other hand, if we clear our minds of the anxiety of historicity, we see that Mark and John resemble one another much more than they do any “other” Greco-Roman biography.

Notice that both gospels don’t begin with the birth of the subject (Jesus) or even vignettes from his childhood. Instead, they start with John the Baptist. In fact, both John and Mark have the Baptist utter the very first words of direct speech.

Charles Harold Dodd

The fact that John’s pattern for writing a gospel — what the Germans refer to as Gattung — seems suspiciously similar to Mark’s pattern did not escape Charles H. Talbert’s notice. In What Is a Gospel? he wrote:

The heritage of the last generation’s research, as enshrined in the commentaries on the Fourth Gospel by C. H. Dodd and Rudolf Bultmann, has supplied us with the working hypothesis that John and the Synoptics are independent of one another. James M. Robinson has seen that this hypothesis poses the problem of explaining how the same Gattung could emerge independently in two different trajectories, the synoptic and the Johannine.

If, as is usually supposed, Mark was the creator of the literary genre gospel and if John was independent of Mark, where did the fourth Evangelist get his pattern? (Talbert 1986, p. 9-10, bold emphasis mine)

Mark’s Pattern

The consensus among NT scholars for over a century has held that sayings of and stories about Jesus floated freely, first as oral history — kept alive through telling and retelling by his disciples — then as oral tradition, and finally as written gospels. But those first “gospels” were, so the reasoning goes, more or less freeform collections. Not until Mark did we at last see the first narrative gospel, which integrated the stories, sayings, and parables, laid out structurally as a journey along the path from Galilee to Jerusalem, with a tacked-on, pre-existing Passion Narrative.

[James M. Robinson] states that “the view that one distinctive Gattung Gospel emerged sui generis from the uniqueness of Christianity seems hardly tenable.” [Robinson (Trajectories) p. 235, 1971] The emergence of Mark and John independently points to the necessity for a reexamination of the question of the genre of the canonical gospels. (Talbert 1986, p. 10)

Wow. Can you believe Bultmann had the nerve to insist that the author of the Fourth Gospel had no knowledge at all of Mark’s gospel and failed to realize that John’s independent invention of a supposedly unique Gattung strains credulity?  read more »

What’s the Difference Between a History and a Biography?



Because so many NT scholars desperately want the gospels to be both Greco-Roman biographies and reliable histories, we could almost forget that these two forms of literature are not the same. You don’t have to take my word for it. Here’s what Plutarch said:

It being my purpose to write the lives of Alexander the king, and of Caesar, by whom Pompey was destroyed, the multitude of their great actions affords so large a field that I were to blame if I should not by way of apology forewarn my reader that I have chosen rather to epitomize the most celebrated parts of their story, than to insist at large on every particular circumstance of it. It must be borne in mind that my design is not to write histories, but lives.

And the most glorious exploits do not always furnish us with the clearest discoveries of virtue or vice in men; sometimes a matter of less moment, an expression or a jest, informs us better of their characters and inclinations, than the most famous sieges, the greatest armaments, or the bloodiest battles whatsoever.

Therefore as portrait-painters are more exact in the lines and features of the face, in which the character is seen, than in the other parts of the body, so I must be allowed to give my more particular attention to the marks and indications of the souls of men, and while I endeavour by these to portray their lives, may be free to leave more weighty matters and great battles to be treated of by others. (Plutarch’s Alexander [emphasis and reformatting mine])

We could boil these comments down into the following points. A biography: read more »

Form Criticism: Modern Scholarship’s Blind Spot

Percival Gardner-Smith

Percival Gardner-Smith

In a recent post, Neil discussed Helen Bond’s paper, “The Reception of Jesus in the Gospel of John.” I can’t find a print version of the paper, but the video released by Biblical Studies Online on my birthday, brings me both pain and pleasure. Pleasure, because I also believe the author of the Fourth Gospel knew and used Mark. (See my series, “How John Used Mark.”) But pain, too, because Bond repeats the same mistaken views about form criticism that continue to dominate modern New Testament studies.

I agree completely with her thesis statement:

I see John as a rewriting of those written texts in light of both the cultural memories of his own group and a very particular set of historical circumstances. There’s no doubt that this gospel is distinctive in many ways, with its view of Jesus as the incarnate Logos, the unique Son of the Father, and the bringer of eternal life. And yet, it seems to me that many of these distinctive features can be seen to derive from a creative reflection on Markan material. (Bond, 0:55, 2016 — Note: In this post all bold emphasis in quotations is mine.)

An extremely slim volume

Further, she correctly observes that most scholars thought John knew and used the Gospel of Mark until the publication of Percival Gardner-Smith’s Saint John & the Synoptic Gospels in 1938. But notice who turns out to be the villain in this story.

So, while the extent of John’s familiarity with Matthew has often been debated, there was almost complete agreement, until the early 20th century, that the evangelist was thoroughly acquainted with Mark and very likely also with Luke. With the emergence of form criticism, however, things began to change. (Bond, 1:52, 2016)

I set those last four words in italics to indicate Bond’s ominous tone, reminiscent of Neil on The Young Ones, telling us that Vyvyan has escaped. She continues: read more »

The Genre of the Gospels: How the Consensus Changed (Part 9)

Part 9: “A searching critical blitz of the Schmidt hypothesis”

London Library after the Blitz

London Library after the Blitz

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 right

Some 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 wrong

However, 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:

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The Genre of the Gospels: How the Consensus Changed (Part 8)

Part 8: Attacking the foundations: The “uniqueness” of the gospels

A meeting of the minds

The 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.

Colloquy on New Testament Studies, Mercer Univ Press (1983)

Colloquy on New Testament Studies,
Mercer Univ Press (1983)

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 first seminar was actually a two-for-one. Part one, led by Helmut Koester, focused on the development of Mark’s gospel. Naturally, the moderator in charge of the synoptic problem seminar, William R. Farmer, made sure his theory of Markan posteriority got a fair hearing. Hence, following Koester, David Peabody presented a kind of Griesbachian rebuttal. Similarly, the second half of the first seminar, “The Purpose and Provenance of the Gospel of Mark According to the ‘Two Gospel’ (Griesbach) Hypothesis,” was followed by a counterargument by John H. Elliot.

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. Meagher

Unfortunately, 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)

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The Genre of the Gospels: How the Consensus Changed (Part 7)

Part 7: The Uniqueness of the Gospels

What Schmidt said

Joseph B. Tyson

Joseph B. Tyson

While 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:
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The Genre of the Gospels: How the Consensus Changed (Part 6)

Part 6: Criticisms of Schmidt’s Literary Designations

In 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.
English: Diogenes the Cynic, from Diogenes Lae...

Diogenes the Cynic, from Diogenes Laertius’ “Lives,” 1761 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.)

Diogenes Laertius’s work is still Hochliteratur; it’s just bad Hochliteratur. 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. The evangelists’ supposed lack of literary expertise is indeed “not a valid objection,” so it’s a good thing the form critics didn’t base their conclusions on the gospel-writers’ abilities.

Reassessing Luke

Schmidt, 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: read more »

The Genre of the Gospels: How the Consensus Changed (Part 5)

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.

Stephen Jay Gould

A photo of Stephen Jay Gould and his opposable thumbs

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.
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The Genre of the Gospels: How the Consensus Changed (Part 4)

Part 4: Hochliteratur (high literature) and Kleinliteratur (low literature)


To 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 sun

McCane 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)

Martin Dibelius

Martin Dibelius

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?

Ideal Types

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. read more »

The Genre of the Gospels: How the Consensus Changed (Part 3)

Part 3: K. L. Schmidt: Placing the Gospels

When 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.

The Place of the Gospels in the General History of Literature

The Place of the Gospels
in the General History of Literature
Karl Ludwig Schmidt

An act of parricide

In 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. read more »

The Genre of the Gospels: How the Consensus Changed (Part 2)

Part 2: Two Parables

Before 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.

The Platypus

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.”

John Gould print image of Ornithorhynchus anat...

John Gould print image of Ornithorhynchus anatinus (platypus) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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?” read more »

The Genre of the Gospels: How the Consensus Changed (Part 1)

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

Studying the Synoptic Gospels

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.

Fortress Introduction The New Testament

Fortress Introduction The New Testament

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: read more »