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The Jesus Legend 8: The Genre and Nature of the Canonical Gospels


The authors spend a lot of time discussing what genre the gospels should be considered. I can understand how a genre of “fiction” would hurt their case, but they conclude more or less that the gospels are a unique genre. I have trouble following their case that this unique genre maintains historical reliability. They emphasize that the gospels were probably meant to be orally recited, and they seem to be pushing for different criteria of evaluation for oral traditions. Given that I found their defense of a reliable oral tradition fairly weak, perhaps this crux of their argument is what fatally flaws what they are saying. It will be interesting to see if any reviewers might agree with me. The case for reliable oral history remains open in my mind.

Kindle Notes:

Beginning with the early form critics, many New Testament scholars have argued that there is no ancient text type that closely corresponds to a Gospel. Rather, the early Christian Gospels are “sui generis”—literally, “one of a kind” (5346).

Many contemporary scholars argue that, while the Gospels certainly have some distinctive aspects to them, they can nevertheless be classified as ancient biographical writings (5360).

A third genre some scholars have identified as reflective of the Gospels is ancient historiography (5386).

A fifth genre proposal is closely related to the Gospels-as-fiction proposal, yet distinct enough to be considered in its own right. Some have argued that the Gospels are best understood as examples of Jewish midrash. In brief, midrash is an ancient Jewish form of scriptural commentary that enabled ancient Scriptures to speak to contemporary situations (5433).

we will argue that while important aspects of the Gospels appear to be sui generis in nature, other aspects fit quite well with the ancient biographical genre, other aspects (especially in Luke-Acts) with ancient historiography, and still others with ancient midrash. The one proposal that finds no support, we argue, is viewing the Gospels as examples of intentionally crafted ancient fiction (5471).

Alexander argues that a comparison of the Lukan prefaces with Greco-Roman literature turns up a match, not with historiographical texts, but rather with what she terms the “scientific tradition” or “technical prose.” She identifies this tradition with “the working handbooks and teaching manuals of a variety of technical subjects” from the working world of the “crafts.”81 Thus, Luke seems to have more in common with “engineers and medical writers who represent these ‘craft’ traditions” than he does ancient historians (5631).

In other words, like most people today, most ancient historiographers accepted the possibility of miracles. But there is no reason to conclude from this that either ancient historiographers or modern people are necessarily credulous or unreliable. It simply means that the worldview of ancient historiographers, as well as most modern Western people, is not as narrow as those skeptics who assume a priori that miracles never occur and who judge anyone who says otherwise to be credulous, “premodern,” and uncritical (5670).

Note: Is this true? Do their examples reflect the general trend?

some argue for a skeptical stance toward ancient historians on the ground that, as a matter of empirical fact, we simply know they generally were not accurate (5689).

Wiseman grants that most of his critique of ancient historians could be applied to modern historians as well (5693).

In sum, therefore, it seems we have little reason to be significantly more suspicious of ancient historians than we are of modern historians. Of course, we should be critical of both. But accepting a critical stance is very different from accepting a skeptical-dismissive stance (5709).

Note: More skepticism may be universally warranted.

While the Gospels may not be fully captured by the genre of ancient biography, they nonetheless are biographical in nature. Similarly, while the Gospels—even Luke—may not be reduced to historiography, pure and simple, still they are clearly historical in their intent. The Gospels appear to be unique—sui generis—in certain senses, particularly with respect to their content. Most important, the messianic fulfillment of the Isaianic promise of “good news,” fleshed out with categories derived from the world of Jewish apocalyptic soteriology, sets these narratives apart from all others in the ancient world (6009).

We conclude that the Gospels are best understood as recitation compositions rooted in the oral Gospel tradition, texts that, while informed by historical and biographical interests, are nonetheless distinctive enough to warrant their classification as a unique genre—“Gospel” (6145).

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