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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.

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