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The Date of Mark’s Gospel

  • The earliest manuscript evidence comes from the Chester Beatty papyri (p45) in the 3rd century CE that contains all four gospels and P.Oxy LXXXIII 535 dated to the late 2nd or early 3rd century.
  • Irenaeus (ca 180 CE) has a specific tradition on the evangelist Mark along with the other three evangelists (Against Heresies 3.1.1) and explicitly cites the text of Mark’s Gospel (e.g. 3.10.5; 3.16.3).
  • Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho the Jew (ca 150 CE) cites Mark 3:17 for it alone refers to Zebedee’s sons by the name Boangeres, which is translated by Mark as ‘sons of thunder’ (Dialogue 106.3).
  • The Longer Ending of Mark (16:9-20) is written some time in the first half of the second century by a scribe dissatisfied with the abrupt ending at Mark 16:8 and wanting to harmonize it with the resurrection narratives of the other three New Testament Gospels. For the dating and theological interests of the longer ending, see the definitive study by James A. Kelhoffer, Miracle and Mission: The Authentication of Missionaries and Their Message in the Longer Ending of Mark.
  • In the first quarter of the second century, likely in the first decade off the second century CE (cf. Bartlet, Schoedel, Körtner, Gundry, Kok), Papias referred to Mark as “Peter’s interpreter” (see Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.39.15). I accept that Papias was referring to our Gospels of Mark and Matthew in 3.39.15-16, despite some critical issues over matching his traditions with the Greek Gospels in the New Testament. Papias received his tradition about Mark from the Elder John, so this tradition can at least be traced back to the turn of the century.
  • It is arguable that Mark influenced the Gospel of John (e.g., Bartlett, Neirynck, Goodacre) and the passion narrative in the Gospel of Peter.
  • Accepting the consensus on Markan priority, Matthew and Luke copied Mark’s Gospel and it must have achieved fairly wide circulation to be used (independently?) by both authors in different locales. The Didache (8:2; 11:3; 15:3, 4) and Ignatius (Smyrn. 1.1; 6.1; Phil. 2.2; Eph. 5.2; 6.1; Rom. 9.3; Trall. 11.1; Poly. 1.2-3; 2.2) knew Matthew, so Mark must be earlier still. A few scholars date Luke-Acts to the 60s while Paul was still under house arrest in Rome (cf. Robinson, Hemer, Blomberg, Bernier), but Luke 19:33-34 and 21:24 seems to presuppose the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE and Acts ends its narrative at the point where the Gospel has gone forth from Jerusalem to the capital of the Empire. Most scholars date Luke-Acts to the last quarter of the first century and a growing minority to the first quarter of the second century CE.
  • The Patristic tradition is divided between the view that Mark was written after Peter died (e.g., Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.1.1.; anti-Marcionite Prologue) or while still alive (e.g., Clement of Alexandria, quoted in Ecclesiastical History 2.15.1-2; 6.14.5-7). A few scholars dispute that the use of exodos in Irenaeus is a euphemism for death, thinking it merely means that Peter “departed” or left Rome, and insist that Irenaeus is speaking about the dissemination of Mark’s Gospel rather than its composition (Chapman, Ellis, Furlong). I think the more straightforward reading is that Irenaeus dates the publication of Mark’s Gospel after Peter’s death and later authors move it back into Peter’s lifetime out of apologetic interests.
  • The internal evidence from Mark’s text:
    • Is the focus on the downfall of the Temple (13:1-2; cf. 11:12-14, 20-25; 14:57-59, 15:29) a prophecy after the fact based on the Roman destruction of the temple in 70 CE or a genuine prediction in there is no mention of fire and 13:14 could be interpreted in reference to a future eschatological opponent who would set up an idolatrous sacrilege in the temple before the Son of Man comes in judgment?
    • Does Mark 13 reflect the events of the Jewish War or are the vague hints of wars, natural disasters, persecution, and desolation common apocalyptic tropes?
    • How much time is needed for oral traditions to be translated from Aramaic to Greek and developed into their present written form?
    • Does Mark believe that Jesus’ generation will be the last one before the coming of the Son of Man and have most, but not all, of Jesus’ disciples passed away (Mark 9:1; 13:30)? Notice how the extended “time of the Gentiles” in Luke 21:24 seems to move away from the earlier expectation that the eschatological judgment would be imminent.
  • Most scholars date Mark between 65-75 CE with the divide over whether it dates before or after the Temple destruction in 70 CE. A few scholars date it earlier to the 40s by correlating Mark 13:14 with the Caligula crisis when the emperor threatened to set up his statue in the Temple, proposing that Mark’s translations of Aramaic sources was still unrefined, and insisting that Mark assumes Torah observance before major debates on the issue such as at the Jerusalem Council (e.g., Casey, Crossley, Bernier). A few scholars have also dated it late by identifying the abomination of desolation with Hadrian (e.g., Detering) or arguing that it postdates Marcion’s Gospel (e.g., Vinzent, Klinghardt), but such a late date is ruled out by the earliest external references to Mark and Matthew and by the internal evidence that Mark is preoccupied with the temple either in opposition to the current temple establishment or in light of the temple’s recent destruction.
  • The case that a Gospel fragment was found at Qumran (cf. José O’Callaghan, ‘New Testament Papyri in Qumran Cave 7′? JBLSup 91.2 [1972]: 1-14; Carsten Peter Thiede, The Earliest Gospel Manuscript: the Qumran Papyrus 7Q5 and its Significance for New Testament Studies [Exeter: Paternoster, 1992]; The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Jewish Origins of Christianity [New York: Palgrave, 2000]) has been thoroughly debunked. See Robert H. Gundry, “No NU in Line 2 of 7Q5: A Final Disidentification of 7Q5 With Mark 6:52-53“. JBL 118 (1999): 698–707; Hans Förster, “7Q5=Mark 6:52-53 A Challenge for Textual Criticism?JGRChJ (2001-2005): 27-35; Gordon Fee, “Some Dissenting Notes on 7Q5=Mark 6:52-53” JBL 92.1 (1973): 109-12; Graham Stanton, “A Gospel Among the Scrolls?” BAR; Daniel Wallace, “7Q5: The Earliest NT Papyrus?”  All that remains of this “parallel” is the insignificant Greek particle kai!

The Latest in Biblical Theology Bulletin

The most recent edition of Biblical Theology Bulletin 46.3 (2016) has been published. The articles includes two from my friends James Crossley and Sarah Rollens.

It includes my friend Chris Skinner’s review of The Gospel of the Margins: The Reception of Mark in the Second Century. I am pleased with his accurate summary and positive assessment of my book. His constructive criticisms are fair. I appreciate my editors’ hard work and any grammatical errors are my fault. Chris is less sure of my use of “centrist Christians” to describe the victorious party over other Christian factions (e.g. Ebionite, Marcionite, Valentinian), but I was looking for a term that avoided theological judgments (e.g. orthodoxy & heresy) and could be a neutral social description and I am happy to keep looking for an appropriate label. I admit to being the guilty party citing blogs in Chris Skinner’s blog post! 🙂 I would reply that it is necessary to give credit even to online sources than risk plagiarism (note: some discussions such as the alleged first century fragment of Mark were only happening online), that I am a scholar who can distinguish scholarly from layperson blogs, and I did not extensively critique any single blog post as I am aware that it is a more informal medium than a peer-reviewed publication. Thanks again Chris!

Finally, my review of Sonya Shetty Cronin’s Raymond Brown, ‘The Jews,’ and the Gospel of John: From Apologia to Apology has been published. Brown was a pre-eminent 20th century scholar of John’s Gospel and, along with J. Louis Martyn, had a major influence on reading the Gospel through the lens of the excommunication of Christ followers from the synagogue. Cronin’s study examines how Brown became increasingly nuanced and sensitive regarding John’s historical situation and literary representation of “the Jews” (hoi Ioudaioi) due to personal circumstances in his life and official Catholic statements in light of the history of Christian anti-Semitism. The one piece of constructive feedback I offered was to situate Brown’s work not only in the context of ecclesiastical developments, but also wider historical developments examined by J. Z. Smith, William Arnal, and James Crossley that impacted modern Christian scholarship on Second Temple Judaism. She has written a fine study on the Fourth Gospel’s reception history.


The Genre of Mark’s Gospel

There are informal guidelines for reading types of literature. For instance, if it starts with “once upon a time in a far away land,” you may instantly spot the “genre.” Mary Ann Tolbert notes that genre can broadly cover archetypal plot patterns (e.g. tragedy, comedy), narrowly classify texts that possess related traits around plot points or characters or motifs in a certain category (e.g. novels, biography), 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’” [citing Kermode, The Genesis of Secrecy, 30] (Sowing the Gospel, 49). Richard Burridge explains that speaking or writing occur in a system of conventions (traits, rules, customs, necessities, properties that constitute verbal meaning) and 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. 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 what is genuinely original, as novelty often relates to content rather than forms which are culturally conditioned, and meaning is understood in the context of shared conventions (211).

Form Critics and the Unique Kerygmatic Genre

Dibelius judged early Christians to be unliterary persons with no need to record history in light of the imminent end of the age, so the only form Jesus traditions could be preserved was missionary preaching (kerygma) (Tradition, 60-61). The evangelists were not composers but collectors and editors (1, 3). Bultmann outlines how the proclamation (kerygma) about Easter became fixed in creeds (1 Cor 15:3-5) and was progressively expanded upon with prophetic proof-texts, rituals (e.g. baptism, Eucharist), miracles, pronouncement stories, and sayings once passed down separately for exhortation or instruction (Theology, 86). For Dibelius (5-6) and Bultmann (Tradition, 6-7), the closest analogy to the oral traditions are folktales, fairy-stories, folk songs, and cult legends (e.g. hagiography, rabbinic anecdotes, Hellenistic heroes). Schmidt saw the Gospels not  as Hochliteratur (high literature); their traditions 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 (“Literaturgeschichte,” 76, 82, 114). Boring adds that, unlike biographies, the Gospels juxtapose Jesus’ humanity and divinity via the secrecy motif, proclaim the climax of universal history, do not distinguish the past Jesus and present Lord, are made up of oral units formed by preaching, and express the Christ-event in parabolic imagery (Mark, 7-8). As kerygmatic narratives, they are in a category of their own (sui generis).

Criticisms: the evangelist’s limited literary ability has no implications for the genre they imitated, the diverse material originating on different occasions has no implications for the genre of the finished product, the view of the evangelists as compilers of tradition has given way to redaction and literary studies of them as creative authors, and a unique genre is a contradiction of terms (i.e. system of shared conventions).

  • Boring, M. Eugene. Mark: A Commentary. The New Testament Library. Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, London, 2006.
  • Bultmann, Rudolf. The History of the Synoptic Tradition. 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].


Hadas and Smith put Luke’s Gospel, Porphyry’s Pythagoras, Philo’s Moses,and Philostratus’ Apollonius in the category of aretalogy, a type of biography on a subject’s supernatural birth, wisdom, miracles, subversiveness, martyrdom, and vindication. In Smith’s article, an aretalogus is a “teller of miracle stories” (175), often a temple functionary or spinner of tales (e.g. Seutonius, Augustus, 74 on aretalogi at dinner parties; Juvenal 15.16 on a lying aretalogus; Manetho Apotelesmaticorum, 4, 445-49 on myth-making) (174-5). Aretalogia is “telling tall stories and the praises of a god” (175-6). There are no extant texts, but Smith notes a miracle story entitled Dios Hēliou megalou Sarapidos aretē (p. Oxy. 11, 1382, lines 22ff [2nd cent CE]) and a thanksgiving inscription aretēn Amenōtou (Egyptian Museum, Cairo, No. 67300 [261/60 BCE]) (176). Aretalogia, though used for reporting or reports themselves (Manetho 4.445ff.; Sir. 36:13, 19), may not have a literary form but distinct content relating to a subject’s wonderful deeds (196). Few miracle collections survive beyond scattered references or inscriptions and those that do lack linking material in a narrative “life” (cf. 177-8 n. 27, 178), but Philostratus’s source (cf. Damis’ hupomnēmata) allegedly had prophecies, sayings, travels, post-mortem appearances, and miracles (177-9). Elite writers recounted or parodied prophets, magicians, or political saviours (e.g. Thucydides 7.50.4 on prophets who led the admiral Nicias astray, Livy 39.15-16 on Rome’s suppression of the Bacchanalia; Josephus War 2.258-64 on messianic figures; Celsus Cels. 7.9 on possessed prophets in Palestine; Lucian’s satires) (179-81). There were deities or daimones in human guise, demigods who achieved deification, benefactors or rulers, and historical figures with pretenses to divinity (181-2). Deification was a widely held goal (Platonism, Eleusinian mysteries, magic) (182-4). Like Asclepius, Jesus was a healer, had a folk birth story, acted as a moral teacher or initiator of mysteries, became the principle of the cosmic order (logos) and a solar deity (“light”), was accused of magic, and ascended to heaven (186). The issue with categorizing the ‘divine man’ 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 argues Jesus fits this type better that Jewish categories (196) and reconstructs an aretalogy from the baptism epiphany to the transfiguration behind Mark 1-10 (197-8).

Criticisms: there are no extant aretalogies with features that distinguish it as a genre (e.g. Damis’ notes on Apollonius are irrecoverable if they existed). The “divine man” (theios anēr) has been deconstructed as a modern scholarly abstraction from a variety of ancient figures such as philosophers or miracle workers (see the bibliography below).

  • Hadas, Moses and Smith, Morton. Heroes and Gods: Spiritual Biographies in Antiquity.  London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965.
  • Holladay, C.H. Theos Aner in Hellenistic Judaism: A Critique of the Use of this Category in New Testament Christology. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976.
  • Kingsbury, J.D. “The ‘Divine Man’ as the Key to Mark’s Christology: The End of an Era?” Interpretation 35 (1981): 243-257.
  • Smith, Morton. “Prolegomena to A Discussion of Aretalogies, Divine Men, the Gospels and Jesus.” Journal of Biblical Literature 90 (1971): 174-199

Apocalyptic Literature

Kee concludes that there is no analogy for Mark’s Gospel (e.g. origins myth, biography, aretalogy, tragedy, comedy, romance, martyriology on pp. 17-29) and is a new ecclesial genre (30). Yet he sees Mark as akin to apocalyptic texts like Daniel (65). When a minority group is reduced to political impotence due to social ostracism or oppression, they may question their place in the social order and long for society’s transformation in accordance with the group’s understanding of the divine will (cf. T. Parsons on the intellectualism of a non-privileged group). Apocalyptic thought insists that the present crisis caused by evil forces will be overcome, often leads a group to rethink interpersonal social bonds or older traditions (scripture) or relationships to political structures, and encourages unwavering commitment (67, 70-4). Judean groups responded to the imperial situation differently – collaboration (Herodians), passive acquiescence while enforcing purity boundaries (Pharisees), withdrawal (Essenes), or revolt (97-9). Mark chose an open, inclusive new covenant community that was alienated from the main body and sectarian groups within Second Temple Judaism and renounced political power through acquiescence to paying Roman tribute (100).

Criticisms: apocalyptic describes features within Mark but not the work itself. Mark lacks many features in apocalyptic texts like pseudonymous authors, angelic guides, otherwordly journeys, coded symbolism of beasts, and elaborate timetables (e.g. Mark 13 discourages setting dates for the eschaton).

Historiography or a Historical Monograph

Many scholars deem the Lukan prologue to parallel historiography (contra Loveday Alexander, see Aune, Adams, Moesner, Rothschild, Sterling), while proposals relating Luke-Acts to epics (cf. MacDonald, Bonz) have not won the day. Byrskog insists on the value of autopsy in historiography, defined as obtaining information by visiting locales, witnessesing events, or unearthing artifacts (Story, 48). Beginning with Heraclitus’s dictum that “eyes are surer witnesses than the ears” (cf. Herodotus 1.8; Thucydides 1.73.2; Polybius 12.25.6), ch. 2 and 3 explore how historians (Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius, Josephus, Tacitus) visited the locales, lived through the events, interrogated eyewitnesses, and used written sources as supplements unless they were bad historians (e.g. Timaeus). Locals, disciples, female associates (Mark 15:40-16:8), or family members served as the evangelist’s informants (65-90, 190-97). Autopsy is stressed in the list of Easter witnesses, Luke’s consultation of autoptai, the requirement of  participation in Jesus’ ministry for apostleship in Acts, and the value of eyewitness testimony in the Johannine writings and 2 Peter (225-44). Papias followed historiographic standards in interviewing the Elder John’s students and Byrskog defends Papias’ tradition that Mark relied on Peter as an oral informant (Eccl. Hist. 3.39.3-4, 15; cf. 1 Pet 5:13; Acts 12:12) (272-96).

Collins’ calls Mark an “eschatological historical monograph” on the origins and destiny of an ethnic group, the culmination of Israelite history and its universal implications (cf. Mark 13:10) and not just a “life” (bios) (18). She cites Aristotle (Rhet. 1.4.13=1360A) and Quintilian (Inst. Orat. 2.4.2) on history as memorable deeds, primarily in politics (35). Its roots are mythography, ethnography, local reports, and chronography as Herodotus ordered such data in sequential development (35-6). Historia (inquiry, research) stresses the interrogation and synthesis of witness’ reports in continuous narrative, though the influence of ethnography meant that not all historians followed Thucydides in testing the accuracy of “reports” (36). There is tension between reliable oral informants and visiting sites versus written sources and free invention (36). Regarding famous persons (Socrates, Alexander the Great), historians could narrow on a person’s deed (cf. Theopomupus, Philippica) or write about heroes in Hellenistic and Roman periods (36-7). Van Seters (In Search of History, 1) defines history as “the intellectual form in which a civilization renders account to itself of its past” and the biblical historians interpreted all the parts of Israel’s tradition (e.g. biographical anecdotes, prophetic legends) through the lens of Israel’s national history and destiny (37-9). Prophetic legends or improbable ethnographic reports, some of which Herodotus distances himself and others he retells unquestioningly, shows the miraculous in history writing (39). Herodotus or Polybius had indirect divine working in human agency by means of dream-visions or “Fortune” (39-40). Mark rarely has direct divine intervention (baptism, transfiguration, Easter) apart from the level of human interaction (40). Other biblical historians set a precedent in not identifying the author or aims and, while Mark’s literary level is low, episodic style characterizes other histories (OT, Herodotus, Cleitarchus, Duris, Curtius Rufus, Livy) (41). Some deem Mark less concerned with accuracy than divine proclamation, but ancient histories must not be judged by positivistic standards as the miraculous was present in ethnography, and it is unclear if the stories were meant literally (41). The subject and scope of historia was often politics or war but may focus on individuals (Alexander the Great, Agathocles of Syracuse, Attalus of Pergamum, Ptolemy IV Philopator, Antiochus IV, Hannibal, Tigranes of Armenia, Pompey) and cultural or religious subjects (41). Universal histories were longer and historical monographs were shorter (41). One difference is that Mark’s text is infused with eschatology (42-3). Mark is a “historical monograph that focuses on the activity of a leading individual” (43).

Criticisms: Byrskog’s proposal contrasts with how the evangelists never explicitly identify themselves or their sources, methods, or aims via a conventional historiographical preface (apart from Luke). It seems unrealistic to compare to the historical practice of elite writers like Thucydides, Polybius, Josephus, or Tacitus. Imitating Ancient Near Eastern historians and the Hebrew Bible makes the problem with anonymity less acute. Collins’ question is to the point: are the Gospels about the fulfillment of the divine plan for Israel and the world OR the subject Jesus of Nazareth to instill discipleship to the way he set out and draw out his significance visa-vie Israel and the world?

Bios (life) or ancient biography

Talbert rebuts the case that the Gospels are not bioi due to mythic content (structure), cultic context (function), and world-negating stance (attitude) (What is a Gospel, 3, 6). Ch. 2 and 3 cover the mythic template of Immortals from unusual birth to ascent or the katabasis-anabasis pattern (descent-ascent) of divinities, ch. 4 covers how biographical subjects may be recipients of cultic devotion, and ch. 5 covers how the evangelist’s eschatological worldview did not lead them to spurn literature and how other biographers took over mixed materials (e.g. aretalogy, parables) to correct one-sided distortions of subjects. The Gospels’ static characterization is no different to other bioi (3) and their status as Kleinliteratur is irrelevant (i.e. the Life of Aesop is as much a bios as Plutarch’s Lives) (4). A bios “is 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). Bios differed from historia in focus (character vs. “great men” in political/social arena) (16), narration (anecdotes vs. cause & effect), and function (encomium or peripatetic praise, Alexandrian inform, Romance entertain or stir emotions, histories instruct politicians or please citizens) (17). Talbert replaces Leo’s division of bioi as encomium (Isocrates, Evander; Xenophon, Agesilaus; Tacitus, Agricola), Peripatetic (Plutarch‘s Lives), Alexandrian /grammarian (Seutonius, Lives of the Twelve Caesars), and Romance (Life of Aesop) (92-3). His taxonomy is based on function: Type A offer a pattern to copy (Lucian, Demonax) (94), B correct false images (Xenophon, Memorabilia; Philodemus, Epicurus, Philostratus, Apollonius; Porphyry, Pythagoras) (94-5), C discredits someone (Lucian, Passing of Peregrinus; Alexander the False Prophet) (95), D address succession (Diogenes, Lives of Eminent Philosophers) (95-6), or E legitimates or offers the hermeneutical key to a person’s teaching (Porphyry, Plotinus) (96). Lives of rulers belong in all types except D (96-7). Schools used C to discredit rivals, B to rehabilitate a philosopher, or D to claim succession (105-6). Mark fits B in attacking distorted Christologies and following the structure of the Immortals (134), Luke-Acts D as a succession narrative and B as a polemic against false eschatology (107-8, 134), Matthew E in interpreting Jesus’ teaching and B in correcting false Christologies (108, 134), and John B in correcting false Christologies in favour of a descending-ascending redeemer (135).

Burridge notes the lack of consensus on the Gospel’s genre (philosopher-vita, Socratic Dialogues, historical monograph, dramatic history, novel, tragi-comedy, bioi) (Biograpy, 22-4). He writes “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…  [however] it is indeed the right one and that the gospels are part of the genre of ancient βίος [Life] literature” (105-6). Literary prefaces, grammarians, and rhetoricians (Quintilian, Menander Rhetor) describe ideal forms not consistently observed (56-7) and, unlike poetry, prose genres were not well defined (62). In contrast to classical prescriptivism (i.e. a genre has essential traits) and nominalism (i.e. the name of a category has no effect on an object’s properties), he settles on a ‘family resemblances’ theory in which works in a “genre” may share features in content or form (structure, tone, purpose) even if no text has every expected trait (39, 42-4). Generic features include structure or form and content or material to enable comparison (110): opening features (title, opening prologue or preface), subject (verbal subjects, space given to a subject’s life), external features (mode, metre, length, structure, scale, literary units, sources, methods of characterization), and internal features (setting, topics, style, tone or atmosphere, quality of characterization, function, authorial intention) (111-26). He lists 5 bioi before the Gospel (Isocrates’ Evagoras, Xenophon’s Agesilaus, Satyrus’ Euripides, Cornelius Nepos’ Atticus, and Philo’s Moses) and 5 after (Tacitus’ Agricola, Plutarch’s Cato Minor, Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars, Lucian’s Demonax, and Philostratus Apollonius of Tyana) (129-33, 155-60). Ch. 8 and 9 compares the results to the Gospels.

Collins has a taxonomy of bioi (30-2): Encomiastic (subtype of epideictic rhetoric that exalts subject; Isocrates’ Evogoras, Xenophon’s Agesilaus, Polybius lost Philopoimen), Scholarly (peripatetic or Aristotelian and focus on authors or philosophers and occasionally rulers, though they may be impartial or satirical; Satyrus’ Euripides, Diogenes Laertius Lives), Didactic (instruct on a subject’s way of life to instill allegiance; Philo’s Moses, Iamblichus Pythagorean Way of Life), Ethical (promote a self-conscious morality or ethical-psychological system; Plutarch’s Cato the Younger or Pompey), Entertaining (satisfy curiosity about heroes/poets/rulers; lives of Homer, Aesop, Secundus, Heraclides, and Plutarch’s Antony) (32), Historical (has a wider series of cause-effect in the political arena than just narrowing on a subject’s private life; Life of Caesar, Tacitus’ Agricola, Seutonius’ Lives of the Caesars). Though seeing the Gospels as historical monographs, she allows that historical and didactic biographies are analogous (33) and accepts affinities with Plutarch’s Lives and lives of philosophers (cf. Lucian’s Demonax), though both have more explicit commentary and biographical interest (43).

Criticism: the evangelists do not explicitly identify themselves, their sources, or their methods. Mark lacks an account of Jesus’ upbringing and focuses on a narrow window of Jesus’ short ministry and death, which Burridge  admits is unusual in a bios. There is blending of genres (biography, history, apocalyptic, midrash, novel) that may be a product of Jewish and Greco-Roman roots as well as the popular level of the Gospels. It may be, as argued by Aune in “Genre Theory and the Genre-Function of Mark and Matthew,” that Mark parodied and inverted the values of elite biographies by paying no attention to the protagonist’s pedigree or birth (contra Matthew and Luke).

Novel or Epic

Tolbert argues that the Gospels have no obvious analogue. Either the Gospels are a “unique genre” (a contradiction in terms on pp. 50, 56), the parallels are not extant, or the Gospels differ due to their author’s literary abilities (56-7). Midrash and apocalyptic describe features within Mark (58). Other categories over-emphasize one aspect (aretalogy – miracles, bios – Jesus’ character, memorabilia – teaching) and the parallels generally have a higher literary and philosophical quality (58-9). Unlike Elite culture (individualized, subtle, profound), pop culture (conventionalized, stereotypical, repetitious) is produced by semi-educated, taxable, working consumers (artisans, traders, free slaves in urban centers) (60-2). Of 5 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 exhibit the Atticizing style of the Second Sophistic and are the closest parallels to Luke-Acts and Mark (62-3, 66). These erotic texts have plot patterns (couples separated, tested, reunited), but the romance is secondary to exotic and thrilling adventures (exception: Longus) (63). There is a common myth (solitary person in a world of danger filled with gods and mysteries), literary heritage (mixing historiography of known places or figures with drama), conventional style, and authors of varying skills (64-5). “The Gospel of Mark is obviously not an ancient novel of the erotic type” (65), but its blending genres, episodic nature, and conventionality fits fragmentary evidence for a biographical novel with an antecedent in Xenophon of Athens Cyropaedia and later the Alexander Romance and Philostratus’ Apollonius (65). Non-extant lives of Pythagoras or Alexander or the fragmentary Ninus Romance (ca 100 BCE) may have been biographical novels, but our sole example of the genre are the Gospels (66). Xenophon of Ephesus and Mark share parallels: the audience’s situation (66), minimal introduction, journey motif, episodic plot, key turning point (peripeteia), final recognition scene, minimal settings, brief dialogues, repetition, divine plan unfolding in human action, loose chronology (days/nights), and crude Koine (67). Other novels are complex with multiple protagonists, yet are filled with unjust trials, violent death, apparent deaths, and revivals in tombs to captivate audiences and teach morals (68). As a biographical novel, Mark had mass appeal across the literacy spectrum while being disdained by elite literati (70-4). Mark sets out the divine and human levels in the plot, a turning point (Peter’s confession), final recognition scene (trial, cross), brief dialogues in episodes, a crowd (chorus in drama) (76), and flat minor characters (76-8).

Vines builds on the literary theorist Bakhtin that the genre of a narrative is determined by its “chronotype” that situates its world in a certain time and space (Markan Genre, 30-67).  Via a comparison to other “Jewish novels” – Daniel, Susanna, Judith, Tobit, Esther, Joseph and Aseneth – Vines argues that the chronotype of all the works is “realistic apocalyptic”, meaning that it narrates divine intervention accomplished through human protagonists in a more realistic historical setting than in apocalyptic literature (153, 159). The biographical genre does not account for Mark’s emphases on divine activity and eschatology (12).

Criticisms: The Gospel’s low literacy, crude Koine, and popular appeal may be irrelevant to genre. Tolbert has no parallels of biographical novels and the subject matter of the Gospels has more gravity and serious tone than an entertaining romance or exotic traveler tales. Situating the story in a recent rather than a distant and unrealistic historical past (e.g., Judith intentionally fictional with Nebuchadnezzar as ruler of the Assyrians!) and the focus on the characterization of one subject through chreiai or brief anecdotes sets the Gospels apart from novels. With exceptions (e.g. Peter catching a fish with a coin in its mouth), the NT Gospels differ from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas or the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles which may have served as entertainment.


Though she accepts the Gospels belong to a popular bios genre (Aesop) defined “as prose narratives of medium length with a strong concentration and focus on a single person which determines the whole setting of the book” (Purpose, 219-231, 223), Roskam denies that this aids in understanding the authorial intent or context. Bios was a flexible genre with all sorts of purposes (encomiastic, exemplary, informative, didactic, apologetic, polemical) and does not explain Jewish influences (eschatology, typology) or distinct elements or motifs in Mark (226-31). Her view (231-6):  Mark is an apology in a polemical context (231) and its literary form a secondary vehicle to achieve this purpose (232). Mark is uninterested in biographical details (descent, upbringing, appearance) apart from Jesus’ status as the deity’s envoy (232). Mark organizes material with a bare chronological framework to support the unfolding case (e.g., the first half establishes Jesus authority and the second his mission to suffer, the messianic secret, the suffering righteous one) (232-6). “Mark’s Gospel is best characterized not as a biography of Jesus, but as an apologetic writing in biographical form” (236). It aimed to convince readers that Jesus was not seditious against Rome, redefined messiahship, and equipped insiders to remain steadfast against charges of subversiveness (215-7).

Criticism: an apology does not have distinct generic features. If Mark suppressed hints of subversion, parallels between the “gospel” with the “good news” of Augustus’ rule ushering in the Roman peace, politically charged titles (Christ, son of David, son of God, Lord), talk of a “kingdom”, images of Jesus driving out the demonic “legion” into the Sea, portrayals of Pilate as an inept governor, and imminent expectations of the return of the Son of Man to gather the elect of all nations to inherit the vineyard of Israel (I disagree with Roskam that the vineyard is given to the Romans) were not politically shrewd.

Academic Study of Mark’s Gospel

I am going to edit and re-post some of my material from https://ntmark.wordpress.com/ relating to the Gospel of Mark particularly over the next few posts as examples of the academic study of a Gospel text.

James Kelhoeffer on the Gospel Titles

A good middle ground position between the theses of Martin Hengel and Helmut Koester can be found in James A. Kelhoffer, “‘How Soon a Book’ Revisited: ΕΥΑΓΓΕΛΙΟΝ as a Reference to ‘Gospel’ Materials in the First Half of the Second Century.” Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche 95 (2004): 1–34. I think he is right to defend certain references in the Didache and 2 Clement that Koester sidelined as evidence for the use of “gospel” as a title and he also examines other textual references that are not usually surveyed such as the longer ending to Mark.

When was Gospel Used as a Book Title

In the last post, we looked at how the “gospel” (euangelion) in Paul’s letters was the announcement of God’s victory over the powers, that the one who was crucified on behalf of sinners was raised and enthroned as Lord.

In Mark’s Gospel, the term is often used in reference to the “good news” about the in-breaking reign of God (e.g. Mark 1:15). However, the opening verse seems to expand it to encompass the whole ministry of Jesus from the baptism of Jesus to the crucifixion and resurrection. It is arguable that Mark 1:1 should be read as a title “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ [Son of God]” for the work as a whole. Therefore, Mark may have set the precedent for using “gospel” as the title of a book, though the late Graham Stanton’s book Jesus and Gospel argued that Matthew’s references to “this gospel of the kingdom” (Matt 24:14; 26:13) were shorthand summaries of Matthew’s story of Jesus and prepared the way for Gospel to be a title.

As for when the standard titles of the Gospels appear with the names Matthew, Mark, Luke or John attached, the debate lies between the late Martin Hengel’s The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ and the late Helmut Koester’s Ancient Christian Gospels.

Hengel insists that as soon as multiple published copies of Gospels were available to be disseminated in a Christian library or book shop, they practically required titles to distinguish them and the unanimous agreement about the conventional titles despite their unusual form (e.g. “The Gospel according to Matthew”) indicates that the titles must have emerged early to stick. Koester, on the other hand, stresses that the term “gospel” is used for the proclamation about Jesus’ death and resurrection instead of as a title for a book well into the second century and that it was the second century opponent of the Catholic Church Marcion who first understood Paul’s reference to “my gospel” (Romans 2:16) as a reference to a book about Jesus. Koester adds that it is not until Theophilus of Antioch that the title “Gospel” is linked to a named author “John” (To Autolycus 2.22)

My view is that it is unlikely that Marcion is the innovator in using the term “gospel” as a title of the literary work and that Koester may underestimate a few earlier references that were already pointing in that direction. However, the title “Gospel according to Matthew” implies that the same good news could be presented “according to” other vantage points and best makes sense in a mid second century context when the four Gospels were starting to be read together as authoritative yet distinctive presentations of the singular “good news” of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.


What Does the Term “Gospel” Mean?

We have been looking at critical research into the Canonical and Non-Canonical Gospels, but what does the term “gospel” even mean and why was it applied to books about the life, discourses, or death and resurrection of Jesus?

Steve Mason has a helpful article entitled “Methods and Categories: Judaism and Gospel” over at the website Bible and Interpretation. He demonstrates how rare the term actually is in pre-Christian Jewish and Graeco-Roman literature. For instance, the singular neuter noun euangelion (“gospel”) is not found in this exact form at all in the Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint, while the plural neuter form is found once in 2 Samuel 4:10 for a message about Saul’s death that, ironically, was not received by David as “good news.” I like how Mason tries to de-familiarize the term by translating it as the “Announcement” and how strange and intriguing that might have sounded to new audiences. I am less convinced that it was a term coined by Paul as a distinctive label for his message; it seems to me that Paul is summarizing the “gospel” by drawing on common creedal material in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 and Romans 1:3-4 and likely inherited the term “gospel” from earlier Greek-speaking Christians as well.

Although it is in  rare form, I still think those who used the term “gospel” were drawing on both a Jewish and Graeco-Roman background. In the Septuagint translation of Isaiah 52:7 and 61:1, the verb for bring good news is used to herald the liberation of the people from exile in Babylon and announce a future eschatological salvation. As for the Roman background, Craig A Evans has provided a translation of the Priene Calendar Inscription in 9 BCE about the good news that the emperor Octavian or “Augustus” was going to bring peace to the Roman Empire (see “Mark’s Incipit and the Priene Calendar Inscription: From Jewish Gospel to Greco-Roman GospelJournal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism 1 [2000]: 67-81):

It seemed good to the Greeks of Asia, in the opinion of the high priest Apollonius of Menophilus Azanitus: “Since Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with excellence that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior, both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance (excelled even our anticipations), surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good news [euangeliōn] for the world that came by reason of him,” which Asia resolved in Smyrna…”

I do not think the meaning of the term “gospel” can be de-contextualized as just a timeless message of how to be saved from God’s wrath against sin; it was used in the context of giving hope to a colonized people who had been or were currently subjugated to the imperial rule of Babylon, Persia or Rome. The meaning that comes through in Romans 1 or Mark 1 is that the God of Israel was faithful to the promises to deliver the covenant people by raising and enthroning Jesus, the descendant of a great royal Davidic dynasty and the true emperor of the world. In the next post, we will look at how a term that announced that the crucified one had been installed as the Lord of the cosmos came to denote written texts about Jesus in the second century CE.

Rafael Rodriguez on the Gospels and Memory

Since this blog has been reviewing the older models of form and redaction criticism, it is important to look at some of the more recent approaches regarding orality, memory, and media studies. I am not a specialist in these fields, but Rafael Rodriguez is and last month he provided an eight-part critical review of Bart Ehrman’s popular book  Jesus before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented their Stories of the Savior (part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8). I found this to be a helpful introduction to the research.

Introducing Redaction Criticism

The methodological break-through after form criticism was Redaktionsgeschichte (redaction history) or redaction criticism. While building on form critical insights about the forms of the oral traditions and their function in the various Sitze im Leben (situations in life) of the early Christ congregations, it reacted against the minimalistic view of the evangelists as mere editors collecting prior traditions like pearls on a string. Morna Hooker has a memorable rebuttal: “It will not, I hope, be regarded as a sexist remark if I suggest that only a man could have used the phrase ‘like pearls on a string’ to suggest a haphazard arrangement of material. Any woman would have spotted the flaw at once in the analogy:  pearls need to be carefully selected and graded. And gradually it has dawned on New Testament scholars that this is precisely what the evangelists have done with their material” (The Message of Mark [1983], p. 3). Redaction critics treat the evangelists as authors and theologians in their own right and seek their distinct contribution in editing and shaping the pre-Gospel oral traditions into a new Gospel narrative.

Though anticipated by W. Wrede or R. H. Lightfoot, it was Gunther Bornkamm (Tradition & Interpretation in Matthew [1948]), Hans Conzelmann (The Theology of St. Luke, [1954]), and Willi Marxsen (Mark the Evangelist [1956]) who opened the floodgates. It is easier to spot Matthew’s and Luke’s redactional interests by what they add to or omit from Mark’s Gospel or how they edit Markan texts. Unfortunately, we do not have the sources for either the Gospels of Mark or John to be able to precisely pinpoint how they have redacted their traditions. Several older commentators on John’s Gospel have speculated that the evangelist was working with sources (e.g. the prologue about the logos or Word, a signs source, a discourses source, a Passion Narrative) and that later editors also shaped the final version of the Gospel and added the epilogue of chapter 21, while a number of more recent commentators have rejected source critical analysis of John’s Gospel in favour of studying the final literary form. I will look at the issues with Markan redaction criticism in more detail below.

Premier evangelical scholar Robert Stein’s article “What is Redaktionsgeschicht” JBL 88.1 (1969): 45-56 (online at Biblical Studies.org) notes what redaction critics look for when they sift Mark’s editorial contribution from pre-Markan sources: seams (form critics assumed the traditions were handed down as independent units which Mark attached together with artificial seams), interpretative comments, summaries, modification of material, selection of material, omission of material, arrangement of material, introduction (Mark’s prologue), conclusion (original ending at 16:1-8), favorite vocabulary, and Christological titles (p. 53). However, the method has been sharply criticized by C. Clifton Black in The Disciples according to Mark: Markan Redaction in Current Debate (JSNTS 27; Sheffield: JSOT Press; Sheffield Academic Press, 1989) that I reviewed for RBL.

Some Features in Mark’s Gospel that Redaction Critics have Noted

  • Asides: at certain points Mark explicitly steps in to address the reader to translate Aramaic terms (Mark 3:17; 5:41; 7:11, 34;  15:22, 34), explain Jewish customs (7:3-4, 19c; 15:42), or to clarify the obscure (13:14b).
  • εὐθύς (immediately) or  καὶ εὐθὺς (and immediately): look up Mark 1:16-45 in a more literal translation at www.biblegateway.com to see how much Mark transitions between actions or scenes with “(and) immediately.” This heightens the dramatic action right from the start of Jesus’ ministry, in line with other hyperbolic language (e.g., the fame of John the Baptizer or Jesus spreads everywhere or to all in chapter 1 or “all” Jews wash their hands in 7:3 or Jesus drove out “all” the traders from the Temple and shut down the cult in 11:16, 18), or indicates the rough style of Mark that will be refined by Matthew and Luke. A useful article online that cautions against over-reading Mark’s conjunctions is by Rodney Decker, “Temporal Deixis of the Greek Verb in the Gospel of Mark with Reference to Verbal Aspect.”
  • Intercalation or Markan sandwiches: Mark often interrupts one story by seemingly inserting another unrelated story, following a pattern A1 (story one) – B (new story) – A2 (completion of story one), but in a way that they seem to mutually interpret one another. This technique of intercalation, or Markan sandwiches, has been identified most prominently at Mark 3:20–35; 5:21–43; 6:7–30; 11:12–22; 14:1–11; 14:1-11, 14:53-72. Jesus raising the 12 year old (cf. 5:42) daughter of the synagogue ruler Jairus is interrupted by the healing of the woman suffering from haemorrhages for 12 years, so Mark may want to teach something about faith by juxtaposing these two stories together and the female characters may also symbolize the restoration of Israel (e.g., 12 tribes). The framing of Jesus prophetic denouncement in the Temple with the cursing of the fig-tree and its subsequent withering forms a commentary on what will happen to the fruitless Temple (11:12-22). The efforts of Jesus’ own kin (hoi par autou or “those with him) to restrain him and Jesus’ redefinition of his family as those who do God’s will frames the section on blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, so rejecting Jesus as crazy is equivalent to the scribal accusation that he is possessed by Beelzebub.  If interested further, see James R. Edwards, Markan Sandwiches: The Significance of Interpolations in Markan NarrativesNovTest 31 (1989): 193-216.
  • Odd gar (for) explanations: Mark is fond of is the use is gar-clauses in making explanatory asides in the narrative (21 times) and there is discussion of the Greek conjunction gar (for) at the online Biblical Greek Forum. For a few examples that seem oddly misplaced, 1:16 seems redundant in explaining why Peter and Andrew cast their fishing nets into the lake “for they were fishermen,” 5:42 has a dead girl get up and walk “for she was twelve years of age,” 6:52 has the troubling concession that the disciples did not understand what Jesus had done with the loaves “for their hearts were hardened,” or 11:13 describes why the fig tree was barren “for it was not the season for figs” which makes it seem unfair that it is cursed. If interested further, see C. H. Bird, “Some Gar Clauses in St. Mark’s Gospel” JTS 4 (1953): 171-187; Robert H. Fowler, Let the Reader Understand, 92.

Introducing Form Criticism

Upon discovering Markan priority, Mark’s Gospel was favoured by Liberal Protestants. An early narrative (Mark) and an early hypothetical sayings source (Q) could ward off the radical skepticism of D. F. Strauss or F. C. Baur and uncover a rationalist’s historical Jesus stripped of theological dogma (see H.U. Meijboom, A History and Critique of the Origins of the Marcan Hypothesis 1835-1866). What moved scholars from treating Mark ‘s account as Peter’s eyewitness testimony on Jesus’ life to Bultmann’s assessment, “I do indeed think that we can now know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus, since the early Christian sources show no interest in either, are moreover fragmentary and often legendary; and other sources about Jesus do not exist” (Jesus and the Word)? Granted, Bultmann reacted against excessive psychological studies of Jesus’ personality from the 19th century, but what happened is that Formgeschichte (form history), or Form Criticism, displaced the older model of Gospel origins. This approach was dominant in the first half of the 20th century and I will trace the steps that led to this paradigm.

  • Flight from History:  Albert Schweitzer’s Quest for the Historical Jesus refuted Liberal Lives of Jesus and set forth two options for reconstructing the historical Jesus:  thoroughgoing eschatology or scepticism. Schweitzer took the former route and William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret the latter. Wrede thought that Mark imposed a ‘messianic secret’ over his material to cover up that no one regarded Jesus as the Messiah until after Easter. Thus, Mark no longer supplied the unassailable earliest record about Jesus, but advanced his own theology. Martin Kähler’s The So-called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ objected to the whole quest for the historical Jesus as if Jesus was a mere object of historical inquiry when the biblical Christ had enduring relevance for believers.
  • Deconstructing Mark’s Chronological Framework: K. L. Schmidt’s Der Rahmen der Geschichte Jesu argued that, with the exception of the Passion narrative, Mark was working with originally independent oral units or pericopae about Jesus which he grouped by topic (e.g., controversy stories in 2:1-3:6, parables in 4:1-34) and attached together through artificial editorial seams (e.g., “and immediately…”, non-specific temporal references to a time of day or a Sabbath or a location like a house or the Sea).
  • Forms: the oral units were classified according to their literary form based on similar research by Old Testament scholars (e.g. Herman Gunkel, The Psalms: A Form-Critical Introduction). By positing pure original forms, form critics detected accretions in the traditions that led to mixed forms and formulated laws of tradition to trace how a tradition grows and expands (cf. Bultmann, Synoptic Tradition, 4). For example, a pronouncement story has Jesus questioned about fasting and he answers that there is no need to fast while the bridegroom is present (i.e. it is time for celebration), but the resumption of fasting when the bridegroom is taken away was judged as a secondary addition (i.e. the church identifies Jesus as the Bridegroom taken away and justifies their present practice of fasting). Here are the categories of Dibelius, Bultmann, and Taylor.




    (From Tradition to Gospel)

    Paradigms, Tales, Legends, Exhortations, Mythological Stories, Passion Narrative


    (History of the Synoptic Tradition)

    Apophthegms – subdivided into controversial, scholastic (Mk 2:18-19) or biographical (Mk 3:31-35); Dominical Sayings – subdivided into Logia (Mk 10:31), Prophetic (Mk 9:1), Legal or Church-Rules (Mk 10:11-12), I-sayings (Mk 2:17b), Similitudes (Mk 4:26-29); Miracle Stories – subdivided into Healing and Nature Miracles; Historical Stories and Legends; Passion Narrative


    (The Formation of the Gospel Tradition)

    Pronouncement Stories, Miracle Stories, Sayings & Parables, Stories about Jesus, Passion Narrative
  • Sitz im Leben: As Gunkel documented how certain Psalms reflect Israel’s corporate worship or royal coronations or tragic experiences, New Testament scholars sought the original “Sitz im Leben” (situation in life) of the varied forms of Gospel traditions. Each form had a distinctive purpose in the early Christ followers’ missionary preaching, catechetical instruction, church discipline, worship, debates or polemic against outsiders, and so on. 
  • Creative Communities: Bultmann emphasized that Gospel traditions were not just edited but freely invented within different anonymous communities to serve various functions (worship, catechism, polemic). For example, Pronouncement stories about the Pharisees confronting Jesus’ “disciples” were actually controversies between the Palestinian church and their opponents over Sabbath, food, purity, and so on. Or the “I-sayings” were the creation of Hellenistic Churches as Christian prophets spoke in the name of the risen Lord (cf. Rev 16:15); M. Eugene Boring elaborated on the role of Christian prophets who did not distinguish the voice of the risen Lord from the historical figure of Jesus. Vincent Taylor represented the more cautious approach of British scholarship, positively accepting the literary forms yet criticizing Bultmann on the communal creativity (“If the Form Critics are right, the disciples must have been translated to heaven immediately after the resurrection” – Formation of the Gospel Tradition, 41), but Dennis Nineham insisted that Taylor’s assumptions of the involvement of eye-witnesses based on church tradition is incompatible with the form-critical analysis of the formal and stereotyped individual units that reflect a long history of impersonal communal use.
  • Lengthy Oral Period: early Christians had no literary pretensions and expected the imminent end of the world, so there was no motive to record historical facts. Stories about Jesus evolved on the analogy of folk legends or hagiography of saints. Some stories originated with the Palestinian Jewish Church and others with later Hellenistic Churches, each influenced by the wider cultural milieu.
  • Non-Creative Evangelists: the Gospel writers collected traditional oral units together like pearls on a string (cf. Schmidt). Since the Gospels are not literary, except for Luke-Acts which made an effort to reach out to the cultured (cf. Luke 1:1-4) and was less constrained by tradition in the second volume, they have no comparable literary genre but are simply the outgrowth of the kerygma (preaching) on Christ’s death and resurrection, Christian rituals (baptism, Eucharist), and oral Jesus traditions.

Criticisms of the Form Critical Model

  • There is a false dichotomy of history against theology; the only access we have to Jesus is via the memories of his theological interpreters. The form critics stressed the theological function that the Jesus traditions had in the present for the Christian communities that actively remembered them, though they were wrong to imagine that there was one form with one theological function per Sitz im Leben, but they underestimated how interpreted memories preserve the past.
  • The form critics may be right that many oral units are detachable from Mark’s framework and were retold on separate occasions, but it is unlikely that early reciters of Jesus traditions did not integrate individual anecdotes into some total picture of Jesus. There may have been a basic outline of Jesus’ ministry from his baptism and early Galilean activity to his last week in Jerusalem.
  • The form critic’s categories are not intrinsic to the Gospels nor used emic terms. The Paradigm, Apophthegm, or Pronouncement Story has a distinctive form – a brief anecdote with few background details (a conflict, an inquirer’s query) that centers on a significant pronouncement by Jesus. But what is the difference in form between what Dibelius calls Tales (worldly stories about Jesus, particularly his miracles, passed on by special class of story-tellers), Legends (narratives about a saint), and Myths (action of a god)? Do “Historical Stories and Legends” or “Stories About Jesus” have distinctive forms or are they grab bags of diverse narratives (e.g. the baptism, the transfiguration, the triumphal entry, the temple cleansing)?
  • Against the view that mixed forms or embellished details are secondary and late, E. P. Sanders’ The Tendencies of the Synoptic Tradition debunks set laws of tradition. Material in the Gospels may grow or shrink or become more or less detailed over time. Further, we may not be able to extrapolate how stories developed from one written Gospel to the next to how stories developed in the oral period; James Dunn criticized how form critics impose a literary model of early and later layers onto an oral culture where performances could vary and details differ as long as the gist remained constant.
  • The Dead Sea Scrolls shows people can hold imminent eschatological expectations and still be interested in writing. The evangelists may have had access to written sources or notebooks in addition to oral tradition. Finally, the analogy to folk literature does not take serious the shorter time gap between Jesus and the evangelists or the genre of the Gospels as biographies (cf. Richard Burridge).
  • The presence of eyewitnesses, the existence of written sources, oral tradents who did not consciously try to change the gist of stories, and the ability to distinguish the words of the Lord from one’s private opinions (e.g., 1 Cor 7) may have restrained the creativity of early Christ followers. There are newer models on oral transmission (e.g., different types of material such as aphorisms, stories, or jokes may be handed down with varying degrees of accuracy) and social memory (continuist views that emphasize that memory may capture the gist of an event even if details on places or times or names are forgotten versus presentist views that emphasize how memory reflects how groups wish to imagine the past to legitimate present beliefs/practices).

Alternative Models

  • The Scandinavean School (Harald RiesenfeldBirger Gerhardsson): beginning with the messianic teacher Jesus and overseen by the Apostolic college in Jerusalem, the Jesus traditions were strictly controlled by authoritative teachers who required strict memorization by their pupils on the analogy of handing down oral tradition in rabbinic literature and ancient education methods. The forms of the tradition (aphorisms, parables) and constant repetition aided memory. The Jesus tradition was kept in literary isolation, which is why sayings or deeds of Jesus are rarely cited outside the Gospels in the New Testament, and meant that it could not be tampered with apart from the minor literary editing by the Gospel writers nor was it permitted for it to be supplemented with teachings under one’s own name or inspiration. A formally controlled transmission process by eyewitnesses is now defended by Samuel Byrskog  and Richard Bauckham.
  • Informally-Controlled Transmission (James DunnNT Wright): building on the anecdotal evidence of Kenneth Bailey into a modern Middle Eastern village, when a respected elder or prominent member of the community recites the tradition the community exercises control over how it is retold from their communal memory and decide how much flexibility in permitted in the retelling (e.g. poems/proverbs should be left unchanged while there is room for flexibility with parables or stories as long as the “punch line” is preserved). The core of the story ought to remain even as the details may vary on the retelling and allow for the tradition to be preserved even when “eyewitnesses” were not always available (see Dunn’s article). Perhaps many of the differences between the Synoptic Gospels may be due to different oral re-tellings instead of deliberate literary editing. This model has been strongly critiqued by Theodore J. Weeden and defended by James Dunn.
  • Eschewing the focus on exclusively oral sources, Maurice Casey reconstructs written Aramaic sources behind Mark and the so-called Q material. His method is to argue Aramaic was the lingua franca in 1st century Israel, find translation errors or signs of Semitic interference in the Greek as most bilinguals do not have full command of either language or have difficulties translating from one culture to another, ensure his reconstruction of the Aramaic substratum is sufficiently idiomatic and reflects 1st century Jewish perspectives, and attempt to explain the evangelist’s translation choices. He finds Aramaic sources underlying Mark 2:23-3:6, 9:11-13, 10:35-45, and 14:12-26 and some external evidence for Aramaic sources from the Patristic traditions (e.g. Mark as Peter’s translator, a Semitic original to Matthew’s Gospel).


  • Bauckham, Richard. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses:  The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006.
  • Blomberg, Craig L. “Form Criticism.” Pages 243-50 in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, edited by Joel B. Green et al. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1992.
  • Boring, M. Eugene. Sayings of the Risen Jesus: Christian Prophecy in the Synoptic TraditionCambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982; Mark: A Commentary.  The New Testament Library. Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, London, 2006.
  • Bultmann, Rudolf Karl. The History of the Synoptic Tradition.  Translated by John Marsh; New York: Harper & Row, 1963.
  • Byrskog, Samuel. Story as History, History as Story: The Gospel Tradition in the Context of Ancient Oral History. WUNT 123. Tubigen: Mohr, 2000, reprinted Leiden: Brill, 2002.
  • Casey, Maurice.  Aramaic Sources of Mark’s Gospel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
  • Dibelius, Martin. From Tradition to Gospel. Translated by Bertram Lee Woolf; Cambridge: James Clarke and Co, 1971.
  • Dodd, C.H. “The Framework of the Gospel Narrative,” Expository Times 43 (1931-1932): 396-400.
  • Dunn, James. Jesus Remembered.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003.
  • Gerhardson, Birger. Memory and ManuscriptNew Edition; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998.
  • Hengel, Martin. The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ.  London: SCM; Harrisburg: Trinity, 2000.
  • Kümmel, Werner Georg. Introduction to the New Testament.  Nashville: Abingdon, 1973.
  • Kennedy, George.  “Classical and Source Criticism.”  Pages in The Relationship among the Gospels: an Interdisciplinary Dialogue.  Edited by William Walker; Antonio: Trinity University Press, 1978.
  • McKnight, E.V. What is Form Criticism?  Philadelphia: Fortress, 1969.
  • Nineham, D. E. The Gospel of St Mark.  The Pelican NT Commentaries.  Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1963; “Eye-witness Testimony and the Gospel Tradition, I.” JTS 9 (1958): 13-25; “Eye-witness Testimony and the Gospel Tradition, II.” JTS 9 (1958): 243-252; “Eye-witness Testimony and the Gospel Tradition, III.” JTS 11 (1960): 253-264.
  • Nolland, John. “Form Criticism of the NT” in The Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of Scripture. Edited by K. J. Vanhoozer. Baker Academic, 2005.
  • Sanders, E.P.  The Tendencies of the Synoptic Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969.
  • Schmidt, Karl Ludwig. Der Rahmen der Geschichte Jesu: Literarkritische Untersuchungen zur ältesten Jesusüberlieferung [“The Framework of the story of Jesus: literary-critical studies on the oldest Jesus traditions”]. Berlin: Trowitzch, 1919.
  • Stein, Robert H. The Synoptic Problem: An Introduction. Nottingham: InterVarsity, 1987.
  • Stuhlmacher, Peter (ed.). The Gospel and the Gospels. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991
  • Taylor, Vincent. The Formation of the Gospel Tradition. London: MacMillan, 1933; The Gospel According to St. Mark. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1966.
  • Travis, Stephen H. “Form Criticism.” Pages 153-164 in New Testament Interpretation: Essays on Principles and Methods. Edited by I. Howard Marshall. Carlisle: Paternoster, 1979.