2013-04-19

The Genre of the Gospels: How the Consensus Changed (Part 5)

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by Tim Widowfield

Part 5: More on Karl Ludwig Schmidt’s ideal types

At the close of the previous post in this series I promised we’d talk about the modern critique of Hochlitertur (high literature) and Kleinliteratur (low literature), but first I want to explain better why these categories are important to understanding the genre of the gospels. Philip Jordan’s comment on the previous post has convinced me I need to try to take one more crack at it.

Stephen Jay Gould
A photo of Stephen Jay Gould and his opposable thumbs

The Panda’s Thumb

Many of you have probably read Stephen Jay Gould’s great essay “The Panda’s Thumb” (warning: PDF), as well as his book by the same name. In it, he explains that the Panda’s sixth digit (but not really a digit at all) is an evolutionary contrivance.

I invoke Gould’s name and cite his work not to argue the merits of natural selection, but to ask a simple question:

“When is a thumb not a thumb?”

Functionally, this little appendage behaves like a thumb. The panda uses it to grip bamboo shoots and strip off the leaves. But what exactly is it? From a strict anatomical perspective, a true thumb is a digit with internal phalanx bones. By that definition, the panda’s sixth digit can’t be a thumb, because its internal skeletal structure is composed of a modified radial sesamoid.

But why would it matter, one way or the other? Well, in ordinary speech, it doesn’t matter. It’s a thumb. But if you wanted to learn anything “scientific” about the panda’s thumb, and you started from the analogy of a primate thumb, you’d be way off track. As we said earlier, the true thumb is a modified digit that opposes the other four fingers. The panda’s thumb is physiologically different. It arose through an evolutionary process quite distinct from our own.

Here we see plainly illustrated the important difference between a functional description of an object and a thorough analysis of that same object. We can categorize objects according to visible characteristics as well as their usage in the real world. Such categorizations are valid, but only in a superficial way.
Continue reading “The Genre of the Gospels: How the Consensus Changed (Part 5)”


2013-04-16

The Genre of the Gospels: How the Consensus Changed (Part 4)

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by Tim Widowfield

Part 4: Hochliteratur (high literature) and Kleinliteratur (low literature)

Translations

To understand Karl Ludwig Schmidt’s argument concerning the genre of the canonical gospels, we need first to understand his usage of the terms Hochliteratur and Kleinliteratur. These terms are difficult to translate into English, because we lose the nuance of the German words, while picking up unwanted baggage from their English equivalents.

Literally, they mean “high literature” and “low literature,” and that’s exactly how they’re rendered in The Place of the Gospels in the General History of Literature. However, in some translations of form critics’ works, you’ll see them left untranslated. Sometimes you’ll see Kleinliteratur translated as “folk literature” or “popular literature.” The translator of our text, Byron R. McCane, chose to translate the terms literally, since for him to leave terms untranslated is an admission of defeat. I’m not sure I agree with that position, but at least he has his reasons. There’s no right or wrong approach, I suppose.

No new thing under the sun

McCane is certainly wrong, however, about the origins of the terms.  He writes:

Many scholars who discuss Die Stellung [i.e., The Place (of the Gospels)] choose not to translate these German terms. They are, after all, neologisms created by Schmidt to designate specialized literary categories. (p. xxxii, emphasis added)

Martin Dibelius
Martin Dibelius

The terms are not neologisms; they predate Schmidt. As far back as 1919, Martin Dibelius used Kleinliteratur in From Tradition to Gospel. In the first edition (Tübingen, 1919) he wrote:

In erhöhtem Maße wird dies alles von der sogenannten Kleinliteratur gelten. (p. 1, emphasis added)

In the English translation this sentence reads:

What we have said is true also in humbler forms of literature(p. 1, emphasis added)

You can find the terms in discussions of literary works dating as far back as the late 19th century. A quick survey of Google Books reveals that Hochliteratur and Volksliteratur were in use at least as far back as 1891. Conceptually, then, the terms and the concepts behind them had been current in German academia (viz., history of literature, literary criticism, etc.) for a couple of decades before Schmidt’s The Place of the Gospels was published.

McCane is hardly alone. I can only guess that most people who have read (or claim to have read) Dibelius are familiar only with the second edition of From Tradition to Gospel (1933), and are unaware of the first edition (1919). It’s also a bit hard to trace the usage of these terms, because when translators convert them into English, you never know what you’ll get — Low literature? Folk literature? Folk tales? Popular literature? Humbler forms of literature?

Ideal Types

The ideal type is a fiction: a tool that we use to help us better comprehend the issues at hand. It’s a subjective model of the problem domain, not an objective definition of reality.

Before we continue, let’s review the concept of ideal types. If we were to envision the ideal parliamentary democracy, we would list the defining characteristics — some integral, others peripheral — generally held in common. We would not expect any particular, real-world parliamentary democracy to have every one of these characteristics. That does not mean they are something else. Nor does it mean that our ideal type is invalid. On the other hand, if a nation-state coincidentally shares a few peripheral characteristics or partially shares one of the core characteristics, that doesn’t mean it has magically become a parliamentary democracy.

Likewise, if we created a list of all the defining characteristics of Hochliteratur or Kleinliteratur and compared that list against extant works of literature from the ancient Greco-Roman world they won’t all correspond perfectly against the ideal types. That’s because, as we all should know, the ideal type is a fiction: a tool that we use to help us better comprehend the issues at hand. It’s a subjective model of the problem domain, not an objective definition of reality. Continue reading “The Genre of the Gospels: How the Consensus Changed (Part 4)”


2013-04-08

The Genre of the Gospels: How the Consensus Changed (Part 3)

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by Tim Widowfield

Part 3: K. L. Schmidt: Placing the Gospels

When it comes to the form critics, NT scholars don’t know Schmidt. But to be fair, for a long time — all of the twentieth century in fact — they had a reasonable excuse. None of Karl Ludwig Schmidt’s works had been translated into English, and unless you could grapple with his dense, rambling, arcane German prose, you had to rely on reviews and summaries from bilingual scholars.

The Place of the Gospels in the General History of Literature
The Place of the Gospels
in the General History of Literature
Karl Ludwig Schmidt

An act of parricide

In 2002, however, one of Schmidt’s major works became available to the English-speaking public. Anyone with an interest in the gospel genre debate now has easy access to The Place of the Gospels in the General History of Literature at popular prices. I’m assuming it didn’t sell well, because right now it’s going for $2.45 (US) at Amazon, and when my copy arrived back in February, it had a black mark across the top. It has landed in the book equivalent of the cut-out bin.

If you have any interest at all in form criticism or NT German scholarship, John Riches’ introduction alone is worth the price of the book. Riches notes that it took an unconscionable amount of time for The Place of the Gospels to be translated into English.

The appearance in English, nearly eighty years after its first publication, of one of the major works of early-twentieth-century German gospel criticism, represents yet another triumph of the persistence of the few over the indifference and hostility of the many. In this way, Schmidt’s article in the Eucharisterion Festschrift joins William Wrede’s Messianic Secret (1901: 1971) and Rudolf Bultmann’s History of the Synoptic Tradition (1921: 1961) as works that have waited too long before they were made available to those without easy access to German. This leaves Der Rahmen der Geschichte Jesu [The Framework of the History of Jesus] as the last of the major works of the form critics still to be translated. Is this too little too late, or is there still an opportunity for a serious appraisal of the form critics? (p. vii, bold emphasis added)

We’ll save Riches’ strong criticism of current scholarship for a later post.  For now, let me pique your curiosity with some choice words about how the work of the form critics has been twisted to serve antithetical purposes. Continue reading “The Genre of the Gospels: How the Consensus Changed (Part 3)”


2013-03-29

The Genre of the Gospels: How the Consensus Changed (Part 2)

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by Tim Widowfield

Part 2: Two Parables

Before we discuss Karl Ludwig Schmidt’s views on the genre of the canonical gospels, I want to present two parables that I hope will drive home some basic concepts. A review of the recent scholarship on the subject reveals a distressing amount of misunderstanding here. I hope the following illustrations will help clarify two of Schmidt’s fundamental ideas.

The Platypus

Imagine for the moment that Richard Burridge has a younger brother, Bucky Burridge, who is an up-and-coming zoologist. One day while visiting an Australian museum of natural history, he comes face to face with a stuffed and mounted platypus. He has never seen a platypus before, and he is struck by its features. In many ways, it is like nothing he has ever seen, but after careful consideration, he believes he knows the proper classification of this so-called “mammal.”

John Gould print image of Ornithorhynchus anat...
John Gould print image of Ornithorhynchus anatinus (platypus) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bucky hunts down the curator of the museum and asks for a few minutes of his time. “Did you know,” he asks the curator, “that you have classified a duck as a mammal?” The curator is confused, so Bucky drags him back to the exhibit of the platypus.

He points at the display case, tapping the glass. “The placard identifies this duck as a mammal!” says Bucky with a frown.

The curator pauses to make sure Bucky is serious, then tactfully asks, “Why do you think it’s a duck?” Continue reading “The Genre of the Gospels: How the Consensus Changed (Part 2)”


2013-03-27

The Genre of the Gospels: How the Consensus Changed (Part 1)

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by Tim Widowfield

Part 1: A Sea Change

Ultimately, the problem with identifying the genre of the synoptic gospels as Hellenistic biographies or Graeco-Roman histories is that these terms are insufficient to describe their form, genesis, and purpose.

Published in 1989 by SCM Press, Studying the Synoptic Gospels remains one of the best resources for learning about the first three books of the New Testament. Not a week goes by that I don’t take it off the shelf and refer to it. Sanders and Davies cover most of the important subjects related to synoptic studies, and they do it in an engaging and evenhanded manner. Each subject receives appropriate coverage, with suggested “further readings” that can take you even deeper.

Studying the Synoptic Gospels
Studying the Synoptic Gospels

Studying the Synoptic Gospels treats the question of genre quite seriously, devoting one chapter for each gospel. The chapter on Matthew for example, continues for 14 pages, touching on its various features — how it resembles different forms of known, contemporaneous literature, how it uses the traditional material, etc. In the end, the authors conclude:

The most satisfactory definition of the genre is ‘a theodicy about the creation and recreation (see palingenesia, ‘new world’, 19.28) which is centered in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.’ (p. 264, italics original)

The authors contend that although in some ways Matthew’s gospel resembles a βίος (bios), it also has some striking differences, and in the end, it is a wholly inadequate description. Mark has even less in common with ancient literary biographies. They write:

The form of the Second Gospel is, however, even less like a Hellenistic biography than that of Matthew. It does not begin with birth stories, and, if 16.8 is the original ending, it is quite without parallel. (p. 267, bold original)

The authors grant that Luke has even more in common with Hellenistic biographies than the first two gospels.

It is fair to say that Luke-Acts could not have existed in its present form without knowledge of Graeco-Roman texts. . . . But, to return to the preface, the truth for which the work offers Theophilus assurance is not just the accurate reporting of past events, nor the discernment of patterns of history, nor the exact depiction of a holy community worthy of imitation or admiration, but the story of the creator God who repeatedly offers people salvation, through prophets, through Jesus and through his apostles, and whose sovereignty is about to be finally established by replacing the kingdom of Satan on earth with that of God. Historical motifs are swallowed up by eschatological, and history is understood from the perspective of creation and recreation. (p. 297, emphasis added)

Ultimately, the problem with identifying the genre of the synoptic gospels as Hellenistic biographies or Graeco-Roman histories is that these terms are insufficient to describe their form, genesis, and purpose.

Fortress Introduction The New Testament
Fortress Introduction The New Testament

Now compare Sanders’ and Davies’ careful, detailed, and sober conclusions to this quote from the Fortress Introduction to the New Testament by Gerd Theissen:

The gospel is a variant of the ancient ‘life’, which was widespread in the non-Jewish world: the gospel is an ancient bios (a better term to use than ‘biography’), though a bios of an unusual kind. (p. 16, Nook edition, 2004, bold and color emphasis added)

Theissen notes that writings centered on a single person were quite unknown in the Old Testament. How did a sect that started within Judaism come to employ a genre that was so unlike anything known in Jewish religious writings up to that point? He says: Continue reading “The Genre of the Gospels: How the Consensus Changed (Part 1)”


2011-10-03

Explaining the noble lies (or pious fiction) in the Gospels

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by Neil Godfrey

Walk on the water
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Mainstream scholars struggle trying to explain why the Gospel authors included clearly symbolic — nonhistorical — tales about Jesus in their gospel narratives.

Marcus J. Borg, Mark Allan Powell, Dale C. Allison, Roger David Aus, John Dominic Crossan, John Shelby Spong and Robert Gundry are some of the scholars who acknowledge tales such as the virgin birth, Jesus walking on water, the transfiguration, the miracles of the loaves, the resurrection appearances are fabrications, metaphors.

(So much for that argument that there were enough surviving eyewitnesses or people who knew eyewitnesses to keep the evangelists honest!)

Marcus J. Borg writes of stories like Jesus and Peter walking on water, the turning the water into wine at the Cana wedding, and the virgin birth:

Purely metaphorical narratives . . . are not based on the memory of particular events, but are symbolic narratives created for their metaphorical meaning. As such, they are not meant as historical reports. (p.  57, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary) Continue reading “Explaining the noble lies (or pious fiction) in the Gospels”


2011-03-30

Taking the Gospels seriously, part 2 (What John Baptist supposedly meant to Jesus)

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by Neil Godfrey

I often find myself wishing some knowledgable scholars who write about “the historical Jesus” would take their Gospel sources more seriously.

To take just one illustration, I don’t know if I have read any scholarly work addressing the baptism of Jesus that fails to make some reference to the “influence of John the Baptist on Jesus”, or to the “calling of Jesus”, or such. The presumption is always that Jesus was some sort of spiritual “seeker” who was profoundly moved in some way by John the Baptist and as a direct consequence was catapulted on his own solo career.

Here is one example of this:

What we do know past doubting is that John had a crucially important impact on Jesus. According to the synoptic tradition, Jesus in some sense received his calling during or just after his baptism. (p. 191 of Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, by Paula Fredriksen)

And another that is within easy reach on my desk:

We can now see what attracted Jesus to John. John exercised a large-scale and highly successful prophetic ministry of repentance to Israel. . . . He offered salvation and predicted judgement in terms which recreated the Judaism of the prophetic tradition. This explains why Jesus underwent John’s baptism. . . . Jesus thereby joined this vigorous movement of prophetic Judaism. . . . On the occasion of his baptism, Jesus had a visionary experience. . . . (p. 176 of Jesus of Nazareth by Maurice Casey.) Continue reading “Taking the Gospels seriously, part 2 (What John Baptist supposedly meant to Jesus)”


2011-03-17

Don’t forget Plato’s Cave: It helps explain the invention and reception of the Gospel

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by Neil Godfrey

One might encounter the suggestion among biblical scholars that it is highly unlikely that anyone would invent the idea of a saviour figure who is rejected by his own people and is killed at their hands — and especially if that saviour figure is in a Jewish context said to be a Son of David. Well, maybe some Jews who bothered to think about this did contemplate the possibility of a Davidic king one day ruling over all the world with Jerusalem as his capital. But when we read the gospels we quickly understand that there were other Jews who saw the David figure in the light of the other side of the biblical narrative, too — one who went mourning to the mount of Olives with a few faithful followers when being pursued – to the point of death – by his rebel son Absalom. This moment of imminent death was later reputed to have been the subject of a number of Psalms. (Of course, the Davidic figure is only one of a number who is associated with the “Messiah” label. It is most frequently associated with the priests — and it is noteworthy that it is the anointed (messianic) high priest who gives liberty to refugees from unintended capital sins when he dies.)

But even in non-Jewish literature, the concept of a saviour figure being scoffed at and even killed by those he would want to save. It is the central theme of the classic Greek hero, Achilles. The half-divine and half-mortal Achilles pursues what is right and honourable despite knowing that it will result in his own early death.

And the great Hellenistic thinker, Plato, composed a tale that has epitomized the best of Hellenistic values and Western values since. His allegory of the cave tells us how a would-be saviour of a people will do all he can out of compassion to rescue others. But at the same time those he loves and would save will not recognize him or his claims. They will even scoff at him, and even eventually seek to kill him if they ever have the chance.

This is the essence of the Gospel message about the nature, reception and fate of Jesus. Jesus is very much the classic Hellenistic (cum Roman) hero of the gentiles. He is like Achilles and like the saviour in the parable of the Cave.

And he gives hope to all those who would identify with him that they, too, can find heroic meaning in their lives.

The Jews of the later Second Temple Period were influenced by Hellenism (Greek ideas), as we see in the history of the Maccabees. Dying as a martyr was a means to salvation not only for oneself, but — by shedding one’s own blood for God and one’s people, one also became an atonement for them, too.

The Gospel of Jesus is a tale that found a ready welcome among Hellenized pagan and Jew alike. There is nothing mysterious about its invention or reception.


2011-02-26

Lighter Literary Intellections on the Gospels

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by Neil Godfrey

John the Baptist
Image by jimforest via Flickr

Let’s keep it simple and consider the Gospel of Mark only. No heavy analysis this post; only a moment to look out the window and think over how the arguments of recent posts would affect our reading of Mark.

Firstly, we open with the prophetic announcement. What we are about to read is a fulfilment of prophecy as framed and announced in the opening of the book. The anonymous implied narrator is addressing an implied audience that reminds the real reader of the apparent audience of the prophets of Isaiah and Malachi. (Woops, that does not sound the least bit light. I will avoid repeating the “implied readers/narrators” and “real readers/authors” for the rest of this post, though I am certainly framing everything within those four points of view, and considering how it is all working out between them all.)

That is the way stories in novels and tragedies and epics are guided. Prophecies from the divinity announce what is to happen, and the audience then is held in suspense till they see how it all happens just as predicted.

These same genres use the same device to offer course corrections or details along the way in the middle of the plot. And that’s exactly what happens in Mark, too. Continue reading “Lighter Literary Intellections on the Gospels”


2011-02-25

How to Read the Gospels

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by Neil Godfrey

Sara Mandell and David Noel Freedman give us some valuable tips on how to read

  1. the pagan Greek work of “History” by Herodotus
  2. much of the biblical history of Israel (Genesis to 2 Kings)
  3. and the Gospels

in their 1993 volume The Relationship Between Herodotus’ History and Primary History (Genesis to 2 Kings).

Among several threads tying all these three pieces of literature together:

  1. all three are about human affairs being directed by divinities
  2. all three contain strong theological themes and messages
    • and this message is reinforced with somewhat nebulous endings that contain a mix of optimism and uncertainty as to the future (i.e. Herodotus, 2 Kings, Mark)
  3. all three ostensibly present themselves as “histories”
  4. all three contain a mix of mythical (including nonhuman) characters and historical persons
  5. all three relate miraculous and supernatural events as significant functions in their narratives
  6. all three contain a similar narrative structure in that there is a significant change in tone and types of events and course of action once the setting moves to a traditional homeland or theologically charged centre (e.g. the Greek mainland, the Promised Land, Jerusalem)
  7. all three are predominantly prose narratives, yet at the same time all three contain a mix of genre elements such as epic, tragedy, novella and poetry.

In my previous post (or the one before that) I cited two key points that are fundamental to understanding any literary work. I repeat them here and add one more: Continue reading “How to Read the Gospels”


2011-01-29

The First Gospel was a Jewish Novel?

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by Neil Godfrey

Bakhtin in the twenties.
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Though most scholars of the gospels appear to regard the gospels as a form of ancient biographies of Jesus, there are a number who continue to doubt that “biography” really does describe their genre. One of these is Michael E. Vines, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Lees-McRae College, North Carolina, who wrote The Problem of Markan Genre: The Gospel of Mark and the Jewish Novel.

In order to know how to interpret and understand a literary work it is important to understand its genre and the conventions associated with that genre. A work will expect to be read in a certain way according to its genre, whether it is a biography, history, historical novel, romance novel, epic, tragedy, satire, etc.

I outline here in gossamer-thin dot points some of Vines’ reasons for reading the Gospel of Mark as a Jewish novel rather than as another ancient biography. Much of Vines’ book is a discussion of the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin‘s analysis of what constitutes a literary genre. That is (for me at least) a fascinating study that I would love to explore in greater depth and one that I will probably post on in future discussions of Gospel (especially the Gospel of Mark’s) genre. So what follows cannot possibly be a communication of a full grasp of Vines’ understanding of the genre of the Gospel of Mark. But I will try to present salient points without denying some justice to both Vines’ and Bakhtin’s analysis.

I have only now completed reading Vines’ book so I have not yet had time to digest it and compare its propositions with alternative perspectives. So what I give here is Vines “in the raw”. I expect in a relatively short time I will see some details slightly differently.

What indicates a particular genre? Continue reading “The First Gospel was a Jewish Novel?”


2011-01-20

Second thoughts on the Gospel of Mark as Biography

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by Neil Godfrey

Below Trash and Vaudeville and along the wall ...
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Understanding the nature of a text is a significant factor in knowing how to interpret it and how to use it as historical evidence. Many scholars today, following Burridge, accept that the Gospel of Mark is a biography of the life of Jesus.

The Gospel of Mark is widely considered to be the first written of the canonical gospels and the one that strongly influenced the making of the other synoptic gospels, Matthew and Luke. Some scholars also think John’s gospel was built upon a knowledge of Mark.

Some scholars see Mark as the original written composition of the Jesus narrative. But why it was written, by whom and for whom, and where and when, all remain open questions. Understanding even “what” it is remains open to debate. Is it a biography of Jesus? A novel? A history? A parable? A tragic drama? An anti-epic? A definitive answer to this question of its genre has the potential to assist with how we should understand and interpret it.

In a recent post I outlined the main features that Richard Burridge raises to support his view that the Gospels should be understood essentially as Biographies. (There are a few differences between the modern idea of biographies and those of the ancient Graeco-Roman time, but the idea is close enough the same. My post also specifically addressed Burridge’s arguments in relation to the Synoptics – Matthew, Mark and Luke – but he also uses much the same features to argue John is also a Biography.)

This post looks generally at a range of other scholarly viewpoints that are not satisfied with Burridge’s conclusions. These voices are probably a minority today since Burridge’s work has been very influential among scholars.

I take these dissenting voices from The Problem of Markan Genre: The Gospel of Mark and the Jewish Novel by Michael E. Vines. (And thanks to Michael Nordbakke and Gilgamesh for alerting me to this book in various comments.)

Vines addresses Burridge’s argument with specific application to the Gospel of Mark. Continue reading “Second thoughts on the Gospel of Mark as Biography”


2011-01-17

Are the Gospels Really Biographies? Outlining and Questioning Burridge

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by Neil Godfrey

What Are the Gospels? — Burridge (2004)

In this post I outline the points of Burridge’s influential argument that the gospels belong to the genre of ancient biography.

Richard A. Burridge has been central to the development of wide scholarly agreement that the Gospels are biographies (or technically βιος) with the publication of his doctoral thesis, What Are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography. To analyze their genre he compares the generic features of the gospels with Graeco-Roman biographies.

My own disagreement with Burridge

Before posting the details of Burridge’s case, I sum up my own reasons for disagreement. But you’re allowed to skip this section if you want.

I have thought that despite the extent of Burridge’s analysis, the βιος genre simply does not describe the gospels, in particular the Gospel of Mark which is my primary interest. What we recognize as ancient Greek and Roman biographies are clearly and directly “about” their subject persons.

The Gospel of Mark, unlike Greek and Roman biographies, is not “about” the person or character of its central figure. And I think this applies to the Gospels generally. Continue reading “Are the Gospels Really Biographies? Outlining and Questioning Burridge”


2011-01-07

Fiction in ancient biographies, histories and gospels

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by Neil Godfrey

the Gelati Gospels MSS
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If the Gospels were written as “biographies” of Jesus, or were meant to be read as “history”, does this mean that we can expect to find only factual details in them? Or if not entirely factual, must we give the benefit of the doubt that beneath a certain amount of exaggeration there must have been some kernel of literal truth?

It ain’t necessarily so.

Dale C. Allison M. Grable Professor of New Testament Exegesis and Early Christianity at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. In his recent book, Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History, he includes a discussion of recent scholarship on the genre of the gospels and what genre means for the question of whether we can expect to find fictional tales in the gospels.

The question has force, says Allison, because the gospel authors appear to have been “far more interested in the practical and theological meanings of their stories than in literal facticity.” (p. 442) Continue reading “Fiction in ancient biographies, histories and gospels”