Justin Marc Smith on the Genre and Audiences of the Gospels

April 17, 2015

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).

The Genre of Mark

January 15, 2014

When we come across a text, it is necessary to understand the type of literary work we are dealing with, whether to classify it as a history, biography, novel, fairly tale, lab report, letter, and so on.  For instance, if the opening line is “once upon a time in a far away land,” you may instantly recognize the “genre” to which this text belongs.  Mary Anne Tolbert notes that genre can broadly cover archetypal plot patterns (e.g., tragedy, comedy, romance), more narrowly classify texts that possess related traits (plotting, characterization, motifs/themes) as belonging in a category (e.g., novels, biography, poetry), or specifically describe features of a single text.  She defines genre as “a prior agreement between authors and readers or as a set of shared expectations or as a consensus of ‘fore-understandings exterior to a text which enable us to follow that text'” [citing Frank Kermode, The Genesis of Secrecy, 30] (Sowing the Gospel, 49).  Likewise, Richard Burridge explains that speaking or writing happen in a system of conventions (traits, rules, customs, necessities, properties that constitute verbal meaning) and genre is a contract between author and reader based on shared expectations about what traits make up an utterance (Graeco-Roman Biography, 34-6, 43-4;  cf. John C. Meagher, “Literary Uniqueness,” 205-6).  Meagher adds that a unique genre violates two standard assumptions in literary history:  humans rarely have the ability to produce something genuinely original, as novelty often relates to content rather than to forms which are culturally conditioned, and meaning is understood in the context of shared conventions (211).  What is the Gospel genre?

Form Critics and the Unique Kerygmatic Genre

Martin Dibelius judged the early Christians to be unliterary persons who had no need to record history in light of the imminent end of the age, so the only form in which the Jesus tradition could be preserved was in missionary preaching (kerygma) (Tradition, 60-61). The evangelists too were not literary composers but, principally, collectors/editors of traditions (1, 3).Rudolf Bultmann outlines how the death and resurrection kerygma became fixed in creeds (1 Cor 15:3-5), expanded to prophetic prooftexts and Jesus’ anointing at the baptism and the Eucharist, expanded with miracles and pronouncement stories confirming Jesus’ authority, and lastly adding sayings originally passed down separately for exhortation or instruction (Mark has some sayings, Matthew/Luke take over “Q”) (Theology, 86).  For Dibelius (5-6) and Bultmann (Synoptic Tradition, 6-7), the closest analogy to the oral traditions are folktales, fairy-stories, folk songs, and cult legends (e.g., hagiography of saints, anecdotes about Rabbis, tales of Hellenistic heroes, the Jataka collection of Buddhist canon). K.L. Schmidt emphasized that the Gospels are not Hochliteratur (high literature) but like folk books or cult legends, the Gospel tradition developed akin to German folktales (e.g., Dr. Faustus) or hagiographic tales in a cultic context, and the Gospels lack an authorial “I” or distinct personality or intention of the author present even in Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius (“Literaturgeschichte,” 76, 82, 114).  Boring adds that, unlike biographies, the Gospels juxtapose images of Jesus’ humanity and divinity through the secrecy motif, proclaim the climax of universal history, do not distinguish the past historical figure and present Lord, are constituted by oral units formed out of preaching, and express the Christ-event in parabolic imagery (Mark, 7-8). As kerygmatic narratives, they are unparalleled Christian creations sui generis.

Criticisms:  the evangelist’s limited literary ability has no implications for the genre of their writings, the fact that the evangelist had access to an abundance of types of material that originated in different settings (e.g., preaching) has no implications for the genre of the finished product, the view of the evangelists as compilers of tradition has given way to redaction and literary critical interest in them as creative authors, and a unique genre is a contradiction of terms if genre is a system of shared conventions.

  • Boring, M. Eugene.  Mark: A Commentary. The New Testament Library. Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, London, 2006.
  • Bultmann, Rudolf.  The History of the Synoptic Tradtion.  Translated by John Marsh; Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1972; The Theology of the New Testament: Volume I.  New York: Schribner, 1951.
  • Dibelius, Martin.  From Tradition to Gospel. Translated by Bertram Lee Woolf. Cambridge: James Clarke, 1971.
  • Meagher, John C. “The Implications for Theology of a Shift from the K. L. Schmidt Hypothesis of the Literary Uniqueness of the Gospels.”  Pages 203-33 in Colloquy on New Testament Studies.  Edited by Bruce C. Corley. Macon: Mercer University Press, 1983.  [Critiques the Form Critical View]
  • Schmidt, K.L.  “Die Stellung der Evangelien in der allgemeinen Literaturgeschichte” in EYXAPIΣTHPION: Studien zur Religion und Literatur des Alten und Neuen Testaments [‘The Place of the Gospels in the General History of Literature’ in Eucharisterion: Studies on Religion and Literature of the Old and New Testaments].


Hadas and Smith label Luke, Porphyry’s Pythagoras, Philo’s Moses,and Philostratus’ Apolonius of Tyana as aretalogies, a type of biography on a subject’s supernatural birth, wisdom, miracles, defiance of tyranny, martyrdom, and post-mortem vindication.  In Smith’s article, an aretalogus (aretai or miracles) is a “teller of miracle stories” (175): temple functionary (e.g., hymns to Isis) or spinner of tales (e.g., Seutonius, Augustus, 74 on entertainers and aretalogi at dinner parties; Juvenal 15.16 on a lying aretalogus; Manetho Apotelesmaticorum, 4, 445-49 on myth-makers’ aretalogies) (174-5). Aretalogia is “telling tall stories and the praises of a god” (175-6). There are no extant texts, but he notes a miracle story entitled Dios Hēliou megalou Sarapidos aretē (p. Oxy. 11, 1382, lines 22ff [2nd cent CE]) or thanksgiving inscription aretēn Amenōtou (Egyptian Museum, Cairo, No. 67300 [261/60 BCE]) (176). Later he admits that Aretalogia, though used for reporting or the reports themselves (Manetho 4.445ff.; Sir. 36:13, 19), may not have a literary form (“genre”) but distinct content (hero’s wonderful deeds) (196). Few miracle collections survive outside scattered references or inscriptions and these are unlikethe Gospels in lacking linking material in a narrative “life” (cf. 177-8 n. 27, 178), but Damis’ hupomnēmata of Apollonius, Philostratus’ source, allegedly had prophecies, sayings, travels, post-mortem appearances, and miracles (177-9).  Elite writers only mentioned prophets, magicians, or saviors if involved in politics (e.g., Thucydides 7.50.4 on prophets who led the admiral Nicias astray, Livy 39.15-16 on the Roman suppression of the Bacchanalia; Josephus War 2.258-64 on false prophets or messiahs) or to mock (Celsus on possessed prophets in Palestine in Cels. 7.9; Lucian’s satire of Alexander or Peregrinus) (179-81).  The ancients knew of deities/daimones in human guise, demigods born of a god and human who achieved deification, the heroization of benefactors or rulers, historical figures with pretenses to divinity (181-2), and the goal of deification (Platonism, Eleusinian mysteries, magic) (182-4).  Like Asclepius, Jesus was a famed healer, given a folk birth story, represented as a moral teacher or initiator of mysteries, became the principle of the cosmic order (logos) and solar deity (“light”), accused of magic by foes, and ascended to heaven (186).  The issue with categorizing the ‘divine man’ (theios anēr) into types (prophet, magician, ruler, athlete, philosopher, doctor, poet) is that the borders are fuzzy and one’s god is another’s magician (187). Smith argues Jesus fits this type better that Jewish categories (196) and reconstructs an aretalogy underlying Mark 1-10 that runs from the baptism epiphany to the transfiguration (197-8).

Criticisms: there are no extant aretalogies with features that might distinguish it as its own genre (e.g., Damis’ notes on Apollonius are irrecoverable if such a source even existed). There has been significant criticism that the “divine man” (theios anēr) is a modern scholarly invention and abstraction from a variety of ancient figures such as philosophers or miracle workers (see here).

  • Hadas, Moses and Smith, Morton.  Heroes and Gods: Spiritual Biographies in Antiquity.  London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965.
  • Smith, Morton.  “Prolegomena to A Discussion of Aretalogies, Divine Men, the Gospels and Jesus.” Journal of Biblical Literature 90 (1971): 174-199


Like the form critics, Kee concludes that there is no real analogy for Mark as a whole (i.e. he rejects origins myth, biography, aretalogy, tragedy, comedy, romance, martyriology on pp. 17-29) and is a new genre of the church (30).  However, Kee deems Mark to be akin to apocalyptic literature like Daniel (65).  When a minority group is reduced to political impotence through social ostracism or political oppression, they may question their place in the social order and long for the transformation of society to accord with what the group understanding of the divine will (cf. Talcott Parsons on the intellectualism of the non-privileged group).  Apocalyptic thought assures that the present historical crisis will be overcome by divine victory over evil forces, often leads to a group’s rethinking of interpersonal social bonds or older traditions (scripture) or relationships to socio-political structures, and encourages unwavering commitment (67, 70-4).  Other Judean groups responded to the imperial situation differently – collaboration (Herodians), passive acquiescence while enforcing group purity boundaries (Pharisees), withdrawal from society (Essenes), or revolt (97-9) – Mark chose an open inclusive community that saw itself as a new covenant community, was alienated from the main body and sectarian groups within Second Temple Judaism, and renounced political power through acquiescence to the tribute (Mark 12:17) (100).

Criticisms: apocalyptic may describe features within Mark but not the work itself. Mark lacks many of the features in other apocalyptic texts including pseudonymous authors, angelic guides, otherwordly journeys, coded symbolism of mythical beasts, elaborate timetables (i.e., Mark 13 discourages interpreting wars, natural disasters, or persecution with the end itself and even the Son does not know the exact day or hour of judgment in 13:32).

Historiography or a Historical Monograph

Many scholars consider the Lukan prologue to parallel historiography (contra Loveday Alexander, see David Aune, Sean Adams, David P. MoesnerClare K. Rothschild, Gregory E. Sterling), while proposals relating Luke-Acts to epic with parallels to Homer or the Aeneid (cf. Dennis MacDonald, Marianne Palmer Bonz), have not won the day. In his study, Byrskog insists on the importance of autopsy in ancient historiography, defined as obtaining info via sight – visiting locales, experiencing events, unearthing artifacts (Story, 48). Beginning with Heraclitus’s dictum that “eyes are surer witnesses than the ears” (cf. Herodotus1.8; Thucydides 1.73.2; Polybius 12.25.6), chapters 2 and 3 explore how historians (Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius, Josephus, Tacitus) visited the locales in their sources, lived through the events, interrogated living eyewitnesses, and only used written sources as supplements unless they were bad historians (e.g. Timaeus). Locals with anecdotes about Jesus, individual disciples, women (Mark 15:40-16:8), or family members served as informants for the evangelists (65-90, 190-97). Autopsy is emphasized in Christian texts such as the list of resurrection witnesses, Luke’s consultation of autoptai, the requirement of firsthand participation in Jesus’ ministry for apostleship in Acts, and the value of eyewitness testimony in the Johannine writings and 2 Peter (225-244). Papias followed historiographic standards in interviewing the followers of the Elder John and Aristion and Byrskog defends Papias’ tradition that the evangelist Mark relied on Peter as an involved oral informant (Ecclesiastical History 3.39.3-4, 15; cf. 1 Pet 5:13; Acts 12:12) (272-96).

Collins’ calls Mark an “eschatological historical monograph” about the origins and destiny of an ethnic group, with the story as the culmination of Israelite history and its universal implications in the new age (cf. Mark 13:10) as opposed to just a “life” (bios) of an individual subject (18). Shecites Aristotle (Rhet. 1.4.13=1360A) and Quintilian (Inst. Orat. 2.4.2) on history as memorable deeds, primarily in politics (35).  Its roots are mythography, ethnography, local reports, and chronography as Herodotus collected such data gathered in sequential development (35-6).  Historia (inquiry, research, investigation) stresses the role of interrogation and synthesis of witness’ reports in continuous narrative, though the influence of ethnography meant that not all historians followed Thucydides in testing the accuracy of “reports” (36).  There is tension in seeking reliable oral informants and visiting sites OR using written sources and free invention (36).  Reflecting on famous persons (Socrates, Alexander the Great), histories could narrow on the deeds of a person (cf. Theopomupus, Philippica) and historians wrote biographical accounts of heroes in Hellenistic and Roman periods (36-7).  John Van Seters (In Search of History, p. 1) describes history as “the intellectual form in which a civilization renders account to itself of its past” which befits Israel’s history as more than a sum of its parts (accumulated tradition, biographical anecdotes, prophetic legends); the historian interpreted it together through the lens of Israel’s national history and destiny (37-9).  Prophetic legends or improbable ethnographic reports, some of which Herodotus distances himself and others he retells unquestioningly, shows the miraculous was part of history writing (39), though Greeks like Herodotus or Polybius tended to have indirect divine working in human agency by means of dream-visions or “Fortune” (39-40).  Mark rarely has direct divine intervention (baptism, transfiguration, resurrection) apart from the level of human interaction (40). Other biblical historians set a precedent in not identifying the author or aims and, while Mark’s literary level is low, episodic style characterizes other histories (OT, Herodotus, Cleitarchus, Duris, Curtius Rufus, Livy) (41). Some deem Mark less concerned with accuracy than divine proclamation, but ancient histories must not be judged by positivistic standards, the miraculous was present in ethnography, and it is unclear how literally took some stories (41).  The subject and scope of historia was often politics/war but may focus on individuals (Alexander the Great, Agathocles of Syracuse, Attalus of Pergamum, Ptolemy IV Philopator, Antiochus the Great, Hannibal, Tigranes of Armenia, Pompey) and cultural/religious subjects (41).  Universal histories were longer, but historical monographs shorter (41).  The only difference is Mark is infused with eschatology (42-3). She concludes that Mark is a “historical monograph that focuses on the activity of a leading individual” (43).

Criticisms: Byrskog’s proposal contrasts with how the evangelists never explicitly identify themselves, their sources, their methods, or (apart from Luke) their aims in writing in a conventional historiographical preface. It seems unrealistic to compare to the best historical practice of elite writers like Thucydides, Polybius, Josephus, or Tacitus. Imitating Ancient Near Eastern historians and the Hebrew Bible may make the problem with anonymity less acute. Collins’ question is to the point: are the Gospels about the fulfillment of the divine plan for Israel and the world OR the subject Jesus of Nazareth to instill discipleship to his life/teachings, rebut polemical attacks, and draw out his significance visa-vie Israel and the world?

Bios (life) or ancient biography

Talbert counters the case that the Gospels cannot be bioi due to their mythic content (structure), cultic context (function), and world-negating stance (attitude) (What is a Gospel, 3, 6). Chapters 2 and 3 cover the mythic template of Immortals from unusual birth to ascent and the katabasis-anabasis pattern (descent-ascent) of divine beings, chapter 4 on how biographical subjects may be recipients of cultic devotion, and chapter 5 on how the eschatology of the evangelists did not lead them to spurn profane literature (parable, aretalogy, “words of the wise”) and how other biographers took over mixed materials to correct one-sided distortions of subjects.  The Gospels’ static characterization is no different to other bioi (3), their status as Kleinliteratur is irrelevant (i.e. the popular Life of Aesop is as much a bios as Plutarch’s Lives) (4), and treating Luke-Acts alone as history is unwarranted (6).  A bios “is prose narrative about a person’s life, presenting supposedly historical facts which are selected to reveal the character or essence of the individual, often with the purpose of affecting the behavior of the reader” (17) and differed from historiography in focus (character vs. “great men” in political/social arena) (16), narration (anecdotes vs. cause/effect), and function (encomium or peripatetic praise, Alexandrian inform, Romance entertain or stir emotions, histories instruct politicians or please citizens) (17). Talbert replaces Leo’s division of bioi as encomium (Isocrates, Evander; Xenophon, Agesilaus; Tacitus, Agricola), Peripatetic (Plutarch, Parallel Lives), Alexandrian /grammarian (Seutonius, Lives of the Twelve Caesars), and Romance (Life of Aesop) (92-3) with a taxonomy of function:  Type A offer a pattern to copy (Lucian, Demonax) (94), B correct false images (Xenophon, Memorabilia; Philodemus, Epicurus, Philostratus, Apollonius of Tyana; Porphyry, Pythagoras) (94-5), C discredits someone (Lucian, Passing of Peregrinus; Alexander the False Prophet) (95), D address succession (Diogenes, Lives of Eminent Philosophers) (95-6), or E legitimates or offers the hermeneutical key to a person’s teaching (Porphyry, Plotinus) (96). Lives of rulers belong in all types except D (96-7). Schools used C to discredit rivals, B to rehabilitate a philosopher in response, or D to claim to be true successors (105-6).  Mark fits B in polemicizing against distorted Christology and following the structure of the Immortals (134), Luke-Acts D succession narrative and B reaction against false eschatology (107-8, 134), Matthew E in legitimating and interpreting Jesus’ life and teaching and B in correcting Christology (108, 134), and John B in correcting Christology via a descending-ascending redeemer (135).

Burridge (Graeco-Roman Biography) starts on the lack of consensus (philosopher-vita, Socratic Dialogues, historical monograph, dramatic history, novel, tragi-comedy, bioi) (22-4) and writes “as someone with a classical background, I was unimpressed with the arguments put forward by New Testament scholars, especially in America, to demonstrate the biographical genre of the gospels. Therefore a negative result was expected, exposing the biographical hypothesis as untenable.  However, as the work has developed, I have become increasingly convinced that… it is indeed the right one and that the gospels are part of the genre of ancient βίος [Life] literature” (105-6). He warns that literary prefaces, grammarians or rhetoricians (Quintilian, Menander Rhetor) describe ideal forms not consistently observed (56-7) and that, unlike poetry, prose genres were not well defined (62). In contrast to classical prescriptivism (i.e. a genre must have these essential traits) and nominalism (i.e. the name of a category has no effect on an object’s properties), he settles on a ‘family resemblances’ theory in which works in a “genre” may share features in content or form (structure, tone, purpose) even if no one text has every expected trait (39, 42-4).  Generic features include structure/form and content/material to enable comparison (110): opening features (title, opening prologue/preface), subject (verbal subjects, space given to a subject’s life), external features (mode, metre, length, structure, scale, literary units, sources, methods of characterization), and internal features (setting, topoi or topics, style, tone or atmosphere, the quality of characterization, function, authorial intention) (111-26). He lists 5 biographies written before the Gospel – Isocrates’ Evagoras, Xenophon’s Agesilaus, Satyrus’ Euripides (Peripatetic bios), Cornelius Nepos’ Atticus, and Philo’s Moses (129-33) and 5 after the Gospels:  Tacitus’ Agricola, Plutarch’s Cato Minor, Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars, Lucian’s Demonax, and Philostratus Apollonius of Tyana (155-60).  Chapter 8 and 9 then compare the findings to the Synoptics and John.

Collins has a taxonomy of biographies (30-2): Encomiastic (subtype of epideictic rhetoric that exalts subject, e.g., Isocrates’ Evogoras, Xenophon’s Agesilaus, Polybius lost Philopoimen), Scholarly (or peripatetic or Aristotelian and focus on authors/philosophers or occasionally rulers and impartial or satirical, e.g., Satyrus’ Euripides, Diogenes Laertius Lives), Didactic (instruct on a subject’s way of life to instill allegiance, e.g., Philo’s Moses, Iamblichus Pythagorean Way of Life), Ethical (promote a self-conscious morality or ethical-psychological system; e.g., Plutarch’s Lives of Cato the Younger or Pompey), Entertaining (satisfy curiosity about heroes/poets/rulers, e.g., lives of Homer, Aesop, Secundus, Heraclides, and Plutarch’s Antony) (32), Historical (has awider series of cause-effect in the political arena than just narrowing on a subject’s private life; e.g., Life of Caesar, Tacitus’ Agricola, Seutonius’ Lives of the Caesars though his methods aso fit type 2). Though she sees the Gospels more as historical monographs, she allows that historical and didactic biographies are analogous (33) and accepts affinities with Plutarch’s Lives and lives of philosophers (cf. Lucian’s Demonax), though both have more explicit commentary and biographical interest (43).

Criticism: Unlike biographers the evangelists do not explicitly identify themselves, their sources, or their methods. Mark lacks an account of Jesus’ birth and upbringing and focuses on a narrow window of Jesus ministry and death, which Burridge demonstrates is not unparalleled but remains unusual in a Life. There is considerable blending of the genres (biography, history, apocalyptic, midrash, novelistic elements) that may be a product of both Jewish and Greco-Roman roots as well as the popular nature of the Gospels.  It may also be, as argued by David Aune in “Genre Theory and the Genre-Function of Mark and Matthew,” that Mark intend to parody and invert the values of elite biographies by paying no attention to the protagonist’s pedigree or birth, unlike later Gospels with geneologies and nativity stories.

Novel or Epic

Tolbert argues that the Gospels have no obvious analogue, though the 3rd century Life of Apollonius has a similar pattern (Sowing, 55 n. 20).  This may mean 1. Mark is a new genre in light of the Christ event as form critics and “new hermeneutic” supposed (she ruled out a “unique genre” as a contradiction in terms on pp 50, 56 and), 2. the parallels are not extant, or 3. the Gospels are unlike other texts due to the lesser command of literary composition (56-7).   Midrash and apocalyptic describe features in Mark rather than the work itself (58).  The problem with aretalogia or biography or memorabilia, aside from a lack of catalogues of wonder working “divine men” preceding Mark or a biography’s focus on a whole life from birth to death and the subject’s characterization, is that each over-emphasizes an aspect of Mark (aretalogy – miracles, bios – Jesus’ character, memorabilia – teaching) and all three have a higher literary and philosophical quality (58-9). Elite culture is “individualized”, “subtle”, “profound”; pop culture is “conventionalized”, “stereotypical” and “repetitious” and its literature had semi-educated, taxable working consumers (artisans, traders, free slaves in urban centers), albeit without the leisure of the privileged (60-2).  Of her 5 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 (62-3, 66).  These erotic texts have plot patterns (couple in love, separated, tested, reunited), but romance is secondary to exotic and thrilling adventures/travels (exception: Longus) (63)The genre has a common myth (a solitary person in a world of danger, filled with gods and mysteries), literary heritage (mixing historiography of known places or figures with drama), conventional style, and authors of varying skill (64-5).  “The Gospel of Mark is obviously not an ancient novel of the erotic type” (65), but its blending genres (history, drama, apocalypse), episodic nature, and conventionality fits fragmentary evidence for a biographical novel with an antecedent in Xenophon of Athens Cyropaedia and later in the Alexander Romance and Philostratus’ Apollonius (65).  Non-extant lives of Pythagoras or Alexander or the fragmentary Ninus Romance (ca 100 BCE) may have been biographical novels, but our only example of the genre are the Gospels (66).  Yet Xenophon of Ephesus and Mark share parallels:  the audience situation (66), minimal introduction, journey motif, episodic plot, key turning point (peripeteia), final recognition scene, minimal settings, brief dialogues, repetition, divine plan unfolding in human action, loose chronology (days/nights), and crude Koine (67).  Other novels are more complex with multiple protagonists, but they are filled with unjust trials, violent death, apparent deaths, and revivals in tombs to captivate audiences and teach morals (68).  As a biographical novel, Mark had mass appeal across the literacy spectrum even while disdained by elite literati (70-4).  Mark sets out the divine/human levels in the action right at the start, a turning point (Peter’s confession), final recognition scene (trial, cross), brief dialogues in episodes, a crowd (=chorus in drama) (76), and flat minor characters (76-8).

Vines 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 (Markan Genre, 30-67).  Through a comparison of Mark to other “Jewish novels” – 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 more realistic historical setting than in apocalyptic literature (153, 159).  Vines argues that the biographical genre does not account for Mark’s emphases on divine activity and eschatology (12).

Criticisms: The Gospel’s low literacy, crude Koine, and popular appeal may be irrelevant to genre. Tolbert has no extant parallels of the sub-type of biographical novels and the subject matter of the Gospels may have far more gravity and serious tone than an entertaining read about romance or exotic traveler tales.  Situating the story in the recent rather than distant and unrealistic historical past (e.g., characters in the above “novels” are situated in the patriarchal, Assyrian, Babylonian, or Persian periods and Judith intentionally fictional with Nebuchadnezzar as ruler of the Assyrians!) and focus on the characterization of a single subject through chreiai or brief anecdotes makes the Gospels stand out from the other novels.  With some exceptions (e.g., Peter catching a fish with a coin in its mouth), the NT Gospels seem to me to stand out the Infancy Gospel of Thomas or the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles which may have served as more popular entertainment.


Though she accepts that the Gospels belong to the bios genre of the popular kind (Aesop) (219-31), defined “as prose narratives of medium length with a strong concentration and focus on a single person which determines the whole setting of the book” (223), Roskam argues that this classification does not aid in understanding the authorial intent or context since bios was a flexible genre with all sorts of purposes (encomiastic, exemplary, informative, didactic, apologetic, polemical) and does not explain Jewish influences (eschatology, typology) or distinct elements or motifs in Mark (226-31).  Her proposal (231-6):  Mark is an apology in a polemical situation (231) and its literary form is a secondary vehicle to achieve this purpose (232).  This explains why Mark is uninterested in biographical details (descent, upbringing, appearance) apart from Jesus’ status as the deity’s envoy (232) and organizes material with a bare chronological framework to support the unfolding argument (e.g., the first half establishes Jesus authority and the second his mission to suffer, the messianic secret, the suffering righteous one) (232-6). She concludes, “Mark’s Gospel is best characterized not as a biography of Jesus, but as an apologetic writing in biographical form” (236). Mark aimed to convince readers that Jesus was not seditious against Rome in favor of an independent Israel, redefining messiahship, and to equip insiders to remain steadfast and refute charges of subversiveness (215-7).

Criticism: an apology does not have distinct generic features.  If Mark wished to suppress hints of subversiveness, parallels between the opening verse on the “good news” with the Priene inscription celebrating the good news of Augustus’ rule and the pax Romana, politically charged titles given to Jesus (Christ, son of David, son of God, Lord) and “kingdom” language, images of Jesus driving out the demonic “legion” into the Sea, portrayals of Pilate as a powerless inept governor, and imminent expectations of the return of the Son of Man to gather the elect of all nations and his followers to inherit the vineyard of Israel (I disagree with Roskam that the vineyard is given to the Romans) are not apt.