Because so many NT scholars desperately want the gospels to be both Greco-Roman biographies and reliable histories, we could almost forget that these two forms of literature are not the same. You don’t have to take my word for it. Here’s what Plutarch said:
It being my purpose to write the lives of Alexander the king, and of Caesar, by whom Pompey was destroyed, the multitude of their great actions affords so large a field that I were to blame if I should not by way of apology forewarn my reader that I have chosen rather to epitomize the most celebrated parts of their story, than to insist at large on every particular circumstance of it. It must be borne in mind that my design is not to write histories, but lives.
And the most glorious exploits do not always furnish us with the clearest discoveries of virtue or vice in men; sometimes a matter of less moment, an expression or a jest, informs us better of their characters and inclinations, than the most famous sieges, the greatest armaments, or the bloodiest battles whatsoever.
Therefore as portrait-painters are more exact in the lines and features of the face, in which the character is seen, than in the other parts of the body, so I must be allowed to give my more particular attention to the marks and indications of the souls of men, and while I endeavour by these to portray their lives, may be free to leave more weighty matters and great battles to be treated of by others. (Plutarch’s Alexander [emphasis and reformatting mine])
With the gospels in mind and thinking of them (for sake of argument) as biographical accounts of Jesus, how can we know if an ancient biography is about a genuinely historical person or if it is about a fictional character?
Let’s leave aside for now the claims of postmodernists who argue that there is no essential difference between histories and novels, between autobiography and fictional works. Enough historians and scholars of literature, at least to my satisfaction, have knocked these arguments down.
Many of us are familiar with the analysis of Richard Burridge that concludes that the gospels are of the same genre as ancient “bioi” (I’ll use the familiar term “biography”). The responses to Burridge’s arguments by Tim and me are collated here.
Before we take up the explanation, let’s look at some extracts from ancient biographers.
Here is a passage about Socrates by Diogenes Laertius:
It was thought that he [Socrates] helped Euripides to make his plays; hence Mnesimachus writes:
This new play of Euripides is The Phrygians; and Socrates provides the wood for frying.
And again he calls Euripides “an engine riveted by Socrates.” And Callias in The Captives:
a. Pray why so solemn, why this lofty air? b. I’ve every right; I’m helped by Socrates.
. . . . .
According to some authors he was a pupil of Anaxagoras, and also of Damon, as Alexander states in his Successions of Philosophers. When Anaxagoras was condemned, he became a pupil of Archelaus the physicist; Aristoxenus asserts that Archelaus was very fond of him. Duris makes him out to have been a slave and to have been employed on stonework, and the draped figures of the Graces on the Acropolis have by some been attributed to him. . . . .
He was formidable in public speaking, according to Idomeneus; moreover, as Xenophon tells us, the Thirty forbade him to teach the art of words. And Aristophanes attacks him in his plays for making the worse appear the better reason. For Favorinus in his Miscellaneous History says Socrates and his pupil Aeschines were the first to teach rhetoric; and this is confirmed by Idomeneus in his work on the Socratic circle. . . . .
The significance of the highlighted phrases is that they indicate that the author is writing from the perspective of an outsider attempting to interpret and draw conclusions from and piece together pre-existing sources speaking of the past. The author’s narrative is constrained by the information that has already long been in existence.
Notice especially the caution expressed in the first line: we know that the author is not going to bet his life on the information being true because he tells us that the information is “thought” to be true on the basis of inference from the documents.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that such features in writing are a foolproof indicator of the factualness or genuine historicity of the subject. Obviously such phrases can be invented — and sometimes are invented — for the sake of creating verisimilitude for a fictional narrative. And such a presentation alone does not tell us with complete certainty that the person found in the sources was truly historical.
What we can establish from these literary indicators, however, is that on the face of it the author presents his work as an effort to relay to readers what is purported to be historical; furthermore, the author opens up to readers the means by which they can verify what he writes.
In her book Autobiographical Acts, Bruss formulates a number of interrelated “rules” . . . The rule that applies to this communication process on the author’s side reads:
“Whether or not what is reported can be discredited, . . . the autobiographer purports to believe in what he asserts.”
On the reader’s side, the rule-abiding expectation that the report is true implies a freedom to “check up” on its accuracy by way of appropriate verification procedures.
In this perspective, the truth claim or autobiography in no sense implies the actual truth of an autobiographer’s statement. (Dorrit Cohn, 1999, The Distinction of Fiction, p. 31, italics original, my formatting)
So it is worthwhile asking why we find no comparable expressions in the earliest gospels, the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. I should say “any of the canonical gospels” since the prologue to Luke and the eyewitness claims in John create special problems that have been discussed in other posts. Moreover, we will see that all four canonical gospels, on the contrary, are replete with perspectives and expressions that indicate fiction.
I see John as a rewriting of those written texts in light of both the cultural memories of his own group and a very particular set of historical circumstances. There’s no doubt that this gospel is distinctive in many ways, with its view of Jesus as the incarnate Logos, the unique Son of the Father, and the bringer of eternal life. And yet, it seems to me that many of these distinctive features can be seen to derive from a creative reflection on Markan material. (Bond, 0:55, 2016 — Note: In this post all bold emphasis in quotations is mine.)
An extremely slim volume
Further, she correctly observes that most scholars thought John knew and used the Gospel of Mark until the publication of Percival Gardner-Smith’s Saint John & the Synoptic Gospels in 1938. But notice who turns out to be the villain in this story.
So, while the extent of John’s familiarity with Matthew has often been debated, there was almost complete agreement, until the early 20th century, that the evangelist was thoroughly acquainted with Mark and very likely also with Luke. With the emergence of form criticism, however, things began to change. (Bond, 1:52, 2016)
I have in the past argued that our canonical gospels are not really about the life and person of Jesus but rather they are a dramatization of core theological beliefs of the early Church. Jesus is a personification, a mouthpiece and a role constructed to play out this dramatization. One could say I have sided with Adela Yarbro Collins when she expresses doubts about the gospels really being biographies of Jesus when she writes:
With regard to the gospel of Mark at least, one may question whether the main purpose of the work is to depict the essence or character of Jesus Christ. (Collins 1990, p. 41)
The fundamental purpose of Mark does not then seem to be to depict the essence or character of Jesus Christ, to present Jesus as a model, to indicate who possesses the true tradition at the time the gospel was written, or to synthesize the various literary forms taken by the tradition about Jesus and their theologies. (Collins 1990, p. 44)
The gospel begins with a reference to Jesus Christ [son of God], not out of interest in his character, but to present him as God’s agent. . . . (Collins 1990, p. 62)
That was yesterday. Today I am being pressured to re-think that viewpoint. The reason is chapter 2, “Civic and subversive biography in antiquity” by David Konstan and Robyn Walsh in Writing Biography in Greece and Rome: Narrative Technique and Fictionalization, edited by Koen De Temmerman and Kristoffel Demoen. [In the interests of disclosure I must confess that this book cost me an arm and half a leg so one may suspect that I am motivated by a need to justify my extravagance by an over-willingness to be persuaded by its contents.]
Konstan and Walsh begin by proposing that there are two types of ancient biographies. (I’ll call them biographies even though that term carries more rigorous understandings of how one should write seriously about a life of a person than were applicable to their Greco-Roman counterparts. These ancient “lives” or “biographies” are usually called “bioi” (Greek) or “vitae” (Latin) to remind us of their often quite different attributes.)
Type 1: civic biographies
These are the universally acknowledged great and good, the pillars of society, whose lives shine as exemplars for us all to emulate. They
highlight the virtues of their subjects, often great statesmen or military heroes who exemplify justice and courage, or else brilliant thinkers and writers, the philosophers and poets whose lives might serve as models . . . (Konstan and Walsh 2016, p.28)
The 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.
Matthew Ferguson of the Κέλσος blog has posted an interesting discussion on Dennis MacDonald’s defence at the recent Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) conference of his thesis that a significant influence of the Homeric literature can be found in the New Testament writings, especially the Gospel of Mark and Book of Acts.
For those wondering what the status of his views currently are in the mainstream of biblical studies they will find this an interesting read. Some comments:
Not surprisingly, MacDonald’s thesis has had a number of critics, but has also received a good deal of praise. . .
Overall, the general consensus is that some of the parallels that MacDonald identifies are very strong and interesting, while others are weaker and more speculative. But, one thing that was generally agreed upon at the SBL conference is that mimesis criticism is working its way into mainstream biblical criticism. In fact, MacDonald’s mimesis criticism is likewise going to be discussed at the SBL Annual Meeting in Georgia later this year. . . .
The fact that MacDonald’s arguments will be a central part of this year’s annual SBL conference suggests to me that MacDonald’s new methods are, indeed, making headway into mainstream Biblical Studies. I am not sure whether mimesis criticism will necessarily be central to interpreting the majority of passages in the Gospels and Acts, but I do think that it is very applicable to select examples . . . .
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.
Associate Professor of Classics specializing in Hellenistic Judaism, Sara Johnson, may suggest an answer to the question implicit in this post’s title even though she does not address the Gospels directly. Johnson has a chapter in Ancient Fiction: the Matrix of Early Christian and Jewish Narrative (2005) discussing the way 3 Maccabees was composed to help shape Jewish identity in the Hellenistic world. 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. A reader such as myself with a strong interest in questions of Gospel origins cannot help but wonder if the Jesus narratives were written for a similar purpose in the same literary tradition.
Sara Johnson’s chapter is “Third Maccabees: Historical Fictions and the Shaping of Jewish Identity in the Hellenistic Period”. 3 Maccabees, if you have not yet read it, is available on the University of Michigan Digital Library site. It’s not too long. It opens with a scene of one of the “great” battles in the Hellenistic era, the battle of Raphia, in which the forces of Ptolemaic Egypt (King Philopater) routed the Syrian army of Antiochus III, 217 BCE. On the eve of the Battle there is an attempt on Philopater’s life but he is saved by a Jew.
In the euphoria of victory Philopater invites himself into the most sacred area of the Jewish Temple to offer thanks to the divinity. (It is the custom of victorious kings to enter temples that way.) The Jews protest, we we would expect and Ptolemy is prevented by some divine action to from carrying out his plan. He returns to Egypt, enraged, and orders the Jews of Egypt be rounded up and crushed to death by drunken elephants. God maintains the suspense by holding off his several rescue missions to the very last moment, and finally changes Philopater’s mind altogether so that he even tells the world what wonderful and loyal folk all those Jews are. Jews who had apostasized under his pressure are quite rightly slaughtered instead.
The tale is a rich mix of genuine historical details and fables. Historical persons talk with fictional ones. Accurate details of the battle and the preliminary attempt on Philopater’s life are as detailed and accurate as we find in the works of the historian Polybius. The same accuracy is found in the Egyptian’s tour of the cities of Syria and offering of thanksgiving sacrifices in their temples.
This prepares the reader for a tale firmly rooted in the known facts of the past. (p. 86)
A recent book by Jacob Licht, Storytelling in the Bible (Jerusalem, 1978), proposes that the “historical aspect” and the “storytelling” aspect of biblical narrative be thought of as entirely discrete functions that can be neatly peeled apart for inspection — apparently, like the different colored strands of electrical wiring.
This facile separation of the inseparable suggests how little some Bible scholars have thought about the role of literary art in biblical literature. (Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, p. 32)
By “historical fiction” I mean a fictitious tale, whether it is a theological parable or not, set in a real historical time and place. Authors of “historical fiction” must necessarily include real historical places and real historical persons and events in their narrative or it will be nothing more than “fiction”. Ancient authors are known to have written “historical fiction” as broadly defined as this. We have the Alexander Romance by Heliodorus that is a largely fictitious dramatization of the person and exploits of Alexander the Great. Of more interest for our purposes here is Chariton’s tale of Chaereas and Callirhoe. These are entirely fictitious persons whose adventures take place in a world of historical characters who make their own appearances in the novel: the Persian emperor, Artaxerxes II; his wife and Persian queen, Statira; the Syracusan statesman and general of the 410s, Hermocrates. There are allusions to other possible historical persons. Sure there are several anachronisms that found their way into Chariton’s novel. (And there are several historical anachronisms in the Gospels, too.) Chariton even imitated some of the style of the classical historians Herodotus and Thucydides.
In this way Chariton imitates the classical historians in technique, not for the purpose of masquerading as a professional historian, but rather, as Hagg (1987, 197) suggests, to create the “effect of openly mixing fictitious characters and events with historical ones.” (Edmund Cueva, The Myths of Fiction, p. 16)
A word to some critics: This post does not argue that Jesus did not exist or that there is no historical basis to any of the events they portray. It spoils a post to have to say that, since it ought to be obvious that demonstrating a fictitious nature of a narrative does not at the same time demonstrate that there were no analogous historical events from which that narrative was ultimately derived. What the post does do, however, is suggest that those who do believe in a certain historicity of events found in the gospels should remove the gospels themselves as evidence for their hypothesis. But that is all by the by and a discussion for another time. Surely there is value in seeking to understand the nature of one of our culture’s foundational texts for its own sake, and to help understand the nature of the origins of culture’s faiths.
This post is inspired by Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative. Alter believes that the reason literary studies of the Bible were relatively neglected for so long is because of the cultural status of the Bible as a “holy book”, the source of divine revelation, of our faith. It seems gratuitously intrusive or simply quite irrelevant to examine the literary structure of a sacred book. So the main interest of those who study it has been theology. I would add that, given the Judaic and Christian religions of the Bible claim to be grounded in historical events, the relation of the Bible’s narratives to history has also been of major interest.
But surely the first rule of any historical study is to understand the nature of the source documents at hand. That means, surely, that the first thing we need to do with a literary source is to analyse it see what sort of literary composition it is. And as with any human creation, we know that the way something appears on the surface has the potential to conceal what lies beneath.
Only after we have established the nature of our literary source are we in a position to know what sorts of questions we can reasonably apply to it. Historians interested in historical events cannot turn to Heliodorus to learn more biographical data about Alexander the Great, nor can they turn to Chariton to fill in gaps in their knowledge about Artaxerxes II and Statira, because literary analysis confirms that these are works of (historical) fiction.
Some will ask, “Is it not possible that even a work of clever literary artifice was inspired by oral or other reports of genuine historical events, and that the author has happily found a way to narrate genuine history with literary artistry?”
The answer to that is, logically, Yes. It is possible. But then we need to recall our childhood days when we would so deeply wish a bed-time fairy story, or simply a good children’s novel, to have been true. When we were children we thought as children but now we put away childish things. If we do have at hand, as a result of our literary analysis, an obvious and immediate explanation for every action, for every speech, and for the artistry of the way these are woven into the narrative, do we still want more? Do we want to believe in something beyond the immediate reality of the literary artistry we see before our eyes? Is Occam’s razor not enough?
If we want history, we need to look for the evidence of history in a narrative that is clearly, again as a result of our analysis, capable of yielding historical information. Literary analysis helps us to discern the difference between historical fiction and history that sometimes contains fictional elements. Or maybe we would expect divine history to be told with the literary artifice that otherwise serves the goals and nature of fiction, even ancient fiction.
The beginning of the (hi)story
Take the beginning of The Gospel According to St. Mark. Despite the title there is nothing in the text itself to tell us who the author was. This is most unlike most ancient works of history. Usually the historian is keen to introduce himself from the start in order to establish his credibility with his readers. He wants readers to know who he is and why they should believe his ensuing narrative. The ancient historian normally explains from the outset how he comes to know his stuff. What are his sources, even if in a generalized way. The whole point is to give readers a reason to read his work and take it as an authoritative contribution to the topic.
The Gospel of Mark does indeed begin by giving readers a reason to believe in the historicity of what follows, but it has more in common with an ancient poet’s prayer to the Muses calling for inspiration and divinely revealed knowledge of the past than it does with the ancient historian’s reasons.
As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger . . . .
That’s the reason the reader knows what follows is true. It was foretold in the prophets. What need we of further witnesses?
Yes, some ancient historians did from time to time refer to a belief among some peoples in an oracle. But I can’t off hand recall any who claimed the oracle was the source or authority of their narrative. I have read, however, several ancient novels where divine prophecies are an integral part of the narrative and do indeed drive the plot. Events happen because a divine prophecy foretold them. That’s what we are reading in Mark’s Gospel here from the outset, not unlike the ancient novel by Xenophon of Ephesus, The Ephesian Tale, in which the plot begins with and is driven by an oracle of Apollo.
Some of the most sensible words I have read about the Gospels are in a 1954 lecture by Ernst Käsemann. Käsemann makes no strained attempt to “explain” how similar the Gospels are to “history” or “biography”. Rather, he works with what we all can see as plain as day: the Gospels are what some scholars have called “faith documents”: they are written to support faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Saviour of “the world”. They are written like, well, books of the Bible. Believe or die.
History is only comprehensible to us through interpretation. Mere facts are not enough.
Rationalists, for example, have sought to show that Jesus was an ordinary man like us. That’s all the facts allow us to acknowledge.
Supernaturalists, on the other hand, have sought to show that Jesus is a “divine man” who performed real miracles. The facts allow us to believe nothing less.
But what is the point of either view? If Jesus were an ordinary man like us, so what? Did not Schweitzer show that each scholar saw in that mere man a life just like his own? This observation is said to have effectively put a hold on historical Jesus research in many quarters.
And if the facts told us Jesus really did perform miracles and even rose from the dead, then in what way would he be any different from other lives embedded in other religions that also wielded supernatural powers?
No one has ever been compelled (in the true sense) to make his decision between faith and unbelief, simply because someone else has succeeded in representing Jesus convincingly as a worker of miracles. And nothing is settled about the significance of the Resurrection tidings for me personally, simply because the evidence for the empty tomb has been shown to be reliable.
The handing own of relatively probable facts does not as such provide any basis for genuinely historical communication and continuity. (Käsemann, “The Problem of the Historical Jesus” in Essays on New Testament Themes, p. 19)
Part 9: “A searching critical blitz of the Schmidt hypothesis”
The previous post in this series began a critical analysis of an essay by John C. Meagher, delivered at the Colloquy on New Testament Studies back in 1980, before such well-known figures in the New Testament world as Charles H. Talbert, Vernon K. Robbins, and William R. Farmer. This post continues with Meagher’s “searching critical blitz”* of what most scholars believe is Karl Ludwig Schmidt’s hypothesis.
What Meagher got right
Some of Meagher’s criticisms of Schmidt’s views on the gospels were correct. Schmidt sometimes displayed far too much naive optimism when it came to the fidelity of the evangelists (and the tradents they followed) to the Jesus tradition. It is quite clear that each evangelist altered the tradition to fit specific theological views. Thus, Meagher was right in criticizing Schmidt for asserting that the gospels have a certain intrinsic reliability simply by virtue of their genesis as folk books. He summed up Schmidt’s views in Colloquy on New Testament Studies:
The content of the gospels was brought to the brink of compilation by a transmissional tradition graced by “the fidelity to the material which characterizes all popular tradition” and it is this that assures its reliability — “that the people as community became bearer and creator of the tradition makes its content reliable.” (p. 207, quoting Schmidt in The Place of the Gospels in the General History of Literature, emphasis mine)
While we may correctly view Schmidt’s comments as overly optimistic at times, we should also point out that at other times during his analysis in The Place of the Gospels, he is careful, rational, and properly skeptical.
What Meagher got wrong
However, on the whole, Meagher’s attack on the Schmidt hypothesis fails, because he — for whatever reason — was convinced that Schmidt believed that the gospels were utterly unique, and therefore any investigation into analogous works would be a waste of time because:
. . . the unprecedentedness is of the essence and that the possible analogues can only be misleading as an interpretive instrument. (Colloquy, p 213)
Here is the point at which Meagher went astray. He showed abundant familiarity with Schmidt’s work, as found in the German edition of The Place of the Gospels in the General History of Literature and in Twentieth-Century Theology in the Making (Harper, 1971). Meagher peppered his essay with footnotes and many quotes from both works. Hence it is all the more strange that he continually missed the clear evidence that Schmidt, in fact, did not think that “possible analogues [of the gospels] can only be misleading as an interpretive instrument.”
On the contrary, in Part Two of The Place of the Gospels, which spans 60 pages and examines 12 different literary examples as analogs to the gospels, Schmidt explained the purpose of the section in his introduction by affirming that “analogy is the only sensible and productive method.” (p. 27)
Meagher found Schmidt’s rejection of possible analogs (despite what Schmidt actually wrote) unwise and untenable. Moreover, it was unproductive. In other words, because scholars following Schmidt had thought the gospels were unique and that comparing them to other works would be fruitless, they had focused only on those four canonical books themselves. In Meagher’s words:
Part 8: Attacking the foundations: The “uniqueness” of the gospels
A meeting of the minds
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.
On the 5th and 6th of November 1980, the Southwestern Theological Seminary hosted a “Colloquy on New Testament Studies.” (You can read the proceedings in a book by the same name.) An important event in the history of NT scholarship, this colloquy attracted around 200 scholars and students, with many of the field’s luminaries — E. P. Sanders, Bruce M. Metzger, Vernon K. Robbins, and several others — in attendance.
In accordance with the theme, “A Time for Reappraisal and Fresh Approaches,” the colloquy’s seminars covered:
The synoptic problem
The first seminar was actually a two-for-one. Part one, led by Helmut Koester, focused on the development of Mark’s gospel. Naturally, the moderator in charge of the synoptic problem seminar, William R. Farmer, made sure his theory of Markan posteriority got a fair hearing. Hence, following Koester, David Peabody presented a kind of Griesbachian rebuttal. Similarly, the second half of the first seminar, “The Purpose and Provenance of the Gospel of Mark According to the ‘Two Gospel’ (Griesbach) Hypothesis,” was followed by a counterargument by John H. Elliot.
The seminar on Pauline chronology received comparable treatment, with a response following the “Seminar Dialog.” It was, after all, only fair to hear both sides of the story.
Enter John C. Meagher
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.
By all accounts, the seminar’s moderator, Charles H. Talbert, had made an excellent choice. In selecting Meagher, he had picked a first-rate scholar with three doctoral degrees. If anything, as an expert in Shakespearean literature and the New Testament, with a solid background in the history of literature and widely hailed as a “brilliant” scholar, Meagher was perhaps overqualified.
Talbert writes that the program committee wanted a fresh perspective on the issue, so they . . .
. . . looked for someone who was not already registered on the genre question but who had competence in literary, theological, and exegetical matters. Professor John C. Meagher of St. Michael’s, the University of Toronto, seemed an ideal selection. Meagher was assigned the topic, “The Implications for Theology of a Shift from the K. L. Schmidt Hypothesis of the Literary Uniqueness of the Gospels.” (Colloquy p. 197, emphasis mine)
While researching this topic, I found an unexpected great source (for this and for other topics) in New Synoptic Studies: The Cambridge Gospel Conference and Beyond, edited by William R. Farmer. Inside, an essay by Joseph B. Tyson entitled “Conflict as a Literary Theme in the Gospel of Luke” provides one of the clearest, most succinct, and correct summaries of Karl Ludwig Schmidt’s view of the gospels I have seen in print. He writes:
The conception of the gospels as distinct from literary texts was made in the early part of this century, perhaps most convincingly by K. L. Schmidt in 1923. Schmidt’s fundamental contribution was his distinction between Hochliteratur and Kleinliteratur. Hochliteratur is literature that displays some authorial consciousness and some attention to aesthetic style and organization. (p. 305, emphasis mine)
I couldn’t have said it better myself. Where so many scholars stumble over misconceptions about what they think Schmidt said or what they want him to have said, Tyson pretty much hit the nail on the head.
For Schmidt, not even Philostratus’s Life of Apollonius of Tyana may be compared with the gospels. In it, the author speaks directly to the readers and does so throughout the book; he sets forth the complete plan of the work at the beginning, and he refers to the oral and written sources he used. That is to say, Philostratus’s book belongs in the classification, Hochliteratur, because it displays authorial consciousness. It is a literary biography, which genre has a strict form, one that emphasizes literary merit often at the expense of historical accuracy.(p. 305, emphasis mine)
Tyson has read Schmidt’s work and understood it. I could almost weep.
By contrast, Kleinliteratur is basically folk literature, a form of literature made up of material that had initially circulated orally. A writing of this type is largely a compilation of unconnected traditions. In Kleinliteratur there is little sense of structure, and the chronology is vague, consisting only of such phrases as “after that,” “later,” “on another occasion,” etc. (p. 305, emphasis mine)
New Testament texts were categorized as Kleinliteratur, in contrast to the Hochliteratur produced by and for the educated upper classes of the Greco-Roman world. The social correlative of this typology was that Christians were thought to have been drawn almost exclusively from the lower classes, a view now widely regarded as inaccurate. The dichotomy between Hochliteratur and Kleinliteratur derived linguistic support from the widespread opinion current earlier in this [the 20th] century that the Greek language of the first century C.E. could conveniently be divided into two major types, literary and nonliterary Koine. (p. 278, emphasis mine)
But that wasn’t Schmidt’s argument. The gospels, he argued, arose gradually within the community, beginning with individual stories (pericopae) in the oral tradition. Their place in Kleinliteratur had very little to do with social or economic status and everything to do with process and origins.
Richard Burridge, unsurprisingly, takes up the cause and waves the banner as well. In What Are the Gospels? he writes:
Any attempt to ask literary questions about the gospels, and in particular, their genre, is automatically precluded in advance . . . The form critics’ distinction merely has the effect of removing the gospels from any discussion of their context within the first century on the grounds that they do not share some predetermined literary aspirations. However, as Suggs has pointed out: ‘The alleged lack of literary expertise on the part of the evangelists is not a valid objection . . . books of any genre may be poorly written.‘ [He’s quoting M. J. Suggs from The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Supplementary Volume, 1976 ed.] Much more detailed and accurate study of the various genres, types and levels of first-century, and especially Graeco-Roman, literature is needed. (p. 11, emphasis mine)
It isn’t the quality of the finished product that defines the category. Rather, it’s the author’s intent, his process, and his raw materials.
Burridge’s text reads like a scorching indictment, and it certainly would be . . . if it had any contact with reality. Schmidt himself elaborates upon a case of poorly written Hochliteratur. He writes:
Diogenes Laertius was an incompetent biographer, for he haphazardly produced a great number [of] biographies (they were more like rapidly dictated, uneven leaflets!), whereas the gospel tradition was a natural process — not a belabored product but a lush growth. The same standard of judgment cannot possibly be applied to both the gospels and Diogenes Laertius, since he tries to pass himself off as an author, writing a long foreword and naming his sources, and still manages to produce an incoherent work. (The Place of the Gospels, p. 5, emphasis added.)
Diogenes Laertius’s work is still Hochliteratur; it’s just bad Hochliteratur. It isn’t the quality of the finished product that defines the category. Rather, it’s the author’s intent, his process, and his raw materials. The evangelists’ supposed lack of literary expertise is indeed “not a valid objection,” so it’s a good thing the form critics didn’t base their conclusions on the gospel-writers’ abilities.