Part 6: Criticisms of Schmidt’s Literary Designations
In this post, we’ll cover some of the more recent negative assessments of Karl Ludwig Schmidt’s designation of gospel texts as Kleinliteratur versus Hochliteratur.
A cultural insult?
As you recall, the reason Schmidt categorized the gospels as Kleinliteratur had to do with their structure and their core characteristics. It also made sense, given his theory that the gospels arose over time from a religious group. However, here’s what The Westminster Dictionary of New Testament and Early Christian Literature and Rhetoric (edited by David E. Aune) has to say on the matter.
New Testament texts were categorized as Kleinliteratur, in contrast to the Hochliteratur produced by and for the educated upper classes of the Greco-Roman world. The social correlative of this typology was that Christians were thought to have been drawn almost exclusively from the lower classes, a view now widely regarded as inaccurate. The dichotomy between Hochliteratur and Kleinliteratur derived linguistic support from the widespread opinion current earlier in this [the 20th] century that the Greek language of the first century C.E. could conveniently be divided into two major types, literary and nonliterary Koine. (p. 278, emphasis mine)
But that wasn’t Schmidt’s argument. The gospels, he argued, arose gradually within the community, beginning with individual stories (pericopae) in the oral tradition. Their place in Kleinliteratur had very little to do with social or economic status and everything to do with process and origins.
Richard Burridge, unsurprisingly, takes up the cause and waves the banner as well. In What Are the Gospels? he writes:
Any attempt to ask literary questions about the gospels, and in particular, their genre, is automatically precluded in advance . . . The form critics’ distinction merely has the effect of removing the gospels from any discussion of their context within the first century on the grounds that they do not share some predetermined literary aspirations. However, as Suggs has pointed out: ‘The alleged lack of literary expertise on the part of the evangelists is not a valid objection . . . books of any genre may be poorly written.‘ [He’s quoting M. J. Suggs from The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Supplementary Volume, 1976 ed.] Much more detailed and accurate study of the various genres, types and levels of first-century, and especially Graeco-Roman, literature is needed. (p. 11, emphasis mine)
Burridge’s text reads like a scorching indictment, and it certainly would be . . . if it had any contact with reality. Schmidt himself elaborates upon a case of poorly written Hochliteratur. He writes:
|Diogenes Laertius was an incompetent biographer, for he haphazardly produced a great number [of] biographies (they were more like rapidly dictated, uneven leaflets!), whereas the gospel tradition was a natural process — not a belabored product but a lush growth. The same standard of judgment cannot possibly be applied to both the gospels and Diogenes Laertius, since he tries to pass himself off as an author, writing a long foreword and naming his sources, and still manages to produce an incoherent work. (The Place of the Gospels, p. 5, emphasis added.)|
Diogenes Laertius’s work is still Hochliteratur; it’s just bad Hochliteratur. It isn’t the quality of the finished product that defines the category. Rather, it’s the author’s intent, his process, and his raw materials. The evangelists’ supposed lack of literary expertise is indeed “not a valid objection,” so it’s a good thing the form critics didn’t base their conclusions on the gospel-writers’ abilities.
Schmidt, of course, did point out the inadequacies of the evangelists. In particular, he disagreed with the current prevailing favorable view of Luke as an author, concluding that “his abilities were strangely unequal to his intentions, that the material imposed restrictions on him.” He quotes Franz Overbeck (Historische Zeitschrift, 1882), who had a slightly higher opinion of Luke as an author:
The third evangelist completely fails to achieve his purpose, which was to shape the material of the gospel tradition into historiography — a dilettante’s idea, and small wonder that the dilettante betrays himself . . . And yet Luke is often praised as a skilled author. He is that, but he exercises his skill on reluctant material and so comes to grief. Luke treats as history that which was not history and was not handed down as history. But he respects the tradition, and thus a chasm yawns open between the traditional material and the form in which he wants to put it. (The Place of the Gospels, p. 84, emphasis mine)
According to Schmidt, then, at least one evangelist showed some “predetermined literary aspirations” (in direct contradiction to what Burridge claimed), but he failed to create a work of Hochliteratur because the nature of the traditional material and his respect for it kept him from doing so. In the end, the Gospel of Luke is a more polished and refined version of Mark with added material (i.e., Q and L) and with different theological motives, as well as a spiffy introduction; however, it is still a gospel and not a bios. It remains tied to its roots in the early Christian community.
For those of you who are keeping score at home
- Burridge implied that the designation of the gospels as Kleinliteratur was a preconceived notion that “precluded” any literary questions. It was not. The designation occurred as a result of form-critical analysis — a conclusion, not a preconception.
- Burridge claimed that the designation of the gospels as Kleinliteratur stemmed from the fact that the form critics believed the evangelists had no literary aspirations or expertise. He is wrong for three reasons:
- Lack of literary skill was not the criterion for calling them Kleinliteratur.
- Incompetent writers could and did write poor works of Hochliteratur.
- Schmidt acknowledges that Luke had “literary aspirations” but failed despite his intentions.
Burridge’s work is in its second edition, but as far as I know, nobody has seen fit to ask him to correct his errors. In the intervening period between this (2004) edition and the first (1992), Schmidt’s The Place of the Gospels became widely available in English. I am dismayed that it remains unread.
Are the ideal types too rigid?
Today’s scholars complain that Schmidt’s classification schema does not offer enough flexibility. They argue that ancient writings cover a broad range of styles with varying levels of sophistication. David Aune in The New Testament in Its Literary Environment writes:
Nineteenth-century New Testament scholars [apparently referring to Franz Overbeck] confidently contrasted Hochliteratur (“cultivated literature”), produced by and for the educated upper classes of the Greco-Roman world, to Kleinliteratur (“popular literature”), which originated with the lower classes and to which the compositions of the New Testament were assigned. . . .
Recent studies have made it increasingly clear that the antithetical categories of Hochlitertur and Kleinliteratur have value only as ideal types at opposite ends of a complex spectrum of linguistic and literary styles and levels. The pyramidal character of ancient society had an impact on literary culture as well as on other aspects of social and cultural life. (p. 12)
It’s true that Overbeck wrote in the 19th century, but he contrasted Hochliteratur to Urliteratur (“primitive literature”). We don’t see the term Kleinliteratur emerge until the second decade of the 20th century. At any rate, Aune’s focus on class distinction as the reason that those “nineteenth-century” [sic] scholars classified the gospels as Kleinliteratur is at the very least misguided. His incorrect definitions of the terms adversely affect his understanding of the classification system. (And as we’ve explained in earlier posts, to complain about their “rigidity” is to betray a complete misunderstanding of ideal types.)
The scheme of Hochliteratur-Kleinliteratur correlates poorly with a movement that was neither aristocratic nor vulgar but something in between. (p. 20)
I suppose the thought of “middle-class” Christian origins is comforting, but it unfortunately misses Schmidt’s points entirely. Gamble complains:
Under the influence of Overbeck and [Gustav Adolf] Deissmann, and form criticism, it became customary for New Testament scholars to classify early Christian writings as Kleinliteratur, in contrast to Hochliteratur, and thus to minimize their literary dimensions and diminish the literary culture of the early church. (Books and Readers, p. 17)
One could read the above statement and come away thinking that the form critics’ ultimate purpose was to slight the NT and the early church. Since this mistaken impression appears throughout current scholarly writings, it bears repeating: The designation of Kleinliteratur is not an insult. It merely describes the essential nature of a written work.
Gamble’s actual argument is that the form critics were fixated on the idea that the canonical gospels were distilled out of the oral tradition and that they retained enough of the character of that oral tradition to reveal insights into the history of their formation.
For [the form critics], the notion of Kleinliteratur signified not so much a distinction of Christian literature from Greco-Roman literature as a differentiation of cultures: primitive Christian culture as oral, Greco-Roman culture as literary. (Books and Readers, p. 16)
Schmidt dealt with this very question — the comparison of literature based on cultural background — in the second chapter of Part One in The Place of the Gospels. He evaluated Theodor Zahn‘s comparison of Jewish and Greek literature. Zahn had concluded: “The author of our first Gospel knew absolutely nothing about the art and form of Greek historiography. It reads like a work of Old Testament history.“ And while Schmidt agreed with that conclusion, he could not accept Zahn’s methodology.
[His] method of contrasting Israelite and Greek literature is completely wrong. He makes the same mistake as J. Weiss, who, as we have seen, played off popular Jewish literature against cultivated Greek literature. Zahn’s comments about the opposition between Old Testament folk historians and Greek literature completely miss the point of the question about Judaism and Hellenism. For there are Greek documents of which Zahn fails to take note.
[Hugo] Gressmann and Dibelius may cite Jewish parallels to the gospels, but they do not think of them as part of a general opposition between Judaism and Hellenism. Rather, they both speak of folk narratives and folk books, thereby emphasizing the concept of the popular, a concept that transcends the question of Judaism and Hellenism. (p. 18, emphasis mine)
Hence, Schmidt believed that to find the proper place of the gospels within the whole of literature, one needed to compare them to other examples of folk books — a.k.a. popular literature, a.k.a. Kleinliteratur. Their essential nature as folk works transcends culture. In other words, for the form critics, Kleinliteratur is exactly the opposite of a “differentiation of cultures.” It is instead a differentiation of basic literary characteristics.
Returning to the question of the supposed inflexibility of the categories, Burridge writes:
Crucial to both Schmidt and Bultmann was the distinction between Hochliteratur and Kleinliteratur. The two types of literature are seen in very rigid terms — and ne’er the twain shall meet. (What Are the Gospels? p. 11, emphasis mine)
Burridge would have us abandon the “dyadic” categorization model and replace it with — what exactly? Apparently, with some sliding scale that allows us to evaluate each literary work individually according to its features.
So, for example, we note that the Gospel of Matthew contains a genealogy. Under the Burridge sliding-scale model, we would note that this feature indicates he cared about the origins of Jesus, which is a feature found in Greco-Roman biographies. If we can pile up a reasonably large list of these features — however superficial they may be — we can call Matthew a biography. Alakazam!
Does it matter that “the author of our first Gospel knew absolutely nothing about the art and form of Greek historiography“? Evidently not.
Undermining the foundation
Here we see the reason for the disdain for Schmidt’s categories. In order to make the NT world safe for the notion of gospel-biographies, the “old, outdated, rigid” classification system of ancient literature had to go. This chipping away of the form-critical foundation began in the early 1970s, and with steady pounding over the decades it has largely succeeded.
Unfortunately, rather than meet Schmidt’s arguments head-on, scholars chose to create their own version of what they thought the terms meant. Worse than that, one is hard-pressed to find a single modern scholar who engaged with Schmidt’s specific and numerous reasons for placing the gospels in the category of Kleinliteratur. Instead, modern scholars have complained that the categories are “too rigid” or that they are based on outmoded (and perhaps unfair) socio-economic prejudices. However, as we’ve examined each of their complaints we find they are based on misconceptions, often easily contradicted simply by reading the source materials.
But the worst is yet to come. In the next post, we’ll look at the idea that the gospel genre was unique.
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