Understanding the nature of a text is a significant factor in knowing how to interpret it and how to use it as historical evidence. Many scholars today, following Burridge, accept that the Gospel of Mark is a biography of the life of Jesus.
The Gospel of Mark is widely considered to be the first written of the canonical gospels and the one that strongly influenced the making of the other synoptic gospels, Matthew and Luke. Some scholars also think John’s gospel was built upon a knowledge of Mark.
Some scholars see Mark as the original written composition of the Jesus narrative. But why it was written, by whom and for whom, and where and when, all remain open questions. Understanding even “what” it is remains open to debate. Is it a biography of Jesus? A novel? A history? A parable? A tragic drama? An anti-epic? A definitive answer to this question of its genre has the potential to assist with how we should understand and interpret it.
In a recent post I outlined the main features that Richard Burridge raises to support his view that the Gospels should be understood essentially as Biographies. (There are a few differences between the modern idea of biographies and those of the ancient Graeco-Roman time, but the idea is close enough the same. My post also specifically addressed Burridge’s arguments in relation to the Synoptics – Matthew, Mark and Luke – but he also uses much the same features to argue John is also a Biography.)
This post looks generally at a range of other scholarly viewpoints that are not satisfied with Burridge’s conclusions. These voices are probably a minority today since Burridge’s work has been very influential among scholars.
I take these dissenting voices from The Problem of Markan Genre: The Gospel of Mark and the Jewish Novel by Michael E. Vines. (And thanks to Michael Nordbakke and Gilgamesh for alerting me to this book in various comments.)
Vines addresses Burridge’s argument with specific application to the Gospel of Mark.
Two major motifs in Mark that fall outside biography
Vines writes that the following major motifs “cannot be subsumed under the rubric of a biographical account of Jesus.”
- “Jesus’ activity is significant primarily as an earthly manifestation of divine presence and action. Jesus receives a divine commission from God to act as God’s agent (1:11; 9:7).”
- crowds are amazed and glorify God when he heals a paralytic (2:12)
- demons recognize the power and authority of God in Jesus (1:24; 3:11; 5:7)
- centurion at the cross declares Jesus’ special relationship with God (15:39)
In these passages, the central concern is not a biographical interest in the earthly deeds of Jesus per se, but a soteriological interest in the way Jesus manifests God’s presence through his earthly activity. (p. 12)
- The predictions concerning the eschatological Son of Man (8:38; 13:26; 14:62)
By identifying Jesus with the Son of Man who will in the future return in divine power to judge the world, Mark extends his Jesus beyond the norms of biographical time and out into the future end-time judge.
Therefore, the content of Mark, with its themes of Jesus’ divine commission and his role as the eschatological Son of Man, exceeds the generic limitations of Greco-Roman biography.
Jesus is not a representative or idealistic type
David Aune has also argued for the gospels being thought of as biographies, although along different lines from those of Burridge. But there is a significant difference between the gospels and Hellenistic biography that Aune does note. The latter share an interest in portraying a hero as an idealistic type, an exemplar of traditional virtues worthy of being followed. Vine quotes Aune contrasting the gospels in this respect:
Unlike Hellenistic biography . . . Jesus is not presented as a paradigm of virtue, at least not in the Hellenistic understanding of the term. Nor is there a great deal of explicit information suggesting that lives of Jesus were intended to serve as models for early Christian readers. (p. 13)
Lingering doubts about biography and the genre of Mark
This post will not dig into specific arguments for an alternative genre of Mark. What it will do is cite voices questioning Burridge’s view (and the majority scholarly view, as I understand it) that the Gospels (the Gospel of Mark in particular) are not adequately explained as biographies.
For Auerbach it is the realism of the gospel narratives that stands them apart from other ancient genres, in particular biography.
For Auerbach, the striking realism of the gospels makes any connection with the standard Greco-Roman genres impossible. Commenting on the depiction of Peter’s denial, he observes that it could not possibly fit within any of the ancient genres: “It is too serious for comedy, too contemporary and everyday for tragedy, politically too insignificant for history — and the form which was given it is one of such immediacy that its like does not exist in the literature of antiquity.”
And the key form on which this difference hangs, says Auerbach, is “the pronounced use of direct discourse in the gospels.”
Auerbach claims that there is no similar use of direct discourse in classical literature. Biographies often contain anecdotal dialogues, but their function is quite different from that of the gospels. In biography, these dialogues only serve to buttress the controlling rhetorical and ethical interests of the author. The use of dialogue in the gospels, however, has a dramatic tension and immediacy that is “rare in antique literature.” (pp. 15-6)
Norman Petersen: “Can One Speak of a Gospel Genre?” Neot 28, no. 3 (1994):139
Petersen rejects the idea of seeking a common genre for the gospels altogether. Just because they are all about Jesus does not mean we should assume they belong to the same literary sub-type. For all we know the gospels may stem from different generic antecedents, and therefore we should investigate each one separately.
Petersen sees Mark as subverting whatever generic models we can see in it.
Willem Vorster: “Mark: Collector, Redactor, Author, Narrator?” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 31 (1980): 57
Vorster argues that attempting to understand Mark’s genre through evolutionary models or through analogies is too focussed on the history behind the text rather than attending to the text as “a meaningful ‘autosemantic unit.'” It is best, he says, to concentrate on Mark as a self-contained narrative. Vines finds points of worth in Vorster’s position, but also considers narrative as “too broad a category to qualify as a genre.”
Roland Frye: “The Jesus of the Gospels: Approaches through Narrative Structure,” in From Faith to Faith . . . ed. by Dikram Y. Hadidian, 1979: 77.
Like Vorster Frye stresses “the importance of reading the gospels as unified narratives and rejects atomistic and reductionist approaches that try to analyze the gospels piecemeal.” For Frye, the gospels are “dramatic history” that bring readers “into contact with the living personality of Jesus.” He does not point to anything similar in other ancient literature.
Adela Yarbro Collins: “Genre and the Gospels,” Journal of Religion 75 (1995): 241, and Is Mark’s Gospel a Life of Jesus? : The Question of Genre (1990) reprinted as The Beginning of the Gospel: Probings of Mark in Context (1992)
Collins is critical of Richard Burridge’s failure to compare the gospels with Jewish literature and does not accept his comparison with Greco-Roman biography.
Collins insists that the formal similarities which exist between Mark’s depiction of Jesus as the agent of God who comes to institute the fulfilment of God’s salvation. According to Collins, the Gospel of Mark is only secondarily interested in presenting Jesus as an ethical and paraenetical model. As Collins sees it, Mark is primarily “an apocalyptic historical monograph.” Collins finds antecedents for this apocalyptic perspective in the “Apocalypse of Weeks” in 1 Enoch, Daniel, the pesharim of the Qumran community, and the histories of Josephus. All these works share an “apocalyptic view of history,” the belief that “earthly events are controlled by heavenly powers.” (p. 21-2, my emphasis)
I return to Vines’ discussion of the apocalyptic theme in Mark at the end of this post, where he raises this aspect in his criticism of Tolbert’s analysis.
Vines agrees with Collins’ emphasis on the apocalyptic-historical character of Mark’s gospel. At the same time, however, he notes that it does not explain the narrative form of the gospel.
Thus 1 Enoch and Daniel 7-9 may find resonance in Mark 13, but nowhere else in the gospel. Vines sees Daniel 1-6 as seemingly coming closer to Mark’s narrative sequences, and Collins describes this section of Daniel as “historical romance or historical fiction.”
Second thoughts on the Gospel of Mark as parable/a new genre
Here I depart from outlining Vine’s summaries and base the following on my own reading of Sowing the Gospel, pages 55-59. Note that Mary Tolbert wrote this book before Richard Burridge published What Are the Gospels?, the starting base of this series of posts (see post dated 17th January 2011). Burridge does address some aspects of Tolbert’s arguments.
It is important for what follows that Tolbert has in her discussion of the definition of genre has earlier written:
If we understand genre as a repertoire of shared conventions that guides readers and writers, we immediately resolve two issues prevalent in earlier discussion of the Gospels’ genres. First, no unique genre can exist almost by definition, for as a set of agreed expectations , a genre that is unique would also be unfollowable. Second, genres, as opposed to institutionally prescribed “kinds,” are fluid patterns, capable of adopting and adapting aspects of earlier works:
New genres are formed from realignments of existing genres. . . . [quoting Kermode, The Genesis of Secrecy, 162]
Thus, biography, memorabilia, and other related forms need to be studied for what they suggest about the conventions shared by the author and hearers of the Gospel of Mark. (p. 50, my bolding throughout)
No Grec0-Roman literature that can be described as similar to the gospels was written before the gospels. Tolbert points to three possible deductions to draw from this:
- The canonical gospels, especially Mark if it was the first, broke ground as a new literary genre;
- There was Greco-Roman literature similar to the gospels but it has been lost;
- The Gospels do resemble ancient texts but we fail to recognize this because they do so “in a debased or altered manner”, a result of their author’s lack of technical skills.
Discussions on the genre of the gospels generally fall narrow the above three options into 1 versus some combination of 2 and 3. The first option was more commonly embraced prior to Burridge’s work on the gospels as biographies. It is worth noting Tolbert’s summary criticism of it, however.
Tolbert attributes much of the preference for option 1 (Mark being a new literary genre) to “the theological temper of the post-World War 1 Christian world.”
The unique, utterly unparalleled divine revelation in Jesus Christ, so fiercely and persuasively proclaimed by Karl Barth, could hardly be expressed by any previously existing, pagan literary forms, mutated or not. Rudolf Bultmann’s conclusion that the Gospels, as Christian kerygma expanded into narrative form, were distinctive Christian writings was a persuasive position in such a theological climate. Moreover, the development of the “New Hermeneutic” in the 1950s and 60s, following the philosophy of the later Heidegger that language was “the house of Being,” placed increased stress on the unique nature of Christian writings required to fit the unique nature of the Christian revelation in Jesus. However, without that theological impetus and with a clearer understanding of the sociological function of genre in providing the common ground necessary to make texts intelligible to readers, the assertion of a totally new, or unique, genre for the Christian Gospels has little to recommend it. (p.56)
One “somewhat covert” example of the claim that the Gospel of Mark was a new genre appeared in The Oral and Written Gospel by Werner Kelber. Kelber argued that Mark is a parable. Tolbert’s response:
While parables did exist in both Greek and Jewish writings of the time, neither culture supports any literary form longer than a brief illustrative story, riddle, oracle, allegory, or fable, and if characters are present at all, they are rarely named, historical, or specific. So, although parables are present in the historical milieu, to describe the genre of Mark as parable is not a recognizable historical use of the term.
Tolbert sees the interpretation of Mark as parable as “thoroughly comprehensible, perhaps even insightful, to contemporary theologians and students of the Bible who have already come to understand parable as a metaphor for Jesus’ message and life.
However, “parable” has come to have a metaphorical meaning in current theology for a paradoxical, open-ended, and participatory nature of the Christian message. It is this metaphorical use that is being drawn upon in calling the Gospel a parable, and it is an understandable designation in a theological situation where the distinctive revelation of Jesus Christ is seen as “parabolic.” . . .
In other words, Gospel as parable does fit the shared expectations of twentieth-century readers, and herein may rest the real crux of the matter.”
Modern readers are familiar with the terms kerygma and parable and so they find they are meaningful designations of the Gospel of Mark for them.
But Tolbert’s interest is not in modern readers’ expectations and understandings of the gospels, but in how the original audiences understood them. Tolbert refers to these as the “authorial audience” of the Gospel of Mark.
This means that the only options for consideration of Mark’s genre must be restricted to known Greco-Roman and Jewish forms.
Tolbert’s doubts about Mark as biography, aretalogy, memorabilia
So is Mark midrash (cf Goulder’s midrashic lectionary) or apocalypse (e.g. Perrin’s apocalyptic drama)?
Both may describe types of material in Mark, or a point of view, but neither term as a description of an ancient genre fits the text of Mark.
Aretalogy? — miracle working accounts of divine men may have existed prior to Mark, but no such complete text is known, and the term does not appear as a clear designation of such a group of texts;
Biography? — “its dominant and essential focus on the special character of the central figure seems to miss Mark’s interest in the various responses to Jesus of the disciples, Jews, and crowds.”
Memorabilia? –Vernon Robbins has argued for Mark being ‘memorabilia’ (apomnemoneumata) in Jesus the Teacher: Xenophon’s Memorabilia of Socrates is the sole surviving ancient example: it focuses mainly on the adult life and death of the hero famed as a teacher of wisdom, and emphasizes the relationship of this sage to his disciples through teaching and deeds. The Amazon link opens up access on pages 60 to 67 to notices of other pre Markan instances of this genre (Lynceus, Stilpo, Zeon, Dioscurides, Empodus, and a near Markan contemporary, Favorinus) and also of examples of early Christians sometimes speaking of the Gospels as “memorabilia” (Justin, Tatian, Eusebius).
Tolbert has “two basic objections” to all of the above being assigned to Mark as its genre:
- While each of them cover some aspects of the gospel, they necessarily omit or give insufficient attention to other parts. Tolbert even suggests that if one could combine aretalogy, biography and memorabilia into one then one comes close to covering the whole of Mark’s characteristics.
- The surviving examples of all three of these genres are far superior to Mark’s gospel in terms of literary and philosophical sophistication. The difference between Mark and Xenophon’s Memorabilia, for example, is as stark as night from day.
Back to Vines’ summary of Tolbert’s discussion of genre
I would like to discuss Tolbert’s discussion myself in some depth in the future, but till then I will return to Vine’s synopsis of her argument that Mark is best seen as a popular narrative.
Tolbert is interested in understanding the original readers’ experience of Mark, or more correctly, the “implied reader” or “authorial audience”.
Tolbert attempts to understand a “typical” reader in the social environment of the first-century Mediterranean world, and to compare Mark’s gospel with other popular literature at the same time and place.
1. Social setting of the implied reader
- increased mobility and a shared culture and exchange of ideas and beliefs throughout the Mediterranean made possible by
- a common language (Koine Greek)
- a standardized approach to education (rhetoric)
- breakdown of traditional social structures occasioned by
- imperial intrusion upon local identities and practices
Governed by a foreign power and increasingly under the influence of alien ideas and practices, the identity of the individual, traditionally rooted in clan and polis, began to erode. The cumulative effect was a heightened sense of alienation and anxiety among the inhabitants of the Roman Empire.
Neither Vines nor Tolbert makes this suggestion, but if one places Mark’s gospel after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 ce one can find a more trenchant situation of a traumatic loss of identity among tens of thousands of Jews; and if one factors in various Jewish rebellions and massacres around the eastern Mediterranean in the wake of this even, and the devastating plagues that periodically swept through the empire we have a terrible mix that cannot have done much to assist the holding together of longstanding collective identities. I have often suspected these situations in the decades post 70 ce must have had a profound effect on the shapes and holds of Christianity.
2. Comparison with contemporary narrative literature
- Tolbert sees the closest fit to Mark is popular narrative; two examples roughly contemporary with Mark are An Ephesian Tale by Xenophon of Ephesus and Chaereas and Callirhoe by Chariton. These novels
- reflect a similar popular style
- a common myth — that is, “the Hellenistic myth of the isolated individual in a dangerous world.”
- a common heritage
- a common conventionalized style
Tolbert does not propose that Mark is a Greek novel. She only suggests that the same general tendencies that influenced the Greek novels may also have influenced Mark and its audience. The connection between Mark and the Greek novel is most apparent in the “rhetorical, stylistic, and linguistic similarities” that they share.
Mark’s popular and unsophisticated Greek and fast-moving narrative style are closer to popular novels than they are to biography.
Vines thus sees Tolbert’s evidence as sufficient to establish Mark as an example of popular Hellenistic literature. But popular narrative is too broad a category to be seen as a genre.
(Lawrence Wills in The Jewish Novel in the Ancient World has suggested that Tolbert could have strengthened her argument had she appealed to examples of popular narrative even lower down the social scale, such as Life of Aesop and the Alexander Romance.)
Vines responds to Tolbert: a comparison with Jewish literature
Mark may share the same social environment with the popular romances, but it does not respond to it in the same way.
Compare the response to the myth of the “isolated individual in a dangerous world”:
- Greek popular novels focussed on the plight of the alienated individuals.
- Jewish and Christian literature responded in a way that upheld a central concern for the large community. A central figure may be spotlighted by the novel, but the community concern is always strong at the same time.
- Greek romances found solace from isolation and alienation in romantic love and devotion to the gods. To overcome their despair, the characters find comfort in romantic love for one another and in regular prayers to the gods and in waiting patiently for their fortunes to change in a hostile world.
- Jewish and Christian literature the isolated individuals (and community) are expecting deliverance and vindication “now”, and they cry out to God for it and live in constant expectation of it.
Thus Tolbert comes closer to capturing the essence of Mark’s Gospel when she describes it as an “apocalyptic message in a popular narrative framework.” It is the apocalyptic perspective that makes Mark’s story qualitatively different from the Greek novel. In Mark, salvation comes for the “isolated and alienated individual,” not as romantic love, but as divinely inaugurated deliverance. (p. 21)
Vines thus argues that the cultural difference between the Greco-Roman and the Jewish/Christian literature is wider than Tolbert seems to allow.
Mark may reflect a style that was popular among a broad segment of that ancient society, but its ideological interests were not the same. Tolbert can place Mark within a broad category of popular literature, but falls short of explaining its form and function.
Tolbert, like Burridge, offers us studies at a “high level of generality” but do “not resolve questions about the gospel’s generic influences.”
Vines’ Conclusion — and the need for explaining the apocalyptic in Mark
- Mark can only at most be said to be loosely related to Greco-Roman biography
- Mark’s syntax and style suggest it is some form of popular literature
- Any explanation of Mark’s genre must account for its apocalyptic understanding of history
An apocalyptic sense of time and an awareness of divine purpose are at the very center of Mark’s Gospel. This apocalyptic perspective makes it much more likely that we will find a generic match for the gospel within Jewish, rather than Greco-Roman, literature. (p. 22)
One reason I am sometimes wary about attributing to Mark too much in the way of pioneering genius and largely unappreciated literary sophistication beneath the surface of his apparent crudities is the likelihood that his audience was “popular”. One does not expect to find the work of a history-shaking genius circulating amongst such an audience. Maybe Mark’s audience was not of the “lowest popular denomination”. But if not, would we not be increasing the difficulties of explaining his syntax and style?
I think it is reasonable to lean towards an explanation that allows for a “common” author rather than a genius if that option is available.
- Are the Gospels Really Biographies? Outlining and Questioning Burridge (vridar.org)
- Fiction in ancient biographies, histories and gospels (vridar.org)
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