Chapter OneHistorical Survey
The documents . presenting themselves as biographies of the
Founder of Christianity (1863)
They cannot be included in the category of biographies (1928)
The gospels are biographies, albeit ancient ones. (1977)
The study of the genre of the gospels appears to have gone round in a full
circle over the last century or so of critical scholarship. The nineteenth-century
assumption about the gospels as biographies is explicitly denied by
the scholarly consensus of most of the twentieth century. In recent years,
however, a biographical genre has begun to be assumed once more. The latest
position is naturally not exactly the same as the original one: much water has
flowed beneath the critical bridge in the intervening century, and all this must
be taken into account. However, the circular impression of something being
asserted, denied and then coming back into fashion is not all that misleading.
This book attempts to provide a good foundation for the reintroduction of
the biographical view of the gospels. We begin, therefore, with a brief survey
of the progress of the debate, considering the arguments of several key works
from the main important periods: the turn from the nineteenth to the twentieth
century, the middle of this century and recent decades.
A. From the Nineteenth to the Twentieth Century
1. Ernest Renan (1863)
It was fashionable in the nineteenth century to write 'Lives of Jesus', such as that
by Ernest Renan. Renan thought it was possible to write a biography of Jesus,
beginning with his birth and infancy, his education and the influence of his
time and environment (chapters 1-4), and going on through his ministry to the
events of his death, concluding with a summary of the essential character of his
work (chapter 28). The book's introduction reveals that Renan's main sources
are the four canonical gospels, assumed to be biographies, with the evangelists
as the biographers of Jesus. Furthermore, the gospels belong to a subgroup of
the wider genre of biography: 'They are neither biographies after the manner of
Suetonius, nor fictitious legends in the style of Philostratus; they are legendary
biographies.' They are to be compared with Lives of saints, heroes or philosophers,
in which 'historical truth and the desire to present models of virtue are
combined in various degrees'. Further, Renan discussed the differences between
the synoptic gospels and the fourth. The relationship of John to Jesus is
akin to that between Plato and Socrates: the discourses 'represent to us the sermons
of Jesus, as the dialogues of Plato render us the conversations of Socrates',
and thus John is seen as 'the biographer of Jesus, as Plato was of Socrates'.
2. C. W. Votaw (1915)
Such comparisons of the gospels with contemporary classical biography
reached their zenith in Clyde Weber Votaw's article of 1915 in which he set out
to place the gospels within the literature of the Graeco-Roman period. After
a very brief introduction to classical literature and the way in which the gospels
were used as 'memorabilia' of Jesus by Christians undertaking the task of
evangelizing the Graeco-Roman world, he comes to the crucial question of
biography. He subdivides this genre into two groups: historical biography,
which presents all the dates and facts in an ordered accurate method, and
popular biography, intended to acquaint the reader with the subject in a practical
or hortatory way. Although the two groups shade into one another,
Votaw is convinced that they can be distinguished by their method: accurate
history or disconnected memorabilia. The gospels are of the popular variety
because of their method and 'the extreme difficulty of recovering the historical
Jesus'. However, to the same group, and for the same reasons, other writings
intended to promote the personality and message of three other moral-religious
teachers may also be consigned. These are Socrates (469-399 BC),
Apollonius of Tyana (c. AD 10-97) and Epictetus (c. AD 50-130). Votaw, therefore,
proceeds to compare such works with the gospels, beginning with a brief
description, with extracts, of the works by Arrian on Epictetus and
Philostratus on Apollonius of Tyana. The similarities and parallels he discovers
are put down to their all 'belonging to the same type of literature, namely,
The closest parallel, however, is that between Socrates and Jesus, and
also between the writings of their disciples: the second part of the article
compares the gospels with Plato's Dialogues and Xenophon's Memorabilia.
They all share a common motive - to restore the reputation of one executed
by the state - and a common core of historical information about their subject,
but this is provided by a portrait rather than a photograph, overlaid with
reflection and interpretation. Furthermore, the time interval between the
death of the subject and the writing of the accounts is approximately the
same. The differences - that the Socratic literature is more extensive and
that the gospels have been written down in a language different from that
spoken by their subject - do not prevent the parallel.
Both authors attempt to relate the gospels to Graeco-Roman biography.
Such setting of the gospels within the literary relationships of their day must
be applauded. However, apart from the obvious difficulty that Renan and
Votaw wrote before the insights of form criticism, there are problems with
both their understanding of genre theory and their handling of Graeco-Roman
The literary theory of genre requires careful consideration of how
works may be described as belonging to a shared genre. Renan sees his ownLife of Jesus, nineteenth-century ideas of biography and Graeco-Roman Lives
as all being the same thing. Votaw never asks how genre may be defined; parallelism
of subject-matter, particularly of Jesus and Socrates, together with a
shared purpose is sufficient for these works to belong to the same type of literature.
The criteria are thus all to do with content; questions about literary
form or analysis of structure are hardly discussed, if at all. The disparity between
the length of the gospels and that of the Apollonius of Tyana or the Socratic
literature does raise questions about these works belonging together.
Votaw's concerns are more about overall, general impressions to be gained
from the works, rather than generic considerations of a technical nature. If
the gospels are to be identified with these biographies, much more attention
will need to be given to analysis of form and structure and to what actually
Graeco-Roman biography includes works of a wide range of types, subjects
and dates. Subdivisions within this range need to be accurately defined.
Renan's distinction is again in terms of content, particularly the historical veracity
or legendary nature of the work. Votaw's historical and popular biographies
are identified also in terms of the historical objectivity of the works.
Whether any ancient biographies would qualify for inclusion in the first
group with its modern stress on critical research is debatable. Further, the
stress on content and overall impression of the subject means that works of a
clearly different genre, e.g. Plato's Dialogues, which are philosophical treatises,
can be considered as biographies for the purposes of comparison with
Thus, much more consideration needed to be given both to the literary
theory of genre and to the nature of Graeco-Roman biography if Renan's and
Votaw's comparison of the gospels with such works was to prove profitable.
However, developments in German scholarship meant that it would be over
fifty years before these comparisons would be considered again within critical
B. The Rise of Form Criticism
The development of form-critical approaches turned the focus of attention
away from the evangelists as authors to the oral transmission of units of gospel
tradition. We cannot document here this massive shift in the interpretation
of the gospels as a whole, but will consider the two main contributions to
the question of gospel genre which established the consensus for the next fifty
years, namely, that they are unique, sui generis pieces of literature.
1. Urliteratur and Kleinliteratur
Unlike Renan and Votaw, Norden (1898) saw no parallels and thought the
gospels were something new and different from contemporary literature.
Wendland (1912) anticipated Votaw's historical v. popular distinction with a
different stress: Graeco-Roman biography depended upon the author's literary
personality and intention. However, the process of collecting and assembling
units of oral tradition, lying behind the gospels' composition, prevented
such literary concerns. The evangelist thus became more of a popular storyteller
and collector with no personal individuality, and the parallels for the
gospels should be sought among similar products of oral tradition, such as
the Homeric literature or the stories in the Pentateuch.
Overbeck (1882) also stressed the preliterary development of the gospels
with the term Urliteratur for the New Testament books, lying between the
oral material of the primitive Christian communities and later, truly literary
writings of the patristic period. Dibelius (1919) differentiated between formal
'literary' works, produced by the conscious intention of an author, and
the end product of popular tradition and story-telling. The gospels 'are
unliterary writings' (Kleinliteratur). 'They should not and cannot be compared
with "literary" works' (Hochliteratur). Such a process of oral tradition
has a radical effect on the question of the personality of the author(s): because
many anonymous individuals are involved, we cannot talk of the work
as belonging to the personality of any one; rather, it is the development of the
tradition itself which is the dominant factor.
2. Karl Ludwig Schmidt
In 1919, Schmidt demonstrated that the differences between the synoptic gospel
accounts can be seen most clearly in the links or seams by which the various
stories are joined. From this he concluded that these units, or pericopae,
circulated independently within the oral tradition and were then strung together,
like so many pearls on a piece of string, by the evangelist. It is clear
that this leaves very little room for any concept of authorial intention, purpose
or literary pretensions - and thus the question of the genre of the
whole work is replaced by a concern for the particular form of each individual
However, it was his seminal article in 1923 for the Festschrift for
Hermann Gunkel's sixtieth birthday which really set the tracks for the next
four decades. Schmidt began by dismissing Votaw's suggestions, drawing
upon Wendland's comments about the literary personality of the author,
which is present even in Xenophon or Arrian, but absent from the gospels.
The parallelism of the gospels with the Memorabilia, noted by Votaw, is superficial,
nothing other than the similarity of Jesus and Socrates. The difference
is clear: the former are Kleinliteratur, but Xenophon is Hochliteratur.
A search of contemporary Greek, Jewish, oriental and Rabbinic literature reinforces
the argument that the gospels are a form of folk literature and the
evangelist 'a naive folk story-teller' ('ein naiver Volkserzähler').
His own suggestion about the place of the gospels in the history of literature
begins with the uncompromisingly ringing declaration that the gospel
is basically 'not Hochliteratur, but Kleinliteratur, not the product of an individual
author, but a folk-book, not biography, but cult-legend'. On the
other hand, Graeco-Roman biographies belong to Hochliteratur because of
their conscious literary intention; even a book like Philostratus' Apollonius of
Tyana shows clearly the self-conscious personality of the author. The gospels
cannot be compared with such works; instead, other parallels must be
sought among examples of Kleinliteratur. Those suggested include the German
folktales of Dr. Faustus, legends about saints and monks, St Francis, and
the great Maggid of the Hasidim. These comparisons lead us a step further, to
the 'cultic character' of such traditions, stories passed on within groups or
communities, for the sake of their own beliefs and expectations.
Thus Schmidt put forward three important arguments, which militate
against any discussion of the gospel genre: the distinction betweenHochliteratur and Kleinliteratur, with the gospels being the latter and finding
their parallels among oral folktales, the absence of the literary 'I' on the part
of the evangelists, and the stress on setting their production and transmission
within a cultic community. On this basis, questions may well be asked about
the form of the individual units, but not the genre of the gospel as a whole.
3. Rudolf Bultmann
Bultmann's work ensured that this approach to the genre of the gospels dominated
the scholarly consensus. It is seen most clearly in The History of the
Synoptic Tradition (second edition 1931) and in his article of 1928 on the gospels.
He built on these assumptions in Theology of the New Testament, and the
Supplement of 1962 to The History of the Synoptic Tradition, although updating
the bibliography, does nothing to alter the view expressed in the vital concluding
pages. From such a consistent approach, Bultmann's views on three
areas, the analogies to the gospels, the development of their overall form, and
its uniqueness, can be documented easily.
First, Bultmann considers the setting of the gospels in their contemporary
literary environment and comes to the conclusion that there are no parallel
works. Against Votaw, he is particularly concerned to rule out any question
of a link with the genre of biography, since the gospels have 'no interest
in historical or biographical matters' such as Jesus' human personality, origin,
education or development, or his appearance and character. Then he follows
and reproduces Schmidt's arguments about Hochliteratur and Kleinliteratur:
the lack of cultivated techniques and the absence of the authors' personalities
mean that they are not 'major' or 'grand literature'. There is a tenuous link
with the genre of memoirs and Lives of the philosophers because of the
shared feature of gathering together dialogues and episodes, but the gospels'
mythic and cultic background, together with their absence of historical or
scientific concerns, means that the parallel is unacceptable. Instead, he turns
to Kleinliteratur and picks up Schmidt's suggestions about Faust, St Francis
and so on.