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

Gospel as a Literary Genre.

1.

Mark opens with the words, ‘The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ’ (Mk 1:1 ). A modern reader would unhesitatingly see the writing that follows as the gospel of Jesus Christ. In fact the concept of ‘gospel’ is not without its problems. We shall begin with the name ‘gospel’ before going on to examine the use of the term.

The English word ‘gospel’ (originally ‘godspell’ or ‘good tidings’) is the translation of the Greek euaggelion, but it is not obvious that the writers of the four documents applied this term to their writings. Luke at any rate never uses the noun (except in Acts), though he frequently uses the corresponding verb for the activity of spreading the good news (e.g. 1:19; 4:18 ). He seems to consider his work rather in terms of a narrative (diēgēsis) or an orderly account ( 1:1–3 ). Both noun and verb are used frequently by Paul, who may rely on one or both of two backgrounds. In the religious cult of the emperors the term was used of a piece of imperial good news of salvation, such as a victory or the birth of an heir, which was flashed round the empire, and to which the various provinces, city-states, and other political units were expected to respond with congratulatory gifts. The elements of novelty, salvation, joy, and response, as well as the religious connotations, would have made the term a suitable one for Paul to use for ‘my gospel’ (Rom 16:25; Gal 1:11 ). Paul may also, however, be drawing on the use of the word in Isa 61:1 , ‘the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted’. This usage may go back to the proclamation of Jesus himself; it certainly occurs on his lips in Mt 11:5 and Lk 4:18 (see Stuhlmacher 1983 ).

Neither Luke nor John uses the noun, and when it began to be used as a title of the four writings is disputed. Koester (1989: 380) holds that the term was ‘always and everywhere understood as the proclamation of the saving message about Christ or the coming of the kingdom’ until Marcion in the mid-second century applied it to the written works. In his six usages apart from the heading, Mark certainly uses the term for the proclamation of the saving message, so that in his first verse also it is reasonable to take it in this sense rather than as ‘The beginning of the written record’ (see MK 1:1–13 ). In Matthew the word is used twice for Jesus' own proclamation of the kingdom ( 4:23; 9:35 ) and twice with the addition of ‘this gospel’ ( 24:14; 26:13 ); in the former case the whole gospel message seems to be meant, and in the latter Matthew may possibly intend to restrict Mark's meaning to the particular incident of the gospel message, the anointing at Bethany. Stanton (1992a ), on the other hand, argues persuasively that usages of the term as early as the Didache, 8:2; 11:3; 15:3–4 , seem to refer to our written gospel texts, and argues further that as soon as more than one of them existed they must have been known as something!

Finally it is important to realize that none of the four gospels originally included an attribution to an author. All were anonymous, and it is only from the fragmentary and enigmatic and—according to Eusebius, from whom we derive the quotation—unreliable evidence of Papias in 120/130 CE that we can begin to piece together any external evidence about the names of their authors and their compilers. This evidence is so difficult to interpret that most modern scholars form their opinions from the content of the gospels themselves, and only then appeal selectively to the external evidence for confirmation of their findings.

2.

As recently as 1970 the type of writing now called ‘gospel’ was considered to be without parallel in the ancient world. Norman Perrin (1970–1 :4) could write assertively that it was ‘the unique literary creation of early Christianity. This is a statement I would make with confidence… If we are to come to terms with this genre we must concentrate our attention upon the Gospel of Mark’. Perrin sees a gospel as being a narrative of an event from the past, in which interest and concerns of the past, present, and future have flowed together, since the events of Jesus' ministry are interpreted in the light of the writer's own time and of things expected of Jesus' future coming.

In 1987 Christopher Tuckett could, with misgivings, still give as the majority opinion the view that there was no close parallel to the genre of the gospels. In the last decade, however, it has become clear that the literary genre of ‘gospel’ can no longer be considered as completely unique. To enable a reader or listener to understand a document it must be possible to a certain extent to categorize it into a known type. Tuckett (1987: 75) wittily gives the example of ‘Vicar gives directions to Queen? Just the opposite’, to be understood as a newspaper headline or as a crossword puzzle clue for REV-ER-SE. The features of a particular genre of literature form a conventional set of expectations, a sort of implied contract with the reader that enables the reader to categorize the document. The expectations are not necessarily always identical in all respects with what the reader finds, but at least provide a family resemblance. Burridge (1992 ) has shown that the gospels fall within the varied and well-attested Graeco-Roman concept of biography. Of this genre there are many subdivisions, inevitably including cross-border borrowing with other genres, such as political propaganda, encomium, moralistic encouragement, and travelogue. Even religious biographies in the broad sense were not unknown. The respectful atmosphere found in the gospels, ‘tinged with praise and worship’ (ibid. 211) occurs also in such works as Tacitus' Agricola and Philo's De vita Mosis. What is, however, unique to the gospels, and constitutes them as an unprecedented subgroup, is the importance and salvific claim of their message, expressed most clearly by Jn 20:31 , ‘these things are written that you may believe… and that believing you may have life’. It is not, then, an unprecedented type of writing, so much as the conviction of the writers that their subject and message had the power to change the world for those who accepted them, that is unique. But this does not exclude the gospels from the broad category of Graeco-Roman biography.

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