The Genre of the Gospels: How the Consensus Changed (Part 7)

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by Tim Widowfield

Part 7: The Uniqueness of the Gospels

What Schmidt said

Joseph B. Tyson
Joseph B. Tyson

While researching this topic, I found an unexpected great source (for this and for other topics) in New Synoptic Studies: The Cambridge Gospel Conference and Beyond, edited by William R. Farmer. Inside, an essay by Joseph B. Tyson entitled “Conflict as a Literary Theme in the Gospel of Luke” provides one of the clearest, most succinct, and correct summaries of Karl Ludwig Schmidt’s view of the gospels I have seen in print. He writes:

The conception of the gospels as distinct from literary texts was made in the early part of this century, perhaps most convincingly by K. L. Schmidt in 1923. Schmidt’s fundamental contribution was his distinction between Hochliteratur and Kleinliteratur. Hochliteratur is literature that displays some authorial consciousness and some attention to aesthetic style and organization. (p. 305, emphasis mine)

I couldn’t have said it better myself. Where so many scholars stumble over misconceptions about what they think Schmidt said or what they want him to have said, Tyson pretty much hit the nail on the head.

For Schmidt, not even Philostratus’s Life of Apollonius of Tyana may be compared with the gospels. In it, the author speaks directly to the readers and does so throughout the book; he sets forth the complete plan of the work at the beginning, and he refers to the oral and written sources he used. That is to say, Philostratus’s book belongs in the classification, Hochliteratur, because it displays authorial consciousness. It is a literary biography, which genre has a strict form, one that emphasizes literary merit often at the expense of historical accuracy. (p. 305, emphasis mine)

Tyson has read Schmidt’s work and understood it. I could almost weep.

By contrast, Kleinliteratur is basically folk literature, a form of literature made up of material that had initially circulated orally. A writing of this type is largely a compilation of unconnected traditions. In Kleinliteratur there is little sense of structure, and the chronology is vague, consisting only of such phrases as “after that,” “later,” “on another occasion,” etc. (p. 305, emphasis mine)

Exactly so. Schmidt identified a combination of key attributes — lack of authorial presence, the disjointed narrative, etc. — which demonstrate that the gospels are “folkbooks,” not biographies. Tyson continues:

There is no attempt to explain actions by recourse to internal reasonings. Connections are sometimes, but not always, provided between episodes. Only the main character is stressed, while the others retreat into the background. Schmidt concluded that the gospels belong in the category of Kleinliteratur.Das Evangelium ist von Haus aus nicht Hochliteratur, sondern Kleinliteratur, nicht individuelle Schriftstellerleistung, sondern Volksbuch, nicht Biographie, sondern Kultlegende.(p. 305-306, emphasis mine)

We must stress this point again. Schmidt’s verdict on the gospels was not a preconceived notion, but the result of a long and careful study.

You don’t have to agree with him; however, if you want to argue that Schmidt was on the wrong track and that, for instance, the gospels are actually Greco-Roman biographies, then you really ought to engage the material as it is.

After this admirable stab at a summary of Schmidt’s thesis, we now come to the topic at hand: the uniqueness of the gospels.

Schmidt was willing to say that the gospels are unique. But he insisted on limiting the uniqueness to the end product, the written texts. The individual parts, namely, the sayings and stories of Jesus which make up the gospels, are similar in form to the individual items of folklore generally. The gospels are collections of stories and sayings, and they were created in response to the needs of the community, especially the cultic needs. Their uniqueness is to be seen in the compilation of folk elements in service to a cultic need, but not in the folk elements themselves. (p. 305-306, emphasis mine)

At the risk of boring you with repetition, let me restate that. The finished products, the completed literary objects themselves, are unique. However, the internal stories have analogs in the world of folklore, both past and present. Hence, the “collage” created by the evangelists, working as redactors of traditional material, was unique, but only because the circumstances were unique.

These are not difficult concepts. It should be fairly easy to understand what Schmidt was driving at. You don’t have to agree with him; however, if you want to argue that Schmidt was on the wrong track and that, for instance, the gospels are actually Greco-Roman biographies, then you really ought to engage the material as it is.

What Schmidt didn’t say

Rear-admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, an American ...
Rear-admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, an American strategist, and inventor of the term Middle East. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In almost any field of study, you can consult a generally available college-level survey textbook and trust what you find there. Even for subjects that remain controversial, such as the origins of the American Civil War, you can usually trust the leading scholars in the field to get the basics right.

True, they may argue over interpretation and significance, but you wouldn’t, for example, expect a modern historian to misrepresent Alfred T. Mahan. Today, we might disagree with Mahan’s analysis of the importance of sea power and we might feel a little uneasy about his thoughts concerning Manifest Destiny. However, no reputable historian would write that Mahan was against building up the navy for the purpose of projecting power around the globe and protecting “national interests.”

Unfortunately, New Testament studies are different. If you want to know what William Wrede, Martin Dibelius, or Rudolf Bultmann actually said, you simply must go back to the source and check it.

And we don’t need to dwell on why things are this bad at the moment. For now let’s just leave it at this: “Don’t trust. Verify.”

They sort of read Bultmann

English: Rudolf_Bultmann Deutsch: Rudolf_Bultmann
Rudolf Bultmann (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One reason scholars mangle Schmidt’s ideas is that they confuse him with Bultmann and Dibelius. Remember, form criticism was never in style in the Anglo-American scholastic world (with very few, notable exceptions), so its concepts were brought in late and often absorbed through the filter of hostility.

If modern scholars are familiar with any of the form critics it’s probably Bultmann. They probably own a copy of History of the Synoptic Tradition (HST) or at least know someone who does, and they might have even skimmed the last chapter.

It was in that last chapter where Bultmann departs from Schmidt. In John Riches’ opening essay in The Place of the Gospels (PG) he writes:

One of the problems about this blanket treatment of the form critics’ views is that it blurs certain important disagreements between Schmidt and Bultmann. These can be most clearly documented in the concluding pages of Die Geschichte der synoptischen Tradition, to which [Richard] Burridge [in What Are the Gospels?] refers. There Bultmann quite explicitly distances himself from Schmidt, agreeing with Schmidt that folk collections (volkstümliche Sammlungen) share certain characteristics with the gospels, while insisting, nonetheless, that they differ in that “they do not tell of an admired human personality but the Son of God, Jesus Christ, the Lord of the congregation, in that they have developed out of the Christ-cult and remain linked to it.” (PG, p. xviii, Riches’ English translation of Bultmann in Geschichte, p. 398, bold emphasis mine)

Anyone who has a passing familiarity with The Place of the Gospels should be aware of the fact that Schmidt continues in detail for several chapters, looking for analogs of the gospels. To suggest that Schmidt thought that the gospels were utterly unique would seem to indicate that one has missed the point entirely. As we shall see, modern scholars will often use the term sui generis, implying that Schmidt thought the gospel genre popped into existence out of thin air, having no kin with any other writings from any place on the globe at any time in history.

John Riches continues:

This conflation [of Bultmann and Schmidt] accounts, I assume, for the surprising charge against Schmidt that he refuses to look for analogies (of any kind) for the gospels, whereas this is clearly the central intention of “The Place of the Gospels.” Not only does he look for them (as, indeed, does Bultmann), but he is convinced he has found them in the popular collections of the Apophthegmata Patrum and the Francis and the Faust legends. (PG p. xviii, bold emphasis mine) 

Note well what Riches is saying. Not only did Schmidt not believe that the gospels were sui generis, but he spent a great deal of time and effort looking for analogous literature in order to understand them better. In fact, he believed he had found similar folk books that were constructed along the same lines.

There is, moreover, a further confusion that creeps into Burridge’s treatment of Bultmann, which concerns the extent to which Bultmann addresses the question of the genre of the gospels at all. Here Bultmann’s views are similar to those of Schmidt. It is not the case that Bultmann concludes “that we cannot even talk in terms of genre for the gospels.” [quoting Burridge from p. 11 of What Are the Gospels?] What Bultmann argues is that the gospels are not literary forms — not, that is, the product of a developed set of literary conventions, ones, moreover, that are consciously developed and discussed by the author. (PG, p. xviii, bold emphasis mine)

And here is where Bultmann begins his departure from Schmidt:

[The gospels] are, according to Bultmann, expanded “cult-legends.” And legend is a generic term. But it is true that Bultmann adds, rather confusingly, that they are sui generis, that they constitute a new genre, distinct from all others. It is at this point that Schmidt and Bultmann differ. (PG, p. xviii, bold emphasis added)

Having read a little bit of Bultmann, they think they’ve understood Schmidt.

Burridge defends himself

The second edition of What Are the Gospels? came out after Riches’ essay, and Burridge takes the opportunity to respond. Burridge concedes a little, but then he digs in deeper:

Of course, Schmidt was looking for analogies for the gospels in his ‘Stellung’ — place or setting — of the gospels within literature, while Bultmann particularly stressed their uniqueness. Yet McCane’s translation ends with Schmidt talking about the ‘uniqueness of “early Christian literature”‘ with the ‘various parallels adduced here … sharpening the eye for that which is unique to primitive Christianity’ (pp. 85-6). Overall, Riches’ provocative article is an attempt to defend form-critical approaches, against an ‘English-speaking world’s resistance’. In contrast, I think the mood of gospel studies has moved even further in the direction of literary studies of the gospels as finished products of conscious authors over the last decade or so — and thus further away from Schmidt’s conclusions. (What Are the Gospels, p. 284, bold emphasis mine)

The shift in NT studies is undeniably true. Whether that’s a good thing or not is another matter entirely.

Burridge continues:

Even Riches who considers that ‘whatever else the evangelists were, they were not ancient biographers’, admits that ‘in compiling and presenting the traditions of Jesus’ words and sayings, of his life and death, they were inevitably inviting comparison with ancient biographies’. This comparison is at the heart of our current work, but something which Schmidt would not have accepted. However, I agree with Riches that Schmidt’s work has been ‘neglected’ and share his hope that this translation and introduction will contribute to the continuing debate about the genre of the gospels. (p. 284-285, emphasis mine)

I take the statement in bold above to mean that Burridge thinks Schmidt would not have accepted the comparison of gospels to ancient biographies. While it’s true that Schmidt adamantly opposed the notion that the gospels were some form of Greco-Roman biography, I think it’s important to recall exactly what he wrote:

Since the gospels do represent biography of some sort, however, we need to clarify the essence of ancient biography. (p. 1, emphasis mine)

Some like to speak of “biography” even when these features [i.e., portraiture, a well-defined scheme, a strong authorial presence, etc.] are lacking, but in such cases it is better to introduce a new concept, perhaps that of folk biography, that is, popular biography. In any event, the essential thing is never to lose sight of the marks of low literature [Kleinliteratur], of a folk book. (p. 33, emphasis mine)

For Schmidt, the crux of the matter is not the fact that gospels have certain general features that resemble biographies, but instead the fact that they are missing core, essential elements that constitute identifying features of Greco-Roman biographies specifically, and Hochliteratur generally.

A remarkably pervasive straw man

I’m reluctant to use the term “straw man,” since it’s so overused on the web, but it’s too apt a description to ignore. Saying Schmidt thought the gospels were sui generis gives modern scholars the excuse to brush him aside with a quick “tut-tut” and a snort.

We are invited to imagine how readers could possibly understand a literary work that had “no genre” or were somehow utterly unique in the universe of written works. “How could anyone make sense of them?!” Why, they might as well consist of random words on the page.

In the next post, I’m going to focus on a seminal piece by John C. Meagher, published back in 1983 that had long-lasting ramifications for the fate of Schmidt’s hypothesis and the larger question of the genre of the gospels. In this essay, he confronts the “K. L. Schmidt hypothesis of the literary uniqueness of the gospels” and discusses the possibilities offered once we “depart from 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 7)”

  1. Am I correct in understanding that Schmidt was saying:

    1. the gospels were made up of small units of sayings/anecdotes that, together, are analogous to the legend of faust or legend of francis;

    2. that these units were stitched together by authors to meet cultic needs;

    3. that these new end-products were something new — that is, new cultic literature meeting new cultic needs — but that they were at the same time stitched together from traditional folk-type or cult-type sayings/stories;

    4. that the authors who did stitch these together may have been quite accomplished or aspiring authors themselves, but in performing this particular task, of creating this new cultic literature, they were constrained by the nature of material and its cultic function — and this explains why those works are not comparable to Greco-Roman biographies (whether badly or well written);

    5. that we can call the gospels biographies but only in the sense of being, say, folk or cult biographies and not comparable to Greco-Roman biography?

    (And point 4 is explained further in part 4 of this series — the differences between “high” and “folk” literature; and point 5 in this post, part 7 — being biographies of some sort.)

    Can you add anything I may have missed or clarify anything I might be bumbling?

    1. 1. Correct.

      2. Correct.

      Let me expand a bit on points 1 and 2. One of the markers of folk literature Schmidt identifies is the way in which the material is glued together. He writes, “The framework in which the stories are set is so weak that sometimes a link is given, and sometimes it is not.” All of the connections, he believed, were secondary.

      He continues, “Again and again we read, ‘the next day . . . after that . . . a little later . . . a few days later . . . around the same time . . . another time,’ and so on.” These are just stock phrases that don’t give us any real historical chronology.

      Besides chronology, there are no psychological clues to peoples’ motivation. I think some modern scholars confuse this issue with psychological development. They chide the form critics for not knowing that ancient biographers didn’t believe in personal growth and development. But Schmidt, of course, did know that. What we mean by psychology can, I think, be illustrated by a riddle:

      Q: Why did the Christ cross the Sea of Galilee?

      A: To get to the other side.

      Finally, Schmidt points out that the travel itinerary is impossible to follow, which shows a lack of interest in topography. (I know later scholars have posited other, theological, reasons for the bizarre wanderings, but these explanations would also indicate that the framework is secondary.)

      3. Correct.

      I think the analogy of a collage is apt. The finished product may be new and interesting, but the constituent pieces are, in some sense, “found objects.”

      4. Correct.

      As you rightly point out, they’re constrained by “the nature of the material and its cultic function.” I would add: “. . . and the evangelists’ attitude toward that material.”

      If we consider Luke and Matthew (assuming Markan priority), we see that when they took over Mark, they sometimes copied the text verbatim. However, they often (1) shortened the story, removing “nonessential” elements and (2) changed the text slightly for apparently theological reasons.

      I would contrast this behavior with that of writers of Hochliteratur, who “speak” directly to the audience, remaining in the forefront as a kind of intermediary or “tour guide,” who take delight in adding fine language (i.e., the art of writing for its own sake), and who discuss their source material and why you should or shouldn’t trust it.

      5. Correct.

      Ostensibly, the reason modern scholars want to assign a particular genre to the gospels is to understand them better. However, I think one of the biggest problems with calling the gospels “some kind of Greco-Roman biography” is that it invites us to imagine the evangelists as Greco-Roman biographers. And that cannot be right.

      Of course, the other reason they want to assign a genre of history or bios is so they can use the phrase “just like any other ancient writing.” How many times do we read some variant of this? — “We treat the writings of the New Testament just like any other ancient text.” With such statements, they smuggle in the idea that the gospels aren’t different from the works of Plutarch or Herodotus, and to treat them with the level of skepticism that you and I do is “unfair” and “uncalled for.”

      1. Yes, I hope to continue with my Use and Abuse of the Bible series and draw attention to where this mischievous claim (treating the Bible like other ancient texts) first appeared.

        What I am trying to think through is what we can see about the way the gospels were written — with their appearance of being discrete pre-existing units being stitched together — with the consequences of abandoning the theory of pre-gospel oral-traditions. If, as several scholars are now suggesting, the textual/literary evidence stands against oral traditions as a source, how do we explain some of the features Schmidt and co were attempting to address?

        There is much apparent symbolism structured throughout, in particular, the gospels of Mark and John. Not just apparent symbolic/parabolic allusions — but such symbols appearing throughout these gospels, as if leading the reader to see echoes, resonances, deliberate allusions to popping up repeatedly throughout the gospels, and appearing in some sort of thematic structure.

        What I wonder is if this sort of thing is additional evidence of authors deriving story units from midrashic/prophetic inspirations rather than from oral hand-me-downs. The former option might lead to an easier explanation for the symbolic patterns that seem to tie these units together in Mark and John.

        The structural symbolism is surely an indicator of the cultic purpose and nature of these gospels — and the flags of the constraints under which the authors were crafting these gospels.

        1. The critical scholarship surrounding the nature of the gospels his massive, and the more I read, the less confidence I have that we truly understand how they came to be formed. Consider the amount of planning it must have taken in order for Mark to create so many intercalations. I love how some scholars discuss Markan sandwiches as if they’re — ho-hum — just a feature in the Synoptics.

          No matter what the raw material was for Mark, its execution is far from just a guy or group of guys writing down the oral tradition in some haphazard fashion. On the other hand, the stories do look like small, unconnected bits that were joined together. It’s a conundrum.

          1. Not only the work that has gone into the chiasms, but in the case of the Gospel of John we have authors/editors who have done to the trouble of calculating the numbers of words/letters/syllables used in passages, and their placing either side of a key point. Numerical literary techniques in John : the Fourth Evangelist’s use of numbers of words and syllables. Mathew has chosen for some reason to carefully double the numbers of certain types or recipients of miracles than what Mark had in his gospel.

            This is not your usual run-of-the-mill Hellenistic biography. It is evidently cultic literature for readers “in the know”.

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