Justin Marc Smith on the Genre and Audiences of the Gospels

At Bible and Interpretation, Justin Marc Smith has a post about the relationship of the Gospels’ genre to the their intended readership and proposes a new typology (contemporary open, contemporary focused, non-contemporary open, non-contemporary focused) based on whether the Gospels were written within the living memory of the subject and whether they had a particular or general audience in mind. I have a few initial thoughts. First, we may have to look at each Gospel individually, for Mark may be contemporary with and may have consulted some eyewitnesses (though I question the tradition that Mark was Peter’s interpreter) while Luke-Acts was potentially an early 2nd century work. Second, I agree that the Gospels should not be treated like epistles and I appreciate that Smith notes that there are biographies directed towards specific or broad audiences. However, outside of Luke’s address to the official Theophilus, the evangelists do not explicitly mention the audiences they envisioned and I would need to see Smith’s evidence about why they should be classified as “contemporary open.” Finally, I agree that reconstructions of “Gospel communities” are often built on sand, but I also disagree with Bauckham’s view of the early Christ movement as a unified international network and think that there are some clues in the Gospels about the implied reader. Mark’s implied reader seems to be a Christ-following insider on the margins (e.g., unexplained Christological titles and secrecy themes, the cryptic reference to flee at the sight of the desolator, allusions to persecution) or Matthew’s implied reader a Torah observant Jewish Christ-follower (e.g., scriptural proof-texts, distinct M traditions on the Law and Israel). It is possible that the evangelists did hope that their Gospels would persuade other Christ-followers to their points of views and the eventual success of these Gospels in reaching a wide readership often resulted in their distinctive theological emphases getting suppressed in the process. Anyways, the Bible and Interpretation article is a summary of Smith’s case in his monograph Why Bios? On the Relationship Between Gospel Genre and Implied Audience (LTS 518, London: T. & T. Clark, 2015).

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