The Genre of the Gospels: How the Consensus Changed (Part 5)

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by Tim Widowfield

Part 5: More on Karl Ludwig Schmidt’s ideal types

At the close of the previous post in this series I promised we’d talk about the modern critique of Hochlitertur (high literature) and Kleinliteratur (low literature), but first I want to explain better why these categories are important to understanding the genre of the gospels. Philip Jordan’s comment on the previous post has convinced me I need to try to take one more crack at it.

Stephen Jay Gould
A photo of Stephen Jay Gould and his opposable thumbs

The Panda’s Thumb

Many of you have probably read Stephen Jay Gould’s great essay “The Panda’s Thumb” (warning: PDF), as well as his book by the same name. In it, he explains that the Panda’s sixth digit (but not really a digit at all) is an evolutionary contrivance.

I invoke Gould’s name and cite his work not to argue the merits of natural selection, but to ask a simple question:

“When is a thumb not a thumb?”

Functionally, this little appendage behaves like a thumb. The panda uses it to grip bamboo shoots and strip off the leaves. But what exactly is it? From a strict anatomical perspective, a true thumb is a digit with internal phalanx bones. By that definition, the panda’s sixth digit can’t be a thumb, because its internal skeletal structure is composed of a modified radial sesamoid.

But why would it matter, one way or the other? Well, in ordinary speech, it doesn’t matter. It’s a thumb. But if you wanted to learn anything “scientific” about the panda’s thumb, and you started from the analogy of a primate thumb, you’d be way off track. As we said earlier, the true thumb is a modified digit that opposes the other four fingers. The panda’s thumb is physiologically different. It arose through an evolutionary process quite distinct from our own.

Here we see plainly illustrated the important difference between a functional description of an object and a thorough analysis of that same object. We can categorize objects according to visible characteristics as well as their usage in the real world. Such categorizations are valid, but only in a superficial way.

At the risk of overloading this post with more analogies, we used to categorize algae according to size, shape, color, and other visible characteristics. However, genetic analyses performed in the late 20th and early 21st century has shown that these classifications were wrong. The details make pretty dull reading if you’re not into science, but suffice it to say, superficial characteristics can often be misleading. (If you’re curious, look up red algae, taxonomy, and systematics on Wikipedia for starters.)

When is a biography not a biography?

So what does all that have to do with gospel genre? At the outset of Part Two of The Place of the Gospels in the General History of Literature, Schmidt summarizes Part One, which concentrated on his critique of scholars who would put gospels in the genre of Hellenistic biography, Greek memoirs, Jewish biography, etc. He writes:

In our critical review of earlier studies, we repeatedly ran into one fact that proves that analogy is the only sensible and productive method, and now we must take full advantage of all its ramifications: a Gospel is by nature not high literature, but low literature; not the product of an individual author, but a folk-book; not a biography, but a cult legend. (p. 27, Schmidt’s italics)

In other words, we must look for analogous writings among other examples of folk literature in order to make sense of the gospels. He continues:

Faint hints to the contrary do not change the total picture in the slightest. Luke may well have possessed the skills of an author, but he could not and would not have produced a biography of Jesus. (p. 27, bold emphasis mine)

To bring us back around to our discussion of the panda’s thumb, think of it this way:

Subject Valid Invalid
Pandas The panda has an appendage that looks like a thumb. We can better understand the panda’s thumb — its structure and its origins — by analyzing primate thumbs.
Gospels The gospels in some ways look like biographies. We can better understand the gospels — their structure and their origins — by analyzing other kinds of ancient biographies.

Why does it matter?

Elevating the gospels to high literature hinders our understanding of them. I know it comforts people to think of them as biographies, especially because it lends an air of unwarranted historic authenticity. But understanding the gospels requires us to see correctly the process by which they emerged.

Let me offer my own take on the matter. When we compare the gospels to one another and find discrepancies, we would like to explain those differences. Why would Matthew change something that Mark wrote (or vice versa, if you don’t buy into Markan priority)?

For example, why would Matthew change the one Gerasene demoniac into two Gadarene demoniacs? Further, why would he drop the name “Legion”? If we are under the delusion that the gospel of Matthew is a Greco-Roman biography, then we must also imagine a biographer, a man poring over his sources and critically evaluating them. Surely all twelve apostles had witnessed the exorcism of the legion of demons and jotted down the experience in their “running notes.” Perhaps most of Matthew’s “many sources” said there were two guys, while Mark said there was just one guy. Maybe only Mark had the name “Legion,” while in the other sources the demons were anonymous.

I know the foregoing discussion might border on the absurd, but it’s the kind of thing that can happen when we get the genre wrong. As Schmidt shows, after painstakingly comparing them to other examples of folk literature, the evangelists were not authors, but redactors. They compiled and edited their source material, constrained by the communities for whom they were writing and of which they were members. Matthew’s motivations for changing Mark were clearly theological, not historiographical.

Elevating the gospels to high literature hinders our understanding of them. I know it comforts people to think of them as biographies, especially because it lends an air of unwarranted historic authenticity. But understanding the gospels requires us to see correctly the process by which they emerged. Theological and sociological pressures shaped these four books into their final forms. We should focus on how these factors contributed to the shape of the gospels and dispense with the fiction of gospel-biographers.

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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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5 thoughts on “The Genre of the Gospels: How the Consensus Changed (Part 5)”

  1. Thanks Tim for taking your time for this long answer, although I’m afraid I may not have expressed myself very well, as it doesn’t really address the concerns I had with the approach of using categories like “Hoch-” or “Kleinliteratur” to draw conclusions about the genre of a literary piece. However, I may want to wait for your coming installment that actually deals with this for a final verdict.

    You don’t have to convince me about what you said in this blog post. Funny enough, I’m working with red, green and “blue algae” at my job, so I’m completely aware of this problem of using superficial traits to derive taxonomical or evolutionary classifications (by the way, the most interesting case in this regard is brown algae like the giant kelp and sargassum). Similarly, I completely agree that you cannot just take superficial similarities to determine the literary genre of a piece. Finding a few traits that it shares with a biography in a literary piece doesn’t automatically make it a biography. I’m sure I read already comparisons to biographical elements in the Hercules saga or Homer’s Odyssey on this very site, and nobody (well, let’s make this “harldy anyone”) will classify these as biographies.

    I used the “Brave New World” example, because it illustrated how someone who had classified this book as “Hochliteratur” abused this finding to conclude from this that the book cannot be science fiction, as science fiction is a genre that belongs to a different category. This statement is wrong, as “Brave New World” can be easily categorized as science fiction by applying literary criteria. As the book is obviously “Hochliteratur” as well as “science fiction”, there’s something wrong with drawing conclusions about genre from the “Hochliteratur” category. I think drawing genre conclusions from classifying the gospels as “Kleinliteratur” falls into the same trap. There can be some argument made that science fiction is just a meta-genre and not a good example, but the fundamental problem of the notion of neatly distinguishable genres that don’t overlap and fit categorization bins that operate on a different level, like “Hoch- und Kleinliteratur”, persists.

    I say all this as someone who doesn’t believe that the gospels are biographies, though for different reasons. The classification of Luke as redactor seems appropriate, but I think it neglects a bit the role of the gospel of Luke (though less than Acts) as a combat piece in the battle of ideas, if the intro is of any relevance, but I’ll leave it at this for the moment.

    1. I think part of the issue with modern literature is the conscious attempt to “break the mold” by challenging genre assumptions. I referred back earlier to the Philip K. Dick interviews because I’m often reminded of that business about Vonnegut not writing sci-fi (even when he is) and Harlan Ellison writing “Harlan Ellison stories” (a tautology that amused Dick). Who wants to be stuck in a genre ghetto if it means nobody will ever take you for a serious author or consider you for the Nobel Prize in Literature?

      The crux of Schmidt’s criticism is the error in judging a written work by its content rather than by its form and how it came to be written. Because we’re predisposed to find what we’re looking for, we tend to ignore what’s missing. For example, Burridge is heartened to find the authorial “I” in Luke’s preamble. But that “I” is anonymous, and disappears for the rest of the book. That’s one of the reasons I believe it was grafted on at a later date.

      In the push to find features that correlate between gospels and biographies, today’s scholars underplay important differences, such as the lack of interest in descriptive details, portraiture, logical chronology — as if these were merely stylistic choices by the author. Schmidt, I think rightly, saw these differences as indicators that showed the gospels are analogous to folk literature, even if some superficial features might resemble something else.

      Schmidt could be wrong, and in fact I disagree with some of his conclusions. However, I think many modern scholars rejected Schmidt without ever understanding exactly what he said. We’ll see more of that when we talk about whether the gospels are “unique.”

  2. Other scholars in more recent years have been exploring intertextuality — the relationships between the gospels and other Hebrew and Greek literature. Another study by Barry Henaut (presumably he is not alone) present cogent arguments against Mark being based on oral traditions. So I wonder if there is another model to explain what the evangelists were doing if they were doing something more than ‘redacting community traditions’. The clearly consistent theological bents of each of the gospels also seems to point to something more than redaction of “traditions”. The model of each writing for a “community” might also need to be justified rather than assumed.

    Just thoughts — questions. . . . curious.

    1. Yes, it’s a puzzle, and that’s what makes it all so interesting.

      On the subject of “redacting community traditions,” it’s funny to see today’s scholars reject so many of the conclusions of Redaktionsgeschichte while embracing one — namely, the role evangelists as more than just compilers of traditions.

      Q: Were they writing for a community?

      A: No! They were writing for everybody!

      Q: Can we infer anything about the community by the way the evangelist edited his sources?

      A: No! That’s too much speculation!

      Q: Were the evangelists conscious authors who shaped their material?

      A: No! . . . I mean, Yes! I like that one!

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