In this post I outline the points of Burridge’s influential argument that the gospels belong to the genre of ancient biography.
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 Burridge
Before 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 its 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 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 comparison
Satyrus on Euripides
Burridge structures his analysis of the generic features shared by βιοι and the gospels as follows. His comments that I cite are from his discussion of the synoptic gospels only. (The italics are Burridge’s.)
A. Opening Features
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)
1. 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 Features
1. 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)
Size is . . . another shared feature between the gospels and βιοι. (p. 194)
The gospels’ exterior framework of a chronological sequence with topical material inserted is thus a structure typical of Graeco-Roman βιοι. (p. 196)
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)
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 Features
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)
- 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 Agesilaus, 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 have 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)
I have quoted Burridge’s comment on “Virtues” in full because I fear his particular illustrations from Mark work more profoundly at another level and for another function than the ones he ascribes to them. (To be continued.)
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)
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. . . .
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)
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.
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 exemplar. 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 exemplar? 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)
The 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.
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