Sidney Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text, chp 11.
THE Gospels proclaim the climax of God’s acts in human history, the sending of his Son. They pronounce the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy in the coming of Jesus Christ. Thus the Gospels continue where Old Testament narrative and prophecy leave off: they continue the narrative of the coming kingdom of God. Mark begins his Gospel, significantly, with the words “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God,” and he characterizes the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as follows: “Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel’ ” (Mk. 1:1, 14–15). With the arrival on earth of the King of kings, the kingdom of God has drawn near. In fact, as Jesus powerfully demonstrates in his healing words and deeds, not since God’s perfect creation has the kingdom of God been so real on earth. Whereas the prophets proclaimed that the kingdom would come in the future, Jesus proclaims that it has come: “If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matt 12:28; cf. John 12:31).
Since the Gospel writers stand in the Old Testament tradition, it should come as no surprise that similarities exist between the genre of gospel and that of prophecy and Hebrew narrative. Like prophecy, the Gospels confront us with the complexity of two levels of original hearers: the hearers of Jesus’ words (disciples, Pharisees, etc.) and the audience of the evangelists (the churches addressed). Further, the Gospels present the same kind of history writing we find in Hebrew narrative—history writing that is informed by a “religious view of history” and which can thus freely concentrate on God’s acts in history. The Gospels even evidence the same kind of narrative style as Hebrew narrative, presenting, as a rule, sequences of scenes and direct rather than indirect speech. Finally, like the Old Testament books of Samuel-Kings and Chronicles, the four New Testament Gospels deal with the same historical events, thus inviting comparison with each other. In the light of these similarities, many of the earlier comments on preaching Hebrew narrative and prophecy also apply to the gospel genre.
Despite these similarities, the gospel genre is distinct and requires a separate discussion. In this chapter we shall deal in turn with the gospel genre, its form of history writing, its literary characteristics, and finally its use in contemporary preaching.
THE GENRE OF GOSPEL
WE noted earlier that the genres of Hebrew narrative and prophecy contain other genres of literature; similarly, the genre of gospel does not exist in “pure” form but also contains a number of other genres. For example, apocalyptic literature is found in Mark 13 (cf. Matt 24 and Luke 21), songs or hymns in Luke 1 and 2 (the songs of Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon), in Matt 11:25–30, and in John 1 (the Prologue), and prophecy is found in some of Jesus’ speeches. The critical question, however, concerns the essence of the genre of gospel. The significance of this question goes far beyond obtaining a neat system of classification: genre designation sets the expectations of interpreters and determines the questions they ask of the text (see Chapter 1 above). Thus genre designation is an initial step in interpretation.
In view of this hermeneutical significance of genre designation, it is not surprising that religious/philosophical presuppositions have played an important role in determining the essence of the gospel genre. On the one hand, for example, those who for existentialist or other reasons downplay history tend to classify gospel as a unique genre (sui generis) which tells little about the historical Jesus. Norman Perrin says flatly that “a Gospel does not portray the history of the ministry of Jesus from A.D. 27–30 …, but the history of Christian experience in any and every age.” On the other hand, Graham Stanton compares the Gospels with ancient biographical writing and comes to a totally different conclusion: “The wholly justifiable insistence that the gospels are not biographies has tended to hide the fact that when they are placed alongside comparable ancient writings, they are seen to tell us a surprisingly large amount about the life and character of Jesus.” We shall take a brief look at efforts to classify the Gospels as a genre.
Characterizations of the Gospel Genre
The Gospel writers themselves, except for Mark (1:1), did not designate their works as gospels. The superscriptions “The Gospel According to …” were added by the church in the second century. The question arises if the church thereby intended to mark the Gospels as a unique type of literature and if that characterization was a valid judgment. Scholars have sought to link the Gospels to either Old Testament, early Judaic, or Greco-Roman literature. This effort has led to a wide variety of characterizations and subsequent interpretations. For example, the Gospel of Mark has been characterized as history, apocalyptic literature, biography, apology, sermon, drama, passion narrative with extended introduction, and secret epiphanies.7 Some of the more likely characterizations of the Gospels are biography, dramatic history, and the unique genre of gospel.
A fairly common designation for the gospel genre is biography. For example, Charles Talbert defends the designation of biography and summarizes it as follows: “Ancient biography is prose narration about a person’s life, presenting supposedly historical facts which are selected to reveal the character or essence of the individual, often with the purpose of affecting the behavior of the reader.” Others disagree, however. George Ladd asserts, “The Hellenistic world knew the biographical literary form; but the Gospels do not conform to this pattern. They do not relate the outward history of a hero, nor the inner development of his character.”9
Other scholars prefer the designation “dramatic history.” For example, Roland Frye suggests that the Gospels “partake of the character of dramatic history, in which history is not ignored and is not purposefully violated, but is transmuted into a form which can attract large numbers of people who are separated from the original events by barriers of time and culture and specialized interests.” Although this suggestion has merit, it is doubtful that the essence of the ancient gospel genre can be captured precisely in this category.
A Unique Genre
While granting that the Gospels have some features in common with other genres, other scholars identify gospel as a unique genre. Amos Wilder states: “This is the only wholly new genre created by the Church and the author of Mark receives the credit for it.” Ralph Martin observes that “the ‘stories of Jesus’ life’ were called among Christians themselves gospels.… And in so doing they were laying claim to the appearance of a new genre of writing for which no current categories would do. Therefore they chose a new word to describe a new phenomenon, namely a type of literary composition which would not properly be called a biography of Jesus or a chronicle of his exploits or even a set of reminiscences by his friends and followers.” This identification of gospel as a unique genre still leaves the question, of course, about the precise nature of this genre. For our purposes, comprehending the nature of the gospel genre is more important than exact classification. We shall therefore proceed to an enumeration of the primary characteristics of the gospel genre.
Characteristics of the Gospel Genre
The first characteristic of gospel is linked to its original usage in the New Testament. Gospel has to do with preaching, with proclamation. Originally the gospel was that which was preached; for example, “Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God” (Mark 1:14; cf. 1 Cor 1:17; Gal 1:11). Martin remarks that “the New Testament invariably connects ‘gospel’ … with verbs of speaking and responding, and never with verbs of writing and reading.… ‘Evangelist’ in this period meant a herald, a proclaimer of good news, and not a scribe busy with his reed-pen.” This original usage of the word gospel is also reflected in the later genre of gospel, that is, the written Gospel: it is proclamation, kerygma. This characteristic indicates that the gospel genre does not merely supply information but is an earnest call to faith: “These [signs] are written that you may believe …” (John 20:31). The Gospels, writes Martin, are “preaching materials, designed to tell the story of God’s saving action in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. They were called ‘gospels’ because they gave the substance of ‘the gospel,’ declared in Romans 1:16 to be God’s power to salvation to all who believe.”
The second characteristic of gospel is linked to the meaning of the word gospel: the gospel genre proclaims good news. LeRoy Lawson states: “The Gospel writers have one overriding purpose: they are announcing the good news that the reign of God has come to earth in the person of Jesus Christ, who brought with Him the possibility of forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life.” This characteristic of good news does not imply that the gospel genre may not contain messages of judgment (see, e.g., the “woes” of Matt 23), but even such messages of judgment are proclaimed for the purpose of repentance and forgiveness and thus are intended as good news.
The Centrality of Jesus and God’s Kingdom
A third characteristic relates to the specific content of the gospel genre, namely, the person of Jesus Christ. The Gospels focus first and foremost on Jesus Christ; their concern, in Luke’s words, is to deal “with all that Jesus began to do and teach” (Acts 1:1). Intimately intertwined with the message about Jesus Christ is the message of the kingdom of God. According to I. Howard Marshall, “There is virtually general agreement among scholars that the kernel of Jesus’ message was the proclamation of the kingdom of God.” Jesus himself not only proclaimed the kingdom of God (Matt 4:23) but he commanded his disciples to do likewise (Matt 10:7). The third stage of proclamation, the written Gospels themselves, may now also be characterized as proclamations of the kingdom of God. For example, the Gospel of Matthew begins with the royal genealogy of the Son of David, contains five major discourses on the kingdom (see below), and concludes with the command of King Jesus to “make disciples of all nations,” for “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (28:18–20). Thus the gospel genre may be characterized as proclamation of the good news of the kingdom of God that has come in the person of Jesus Christ.
Kerygmatic History Writing
Even though the foregoing characteristics describe the essence of the gospel genre, in the light of contemporary discussions about historicity it is appropriate to name one more characteristic. While gospel may not be biography or history, it is nevertheless a form of history writing. In conformity with the kerygmatic nature of gospel, we shall call it kerygmatic history writing. That the Gospels are a form of history writing needs to be emphasized today over against redaction critics who would play theology off against history and over against literary critics who would play story off against history. Though one may grant that the Gospels do not present historical events in the precise, objective way prescribed by nineteenth-century canons of historiography, it is preposterous to argue, as some do, that the Gospels are “made-up stories” because they are narratives. We have seen earlier that narrative is the ideal genre for relating history. How else would one write history? Moreover, why would the Gospel writers, who aim to testify especially to the reality of Jesus’ passion and resurrection, “make up stories” when the recollection of these events was available to them in oral and possibly written traditions which had been formed by eyewitnesses? We shall have to examine further precisely how the evangelists wrote history, but it will not do simply to disregard references to eyewitnesses, historical research, and the intention to write “an orderly account … that you may know the truth” (Luke 1:1–4).
NEW TESTAMENT HISTORY WRITING
ALTHOUGH our main focus in this chapter is on the four Gospels, we must not overlook that the Gospel writer Luke continued with a second volume, Acts. The book of Acts, obviously, cannot be classified as a gospel; but the accepted designation of the gospel genre to the exclusion of Acts results in the unfortunate division of what was intended as one work, Luke-Acts. Recently the unity of Luke-Acts is being brought to the fore again. Some show this unity by way of Luke’s overall theme that God continues his work of salvation especially through Jesus Christ. Others seek to demonstrate the unity of Luke-Acts by reading the two volumes as one story.20 In view of the unity of Luke-Acts and the fact that Acts, like the Gospels, consists mainly of historical narratives, we shall consider Acts along with the Gospels in the following sections.
Since Chapters 2 and 4 above present a rather extensive discussion of the historical-critical method and the complexities of history and history writing, we can confine our discussion here to a few specific aspects of New Testament history writing. In preaching the Gospels and Acts, two historical questions are foundational: First, how did the authors write history? Second, are their works reliable? In addressing these questions, we shall look in turn at the characteristics of New Testament history writing and at its reliability.
Characteristics of New Testament History Writing
The Gospels were written after Jesus’ resurrection. Unfortunately, the phrase “post-resurrection accounts” has taken on pejorative overtones because some critics have used this phrase to cast doubt on the historicity of the Gospels: presumably they narrate not history but the post-Easter faith of the early church. It is true, of course, that the Gospels would not have been written if the church had not believed that Jesus had risen from the dead. Instead of using the post-Easter situation to cast doubt on the historicity of the Gospels, however, one can use that situation more credibly to confirm the essential historicity of the Gospels: the existence of the post-Easter Gospels argues for the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection, for it was the startling news of Jesus’ resurrection that gave the impetus to the oral and written traditions that ultimately culminated in the Gospels. It would be well, therefore, to set aside the ominous connotations of doubtful history when we hear of “post-resurrection accounts” and replace them with the positive connotations of good news.
We may also observe that the Gospels are not unique in being “post-… accounts,” for that feature marks all significant historical accounts. If John F. Kennedy had not become president of the United States, for example, who would have written a history about his actions? It is only after certain events have taken place that history is written. Consequently, the fact that the Gospels are “post-… accounts” is not out of the ordinary and is by itself no reason to approach these documents with skepticism about their historicity.
Many critics are suspicious of the Gospels, however, because they suspect that the post-Easter faith created a history of Jesus which is not in accord with the events that actually took place. It seems fair to say that the Easter faith colored the history which the Gospels narrate: after Jesus’ resurrection the authors of the Gospels were able to perceive dimensions and implications which they had been unable to see prior to that event (cf. John 16:12–15). But to say that their Easter faith colored the way the authors wrote pre-Easter history is quite different from saying that they created a new history.
Other critics contend that the authors’ purpose of calling people to faith in the risen Lord made them radically alter pre-Easter history. Although the Gospel writers undoubtedly wrote for a faith response, it does not follow that this purpose caused them to lose sight of the historical Jesus. Herman Ridderbos acknowledges that they desired “to summon all men to faith in the resurrected and living Lord” but continues:
It may not be deduced from this that those who set down the apostolic tradition concerning Jesus of Nazareth were no longer conscious of the border between the life of the historical Jesus and that of the exalted Lord. In the Gospels … they proclaim him [the living Lord] as he once became knowable in his coming to men, in his fellowship with them.… If they had told fanciful stories for that purpose [to evoke faith], then they would have been found to be false witnesses (see 1 Cor. 15:15). Nevertheless their purpose was not only to increase our historical knowledge, but to evoke faith.… This design explains the construction, selection, and forming of the materials; it also explains the freedom with which they used their available material.
Selection of Material
As we noted in Chapter 4, all history writers are necessarily selective in choosing which events and which aspects of these events they will write about. For the Gospel writers it was no different. John tells us specifically that he had to make a selection of the “signs” Jesus did “in the presence of his disciples” (20:30; cf. 21:25). A comparison of the Synoptic Gospels shows that their authors, too, had to make a selection of the material that was presumably available to them. Even Mark, who is generally considered to be the first evangelist, had to make choices as to what to include and what to exclude. The selection made is usually a pointer to the interest and purpose of the author.
In using the author’s selection as a pointer to his purpose, we must keep in mind that “Mark need not have chosen every pericope in his gospel because it contained his particular theology or point of view. He may have included some simply because they were well known. Others stood in complexes that would have required him to excise them if he wanted to exclude them from his gospel, and Mark apparently was inclined to use these complexes as whole units.” Another reason for selection might have been “the simple concern for the preservation of what was available to them.”23 This complication should caution us not to build a case for the author’s purpose exclusively on his selection of certain pericopes. In general we can say, however, that the selection made by a Gospel writer, especially when contrasted with the selection in other Gospels, is a good initial indicator of the author’s purpose.
Rearrangement of Material
Besides selecting their material, the Gospel writers arranged it to suit their particular purposes. We shall see many examples of this arranging when we look at Gospel structures later, but one well-known example may clarify the concept here. Matthew has arranged Jesus’ sayings in five major discourses, the first of which is known as the Sermon on the Mount. Luke, by comparison, has a much smaller Sermon on the Mount (Plain) and has placed many of the other sayings in different sections of his Gospel. Ridderbos remarks that “the evangelist [Matthew] arranges his narrative under thematic, not under temporal [chronological], viewpoints and does not hesitate elsewhere—when we compare him with his fellow evangelists—to break the connections.… All sorts of details which appear in Mark are either left out by Matthew or shortened; conversations are summarized, … amplified or changed.”
Modification of Material
In addition to selecting and arranging their material, the Gospel writers shaped the material according to their purposes. George Ladd observes that “it is almost universally recognized that the early church shaped the oral tradition to meet its particular needs; and the most recent scholarship has emphasized that the authors of the Gospels were no mere purveyors of tradition but were theologians in their own right. This means that the Gospels are not pure, ‘objective’ history, if ‘objective’ means the work of detached, disinterested authors. Each evangelist selected his material and to some degree shaped his material to suit his particular theological and ecclesiastical interests.”
Examples of shaping abound in the Gospels. Staying with the Sermon on the Mount, one can compare Matt 5:3 with Luke 6:20:
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Or compare the Lord’s prayer in Matt 6 with that in Luke 11. One can multiply these examples many times over simply by comparing parallel passages in the Gospels. In contrast to contemporary standards of historiography, the Gospel writers show a remarkable degree of freedom to modify their sources, including even the very words of Jesus.
Kerygmatic Focus of Material
The Gospel writers selected, arranged, and modified their material ultimately for only one purpose: to focus their material as relevant proclamation for their hearers. As the oral tradition they used was proclamation, so also their own work was intended to be proclamation. Proclamation, of course, always has a specific focus: a specific point it wishes to bring across to the hearers, a specific response it seeks to elicit from them. Glen Edwards writes concerning Mark, “Proclamation, not chronology or biography or portraiture, is Mark’s intention. This explains the story-like character of the document. The chronological and geographical problems that emerge in the book are resolved by remembering that Mark wrote more to make a point than to reconstruct events in precise detail or, for that matter, in exact sequence.”
The unmistakable freedom of the Gospel writers to select, rearrange, and modify their material for preaching purposes has raised many questions about the reliability of the Gospels. Since unreliable texts make poor sources for preaching the word of God, it is crucial for preachers to come to clarity on the issue of reliability.
Craig L. Blomberg, “New Testament Genre Criticism for the 1990s,” Themelios 15, no. 2 (1990): 42–43.
Not nearly as much research has attempted to analyse the genre of Acts as has been expended on the gospels. The opening verses of Acts make it clear that the book is a sequel to Luke and that the preface in Luke 1:1–4 applies to both volumes. Numerous structural parallels demonstrate the unity of the two-volume work. The gospel follows a geographical outline which portrays Jesus moving from a setting in the context of the entire Roman empire (the known world of that day) to Galilee to Samaria to Jerusalem, whereas Acts inverts this sequence with the programme of expansion of the gospel traced in Acts 1:8. Major episodes in the lives of key characters in Acts closely parallel stories from the life of Jesus.29 If Luke’s gospel is a theological history, then one should expect Acts to be classified similarly. The overall contents of the book—descriptions of key events in the life of the early church, especially in the careers of Peter and Paul—also make Acts an obvious candidate for some kind of historical genre.
On this much most scholars have agreed. Going into the ’eighties, a fair consensus would have identified Acts as a ‘historical monograph’. But agreement on this label did not prevent polarization on the question of historical reliability. One group of commentators, primarily British, compared Acts favourably with such historians as Herodotus and Thucydides, and argued for a substantial measure of historicity. Sir W. Ramsay blazed the trail for this group of scholars. A second group appeals to E. Haenchen’s work as foundational. These scholars, primarily German, agreed that Luke had historical intentions but believed that he botched the job rather badly. Fortunately, Luke also wrote as a theologian, so that the theology of Acts remains instructive even where the historical details of his narrative cannot be trusted.31
In the ’eighties, a third, primarily American, approach has emerged. Pioneered by R. Pervo, this attempt to label the genre of Acts classifies the book as a historical novel. In other words, Luke had more in common with other Greco-Roman writers of fiction than he did with authors of history or biography. Pervo points out how Acts brims over with adventure and entertainment. He points to numerous portions of the text which seem implausible and far-fetched. He stresses that it is not these apparent errors or contradictions which make him assess Acts as a largely fictitious genre but rather the formal features which Acts shares with other novels. Yet not one of these features is unique to fiction; in the final analysis it is the ‘implausibility factor’ with which Pervo’s case stands or falls. And here Pervo takes virtually no account of the various explanations and harmonizations which more conservative scholars have proposed.33 Among these, C. Hemer’s posthumously published work goes a long way toward establishing the historical credibility of those portions of the Acts which can be tested against their Hellenistic background.
Two somewhat distinctive features of Acts have often led commentators to argue for or against a historical genre. One is Luke’s use of speeches (primarily on the lips of Peter and Paul); the other involves the so-called ‘we-sections’ (in which the narrator suddenly begins to write in the first person plural). It is commonly known that ancient historians often composed speeches that they believed were appropriate for particular occasions even when they had no firsthand knowledge of the contents of a particular address. It is also evident that narrators frequently wrote in the first person as a literary device even when they themselves did not witness the action they describe.36 Yet the breadth of ancient literature which employed either or both of these devices ranges so widely from relatively reliable history to sheer fiction that their presence in Acts does not very much aid in assessing its genre. If, on other grounds, as seems likely, one ought to speak of Acts as a theological history, implying both historical trustworthiness and theological motives, then neither the speeches nor the we-sections need undermine this assessment.
When one turns to the apocryphal acts, one discovers a variety of parallels in form, content and function. There is also a number of non-Christian Greek works entitled ‘praxeis’. But this Greek word is ‘a nontechnical, descriptive term for narratives of the accomplishments of noteworthy individuals or cities (whether mythical, historical, or fictional)’. Probably not as many generic distinctives separate canonical and non-canonical Acts as distinguish canonical and non-canonical gospels, but in terms of reliance on trustworthy tradition the gap may actually be greater. As with the gospels, the Acts may be compared with a known genre of Hellenistic literature while at the same time retaining features which make it sui generis. Theological history may be the best label for the combination.
Once again, interpreters do well to be sensitive to this balance between theology and history. Acts contains much more chronology than do any of the gospels, yet even in his second volume, Luke occasionally organizes material thematically. Acts 11:27–30 probably occurred after 12:1–24 (at least according to Josephus’ dates for the Judean famine and Herod’s death), but Luke places it earlier so that he may keep together several strands of tradition about Antioch (cf. 11:19–26). So too, once the reader recognizes the theological outline which governs the book, he can learn to emphasize what Luke wanted to stress rather than that on which contemporary Christians usually concentrate. Acts 1:8 indicates more than geographical expansion. Luke’s second volume traces the miraculous, thirty-year-long transformation of an exclusively Jewish sect found only in Jerusalem into an empire-wide, predominantly Gentile religion solidly rooted even in Rome. Thus Luke’s foremost concern in the two episodes involving Philip in Acts 8 is that the gospel came even to Samaritans and eunuchs (two categories of outcasts according to orthodox Jewish perspective). Questions which divide exegetes today concerning the order of and intervals between repentance, baptism, and the filling of the Holy Spirit were probably not even in Luke’s mind.