What is the genre of the Gospel of John and why does it matter? The latter question is easy to answer. It matters because “identification of a work’s genre helps us understand its place within the literary history . . . and aids us in its interpretation.” A.R. Cross, "Genres of the New Testament," in Dictionary of New Testament Background, eds. Craig Evans and Stanley E. Porter, page 402. When you pick up a contemporary book, you start with the knowledge that what you are reading is a romance, a science text book, a science fiction novel, a biography, or a book of history. That knowledge informs how you understand the text you are reading, such as reading how spaceship's propulsion system works in a scientific textbook or a Star Trek "technical manual". Or a scene of combat found in a historical novel or a biography of a medal of honor winner. Although these accounts may be described in similar ways, one you accept as true and the other you treat as fiction. The distinction comes not necessarily from the account itself, but the broader genre of the work that contains it.
Given the importance of genre in understanding ancient writings, how does one go about determining the genre of an ancient document? I like the approach taken by Christopher Bryan in A Preface to Mark. I blogged on his approach to genre, which focuses on evaluating the dominant cluster of motifs.
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 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.
A Preface to Mark, page 13.
The reason genre is so helpful in interpreting ancient documents is because they provide us insight into the mind of the author and his audience. Genre “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.
Given the two elements of this contract, the author and the audience, I thought it would be helpful to begin by examining the author's stated intent and the audience's understanding of the Gospel of John. Future posts will examine more discrete, literary aspects of the Gospel of John to help determine genre.
Stated Authorial Intent
This section does not examine the identity of the author of the Gospel of John. Needless to say, if one concludes upon independent examination that this gospel was written by a disciple of Jesus, the likelihood that this disciple then decided to write a novel instead of a historical or biographical account is very low. In any event, regarding the author’s expressed intent, he emphasizes to his readers that the events about which he writes are “true.” They are not just profitable or useful, but what actually happened. In John 19:35, he writes, “And he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you also may believe.” Similarly, in John 21:24, “This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and wrote these things, and we know that his testimony is true.” John also stresses the truth of his witness -- through his account of John the Baptist' witness -- in John 10:40-41, "Then Jesus went back across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing in the early days. Here he stayed and many people came to him. They said, 'Though John never performed a miraculous sign, all that John said about this man was true.'"
Related to John's emphasis on reporting the truth is his emphasis on the "testimony" he records about Jesus. At least sixteen times John refers to "testimony" regarding Jesus, usually to demonstrate Jesus' high place and true mission. (1:19, 32; 2:25; 3:11, 22, 32; 4:39; 5:31, 32, 34, 36; 8:13, 14, 17; 19:35; 21:24). The Synoptics' references to "testimony" are fewer, and not generally linked directly to their depiction of Jesus. But in John, he relies on the "testimony" of John the Baptist, of the Father, and of Himself, as to His life and significance. Whatever our final assessment of the historical accuracy of the Gospel of John, therefore, the author communicates his intent to write about actual events. This is consistent with biography and historiography, but does not usually correspond to a novelistic intent.
Ancient fiction forms a very different understanding between the author and the audience. Its author does not intend, nor attempt, to pass off his work as "what really happened" and the audience did not receive it as such:
Fiction is not just a matter of the absence of other evidence; it depends rather on the conviction, engendered by the genre, that certain propositions are meant not to refer. Fiction presupposes a contract or collective understanding according to which the habit of reference is curbed or inhibited. It is this contract that discriminates fiction from falsity, which is failed reference.
David Konstan, "The Invention of Fiction,” in Ancient Fiction and Early Christian Narrative, eds. Ronald F. Hock, J. Bradley Chance, and Judith Perkins, page 7. In other words, what makes fiction, fiction is not that it is false or fails to correspond with reality, but that neither the author or the audience expects it to be true. “The implicit awareness on the part of writers and readers of the novel’s referential independence is what constitutes the genre as fiction.” Id. at 15.
It is important to distinguish “verisimilitude” from the perception of historical fact. Verisimilitude is the attempt to make a novel realistic, not to pass it off as a true account. It is best understood as a means to facilitate the willing suspension of disbelief in one’s readers by making a story pleasurable to read. Generally, ancient novels did not try to establish verisimilitude by assuring their readers that their stories were historically true or based on eyewitness accounts. Rather, they would do so by including exciting details or what passed as a local flavor of the locations in the account. Historical accuracy was a challenging enough feat for ancient historians and biographers, authors of ancient fiction usually lacked the motivation or ability to ensure it in their novels.
Although the novels written in the era of the gospels do not present themselves as "truth" and historical fact, a few other works of fiction from the ancient world contained such elements. None are comparable to the Gospel of John, however. First, for example, is The Wonders Beyond Thule, which B.P Reardon dates to the mid-second century AD or later. The work is known to us by a few fragments and a summary recorded by Photius, a Christian bishop of the Ninth Century. It a vast, 24-book epic tale of romance, travel and adventure, with exotic locations and peoples. The 'account" of the protagonists is purported to be recorded on clay tablets, buried, and uncovered years later. Notably, the author of The Wonders admits that he was "fabricating wondrous and false things" and Photius, though writing centuries later, clearly understands it as a "work of fiction." The account is then recorded on clay tablets, placed in a box with the writing "Stranger, whoever you are, open this box to learn what will amaze you." The box was hidden away until recovered by "King Alexander of Macedonia."
Another account of a fantastic journey -- this time to the moon, the underworld, and even the belly of a whale al la Pinocchio -- is A True Story, by Lucian. Although the narrative of the protagonist is in the first person, it is -- according to Reardon -- "above all,  a parody of literary 'liars' like Homer and Herodotus." Collected Greek Novels, page 619. Lucian writes that he has "no true story to relate" and that he is a 'liar" and that his subject is "things I have neither seen nor experienced nor heard tell of from anybody else; things, what is more, that do not in fact exist and could not ever exist at all. So my readers must not believe a word I say." Id. at 622.
There are also two accounts of the Trojan War that purport to be first hand accounts but are in fact completely fictitious: Dictys of Crete and Dares the Phrygian. Both are accounts of the Trojan War stripped of their supernatural elements but including romance. Both also claim to have been ancient accounts, lost for a centuries, and then later uncovered, much like the account of The Wonders. The account by Dictys was supposedly written in Phoenecian letters on bark tablets, buried, then found by shepherds in a collapsed tomb centuries later. The account of Dares was supposedly found by its translator centuries after it was authored while doing research in a library, who offered it as a counter to the Homeric tradition. Dares is dated to the Sixth Century AD. Dictys's to the Fourth. As with The Wonders, but unlike the Gospel of John, we have long lost accounts fortuitously revealed centuries after their origins. Obviously, the subject matter is strikingly different as well.
All told, the author's stated intent is much more consistent with a genre that presents itself as true accounts, likely historical in nature, such as a biography or historiography. Ancient forms of fiction, such as novels, did not usually emphasize the authenticity of their accounts. The few exceptions discussed above tend to date much later than the Gospel of John and are otherwise easily distinguished.
Reception by the Audience
Having examined the stated intent of the author, what about the other side of the genre equation? How did the early audience perceive the Gospel of John? An examination of its genre is unlikely, but we can see if they treated it as a historical account, as purely metaphor, as an entertaining and profitable novel. Thankfully, we have much earlier information about the reception of the Gospel of John than we do for any novel, which is itself evidence against it being considered fictitious. Based on this information, there is no evidence that the intended audience understood the Gospel of John to be anything other than a historical account of the life and teachings of Jesus.
The earliest possible evidence about the reception of the Gospel of John, is Papias. In the early Second Century AD, Papias expressed his understanding of the gospels of Mark and Matthew. Papias considered them to be factual accounts of the life and history of Jesus, written by people in a position to know the facts. Eusebius, Church History 3.39.15. But what about the Gospel of John? No extant writing explicitly attributes any discussion of the Gospel of John to Papias. However, a number of scholars have concluded that Eusebius, in 3.24.5-13, alludes to Papias' description of the Gospel of John. Charles E. Hill, "What Papias Said about John (and Luke): A New Papian Fragment," Journal of Theological Studies 49.2 (1998): 582-629. If true, then Papias refers to the Gospel of John in the same way he refers to Mark and Matthew, noting "the apostle John, being asked to do it for this reason, gave in his Gospel an account of the period which had been omitted by the earlier evangelists, and of the deeds done by the Saviour during that period; that is, of those which were done before the imprisonment of the Baptist." Id., 3.24.11.
Polycrates was a Christian leader in Ephesus from the mid-to-late second century AD. A letter which he wrote to a leader in the Roman Church is preserved by Eusebius. Church History, 5.24.2-7. Therein, he refers to "John, who was both a witness and a teacher, who reclined upon the bosom of the Lord, and, being a priest, wore the sacerdotal plate." 5.24.2. The reference to reclining is a clear reliance on the Gospel of John, and the reference to John as a "witness" suggests authorship of that Gospel. Indeed, a number of scholars have concluded that the reference to "a witness and a teacher" refer to John's authorship of the Gospel and the Epistles, respectively. In any event, Polycrates treats the passage from John as establishing a historical scene.
Justin Martyr writing in the mid-second century referred to the Gospels as the “memoirs” or “reminiscences” of the apostles. 1 Apology 66.3. See also 1 Apology 67.3. David Aune notes that given Martyr’s background as a philosopher his use of the term “reminiscences . . . suggests a connection with Xenophon’s Memorabilia . . . a ‘biography’ of Socrates.” Aune, op. cit., page 67. Similarly, writing in the mid-to-late second century, Theophilous of Antioch quotes the Gospel of John, attributes it to John, and refers to it not as fiction, romance, or a novel, but as "holy writings" that "teach us." To Autolyc. 2.22.
Another important piece of evidence is Tatian’s Diatessaron. Written around 160-170 AD, the Diatessoron is a biography of Jesus based on all four Gospels. Not only does Tatian use the Gospel of John in his harmony, but he makes it as the basis for the chronology into which the rest of the Gospels are incorporated. A little later, Irenaeus, writing in the late second century, refers to the Gospel of John as an account of Jesus' life. He directly attributes its authorship to one of Jesus' disciples: "John the disciple of the Lord, who leaned back on his breast, published the Gospel while he was resident at Ephesus in Asia.” Against Heresies 3.1.2.
I have not found any evidence indicating that the Gospel of John was understood by its audience to be fiction. This does not mean that everyone accepted it as accurate history. For example, a group known as the Alogi, dating from the second century, rejected the Gospel of John and Revelation as having been written by the disciple John. Their rejection, however, was not based on the concerns about the genre of the Gospel of John, but on its doctrines concerning the Holy Spirit. Irenaeus, Adv. Haer., 3.2.9. Believing a document is in error, or is historically inaccurate, however, is not the same as understanding it as a work of fiction. Accordingly, the reception of the Gospel of John by its earlier readers also weighs in favor of understanding it as a form of biography or historiography.
In future posts I will continue to examine the genre of the Gospel of John, focusing on more direct literary elements of the Gospel of John.