RBL review of “Reading the Gospel of Mark as a Novel”

In light of the recent discussions on the genre of the Gospels, I thought it was good timing that the Review of Biblical Literature has come out with a review of Geert van Oyen’s Reading the Gospel of Mark as a Novel. I have not read the book, but, from the review, it looks like it is more of an engaging introduction to narrative and reader-response criticism of a Gospel text for a non-specialist audience than a defense of a particular classification of its genre. I thought I would just highlight this review.

Richard Burridge on the Gospels as Biographies

Richard Burridge’s What are the Gospels: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography (Cambridge University Press, 1992) is probably the main reason why the majority opinion of New Testament scholars think that the Gospels were ancient bibliographies. He begins by lamenting the lack of consensus in his day about the type of literature the Gospels embody: are they examples of a philosopher-vita, Socratic Dialogues, historical monograph, dramatic history, novel, tragi-comedy, or biographies (22-24). He admits, “as someone with a classical background, I was unimpressed with the arguments put forward by New Testament scholars, especially in America, to demonstrate the biographical genre of the gospels. Therefore a negative result was expected, exposing the biographical hypothesis as untenable. However, as the work has developed, I have become increasingly convinced that… it is indeed the right one and that the gospels are part of the genre of ancient βίος [Life] literature” (105-6).

In his preliminary work on genre, he warns that literary prefaces and grammarians or rhetoricians (Quintilian, Menander Rhetor) describe ideal forms that were not consistently observed by writers (56-57). Further, unlike poetry, prose genres were not well defined (62). In contrast to classical prescriptivism that dictates the essential traits that a “genre” must possess and nominalism that assumes that a generic category has no effect of the properties of a text, he settles on a “family resemblances” theory in which literary works in a given “genre” may share features in content or form (structure, tone, purpose) even if no single text has every expected trait (39, 42-44).

Thus, Burridge outlines a number of generic features of biographies that include both their structure or form and their content to enable a direct comparison between the Gospels and other ancient biographies (110). These feature include the opening (e.g. title, opening prologue or preface), the subject (e.g. verbal subjects, space given to a subject’s life), the external features (e.g. mode, meter, length, structure, scale, literary units, sources, methods of characterization), and the internal features (e.g. setting, topoi or topics, style, tone or atmosphere, the quality of characterization, function, authorial intention) (111-126). He lists five biographies that date before the Gospel: Isocrates’ Evagoras, Xenophon’s Agesilaus, Satyrus’ Euripides (Peripatetic bios), Cornelius Nepos’ Atticus, and Philo’s Moses. (129-33). He then looks at five biographies that date after the Gospels:  Tacitus’ Agricola, Plutarch’s Cato Minor, Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars, Lucian’s Demonax, and Philostratus Apollonius of Tyana (155-60). Chapters 8 and 9 then discuss how comparable the Gospels are in reflecting the traits in these biographies. One potential criticism of the earlier edition was that the comparison seems limited to biographies, while it may be instructive to see to what extent the Gospels mirror traits in other types of literature. There also may be a sense, as argued by David Aune in “Genre Theory and the Genre-Function of Mark and Matthew,” that Mark’s Gospel intended to parody and invert the values of elite biographers by being unconcerned about its subject’s pedigree, birth, or upbringing (contra Matthew and Luke). Burridge’s second edition updated the discussion and responds to some of his critics.

Charles H. Talbert on the Gospels as Biographies

Charles H. Talbert (What is a Gospel: the Genre of the Canonical Gospels [London: SPCK, 1978) helped to revive the case that the Gospels were basically equivalent to ancient bioi (the plural of bios or “life”). Talbert defines a bios as a “prose narrative about a person’s life, presenting supposedly historical facts which are selected to reveal the character or essence of the individual, often with the purpose of affecting the behavior of the reader” (17). It differed from historiography in its focus (i.e. an individual subject versus the primary influences in the social or political arena), its type of narrative (i.e. individual anecdotes or interconnected narratives with cause and effort), and its function (i.e. encomium or peripatetic praise, informative Alexandrian biographies, romances that entertain or stir the emotions, and histories that instruct politicians or please the citizens) (16-17).

Talbert challenges the form critics directly on their arguments that the Gospels cannot be ancient biographies due to their mythic structure, their cultic-function, and their world-negating attitude (3, 6). Thus, chapters 2 and 3 argue that the Synoptic Gospels presuppose the narrative structure that informed the stories about the Immortals from their unusual birth to their postmortem ascent and the Fourth Gospel relies on the katabasis-anabasis pattern (descent-ascent) of a divine being (e.g. Lady Wisdom, angels). Chapter 4 looks at how biographical subjects may be recipients of cultic devotion. Chapter 5 contends that the evangelist’s expectation of the eschatological denouement of history did not lead them to reject the world with its profane literature and, like other biographers, the evangelists employed mixed materials (e.g. parables, aretalogies, and wisdom sayings) to correct one-sided distortions of a historical subject’s legacy. He answers further objections: the static characterization techniques employed by the evangelists are no different from the flat characters in other biographies (3), not all ancient biographies were elite literature as the popular Life of Aesop was as much of a bibliography as Plutarch’s Lives (4), and it seems odd to set Luke-Acts apart as historiography from the genre of the other Gospels (6).

Talbert’s work is most famous for offering a new typology of ancient biographies that aimed to replace Friedrich Leo’s classification of biographies under the labels Encomium (e.g. Isocrates, Evander; Xenophon, Agesilaus; Tacitus, Agricola), Peripatetic (e.g. Plutarch, Parallel Lives), Alexandrian or grammarian (e.g. Seutonius, Lives of the Twelve Caesars), and Romance (e.g. Life of Aesop) (92-3). Talbert’s typology is based on function:

  • Type A biographies offer a pattern to copy (Lucian, Demonax) (94).
  • Type B biographies correct a false image of a subject (Xenophon, Memorabilia; Philodemus, Epicurus, Philostratus, Apollonius of Tyana; Porphyry, Pythagoras) (94-95).
  • Type C biographies seek to discredit a subject (e.g. Lucian, Passing of Peregrinus; Alexander the False Prophet) (95).
  • Type D biographies address concerns about a subject’s successors (Diogenes, Lives of Eminent Philosophers) (95-96).
  • Type E biographies legitimate or offers the hermeneutical key for understanding a subject’s teachings (Porphyry, Plotinus) (96).

Talbert would place the biographies of rules in all of the categories except for type D (96-97). Philosophical Schools may use type C to discredit rival teachers, B to rehabilitate a philosopher in response to a rival school’s polemic, or D to claim to be true successors of a philosopher (105-6). Mark’s Gospel fits type B in polemicizing against distorted Christologies that neglect Jesus’ mission to suffer and is informed by the structure of the Immortals (134). The two volume work Luke-Acts belongs to type D as a succession narrative about the church after Easter and type B in that it refutes imminent eschatological expectations (107-8, 134). Matthew’s Gospel corresponds to type E in legitimating and interpreting Jesus’ life and teaching and type B in correcting deficient Christological views that overlooked Jesus’ fulfillment and fidelity to the Hebrew Scriptures (108, 134). Finally, John’s Gospel also exemplifies type B in correcting lower Christological views by presenting Jesus as a descending-ascending redeemer (135).

Was Mark’s Gospel an Ancient Novel?

One of the pioneering literary critical studies on Mark’s Gospel was Mary Ann Tolbert’s Sowing the Gospel: Mark’s World in Literary-Historical Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989). She did not think there was an obvious analogue to Mark’s Gospel in the ancient world, though she allows that the much later third century Life of Apollonius has a similar narrative pattern (55n.20), but adds that a “unique genre” is a contradiction in terms (50, 56). The literary parallels to the Gospels may be no longer extant or the evangelists were not able to emulate other literary genres as successfully due to their limited training (56-57). There are parallels to Jewish midrash or apocalyptic features within the text, but this is not the text’s genre (58). Other suggested genres overemphasize Mark’s focus on Jesus’ miracles (aretalogy), character (biography), or teaching (memorabilia) and each of these genres are part of elite culture (58-59). Elite culture is “individualized”, “subtle”, “profound,” whereas popular culture is “conventionalized”, “stereotypical” and “repetitious” and consumed by semi-educated, taxable working consumers (60-62).

This leads her to compare Mark to popular novels and lists five examples of prose novels (Chariton’s Chaereas and Callirhoe, Xenophon’s An Ephesian Tale, Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe, Achilles Titius’s Leucippe and Clitophon, Heliodorus An Ethopian Tale). Chariton of Aphodisias (ca. 100 BCE-50 CE) and (pseudo-)Xenophon of Ephesus (ca. 50-263 CE) do not reflect the Atticizing style of the Second Sophistic and are the closest parallels to Luke-Acts and Mark respectively (62-63, 66). These texts have typical plot patterns involving a couple who falls in love, is separated, is individually tested, and is reunited, but romance is generally secondary to the exotic and thrilling adventures and travels (63)The genre has a common myth of the solitary hero is a world of danger and deities, common literary heritage mixing historiography of real places or persons with dramatic fiction, and conventional style (64-65).

She admits that “The Gospel of Mark is obviously not an ancient novel of the erotic type” (65), but its blending of history with drama, episodic nature, and conventional style fits this genre. There may be antecedents for the Gospels in Xenophon of Athens’ Cyropaedia, the Alexander Romance, and Philostratus’ Apollonius as well as non-extant parallels (e.g. the fragmentary Ninus Romance), but there is no extant parallel of a biographical novel that exactly matches the Gospels (65-66). The closest to Mark may be Xenophon of Ephesus:  the situation of the audience (66), the minimal introduction, the journey motif, the episodic plot, the key turning point (peripeteia), the final recognition scene, the minimal settings, the brief dialogues, the repetition, the unfolding of the divine plan in human action, the loose chronology, and the crude Koine Greek (67). Other novels may feature multiple protagonists, unjust trials, violent or apparent deaths, and revivals in tombs to captivate audiences and teach morals (68). Mark’s alleged biographical novel had mass appeal across the literacy spectrum (70-74). It has the divine and human levels of the action set out at the beginning, Peter’s confession as a turning point, Golgotha as the final recognition scene, brief dialogues in short episodes, a crowd as a parallel to a chorus, and flat minor characters (76-78).

Michael E. Vines (The Problem of Markan Genre: The Gospel of Mark and the Jewish Novel  [Atlanta: SBL, 2002]) builds on the literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin that the genre of a narrative is determined by its “chronotype” that situates its world in a certain time and space (30-67). Unlike Tolbert, he compares Mark’s Gospel to other so-called “Jewish novels” (e.g. Daniel, Susanna, Judith, Tobit, Esther, Joseph and Aseneth). Vines argues that the chronotype of all these works is “realistic apocalyptic”, meaning that it narrates divine intervention accomplished through human protagonists in a realistic historical setting (153, 159). He denies that the biographical genre accounts for Mark’s emphases on divine activity and eschatology (12).

I would admit that the New Testament evangelists probably did not have the luxury of an elite literary education and that explains many features of the Gospels (e.g. the facility in Koine Greek as a second language, the blending of genres, the conventional and popular styles). However, their content is far more important than a frivolous romance novel, their focus on a single subject with brief anecdotes about his words and deeds stands out from novels with multiple subjects, and their setting in recent history rather than a distant “once upon a time” past stands out from novels. The second century Infancy Gospels or the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles may be more akin to novels.

Was the Gospel of Mark an Apocalyptic Text?

A pioneering social-scientific approach to Mark’s Gospel was found in Howard Clark Kee’s Community of the New Age: Studies in Mark’s Gospel (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977). Although he accepted the form critical view that there was no exact analogue for Mark’s Gospel among the ancient literature and that Mark created a new genre for the church (17-30), Kee found some parallels to apocalyptic texts like the book of Daniel (65).  When a minority group is reduced to political impotence through social ostracism or political oppression, they may question their place in the social order and long for the transformation of society to accord with what the group understanding of the divine will (cf. Talcott Parsons on the intellectualism of the non-privileged group). Apocalyptic thought expects that the present historical crisis will be overcome by divine victory over evil forces, often leads to a group’s rethinking of interpersonal social bonds or older traditions (scripture) or relationships to socio-political structures, and encourages unwavering commitment (67, 70-4). Other Judean groups responded to the imperial situation differently – collaboration (Herodians), passive acquiescence while enforcing group purity boundaries (Pharisees), withdrawal from society (Essenes), or revolt (97-9). Mark chose an open inclusive community that saw itself as a new covenant community, was alienated from the main body and sectarian groups within Second Temple Judaism, and renounced political power through acquiescence to the tribute (Mark 12:17) (100).

While eschatological enthusiasm is certainly a part of the evangelist’s worldview, the problem with Kee’s thesis is that Mark’s Gospel lacks many of the standard features of apocalyptic texts such as pseudonymous authors, angelic guides, otherwordly journeys, coded symbolism of mythical beasts, and elaborate timetables. If anything, Jesus’ discourse in Mark 13 discourages confusing wars, natural disasters, or persecution with the end itself and insists that even the Son did not know the exact day or hour of judgment (13:32), giving little incentive to Christians in the past or present who want to make apocalyptic calendars.

The Gospel as an Aretalogy?

What is an Aretalogy? Moses Hadas and Morton Smith labelled Luke’s Gospel, Porphyry’s Life of Pythagoras, Philo’s Life of Moses, and Philostratus’ Life of Apolonius of Tyana as aretalogies, a type of biography about a subject’s supernatural birth, wisdom, miracles, defiance of tyranny, martyrdom, and post-mortem vindication.

In Smith’s article, an aretalogus was a “teller of miracle stories” (175): they may be temple functionaries writing hymns to Isis, entertainers at dinner parties  (e.g. Seutonius, Augustus 74), or spinners of myths (e.g. Juvenal 15.16; Manetho Apotelesmaticorum 4,445-49) (174-75). Aretalogia is “telling tall stories and the praises of a god” (175-76). Despite the lack of any extent texts for this genre, Smith notes a miracle story entitled Dios Hēliou megalou Sarapidos aretē (p. Oxy. 11, 1382, lines 22ff [2nd cent CE]) and a thanksgiving inscription which reads aretēn Amenōtou (Egyptian Museum, Cairo, No. 67300 [261/60 BCE]) (176). Smith admits that, though the term Aretalogia is used for reporting or the reports themselves (Manetho 4.445ff.; Sir. 36:13, 19), it might have not constituted a distinct literary form (“genre”) but these accounts had distinctive content about a hero’s wonderful deeds (196). Few miracle collections survive outside of scattered references or inscriptions and, unlike the Gospels, are lacking the kind of linking material that make up a coherent narrative bios or “life” (cf. 177-8 n. 27, 178). Philostratus’s source for his biography of Apollonius was Damis’ notes (hupomnēmata) that allegedly had prophecies, sayings, travels, post-mortem appearances, and miracles (177-9). Elite writers did not touch on prophets, magicians, or savior figures unless they entered into the realm of politics (e.g. Thucydides 7.50.4 on prophets who led the admiral Nicias astray, Livy 39.15-16 on the Roman suppression of the Bacchanalia; Josephus War 2.258-64 on false prophets or messiahs) or to hold them up for mockery (Origen, Cels. 7.9 on possessed prophets in Palestine or Lucian’s satire of Alexander or Peregrinus) (179-81).

Even so, the ancients knew of deities or daimones in human guise, demigods who achieved deification, the heroization of benefactors or rulers, historical figures with pretenses to divinity (181-2), and the goal of deification through philosophy, mystery cults, or magic(182-84). The issue with categorizing the ‘divine man’ (theios anēr) into types (prophet, magician, ruler, athlete, philosopher, doctor, poet) is that the borders are fuzzy and one’s god is another’s magician (187). Smith (wrongly) believed that Jesus fit the ancient type of the “divine man” better than the Jewish categories of a prophet or messianic figure (196) and reconstructed an aretalogy underlying Mark 1-10 that runs from the baptism epiphany to the transfiguration (197-8). Not only does Smith’s thesis suffer from a lack of any extant parallels for an alleged aretalogical genre, but the whole generalized concept of the “divine man” from a range of different figures in antiquity has faced significant criticism (see the second bibliography below).

Bibliography

  • Hadas, Moses and Smith, Morton.  Heroes and Gods: Spiritual Biographies in Antiquity.  London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965.
  • Smith, Morton.  “Prolegomena to A Discussion of Aretalogies, Divine Men, the Gospels and Jesus.” Journal of Biblical Literature 90 (1971): 174-199

Bibliography on the Theios Aner

A Unique Genre: A Contradiction in Terms?

When we come across a text, it is necessary to understand the type of literary work we are dealing with, whether to classify it as a history, biography, novel, fairly tale, lab report, letter, and so on. For instance, if the opening line is “once upon a time in a far away land,” you may instantly recognize the “genre” to which this text belongs (i.e. fairy-tale). Citing Frank Kermode’s The Genesis of Secrecy (pg. 30), Mary Ann Tolbert notes that genre can broadly cover archetypal plot patterns (e.g. tragedy, comedy, romance), narrowly classify texts that possess related traits (plotting, characterization, motifs or themes) as belonging in a category (e.g. novels, biography, poetry), or specifically describe features of a single text. She defines genre as “a prior agreement between authors and readers or as a set of shared expectations or as a consensus of ‘fore-understandings exterior to a text which enable us to follow that text” (Sowing the Gospel, 49). Likewise, Richard Burridge explains that speaking or writing happen in a system of conventions (i.e. traits, rules, customs, necessities, properties that constitute verbal meaning) and that a genre is a contract between author and reader based on shared expectations about what traits make up an utterance (Graeco-Roman Biography, 34-36, 43-44;  cf. John C. Meagher, “Literary Uniqueness,” 205-6). John C. Meagher adds that a unique genre violates two standard assumptions in literary history: humans rarely have the ability to produce something genuinely original, as novelty often relates to content rather than to forms which are culturally conditioned, and meaning is understood in the context of shared conventions (211). Thus, the form critics view that the Gospels have no real analogue, but arose out of the preaching of ordinary laypersons rather than literary professionals, is unlikely.

A Unique Gospel Genre?

The Form Critics and the Unique Genre

Martin Dibelius and Rudolf Bultmann were the key pioneers in developing form criticism, a critical approach to the Gospels that was especially influential in the first half of the twentieth century and beyond, and I have provided a brief overview of the history, tenets, and criticisms of form criticism here. How did they relate the Gospels to other literature in the ancient world?

Dibelius judged the early Christians to be unliterary persons who had no need to record history in light of the imminent end of the age, so the only form in which the Jesus tradition could be preserved was in the kerygma or their missionary “preaching” (Tradition, 60-61). The evangelists were not literary composers but, principally, collectors or editors of traditions (1, 3). Bultmann outlines how the kerygma of Jesus death and resurrection became fixed in creeds (1 Cor 15:3-5), was expanded with prophetic proof-texts and the rituals of the baptism and the Lord’s Supper (i.e. Eucharist), filled out with miracles and pronouncement stories confirming Jesus’ authority (i.e. Mark), and finally was linked with sayings that were originally passed down separately for exhortation or instruction (i.e. Matthew and Luke’s use of Mark and “Q”) (Theology, 86).

For Dibelius (5-6) and Bultmann (Synoptic Tradition, 6-7), the closest analogies are folktales, fairy-stories, folk songs, and cult legends (e.g. hagiography of saints, anecdotes about Rabbis, tales of Hellenistic heroes, or the Jataka collection of Buddhist canon). K. L. Schmidt emphasized that the Gospels are not Hochliteratur (high literature) but, like folk books or cult legends, they developed akin to German folktales (e.g., Dr. Faustus) or hagiographic tales in a cultic context and the Gospels lack an authorial “I” or distinct personality or intention of the author present even in Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius (“Literaturgeschichte,” 76, 82, 114). M. Eugene Boring adds that, unlike biographies, the Gospels juxtapose images of Jesus’ humanity and divinity through the secrecy motif, proclaim the climax of universal history rather than just narrate an individual subject, do not distinguish the past historical figure and the present Lord, are constituted by oral units formed out of preaching, and express the Christ-event in parabolic imagery (Mark, 7-8).

  • Boring, M. Eugene.  Mark: A Commentary. The New Testament Library. Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, London, 2006.
  • Bultmann, Rudolf.  The History of the Synoptic Tradtion.  Translated by John Marsh; Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1972; The Theology of the New Testament: Volume I.  New York: Schribner, 1951.
  • Dibelius, Martin.  From Tradition to Gospel. Translated by Bertram Lee Woolf. Cambridge: James Clarke, 1971.
  • Meagher, John C. “The Implications for Theology of a Shift from the K. L. Schmidt Hypothesis of the Literary Uniqueness of the Gospels.”  Pages 203-33 in Colloquy on New Testament Studies.  Edited by Bruce C. Corley. Macon: Mercer University Press, 1983.  [Critiques the Form Critical View]
  • Schmidt, K.L.  “Die Stellung der Evangelien in der allgemeinen Literaturgeschichte” in EYXAPIΣTHPION: Studien zur Religion und Literatur des Alten und Neuen Testaments [‘The Place of the Gospels in the General History of Literature’ in Eucharisterion: Studies on Religion and Literature of the Old and New Testaments].

Blog Posts on the Genre of the Gospels

Over this month, I am going to be re-posting some of my notes on the various books and articles I read on the genre of the Gospels from my previous blog. I will put the page numbers where I took my notes from in parentheses. After I have posted my notes, I will create an introductory handout on the genre of the Gospels as well as introductory handouts on each individual New Testament Gospel for an undergraduate course.

Biblical Studies Carnival January 2017

The Biblical Studies Carnival for the month of January 2017 is set to be hosted by Cassandra Farrin at Ethics and Early Christianity. As soon as the carnival is live, I will link to it here.