The Gospels: Written to Look Like (the final) Jewish Scriptures?

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by Neil Godfrey

4evangelists-smThe genre of the gospels is an important question. Genre is an indication of the author’s intent. Does the author want to make us laugh at human foibles or weep over human tragedy, to escape into an entertaining world of make-believe, to be inspired and instructed by historical or biographical narratives, to mock establishment values, to understand and learn a philosophical idea? Authors choose the appropriate genre: treatise, satire, biography, history, novellas…. or their ancient equivalents.

Sometimes authors combine genres. We see this in the Book of Daniel where long apocalyptic passages suddenly break into the middle of gripping narrative adventure.

Another serious amateur researcher, Ben C. Smith, has posted a detailed argument for the gospels being composed as texts that were meant to complement the Jewish Scriptures in The Genre of the Gospels on the Biblical Criticism & History Forum. It’s an idea I myself have been toying with for some time so I can’t help but be a little biased in favour of his argument.

A common view among scholars today is that the Synoptic Gospels at least (Matthew, Mark and Luke) are a form of ancient biography. Ben Smith begins by taking on this popular notion by setting out the clear and distinctive differences between the Gospels and narratives of ancient lives:

Unlike most ancient “biographies” the Gospels are not reflective writings. They

  • are not written in the first person
  • do not self-consciously reflect upon the character of the main figure
  • do not as a rule reflect upon the kind of book they were writing or on their purposes for writing.

Ben sets out detailed illustrations from about nine ancient Lives with readers urged to take note of this:

Notice especially

(A) the grammatical use of the first person,

(B) the authorial reflections both on the overall, pervasive character of the person whose biography it is and on the biography itself, and

(C) the way in which the author stands between reader and subject, consciously and openly filtering information, weighing options, and imparting value judgments, author to reader.

He concludes with the clear lessons:

The respective authors of the gospels of Matthew and Mark never once use the first person of themselves, never once reflect on the kind of character Jesus possesses or the kind of book they intend to write, never once step in between Jesus and the reader to offer value judgments or the like. . . . The character of Jesus receives no attention at all: he gets angry, shows compassion, and reacts in various ways, but there is no attempt to create an arc of these incidents, no attempt to use them to demonstrate what kind of man he was. . . . [T]he “words and deeds of Jesus… do not display the character of Jesus, but demonstrate his identity.”

As for the Gospel of Luke, yes, we seem to have a promising start with the prologue (though I would even question that much given that the prologue evidences none of the personal details normally found in those of biographical and historical works) but after that, nothing. The character of Jesus is just as flat as in Matthew and Mark.

By the time we reach the Gospel of John we have an explicit call to belief, to faith — not a “life of Jesus”.

The purpose of a βίος is to study the character of a person; but I have pointed out that the gospels do not really seem to care about the character of Jesus, what kind of man he is, and so forth; so far as Jesus is concerned, it is really all about his identity as the son of God.

Exactly. At least that’s how I see things, too.

Even N.T. Wright Gets It Right

For all of the apologist N.T. Wright’s flaws I have once or twice found myself in agreement with him with respect to certain arguments so I do not feel quite so alone when Ben Smith likewise finds a valuable nugget in his many writings:

On pages 57-58, 65 of How God Became King Wright summarizes what, in his judgment,the gospels are really trying to convey overall:

In fact, to sum up the proposal toward which I have been working, the four gospels are trying to say that this is how God became king. We have, partly deliberately and partly accidentally, forgotten this massive claim almost entirely.

…the four gospels present themselves as the climax of the story of Israel. All four evangelists, I suggest, deliberately frame their material in such a way as to make this clear.

I think that Wright is right about this. In the gospels, Jesus is not just a king, a prophet, and a wise man; he is the king (the messiah), the prophet, and the wisest of wise men… not as a matter of his personal character, mind you, but in explicit fulfillment of everything perceived to be promised in the Jewish scriptures; he is allegedly the climax of the story begun in those scriptures.

Continuation of Salvation History

The “genre” we are broaching here is “salvation history” — the type of history we read in the Jewish Scriptures’ historical books, Genesis Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings. But notice another scholar’s critical point,

Close connections, literary and philosophical, between the Gospels and the Jewish Scriptures have been noted. The Evangelists share the Jewish belief that God (singular) can and does interact catastrophically in human affairs; beyond this, they believe themselves to be citizens of an eschatological age ushered in by a person from recent history. When this person becomes the subject of a literary treatise, it should not be surprising if such literature finds no exact parallels in the Greco-Roman world.

What genre do the gospels belong to? I think that they belong to whatever genre the Jewish scriptural narratives belong to. I think that they are conscious continuations of that venerable tradition.

It is not merely that the gospels draw upon and quote the Jewish narrative scriptures; Ozymandias draws upon and paraphrases histories without itself being a history. The issue is that the gospels are, through and through, the same kind of texts as the Jewish narrative scriptures.

Lest you are thinking here of all the kings’ armies fighting one another pause to focus on those chapters relishing in the rise of David and especially those leading readers through the ups and downs of the careers of Elijah and Elisha. (Thomas Brodie and Adam Winn have both drawn clear analogies between these Old Testament tales and the narratives of Jesus.)

The Anonymity of the Gospels

Another significant feature about the gospels is explained by this hypothesis — their anonymity. Ben Smith cites Armin Baum’s case for this Jewish style of history telling makes the stories “more direct and vivid”. I believe more to the point is that the anonymity bestows an aura of authority on the tale. Contrast the Greek way of writing history where the author would intrude to express his own doubts or conviction about the different versions of events. Further from Baum:

By writing their works without mentioning their names, the New Testament narrators deliberately placed themselves in the tradition of Old Testament historiography. Like their Old Testament models, they wanted to use the anonymity of their works to give priority to their subject matter, the narratives about the life of Jesus (and the spread of the early Jesus movement). As authors they wanted, for the most part, to disappear behind their subject matter. In order to move the subject matter to the foreground as much as possible they let their actors talk mostly in direct speech and abstained from any reflections in the first person. Even in this respect they took over the stylistic devices with which the Old Testament historians had already tried to disappear as far as possible into the background of their narratives. Since they were mainly concerned with their subject matter and not with displaying their literary skill, the narrators of the New Testament also largely abstained from elevating the colloquial Hellenistic prose of their sources to a more sophisticated literary level. All of these literary idiosyncrasies of the Gospels and Acts were designed to make the authors as invisible as possible and to highlight the priority of their subject matter.

In a second post following directly on the heels of his first Ben Smith elaborates this point by pointing out the same feature being a characteristic of ancient Near Eastern historical writing more generally.

The Titles of the Gospels

I liked this point from Ben Smith:

I think that the very titles of the gospels, assigned to them probably sometime in century II, recognize this trait in them, this receding of the author into the background:[εὐαγγέλιον] κατὰ Ματθαῖον, [εὐαγγέλιον] κατὰ Μάρκον, [εὐαγγέλιον] κατὰ Λουκᾶν,[εὐαγγέλιον] κατὰ Ἰωάννην (the gospels according to Matthew, to Mark, to Luke, and to John)… these are not typical book titles (the noncanonical gospels were similarly titled:κατὰ Θωμᾶ, κατὰ Πέτρον, κατὰ Ἑβραίους, κατὰ Αἰγυπτίους).

But it has been noticed before that they are very similar to how people referred to the Greek translations of the Jewish scriptures: κατὰ Σύμμαχον, κατὰ Ἀκύλαν, κατὰ τοὺς Ἑβδομήκοντα (the scriptures according to Symmachus, to Aquila, and to the Seventy). The scriptures are what matter here; the name of the translator is attached for convenience. Likewise, with the gospels, the perception is that it is the gospel story itself that matters; the name attached to it is seen as less that of the author than that of a tradent.

More details

Do read Smith’s original post for more details if this topic interests you. One item I won’t cover here is his discussion of the word λόγια, its various connotations and the meaning it acquired around the time the gospels were written. Hint: Papias speaks of the λόγια of the Lord and the same word could be used of the Jewish Scriptures. Smith’s article adds other comparisons with books like Joshua and Daniel.

In Smith’s second post we read several of his after-thoughts that all deserve further elaboration.  Examples:

What happens when you take a prospective Christian author who thinks in terms of something like Hebrews 1.1 and wishes to write up the latest installment in salvation history? In the past God spoke through prophets, but now he speaks in a son.

That is not just a quirk belonging to the author of Hebrews; many early Christians thought that Jesus was the end-all, be-all manifestation of God in history. Because now all those priests and judges and prophets and kings are epitomized in one person, we coincidentally get something sort of resembling the scope of a biography, one single individual.

But that is a byproduct of salvation history, not a conscious desire to imitate contemporary biographical writing. And of course, since it is not really about the lifespan of a human being, it comes down to just the career of this human fulfillment of scripture (not his upbringing, his early influences, which philosophers he liked to read, and so forth). And actually, this focus on one person, with a sort of unity characterizing the work, is closer at any rate to what we find in Ruth or Daniel or Jonah, I think, than what we find in the biographies, since the latter are about character, whereas the former are about God dealing with humanity.

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.

The Jewish Scriptures are rich in the use of doublets — as is the Gospel of Mark; and in the use of inclusio or intercalation/bookending scenarios — as is the Gospel of Mark; and other details.

Notice, too, the way the Gospels are rich in allusions to the narratives of the Jewish Scriptures. Several scholars have described much of the content as “midrashic” re-writings of Old Testament texts. I see this, too, as a further vindication of Smith’s thesis.

Thought-provoking. At least I certainly think so.

That address again: http://earlywritings.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=1724

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13 thoughts on “The Gospels: Written to Look Like (the final) Jewish Scriptures?”

  1. Back in my seminary days (early 1970s), form and redaction criticism were the lenses through which the gospels were viewed. There was an oral Jesus tradition and a written collection of his sayings, neither of which (apart from the passion story) had much context or chronology. So as the Jesus tradition was turned into written narratives, the gospel writers “strung the pearls” according to their own doctrinal beliefs and targeted audience, addressing ideas and issues which had emerged in the early church and were, in many cases, foreign to Jesus and his prophetic mission to Israel.

    I’ve tried to keep abreast of the development of New Testament scholarship since my seminary days, voraciously reading books about Jesus by scholars up to and including the likes of Horsley, Wright, Borg (God rest his soul), Crossan, and Aslan, but all of this reading has led me to a conclusion that will appear as close-minded or dull-minded to many NT buffs: apart from providing a clearer historical context for Jesus–more fully describing the multifaceted Judaism of his day and the extreme level of oppression imposed on the Jewish people by the Roman Empire and enabled by the Temple priesthood–I have found little in NT scholarship since my seminary days that provides clearer pictures of what the gospels are or who the historical Jesus was.

    I should add one other exception here, and potentially a big one. Ignored by many of the NT scholars of yesteryear is what appears to be the extremely high christology revealed in early church hymns or ritual language incorporated into Paul’s letters. “Jesus myth” proponents may point to this as evidence that, from the beginning, the gospel was a creation of the religious imagination, but I think it points in another direction. This “authority” that Jesus is portrayed as having, this power to almost instantaneously disrupt people’s lives and draw them into following him at great risk, this ability to cast out evil spirits (however one chooses to understand that) and heal the sick or infirm by touch or command, this capacity to cut through encrusted and cumbersome religious tradition and shred the mantel of hypocritical religious leadership….there was something of history here.

    The historical Jesus (if he existed) must have been a man of extraordinary, almost inconceivable power in ways quite different than that exercised by Rome. So powerful that within a decade or two of his death, as another wannabe Jewish messiah swatted by Caesar like a fly, he would be described in the soaring, transcendent words of Philippians 2:6-11. Not sure what to make of it.

    1. Hi newtonfinn — Thanks for your comment. (It’s a welcome relief from some of the other heavy topics! 🙂 ) There is something I don’t grasp about your presentation, however. Is it a fact that we have a record of a man who, for instance, “instantaneously disrupted people’s lives and drew them into following him at great risk” etc, and that this figure was attributed a very high christology almost from the beginning — or is all of this a myth? How do we know — however we answer that question?

      My reading of the earliest high christology attribution (the Philippian hymn, say) tells me that as a man Jesus (let’s call him Jesus though he is not so named in the passage) achieved nothing except his death. He had no powers as a mortal — except to die. So the high Christology attribution is not an attempt to bestow an appropriate identity on a mysterious, even unique, figure in history.

      And when we do read of this Jesus “drawing others to follow him at great risk” — again, is not this our own church-myth read into the passages? The call of the disciples in Mark is surely not realistic at all, unless we imagine someone with hypnotic powers causing fisherman to drop everything on the spot, abandon their families and just walk off with him. No, that passage, like so many others, is evidently an engagement with another call in an OT passage, in this case the call of Elisha by Elijah. The NT narratives are written as transvaluations of those of the OT. The story is not a great mystery — though its effect has been to engender that belief — but a theological crafting of an inspiring tale for a new religious body.

      1. It’s nice to have a timely and thoughtful response to my first comments. I think I’ll like it here, throwing in my two cents now and again and listening and learning when others do the same…unless the rest of what I have to say makes we too much of an outlier.

        There’s no doubt that we have a RECORD of man who does strange and wondrous things. Of course, the ultimate strange and wondrous thing occurs after his abrupt, premature departure, but let’s bracket that for now.

        Is all of this myth? Many think so. Is a lot of it myth? Many more think so. But what do we mean by myth? That something didn’t happen in history and is thus untrue and/or valueless? What then about an Aesop’s fable or a good yarn about the machinations of the Greek Gods, devoid of history, bursting with truth?

        I guess I’m not sure what you’re asking me about myth and need to know more in order to give a clearer answer.

        My understanding of the Philippians hymn is different than yours. The figure referred to (in the context of the letter, at least, Jesus) achieved EVERYTHING by his death, by his voluntary submission to all things human and vulnerable, which submission magnified his pre-existent divine standing, in a sense even beyond that of the Father.

        Do I take this ancient theology literally? No. Do I find it extremely interesting. Yes. Note the complete absence here of any atonement motif; i.e., that Jesus died so that our sins could be forgiven. No, his death was the ultimate act of love in and of itself, a willingness to become incarnate in a world of suffering and to take it all in, to embrace even an ignoble, excruciating death. The death does not earn divine love for us, it demonstrates it, illustrates it, helps us to understand its nature.

        What I was trying to suggest in my earlier post is that this high christology, so early on in the Jesus movement, can be interpreted to support two vastly different understandings of Christianity (I have grown to dislike that word, by the way, and am trying to distance myself from it). One interpretation would be…see, this is how they were talking about Jesus almost from the beginning…so, since these strange and wondrous things couldn’t have happened (as modern science supposedly assures us), this shows that the whole thing is nothing but a made-up story about a made-up figure (no doubt borrowing a good deal from other myths current at the time).

        BUT, there is another interpretation possible here, at least if one is a little less tethered to the materialism of modern science (which seems to be becoming a bit unglued on its own, which is again another discussion). That second interpretation would be that contrary to the gradual transition of a Palestinian prophet into a mystery cult-type religious figure (the general line that was popular in my seminary days and still seems to have some currency), something else appears to be going on. If Jesus was indeed historical, then it must have been ONE HELL OF A HISTORY to account for divine adulation in less than a decade of two.

        I know that this latter interpretation is probably out of bounds on Vridar, but, at my age, I reserve the right to be a bad boy.

        1. I’m quite open to accepting the gospels as “true” in the same sense Aesop’s fables are “true” 😉

          I don’t understand your interpretation of the Philippian hymn. Doesn’t it say that the central figure divested all of his powers by becoming a man. But that’s not the Jesus we read about in the gospels. He demonstrates divine power repeatedly. The Philippian hymn allows no room for a (pre Passion/Resurrection) Jesus gospel narrative.

          There is also a third interpretation of the early Christology. The idea of a divine heavenly mediator was being developed prior to any knowledge of a gospel narrative about Jesus. This mediator/logos figure was being revealed in “these last days” through visions and scriptures. This would be consistent with several widespread ideas in Second Temple Judaism with spiritual mediators and saviours such as the Heavenly Man (Adam), the heavenly Enoch, the heavenly Israel, the heavenly and divine Moses, etc.

          Does not the documentary evidence point to the Jesus story of the gospels only emerging relatively late on the scene — some time after the fall of Jerusalem, yet without any independent attestation until well into the second century? That is, one to two or even three generations after Paul’s letters.

          And don’t those gospel stories betray a strong literary debt to Old Testament stories?

          If a truly remarkable life had been lived would we not expect more interest in its details and the details of the person living it? What we have instead are theological lessons and treatises — quite unlike any other type of ancient biography.

          Questions and alternative views are not out of bounds here. By no means. I trust you don’t mind being challenged. — but understand my own views are always in flux and I do try to fairly understand other perspectives.

          Your first post has covered a range of topics. Might be easier if we just addressed one at a time. There’s plenty of time and more posts for other facets to be covered.

          1. There is a paradox here that invites endless speculation but no definitive answer, as all paradoxes do. The hymn we’re discussing is a snippet that lays out no developed christology but rather an observation or affirmation that Jesus did not get off, to use a crude and possibly blasphemous phrase, on being Godlike, but rather made himself a humble servant of no earthly standing or reputation.

            I don’t think, however, that this servanthood alluded to in the hymn rules out “strange and wondrous” works in service of humanity such as healing and the like. Indeed, when I finally wrote my own version of a synoptic gospel (a seminary assignment given decades earlier which I blew off at the time as overreaching), I determined that healings were as bedrock in the Jesus tradition as were pointed sayings and parables. Thus, I had to reject approaches from Jefferson to Spong to expunge the miraculous elements of the gospel story, approaches which I understood and empathized with but had to conclude did violence to the canonical texts.

            But let me hasten to concede your point that the hymn in question DOES provide ammunition to defend the current “theology of weakness” that we see in postmodern (or is it now post-postmodern) philosophy, where God actually dies literally or metaphorically on the cross and simply is no more (if He ever was), meaning that, for thinkers like Zezik, only an atheist can now be a Christian. My son, about to return to seminary (the notoriously radical seminary that I am proud to have attended, Chicago Theological Seminary) has kept me abreast of this newer theological thinking, and we have had some rather lively conversations about it, my theological background being heavily invested in the odd couple of Kierkegaard and Teilhard.

            I am in full agreement that the canonical gospels as we have them were written after the fall of Jerusalem and thus well after the authentic letters of Paul. That’s why things like the little section from Philippians, which appears to predate Paul himself, are so fascinating to me, providing perhaps the only window through which we can catch a glimpse of the early Jesus movement. And I am also quite aware of how much the canonical gospel writers used First Testament material to shape their accounts of Jesus’ final few years. My first NT professor (in college, not seminary) taught his entire course on the premise that the gospel story was essentially reworked First Testament material, and his position was at the time persuasive to me, if not definitive.

            Where you and I may have more substantial disagreement is your supposition (a word I do not use to indicate wrong thinking) that our historical understanding of the Jesus era, from Israel under oppressive Roman rule to the obliteration of Temple Judaism and ascendancy of the synagogue, is sufficiently fleshed out and refined to allow us to confidently create pigeonholes or conceptual slots in which to try to squeeze the canonical gospels. Genres like “ancient biographies,” which should contain a certain amount of detail, strike me as overly speculative categories which may inhibit, rather than assist, clear and accurate analysis.

            I tend to affirm at this point in my thinking (which, like yours, is a work in progress which I expect Vridar will advance) that a gospel is indeed what I was taught it was back at CTS: an utterly unique form of literature, in which an oral tradition or traditions, a written collection or two of sayings, a good deal of reinterpreted First Testament material, a ample portion of Hellenistic mythology and philosophy, and post-Jesus issues confronting an institutional mode of religion morphing out of a much looser breakaway branch of Judaism (how much of a break being open to question) were all put into a pot and stirred around by a variety of cooks, each of whom came up with a different stew, some with a more similar taste than others.

            To avoid again ranging over too wide a field to permit proper focus in debating specific issues, I’ll end it here and try, from now on, to address the particular topics that Vridar puts on the front burner as it publishes its stream of articles. Anyway, at least you have a somewhat better idea, I hope, of the idiosyncratic place I’m coming from when I offer my comments.

  2. The Scriptures / Tanakh “κατὰ Ἀκύλαν/ according to Aquila” can also be translated into English as “Eagle brand,” which might mean the Romans may have had a hand in this version of the Jewish Scriptures. And by extension, the NT.

    1. It would seem that the destruction of Temple Judaism was one important ingredient, among a host of others, that help to explain the hodgepodge nature of the canonical gospels, what I previously called a “stew.” The preceding Hellenization of Judaism and its scriptures, which went into higher gear after the Temple was removed as a focus of the faith; the proliferation and popularity throughout the Roman Empire of mystery religions focused on dying and rising god-men; the fierce battle between emerging rival interpretations of the Jesus story by the Jerusalem church and Gnostic congregations; the translation of Aramaic oral tradition and word-picture thinking into the Greek language and its more abstract concepts; political conflicts that arose for leadership of the multifaceted Jesus movement and its relation to Rome, which some within the movement would want to continue to prophetically condemn while others would want to placate and partner with; the need to create new scriptures, which in written form would preserve, revise, update, and solidify fading memories and traditions which were shape-shifting as they were being passed along–all of these factors, and I’m sure many others that Neil and Tim and other participants on this web site could add to the mix, all have weight in the balancing acts which comprise the canonical gospels.

      The fascinating thing to me is how various scholars and sophisticated lay interpreters assess how heavy the influence of each of these factors (and others) was, as we attempt to more fully understand the very different stews of Mark, Matthew, Luke, John, and their Gnostic gospel competitors that surfaced during the middle of the last century, documents which until then we knew about only by reading their repeated refutation by the Fathers of the Early Church.

      What I think is of importance here is that we all hang loose with our current assessments and opinions about this conumdrum and ENJOY the interplay of ideas, the debate of various issues, new takes that emerge, old takes that resurface, and not get mad at or dismissive of each other–that we let the ideas battle, instead of US. The latest posts on Vridar about Plato, for example, are introducing me to areas of inquiry that I have not yet explored. That’s why I, as a neophyte here, so highly value what Neil and Tim have provided.

    2. I think so. At the same time, we need to work with the evidence that pre-gospel Christianity arose in the period of the Temple. As such, it would not be the first Jewish sect or movement that saw itself as the “fulfilment” or “true” or “new” Israel in contrast to their peers and predecessors. Thomas L. Thompson (The Mythic Past — or The Bible in History — different titles but same book) discusses the way authors of the OT would speak of/create a failed Israel in the past (e.g. Exodus and wilderness) in order to present a foil or lesson for their readers whom they were admonishing to “do better”. The gospels continue in this tradition — creating a failed Israel that crucified Jesus as a lesson for their readers to not be like them but to be the true/new Israel.

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