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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Genre.

What kind of a text is Mark's gospel? To what genre does it belong? Ever since the second century the book has been known as a ‘gospel’. Yet that is a very unusual term for a literary text, let alone an account of the life and ministry of Jesus (see MK 1:1 ). Older studies had claimed that the gospels were in some sense ‘biographies’, comparable to works such as those about Socrates (by Plato) or Epictetus (by Arrian). However, early in the twentieth century form critics (Bultmann, Dibelius) argued that the gospels were really folk literature, not to be compared with literary works. The evangelists were simply popular story-tellers who did not impose their own ideas on the material. In particular a text such as Mark displayed none of the characteristic features of biography (nothing on Jesus' personality, psychological development, origins, or education). The gospels were thus without analogy and were sui generis.

Such a claim is very odd in literary terms. Some understanding of the genre of a text is essential if it is to be understood at all. Further, this rather low view of a writer such as Mark has been radically questioned in more recent study. Thus, whilst it remains true that close parallels to Mark are hard to find, in either the Jewish or Hellenistic world of the period, many have swung back to the view that Mark may be seen as in some sense a biography, although not in the modern sense of the word. There is indeed very little on Jesus' background or personality in Mark. Yet equally, ancient writing claiming to give the lives (Gk. bioi) of individuals often lacked some of these features. Thus if one takes a relatively broad spread of ancient ‘lives’ of individuals, Mark's gospel can be shown to lie within those parameters. (See Burridge 1992 .)

Yet this does not determine exactly how the text should be read. It does not, for example, necessarily imply that the text is ipso facto historically reliable. Many other ‘biographies’ were written with an author's own axe to grind. In this Mark is no exception. Certainly Mark presents us with a highly distinctive account of Jesus' life and some of its implications.

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