Shuck and Jive

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Genre of the Gospels

I have been asking this question in one form or another for a long time:

What did the writers of the gospels think they were doing when they wrote them?

I have had an illusion that experts in the field have some kind of consensus regarding the genre of the gospels and the self-awareness of the gospel writers in regards to this genre. That doesn't appear to be the case. Each expert has a theory and evidence and interpretation for this evidence. It makes one's eyes glaze over to try to follow them. Not only that, but they all know each other and each others' arguments and they spend a lot of time communicating in code. That is how it appears to an outside observer. As an interested amateur I struggle to even understand the arguments let alone evaluate them.

Yet I am not just an amateur. I preach and teach on this stuff as part of my job as a minister. I have been to seminary where I was introduced to higher criticism and I have tried to keep up over the years, but I tell you, this makes my head spin. I thought by now I would at least have the genre question down, but it seems more elusive than when I was in school.

The genre question is important, I think. If we don't know what kind of literature we are reading it is difficult to evaluate its message or appreciate its aesthetics. The issue is even more pressing as the texts I am talking about are the gospels which are about Jesus. Jesus matters a great deal to people whether they are Christian or not, or whether or not they participate in an institutional church. How we understand the genre will impact how we understand this figure. Having a sense of the variety of ways that students of the Bible approach the gospels will increase their appreciation for these texts. It may help us deal with ethical, social, and political issues with greater depth.

That is my little sermon on behalf of religious literacy in America and my thanks to experts in the biblical fields who do take the time and energy to communicate these issues to the general public. So what are the gospels? Are they biography? History (or the fancy word, historiography)? Fiction? Legend? Myth? Sermon? Parable? Saga? Tale? Propaganda? Are they a mix of these things or of subcategories of these things?


And much more. Was the author of Mark pasting oral traditions together--stories about Jesus--that had been circulating and accumulating after his death, or was s/he a creative artist drawing from themes and symbols of the surrounding culture and the Hebrew scriptures and painting a portrait of Jesus? It makes a difference if we think of Mark as a "reporter" versus a "novelist." Neither of those categories fit, but you get the idea.

I realize that I need to learn what the various schools of thought are on this issue in contemporary scholarship. What the literary options are and who is advocating which would be a place to start. Maybe there is an article or book out there that has made a catalog of the options and provides bibliographies of who is saying what today. I haven't found one, but then, I haven't looked that hard.

Back to Mark. I am going to put my bias right up front. This is what I would like to see. I much prefer that Mark be a "novelist" rather than a "reporter." That is because I approach things from a story perspective and I see stories and storytellers everywhere. It is my eye. When I naturally look at any piece of literature I tend to see story before history. Just my bias.

More importantly, if Mark is a reporter or an historiographer, I am disappointed. It isn't very good. It is not credible as history. It is like saying the history of Jesus' childhood is found in The Infancy Gospel of Thomas. However, if Mark is a creative artist, I have renewed respect. Mark's gospel is an engaging story. It is, to be sure, an ancient story. It is not like reading John Updike or something. And Mark is no Homer. Nevertheless, it has a sense of vitality and urgency. It is crisis literature. The point is as a novella or short story or longish parable, it speaks in ways that it cannot do as a biography or life of Jesus.

What did Mark think he was doing? I know he wanted his readers to respond in some way. He wanted them to get some kind of message. It was life and death. People had been (before him), were being (at his time), or would be (he feared) crucified. He needed a story for this time of crisis. Jesus was his story--his parable--for a people in crisis. Other than that, I don't know. I have a lot of wild theories. That is why I need to learn more.

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