Genre can be a highly fluid concept. In studies of Gospels I’ve noticed that discussions of genre sometimes overlap with intertextuality. Moreover, we may conclude that an ancient narrative belongs to the genre “history”, but once we learn what “history” could mean to the ancients we quickly move into discussions about the place of fictional tales in such works. Midrash is another concept that easily intrudes into any discussion of the genre of the gospels.
By genre here I mean the general character of a work, whether it be history or biography, prose epic or novella — or at least the rough ancient equivalents of those. Questions of intertextuality (and its sister midrash) I have relegated to techniques of how certain literature was composed regardless of its genre. Nonetheless I am sure I have succumbed to some blurring of the concept in the list chosen below.
Posts by Tim Widowfield are so indicated. All others are by me.
Genre of Bible’s Historical Books
Bible authors did not think of writing history in this modern European way. In The Canaanites and Their Land Niels Peter Lemche writes:
Rather than writing history, the Israelite historians composed a novel, the theme of which was the origin of Israel and its ancient history. (p. 158)
Ancient Israelite — or rather early Jewish — society was hardly interested in a scholarly presentation of the hard historical facts; they understood history to contain a significant narrative in which their own fate in the past, in the present and also in the future would be exposed. History writers were therefore free to convey their message to their readers in the form they had themselves chosen and were not bound to present a true picture of what had actually happened. A narrative would be considered true and genuine if its message was understood and accepted by the audience, not because it was true to the facts of past history. (pp.159-160)
Genre of the Gospels
In this series, we’ll take a look at the history of gospel genre studies in the 20th and 21st centuries. We’ll start with the work of the form critics, especially Karl Ludwig Schmidt, whose work today is largely ignored, widely misunderstood, and mostly still untranslated from the original German. We’ll see how the English-speaking scholarly world continues to misunderstand the pioneers of Formgeschichte (Bultmann, Dibelius, and Schmidt) and discover how a naive misapprehension of their work has contributed to the new consensus.
After that, we’ll take a look at the work of Burridge and others who have shaped the new consensus, and we’ll examine the psychological receptiveness of the scholarly community who almost seemed to be waiting for someone to tell them, “It’s OK to believe that the gospels are biographies.” Why were they so receptive to the message? And how does the belief that the gospels are ancient biographies affect the quest of for the historical Jesus?
Before we discuss Karl Ludwig Schmidt’s views on the genre of the canonical gospels, I want to present two parables that I hope will drive home some basic concepts. A review of the recent scholarship on the subject reveals a distressing amount of misunderstanding here. I hope the following illustrations will help clarify two of Schmidt’s fundamental ideas. . . .
- The Platypus
- The Commemorative Quilt
When it comes to the form critics, NT scholars don’t know Schmidt. But to be fair, for a long time — all of the twentieth century in fact — they had a reasonable excuse. None of Karl Ludwig Schmidt’s works had been translated into English, and unless you could grapple with his dense, rambling, arcane German prose, you had to rely on reviews and summaries from bilingual scholars.
To understand Karl Ludwig Schmidt’s argument concerning the genre of the canonical gospels, we need first to understand his usage of the terms Hochliteratur and Kleinliteratur. These terms are difficult to translate into English, because we lose the nuance of the German words, while picking up unwanted baggage from their English equivalents.
Literally, they mean “high literature” and “low literature,” . . . .
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.
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. . . .
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. The 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.
- What Schmidt said
- What Schmidt didn’t say
- They sort of read Bultmann
- Burridge defends himself
- A remarkably pervasive straw man
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. . . .
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.
This post continues with Meagher’s “searching critical blitz” of what most scholars believe is Karl Ludwig Schmidt’s hypothesis.
The following notes are taken from pages 74-76 of Mary Ann Tolbert’s Sowing the Gospel: Mark’s World in Literary-Historical Perspective (1989). . . .
Following is a summary of the characteristics of ancient novels that must affect our views of the gospels, and after the summary I will list a few possible implications. . . .
If the Gospels were written as “biographies” of Jesus, or were meant to be read as “history”, does this mean that we can expect to find only factual details in them? Or if not entirely factual, must we give the benefit of the doubt that beneath a certain amount of exaggeration there must have been some kernel of literal truth?
In this post I outline the points of Burridge’s influential argument that the gospels belong to the genre of ancient biography. . .
Understanding the nature of a text is a significant factor in knowing how to interpret it and how to use it as historical evidence. Many scholars today, following Burridge, accept that the Gospel of Mark is a biography of the life of Jesus. . . .
This post will not dig into specific arguments for an alternative genre of Mark. What it will do is cite voices questioning Burridge’s view (and the majority scholarly view, as I understand it) that the Gospels (the Gospel of Mark in particular) are not adequately explained as biographies.
Though most scholars of the gospels appear to regard the gospels as a form of ancient biographies of Jesus, there are a number who continue to doubt that “biography” really does describe their genre. One of these is Michael E. Vines, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Lees-McRae College, North Carolina, who wrote The Problem of Markan Genre: The Gospel of Mark and the Jewish Novel.
Dale Allison concludes his book Constructing Jesus with a discussion of the intent of the gospel authors. Did the gospel authors themselves think that they were writing real history or did they think they were writing metaphorical narratives, parables or allegories?
Allison refers to Marcus Borg and others (e.g. Robert Gundry, John Dominic Crossan, Robert J. Miller, Jerome Murphy O’Connor, John Shelby Spong, Roger David Aus) who have gone beyond their scholarly predecessors for whom the question was, “They thought they wrote history but can we believe them?”, to “Did they think they were writing something other than history and have we misunderstood them?”
They are not claiming that we must, because of modern knowledge, reinterpret the old texts in new ways, against their authors’ original intentions. They are instead contending that the texts were not intended to be understood literally in the first place. (p. 438)
This post looks at how ancient Greek novels — fictional narratives — borrowed some of the literary formalities of well-known works of history. . . . .
Verisimilitude, imitation of historiographical style, historical persons and events — none of these alone are necessarily indications of the genre of a work, or indicators as to whether there is any historical ‘tradition’ as its source.
The real author [of the Gospel of Mark] was piecing together verses from the prophets to deliver this message. But the implied narrator took all these words naively as the simple words of “how it was”. And biblical scholars and believers have been fooled into thinking that the implied narrator was the real author ever since! . . . .
If we wish to know anything about the historical Jesus, we must rely solely on the gospels. But how reliable are they? If we categorize them as memoirs, histories, or Graeco-Roman biographies, we imbue them with implicit reliability and an air of authenticity. I suggest that this result is not an accident.
A book by Clarke W. Owens, Son of Yahweh: The Gospels as Novels . . . contains some very worthwhile nuggets for anyone interested in understanding the nature of the Gospels as either literature or historical documents.
“The primary sources of information about our two figures, i.e., the New Testament canon and, say, the life of Thales by Diogenes Laertius . . . are not even remotely similar in nature or known purpose.”
(Owens, Clarke W. (2013-07-26). Son of Yahweh: The Gospels As Novels (Kindle Locations 231-233)
One way it accomplishes its ideological goal is to blend history and fiction. Historical verisimilitude serves to anchor the Jewish reader to the “historical tradition” of the community, while the infusion of fictional elements ensure the correct message and proper identity are inculcated.
Mark is consciously engaging in a sort of scriptural mimesis, not merely in the sense that he mined scripture for texts to turn into gospel details; we already know that much. But, rather, he is actually writing in the style, the mode, the manner, and the spirit of those ancient scriptural texts.
Another interesting aspect of Ferguson’s discussion is the relationship between MacDonald’s thesis and the genre of the gospels. I have been very critical of Burridge’s argument that they are a form of ancient biography . . . Yet [Ferguson] points out that if the gospels are a form of biography then that would support MacDonald’s thesis.
Genre of Acts
Richard Pervo (Profit with Delight) compares Acts with ancient novels and finds striking resemblances. . . .
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