The Enigma of Genre and The Gospel of John

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by Tim Widowfield

In an earlier post, I wrote:

Seen from the perspective of believers, the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of John are disconcertingly different. On the other hand, if we clear our minds of the anxiety of historicity, we see that Mark and John resemble one another much more than they do any “other” Greco-Roman biography.

Notice that both gospels don’t begin with the birth of the subject (Jesus) or even vignettes from his childhood. Instead, they start with John the Baptist. In fact, both John and Mark have the Baptist utter the very first words of direct speech.

Charles Harold Dodd

The fact that John’s pattern for writing a gospel — what the Germans refer to as Gattung — seems suspiciously similar to Mark’s pattern did not escape Charles H. Talbert’s notice. In What Is a Gospel? he wrote:

The heritage of the last generation’s research, as enshrined in the commentaries on the Fourth Gospel by C. H. Dodd and Rudolf Bultmann, has supplied us with the working hypothesis that John and the Synoptics are independent of one another. James M. Robinson has seen that this hypothesis poses the problem of explaining how the same Gattung could emerge independently in two different trajectories, the synoptic and the Johannine.

If, as is usually supposed, Mark was the creator of the literary genre gospel and if John was independent of Mark, where did the fourth Evangelist get his pattern? (Talbert 1986, p. 9-10, bold emphasis mine)

Mark’s Pattern

The consensus among NT scholars for over a century has held that sayings of and stories about Jesus floated freely, first as oral history — kept alive through telling and retelling by his disciples — then as oral tradition, and finally as written gospels. But those first “gospels” were, so the reasoning goes, more or less freeform collections. Not until Mark did we at last see the first narrative gospel, which integrated the stories, sayings, and parables, laid out structurally as a journey along the path from Galilee to Jerusalem, with a tacked-on, pre-existing Passion Narrative.

[James M. Robinson] states that “the view that one distinctive Gattung Gospel emerged sui generis from the uniqueness of Christianity seems hardly tenable.” [Robinson (Trajectories) p. 235, 1971] The emergence of Mark and John independently points to the necessity for a reexamination of the question of the genre of the canonical gospels. (Talbert 1986, p. 10)

Wow. Can you believe Bultmann had the nerve to insist that the author of the Fourth Gospel had no knowledge at all of Mark’s gospel and failed to realize that John’s independent invention of a supposedly unique Gattung strains credulity? 

Well, you shouldn’t, because Talbert is wrong. I fear that in a Venn diagram showing what Rudolf Bultmann actually thought versus what many modern scholars believe he thought, the area of overlap would be depressingly small.

Reading for Content

Again we turn to the radical method of reading Bultmann’s own words on the subject as the best way to find out what he thought. In his RGG 2 article on “The Gospels (Form),” he concluded by discussing the categories of materials found in the canonical gospels, explaining that we can divide the sayings of Jesus, “by form and content, into three groups.” (Bultmann 1969, p. 91)

  1. Sayings (logia) related to “proverbial wisdom”
  2. Prophetic and apocalyptic sayings
  3. Legal sayings

The stories, he argued, consist largely of miracle tales and legends. Legends would include things like his baptism, the transfiguration, the last meal with the Twelve, etc. He continues:

Naturally, not all of the material in the gospels falls into these groups; they also contain historical tradition belonging to no fixed category, but (as in the account of the passion) heavily overlaid with legendary themes. This is true of the traditional material used in the synoptic gospels. John draws on this, and he probably made some use of the synoptic gospels, from which he takes a number of sayings and stories. (Bultmann 1969, p. 92, bold emphasis mine)

Bultmann had a far more nuanced understanding of the origins of John’s gospel than Talbert imagines. Favoring an independent tradition (or set of traditions) is not the same as being hermetically sealed off from the synoptics. Bultmann believed in the former, but not the latter.

A Frank Assessment of Dodd

So, what about C. H. Dodd? You doubtless know where this is headed. Dodd championed the ideas (1) that John is a witness to one or more independent traditions and (2) that the Fourth Gospel contained useful historical information. But once again, he did not argue that somehow neither the author of John nor his community had ever heard of Mark.

In his 1938 book, History and the Gospel, Dodd explains how we can use source criticism in combination with form criticism to analyze the gospels from different perspectives. The gospels in the New Testament are admittedly products of the early Christian Church and colored strongly by kerygma, but they’re the closest thing we have to a history of what happened. And yet:

The Gospels, however, as they stand, belong to a comparatively late period. The authority to be attached to their evidence in detail will depend upon the earlier sources, written or oral, from which the Evangelists may be supposed to have drawn their material. There are two lines of investigation to be followed : (i) “source-criticism”, which deals with the written documents, and seeks to establish their proximate sources ; and (ii) “form-criticism”, which seeks to reconstruct the oral tradition lying behind the proximate written sources. (Dodd 1938, p. 78)

At this point, Dodd focuses on the noticeable difference between (1) the gospel narrative leading up to Jesus’ arrest and execution (2) and the Passion Narrative itself. We see an abrupt change from a choppy, episodic chain of pericopae to a sustained story. And this marked change occurs in all four gospels. He writes:

It will be convenient to start with a division of the Gospel record into two main parts, the story of the Ministry and the story of the Passion. The former consists of a series of episodes, each more or less complete in itself, often with only the loosest connection between them, but with a slender thread of continuity provided by short summary statements, which serve to link one episode with the next following. In the Passion-narrative the form changes. We have a long continuous narrative, in which each event presupposes the event which has preceded, and leads on to the event next succeeding. (Dodd 1938, pp. 78-79, emphasis mine)

Dodd concedes that the turning point occurs at different places in the four gospels. The evangelists may offer different causes for the turning point and to its ultimate significance.

But for all that, the division between the earlier part and the later betrays itself in the changed manner and tempo of his narrative. (Dodd 1938, p. 79)

The form, the framework, the narrative style, and (to use Dodd’s term) the tempo all change once the passion story commences. This clear dividing line exists in all of the canonical gospels.

Accepting then this division, we shall first consider the Passion-narrative. Here source-criticism suggests that the Marcan narrative has been reproduced by Matthew with some alteration and expansion in details; that in Luke it has been combined with a narrative from a different source; and that John, while he may be in some measure indebted to Mark, has in substance followed an independent tradition. Form-criticism can go further, and having regard to the allusions to the story of the Cross in the Epistles, and to the formulation of it in the apostolic preaching (kerygma) in Acts, will suggest that underlying our three primary accounts there is a common form or pattern of Passion-narrative. (Dodd 1938, p. 80)

While John may have appropriated the gospel genre, pattern, and (some) forms from Mark, Dodd argued, the substance of John comes from elsewhere. Talbert has badly misread both Bultmann and Dodd and used that misunderstanding as a basis for an argument for throwing out the conclusions of the form critics.

The Truth Is Not Useful

I suspect the extreme position that John knew absolutely nothing about the synoptic gospels especially gained favor when historicists like Bart Ehrman began to lean heavily on the criterion of multiple independent attestation in order to find authentic traditions and to reveal the real historical Jesus. If John knew Mark, disconcerting questions about whether John was correcting and rewriting Mark could arise. And the caricatures of Bultmann and Dodd persist, since the world of NT scholarship puts no great value on knowing their own past or accurately representing what their forebears wrote.

Bultmann, Rudolf

“The Gospels (Form),” in Pelikan, Jaroslav, ed. Twentieth Century Theology in the Making, Harper & Row, 1969 [A Translation of the Article in Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart (RGG) 2]

Dodd, C. H.

History and the Gospel, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1938

Talbert, Charles H.

What Is a Gospel?, The Genre of the Canonical Gospels, Mercer University Press, 1986

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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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4 thoughts on “The Enigma of Genre and The Gospel of John”

  1. John Marsh in “St.John” Pelican NT Commentaries in his intro section “John and the synoptics p.45 cites C.K.Barrett as claiming:
    “John knew and used Mark;possibly, if not probably, Luke and with much less certainty, Matthew as well….
    There are at least 10 passages which occur in the same order [emphasised by Barrett] in Mark and John….further within
    those passages there are several instances of quite close verbal resemblances.”

    Of course, the obligatory apologetic – they were all using variations of the same tradition – is then trotted out as a possible explanation.

  2. I suspect the extreme position that John knew absolutely nothing about the synoptic gospels especially gained favor when historicists like Bart Ehrman began to lean heavily on the criterion of multiple independent attestation in order to find authentic traditions and to reveal the real historical Jesus. If John knew Mark, disconcerting questions about whether John was correcting and rewriting Mark could arise.

    Now is an appropriate time to return to D. Moody Smith’s John among the Gospels and recall the history of this sort of discussion in the academy.

  3. “John..correcting and rewriting Mark” starts at the beginning, in this case. It is reasonably secure philologically that ‘angelos’ in non-literary 1st century Greek has narrowed its meaning from “messenger’ to ‘angel’; thus the neologism ‘apostolos’ is used in the NT of merely human messengers. At Mk. 1.13, angels minister to Jesus. At 1.2, the scripture ‘about’ the Baptist refers to an ‘angelos’ : thus in context Origen ( Comm. in Jn. 2.25 ) was probably correct in understanding Mark to mean ‘angel’. So we come to 1.1, the ‘eu-angelion’ : the sense ‘message from/about an angel’ appears in Tertullian, and it would be reasonable to be open to the possibility of this meaning in earlier texts : three ‘angelic’ mentions in the first twelve verses, how clearer can Mark be !
    John’s tendency is always to go to the extreme (notoriously in the characterisation of the ‘Judaeans’). So if John is ‘correcting’ Mark, Jesus is no longer a higher angel, he is a second god; Mark’s ‘archè ‘ is the ‘beginning’ of a message, John’s is the ‘beginning’ before time.
    Your excellent post gives (reasoned ! ) encouragement to read John-as-having-read-Mark; in that light, it becomes very difficult to see the extraordinary opening to John’s gospel as anything other than a hyperbolic ‘commentary’ on Mark’s opening; so indeed “disconcerting questions…could follow” …

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