Second thoughts on the Gospel of Mark as Biography

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by Neil Godfrey

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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.

Eric Auerbach: Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature

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

Mary Ann Tolbert: Sowing the Gospel

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:

  1. The canonical gospels, especially Mark if it was the first, broke ground as a new literary genre;
  2. There was Greco-Roman literature similar to the gospels but it has been lost;
  3. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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

  1. Mark can only at most be said to be loosely related to Greco-Roman biography
  2. Mark’s syntax and style suggest it is some form of popular literature
  3. 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.

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24 thoughts on “Second thoughts on the Gospel of Mark as Biography”

  1. Damn. I hate being the first to comment on my own post, but I remembered I forgot something.

    Tolbert sees an explanation for the willingness of scholars to accept Mark as a new genre in the post-World War 1 Christian/theological environment, as I did say. But it might be of interest to note that the widespread acceptance of Burridge’s argument for the gospels as biography is also not without its theological advantages. Burridge writes of the significance of his biographical explanation for the gospel genre:

    No Lives of Hillel or Eliezer were ever compiled. Only with respect to Jesus were the various individual pieces assembled to form a portrait in their own right — a fact of theological and Christological importance. In concentrating the readers’ attention upon the person of Jesus through writing a biography, the early Christian gospel writers were asserting something which was never said of a rabbi — that he was centre stage as the embodiment, or even replacement of Torah, a unique individual revealing God in his deeds and words, life, death and resurrection.

    One notes the expanding dogmatism among academics in matters relating to the historicity of Jesus. Compare the new insistence that Josephus really did say something after all about Jesus — unlike the “consensus” before the Second World War.

  2. A good post, it eliminates a need for any Leaghty reply to your thoughts Mark as a parable. You largely covered the objections to the theory. I agree with most of what you said about the use in Mark of symbolic and metaphorical passages, a heavy amount of fiction, and the original audience might have more fully understood the material than we do. But they may have also known less.

    The state of the mind of the audience is very hard for us to understand, and we can only use the clues we are aware of. We can know how Mark resembles other parables and allegorical stories, but as explained by Tolbert, they do not. If there is a way to understand it as such that was known only to the earliest readers, we cannot recover that, and it must remain speculation until more is known. While a number of templates for Mark have been put forward, The Odyssey, the Tale of Elijah, a reenactment of the Torah, or the Jewish calendar year, it is unlikely that it is all of them, and none has put forward a case much more compelling than another. My suspecting of it have secret meaning is dependent on my knowledge of other such secret messages in literature, how we know there there, and how common the technique was.

    Collins suggestion that Mark is a form of Jewish literature, particularly like Daniel was intriguing to me. The works are similar in style, subject, creation and presentation. We know Mark read Daniel, and it is possible that he wanted to present Jesus in a story like Daniel, a mix of proclamations and miracles. Given the rather diverse forms of material in Daniel, and the existence of complete Daniel stories out side the canonical version, we can strongly suspect there existed a number of free floating Daniel tales in the popular culture of the Jews. Both figures are apocalyptic prophets. In fact the author of the canonical Daniel was writing a prophecy, and did so in the name of legendary prophet of old. Mark’s Jesus builds off Daniel, makes his own apocalyptic statement, and in turn is used as a vehicle for prophecy by Mark, as the author of Daniel used Daniel. In Mark though, Jesus greatest act is his martyrdom. As I said earlier, It does not conclude here because this is his death, as would a biography, but because this is the climax of his deeds, just as Daniel concludes with the prophecy of the destruction of the Seleucid’s and the resurrection of the righteous.

    while a book written in Greek, it has to be pointed out a couple of Jewish works, and not just Grecophile Jews like Philo, were written in Greek, and it is likely that a number of Marks readers were Jewish, and certainly any of the founders and old teachers of Marks community were Jewish. This was Greek literature by Jews.

    Keeping that in mind, I think later Christians, as they became more distant from there Jewish roots and interacted with more literate gentiles, people rooted in the own literature, would try to interpret Mark in forms more appropriate to their won style. So Mark is made into a Life by Luke and Matthew, with additional material on his early life and family. They saw mark in this way, and sought to norm it to the standards of the genre.

    On the issue of memorabilia, is it true that only Xenophon on Socrates is still with us? If true, then we really don’t understand the form of the literature. As said earlier, one example can’t be a genre. And as you mention, if Mark is a popular work, then it would likely be different from a book by Xenophon. Compare Mary Shelly to one of the penny dreadfuls. Mark could be a good fit for the genre, if we knew anything about it. Or the early commentators may, as above, only sought to classify an unfamiliar style into their scheme.

    1. You are referring to Jesus and the Eyewitnesses? From what I recall Bauckham proposes an argument that the gospels are eyewitness testimonies, but that is different from the literary genre of “biography” or “Bios”.

      From what I recall Bauckham is arguing that the gospels fit the standards and models of ancient historiography. I have posted several times attempting to point out how unlike ancient historiography the gospels are (one example, comparing histories of Alexander). Josephus would be ashamed of them as works of history.

      When Bauckham’s book first appeared I was still relatively new in my explorations of biblical studies, and was stunned at encountering what seemed a very widespread uncritical acceptance of Bauckham’s book among many believers and scholars. My own reading of Bauckham’s book (it was the first thing I’d ever read by Bauckham) led me to think he must have been a fringe academic with very little influence in his field. So I was “stunned” again to find that he really is well respected as an intellectual among biblical scholars and lay Christians. And admittedly I learned he does produce some sound work. But as for his “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses” I had at first thought the logical fallacies riddling it like swiss cheese would soon see this book on the trash heap. I noted the book was written while Bauckham was convalescing from a severe illness and partly excused its obvious lapses on those grounds. But I felt compelled to put on the record for anyone interested in an alternative view a series of in-depth reviews — chapter by chapter — on my blog.

      All this was a few years ago now, and I suspect I will be embarrassed if I went back and read some of them again. But for what they are worth, they begin with chapter one here. The complete set of posts can be found in my Bauckham archive, beginning on the ‘second’ or ‘previous’ page there.

        1. As I said, I was relatively new to exploring biblical studies, and I had till then been reading the likes of Crossan and Mack. I have not read the books about Jesus and the mushroom cult or about Jesus marrying Mary and surviving the cross, etc, but I have read von Daniken, and I imagined that those works would fall into the level of Von Daniken’s arguments about aliens constructing the pyramids. I thought the logic of Bauckham’s arguments, and the strength of the evidence he deployed in his Eyewitness book, was of that level of “scholarship”. The arguments are circular through and through.

          That was why I was stunned to find so much enthusiasm being given to Bauckham’s book by so many I had thought would be more critically minded.

          But as I also said, I have since learned that Bauckham does have a more creditable scholarly record than that book alone would suggest. I have since seen why he does have a reputation as a sound scholar.

          What I wrote was my impression of Bauckham’s book without any prior knowledge of Bauckham’s standing in the scholarly community.

          I and others have sometimes likened the very poor standard of what passes for scholarship among biblical scholars to the moral in the tale of the emperor with no clothes.

          Unfortunately, since that post, I have come to learn that there are other biblical scholars who have doctorates in theology yet who call themselves historians, but who are ignorant of the basics of what historiography involves outside their biblical enclaves. I have come to see that some of these theologians are not masquerading as biblical scholars. They are biblical scholars masquerading as historians.

          This is a pity, because there really are some excellent scholars among them. It appears to me that the field of biblical studies has extremes of competence levels among its academic ranks. Some of the lesser lights seem to make up for their deficiencies by citing their more competent colleagues as if they are “authorities”, yet when I read those “authorities” I find among some of them much more humility and awareness of their limitations than their followers would allow.

          1. Thanks for the clarification, Neil.

            I hasten to point out that I do not bring the same level of sophistication to this subject that you do. When, for example, I say is something historical, I’m wondering, “Is it fiction or non-fiction?”

            When I come to read the New Testament, I want to know what the writers expect of me. (Yes, I want to know what God expects of me, but that only comes later if the writers have convinced me that there is a God.) That is, do the writers expect me to regard their work as fiction with a moral or non-fiction with a moral (for there’s no doubting they’re saying there’s a moral – it’s just a question of which form of packaging those morals are coming in).

            Therefore, my question to you as a person probably much more educated on the literature about the New Testament than I am, should I regard, for example, the gospel of Mark as fiction or non-fiction?

            1. Ah, now that is a question only you can answer. Many literary critics say that it is quite legitimate to ask what a piece literature means for a modern reader. Postmodernists, I think, say that is the only relevant question. That question does not interest me. That is a question of faith. My interest lies elsewhere.

              1. I don’t see it as a matter of faith. On the contrary, I can’t even get to the question of faith unless I can first discern what it is that has been written to me. Therefore, the literary question is primary.

                For me the sequence goes like this:
                1. Are the writers giving me fiction or non-fiction?
                1. a. If fiction, end of discussion. If I want fiction I’ll read Tom Clancy.
                1. b. If non-fiction, is the account credible?
                1. b. i. If the account is not credible, end of discussion. I’ll read Reagan biographies by his inner circle.
                1. b. ii. If the account is credible, then I’ll have a decision to make about whether to trust in its protagonist.

                Therefore, faith only comes into play if I make it as far as 1.b.ii.

              2. Sorry to jump in here, but aren’t fiction or nonfiction modern descriptions? Does the question really have any bearing on ancient writings?

                For example, is it meaningful at all to ask: “Is the ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’ fiction of nonfiction?”

              3. When a set of documents include statements to the effect of “These are people and events we actually witnessed, we did not make this stuff up, we want you to trust that we are telling the truth, and we are willing to swear to this truth with our lives” then it removes itself from comparison with the Epic of Gilgamesh and lands itself squarely in the category that meets the definition of nonfiction.

                Whether the nonfiction is true or not is a different matter.

              4. You’re referring to verse at the end of the Gospel of John: “This is the disciple which testifieth of these things, and wrote these things: and we know that his testimony is true.”

                I’m not familiar of any statement about swearing with their lives, although I’ve heard apologists say they were all martyred. (Citation needed.)

                Of course, this is the same gospel in which Jesus makes a Greek pun while talking to Nicodemus, says “I and the father are one,” and has an extended philosophical discussion with Pilate.

                Can you see why many of us think John is largely myth and legend?

                I don’t think it’s appropriate to use the term “fiction,” because the category is anachronistic. It’s like Crossan’s portrait of Jesus as a socialist revolutionary — it doesn’t fit.

              5. I’m referring to a number of verses, the one at the end of John being one of them.

                When I say swear with their lives I’m referring primarily to the danger they faced for giving their testimony described in the New Testament, primarily in the book of Acts.

                I’m aware that some people consider the New Testament (including John) to include myth and legend, but I didn’t know you were one of them until you told me. That’s helpful to know. I may want to come back and engage with you on that at some point.

                I can see why the fiction-nonfiction dichotomy might seem too restrictive. Would you feel better if we added a third category for our purposes which would be a hybrid of the two? And, if so, does that mean you’d put the New Testament documents in that category – that is, part fact and part-embellishment (legend, myth)?

              6. Mike, you are illustrating my point about the faith question. For you the question is one of faith, so you will stop reading the gospels if you find they are fiction.

                My interest is different and I will not stop reading the gospels regardless of whether they are fiction or nonfiction. For me the interest is in understanding them, understanding them on their own terms, and seeking to explain them historically.

                Your question and interest is faith. We are at cross purposes.

                If you want to discuss matters of faith I am not the one you should be talking to.

              7. It’s obvious we are on different wavelengths though your explanation of the difference misses the mark for the reasons I’ve already given.

                One of the ironies here is that your statement, “For me the interest is in understanding them, understanding them on their own terms, and seeking to explain them historically,” aptly describes my view. And it was that view that led me to faith, not faith that led me to that view. If that view hasn’t led you to faith, then I accept that. But I do not accept the notion that this view and faith are at cross purposes.

                Nevertheless, I can tell my inquiries aren’t your cup of tea so I’ll desist.

  3. Neil, regarding the parable theory, I would like to mention Bart Ehrman’s “Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium” On page 180, he describes the action of Jesus in curing the sick, raising the dead, casting out demons as parables of the Kingdom. He does this by showing that the parables are often introduced with “the Kingdom of God is like…” and explaining that Jesus actions are actions that show what the Kingdom will be like, death sickness, and demons are banished. Mind you, he doesn’t argue for the actions being created as parable, only interpreted as such. To explain, he also describes the actions of the early church as parables for the kingdom. The Kingdom has no war, and the church does not engage in violence, the Kingdom will have no poor, and the church shares there possessions, the Kingdom will have no hatred, and the church is to love all. In this way the church becomes a parable “The Kingdom of God is like…the community of believers.”

    1. Mike, it occurs to me that the author of Mark may have taken his cue to create a new parabolic genera, through his familiarity with the Christian community, especially as he may have seen it in James. There we see urged, the participatory and parabolic nature of “the heirs of the kingdom” (2:5). Perhaps the parabolic metaphor got going early on.
      James, for example, reminds the community to live out their role as heirs: the community should “make peace” (3:18); use the prayer-of-faith to heal the sick; observe the royal law of love (neighbor as self); beware of allowing rich/poor distinctions; and “wait” for the full arrival of the kingdom. The fact that Acts doesn’t make early communalism a rule, makes it apparent to me that it was probably the case early on.

  4. So you believe “Mark” was a piece of fiction, and Mark created this story knowing it was about a mythical character? And many other authors wrote multiple pieces of fiction about this mythical character, but for some reason a large number of readers mistook this mythical character for a real person.

    And then of course a whole second set of writings grew about his fictional brother. And Jews allegedly were so upset that the fictional brother was killed that it caused a real priest to be deposed.

    And as your evidence, you claim that that the gospels don’t fit neatly into a genre?

    1. Er, no. Why do you create this bizarre scenario and impute it to me? Where have I ever indicated such a set of processes or claimed genre is evidence for any part of them?

      It would be a constructive step towards reasonable dialogue if you read the words I write and respond to those, not fantasies that you imagine I might be thinking or implying.

      Respectful dialogue begins with acknowledging what people say and write.

      I note your failure twice to respond to my comments (linked here and here) attempting to clarify exactly what I am arguing.

      I pulled you up then for fabricating nonsense about what you assume to be my position regarding Christian sources and got no retraction or apology for your misrepresentation.

      Your comment is intestinally heated rather than intellectually honest.

      (1) I do not believe Mark was a piece of fiction. “Piece of fiction” is an emotive and simplistic term that does not come close to the various arguments about Mark’s nature that I have made.

      (2) I have never said Mark created the story of Jesus of Nazareth. Some scholars (e.g. Burton Mack) I understand do argue that. But it is not an argument I have addressed on this blog, although I have toyed in passing with some thoughts about Mark’s knowledge of another gospel narrative. I have also toyed with the possibility Mark was the last of the canonical gospels to be written.

      But I do not deny that I am persuaded by biblical scholars (who are also devout Christians) who have argued for specific ways Mark fleshed out or constructed his particular version of the gospel.

      Your reference to “mythical character” implies another oversimplification about what I have suggested about the emergence of the Christian myth. (I use the term “Christian myth” with the technical sense of the word “myth” in mind.)

      I do not know who Mark’s original audience was or what they thought, nor even who “Mark” was or where or when he wrote or what his motive was, and my comments have always been framed within the context of those uncertainties.

      I have never argued that Mark’s original readers mistook his meaning, and in fact have argued in several posts that the authors of Matthew and Luke do show strong evidence of having understood Mark’s original meanings very well, and that they expressed their strong disapproval of some of those meanings.

      It sounds like you have sure evidence for Mark’s place in the early church and its contribution to the growth of what emerged as the “orthodox” gospel narrative. I’d love to hear it.

      (3) If in your second paragraph you are referring to the writings of Paul, I can only say that most scholars believe that his writings preceded Mark, and not that they “grew out of” Mark. But if you wish to address my specific arguments about James in both Paul and Josephus (and Acts) then I encourage you to do so and alert me to where I am misguided in my logic or evidence.








      My discussions about genre are part of my interest in exploring Christian origins. They do not address mythicism or the historical Jesus. I have sometimes said I am “not a mythicist” because I am not interesting in taking up the banner to argue for mythicism per se. My interest is in exploring the origins of Christianity, and yes, I do believe that that evidence does point towards the origins of Christianity within the variety world of early Jewish theological beliefs rather than from a historical individual. But the exploration is much broader than focusing on the historicity of Jesus question.

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