Michael and I had a great time at the Catholic Biblical Association this past weekend.
Among the highlights of the weekend--the chief of which was meeting biblioblogger Jim West and being invited to a semi-liturgical ritual honoring Rudolf Bultmann, an invitation which we respectfully declined--was a lecture by John P. Meier summarizing the results of his fourth volume on the historical Jesus, A Marginal Jew: Volume 4, Law and Love (New York: Yale University Press, 2009).
Over the course of Meier's presentation, it became evident to me how fundamentally the question of the literary genre of the Gospels affects the way one deals with the historicity of various passages in the Gospels. If one, for example, takes the classical form-critical view that all four Gospels are the end-products of a long period of anonymous oral tradition, one will evaluate the historicity of episodes differently than if one thinks that they are historical biographies.
In that light, I recently found a rather revealing quote from Geza Vermes, at the beginning of his famous book, Jesus the Jew (Fortress, 1973). Vermes spends all of a paragraph on the important question of the genre of the Gospels (which is about one paragraph more than most books on the historical Jesus). In it, he says the following:
"It is generally agreed that, whilst maintaining a definite interest in time, space, and circumstance, the Synoptists did not aim to write history proper. Although they adopted the biographical literary form, their life of Jesus was intended principally as a vehicle for the preaching of the early Church. In consequence, however brilliantly analysed, the Gospels cannot be expected to provide more than a skeletal outline of Jesus of Nazareth as he really was." (Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew, 42)
This is a fascinating quote. First , it reveal Vermes admitting that the literary genre of the Gospels is that of ancient biographies. Like biographies, they maintain a "definite interest in time, space, and circumstance," and they even adopted the biographical "literary form." Despite this, admission, Vermes goes on to claim that even though the Gospels 'look like' biographies, they aren't; rather, he claims the Gospels are a vehicle for "preaching." I don't know what ancient literary genre he has in mind here, but it seems to me like he's involved in a category mistake in which he is forcing the Gospels into the mold of say, the letter to the Hebrews, or James. But is that what they really are? Not biographies, but "preaching"? Really?
Second--and this is important--this quote shows that Vermes' skepticism about the Gospels ability to tell us anything more than a "skeletal outline" of Jesus' life derives principally from his decisions about their genre. Because they aren't biographies, they can't tell us very much about what biographies usually tell us about: what their subjects did and said.
Now, all this begs an important question: What if Vermes is wrong? What if the Gospels look like historical biographies because that's what they are? That is, after all, how genre usually works. What if, for example, when Luke says he intends to give an "accurate" account of what Jesus did and said, based on the testimony of "eyewitnesses" (Luke 1:1-4), he actually means it?