Advances in New Testament studies have resulted in the widely accepted conclusion that the Gospels are a form of ancient biography, meant to convey the significance of the life of Jesus. Leading the way into the study of the genre of the Gospels were scholars like C.H. Talbert (What Is a Gospel?) and Richard Burridge (What Are the Gospels?). Genre is important because it “is widely acknowledged as one of the key conventions guiding both the composition and the interpretation of writings. Genre forms a kind of ‘contract’ or agreement, often unspoken or unwritten, or even unconscious, between the author and a reader, by which the author sets out to write according to a whole set of expectations and conventions, and we agree to read or to interpret the work using the same conventions, giving us an initial idea of what we might expect to find.” Richard Burridge, Four Gospels, One Jesus, page 5.
That is the theory, anyway. Is there any reason to think that genre identification can really tell us anything about how to read an ancient literary work? I believe so. As an example of how genre can shape an author’s writing practice, this post will examine Philo of Alexandria’s On the Life of Moses. A prolific writer, Philo may be the second-most well known ancient Jewish figure—following Josephus--not mentioned in the Gospels. “He probably lived c.30/29 BC to AD 45; a leading member of the Jewish community in Alexandria….. He has a clear intention in most of his work; to (re-)interpret Jewish beliefs via Greek, especially Platonic, philosophy, often using allegorical methods.” Burridge, What are the Gospels?, page 128. As David Aune notes, Philo “interpreted the Jewish Torah from the standpoint of an eclectic Hellenistic philosophy.” Aune, The New Testament in its Literary Environment, page 43.
Given that the Greek biographical genre is not one given over to imaginative allegory, it is instructive to examine how Philo approaches his two-volume On the Life of Moses. Despite taking his trademark allegorical approach in almost all of his other writings, when Philo set out to write On the Life of Moses he did so pursuant to the norms of the Greek biographical genre, largely abandoning his usual eclectic style.
In the prefaces to the two volumes, Philo clearly states his intent to write a biography. He explains that his purpose is to inform Gentile audiences about Moses. He explains that existing writings about Moses were inadequate to serve this purpose. He explains that his sources are “from those sacred scriptures which he has left as marvelous memorials of his wisdom, and have also heard many things from the elders of my nation” and that because of his investigation he is “acquainted with the history of his life more accurately than other people.” On the Life of Moses I.1-4. These are classic earmarks of an author signaling his intent to write history; in this case in the form of a biography. And, in fact, Philo lives up to his statement about sources, as On the Life of Moses reflects widespread use of the Pentateuch as well as traditions existing at the time.
In On the Life of Moses, Philo departs from his usual allegorical focus and lives up to the genre and purpose he has set out for himself.
The first of these two treatises covers, as is stated at the beginning of the second, the early life and education of Moses and the main facts of his work as King; that is, as the leader of the Israelites in their escape from Egypt and adventures in the wilderness. It runs on very straightforwardly and does not call for any detailed analysis. There is only one attempt at allegory, viz. the reflections on the meaning of the vision of the Burning Bush.
F. H. Colson, Philo, Vol. 6, pages 274-75.
The second volume is more complicated because it is not a straightforward chronological narrative but is instead topically arranged. “It treats the character of Moses under three heads, the legislative, the high-priestly and the prophetic, a method which necessarily precludes any chronological arrangement.” Id. But this is not a problem because topical arrangement is not foreign to the biography genre.
To take one subject as an example demonstrating the different approach Philo takes when under the self-imposed constraints of the biographical genre, a common feature of biographies was a discussion of ancestry. Elsewhere in his more allegorical works, Philo writes that Moses “had no mother, but only a Father, who is also Father of the universe… [He] was from the body and without a body.” Questions and Answers on Exodus, II.46. In On the Life of Moses, however, the description of Moses’ ancestry is more down to earth. He was “by birth a Hebrew, but he was born, and brought up, and educated in Egypt, his ancestors having migrated into Egypt with all their families…. And his father and mother were among the most excellent persons of their time.” On the Life of Moses, II.5-7.
Obviously, Philo intended to paint a more historical portrait of Moses for his Gentile audience than is typical of his other writings. He enacted and communicated this intent by adopting the biographical genre. Although genre criticism should allow for flexibility within genres, the example of Philo should also remind us that genre matters.
Update: See my new post comparing many of the genre features of On the Life of Moses with Luke-Acts.