A New Genre for the Gospels? It’s not so unusual. And Imitation and Intertextuality? A necessity!

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by Neil Godfrey

Maybe it’s just me and the particular apologists I have encountered over the years, but I seem to have run into a claim that the authors of the canonical gospels found themselves moved to write about Jesus in a completely new literary genre that we call “the gospels”. The four gospels certainly are unlike other types of ancient historical and biographical writings from the Greco-Roman world, and many of us are well aware that a number of scholars have attempted to demonstrate that they nonetheless do conform to an ancient type of writing that approximates our understanding of biography, that is, a Life, or bios. We have argued here that such efforts are problematic and pointed out that not all scholars specializing in the genre of the gospels agree.

So I found myself taking special interest when last week I came across classicist scholars pointing out that the creation of new genres, generally by mixing together into one composition the features of a range of pre-existing literary genres, was not at all so unusual in the literary world of the Greco-Roman culture throughout the second century b.c.e. through to the second century c.e.

Further, on the question of intertextuality and “mimesis” or imitation and creatively re-writing lines and episodes from earlier well-known works may be thought of as the one constant, an essential skill for any Greco-Roman author, as we shall see.

Here are some extracts from the works I came across discussing the history of literature throughout this period:

First, some from Elaine Fantham and her highly regarded work, Roman Literary Culture: From Cicero to Apuleius.

In her introduction Fantham explains that she intends to discuss

where appropriate, to explain the rise and fall of different genres by social and political change. (p. xiv

Soon we come to the subheading:

New Genres of Literature, from Lucilius to Apuleius (p.12)

The Romans, she tell us, claimed to have invented the genre of satire (p.13), of the personal elegy (p.33) and of protest literature (p.117). On the works of Apuleius she writes:

But there was another layer of literary performance, which straddles the thin line between actuality and fiction. . . .  But this single work is a world in itself. This sophisticated and sensational narrative achieved for its age an escape from the limitations of genre, locality, class, or age group that had last been reached by Ovid’s epic of transformation; but the changes from verse to prose, from myth to contemporary fantasy, reflect the new diffusion of Latin literature into a reader’s world as diverse and far flung as the empire itself. — p. 17

Further on we read,

Later generations continued the transfusion of genres  (p. 94).

And returning to an earlier period…

The poems that Catullus wrote to express the pain of his unrequited and betrayed love did not copy an existing genre, but grew out of circumstance: these included short poems in several meters, and several longer poems in elegiacs, one of them (68) an extraordinarily beautiful and complex elegy expressing his emotions through mythological comparison with the prematurely widowed heroine Laodamia. Thus he created personal love elegy, a genre that developed its own practitioners and public. p. 105

Genres were play things, not templates that imposed rules for strict conformity:

These show his ability to adapt elegy to a different, essentially dramatic, genre (p. 112)

How did this essentially private act become a literary genre, adopted by writers of both prose and verse? (p. 135)

and again, we read of a

dazzling range of poetry and song at all levels, going far beyond the orthodox definitions of genre. (p. 167)

And finally,

they are important not only for their own sake, as models of a new literary genre, midway between essay and autobiography (p. 201)

Another classicist, Jo-Marie Claassen, Jo-Marie, also wrote of the development of new literary genre’s in her book on the writings of persons who had been sent into political exile in the Roman era: Displaced Persons: The Literature of Exile from Cicero to Boethius. Claassen refers to a work by another scholar who spoke of a certain Roman poet’s

‘violation of multiple canons’ by means of a mix of contradictory genres (p.307)

She writes at length of the poet Ovid and his

innovative adaptation in exile of the various conventions of the genre. (p. 212)

Another genre development she addresses:

The development of a didactic genre of ‘memorial’ or ‘tyrannicide’ literature, commemorative pamphlets. (p.65)

More on Ovid and his literary “invention without parallel”:

Ovid is a complex and subtle poet. With him, genre has always been subjected to interesting conflations and adaptations. In matters of style Ovid did not keep even to the larger generic distinction of epic and elegiac, but purposely fused them. Generic innovation is a feature of Roman literature. Ovid’s Amores (Love Poems) exhibit a development from earlier elegy, as Vergil’s Georgies developed from Lucretian didactics, and, by a logical next step, these then led to the Ars Amatoria (Art of Love), an eroto-didactic collection that was almost certain to evoke Augustus’ moral ire. The Metamorphoses transferred ‘collective epic’ to Rome from Greek collections of epyllia, much as Vergil adapted pastoral from the Greek. The epistolary form of Ovid’s earlier Heroides (Daughters of Heroes) was an ‘invention’, as Lucilius ‘invented’ the satiric genre, relating it to aspects of an earlier Roman tradition. The Tristia and Epistolae ex Ponto appear as an invention without parallel, but one may assume some extant ‘earlier traditions’ as points of departure. (p.32)

What Roman authors were more interested in, and felt far more bound to conform to, were earlier well-known literary models. And that meant something that has been pointed out to biblical scholars by classicists for some years now — intertextuality. That is, the pride authors took in being able to demonstrate a knowledge of popular works and subtly weaving lines and allusions to those works into their new compositions. Hence she cites another scholar, Redmond:

He stresses that ancient authors were more concerned with models than genres. (p. 211)

Not all authors chose to mimic the most famous predecessors:

Choice of an unusual author or genre for deliberate allusion or imitation indicates an unusual intention. (p. 33)

Further on the importance of intertextuality:

Ancient practitioners of various genres seemed sometimes to be aware of the need for intertextual decoding. p.13

Intertextuality was another form of imitation and imitation was more important than conforming to rules of genre. In West and Woodman’s Creative Imitation in Latin Literature the first words we read on page 1 by D.A. Russell are these:

One of the inescapable features of Latin literature is that almost every author, in almost everything he writes, acknowledges his antecedents, his predecessors – in a word, the tradition in which he was bred. This phenomenon, for which the technical terms are imitatio or (in Greek) mimesis, is not peculiar to Latin; the statement I have just made about Latin writers would also be true very generally of Greek. In fact, the relationship between the Latin genres and their Greek exemplars may best be seen as a special case of a general Greco- Roman acceptance of imitation as an essential element in all literary composition. general Greco- Roman acceptance of imitation as an essential element in all literary composition. (p. 1)

In fact, in the same volume we even read how certain authors imitated or wove intertextuality with their own earlier works that had been well-received by audiences.


Claassen, Jo-Marie. 1999. Displaced Persons: The Literature of Exile from Cicero to Boethius. London: Bristol Classical Press.

Fantham, Elaine. 1999. Roman Literary Culture: From Cicero to Apuleius. Baltimore; London: Johns Hopkins University Press.

West, David, and Tony Woodman, eds. 1980. Creative Imitation and Latin Literature. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.



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23 thoughts on “A New Genre for the Gospels? It’s not so unusual. And Imitation and Intertextuality? A necessity!”

  1. According to Carotta, it’s not intertextual, but hypertextual (Genette)… not imitation/allusion, but adaptation/transposition. If one allows the argument of intertextuality, especially since it has never led anywhere, he mustn’t dismiss the possibility of hypertextuality. And the genre would be something like “annalistic epic theography”, or “theographic epic annals”. But it’s surely not a bios: a bios in the classical form needs birth & youth narratives, and the oldest Gospel doesn’t have that. They tacked it on later, maybe to make it more “biographical” in the ancient sense, but that’s not original.

  2. Well Neil, if you wanted to bait me, I’m biting. Of course the implications that Roman creativity in the genre of the Gospels has for the Jesus myth theory are enormous. The Gospels Roman involvement, written in Greek, based on Jewish legends, paralleling Eygyptian, Persian and Thracian dying and rising gods, then auspiced for 1500 years by the corrupt Roman catholic church : we will be diligently untangling this knotted ball of political conspiracy for the term of our natural lives. Thank you Neil for your continued devotion to history and truth; I look forward to the scholars’ views.

  3. Mark says he is writing a euaggelion, which reminds us of the euaggelion about Augustus: propaganda. As the gospel of John says, “31But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name. (John 20:31)” The choice is between Peace through Victory of the Pax Romana, and the Peace through Justice of Jesus.

    1. The term just means “good news”, and in the Augustan and Caesarian sense it’s the good news of victory in war (i.e. the civil war). It doesn’t tell us anything about the genre, but definitely the context of the genre’s origin (Graeco-Roman). As for the second part: justice is not the same as victory, so you’d have to equate the justice of jesus (Luke/crucifixion: Jesus was a just/righteous man) and the Iustitiae Caesaris. No difference, if the Gospel is a hypertext.

        1. The term propaganda is from the 17th century, so out of the gate it’s not valid as a definition of genre for the ancient world. Even today, you’d have the ability to select from many genres you can use to propagate a message or an ideology (use for propaganda). So no, propaganda is not a genre, probably not even today.

  4. The extremely popular Book of Daniel written in the second century about the fictional character of Daniel provided the template or if you like “genre” for the gospels. Here we have narrative, plots, teaching, and prophetic utterance. Both Daniel and the Acts of Jesus (called ‘the good news” or gospel by Christians) were written at a time of national calamity and religious uncertainty, the former in the time of Antiochus Epiphanes and the latter shortly after the Roman-Jewish War and the destruction of the Temple.

  5. The idea that the Gospels were independently written was always absurd. Clearly these four works stand out as being unique in style and more similar to each other than they are to anything else. The idea that four people independently decided to sit down and write very similar stories of a similar unique style on their own was nonsense from the beginning.

    The problem I have with so much biblical scholarship is the lack of acknowledge of the real implications of the copying and dependencies. Just reading material from the Jesus Seminar, and even Bart Ehrman it’s so completely foolish. On the one hand they acknowledge the inter-dependencies between the Gospels, and then act like the repetition of a passage in multiple Gospels gives credibility to the passage.

    I mean, if everyone is copying from a single narrative, then repetition is meaningless for establishing historicity of an event or saying.

    And reading the Gospels is like listening to the accounts of four crime suspects. If their stories match each others too closely, then the similarities of their stories is itself cause for suspicion, it is evidence that they got together and agreed upon a narrative collectively. That’s exactly what we see in the Gospels. That these are all copies of the same story is obvious, so even talking about a “new genre” is somewhat foolish.

    New genres are things like when multiple musicians start coalescing around some new sound. Like when rock and came along and created a new genre of music, or disco. Yes, in those cases there was influence, but not total straight up copying (thought there was some of that too in early rock/blues). But in the Gospel we don’t have several people telling their own stories in a similar style, we have several people copying a single story while minor alterations to it. It would be like having said that disco was a new genre of music if 1 “disco” album were released and then 5 other bands released albums that were covers of 9 out of the 10 songs on the first album, only adding 1 new song of their own. At that point you don’t really have a “new genre”, you just have 1 album and some covers of it.

    “Luke” is the only one, with the creation of Acts, that to actually extend beyond just copying original narrative. But at the same time, Luke is the least similar to Mark in terms of style. Of all of the Gospel writers, Luke was the least interested in prophecy and making textual references, which both Matthew and John were both mimicking from Mark.

    1. Very true. Another thing though, the forty odd other texts that describe themselves or are descibed as gospels. They take a lot of forms. I think, like you, the genre idea is a dog that won’t hunt. Another concept of the NT “scholar” to be binned. A thing Mark shares with many of the non-Canonical gospels is they are secret words or teachings. They were probably not documents for public circulation but for teaching the cult’s probationers. I think mark should be seen as akin to the story of Osiris given before progression in that cult, and that in common with the rest of the mystery cult ilk there is a part to this that was never written down. Pliny is telling here, what he finds out about Cristianity isn’t very much at all and beyond the name doesn’t bear much resemblance to what we would call Christianity. Rather than the Hellenistic/Roman profane literature we should be looking at their sacred literature. This is a cult, not a book club!

      1. Well said–a cult, not a book club. “They were probably not documents for public circulation but for teaching the cult’s probationers.” This would explain a great deal—then after a little less than a century they’ve become “the memoirs of the apostles” (Justin Martyr).
        It also helps to explain the kind of info Tacitus gained

  6. GENRE is one dimensional isn’t it ? We need more colour than that to describe the Gospels. How about STYLE, ACCURACY and FICTION vs NON-FICTION ?

    And I’d say that believers’ are predisposed, and not very appropriately, to consider the GENRE of the gospels as HISTORY. To unbelievers (e.g. me) we’re predisposed to classifying them in the genre of FICTION, PROPAGANDA and HOAX.

    Great illustration about music thanks R.G., lending itself to comparing the commercial performance of songs as covers, rather than expressing the fresh and genuine sentiment of the author where s/he wrote out it from personal experience and encounter. So we ask who if anyone really did encounter Jesus, and experience his friendship ? Were there any eye-witnesses we have as reference points to Jesus ? If not, then what were the motives for the covers ? We cannot get away from 1,500 years of Roman Catholic control which makes it seem impossible to unearth the history behind the stories. The RC church would not want that, but maybe, somewhere in the Vatican…… Hence the Da Vinci Code speculations. No I don’t believe all that stuff, but wasn’t it the RC leaders who tried to suppress the release of the all Dead Sea Scrolls ? The DSS helped us see that first century Jewish society under Rome really was militant and so we’d expect a Messiah who was a zealot, not a pacifist like the Jesus of the NT. So either the Gospels are God’s glorious and divine plan of salvation for the Jews or very clever Roman propaganda to disarm zealotry around the Roman empire and gather in the Gentiles to weaken Judaism.

    1. I think you need to take off the tin foil hat. The one thing we can be sure Christianity wasn’t is a Flavian or Herodian conspiracy, and your understanding of the Dead Sea Scrolls if very simplistic and largely wrong. Neither does anti-Catholic bigotry have any place here.

    2. The earliest hearers of Mark were no doubt encouraged to regard it as history, to be taken literally and seriously. Look at what benefits accrue to the soul of the believer via Mark, compared to the earlier Pauline belief system: (1) Christ heals people, performs miracles; (2) is present in the world (ch.16); (3) was misunderstood by the Jews because of their unbelief; (4) had appointed apostles; (5) etc. Basically Paul’s cosmic christ gospel, only now more “down to earth,” believable.
      It was written in order to convert people, aid the doubters, raise up the faint-hearted: with regard to theological truth and spiritual ‘fact’ it only ERRS ON THE SIDE OF PIETY(!)

      1. You could also argue that the earliest listeners of Mark (of the Proto-Mark) still knew it was history. But historical works are usually quite long, and aren’t really suited for reading them out loud, especially to people who aren’t as erudite, so you need an epitome that focuses on the “beef”, so to speak, and presents the history in an abbreviated, theographically emphasized fashion, and you’ll get Proto-Mark as a shorthand version of an original historical work, whether annalistic or biographical. (I tend towards annalistic.) Add to that later generations of rewrites, modifications, errors etc. during copying, add to that new works expanded from secondary sources (Matthew, Luke) or based on a different source altogether (John), and those works in turn influencing the original Mark in varying degrees, while being subject to the same alterations over time, add to that cult traditions influencing the texts as well (and vice versa), especially in the case of the Passion and the Holy Week, add to that relocalization and originally foreign cultural concepts creeping into the texts over generations, add to that a formed ancient Roman Church at the end, keen on creating a canon and at least some form of re-harmonization, ergo even more modifications, and you’ll get something, a whole ecosystem of works, that doesn’t resemble history or one of the historical genres anymore, works that don’t even resemble other works in the same Christian ecosystem. So I think it’s possible to explain the canonical Gospels as a unique genre, in this hypothesis a piously rewritten offshoot of an epitome originally based on a larger and more erudite work, and you could explain why there’s still an air of history to them, a touch of biography, hints of epos and tragedy, an annalistic spine, a masterful structure despite the humble Greek writing etc.

        You could put out several other theories of what happened, of what the texts are or were, but a theory of a Flavian or other Roman conspiracy to create them already fails for reasons of chronology, philology (multiple original sources), and diversity of content, so it must be dismissed.

  7. Hi Steve, can you back up your certainty that the Flavians and Herodians did not have a stake in suppressing Jewish rebellion ?

    What’s your point about the DSS being understood too simplistically ?

    What’s wrong with pointing out that the DSS shed new light on NT society ?

    Isn’t bigotry defined as ignorance towards those who have a different opinion than oneself ?

    Please consider reading the book “The Dead Sea Scroll Deception” by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh (Jonathan Cape, 1991). It’s theme is that the Vatican was suppressing the Dead Sea Scrolls because they would undermine vital Catholic doctrine. The authors assert that it is unconscionable to delay the publication of the DSS – that of over 500 texts found in Qumran Cave 4 beginning in 1952, only approximately 100 had been published after nearly 40 – that the few editors controlling access to the 400 unpublished texts from Cave 4 would not allow other scholars access to the texts.

    I was just pointing out that the RCC has a lot at stake in keeping its members, clergy and the world from discovering the truth about the Gospels.

    I’m happy for you to enlighten me in ignorance.

  8. Baigent and Leigh? I’ll give them a point for helping break the monopoly on the Scrolls, other than that stringing together non-facts with speculation and leaps of illogic is not how you do reputable scholarship, even at a popular level. The only use I found for them was as entertaiment and a springboard to sounder scholarship; that particular book I haven’t opened for twenty or more years.

  9. Steven, my understanding of why the RC church suppressed the publication of some of the DSS for 40 years is that it was afraid of how its members, clergy and the world would discover the truth about the Gospels – what is your view on that ? You seem to dismiss it as mere monopoly, suggesting economic reasons, but I think that’s not a good argument in this context as they had far more to lose by loss of membership. You may care to provide examples of the “non-facts”, “speculation” and “illogic” you refer to by Baigent & Leigh. I’d appreciate it if you also address my other questions; they were not rhetorical.

    1. I more complete understanding of the reasons for the delay in the publication of the scrolls can be found in works such as:

      Davies, Philip R. 2002. The Complete World of the Dead Sea Scrolls. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson.

      Vermes, Geza. 2010. The Story of the Scrolls: The Miraculous Discovery and True Significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Penguin UK.

      A general rule of thumb works well here: given the choice between a Papist conspiracy on the one hand and a series of stuff-ups, mismanagement (no-one was expecting, or had the first idea how to handle, 15,000 pieces of artefact), all the normal things that go wrong when faced with something very different from the routine finds, always opt for the latter.

  10. Thanks Neil for the recommendations of Davies and Vermes books, I’ll look at them.

    After JFK, 911, US elections and the churches’ abuse cover ups I’m conscious of my heavy bias towards the conspiracy theory.

    It’s an interesting concept in itself.

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