chapter  1
THE GOSPEL GENRE
Pages 22

Modern readers in the Christian tradition feel comfortable with the gospel genre. It is a category of literature which seems to have been destined to come into being, its special character often identified with God’s unique revelation. But historians of literature cannot presume a doctrine of divine causation, and must ask, Where did the gospel come from? Is it like other literature of the ancient world, or is it a new and revolutionary form? If one tries to examine the gospels anew, without the guides born of familiarity, one finds that there are several strange things about them. We may note, first of all, that they are not proportionally structured. Martin Kähler stated in 1896 that Mark was “a passion story with a long introduction.”1 If Mark was the oldest gospel, then we find from the beginning an uneven emphasis on certain aspects of Jesus’ life and death, and very little teaching, except in parables-and even these are meant to be misunderstood by most people (Mark 4:11-12). Furthermore, unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark and John do not contain any infancy narrative, or any account of Jesus’ life before his baptism by John the Baptist. There is little explicit analysis of Jesus’ thoughts or character, and no sense of psychological development; our modern preconceptions of “biography” are thereby violated. Unlike Albert Schweitzer’s concern in The Quest of the Historical Jesus,2 which was to rediscover the “real” Jesus of the gospels who had been obscured by nineteenthcentury romantic sensibilities, the raising of these sorts of questions in twentiethcentury scholarship reflected a different concern, a concern for the composition of the gospel rather than its content. Thus began the modern genre criticism of the gospels.