The Genre of the Gospels: How the Consensus Changed (Part 9)

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by Tim Widowfield

Part 9: “A searching critical blitz of the Schmidt hypothesis”

London Library after the Blitz
London Library after the Blitz

The previous post in this series began a critical analysis of an essay by John C. Meagher, delivered at the Colloquy on New Testament Studies back in 1980, before such well-known figures in the New Testament world as Charles H. Talbert, Vernon K. Robbins, and William R. Farmer. This post continues with Meagher’s “searching critical blitz”* of what most scholars believe is Karl Ludwig Schmidt’s hypothesis.

What Meagher got right

Some of Meagher’s criticisms of Schmidt’s views on the gospels were correct. Schmidt sometimes displayed far too much naive optimism when it came to the fidelity of the evangelists (and the tradents they followed) to the Jesus tradition. It is quite clear that each evangelist altered the tradition to fit specific theological views. Thus, Meagher was right in criticizing Schmidt for asserting that the gospels have a certain intrinsic reliability simply by virtue of their genesis as folk books. He summed up Schmidt’s views in Colloquy on New Testament Studies:

The content of the gospels was brought to the brink of compilation by a transmissional tradition graced by “the fidelity to the material which characterizes all popular tradition” and it is this that assures its reliability — “that the people as community became bearer and creator of the tradition makes its content reliable.” (p. 207, quoting Schmidt in The Place of the Gospels in the General History of Literature, emphasis mine)

While we may correctly view Schmidt’s comments as overly optimistic at times, we should also point out that at other times during his analysis in The Place of the Gospels, he is careful, rational, and properly skeptical.

What Meagher got wrong

However, on the whole, Meagher’s attack on the Schmidt hypothesis fails, because he — for whatever reason — was convinced that Schmidt believed that the gospels were utterly unique, and therefore any investigation into analogous works would be a waste of time because:

. . . the unprecedentedness is of the essence and that the possible analogues can only be misleading as an interpretive instrument. (Colloquy, p 213)

Here is the point at which Meagher went astray. He showed abundant familiarity with Schmidt’s work, as found in the German edition of The Place of the Gospels in the General History of Literature and in Twentieth-Century Theology in the Making (Harper, 1971). Meagher peppered his essay with footnotes and many quotes from both works. Hence it is all the more strange that he continually missed the clear evidence that Schmidt, in fact, did not think that “possible analogues [of the gospels] can only be misleading as an interpretive instrument.”

On the contrary, in Part Two of The Place of the Gospels, which spans 60 pages and examines 12 different literary examples as analogs to the gospels, Schmidt explained the purpose of the section in his introduction by affirming that “analogy is the only sensible and productive method.” (p. 27)

Meagher found Schmidt’s rejection of possible analogs (despite what Schmidt actually wrote) unwise and untenable. Moreover, it was unproductive. In other words, because scholars following Schmidt had thought the gospels were unique and that comparing them to other works would be fruitless, they had focused only on those four canonical books themselves. In Meagher’s words:

The unique gospels did not render up their secrets to interpreters who respected them as such, or become translucent vessels of a central and discernible Christian truth. . . . Competing attempts to pluck out the heart of the mystery and formulate the esoteric tradition of Jesus implicit in the gospels’ structure had their day and faded. The attempt to do without the usual interpretive controls does not appear to have been successful. We wound up not much more skillful in reading a gospel than we had begun, not much wiser about how to understand what a gospel means to be. In the circumstances, one is naturally attracted in the routine supposition, suspended only by the hope engendered by Schmidt and his colleagues, that despite evident dissimilarities to other known literary forms, a gospel may have sufficient kinship to be provided with interpretive clues. (Colloquy, p. 216, emphasis mine)

Just to be clear, the “routine supposition” to which Meagher referred is the normal presupposition that literary works are not sui generis, that their authors mostly likely relied on forms with which they were familiar and that they expected their audience would understand. If Meagher’s preceding comments weren’t sufficiently clear, here’s one final indictment.

I acknowledge that the cultic embedding of the folk-traditions of earliest Christianity undoubtedly produced their own special signals, probably less casual than in the forms of popular lore that he recognized to be legitimately analogous. But to argue Schmidt’s position against the analogies entails a burden of proof which Schmidt and his successors do not seem to have shouldered. (Colloquy, p. 217, emphasis mine)

I’m almost at a loss for words. Remember that what Meagher believed and wrote about the Schmidt hypothesis was in fact the emerging dominant perspective at the time. Nor should we underestimate the impact of Meagher’s essay on the future of genre studies. In fact, although earlier in this post I referred to Meagher’s analysis as a failure, because it rests on faulty premises, we must acknowledge that it was a success in that his point of view won out.

The narrative espoused by modern genre critics in New Testament studies says that scholarship had, essentially, wasted decades in futile analysis of the gospels, because the Schmidt (or Schmidt-Bultmann) consensus declared that the gospels were unlike any other literary work in the history of humankind and that comparing them to other forms of literature was a waste of time.

Now, over 30 years since the Colloquy, I think it’s fair to say that the new consensus has spread beyond the small circle of genre critics. The consensus has its own legendary history: a group of intrepid scholars refused to accept the status quo and went looking for literary analogs to the gospels. The historical fact that Schmidt also went looking for analogs, found them, and learned from them is lost knowledge. And since the actual facts don’t correspond to the “received truth,” we should not expect anything to change.

What Schmidt learned

As we discovered from reading The Place in the Gospels, Karl Ludwig Schmidt believed that a close study of the gospels revealed that they were not works of “high literature” (Hochliteratur), but were instead books created from a cultic community. They were not so much written, but redacted from the community’s store of oral and written folk tales. It stands to reason, then, that if we study other works that were assembled in a similar manner — i.e., analogs — we may gain some insights into the gospels.

. . . both Schmidt and Bultmann thought that studying gospel analogies had at least limited validity. To say they believed that analogies had no validity at all contradicts what they plainly wrote.
Twentieth-Century Theology in the Making, vol. I
Twentieth-Century Theology in the Making, vol. I

One note in passing: Rudolf Bultmann believed even more strongly in the uniqueness of the gospels than did Schmidt. Even so, he recognized the validity of studying their analogs, at least to a point. In Twentieth-Century Theology in the Making, he recapitulates Schmidt’s findings in The Place of the Gospels, and writes:

However, all these analogies are valid only to a certain degree. The gospels resemble them in so far as [1] their authors are in no sense literary personalities, in so far as [2] they gather together a tradition consisting of individual deeds and sayings of their hero without any scientific purpose, and in so far as [3] they lay no value in chronology, consistency of content, or psychological motivation and characterization. The gospels differ, however, not only in that they have no interest in story-telling for its own sake (apart from later imitations [i.e., later apocryphal gospels]), which is a frequent element in the analogous literature, . . . but above all in that in the gospels the material is ordered from one dominant point of view. (Theologyp. 88)

He goes on to explain his now well-known position that the gospels serve a specific kerygmatic function and that they derive their uniqueness from the fact that they emerged from “the cult of Christ, and their unity is provided by the Christ myth.” (Theology, p. 88, Bultmann’s italics)

We should expect, of course, that any analysis of analogs will reveal similarities and differences, and that we can learn from both. But note well what Bultmann is saying. The common features in other examples of “low literature” (Kleinliteratur) noted by Bultmann above have to do with their constituent forms, methods of construction, and authorial perspectives. In other words, they share features that have specific interest to a form critic, or, for that matter, anyone interested in the history of the formation of the gospels. Even if the function of a gospel as a whole is markedly different from the analogous literature, their forms may be sufficiently similar to help us understand more about how the gospels came to be.

Finally, let’s acknowledge that both Schmidt and Bultmann thought that studying gospel analogies had at least limited validity. To say they believed that analogies had no validity at all contradicts what they plainly wrote.

Now that we’ve cleared that up, what did Schmidt learn from his study of gospel analogs?

The framework is “loose and weak”

In Chapter 4 of The Place of the Gospels, Schmidt looked at a “rich storehouse” of folk traditions in a work called Les littératures populaires de toutes les nations. A common characteristic of these folk tales based on oral tradition is the thin framework that binds the various stories together.

A basic characteristic of oral tradition is that it takes the form of variations, many of which can stand side by side in the same narrative, showing just how unimportant the “connections” are. On the whole, in fact, the connections are quite secondary. The links between individual units are loose and weak, and they provide no basis for either chronology or psychology. (p. 38)

Schmidt’s quotation from Émile Amélineau in Monuments pour servir à l’histoire de l’Égypte chrétienne is particularly apt:

I must tell the reader about several distinctive features in the Egyptian style of composition. Over and over in Coptic texts, and in ancient hieroglyphic and hieratic texts, we find expressions like these: “many days after that . . . much later,” and so on. Statements like these mean absolutely nothing, or mean simply “the next day.” Egyptian storytellers generally attach no significance to precise notions of time; these stock phrases rolled gently off the tongue, and that was all that was needed. They served as vague expressions, as we would commonly say, “and then” or “after that.Chronological reconstruction cannot be built on this kind of data. (p. 38, emphasis mine)

So it is with the gospels. The implications are clear. Mark is not an inept author of a Greco-Roman biography of Jesus. He is, rather, a typical redactor of oral tradition, where the focus is on the individual story unit. If Schmidt is correct, then focusing on the framework in order to glean chronological and geographical details about Jesus’ ministry will be at best useless and at worst completely misleading.

Actually, Schmidt would have disagreed with what I just wrote there. He, perhaps again too optimistically, did not think “that all the specific details in the framework are secondary and thus historically worthless.” (p. 43) He defends this belief by explaining that some of the details “are so personal and at the same time so vague,” that they may indeed be residual authentic history. The problem, of course, with Schmidt’s theory that the framework is not all “husk” is that we have no credible methodology for extracting such authentic details.

Details come; details go

A close comparison of the synoptic gospels reveals that vague and personal details appear not merely in the framework, but are embedded in the stories themselves. Consider, for example, the odd detail we learn in Mark’s version of the Passion, in which we are told the names of Simon of Cyrene’s children. Some scholars are convinced that such a throwaway line as this must indicate historicity. In The Gospels for All Christians, Richard Bauckham whimsically theorizes:

That Matthew (27:32) and Luke (23:26) omit reference to the sons of Simon of Cyrene might be due simply to their habitual practice of abbreviating Mark. It might indicate that they were less confident than Mark that readers of their Gospels would know of Alexander and Rufus, which would be consistent with the hypothesis that Alexander and Rufus were well known in some, but not all, of the churches to which Mark could expect his Gospel to circulate. Finally, the difference between the Synoptic evangelists here might indicate that Alexander and Rufus were alive when Mark wrote, dead when Matthew and Luke wrote. (p. 25, emphasis mine)

But do details such as these allow us to draw any reliable inferences? It’s true that when compared side by side Mark’s versions of the same pericopae are usually longer and contain greater detail. Is that because Mark is later and he tends to pad out the stories, or is it because Matthew and Luke are later and tend to remove the fluff? That isn’t some peripheral question borne of idle curiosity, but a primary concern of form criticism. If the transmission of literature follows basic rules that we can depend on (as Bultmann and Dibelius asserted), then we should be able to determine the “direction” of the tradition.

When Schmidt studied the folk-book tradition of Doktor Faust, he found many parallels to the gospels, especially in how they were formed and transmitted. With respect to the inclusion and omission of details of time, place, and person, he noted:

If we follow one story down through the various editions, we often find that a later Faust-book leaves out specifications of time given by an earlier one; yet details of time often show up for the first time in later editions either to stick fast or drop out again later. The same goes for descriptions of places and people. We notice, therefore, a two-way process at work: specific situational details become attached to some stories that previously did not have them, but they also disappear from stories that previously were outfitted with them.

It is exactly the same with the gospels. Thus we learn from the Faust-books that an excess or surfeit of framing details cannot be the basis for firm conclusions about either the temporal setting of a story or the historical worth of a tradition. The vexed question of whether Mark or Matthew is more original (either because Mark has such a wealth of situational details or because Matthew has so few) can never be settled, since the course of the tradition shows equal tendency toward expansion and abbreviation. (The Place of the Gospels, p. 50, emphasis mine)

This phenomenon, by the way, is certainly not limited to the Faust tradition. Earlier in chapter 4, Schmidt noted in passing the same sort of thing going on in other folk traditions, writing:

New place designations and characters, which either were not in, or different from, those in the original edition, can appear out of nowhere in later editions and even in the final redaction. (p. 38, emphasis mine)

The implications for form criticism

If you are familiar with its history, you’ll recall that one of the criticisms leveled at Formgeschichte is the fact that its most ardent practitioners made contradictory assertions about the “laws” governing the transmission of the tradition from oral stories to written gospels. On the one hand, Bultmann said that the earliest authentic nuggets were small and that they accreted details as they were handed down. On the other hand, Vincent Taylor said the earliest forms of the stories were full of details, and that the nonessential parts eroded away. Who was correct?

E.P. Sanders and Margaret Davies put it this way in Studying the Synoptic Gospels:

We may put the issue like this: are the minor details in Mark (e.g. the paralytic was carried by four people, Mark 2.3) eyewitness details which have not yet been rounded off (so Taylor), or supplementary details put in by later hands for the sake of verisimilitude and colour (so Bultmann)? (p. 127)

The authors ultimately conclude:

When we study in detail the form critical ‘laws’ of development and change of the material, we discover that none of them holds good. [At this point, Sanders cites his own work, The Tendencies of the Synoptic Tradition] . . . Individual retellers might expand or abbreviate, might elabourate or epitomize. There are no general laws about length and detail. This negative judgment applies to Taylor’s proposals as well as to those of Dibelius and Bultmann. (p. 128)

I have only recently ordered The Tendencies of the Synoptic Tradition, but from what I can glean from a search in Google books, Sanders was unaware of the fact that Schmidt anticipated his conclusions several decades earlier. We have to wonder, didn’t anybody read Schmidt? Not even Bultmann?

The need for a “critical blitz”

Having said all that (and I do apologize for a blog post that’s fast approaching 3,000 words), I agree with Meagher on one thing: we do need to assess the Schmidt hypothesis. However, NT scholarship first needs to get a handle on what Karl Ludwig Schmidt was really saying, address each of his points, judge his findings, and work from that evaluation as a point of departure for a new consensus. If Schmidt was wrong, how was he wrong, and where do we go from there?

Note well that I did not write “re-assess,” because we need to discard the initial assessment, which was fundamentally flawed. It was this flawed evaluation that absolved modern genre critics of any responsibility to understand what Schmidt’s hypothesis really was. By imagining that Schmidt had counseled against looking for parallels, they saw themselves as pioneers. Because they knew only that Schmidt thought the gospels were not biographies, but not why, they mistakenly tossed aside his conclusions as if they were based on some antiquated prejudice or apologetic tendency.

Unfortunately, after taking the “wrong turn at Albuquerque,” NT scholarship has traveled down hundreds of miles of bad road, and so far, the drivers have shown no indication that they realize they’re lost.


* “To the best of my knowledge there has never been a searching critical blitz of the Schmidt hypothesis.”

–John C. Meagher (Colloquy on New Testament Studies, p. 214)

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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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9 thoughts on “The Genre of the Gospels: How the Consensus Changed (Part 9)”

  1. I suspect there are many such ‘hidden treasures’ already buried in the scholarly record which have been abandoned, dismissed, or otherwise forgotten or misunderstood and that many ‘cold cases’ could be put back on track by a serious study of these neglected researches.

          1. Yeah I guess so, for pretending it has any serious points of interest left besides more histrionics.

            “…I’m almost at a loss for words.”

            “…We have to wonder, didn’t anybody read Schmidt? Not even Bultmann?”

            “…NT scholarship has traveled down hundreds of miles of bad road…”

            keep ’em coming 🙂

  2. Belated thanks for your superbly lucid series of posts on K.L. Schmidt, which I’ve just discovered.
    As a minor follow-up:
    ‘Acts’ provides a measure of control for the third gospel; with its disposition of incident and set speeches, authorial intervention in the ‘we’ passages, etc, an author of some literary aspiration turns out a vigorous historical novel/aretalogy, at the least. Yet the same author is visibly “constrained by the nature of the material and its cultic function” when it comes to writing/editing a gospel; which indirectly lends credence to Schmidt”s argument for the gospels as ‘kleinliteratur’ within his clearly-defined terms.

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