The Genre of the Gospels: How the Consensus Changed (Part 8)

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by Tim Widowfield

Part 8: Attacking the foundations: The “uniqueness” of the gospels

A meeting of the minds

The form-critical consensus about the nature of the gospels had begun to crumble by the 1970s. No clear new way forward had emerged, but discontent with the current consensus was clearly growing. By the start of the next decade, the time was ripe for someone to take a hammer to the rotting timbers and to begin laying the footer for the new structure that would take its place.

Colloquy on New Testament Studies, Mercer Univ Press (1983)
Colloquy on New Testament Studies,
Mercer Univ Press (1983)

On the 5th and 6th of November 1980, the Southwestern Theological Seminary hosted a “Colloquy on New Testament Studies.” (You can read the proceedings in a book by the same name.) An important event in the history of NT scholarship, this colloquy attracted around 200 scholars and students, with many of the field’s luminaries — E. P. Sanders, Bruce M. Metzger, Vernon K. Robbins, and several others — in attendance.

In accordance with the theme, “A Time for Reappraisal and Fresh Approaches,” the colloquy’s seminars covered:

  • The synoptic problem
  • Gospel genre
  • Pauline chronology

The first seminar was actually a two-for-one. Part one, led by Helmut Koester, focused on the development of Mark’s gospel. Naturally, the moderator in charge of the synoptic problem seminar, William R. Farmer, made sure his theory of Markan posteriority got a fair hearing. Hence, following Koester, David Peabody presented a kind of Griesbachian rebuttal. Similarly, the second half of the first seminar, “The Purpose and Provenance of the Gospel of Mark According to the ‘Two Gospel’ (Griesbach) Hypothesis,” was followed by a counterargument by John H. Elliot.

The seminar on Pauline chronology received comparable treatment, with a response following the “Seminar Dialog.” It was, after all, only fair to hear both sides of the story.

Enter John C. Meagher

Unfortunately, when it came time to demolish Karl Ludwig Schmidt in the seminar on gospel genre, nobody stepped up to provide a response. When John C. Meagher came forward to not praise Schmidt, but to bury him, no one uttered an opposing word.

By all accounts, the seminar’s moderator, Charles H. Talbert, had made an excellent choice. In selecting Meagher, he had picked a first-rate scholar with three doctoral degrees. If anything, as an expert in Shakespearean literature and the New Testament, with a solid background in the history of literature and widely hailed as a “brilliant” scholar, Meagher was perhaps overqualified.

Talbert writes that the program committee wanted a fresh perspective on the issue, so they . . .

. . . looked for someone who was not already registered on the genre question but who had competence in literary, theological, and exegetical matters. Professor John C. Meagher of St. Michael’s, the University of Toronto, seemed an ideal selection. Meagher was assigned the topic, “The Implications for Theology of a Shift from the K. L. Schmidt Hypothesis of the Literary Uniqueness of the Gospels.(Colloquy p. 197, emphasis mine)

A loaded question

We should feel somewhat comforted that Talbert’s committee chose someone “not already registered on the genre question.” And given his background and expertise, we might have held out some hope that Meagher would examine closely the implications of the question and the poison pill embedded within.

Talbert, as you recall, had already decided for himself that Schmidt was wrong, writing in What Is a Gospel? (originally published in 1977, reprinted in 1985):

Our study has shown that there exists a conjunction of similarities (mythical structure, cultic function, attitude of inclusive reinterpretation) between the canonical gospels and certain Graeco-Roman biographies. The implication would seem to be that the gospels and the biographies belong to the same literary genre. (What Is a Gospel?, p. 134)

He concluded that Schmidt believed the gospels were sui generis, utterly unique in the universe of literature. Talbert rejected that idea and went looking for analogous works of literature, apparently unaware that Schmidt himself had embarked upon that same quest half a century before. The key difference, of course, was that Schmidt correctly searched for analogs among folkbooks and other works of Kleinliteratur.

Talbert claimed that the majority of his contemporaries directly engaged in genre research had already abandoned the old Schmidt consensus, citing a “significant shift in scholarly opinion.” For Talbert, it was merely a matter of time before they figured out “exactly how the Gospels fit into the bios literature.” He writes:

At the present moment, among those who are working with the problem most directly, the burden of proof seems to have shifted from those who wish to falsify the Schmidt-Bultmann hypothesis of the literary uniqueness of the Gospels to those who would deny that the canonical Gospels belong in some way to the biographical genre of Mediterranean antiquity. (Colloquy, p. 200)

We should feel somewhat comforted that Talbert’s committee chose someone “not already registered on the genre question.” And given his background and expertise, we might have held out some hope that Meagher would examine closely the implications of the question and the poison pill embedded within.

Our hopes are soon dashed as Meagher states his intentions in the second paragraph:

What [the seminar title] lacks in euphony it makes up in wise engagement with an important issue, and is a tribute both to the sagacity of whoever invented it and to the general sense of intellectual responsibility of a discipline which, unlike most others, continues to take seriously the scholarly work that was produced before most of us were born. (Colloquy, p. 203)

So from the outset we find that he accepts the characterization of the “K. L. Schmidt hypothesis” as a truism. But Meagher is nothing if not thorough. Surely at some point in the next 60 pages, either Meagher or someone on the distinguished discussion panel will remember that Schmidt actually wrote that only the finished products were unique, and that we could learn quite a bit by studying other analogous works.

Off to a good start

Meagher reminds us that Justin Martyr had characterized the gospels as “memoirs of the apostles.” Hence, he was the first to take a stab at assigning a genre to the gospels. But Justin was wrong.

The gospels are not memoirs. They conspicuously lack the characteristic personal reminiscing voice that belongs to that literary type. What then are they? And in what way does it matter? (Colloquy, p. 205, emphasis mine)

In a footnote, Meagher concedes that “in a sense, of course, they are [memoirs].” However, he thinks we’ll gain no profit from “following Justin’s generic lead.” Schmidt would have disagreed with that assessment, for they are nothing like memoirs. The gospels may be in some very general sense biographies (which Schmidt freely admitted); however, in every important sense they are unlike all forms of ancient Hochliteratur.

Answering the questions above (what are the gospels and why does it matter?), Meagher admits that the gospels really are, in some sense, unique:

Apparently, what we call gospels were perceived very early as special forms of literature, sui generis in character. There is nothing just like a gospel except another gospel.

Does that make the gospels unique? Yes and no. Yes, insofar as the gospels have shared characteristics that simply do not occur in any other extant literature, except in imitation of the four canonical books. But also, no, insofar as the gospels share characteristics with other literary types. If the gospels are unique, so are the Upanishads, the Talmuds, and the Screwtape Letters. (Colloquy, p. 205, emphasis mine)

He is arguing against what he perceives to be trivial uniqueness. As Margaret Mead put it, “Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.”

Meagher continues:

Uniqueness may be taken for granted. What matters is to locate the relevant sorts of nonuniqueness by which we come to tune in properly what is being offered, so that our appropriation of the offering may be apt. (Colloquy, p. 206)

It’s unfortunate that he chose to use such stilted prose to make a crucial point. Luckily, he restates it a few lines later in plain English:

The gospels were put together for the purpose of being read. Read as what? (Colloquy, p. 206, emphasis mine)

Considered as works of literature, Meagher admits the gospels are unique, however:

To know how to read them, we must go beyond this trivial truth to discover just what sorts of nonuniqueness guided their authors into the supposition that their readers would understand them. And that is precisely what Karl Ludwig Schmidt proposed to do, while asserting that their measure of environmental nonuniqueness made their measure of literary uniqueness both large and important. (Colloquy, p. 206, emphasis mine)

The question of genre: “Read as what?”

Well, that was a mouthful. Let’s step back a moment and get a handle on what Meagher and the genre critics are talking about. When we pick up a written work, whether consciously or not, we look for cues as to how to read it. The well-worn example goes something like this: You pick up a sheet of paper. At the top you read, “Dear Bob,” and at the bottom, “Sincerely, Mary.” You know it’s a letter of some sort. And because you understand the conventions of the genre, you know that Mary’s use of the word “dear” does not necessarily indicate any sort of special affection.

The forms and structures of literary works tell us how to read something. Is it history? Is it a work of fiction? Biography? We look for features to give us clues. We search for elements that this work might have in common with other writings in order to establish a framework of understanding.

If readers look for points of contact with other analogous works to help them understand a given piece of literature, then by the same token authors must also be drawn to literary conventions that will help them convey their message. And similarly, as readers may or may not be aware of the search for literary clues, authors may be unconscious of their reliance on convention. But rely they must, for if they stray too far outside the boundaries of convention, they risk not being understood at all.

Meagher writes that “meaning can be offered and received in discourse only by passing through a matrix of shared conventions.” (Colloquy, p. 211) For this and other reasons, he will be skeptical of any appeal to uniqueness.

Are unique works necessarily unintelligible?

Meagher asserts that uniqueness in literature is “implausible, by the normal canons of procedure in literary history, where the usual presumption is against uniqueness.” Burridge, with similar disdain, dismisses the very possibility of uniqueness, writing:

It is hard to imagine how anyone could invent something which is a literary novelty or unique kind of writing. Even supposing it were possible, no one else would be able to make sense of the work, with no analogy to guide their interpretation: ‘One cannot imagine a writer successfully inventing a genre for him or herself; for a genre to exist some form of reader recognition, of social acceptance, is necessary.’ (What Are the Gospels?, p. 12; quoting Jeremy Hawthorn, Unlocking the Text: Fundamental Issues in Literary Theory, p. 45)

Is this assertion really true? Do we have access to any current examples of works, which like the gospels have well-known analogs in their constituent parts, but are unique in their literary wholes? I think we do.

Like many American boys born in the 1950s and ’60s, I consumed science fiction voraciously. I read novels, short stories, novellas; watched movies, television shows, etc. Of course, science fiction or “speculative fiction” (a term often attributed to Robert Heinlein, but which never seemed to stick) is a sub-genre. Its authors used the common forms of fiction — the short story, novella, novel, screenplay, or radio drama — to convey their peculiar subject matter.

I found great joy in going to the library, picking a book at random, knowing nothing about the author or the work, except what I could glean from the dust jacket or imagine by looking at the gaudy cover art. As Meagher rightly indicated, when you pick up a book, you (perhaps subconsciously) think, “This work was intended to be read as what?” And to me it would quickly become apparent — it was a novel, or a compendium of short stories by different authors, or a series of short stories with the same main character, or something else.

The Martian Chronicles
The Martian Chronicles (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the question of genre, one science fiction work stands out for me as defying categorization, and that’s The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. Are we reading chapters in a novel or individual stories? Did the author initially have an overall plan, or was it pieced together after the fact? Am I reading the story of the human colonization of Mars, or stories of the future conquest of the red planet? Just what is this?

Fortunately for us, Bradbury himself answered the question.

He has called it a “half-cousin to a novel” and “a book of stories pretending to be a novel.” As such, it is similar in structure to Bradbury’s short story collection, The Illustrated Man, which also uses a thin frame story to link various unrelated short stories. (Wikipedia, emphasis mine)

The observant reader will note a parallel with the form critics’ assessment of the gospels. Could we not properly describe them as “a collection of Jesus stories pretending to be a biography”? I think that’s an eminently defensible position.

In a very real sense, The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man are unique works that cannot be duplicated today. One obvious reason, of course, is that Ray Bradbury is no longer with us. However, beyond that, the stories themselves are from a unique period in literary history. After World War II, a remarkable number of authors were able to eke out a living writing short stories for magazines.

It was a golden age for short fiction — for “serious” fiction as well as for genre fiction such as mysteries, westerns, and science fiction. An avid reading public (which would later nearly evaporate with the advent of television) eagerly awaited the next edition of Ellery Queen’s Mystery MagazineAmazing Tales, or The Saturday Evening Post. In the world of science fiction, giants in the field were writing stories we would later consider “classics.”

Something unique this way comes

In another significant sense, Bradbury’s two “half-cousins to a novel” are unique, in that he had not originally intended the stories to be arranged as a single work. The larger, sequential narrative framework, including the “interstitial vignettes” came later. (Recall how Schmidt described the narrative framework that links the pericopae in the synoptic gospels as secondary and redactional.)

For these reasons, The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man are unique, and not just trivially but in real, substantive ways. Naturally, unlike the gospels, Bradbury’s works are not Kleinliteratur; however, like the gospels nothing else quite resembles them, and there will never be anything like them again.

Yet as a teenager, I was able to pick up and read Chronicles with no trouble at all. Perhaps at first I could enjoy the book simply as a compendium of short stories, but the framework quickly became clear. Make no mistake. I was reading a unique work of fiction, but despite the dire warnings from modern gospel genre experts I had no trouble making sense of the work.

The foregoing discussion should, I hope, come across as simple common sense. However, it has, for the most part, remained unspoken. Not that I would fool myself into thinking a couple of amateur scribblers at an obscure blog will make any difference, but it still needs to be said. This specific criticism leveled at Schmidt — namely that the gospels cannot be unique — is fundamentally flawed. Schmidt said only that gospels as a whole were unique. And as we have seen, although a finished product may be substantively unlike any other, it can still be understood, as long as the constituent parts are presented in recognizable forms.

We don’t know for certain how early Christians read Mark, but it is reasonable to assume that it was read aloud to congregations in full and in part. I see no reason to presume that every time Christians sat down together to read Mark that they read the whole thing. Sure, given its length and simple language, it isn’t difficult to do. However, we can easily imagine them reading only from the Passion during Easter or from Jesus’ Baptism just before somebody was baptized. Similarly, a congregation might have read the story of the Last Supper just before taking Communion.

Even if a gospel in its entirety was unlike any other work, we would not expect people listening to the “stories of Jesus” to have any problem at all understanding it. And it baffles me how such a red herring became a key factor in the destruction of the so-called Schmidt-Bultmann consensus.

In the next post, we’ll continue with Meagher’s watershed essay.

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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 8)”

  1. The gospels are not unique at all. They fall in the genre of Jewish Scriptural Writing, a synthesis of Greek historiography and Ancient Near Eastern mythology. The audience that the gospels were written for were familiar with the books of Chronicles, Samuel, Daniel, Judith, Tobit, Esther, and 1 Maccabees, so there would have been nothing strange or unfamiliar about a “gospel.” What *was* different was the anti-Jewish perspective of the Gentile authors of the gospels.

      1. The general picture of a “historic” episode, or series of episodes centered around a Jewish hero (Judas Maccabee vs Jesus), stitched together by random centos from “the scriptures” that the reader/hearer is supposed to instantly recognize as scriptural — or scriptural-sounding at least.

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