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

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by Tim Widowfield

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


To understand Karl Ludwig Schmidt’s argument concerning the genre of the canonical gospels, we need first to understand his usage of the terms Hochliteratur and Kleinliteratur. These terms are difficult to translate into English, because we lose the nuance of the German words, while picking up unwanted baggage from their English equivalents.

Literally, they mean “high literature” and “low literature,” and that’s exactly how they’re rendered in The Place of the Gospels in the General History of Literature. However, in some translations of form critics’ works, you’ll see them left untranslated. Sometimes you’ll see Kleinliteratur translated as “folk literature” or “popular literature.” The translator of our text, Byron R. McCane, chose to translate the terms literally, since for him to leave terms untranslated is an admission of defeat. I’m not sure I agree with that position, but at least he has his reasons. There’s no right or wrong approach, I suppose.

No new thing under the sun

McCane is certainly wrong, however, about the origins of the terms.  He writes:

Many scholars who discuss Die Stellung [i.e., The Place (of the Gospels)] choose not to translate these German terms. They are, after all, neologisms created by Schmidt to designate specialized literary categories. (p. xxxii, emphasis added)

Martin Dibelius
Martin Dibelius

The terms are not neologisms; they predate Schmidt. As far back as 1919, Martin Dibelius used Kleinliteratur in From Tradition to Gospel. In the first edition (Tübingen, 1919) he wrote:

In erhöhtem Maße wird dies alles von der sogenannten Kleinliteratur gelten. (p. 1, emphasis added)

In the English translation this sentence reads:

What we have said is true also in humbler forms of literature(p. 1, emphasis added)

You can find the terms in discussions of literary works dating as far back as the late 19th century. A quick survey of Google Books reveals that Hochliteratur and Volksliteratur were in use at least as far back as 1891. Conceptually, then, the terms and the concepts behind them had been current in German academia (viz., history of literature, literary criticism, etc.) for a couple of decades before Schmidt’s The Place of the Gospels was published.

McCane is hardly alone. I can only guess that most people who have read (or claim to have read) Dibelius are familiar only with the second edition of From Tradition to Gospel (1933), and are unaware of the first edition (1919). It’s also a bit hard to trace the usage of these terms, because when translators convert them into English, you never know what you’ll get — Low literature? Folk literature? Folk tales? Popular literature? Humbler forms of literature?

Ideal Types

The ideal type is a fiction: a tool that we use to help us better comprehend the issues at hand. It’s a subjective model of the problem domain, not an objective definition of reality.

Before we continue, let’s review the concept of ideal types. If we were to envision the ideal parliamentary democracy, we would list the defining characteristics — some integral, others peripheral — generally held in common. We would not expect any particular, real-world parliamentary democracy to have every one of these characteristics. That does not mean they are something else. Nor does it mean that our ideal type is invalid. On the other hand, if a nation-state coincidentally shares a few peripheral characteristics or partially shares one of the core characteristics, that doesn’t mean it has magically become a parliamentary democracy.

Likewise, if we created a list of all the defining characteristics of Hochliteratur or Kleinliteratur and compared that list against extant works of literature from the ancient Greco-Roman world they won’t all correspond perfectly against the ideal types. That’s because, as we all should know, the ideal type is a fiction: a tool that we use to help us better comprehend the issues at hand. It’s a subjective model of the problem domain, not an objective definition of reality.

Suppose someone reminds us that the old Soviet Union had a representative body, which according to our model (so he thinks) would place it in the parliamentary democracy category. He next points to the United Kingdom, which is a constitutional monarchy, while our ideal type says that most parliamentary systems are republics. He says that he has thereby proved that our “rigid types” do not work properly and are invalid. Clearly, we should scuttle the whole thing and start over.

We would explain that he has misunderstood at least one of the criteria. The representative body must be freely elected from a slate of candidates, usually from two or more political parties. Not only that, but he has misunderstood the concept of ideal types.

Similarly, we will see that some modern scholars brush aside Schmidt’s ideal types for various reasons, including that they are “rigid categories” that do not realistically represent the continuum of literary output in the first and second centuries CE. Others will point out that some of the gospels (especially Luke) possess some degree of one of the attributes central to Hochliteratur. In Sowing the Gospel, Mary Tolbert writes:

Schmidt’s category of Kleinliteratur would be similar to what literary scholars today might classify as folktales. Since most biblical critics now recognize the distinctive hands of individual authors behind each of the Gospels, they automatically become part of Schmidt’s Hochliteratur, and the categorization that Schmidt proposed, as important as it was for form criticism, no longer serves any useful purpose in Gospel studies(p. 60, footnote 39, emphasis added)

Tolbert’s bizarrely and utterly wrong conclusions are based on a misunderstanding of Schmidt’s definition of Hochliteratur and, it would seem, a mistaken conception of ideal types. So let’s look at those characteristics in detail.

Defining features of Hochliteratur

  • Authorial presence. (The single most salient feature of Hochliteratur.)
    • A strong “I” is present throughout the text.
    • The author has a distinct personality.
    • The work is constructed according to a plan; the framework governs its construction.
    • We know the author’s name.
  • Judicious use of sources.
    • The author deals openly with his sources and maintains a critical distance from them.
    • If sources conflict, the author will evaluate them.
    • If a source is deficient, the author will say so.
  • An appreciation of the craft.
    • The author is aware of and at least tries to employ sophisticated rhetorical devices.
    • Ancient authors and readers of Hochliteratur prized literary polish.

The βίος is a genre of literature in the realm of Hochliteratur. Some of its crucial features include:

  • A title.
  • Background information.
    • Nationality of the subject.
    • Family history.
  • Verbal portraiture.
    • Physical description.
    • Moral character.
  • Topographical and chronological coherence.

We could include many more (Richard Burridge lists all the ones that he believes make his case), but suffice it to say that a work could contain a title and a family tree, but according to Schmidt, if it isn’t an example of Hochliteratur, then it cannot be a Greco-Roman biography. If we can further categorize the work as an example of Kleinliteratur with reasonable certainty, then we know that it is not a βίος.

Defining features of Kleinliteratur

  • Authorial absence.
    • There is no strong “I” in the text.
    • The personality of the author is indiscernible.
    • The author is anonymous.
  • The product of a cult or community.
    • The shape of the narrative is governed by the tradition; the author has little input.
    • The controlling unit is the individual story, not the collection.
    • Tradition constrains the author.
  • Sources are implicitly trusted.
    • Authors use sources, but do not wrestle with authenticity.
    • Source material is presented as the authoritative truth.
  • Message overshadows method and medium.
    • Language is usually simple, vernacular, sometimes rough and raw.
    • The authors do not imagine they are writing great literature.
    • Source stories are stitched together with “and then” or “sometime later,” with no great regard for chronology.

Gospel genre, reconsidered

Although in the very broadest sense, the gospels are some sort of biographical literature, Schmidt argues that a gospel is not so much the story of Jesus, but stories of Jesus. They are the end product of a long process that begins with oral story-telling, continues with the collections of those stories (some in written form, some held in collective memory), culminating in the stitching together of the pericopae by the evangelists.

The fundamental reason for the overall shape or framework of the gospels goes back to the differences between the author of a Greco-Roman biography on the one hand and a gospel redactor on the other. The former is a conscious, educated author who has set about the task of creating a work of literature. The latter is a compiler of existing stories within a community. He may subtly change the stories, trimming or adding bits of material here and there, but he is clearly a redactor and not, strictly speaking, an author.

In the next post, we’ll cover the recent criticisms of Schmidt’s model. Do modern scholars know their Schmidt?


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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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6 thoughts on “The Genre of the Gospels: How the Consensus Changed (Part 4)”

  1. I know you have to deal with these literary concepts in order to talk about Schmidt’s book, but in my experience, this former German tradition of putting all works of art and literature into neatly divided drawers is often enough more of a hindrance than helpful. The categories also carry value connotations that are nowadays for the most part outdated. I got to know these categories at school as “Hochliteratur”, “Unterhaltungsliteratur” (entertainment literature – I guess Hochliteratur is not supposed to entertain), and Trivialliteratur (I guess this one is self-explanatory). At least the term “Kleinliteratur” seems not quite as damning. I remember one of my teachers going to great lengths at explaining why Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” cannot be science fiction, as science fiction is “Trivialliteratur” whereas this book is “real” literature.

    I think classifications based on style or audience have a bit more merit.

    1. For Schmidt, the important difference is not so much a value judgment on the finished works, but a way to understand their form and how that form came to be. I think perhaps I need to explain that a little more (and why it’s important) in the next post.

      Your Brave New World story reminds me of an interview with Philip K. Dick where he talks about the SF ghetto.


      Great stuff.

  2. I thoroughly appreciate your explanation of the concept of ideal type. It’s one of the clearest explanations I’ve seen. As Robert M. Price has pointed out, it is the simply failure to understand the nature of the ideal type that did much to overturn comparisons of Christian ideas with pagan counterparts. I’m going to have to do some posts on Jonathan Z. Smith’s books like “Drudgery Divine” that spearheaded this change of thinking. Your illustration of how the ideal type works will become a central reference.

    1. Price used to use “religion” as an example of an ideal type. No single religion would have all the attributes of the ideal type. Some real world religions don’t even need a deity as a central rallying point. That doesn’t mean they aren’t religions, and it doesn’t mean our model is broken.

      What’s striking is that even presented with a clear explanation of ideal types, people will still not get it. “These go to eleven.”


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