Approaches to Reading the Gospels
Therefore, before we can read or interpret the gospels, we have to discover what kind of books they might be and how they compare with other texts from the same time period and location. Differing understandings of their genre will have differing implications for the interpretation of the gospels. Clearly, we will approach a text differently if we consider it to be history rather than legend; similarly, drama needs to be received differently from, say, myth.
a. Readings through History
For much of the ancient and medieval periods, the gospels, like the rest of the Bible, could be interpreted on several levels: the literal meaning would provide facts about what actually happened, while an allegorical interpretation could apply any text to the story of redemption; the use of Scripture for moral purposes would provide direct instruction for behaviour, and an anagogical or mystical reading would relate the text to the reader's own spiritual pilgrimage. This can be summed up in Nicholas of Lyra's rhyme:
littera gesta docetquid credas allegoriamoralis quid agasquo tendas anagogia
(‘The literal teaches what was done, the allegorical what you should believe, the moral what you should do, and the anagogical where you are headed’.)
The Reformers rejected all levels of reading except for the literal, and on this basis the gospels were interpreted as history—the stories of Jesus, even sometimes being seen in terms of biographies. This led later to their being used as a basis for the production of romantic ‘Lives’ such as Ernest Renan's Life of Jesus (1863). However, during the nineteenth century, biographies began to explain the character of a great person by considering his or her upbringing, formative years, schooling, psychological development, and so on; furthermore, the subject would be set within the context of the main events of their time. With their relatively shorter length and narrower focus, the gospels began to look unlike such biographies.
b. Unique Works?—Form-critical Approaches
During the 1920s, scholars like Karl Ludwig Schmidt (1923) and Rudolf Bultmann (1921) rejected any notion that the gospels were biographies: the gospels have no interest in Jesus's human personality, appearance, or character; nor do they tell us anything about the rest of his life, other than his brief public ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing. Furthermore, the extended concentration on his death was thought to overbalance any attempt to depict his life. Instead, the gospels were seen as popular folk literature, collections of short stories (‘pericopae’) handed down orally over time. Far from being biographies of Jesus, the gospels were described as ‘unique’ forms of literature, sui generis (see Bultmann 1972: 371–4). For Bultmann and Schmidt, this unique genre had theological implications about God's unique revelation of his Word in Jesus Christ.
Furthermore, such development of ‘form-critical’ approaches to the gospels meant that they were no longer interpreted as whole narratives. Instead, they concentrated on each individual pericope, and the focus for interpretation moved more to the passage's Sitz im Leben in the early church. Meanwhile, the author was regarded as little more than a mere stenographer, recording the stories at the end of the oral tunnel. Questions about both the literary form and genre of the work and about the author's intentions were thus not possible.
c. Gospel Communities and Redaction Critics
The rise of ‘redaction criticism’ half a century later led to more interpretation of each gospel's theological interests. Careful study of how Matthew and Luke edited Mark reveals something of their theology, purposes, and methods. Redaktor is German for ‘editor’ (often used of newspaper editors), and the classic redaction studies were undertaken by Bornkamm (1948), on Matthew's revision of Mark for use within the new religious community of the church, and Conzelmann (1954), on Luke's understanding of the events of Jesus taking place ‘in the middle of time’ between Israel and the church.
Such redaction-critical approaches led to the development of theories about the sorts of communities which produced the gospels. The gospels were seen as a type of ‘community’ document, within which the story of the community is overlaid upon the story of Jesus and the first disciples, giving a ‘two-tier’ approach to reading them. Therefore, interpretation began to focus upon the development of groups like the Matthean community (through the work of K. Stendahl (1968)) or the Johannine community (see e.g. the writings of R. E. Brown (1979) and J. L. Martyn (1979)).
However, the fact that redaction critics saw the writers of the gospels as individual theologians with particular purposes brought back questions about authorial intention and literary aspirations. The development of new literary approaches to the gospels viewed their authors as conscious writers or artists, and attention began to be given to their techniques of composition and narrative skills, such as plot, irony, and characterization, through the work of D. Rhoads and D. Michie (1982), J. D. Kingsbury (1988) and R. C. Tannehill (1986, 1990). This made it possible once again to consider the question of the genre of the gospels and their place within the context of first-century literature, and scholars like Stanton (1974), Talbert (1977), and Aune (1987) began to treat the gospels as ancient biographies.