Monday, March 21, 2016

The "Gospel" Genre (Part 1)

AP: The genre of "gospel" is clearly delimited as such from Justin on, since the writings about Jesus are already called εὐαγγέλια. It is often stated of this genre that it has no analogies in the rest of the literature of antiquity, so that it is accepted with M. Dibelius that the gospel material finds parallels in the religious tradition of various periods and places, in which words and actions of holy men were collected and conserved within the circle of their followers.

This assertion requires some clarifications. For one thing, it must be said that the difference from "biographies" in classical antiquity (e.g., Plutarch and Suetonius) clearly stand out in comparison with the Gospel of Mark: the person of the author is in fact unknown and the life of the hero is not described in a biographical manner. The happenings are narrated from the point of view of faith, and what is of interest is the work, teaching, and passion of Jesus as the one sent by God. Only in Luke can a certain biographical development be perceived since he prefaces the work with the narrative of the infancy and a literary prologue. The "genres" that are closest to "gospel" are the traditions on the sayings and experiences of the rabbis (e.g., Aboth and the Mishnah) and popular Greek narratives (πράξεις) about the deeds and sayings of famous men.

On the other hand, it has been affirmed that this gospel genre is unique because it has been edited from the perspective of preaching, as aspect that is clearly a special feature of the gospel. But perhaps we need to be more cautious in affirming the special character of this genre.

None of the theories proposed to explain the "why" of the creation of the "gospel" form is satisfactory: neither the theory of the pure immanent development of the synoptic tradition (this would necessarily mean it managing to be transformed into a biography), nor the hypothesis of the existence of an earlier framework–chronological, biographical, etc.–nor the influence of the biographies of "divine men," nor simply the wish of a particular author to compose a gospel.

In the first place, it should be granted that there are no works in ancient literature that can possibly be compared in a rigorous and strict way with the first Gospel. A Dihle has carefully compared the Gospel accounts with the works of Plutarch, Lucian, Philostratus, and Suetonius, coming to the conclusion that the Gospels are writings sui generis, though no doubt there is also a biographical interest in the mind of their authors. Ancient Greek literature in fact provides only a single example of "life and sayings" of a semi-divinized historical man, besides the Gospels: the Life of Apollonius of Tyana by Flavius Philostratus, written in the third century; but the work displays clear influences from the Christian Gospels. To meet an exact parallel to the Gospels, one has to look to the Lives of Buddha in ancient Pali tradition, which offer a succession of deeds, miracles, and sayings with a structure very similar to that of the Synoptics.

In the second place, it is possible that a major conceptual emphasis in the fact that the Gospels are based on previous blocks or earlier collections of sayings, miracles, narratives of the deeds of a hero, Jesus, and that each block was composed in accordance with the genres and norms of the period, it would cause us to soften–reducing it to a minor tone–the statement that the Gospels are a unique literary genre.

In the third place, it has to be said that the Gospel of Mark, for instance, is not a pure formation of the primitive kerygma, which would give it its unique character, but that, according to C. H. Talbert, its author intends it as a sort of biography of Jesus, though with special features; of course, it is necessary to recognize with Bultmann that the biographical framework of the Gospels is not that of a real biography, since they lack "interest in what is properly biographical, in the provenience of Jesus, his education and internal developments, in his literary portrait, and finally in his personality," a defect which, according to P. Vielhauer, is not only rooted in the gaps in the available tradition, but is based in the very character of the proclamation of the gospel.

Following the trend to consider "gospel" in the line of of the biography genre, some authors like H. Koester have sought parallels to the genre in the Lives of the Prophets, a biographical subgenre in which, unlike the typical Hellenistic biography, the function and office or commission take precedence over purely personal data, and J. Montserrat has called attention to the notable influence of OT prophetic cycles on the Gospels, especially on Luke.

But, at the same time, together with the model of the Lives of the Prophets, one needs to take due account of the Gospel's relationship with various narratives in Hellenistic historiography that are closer to Israel's past, such as 1 and 2 Maccabees and some sections of Pseudo-Philo's Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum. The special aspects of Mark are due to the author's intention to compose an account about Jesus and at the same time to propound a message of salvation which calls for the faith and acquiescence of the reader. Matthew and Luke made the desire to write a "biography" of Jesus clearer in giving a genealogy and a brief account of the birth of their hero.

For all these reasons, and leaving aside the obvious differences that there always are between the genre or abstract pattern and a particular writing in practice, it would not be audacious to situate the "gospel" within the genre of Hellenistic biography, and as a subgenre, perhaps for the first representative, Mark, in that of the "biography" of the prophets.

In conclusion, it seems more reasonable–in spite of the contrary advice of form criticism–not to insist too much on the "singularity" of the literary genre "gospel," as has commonly been done to date.


Taken from Antonio Piñero and Jesús Peláez, The Study of the New Testament: A Comprehenisive Introduction, trans. David E. Horton and Paul Ellingworth (Leiden: Deo, 2003), 359-362.

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