The First Gospel was a Jewish Novel?

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by Neil Godfrey

Bakhtin in the twenties.
Image via Wikipedia

Though most scholars of the gospels appear to regard the gospels as a form of ancient biographies of Jesus, there are a number who continue to doubt that “biography” really does describe their genre. One of these is Michael E. Vines, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Lees-McRae College, North Carolina, who wrote The Problem of Markan Genre: The Gospel of Mark and the Jewish Novel.

In order to know how to interpret and understand a literary work it is important to understand its genre and the conventions associated with that genre. A work will expect to be read in a certain way according to its genre, whether it is a biography, history, historical novel, romance novel, epic, tragedy, satire, etc.

I outline here in gossamer-thin dot points some of Vines’ reasons for reading the Gospel of Mark as a Jewish novel rather than as another ancient biography. Much of Vines’ book is a discussion of the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin‘s analysis of what constitutes a literary genre. That is (for me at least) a fascinating study that I would love to explore in greater depth and one that I will probably post on in future discussions of Gospel (especially the Gospel of Mark’s) genre. So what follows cannot possibly be a communication of a full grasp of Vines’ understanding of the genre of the Gospel of Mark. But I will try to present salient points without denying some justice to both Vines’ and Bakhtin’s analysis.

I have only now completed reading Vines’ book so I have not yet had time to digest it and compare its propositions with alternative perspectives. So what I give here is Vines “in the raw”. I expect in a relatively short time I will see some details slightly differently.

What indicates a particular genre?

Vines draws on Bakhtin to argue

that genre is primarily about how an author shapes time and space in conversation with preceding works of literature. (p. 153)

That is very abstract. So think of movie setting for a western. The viewer is told that she is taken back to a time only a few generations before now as she is presented with images of Arizona landscapes and a frontier town. This conjunction of time and space informs her of the story values to expect: the rule of the gun, the wild west, lawlessness, danger.

Or more personally (and this may capture the idea better) imagine yourself returning to the town and house that still enshrines your earliest memories as a very young child. Imagine that house is still standing and you are there in the same street where you once walked as a young child and looking at it once again. All the memories of the values which were everyone’s values then and there (time and place) come rushing back to you. The patriarch, the seasonal celebrations, the childhood-lore, the community. . . . It is that conjunction of time and place that bring back all those nostalgic memories of what life was like back then (time) and there (place).

That coming together of a particular time and place to conjure up a clear expectation of certain values and ideas is what is technically known as a “chronotope”. This is the English rendering of Bakhtin’s хронотопа or khronotopa. Einstein had spoken of a time-space concept in another context and Bakhtin applied the duality to imaginative literary creations. There is a Literary Encyclopedia definition here, and a Wikipedia one here.

And chronotope, says Bakhtin (through Vines), is the essence of a literary genre. Formal similarities such as the topic, the linguistic style, the theme, characterization, etc. are not the defining attributes of genre. Such formal similarities may be coincidental across different genres. What distinguishes one genre from another is the value-world grounded in the type of time-place setting a literary work, and how this is associated with other works of a similar chronotope.

A particular chronotope creates a field of activity for the hero that is different from the possibilities that might exist in another chronotope.

This is the briefest of sketches. I won’t attempt here to develop this concept further. The key point for this post is that Vines proposes

that the chronotope of the Gospel of Mark most closely resembles that of the Jewish novels. This is not to deny other influences on the composition of the gospel. It does mean, however, that the Gospel of Mark shares its most important literary relationship with the Jewish novels rather than some other type of Greco-Roman literature. (p. 153)

Following are the values elicited by the time-place setting of Mark and that compare with those of Jewish novels.

Jewish novels include titles like:

  • the Greek Daniel (longer than the Hebrew/Aramaic version)
  • Tobit
  • Greek Esther
  • Judith
  • Joseph and Aseneth

After discussing each of these Vines concludes of the key indicator of their genre, their “chronotope”, that is the values associated the particular time-space of the novel:

The chronotope of the Jewish novel reflects a world open to divine intervention. Nevertheless, direct divine intervention is rare. God more often acts by sending a faithful and pious emissary. In the Jewish novel divine deliverance is characteristically accomplished by means of weakness, or passive obedience. Women representatives, like Esther and Judith, achieve victory on God’s behalf in spite of their inferior position as women in a patriarchal culture. Men like Daniel are passive in the face of opposition. These pious heroes risk their lives in obedience to God’s call. Their complete dependence upon God only serves to add greater emphasis to God’s unassailable sovereignty and power. (p. 152, my emphasis)

The time setting of Jewish novels is a time of crisis.

The space setting of Jewish novels is a hostile and ironic space.

Within this chronotope, human and divine interests overlap, yet, for most part, God refrains from acting directly in human affairs. Instead, God brings about the salvation of the Jewish people, not through overwhelming divine force, but through the faithfulness and vulnerability of a single individual. The expectation of imminent divine intervention that these heroes embody, in turn, creates a story-world filled with surprising reversals and topsy-turvy values. The sovereignty of God undermines all human authority and manifests itself in unexpected ways for those who trust in God’s deliverance. In this sense, the Jewish novels possess an awareness of the immediacy of divine sovereignty similar to that of apocalyptic literature. God can and will break into human time and space to assert the divine will and save those loyal to God’s kingdom. However, unlike more overtly apocalyptic works, the time and space of a Jewish novel is realistic, and thus we might characterize the chronotope of the Jewish novel as realistic-apocalyptic: the anticipation of divine deliverance and the actualization of divine sovereignty within a realistic time and space. (my bold and underlining)

How all this compares with the Gospel of Mark:

1. Time and place are permeated by an expectation of divine deliverance

Jewish novels of the Hellenistic era were characterized by the expectation that God would deliver the hero through some (apparently very humanly weak) human agency.

As with the Jewish novels God remains in the background, with only occasional intrusions into the story.

2. The “novelistic” perspective of past glory and future hope

The Jewish novels, like Mark’s gospel, were products of cultural instability. The setting of the Jewish novels was wedged between a time of past Jewish glory and hope for a new time when God would once again make them great. The Gospel of Mark opens with ancient prophecies that spoke of a restoration of the kingdom of God. The disciples are anticipating an overthrow of the Romans and establishment of the messianic kingdom soon after Jesus enters Jerusalem, and Jesus himself prophesies of a future return when he will judge the earth.

3. Response to this “in between” time is to focus on present concerns

The Jewish novel does not nostalgically long for the past glory of the Davidic or Solomonic kingdom, nor do its characters pine away waiting for the time of future restoration. Rather, the plot is always centred upon the troubles of the here and now threats to the Jewish people or heroes. Mark’s Jesus likewise gives his primary attention to those who need his healing or feeding or deliverance from demons now. In Jesus the kingdom of God is not a distant hope but “at hand”, here now, between the past glory and the future hope.

4. God is at the centre of the plot with a benevolent plan for those who serve him

This is one area where the Jewish novels are decidedly at variance with their Greco-Roman counterparts. The deities in the latter often act arbitrarily or whimsically. In the Jewish novel time-space God acts with favour towards those who obey him, and he does so through human agents. Through Jesus the reader sees that God’s will is all pervasive and always benevolent to his servant.

God works his benevolent will through the quiet obedience of Jesus to God. There are no dramatic displays of God’s power for all to witness, yet the presence of God is ever-present throughout the Gospel through the quiet service of Jesus.

5. The presence and power of God is displayed through the human agency of Jesus

God’s presence pervades the gospel, but the presence is rarely overt. For most part it is channeled through Jesus who uses it to serve and help, never to over-awe people into obedience. Jesus comes to serve, and it is through his service and sacrifice that God will deliver salvation to all and victory over all who oppose God.

6. The progression of events in the Gospel is controlled by divine necessity, not chronological or biographical concerns

Historical or biographical concerns do not enter the story-world of Mark. Rather, this world fuelled by divine significance and concerns. The time-setting of the Gospel world is between the time of the Prophets and the anticipated time of the fulfilment of the Prophets. The gospel begins with the announcement that “time is at fulfilled, the kingdom of God is at hand”. So God in this time is in the process of working out a great victory for the inauguration of the kingdom.

The time of the story world is thus a time of repentance and choosing before it is too late. It is God’s actions that govern the time of the gospel.

7. God’s people face a crisis of decision

In Jewish novels foreign leaders create crisis moments for the people of God by demanding obedience that would mean turning their backs on God. Similarly in Mark the people must decide if they will follow Jesus or the religious leaders and religious traditions.

8. Dialogic interaction expresses the different sides of the conflict

In Jewish novels the heroes debate the superiority of God and the benefits of God’s laws over the alternatives they are being pressured to accept. So also in the Gospel of Mark Jesus and his opponents are used to present the issues through dialogue.

This dialogic juxtaposition of ideas is the primary manifestation of the gospel’s “novelistic” character. (p. 156)

9. A world of conflict as the organizing principle of the gospel narrative

From the moment Jesus announces the kingdom he is met with opposing forces from demons and authorities. He addresses this fact by speaking of the need to bind the strong man so he can continue to liberate those bound by the demonic forces. In Mark’s story-world people are oppressed by both demons and religious leaders who become enemies of God and of Jesus.

10. In the chronotope of crisis and expectation the hero wins through his weakness and vulnerability

Heroes in Jewish novels don’t win because of their own great feats of strength or cunning, but as submissive conduits of divine intervention.

In the Jewish novel only God can save. The hero cannot be allowed to distract from God’s greatness.

Jesus is this sort of hero. He belongs to no great family and has no respected position in society. His followers are, like him, itinerant laymen. He associates with the marginal groups of society. For such reasons the authorities see him as a threat, even though his ways bring glory to God and not himself. His final act of salvation (or his act of allowing God’s salvation to work) is through his own self-renunciation and being abandoned by all. He wins by placing complete trust in God as he lays down his life.

11. Mark is set in a realistic historical time, unlike Jewish novels that are set in pseudo-historical time (?)

Here Mark departs from the Jewish novel chronotope, according to Vines. This is a significant change. He thus “concretizes” the victorious conclusion of the gospel — the inauguration of the new age of salvation.

Greco-Roman novels conclude by a restoration of the correct order of things as they should have been from the beginning. Jewish novels conclude with a reversal of the status quo. Enemy powers fall and the humble are exalted. In Mark’s Gospel Jesus not only heals the sick, but in the end he establishes a new age of eschatological salvation.

I am not so sure Mark does set his story in realistic historic time. The characters such as the Pharisees and even Pilate are not their historical counterparts but unrealistic distortions for narrative purposes. The setting in Galilee derives from the Isaiah prophecy of the great light appearing in the land of “Galilee of the gentiles/nations”. The itinerary of Jesus make little realistic sense. Names, both personal and topographic, are chosen for their values as puns appropriate to the miracles Jesus performs in their presence (e.g. Bethphage, place of figs, where he curses the fig tree; Jairus, meaning “awakens”, the father of the girl awakened from sleep/death). The anachronisms of Pharisees and synagogues sprinkling the land of Galilee also point to a pseudo-historical time.

But to the extent that there was nonetheless a genuine attempt to link the death of Jesus with a real historical event (the fall of Jerusalem — Mark 13), the story did take on a powerful meaning among its earliest readers. The inauguration of the age of salvation, the kingdom of God, was seen as a reality that did begin with the death of Jesus and was demonstrated to have replaced the old economy by the events of 70. The fall of the old order was thus supplied with an explanation that simultaneously buttressed faith in its spiritual replacement.

(The association of Jesus’ death with the fall of Jerusalem might also be seen as an indicator that the Gospel was not composed until some time after a contrary belief had gained some currency — that Jerusalem fell because of the murder of James.)

12. Another difference? Attitude towards Jewish piety

Jewish novels extolled the value of traditional Jewish piety. The heroes are godly heroes because of their devotion to the Mosaic customs. Jesus, however, raises challenges to this by his acts of healing on the sabbath and the controversies he generates over legal observances.

Mark’s gospel portrays Jesus as challenging the “highmindedness” of legal observances and focussing himself on the immediate needs of everyday reality.

In this respect Mark’s Jesus follows the convention of a certain type of Greco-Roman satire that challenged the irrelevant and pompous philosophical preoccupations of the upper classes and upheld the superiority of the everyday wisdom of the common person. Abstractions were lampooned and the value of attending to immediate reality was lauded.

In this respect, then, the Gospel of Mark subverts one of the main features of the Jewish novel. (p. 159)


Both the Jewish novel and the Gospel of Mark are “engaged in a similar conversation about the nature of the divine presence and action in the midst of crisis.” For Bakhtin, it is the conversation of literature with the literature that has gone before that serves to identify a works identification with a particular genre. (Formal similarities can be entirely coincidental.)

Both Mark and the Jewish novels are convinced of God’s willingness and power to save those who trust him. But Mark differs in his view of the nature of the crisis. For Mark it is not a foreign power that is the problem, but the religious leaders and their misguided piety. The irony (subversion) here is that it is this piety that is normally considered the strength of the heroes in Jewish novels.

There are other differences from the Jewish novel:

  • the episodic structure of chapters 1-10 is uncharacteristic of Jewish novels
  • the significant amount of chreia and anecdote is unlike the Jewish novels

But these are superficial differences, says Vines. (One can see these features in other types of genre from which Mark has borrowed, but such formal characteristics do not define a genre, according to Bakhtin.)

What establishes a generic connection between Mark and the Jewish novel is their use of realistic-apocalyptic chronotope. Mark and the Jewish novel create narrative worlds characterized by a conflict between divine and human sovereignty. God’s response to this conflict is immediate and dramatic. By means of vulnerable human agents, God’s sovereign authority is reestablished. . . . Considered chronotopically, the Gospel of Mark is a story of divine deliverance accomplished through human agency, set in an eschatologically charged time. (p. 159-60)

Thanks to Gilgamesh and M. W. Nordbakke for alerting me to Vines’ book in earlier comments on this blog. Sorry JW — still to address full on the Greek tragedy option.

Bakhtin Circle, Leningrad, 1924-1926.
Image via Wikipedia
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Neil Godfrey

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