2021-11-26

Mark: The First Biography of Jesus? (Part 1)

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by Tim Widowfield

Reviewing The First Biography of Jesus: Genre and Meaning in Mark’s Gospel by Helen K. Bond.

The First Biography of Jesus

(In which I finally get around to reading Bond’s The First Biography of Jesus.)

After the initial trickle of “Gospels Are Biographies!” books, we might have expected a flood of works exploring the implications of such a designation. After all, when we approach a text, we usually try to identify (at least provisionally) its genre in order to understand it. If scholars in the past had failed to recognize the true genre of the canonical gospels, then we must have myriad assumptions to sweep away, interpretations to reassess, conclusions to re-evaluate, and new questions to ask.

Missing Books?

Yet here we sit, still waiting for that big splash. In the first chapter, Bond herself recognizes the dog that didn’t bark. As an aside, I would note that the usual suspects, naturally, have added the biographical credo as an ancillary argument — Bauckham for touting eyewitness testimony and Keener for promoting historical reliability. But where are the massive monographs written by grad students, the insightful papers on the cutting edge of gospel research? Where are the 400-page books laden with turgid prose that recycle the same ideas ad nauseam?

All in all, the list of scholarship is not particularly long for an issue that seemed so pressing only a few decades ago, and it is still possible (not to mention largely unremarkable as far as reviewers were concerned) to write a long book on gospel origins without devoting any attention to their genre at all. (Bond 2020, p. 52-53)

You might wonder whether modern scholars had actually been more interested in changing the consensus than building upon it. Maybe. But you should understand that redefining the genre of the gospels represents a small part of a much larger overall project, namely the rewriting of New Testament scholarship’s own history and a redrawing of its self-conception. This process of reconstruction has gradually remapped the terrain and redrawn the borders, so that scholars who once dwelt securely in a fairly broad mainstream now sit in no man’s land, out in the mud which lies beyond the barbed wire. NT scholarship’s Overton Window has slid far to the right, and erstwhile respected scholars are now rebuked for sounding too radical, for going too far, for being too skeptical, for engaging in oldthink.

Nothing demonstrates this recent change better than the now fashionable stance against form criticism. Bond has little good to say about it, and what she does say often misses the mark. For example:

A striking feature of Mark’s pericopae is their lack of circumstantial details. Not only do they generally omit any chronological markers, but they often fail to tell us where an event took place or even who was there. The form critics saw this as evidence of the oral nature of these stories, which had lost their specificity as they were passed down within the tradition. (Bond 2020 p. 150, emphasis mine)

An Uneasy Truce with Form Criticism

Bond has received the history of NT Studies through the filter of British scholars who tried (albeit unsuccessfully) to defang Formgeschichte. Vincent Taylor, wary of the deeper implications of form criticism, led this domestication effort. He considered it a useful tool, but insisted that Martin Dibelius and especially Rudolf Bultmann had gone too far in their “scepticism.”

If in the hands of Professor Bultmann Form-Criticism has taken a sceptical direction, this is not the necessary trend of the method; on the contrary, when its limitations are recognised, Form-Criticism seems to me to furnish constructive suggestions which in many ways confirm the historical trustworthiness of the Gospel tradition. (Taylor 1933, p. vi)

Naturally, Taylor wasn’t suggesting that we learn history for history’s sake. Heaven forbid.

We gladly recognize the divine element in the Gospels, but we see that they came into existence in human ways, that in His wisdom God did not think it necessary to safeguard them by protective measures, but left them free to win their own way and to make their own conquests. We believe also that, while the results of this method are often perplexing to us, God’s way has proved to be to His greater praise and glory. (Taylor 1933, p. 2, emphasis mine)

Originally, the form critics did not argue that oral nuggets of tradition “had lost their specificity as they were passed down within the tradition.” Instead, they recognized the evidence from the NT itself, in which some sayings of Jesus floated freely without context. For example:

  • I have shewed you all things, how that so labouring ye ought to support the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive. (Acts 20:35, KJV)
  • In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel. (1 Cor. 9:14, ESV)
  • For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord is coming just like a thief in the night. (1 Thes. 5:2, NASB)

Taylor strongly criticized the German form critics for claiming that pericopae consisted of remembered sayings (which may or may not go back to Jesus) presented in idealized settings. From the perspective of form criticism, the narrative details surrounding a pronouncement contain no true remembrances, no actual history from the time of Jesus. They’re essentially wrapping paper or packing material.

Asking the Wrong Questions

These are not forgotten details; they are irrelevant questions.

Suppose I told you a story about a priest, a minister, and a rabbi walking into a bar, which ends in a punch line that you’ve heard a hundred times before. You wouldn’t ask me why I didn’t describe the bartender’s appearance. You wouldn’t find it strange that I omitted the time of day. You wouldn’t look for clues in my narrative for the location of the bar. None of these details matter. They weren’t “lost” over time. They never existed.

Similarly, if we read a story in John about a woman caught in adultery which ends with Jesus saying, “Neither do I condemn thee; go and sin no more,” we are making a mistake if we ask for more details. What happened to the man who was with the woman when she was caught? What did Jesus write on the ground? Could Jesus write? Where did this event occur? What happened to the woman afterward?

These are not forgotten details; they are irrelevant questions. They arise only when we forget that we’re dealing with archetypal characters in an ideal framework.

Taylor correctly appreciated the danger in these assumptions. And let’s be clear, all NT scholars in the English-speaking world did. What happens when we notice that Mark’s tradition consisted mainly of isolated fragments, untethered from time and space?

It remains for us to consider the fundamental assumption of Form-Criticism, that, in the main, the earliest tradition consisted of small isolated units without local or temporal connexions; and further, since the two questions are inseparable, to ask what place is to be given to the recollections of eyewitnesses. With the Gospel of Mark before us it is impossible to deny that the earliest tradition was largely a mass of fragments. (Taylor 1933, p. 38, emphasis mine)

However, in an admirable struggle against the prevailing tide, Taylor pulled the reader (initially, the listeners to his series of lectures in the spring of 1932) back to the safety of the beach. Surely, there must have been eyewitnesses. They must have had some control of the tradition. Bultmann must be wrong; otherwise, we’re left without any basis for recounting the life of Jesus. And that simply can’t be.

Erosion vs. Construction

Taylor said his research demonstrated that details were lost over time. His “experiments” showed that “the hearers [of tradition] at once wrote down their recollections, . . . entirely dependent on [their] predecessor[s].” Hence, he argued for reliability and fidelity to the tradition. He wrote:

The experiments show that tendency of oral transmission is definitely in the direction of abbreviation. Additions are certainly made in all good faith through misunderstandings and efforts to picture the course of events, but almost always the stories become shorter and more conventional. The best analogy is that of pebbles on the seashore which are made smaller and round by the ceaseless beat of the waves. (Taylor 1933, p. 123, bold emphasis mine)

Taylor became famous for his “pebbles on the seashore” analogy not simply because of its poetry, but because it directly contradicted one of the fundamental assumptions of Dibelius, Bultmann, and K.L. Schmidt. He gave scholars in the Commonwealth and the U.S. a safe space within which they could learn from the vantage point of form criticism without sliding into the dreaded pit of skepticism.

The chilling implications of Bultmann’s assumptions have faded from collective memory. In its place, well-respected and well-read scholars like Bond remember form criticism’s fundamental understanding of oral tradition as a process of erosion, not construction. And now, flipping the whole business on its head — mistaking Taylor’s revision for the original consensus — Bond helpfully explains why Mark’s pericopae look the way they do. They follow the form of a chreia (χρεία), she explains, which is a pithy anecdote attributed to an individual and intended to convey a single idea. Therefore:

The decision not to include circumstantial detail, then, must be a specific choice, based on the particular literary demands of the chreia form, not an indication that such details had become lost in the tradition. (Bond 2020, p. 150-151, emphasis mine).

In other words, the form of Mark’s stories demanded an idealized setting with stereotypical players in a nonspecific time. Because Bond chooses to see Mark’s gospel as a βίοςher explanation fits with the model of Mark as a biographer. As such, he would have wanted to present his subject as a model for readers to follow and imitate. And the chreia, whose basic characteristics include conciseness and abstraction, provides an excellent vehicle.

In the next post, we’ll look more closely at the chreia and the interesting ways in which NT scholars in recent decades have used it.

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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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6 thoughts on “Mark: The First Biography of Jesus? (Part 1)”

  1. I think that MARK is a pseudo biography, written to bring to life and give a story for the Gentile Christians about the character of the shapeshifting avatar god referred to in the letter to the Philippians. (PHIL 2:6-8 “being in very nature God…made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness…being found in appearance as a man…)

    And the other gospel writers just outdid each other in adapting it and expanding with their own details they made up. The author of JOHN also adapted and Christianized the LOGOS speculation about the “deuteros theos” of Philo of Alexandria.

    Nothing that we read about their Jesus character having said or done ever really happened.

  2. I think Mark did not use any oral or historical written source to write his gospel. Mark did not write a historical account of the historical Jesus, but created a literary masterpiece designed to explain Paul’s theology, to ensure the survival of Pauline mysticism in an environment where Paul’s influence was diminishing or waning.

  3. One of our commentators in recent posts, wrote on her interesting take: the gospel of Mark is a (possibly fictional ?) play, written as if it was a biography. Or a least story about a character; real or imagined.

    So you can say that a gospel looks like a biography; without committing to it as nonfiction.

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