CADRE Comments

A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

A helpful, concise discussion about determining the genre of literary works is A Preface to Mark, by Christopher Bryan. Genre is, of course, an important first step in properly understanding the purpose and meaning of any ancient document. The strength of Bryan’s discussion about determining genre is the concise two points he makes about the nature of genre and his use of contemporary as well as classical examples.

First, “genre involves a cluster of elements. So striking are these elements that we can entirely understand why one might be tempted to regard them as ‘rules.’ Yet they are not precisely ‘rules,’ for they need not all be present in one example. The genre of a particular work is established by the presence of enough generic motifs in sufficient force to dominate.” A Preface to Mark, page 13.

Second, “a work of one genre may contain motifs from another. This means that in establishing genre we need to identify the dominant cluster of motifs: just one or two will not do.” Ibid.

Bryan uses the classic western movie genre as an example. There are several common motifs in the classical western: “big skies and open country” vistas, the good man alone (or with a few chosen companions) fighting for justice, the bad men terrorizing the town, the saloon girl with a heart of gold, the town drunk, and the final shoot out. Additionally, the geographic and time setting are, of course, powerful genre indicators.

High Noon is one of the most lauded of classic westerns. It has the right geographic and time setting, as well as the lone good man and final shootout, but it lacks the town drunk. Thus, we have a cluster of elements indicating that High Noon is a classic western although it lacks some motifs common to that genre. Further, High Noon contains a more sophisticated romantic relationship than is typical of westerns. The presence of this element, which is central to romantic dramas, does not convert High Noon into a romantic drama. There are not enough romantic drama elements to make this a dominant cluster that would outweigh the classic western elements. Nevertheless, the inclusion of this element of romantic drama, set in an incontrovertibly western genre, has contributed to the high esteem in which High Noon has been held.

An example from classical literature is Tacitus’ Agricola (my own example rather than Bryan’s). Agricola focuses on Tacitus’ father-in-law, who was a successful Roman general and politician. It follows his career through the conquest of Britain and other dramatic events. Given the introduction, its subject, focus on that subject, length, and other factors, Agricola is best classified as an ancient biography. However, it is notable in that it contains significant elements of other genres, such as ethnography – more common in ancient historiography – and traditional funeral orations. The dominant cluster establishes Agricola as an ancient biography, despite the presence of elements from other genres. Although one cannot fully appreciate Agricola without understanding the non-biographical elements, one would gain an even more distorted picture of the writing if one ignored its biographical nature. In other words, the presence of elements of another genre should not be allowed to swallow the dominant genre attested by a stronger cluster of other elements.

Bryan uses a subgenre of classic westerns – the “U.S. cavalry type” – to make another point. Although typically in cavalry westerns, the heroic leader and his regiment survive the movie -- albeit sometimes with significant losses – in They Died With Their Boots On, we see the heroic leader – George Custer - and his troop wiped out to the last man. The reason for the departure is that even Hollywood was constrained by the tradition with which they were working. In fact, Custer and his regiment were wiped out and defeated, so no other ending was possible. Sometimes, the tradition with which a biographer or historian or author of some other type of work was constrained by the tradition with which they were working. Such considerations should be evaluated as part of the analysis of the cluster of genre elements.

Although it is beyond the scope of this post to make a comprehensive analysis of Mark’s genre, I would be remiss not to at least summarize Bryan’s conclusions. He concludes that the dominant cluster of elements – 8 out of 11 major features – establish the Gospel of Mark as an ancient Hellenistic biography. He also finds it significant that in two of the three outlying features, Mark was constrained from utilizing the typical biographical features by the tradition he had received about Jesus.

7 comments:

Very helpful comments by Dr. Bryan. I think his point about identifying the dominant cluster of generic motifs is especially important in NT studies, because ancient writers could incorporate elements from other genres while the overarching work would be in one specific genre.

Particularly (and I suspect this is where you're going with this train of thought), the gospels are still biographies even if they include some storytelling motifs more commonly seen in novels or in Scriptural midrash, for example.

Me, going somewhere? Not sure what you could possibly mean.

There are some good approaches to genre available, by Aune and Keener and Burridge, but I like how Bryan explains it so tightly.

And just for the record, I do think that Mark, Matthew, and John are ancient biographies but tend to think Luke is the first volume of a two volume work of ancient historiography. Still, it is hard to escape the the fact that Luke maintains a biographical focus on Jesus, its principal subject. Keener has stated Luke is a biography and Acts is ancient historiography, so I'll be interested in reading his forthcoming commentary on Acts. Perhaps I'll revise my current assessment. If Luke is biography, it is on the historical side with strong historiographical elements.

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And just for the record, I do think that Mark, Matthew, and John are ancient biographies but tend to think Luke is the first volume of a two volume work of ancient historiography. Still, it is hard to escape the the fact that Luke maintains a biographical focus on Jesus, its principal subject. Keener has stated Luke is a biography and Acts is ancient historiography, so I'll be interested in reading his forthcoming commentary on Acts. Perhaps I'll revise my current assessment. If Luke is biography, it is on the historical side with strong historiographical elements.

Meta:Koester says that John is an attempt at biography of the Logos. The prologue was added on to make the point that Sophia (the ggnostics goddess/wisdom) can't have a biography becasue she's just a metaphor, but the Logos became flesh and was a real man so it/he can have a bio.

that goes with his thinking that the John community was split between factions (based upon 1John and 3J) and one of the factions was gnostic and they split and went to Egypt. He doesn't say that explicitly but he does say the Textual evidence of the gospel makes it appear that the material was redacted over and and over again as though part of a debate and he does say there was a faction that split. I threw in that they went to Egypt and I am thinking that's how John Ryland's fragment wound up there.

Meta,

"Textual evidence?" As in, copy variants? Or does Koester mean source-critical seams? (Which considering what he's famous for, is what I would guess.)

The idea that GosJohn is a "biography of the Logos" vs. a (proto-)Gnostic Sophia myth is certainly intriguing; although I like Keener's idea better that it's structured as a trial biography (i.e. going over what the Pharisees were debating about among themselves concerning Jesus and whether He was supposed to be the return of the Presence or not.) The light/dark motifs can be demonstrably Jewish (as in Essene and/or Qumran) without necessarily being leftovers or insertions from a proto-Gnostic sect. (Pre-Gnostic, maybe, inasmuch as the Gnostic groups did love to use GosJohn for that imagery.)

{{If Luke is biography, it is on the historical side with strong historiographical elements.}}

That's Keener's position, too. (Have you read his new release last autumn? He wrote it after having drafted the Acts study, and mentions that his analysis was shaped by the results of that study.)

JRP

"Textual evidence?" As in, copy variants? Or does Koester mean source-critical seams? (Which considering what he's famous for, is what I would guess.)

>>>good point I was uncritical in my statement. I'm not sure I would have to read it again. I would think I should have said the latter.

"The idea that GosJohn is a "biography of the Logos" vs. a (proto-)Gnostic Sophia myth is certainly intriguing; although I like Keener's idea better that it's structured as a trial biography (i.e. going over what the Pharisees were debating about among themselves concerning Jesus and whether He was supposed to be the return of the Presence or not.) The light/dark motifs can be demonstrably Jewish (as in Essene and/or Qumran) without necessarily being leftovers or insertions from a proto-Gnostic sect. (Pre-Gnostic, maybe, inasmuch as the Gnostic groups did love to use GosJohn for that imagery.)"

>>>there's a lot more 'gnostically going on than just the light and dark stuff. But the main thing is the Gnostic content in Egypt that's associated with the Gospel of John. For example the similarities between Egerton 2 and John. It's clear the Gnostic in Egypt liked John, that they had an association with the John community would explain that. But the obvious link is the epistles. The guys opposing the Elder, and the Elder is concerned to combat this idea that Christ wasn't flesh. That whole conflict seems to suggest a gnostic faction.

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