The genre of the gospels.

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Ben C. Smith
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The genre of the gospels.

Post by Ben C. Smith »

I wish to thank Neil Godfrey for a fruitful exchange on this topic a couple of months ago; he anticipated the direction I was leaning with virtually no prompting at all.

For this post, I intend the term genre to indicate what kind of writing a text is as a whole; genre is a matter of locating other texts that seem to belong to the same overall type.

For example, Ozymandias, by Percy Bysshe Shelley, is a sonnet. It happens to be based on Egyptian history, especially an inscription recorded by Diodorus Siculus in his Library of History:

The inscription upon it runs: "King of Kings am I, Osymandyas. If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works."

Shelley's sources for writing this sonnet were obviously historical in nature, but Ozymandias is not a history. It is a sonnet, which in turn is a kind of poem. To group it together by genre with other works of literature is to place it alongside other sonnets in particular, or other poems in general; it would be a mistake to bypass these other poems and place it beside Mommsen's History of Rome, despite the fact that Ozymandias contains historical information.

As another example, this one from film, O Brother, Where Art Thou is an adventure comedy, despite its being loosely based on an ancient Greek epic. Its genre more closely aligns, say, with Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure than with anything actually Homeric.

I used to regard the canonical gospels as belonging to the broad category of Greco-Roman biographies, or βίοι. I no longer regard them as such.

Even when I found myself persuaded by Burridge and Talbert that they were biographies, I noticed differences between them and the other biographies in the kind of writing that the author presented. The gospels did not seem to use the grammatical first person like most βίοι, either avoiding it completely or relegating it to very specific passages; and the gospels did not seem to reflect on the character of Jesus in the same way that the other βίοι did; nor, with very few exceptions, did their authors reflect either on the kind of book they were writing or on their purposes for doing so.

Yet the other suggestions I had seen to that point were even worse fits. I never understood, nor yet do I understand, the urge in some quarters to link the gospels with Greco-Roman romances or novels. Sure, there are novelistic elements in them, but they are clearly not, as a whole and by genre, Greco-Roman novels. I remember that JoeWallack used to call the gospel of Mark a Greek tragedy (maybe he still does; not sure; am I my brother's keeper?). Well, again, there are tragic elements in Mark, to be sure, but the gospel of Mark is clearly not, as a whole and by genre, a Greek tragedy. The best fit for the gospels seemed to me for a long time to be the βίοι, despite the unreflective nature of the writing in the former as opposed to the latter; at least the scope of the writing was similar: either the entire life of the subject from birth to death (usually with few, if any, details from childhood, though) or at least the career of the person (by far most βίοι describe the birth and family of the person, but there are exceptions, and I felt Mark could be one of them).

As I mentioned, it was primarily Burridge and Talbert who persuaded me on this score. I wish to very briefly revisit Burridge in order to demonstrate what I mean by differences between the kind of writing one finds in the gospels and the kind one finds in the Greco-Roman biographies. Neil Godfrey helpfully lists the 10 ancient biographies which Burridge uses to establish a baseline for comparison with the gospels. The Life of Euripides, by Satyrus, is fragmentary, but the rest are complete and available online in English translation. I will quote selections from each of these nine βίοι in order to demonstrate the kind of writing that we find in such texts.

Notice especially (A) the grammatical use of the first person, (B) the authorial reflections both on the overall, pervasive character of the person whose biography it is and on the biography itself, and (C) the way in which the author stands between reader and subject, consciously and openly filtering information, weighing options, and imparting value judgments, author to reader.

From Isocrates, Evagoras, translation by George Norlin:

1-3: When I saw you, Nicocles, honoring the tomb of your father, not only with numerous and beautiful offerings, but also with dances, music, and athletic contests, and, furthermore, with races of horses and triremes, and leaving to others no possibility of surpassing you in such celebrations, I judged that Evagoras (if the dead have any perception of that which takes place in this world), while gladly accepting these offerings and rejoicing in the spectacle of your devotion and princely magnificence in honoring him, would feel far greater gratitude to anyone who could worthily recount his principles in life and his perilous deeds than to all other men; for we shall find that men of ambition and greatness of soul not only are desirous of praise for such things, but prefer a glorious death to life, zealously seeking glory rather than existence, and doing all that lies in their power to leave behind a memory of themselves that shall never die.

5: Now other writers should have praised those who in their own time had proved themselves good men, to the end that those who have the ability to glorify the deeds of their contemporaries, by speaking in the presence of those who knew the facts might have employed the truth concerning them, and also that the younger generation might with greater emulation have striven for virtue, knowing well that they would be praised more highly than those whom they have excelled in merit.

27: But Evagoras escaped this peril, and having saved himself by fleeing to Soli in Cilicia did not show the same spirit as those who are the victims of like misfortune.

33: I think that even if I should mention nothing more, but should discontinue my discourse at this point, from what I have said the valor of Evagoras and the greatness of his deeds would be readily manifest: nevertheless, I consider that both will be yet more clearly revealed from what remains to be said.

From Xenophon, Agesilaus, translation by E. C. Marchant and G. W. Bowersock:

1.1: I know how difficult it is to write an appreciation of Agesilaus that shall be worthy of his virtue and glory. Nevertheless the attempt must be made. For it would not be seemly that so good a man, just because of his perfection, should receive no tributes of praise, however inadequate.

1.37: Throughout the time that he remained in his command, another achievement of his showed beyond question how admirable was his skill in kingcraft. Having found all the cities that he had gone out to govern rent by faction in consequence of the political disturbances that followed on the collapse of the Athenian empire, he brought it about by the influence of his presence that the communities lived in unbroken harmony and prosperity without recourse to banishment or executions.

4.1: Next comes his Justice in money matters. Of this what proofs can be more convincing than the following? No man ever made any complaint that he had been defrauded by Agesilaus: but many acknowledged that they had received many benefits from him. One who delighted to give away his own for the good of others could not possibly be minded to defraud others at the price of disgrace. For if he had coveted money it would have cost him far less trouble to keep his own than to take what did not belong to him.

From Cornelius Nepos, Atticus, translation by Reverend J. S. Watson:

1.1-4: Titus Pomponius Atticus, descended from a most ancient Roman family, held the equestrian rank received in uninterrupted succession from his ancestors. He had a father who was active, indulgent, and, as times then were, wealthy, as well as eminently devoted to literature; and, as he loved learning himself, he instructed his son in all branches of knowledge with which youth ought to be made acquainted. In the boy, too, besides docility of disposition, there was great sweetness of voice, so that he not only imbibed rapidly what was taught him, but repeated it extremely well. He was in consequence distinguished among his companions in his boyhood, and shone forth with more lustre than his noble fellow-students could patiently bear; hence he stirred them all to new exertions by his application. In the number of them were Lucius Torquatus, Caius Marius the younger, and Marcus Cicero, whom he so attached to himself by his intercourse with them, that no one was ever more dear to them.

9.1: Next followed the war that was carried on at Mutina, in which, if I were only to say that he was wise, I should say less of him than I ought; for he rather proved himself divine, if a constant goodness of nature, which is neither increased nor diminished by the events of fortune, may be called divinity.

19.1: These particulars, so far, were published by me whilst Atticus was alive.

Since fortune has chosen that we should outlive him, we will now proceed with the sequel, and will show our readers by example, as far as we can, that (as we have intimated above) "it is in general a man's manners that bring him his fortune."

From Philo, Moses, translation by Charles Duke Yonge:

Book 1, 1.1-4: I have conceived the idea of writing the life of Moses, who, according to the account of some persons, was the lawgiver of the Jews, but according to others only an interpreter of the sacred laws, the greatest and most perfect man that ever lived, having a desire to make his character fully known to those who ought not to remain in ignorance respecting him, for the glory of the laws which he left behind him has reached over the whole world, and has penetrated to the very furthest limits of the universe; and those who do really and truly understand him are not many, perhaps partly out of envy, or else from the disposition so common to many persons of resisting the commands which are delivered by lawgivers in different states, since the historians who have flourished among the Greeks have not chosen to think him worthy of mention, the greater part of whom have both in their poems and also in their prose writings, disparaged or defaced the powers which they have received through education, composing comedies and works full of Sybaritish profligacy and licentiousness to their everlasting shame, while they ought rather to have employed their natural endowments and abilities in preserving a record of virtuous men and praiseworthy lives, so that honourable actions, whether ancient or modern, might not be buried in silence, and thus have all recollection of them lost, while they might shine gloriously if duly celebrated; and that they might not themselves have seemed to pass by more appropriate subjects, and to prefer such as were unworthy of being mentioned at all, while they were eager to give a specious appearance to infamous actions, so as to secure notoriety for disgraceful deeds. But I disregard the envious disposition of these men, and shall proceed to narrate the events which befell him, having learnt them both from those sacred scriptures which he has left as marvellous memorials of his wisdom, and having also heard many things from the elders of my nation, for I have continually connected together what I have heard with what I have read, and in this way I look upon it that I am acquainted with the history of his life more accurately than other people.

Book 2, 1.1: The first volume of this treatise relates to the subject of the birth and bringing up of Moses, and also of his education and of his government of his people, which he governed not merely irreproachably, but in so exceedingly praiseworthy a manner; and also of all the affairs, which took place in Egypt, and in the travels and journeyings of the nation, and of the events which happened with respect to their crossing the Red Sea and in the desert, which surpass all power of description; and, moreover, of all the labours which he conducted to a successful issue, and of the inheritances which he distributed in portions to his soldiers. But the book which we are now about to compose relates to the affairs which follow those others in due order, and bear a certain correspondence and connection with them.

Book 2, 2.8: And first of all we must speak of the matters which relate to his character and conduct as a lawgiver. I am not ignorant that the man who desires to be an excellent and perfect lawgiver ought to exercise all the virtues in their complete integrity and perfection, since in the houses of his nation some are near relations and some distant, but still they are all related to one another. And in like manner we must look upon some of the virtues as connected more closely with some matters, and on others as being more removed from them.

From Tacitus, Agricola, translation by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb:

1: To bequeath to posterity a record of the deeds and characters of distinguished men is an ancient practice which even the present age, careless as it is of its own sons, has not abandoned whenever some great and conspicuous excellence has conquered and risen superior to that failing, common to petty and to great states, blindness and hostility to goodness. But in days gone by, as there was a greater inclination and a more open path to the achievement of memorable actions, so the man of highest genius was led by the simple reward of a good conscience to hand on without partiality or self-seeking the remembrance of greatness. Many too thought that to write their own lives showed the confidence of integrity rather than presumption. Of Rutilius and Scaurus no one doubted the honesty or questioned the motives. So true is it that merit is best appreciated by the age in which it thrives most easily. But in these days, I, who have to record the life of one who has passed away, must crave an indulgence, which I should not have had to ask had I only to inveigh against an age so cruel, so hostile to all virtue.

22b: Never did Agricola in a greedy spirit appropriate the achievements of others; the centurion and the prefect both found in him an impartial witness of their every action. Some persons used to say that he was too harsh in his reproofs, and that he was as severe to the bad as he was gentle to the good. But his displeasure left nothing behind it; reserve and silence in him were not to be dreaded. He thought it better to show anger than to cherish hatred.

From Plutarch, Cato translation by Bernadotte Perrin:

1: Cato's family got its first lustre and fame from his great-grandfather Cato (a man whose virtue gained him the greatest reputation and influence among the Romans, as has been written in his Life), but the death of both parents left him an orphan, together with his brother Caepio and his sister Porcia. Cato had also a half-sister, Servilia, the daughter of his mother. All these children were brought up in the home of Livius Drusus, their uncle on the mother's side, who at that time was a leader in the conduct of public affairs; for he was a most powerful speaker, in general a man of the greatest discretion, and yielded to no Roman in dignity of purpose.

3: When, accordingly, he came to study, he was sluggish of comprehension and slow, but what he comprehended he held fast in his memory. And this is generally the way of nature: those who are well endowed are more apt to recall things to mind, but those retain things in their memory who acquire them with toil and trouble; for everything they learn becomes branded, as it were, upon their minds. It would appear, too, that Cato's reluctance to be persuaded made his learning anything more laborious. For, to learn is simply to allow something to be done to you, and to be quickly persuaded is natural for those who are less able to offer resistance. Therefore young men are more easily persuaded than old men, and sick folk, than those who are well, and, in a word, where the power to raise objections is weakest, the act of submission is easiest. However, we are told that Cato was obedient to his tutor, and did everything that was enjoined upon him, although in each case he demanded the reason and wanted to know the why and wherefore. And, indeed, his tutor was a man of culture, and more ready to reason with a pupil than to thrash him. His name was Sarpedon.

From Suetonius, Julius Caesar, translation by J. C. Rolfe:

56.6-7: Some letters of his to the senate are also preserved, and he seems to have been the first to reduce such documents to pages and the form of a note-book,54 whereas previously consuls and generals sent their reports written right across the sheet. There are also letters of his to Cicero, as well as to his intimates on private affairs, and in the latter, if he had anything confidential to say, he wrote it in cipher, that is, by so changing the order of the letters of the alphabet, that not a word could be made out. If anyone wishes to decipher these, and get at their meaning, he must substitute the fourth letter of the alphabet, namely D, for A, and so with the others. We also have mention of certain writings of his boyhood and early youth, such as the "Praises of Hercules," a tragedy "Oedipus," and a "Collection of Apophthegms"; but Augustus forbade the publication of all these minor works in a very brief and frank letter sent to Pompeius Macer, whom he had selected to set his libraries in order.

49.1a: There was no stain on his reputation for chastity except his intimacy with King Nicomedes, but that was a deep and lasting reproach, which laid him open to insults from every quarter.

From Lucian, Demonax, translation by H. W. Fowler and F. G. Fowler:

1-2: It was in the book of Fate that even this age of ours should not be destitute entirely of noteworthy and memorable men, but produce a body of extraordinary power, and a mind of surpassing wisdom. My allusions are to Sostratus the Boeotian, whom the Greeks called, and believed to be, Heracles; and more particularly to the philosopher Demonax. I saw and marvelled at both of them, and with the latter I long consorted. I have written of Sostratus elsewhere, and described his stature and enormous strength, his open-air life on Parnassus, sleeping on the grass and eating what the mountain afforded, the exploits that bore out his surname--robbers exterminated, rough places made smooth, and deep waters bridged. This time I am to write of Demonax, with two sufficient ends in view: first, to keep his memory green among good men, as far as in me lies; and secondly, to provide the most earnest of our rising generation, who aspire to philosophy, with a contemporary pattern, that they may not be forced back upon the ancients for worthy models, but imitate this best--if I am any judge--of all philosophers.

11a: Accordingly he was regarded with reverence at Athens, both by the collective assembly and by the officials; he always continued to be a person of great consequence in their eyes. And this though most of them had been at first offended with him, and hated him as heartily as their ancestors had Socrates. Besides his candour and independence, there had been found Anytuses and Meletuses to repeat the historic charges: he had never been known to sacrifice, and he made himself singular by avoiding initiation at Eleusis. On this occasion he showed his courage by appearing in a garland and festal attire, and then pleading his cause before the people with a dash of unwonted asperity infused into his ordinary moderate tone.

63a: He lived to nearly a hundred, free from disease and pain, burdening no man, asking no man's favour, serving his friends, and having no enemies. Not Athens only, but all Greece was so in love with him that as he passed the great would give him place and there would be a general hush.

From Philostratus, Apollonius, translation by F. C. Conybeare:

1a: THE votaries of Pythagoras of Samos have this story to tell of him, that he was not an Ionian at all, but that, once on a time in Troy, he had been Euphorbus, and that he had come to life after death, but had died as the songs of Homer relate. And they say that he declined to wear apparel made from dead animal products and, to guard his purity, abstained from all flesh diet, and from the offering of animals in sacrifice. For that he would not stain the altars with blood; nay, rather the honey-cake and frankincense and the hymn of praise, these they say were the offerings made to the Gods by this man, who realized that they welcome such tribute more than they do the hecatombs and the knife laid upon the sacrificial basket. For they say that he had of a certainty social intercourse with the gods, and learnt from them the conditions under which they take pleasure in men or are disgusted, and on this intercourse he based his account of nature.

2: FOR quite akin to theirs was the ideal which Apollonius pursued, and more divinely than Pythagoras he wooed wisdom and soared above tyrants; and he lived in times not long gone by nor quite of our own day, yet men know him not because of the true wisdom, which he practiced as sage and sanely; but one man singles out one feature for praise in him and another another; while some, because he had interviews with the wizards of Babylon and with the Brahmans of India, and with the nude ascetics of Egypt, put him down as a wizard, and spread the calumny that he was a sage of an illegitimate kind, judging of him ill. For Empedocles and Pythagoras himself and Democritus consorted with wizards and uttered many supernatural truths, yet never stooped to the black art; and Plato went to Egypt and mingled with his own discourses much of what he heard from the prophets and priests there; and though, like a painter, he laid his own colors on to their rough sketches, yet he never passed for a wizard, although envied above all mankind for his wisdom. For the circumstance that Apollonius foresaw and foreknew so many things does not in the least justify us in imputing to him this kind of wisdom; we might as well accuse Socrates of the same, because, thanks to his familiar spirit, he knew things beforehand, and we might also accuse Anaxagoras because of the many things which he foretold. And indeed who does not know the story of how Anaxagoras at Olympia in a season when least rain falls came forward wearing a fleece into the stadium, by way of predicting rain, and of how he foretold the fall of the house,—and truly, for it did fall; and of how he said that day would be turned into night, and stones would be discharged from heaven round Aegospotami, and of how his predictions were fulfilled? Now these feats are set down to the wisdom of Anaxagoras by the same people who would rob Apollonius of the credit of having predicted things by dint of wisdom, and say that he achieved these results by art of wizardry. It seems to me then that I ought not to condone or acquiesce in the general ignorance, but write a true account of the man, detailing the exact times at which he said or did this or that, as also the habits and temper of wisdom by means of which he succeeded in being considered a supernatural and divine being. And I have gathered my information partly from the many cities where he was loved, and partly from the temples whose long-neglected and decayed rites he restored, and partly from the accounts left of him by others and partly from his own letters. For he addressed these to kings, sophists, philosophers, to men of Elis, of Delphi, to Indians, and Ethiopians; and in his letters he dealt with the subjects of the gods, of customs, of moral principles, of laws, and in all these departments he corrected the errors into which men had fallen. But the more precise details which I have collected are as follows.

Do the gospels indulge in this kind of writing?

The respective authors of the gospels of Matthew and Mark never once use the first person of themselves, never once reflect on the kind of character Jesus possesses or the kind of book they intend to write, never once step in between Jesus and the reader to offer value judgments or the like. The closest they get to demonstrating their authorial awareness or inserting themselves into the text is Matthew 24.15 = Mark 13.14: "let the reader understand" (an enigmatic comment that comes out of nowhere and resembles very little that I have been able to find in the ancient biographies). The character of Jesus receives no attention at all: he gets angry, shows compassion, and reacts in various ways, but there is no attempt to create an arc of these incidents, no attempt to use them to demonstrate what kind of man he was. As Neil Godfrey points out, the "words and deeds of Jesus... do not display the character of Jesus, but demonstrate his identity."

The gospel of Luke certainly begins as if it were going to fit in with at least some of the Greco-Roman biographies. Luke 1.1-4 (and compare Acts 1.1-2) uses the first person, speaks to the kind of book the author intends to write, and even mentions other efforts to write about Christian origins: a promising start if one wishes to group it with the biographies... yet after this prologue none of those traits appears again, not even once. And still, even with the prologue, the character of Jesus receives no more attention than Matthew and Mark pay it.

The gospel of John has a prologue unlike virtually anything the Greco-Roman biographies have to offer. It briefly uses the first person plural, but does not reflect on what kind of book is being written. The grammatical second person, addressing the reader, appears in John 19.35; 20.30-31; and the first person returns in the appendix at John 21.24-25. The emphasis in all of these passages is belief, not the character of Jesus. Furthermore, John 19.35 and 21.24 both set the writers of those passages over and against the putative author of the rest of the text, the disciple whose testimony is true, in an unusual kind of authorial layering.

While the gospels of Luke and John take certain faltering steps in the direction of typical Greco-Roman biography, even they fall far short of the kind of writing we find in the examples above, and the gospels of Matthew and Mark do not even make the attempt.

I suggest that there is another genre of writing to which all four gospels belong. Identifying that genre requires a hard look at what the purpose of a gospel is. The purpose of a βίος is to study the character of a person; but I have pointed out that the gospels do not really seem to care about the character of Jesus, what kind of man he is, and so forth; so far as Jesus is concerned, it is really all about his identity as the son of God.

But we can go further than this, I think. I believe that N. T. Wright is correct in his assessment of what the gospels are really about. Now, Wright himself subscribes to Burridge and feels that the gospels are Greco-Roman biographies, so in a sense I will be reading Wright against himself; that is, I will be using his own assessment of the purpose of the gospels to point toward a different genre, one that better accords with this evangelical purpose. The Jesus Creed blog offers a summary of what Wright calls displacement strategies, or ways in which Christians read the gospels which fail to do justice to their overall intent:
  1. They teach us how to go to heaven.
  2. They teach us about Jesus’ ethical teachings.
  3. They teach us about Jesus as the great moral exemplar.
  4. They teach us that Jesus is the perfect sacrifice.
  5. They teach us how to live by giving us characters with whom we can identify.
  6. They teach us that Jesus is divine.
Notice that #6 is about the identity of Jesus, which is indeed a crucial element in the gospels; but it is not the overriding element.

On pages 57-58, 65 of How God Became King Wright summarizes what, in his judgment, the gospels are really trying to convey overall:

In fact, to sum up the proposal toward which I have been working, the four gospels are trying to say that this is how God became king. We have, partly deliberately and partly accidentally, forgotten this massive claim almost entirely.

...the four gospels present themselves as the climax of the story of Israel. All four evangelists, I suggest, deliberately frame their material in such a way as to make this clear.

I think that Wright is right about this. In the gospels, Jesus is not just a king, a prophet, and a wise man; he is the king (the messiah), the prophet, and the wisest of wise men... not as a matter of his personal character, mind you, but in explicit fulfillment of everything perceived to be promised in the Jewish scriptures; he is allegedly the climax of the story begun in those scriptures.

The gospels are, essentially, works of what exegetes from another generation might have called salvation history. Martin Hengel, Studies in the Gospel of Mark, page 34:

The evangelist begins with a 'salvation historical' 'prologue' (1.1-13), which contains the appearance of John the Baptist and Jesus' baptism and temptation.

Are there other works of world literature which, not only feature the same kind of writing as the gospels (described above), but also share their principal purpose, to wit, salvation history? I believe there are. Tom Thatcher points the way in The Gospel Genre (underlining mine):

The compositional history of the Gospels is unusual. The close connection between kerygma and “gospel,” between “gospel” and the Gospels, is glossed over in studies which attempt to directly compare the canonical Gospels with Greco-Roman compositions. The Gospels were shaped by a perceived need to put an oral Jesus into print. This need may have found, in the Greco-Roman literary milieu, types which offered assistance in realizing this goal, but these types never shared the same motivation, nor did they share the same compositional process.

Second, the authors of the Gospels possessed an unusual worldview. Its distinctiveness begins in the Jewish heritage of the subjects, authors, and, in some cases, audiences of these texts. Jewish historiography is becoming a field of inquiry all its own, with a number of recent books and articles noting the differences between Jewish and Greco-Roman historical perspectives in the first century. N. T. Wright, for instance, notes that within the Jewish worldview “it mattered vitally that certain events should happen within public history, precisely because the great majority of Jews believed . . . that their god was the creator of the world who continued to act within his creation.” In another vein, Tessa Rajak observes that the prescriptive role of Torah within the Jewish community created a holy fascination with texts which described the past; in the Jewish mind, the “emulation” function in historical writing was not a matter of choice. Close connections, literary and philosophical, between the Gospels and the Jewish Scriptures have been noted. The Evangelists share the Jewish belief that God (singular) can and does interact catastrophically in human affairs; beyond this, they believe themselves to be citizens of an eschatological age ushered in by a person from recent history. When this person becomes the subject of a literary treatise, it should not be surprising if such literature finds no exact parallels in the Greco-Roman world.

What genre do the gospels belong to? I think that they belong to whatever genre the Jewish scriptural narratives belong to. I think that they are conscious continuations of that venerable tradition.

It is not merely that the gospels draw upon and quote the Jewish narrative scriptures; Ozymandias draws upon and paraphrases histories without itself being a history. The issue is that the gospels are, through and through, the same kind of texts as the Jewish narrative scriptures.

Recall how the Greco-Roman biographies evinced a reflective, self-conscious style of writing. This style of writing is almost completely absent from the gospels; it is also almost completely absent from the Jewish narrative scriptures.

Armin D. Baum also makes the following observations concerning the anonymity of the gospels on pages 135-136 of his article, "The Anonymity of the New Testament History Books: A Stylistic Device in the Context of Greco-Roman and Ancient near Eastern Literature" (Novum Testamentum volume 50, fascicle 2, 2008, pages 120-142):

In the formation of Old Testament historical works not only the scribes and secretaries remained anonymous but also the historians (and epitomisers). Even historians who had taken great pains in order to collect and arrange (and adorn) their material abstained from publishing their narratives under their names. The anonymity of the Hebrew historians corresponds to the observation that within Old Testament historiography auctorial reflections in the first person are almost entirely missing and that the narrators present their speech material almost completely in oratio recta.

This stands in stark contrast to Greek historiography. Herodotus used the first person hundreds of times in order to reflect on the reliability of his sources and his own reports. Thucydides provided information about his historical method, his temporal relationship to the events of the war and his narrative technique in his prologue and did so in the first person (I 20-22). The Greco-Roman historians acted as open narrators. In contrast, the Hebrew historians from Genesis to Kings totally abstained from statements in the first person in which they would reflect on the purpose and method of their work. The Old Testament narrators consciously remained virtually invisible.

A similar effect was achieved by reproducing the speeches consistently (with only a few exceptions) in direct speech. Thus the statements of the agents were presented much more directly and vividly. At the same time the narrators remained entirely in the background. In contrast, Greek historiography detached itself from the example of Homer, who also used to present his figures' words in direct speech. Greco-Roman historians delivered large parts of their discourses in indirect speech. Through their narrative techniques they moved themselves somewhat more into focus of their readers. In Greco-Roman historiography the gap between the speaker and the narrator is more visible than in Hebrew history writing.

These observations even bring the direct speech of the gospels into account; direct speech replicates the original scene, as if the reader were standing there, listening. Indirect speech, which the author rewords, inserts the author, visibly, in between the subject matter and the reader. The evangelists, like the Jewish historians (but very much unlike Greco-Roman historical and biographical authors), recede into the background as far as possible. Baum continues on pages 138-140:

...the authority of Wisdom literature was generally deduced from the authority of the Wisdom teachers. Their names were therefore mentioned. With regard to prophetic literature, the authority of prophetic messages depended even more on the identity of the particular prophet who claimed to have been appointed by God and to be authorized to act as a mediator of divine revelation. For this reason an anonymous prophetical book was considered unacceptable in the world of the Ancient Near East (and the Old Testament). With historical works there was no comparable concern with the identity of the writer. The attention was focused entirely on the subject matter.


By writing their works without mentioning their names, the New Testament narrators deliberately placed themselves in the tradition of Old Testament historiography. Like their Old Testament models, they wanted to use the anonymity of their works to give priority to their subject matter, the narratives about the life of Jesus (and the spread of the early Jesus movement). As authors they wanted, for the most part, to disappear behind their subject matter. In order to move the subject matter to the foreground as much as possible they let their actors talk mostly in direct speech and abstained from any reflections in the first person. Even in this respect they took over the stylistic devices with which the Old Testament historians had already tried to disappear as far as possible into the background of their narratives. Since they were mainly concerned with their subject matter and not with displaying their literary skill, the narrators of the New Testament also largely abstained from elevating the colloquial Hellenistic prose of their sources to a more sophisticated literary level. All of these literary idiosyncrasies of the Gospels and Acts were designed to make the authors as invisible as possible and to highlight the priority of their subject matter.

The Greco-Roman authors operated with a different set of values. Baum again, from page 133:

The fact that almost all Greek and Roman historians published their works under their names is probably due to their distinctive longing for fame. Every Greco-Roman author, not just the historians, wanted to receive recognition for his literary accomplishments.

I would like to add several observations to this analysis.

First, I think that the very titles of the gospels, assigned to them probably sometime in century II, recognize this trait in them, this receding of the author into the background: [εὐαγγέλιον] κατὰ Ματθαῖον, [εὐαγγέλιον] κατὰ Μάρκον, [εὐαγγέλιον] κατὰ Λουκᾶν, [εὐαγγέλιον] κατὰ Ἰωάννην (the gospels according to Matthew, to Mark, to Luke, and to John)... these are not typical book titles (the noncanonical gospels were similarly titled: κατὰ Θωμᾶ, κατὰ Πέτρον, κατὰ Ἑβραίους, κατὰ Αἰγυπτίους). But it has been noticed before that they are very similar to how people referred to the Greek translations of the Jewish scriptures: κατὰ Σύμμαχον, κατὰ Ἀκύλαν, κατὰ τοὺς Ἑβδομήκοντα (the scriptures according to Symmachus, to Aquila, and to the Seventy). The scriptures are what matter here; the name of the translator is attached for convenience. Likewise, with the gospels, the perception is that it is the gospel story itself that matters; the name attached to it is seen as less that of the author than that of a tradent.

Second, I think that the concept of λόγια reinforces the overall impression that the gospels were seen as the heirs, by genre, of the Jewish scriptural narratives. The use of this term throughout Judeo-Christian history has a telescoping effect whereby one author might use it of the quoted words of God within his text, while a later author might use it to refer to that author's entire text. For example, Numbers 24.4, 16 LXX uses this term of the divine words (the oracles) to Balaam, and Deuteronomy 33.9 uses it of at least parts of the law of the Lord; refer also to Isaiah 5.24; 28.13; 30.27 (×2); Acts 7.39; and 1 Clement 13.4; and many of the Psalms (not to mention Wisdom of Solomon 16.11) use the word similarly of specific divine utterances or oracles. But then, later on, passages such as Romans 3.2; Hebrews 5.12; 1 Clement 19.1; 53.1; and Polycarp to the Philippians 7.1 can use the word seemingly of the entire scope of the Jewish scriptures. At the same time, the word starts to gain currency as a way to refer to the words of Christian prophets (1 Peter 4.11), as well as accounts about Jesus himself. In this latter connection, we may think especially of how Papias considers both Matthew and Mark to have written down the λόγια of the Lord, and how those λόγια include both words and deeds (Eusebius, History of the Church 3.39.15-16). I suggest that to associate Matthew and Mark, at least, with λόγια is to set them in the grand tradition of the Jewish scriptures, as records of a divine nature; it is to continue their scope and story in the form of gospels written as the climax of their narrative thrust. This way of viewing the gospels soon gave way to something different; as soon as Justin Martyr started calling the gospel writings ἀπομνημονεύματα (memoirs or memorabilia), a term reminiscent of Xenophon's retrospective of Socrates, I think the perception of the gospels began to change somewhat amongst Christians; they were still scripture, but now they were also accounts more specific to their authors, not just versions of the same divine story.

Third, the Jewish scriptural narratives include both what we might call Jewish histories (Genesis, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings) and what we might call Jewish novels (Ruth, Esther, Daniel). I am leaving open which kind the gospels might more closely follow. However, I will point out that these Jewish narrative books tend to start when and where they start and to finish when and where they finish; that is, they get the job done, regardless of what that means. For example, Genesis covers centuries of history, whereas Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy all describe a single lifetime, that of Moses. The book of Joshua is about a lot more than just Joshua (this is salvation history, after all, the story of God's dealings with Israel), but it may not be accidental that Mark begins with the commissioning of Jesus by John the baptist and the Holy Spirit and ends with his death, while his namesake's book begins with the commissioning of Joshua by Moses and ends with his death. The dividing lines between the books of the Judges, of Samuel, and of Kings are often somewhat arbitrary. The book of Ruth is about Ruth, the book of Esther about Esther, but neither describes their birth or childhood, and neither ends with their death. The book of Daniel is half novel or narrative about Daniel (and his companions) and half apocalypse. I suggest that the gospels evince this similar working attitude; it just so happens that salvation history culminates, from a Christian perspective, in one man; hence the vague correspondence with the scope of the average Greco-Roman biography, which I suggest is a byproduct of this particular chapter of salvation history's singular focus on one man.

Fourth, there is a type of ancient biography that bears similarities to the gospels in most of the respects I have discussed so far (lack of authorial voice, lack of reflection on character or purpose, and so forth); there are βίοι in the Jewish tradition, including the Lives of the Prophets (Vitae Prophetarum) and the Life of Adam and Eve (Vita Adami et Evae). If the gospels are biographies, then I say they are closer to that kind of biography than to the Greco-Roman kind.

Such, then, is my current state of thinking on the matter of the genre of the gospels. All relevant comments welcome.

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Re: The genre of the gospels.

Post by Ben C. Smith »

Just a few leftovers from my notes on this topic....

It is probably worth pointing out that many or most of the literary forms common to the Jewish scriptural narratives are also found in the gospels. Matthew and Luke each offer a genealogy. The first two chapters of Luke have characters (Mary, Zechariah, Simeon) breaking out in song, just like 1 Samuel does (Hannah). Both Matthew and Luke contain lists of blessings (beatitudes) and curses (woes); Mark has a couple of isolated woes. Change the names and locations of healing stories featuring Jesus in the gospels, and you could easily have healing stories featuring Elijah or Elisha in 1 and 2 Kings. The gospels contain a handful of etymologies or etiologies (for example, how the Field of Blood got its name). Matthew, Mark, and Luke all place an extended apocalyptic prophecy on the lips of Jesus, similar to what we find in the second half of Daniel. There are prayers. There are words of wisdom. The driving literary form, the one that holds everything together, is the story, with far more direct dialogue than indirect.

Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Z. Brettler point out on pages 56-57 of The Jewish Annotated New Testament:

Mark, in keeping with many of the authors of the Jewish Scriptures, was a master of irony. Dramatic irony is the potentially profound reading experience that occurs when the audience knows things that the characters themselves do not perceive.

Interesting reading: Divine discourse.

The article by Armin D. Baum, The Anonymity of the New Testament History Books: A Stylistic Device in the Context of Greco-Roman and Ancient near Eastern Literature (Novum Testamentum volume 50, fascicle 2, 2008, pages 120-142), which despite some circularity of expression and some repetitiveness served as confirmation for much of what I was thinking and helped draw it all together and express it more aptly than I might have, is available on JSTOR. Abstract:

The anonymity of the NT historical books should not be regarded as peculiar to early Christian literature nor should it be interpreted in the context of Greco-Roman historiography. The striking fact that the NT Gospels and Acts do not mention their authors' names has its literary counterpart in the anonymity of the OT history books, whereas OT anonymity itself is rooted in the literary conventions of the Ancient Near East. Just as in the OT, where the authors of books that belonged to the genre of wisdom and prophetic literature were usually named while historical works were written anonymously, only the NT letters and the Apocalypse were published under their authors' names while the narrative literature of the NT remained anonymous. The authorial intent of the Gospels' anonymity can also be deduced from its ancient Near Eastern and OT background. Unlike the Greek or Roman historian who, among other things, wanted to earn praise and glory for his literary achievements from both his contemporaries and posterity, the history writer in the Ancient Near East sought to disappear as much as possible behind the material he presented and to become its invisible mouthpiece. By adopting the stylistic device of anonymity from OT historiography the Evangelists of the NT implied that they regarded themselves as comparatively insignificant mediators of a subject matter that deserved the full attention of the readers. The anonymity of the Gospels is thus rooted in a deep conviction concerning the ultimate priority of their subject matter.

Another excerpt, from page 124:

The work of a Greco-Roman historian was almost always preceded by a prologue in which he informed his readers about the content of his book. The fact that a classical author like Xenophon abstained from using an prologue and abruptly opened his Hellenica with the words μετὰ δὲ ταῦτα was probably due to the fact that this historical narrative started where the historical work of Thucydides had ended and was apparently meant as its direct sequel.

What follows are early notes of mine, very random and unpolished....

What happens when you take a prospective Christian author who thinks in terms of something like Hebrews 1.1 and wishes to write up the latest installment in salvation history? In the past God spoke through prophets, but now he speaks in a son. That is not just a quirk belonging to the author of Hebrews; many early Christians thought that Jesus was the end-all, be-all manifestation of God in history. Because now all those priests and judges and prophets and kings are epitomized in one person, we coincidentally get something sort of resembling the scope of a biography, one single individual. But that is a byproduct of salvation history, not a conscious desire to imitate contemporary biographical writing. And of course, since it is not really about the lifespan of a human being, it comes down to just the career of this human fulfillment of scripture (not his upbringing, his early influences, which philosophers he liked to read, and so forth). And actually, this focus on one person, with a sort of unity characterizing the work, is closer at any rate to what we find in Ruth or Daniel or Jonah, I think, than what we find in the biographies, since the latter are about character, whereas the former are about God dealing with humanity.

Mark is consciously engaging in a sort of scriptural mimesis, not merely in the sense that he mined scripture for texts to turn into gospel details; we already know that much. But, rather, he is actually writing in the style, the mode, the manner, and the spirit of those ancient scriptural texts.

The Jewish scriptural narratives are chock full of doublets. Sometimes it feels like each member of the doublet represents a different strand of the same original tradition; at other times it feels like the story was doubled on purpose, perhaps on the principle of 2 or 3 witnesses being necessary to establish a fact (Deuteronomy 17.6; 19.15; 2 Corinthians 13.1). Mark too is known for doublets; they may be different strands of the same tradition, but they may also be him just imitating what he found in scripture (both Elijah and Elisha performing the same kinds of miracles, for example).

The book of Ruth jumps out of the narrative to tell us the name of the grandson of one of the characters. Mark has that bit about Alexander and Rufus, which jumps out of the narrative, too, to tell us the name of the sons of one the characters.

1 Kings 19.11-13 is a transvaluation of Moses on Sinai. Mark sometimes uses transvaluation, as well.

The Jewish scriptural narratives use inclusio a lot. Judges 17.6 and its preceding story forms an inclusio with Judges 21.25; refer also to 18.1 and 19.1. Deuteronomy 12.1 and 12.32 (13.1 LXX and Masoretic) form an inclusio with the words carefully observe. Ruth 1.1 and 1.22 form an inclusio (Bethlehem to Moab, Moab to Bethlehem). And Mark is known for his specialized use of the inclusio: the Marcan intercalation, a compact inclusio on steroids.

A lot of those observations really do not impact the overall genre much, of course. But I am covering bases. And all of this still leaves room for those other literary forms that can come and go within a narrative, be they epic or tragedy or comedy or poetry or what have you. This still leaves some room for Homer and for other pagan influences, if they should seem likely; it still leaves room for the direct opposition to Augustus and Rome (compare Mark 1.1, the beginning of the gospel, with the Priene inscription). But the main model for the work as a whole appears to me to possibly have been those Jewish narrative scriptures. The evangelists were writing their final chapter, one last bit of scripture before the end of all things.

The Lucan preface would be a transparent attempt to bring this revived ancient genre into a bit more conformity with Greco-Roman standards of historiography (along with that authorial presence); it fulfills, in fact, the Papian wish concerning gospel details being narrated on the basis of eyewitness testimony at no more than second or third hand. (In a very different way, of course, so do the notices in John 19.35; 20.30-31; 21.24-25; as does the bare attribution of the first gospel to Matthew.)

Justin Martyr, Dialogue With Trypho 18.1:

"For since you have read, O Trypho, as you yourself admitted, the doctrines taught by our Saviour, I do not think that I have done foolishly in adding some short utterances [λόγια] of His to the prophetic statements."

Irenaeus, Against Heresies, preface 1:

These men falsify the oracles [λόγια] of God, and prove themselves evil interpreters of the good word of revelation.

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Re: The genre of the gospels.

Post by maryhelena »

Nice work, Ben.

I've viewed the gospels as 'salvation history' for a long time. Yes, basically a carry over from the OT 'salvation history'. And of course, since I'm interested in Hasmonean/Jewish history, defining the gospels as 'salvation history' brings history to center stage. For OT writers 'salvation' was always tied up to Jewish history.
  • Psalm 137
    1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
    when we remembered Zion.
    2 There on the poplars
    we hung our harps,
    3 for there our captors asked us for songs,
    our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
    they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
    4 How can we sing the songs of the Lord
    while in a foreign land?
    5 If I forget you, Jerusalem,
    may my right hand forget its skill.
    6 May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
    if I do not remember you,
    if I do not consider Jerusalem
    my highest joy.
    7 Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did
    on the day Jerusalem fell.
    “Tear it down,” they cried,
    “tear it down to its foundations!”
    8 Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
    happy is the one who repays you
    according to what you have done to us.
    9 Happy is the one who seizes your infants
    and dashes them against the rocks.
Yes, of course, the NT has striven to move away from any nationalistic 'salvation'. It's emphasis upon 'spiritual salvation' has placed the emphasis upon intellectual pursuits as a means of 'salvation'. However, to view this as a rejection of earthly values would be mistaken. Can't have one without the other - as the song goes - love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage..... :)

I find it a great pity that a lot of ahistoricists/mythicists are not keen to consider Hasmonean/Jewish history as an important aspect in the creation of the NT story. NT writers, as their quotes from the OT demonstrate, were steeped in 'salvation history' - and that was, for those NT writers, Jewish history - not just Jewish theology...The history of christians origins is not to be found in Jewish/Christian theology - it is to be found in Jewish history - or to be more specific - it is to be found in Jewish 'salvation history'. Jewish history interpreted through a prophetic lens.

'Salvation history' - a type of history that is bound up with prophetic history. Jewish history viewed through a prophetic lens...
  • War of the Jews Preface to the War of the Jews Chapter 1. Par 6

    ...many Jews before me have composed the histories of our ancestors very exactly; as have some of the Greeks done it also, and have translated our histories into their own tongue, and have not much mistaken the truth in their histories. But then, where the writers of these affairs and our prophets leave off, thence shall I take my rise, and begin my history.
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
W.B. Yeats
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Re: The genre of the gospels.

Post by JoeWallack »

Benny & The Jews
Ben C. Smith wrote: I used to regard the canonical gospels as belonging to the broad category of Greco-Roman biographies, or βίοι. I no longer regard them as such.


Yet the other suggestions I had seen to that point were even worse fits. I never understood, nor yet do I understand, the urge in some quarters to link the gospels with Greco-Roman romances or novels. Sure, there are novelistic elements in them, but they are clearly not, as a whole and by genre, Greco-Roman novels. I remember that JoeWallack used to call the gospel of Mark a Greek tragedy (maybe he still does; not sure; am I my brother's keeper?). Well, again, there are tragic elements in Mark, to be sure, but the gospel of Mark is clearly not, as a whole and by genre, a Greek tragedy.
(Another) excellent post Ben. Yes I still think GMark is Greek Tragedy as demonstrated here in my legendary Thread:

Wrestling With Greco Tragedy. Reversal From Behind. Is GMark Greek Tragedy?

I think we would agree that your method here of trying to create good criteria that are representative of a genre and than selecting good ancient examples of works to compare these criteria to between the ancient works and the Gospels and analyzing the results, is the proper methodology.

Burridge is the champion of the claim that the Gospels are bio but I demonstrated in my Thread his flaws of:
  • 1) Only selecting criteria that are representative of bio (not selecting representative criteria of other genre such as Greek Tragedy).

    2) Failing to evaluate Gospels individually.

    3) Failing to consider the direction of change in genre style of the subsequent canonical Gospels.

    4) Specifically I showed that even using Burridge's flawed criteria, GMark paralleled better with Oedipus than the five bios Burridge used.

I think you are on The Way towards enlightenment but the work to determine the genre that GMark parallels the best is yet to be done. The Jewish Bible does have Markan type irony at times but so does Paul and Paul's contrasting/reversing irony is more like "Mark's" (author). So:
  • 1) Select an individual work from The Jewish Bible (using the entire Jewish Bible would, as spin would say, "be naughty". That would be like Burridge analyzing all the Gospels together).

    2) Determine criteria that are representative of the Jewish Bible work.

    3) Determine criteria that are representative of Oedipus.

    4) Compare all criteria to GMark and determine which genre parallels better.


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Re: The genre of the gospels.

Post by toejam »

Devotional biographical propaganda
My study list:
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Re: The genre of the gospels.

Post by Ben C. Smith »

JoeWallack wrote:(Another) excellent post Ben.
Thanks, Joe.
Yes I still think GMark is Greek Tragedy as demonstrated here in my legendary Thread:

Wrestling With Greco Tragedy. Reversal From Behind. Is GMark Greek Tragedy?
Okay. Still not seeing it, but okay.
I think we would agree that your method here of trying to create good criteria that are representative of a genre and than selecting good ancient examples of works to compare these criteria to between the ancient works and the Gospels and analyzing the results, is the proper methodology.
I believe so, yes.

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Re: The genre of the gospels.

Post by outhouse »

Rhetorical prose used in the genre of theological pseudohistory.

Each of the different communities literature representing their own teachings through the lens of talent and education of the scribes recording the communities needs and wants.

The only error would be to describe it using one type of genre
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Re: The genre of the gospels.

Post by ericbwonder »

This is an excellent post.
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Re: The genre of the gospels.

Post by Ben C. Smith »

ericbwonder wrote:This is an excellent post.
Thank you.
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Re: The genre of the gospels.

Post by Diogenes the Cynic »

Has anyone ever looked into the possibility of Mark (or an ur-Mark) originating as a mystery cult initiation text? A sort of "Xenu document" if you will. A lot of it looks like it's designed to be a reveal to the audience to me, including the empty tomb and putative resurrection. The disciples never knew about it because the women ran away, but now you, young acolyte, you have received the truth.

I've been toying with this as a possibility, but I've had a hard time trying to find other mystery cult initiation narratives to compare it to. I can't shake the feeling that there's something to the possibility, though. It has a tone that reminds of esoteric texts from other traditions (like Hindu, for example) in which the initiate is being given special knowledge kept secret from the public at large.

A lot of analysts have thought that Mark built from the passion out - a passion with a long prologue as they say. I think the spirit possession is innately part of the passion narrative, though and that started with the baptism by John. Jesus is possessed after the baptism, the spirit "drives" him into the wilderness, he heals by the power of the spirit. He is accused of sorcery and demonic possession an the spirit abandons him on the cross. This spirit, I think, is really the secret.

I think Carrier's Euhemerization theory is attractive too, though.
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