The Genre of the Gospel of John: Subject Matter (Part 2)

In my opening post on the genre of the Gospel of John, I explored the expressed intent of the author and the Gospel’s reception by its audience. John’s emphasis on eyewitness testimony and imparting the truth about Jesus were consistent with genres such as ancient biography and historiography but not consistent with ancient fiction, such as novels or wondrous travel tales. However, to develop an accurate understanding of John’s genre we must review the dominant cluster of elements rather than just a few, albeit important ones. To that end, this post proceeds to examine what the Gospel of John’s subject matter indicates as to genre.

Put simply, the subject matter of the Gospel of John is Jesus. From beginning to end, the focus is on Jesus, with the goal of demonstrating that Jesus is the Christ. That information is not just interesting, but is crucial to the reader. In John’s own words, “many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.” John 20:30-31.

The focus on one man and the significance of his life is typical of ancient biography. “The evangelist’s expressed purpose in writing the gospel provides a clear biographical intent with the whole focus upon the person of Jesus: it is an account of ‘signs’ which he did, that people may believe who he is, and have life in him. Secondly, 20:31 contains two purpose clauses, expressed by iva plus the subjunctive; the first declares and evangelistic aim (‘that you may believe’) and the second a practical one (‘that you may have life’)....” Richard Burridge, What Are the Gospels?, page 230. To quantify what seems obvious, Richard Burridge conducted a “study of the subject, verbal analysis and allocation of space,” of the gospels and a number of ancient literary works and concluded “that the Fourth Gospel displays very similar results from these generic features to those already discovered in the Synoptics gospels and Graeco-Roman Bioi.” Burridge, op. cit., pages 217-18. Burridge discovered that “over half the verbs [of John] are taken up with Jesus’ deeds or words, performed by him or spoken by him.” Ibid., pages 216-17. An examination of John’s allocation of space reveals a similar focus on the person of Jesus. "In terms of allocation of space, the last week of Jesus' life dominates this gospel (one third), as is also the case with Greco-Roman bioi, such as Agricola (26 percent devoted to Mons Grauoius); Agesilaus (37 percent to the Persian campaign); Cato Minor (17.3 percent to the last days); and Apollonius of Tyana (26.3 percent to the imprisonment dialogues, trial, death, and subsequent events)." Ibid., page 217.

Because John's focus on Jesus as his subject matter is well settled, is there anything about that focus that is inconsistent with ancient biography? “Within our period, three kinds of persons generally seem to have been regarded as the proper subject of Hellenistic “lives”: public figures such as statesmen, generals, and monarchs; literature figures such as orators or poets; and philosophers and sages.” Christopher Bryan, A Preface to Mark, page 37. While Jesus fits the bill as a philosopher or sage, he is presented in all of the gospels, including John, as more than that. Jesus is on a divine mission, performs miracles, and reveals the teachings of God. Christopher Bryan suggests out that although the presentation of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark fits the biography bill in many ways, the focus on divine purpose and miracle working were not common in ancient biographies, though there were exceptions, such as The Life of Apollonius, Life of Pythagoras, and Life of Pythagoras. If true, the same could be said of the Gospel of John.

Does this disqualify John as a biography? It should not. Bryan goes on to conclude that Mark, despite miracles and divine mission, is an ancient biography. No other genre would appear to be as appropriate a vehicle in Greco-Roman literature to spread the word about the importance of Jesus. Also, as noted, there are notable exceptions even among Greco-Roman biographies that have some similar elements, though these are dated later than John.

Furthermore, the genres of the ancient world were not so strictly defined. They were more fluid and shaped to an extent by the occasion and topic at issue. See Burridge, op. cit., page 63 ("The boundaries between Bios and any of the general proxima are flexible, and so borrowing or sharing of generic features across the border is to be expected."). Therefore, we must take into account the cultural and religious background of the subject, the authors, and the audience. Here, that context is strongly Jewish and the cultural and literary influence of the Hebrew Bible -- heavily miracle and divine laden -- must be taken into account.

The importance of the Hebrew Bible to the author of the Gospel of John is undeniable. Indeed, it is likely that the author saw himself as writing a continued scriptural account of God's works on earth. The gospel authors "started out with a 'canonical consciousness,' that is, with a sense that they continued to write Scripture in continuity with antecedent Scripture. In keeping with this 'canonical consciousness,' the evangelists imitated and took their cue not only from the theology of the Hebrew Scriptures, but also from its underlying historiographic and linguistic conventions.” Andreas J. Kostenberger, A Theology of John's Gospel and Letters, page 108. As explained by Loveday Alexander, “It is to the biblical tradition, surely, that we should look for the origins of the 'religious intensity' of the gospel narratives and their rich ideological intertextuality with the biblical themes of convent, prophecy and promise - all features hard to parallel in Greek biography." Alexander, "What is a Gospel?" in The Cambridge Companion to the Gospels, ed. Stephen C. Barton, pages 27-28.

Kostenberger goes so far as to posit that the genre of the Gospel of John is the same as books in the Hebrew Bible. “One obvious candidate for the genre classification of the Gospels would therefore seem to be that of historical narrative as found in Jewish works, particularly in the Hebrew Scriptures. In this regard, any similarity to Greco-Roman literature on the part of the canonical Gospels (including John's gospel) may be attributable to the evangelists' desire to contextualize their message to a Greco-Roman audience." Kostenberger, op. cit., page 108. Is the genre of John, then, not from ancient biography but to be found among the books of the Hebrew Bible? Not in my opinion. Although the Jewish context explains important aspects of the Gospel of John -- such as the divine mission, prophecy, and miracles --, the gospel’s subject matter nevertheless points much more firmly to Greco-Roman biography.

Jewish historiography -- including that found in the Hebrew Bible -- tends to have events dominate the narrative rather than the person. This is true even of Jewish books devoted to particular persons, such as Job, Ruth, Judith, Jonah, and the like. Craig Keener notes that "only rarely is a document devoted to a person in such a way that that it would be called biography . . . usually the treatment of an individual is part of a larger narrative." Keener, The Gospel of John, page 26. Greco-Roman biographies, on the other hand, "tended to promote a particular hero or important person. Similarly, the Gospels may be said to focus on and promote a "hero'." Kostenberger, op. cit., page 114. The analysis noted above demonstrates John's overwhelming focus on the life and teachings of Jesus. This level of focus itself is not gleaned from Jewish historiography, but from ancient biography. As explained by Burridge, the Gospel of John "displays the same exaggerated skew effect which is typical of Bioi in both Jesus' activity in the narrative and in the large amount of his teaching." Burridge, op. cit.,page 216-17.

Further confirmation of this conclusion is provided by an example of ancient biography not mentioned by C. Bryan: Philo’s biography of Moses, the Life of Moses, which was written for a gentile audience. Philo was likely more hellenized than the author of the Gospel of John and is well known for his highly allegorical approach to the Hebrew Bible. Nevertheless, as I discuss here, when he turned his pen to writing a biography, Philo gives a rather straightforward account of Moses' life, clearly recognized as ancient biography according to the literary conventions of the time. More to the point, The Life of Moses, written in the mid-first century, shows us what can happen when a Jewish author writing under the influence of Jewish literary history and conventions writes a biography for a largely non-Jewish audience. The result is similar to what we see in the Gospels, Greco-Roman biographical focus and other literary conventions heavily influenced by Jewish ideas, including God's intervention in human affairs and spectacular miracle accounts. Philo has it all, the burning bush as God's call and purposing of Moses with divine mission, the staffs turning into snakes, the water in Egypt turned to blood, and so on. These elements do not convert The Life of Moses into Jewish historiography but it does show how a Jewish biographical account presented pursuant to Greco-Roman literary conventions may look.

Having leaned towards biography and ruled out Jewish historiography as a genre--though certainly not as a literary influence--, are there other potential genres we should consider in light of John's subject matter? Perhaps Greco-Roman historiography. Certainly there are some similarities between John and historiography in important elements (as I note here and will discuss in future posts), but biography is clearly a superior genre in explaining John's subject matter. As with ancient Jewish historiography, Greco-Roman historiography's subject matter is broader than one person (even an important one), tending to cover the rise and fall of nations, movements, or wars.

How about some form of epic or myth building poetry as a better explanation for John's subject matter? These are also unlikely to explain the Gospel of John's focus on Jesus. As Burridge’s analysis shows, other kinds of literary works, such as the Iliad and the Odyssey, did not devote nearly the space or focus on particular characters despite having key, notable characters. Nor did they tend to cover near-time events, such as John did.

What about some form of ancient fiction? Many classicists place the rise of the ancient novel in the first and second centuries, AD. As with ancient historiography and epics, however, the subject matter of ancient novels does not explain John's focus on Jesus. The principal focus of the ancient novel is a young man and woman involved in the central romantic relationship and the challenges their love must face and overcome. “The main characters in the story are a young man and a young girl from distinguished families and of incomparable beauty; either as newly-weds or after their betrothal they set out on a long journey to far-off lands and undergo, together or separately, a series of in the main harrowing experiences.” Niklas Holzberg, The Ancient Novel, An Introduction, page 9. Another classicist puts it this way: “For all their differences, the surviving Greek erotic novels exhibit a broad affinity in the structure of their plots. All revolve about a relationship, invariably heterosexual, between a primary couple; the relationship is subjected to, and survives, a series of stresses and obstacles that involve the protagonists in a more or less conventional sequence of adventures.” David Konstant, “Apollonius, King of Tyre and the Greek Novel,” in The Search for the Ancient Novel, ed. James Tatum, page 173. These elements are clearly not the focus of the Gospel of John.

But perhaps some other form of ancient fiction? As discussed in the prior post, the wondrous tales like The Wonders Beyond Thule do not seem to fit, as they lack the singular focus on one character and are clearly fictitious. So too does the perhaps related satirization of such epics by Lucian in True History. The two fictitious accounts of the Trojan War, Dictys Cretensis and Dare Phrygius, also do not fit the bill. They are not contemporaneous in time to the gospels and their subject matter is the Trojan War, more akin to the Homeric tales. Dictys Cretensis is similar to the Iliad and Odyssey, a purported diary of a besieger of Troy who witnesses its fall and recounts his journey home. Dare Phrygius was "written no earlier than the fifth century A.D." and is described as a "poem on the destruction of Troy." The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature, ed. M.C. Howatson, page 169. Further, these accounts are clearly fictitious, being introduced by explanations as to how these lost accounts were found for later generations. Their subject matter, even setting aside the context of the Trojan War, are also broader than biography.

All told, the subject matter of the Gospel of John is more akin to Greco-Roman biography than any other genre candidate. The subject matter is no doubt influenced by the Jewish literature and religious background of its author and audience, but as a matter of genre, biography remains the best explanation of the subject matter.


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