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Was Mark’s Gospel an Ancient Novel?

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

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

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

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

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

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