History, Myth, or Something in Between: Everything You’ve Ever Wanted to Know about the Genre of the Gospels, But Were Afraid to Ask

When we look at the gospels, an important literary question that immediately confronts us is this: What genre (broadly speaking) are they written in? In other words, are we reading history, myth, or some combination of the two? Obviously, such a question has an impact on how we read the stories in the gospels. Unfortunately, NT experts give wide-varying answers to this question (as any cursory review of scholarly literature reveals). The vast majority of contemporary NT scholars see in the gospels, to varying degrees, a mixture of: (1) authentic historical memory; (2) evolved oral tradition; (3) evolved theological development; and (4) authorial creativity. Many university-trained NT experts are Orthodox in their creedal confessions (they believe in God, and Jesus as the Son of God), but very few are strictly fundamentalist (pre-critical) in their approach to the NT as a library of texts. In other words, few scholars, in their capacity as experts on the NT, assert that the gospels always convey exactly what Jesus said and did, or that the NT is free from any error whatsoever, historical or otherwise.

 

Though scholars often disagree on what genre of literature it is, exactly, that we are reading when we look at the gospels, there are some questions you can ask yourself that might help you think about genre. These are the types of questions that literary scholars and historians ask themselves when they read any ancient rhetorical unit (in the NT or outside of it) and try to decide on its genre:

 

  • When was the rhetorical unit written, and from where was it written? In general, the closer it is in time and place to the events narrated, the likelier it is to reflect historical memory, and not (primarily) evolved oral retelling, later theological reflection, or authorial creativity.
  • Was the story or saying written down by an author from the same region, and in the same language, that the story or saying is said to derive from? This raises issues of translation from one language and culture into another. Would, for example, city-dwellers in Rome, living in 70 CE, and speaking Greek, have understood, in exactly the same way, an orally transmitted story originally told among the rural poor of Galilee, living in 30 CE, and speaking Aramaic? And would the Romans have continued to retell the story with fidelity to the original, or would it have evolved under different language/cultural pressures before being put into writing? 
  • Does the author claim to be a witness to an event, and if so, how disinterested is he as a witness? Ideally, we want history from a disinterested witness whose memories are recorded soon after an event.
  • If the author is not an eyewitness, where did he get his information? Are his sources oral or written? Are the sources motivated, or disinterested? Is the author himself motivated, or disinterested? 
  • The criterion of independent attestation: It is always better to have more than one account of a story or saying. Can the rhetorical unit under study be compared with other accounts of the same event? If so, are the accounts independent of one another, and do they agree? If they differ, where do they do so? And what accounts for their differences? An example of independent attestation: Scholars generally agree that Mark, Q, and John are sources independent of one another, and all of them associate the beginning of Jesus’s ministry with John the Baptist. This must, therefore, have (at a minimum) been something widely believed by early Christians, and thus may point to a well-established memory of the historical Jesus. An example of something in the NT not independently attested: Matthew 27:52-53. This story of mass resurrections around Jerusalem occurs only in Matthew. No other gospel tells the story, nor do we have a first century pagan or Jewish source which tells it. The story is sui generis.
  • The criterion of dissimilarity: If an author says something that we might not expect him to want to admit, then we have some reason to think (if we ever doubted it) that it might really have happened. Matthew’s gospel, for example, tells us that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. This fact may have complicated Christian preaching (“Why didn’t Jesus baptize John? Is John greater than Jesus?”). Nevertheless, the story is told. It suggests that, historically speaking, Jesus may really have been baptized by John.
  • Mimesis. In forming your opinion concerning the genre of a gospel story or saying, it might be good to discover any texts that the author might have been using or imitating. Some scholars, for example, think that the author of Luke-Acts may have attempted to generate a prosaic Christian epic akin to Virgil’s epic poem, the Aeneid.
  • If a story seems implausible for psychological, sociological, or historical reasons, it may be because it didn’t really happen. The author may have had purposes for telling the story that did not involve contemporary notions of strict historical correctness. Those purposes might have been (for example) literary, didactic, or theological.
  • When reflecting on a text’s genre, you might consider revisiting questions surrounding communicative rhetoric: (1) What seems to have been the author’s purpose?; (2) What message was being conveyed?; (3) How would the message have been transmitted from author to audience?; (4) Who was in the first audiences for this message?; and (5) What are the larger contexts for this message?
  • Do you believe in miracles? If you answer with an emphatic “No,” then a large number of the stories in the NT must necessarily be some form of creative fiction, or associated with pre-scientific confusion of the supernatural with the natural. Thus, mental illness may have been mistaken for demonic possession in some healing stories. But if you answer “Yes, miracles happen,” then the accounts of miraculous occurrences in the NT need not necessarily and immediately decide for you the genre question: “Does what I’m reading belong to the genre of history or myth?” Belief that miracles really do happen is a necessary assumption for keeping the history v. myth question open for you. But you might also keep two things in mind: (1) A general belief in miracles may not mean that you believe a particular miracle happened; and (2) A general belief in miracles may not mean that you believe miracles happen very often. Indeed, you may regard miracles as extremely rare and improbable occurrences. Thus, in evaluating an ancient story of a miracle, you may conclude that a non-miraculous explanation of a story is more probable than a miraculous one, even though you believe that miracles sometimes do happen.
  • Eliminating alternatives to arrive at the most probable explanation: After asking yourself the above questions, another way to decide on the genre of an ancient text is to lay out all the alternative hypotheses you can think of, and ask what the merits and demerits of each hypothesis are, and which one best accounts for all the evidence at your disposal. The one that provides, to your mind, the most probable explanation among the alternatives, might be the one you use to help make sense of a particular passage.  
  • General rules of thumb for deciding on the quality of a hypothesis: (1) Access to data. In other words, do you have actual pieces of evidence that can be thought about and interpreted? (2) Fruitfulness. Does your hypothesis cast light on, not just the passage at hand, but other passages as well? (3) Scope. Does your hypothesis account for all the pieces of information/evidence under your consideration, or does it at least account for all the pieces better than alternative hypotheses? (4) Simplicity. The best hypothesis is often the simplest one, the one that requires the fewest elaborate assumptions, and that fits best with things we already seem to know. Is your hypothesis simple in this sense? 

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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