Saturday, December 27, 2014

Were the titles of the Gospels added later? The implications of the genre question

James McGrath has kindly linked over to a post I wrote a while back in which I briefly mention an article by Simon Gathercole. Gathercole meticulously examines the extant manuscripts of the Gospels and demonstrates that there is no textual evidence--not a shred!--to support the commonly held scholarly theory that the titles of the Gospels were added later.

James' post also includes a link back to a previous one he wrote on the topic. Although I missed it, I noted that he had written on the article long before I had.

In his earlier piece, James expresses openness to the possibility that the titles were original. He says,
It seems that, when the earliest texts are considered and both types of titles are considered, it may be that the widespread idea that the Gospels were originally anonymous may need to be discarded.
I have enjoyed reading James' thoughts on this.

There is one key dimension of the issue of the authorship question he doesn't mention though that I'd like to raise here.

James also links over to a post by Bart Ehrman that focuses on the very issue I'd like to address: the implications the genre of the Gospels has on the issue of anonymity. Ehrman writes,
. . . the Gospel writers saw themselves as writing in a genre that did not require a self-identification of an author.
Ehrman argues that the Gospel writers saw themselves as continuing the narrative of the historical books of the Old Testament.

Going on, he highlights the fact that the historical books were written as anonymous works.
The historical books of the Hebrew Bible (Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles) are anonymous. They are telling the history of the people of God, not based on the authority of the author but as a holy narrative of how God worked among his people. The names of the authors are unimportant and irrelevant in this kind of sacred history. Mark continues the sacred history, and like his predecessors, tells his story anonymously.
Ehrman acknowledges that other books recognized as scripture were closely identified with specific individuals, e.g., prophetic books like Malachi. But, he explains,
. . . as you probably know, the Hebrew Bible – in the sequence of books given in the original Hebrew — does not end with Malachi, the final prophet, the way the English Old Testament does. It ends with 2 Chronicles. . . And Mark picks up the story at that point, with the coming then of the Savior, Jesus.
Now, I'm a little surprised that he makes this argument. The canon of the Hebrew Bible was not codified in the first century. Yet Ehrman appears to assume that (1) the Gospel writers knew of a canon that ended with 1-2 Chronicles, (2) subscribed to this canon, and (3) assumed their readers did as well.

It is true that Josephus relates a canonical list that sounds quite similar to the Tanak (the modern Hebrew Bible), but Josephus does not tell us that it ended with 1-2 Chronicles. This is what he has to say,
"Our books, those which are justly accredited, are but two and twenty, and contain the record of all time. Of these, five are the books of Moses, comprising the laws and the traditional history from the birth of man down to the death of the lawgiver. This period falls only a little short of three thousand years. From the death of Moses until Artaxerxes, who succeeded Xerxes as king of Persia, the prophets subsequent to Moses wrote the history of the events of their own times in thirteen books. The remaining four books contain hymns to God and precepts fro the conduct of human life." Against Apion 1.38-41 [LCL, Thackery, 179]
There is a note in the Loeb Classical Library edition that explains the thirteen books written by "the prophets subsequent to Moses" are,
"Probably (1) Joshua, (2) Jd. + Ruth, (3) Sam., (4) Kings, (5) Chron., (6) Ezra + Neh., (7) Esther, (8) Job, (9) Isaiah, (10) Jeremiah + Lam., (11) Ezekiel, (12) Minor Prophets, (13) Daniel." 
While I'm not certain that this breakdown is correct (e.g., was Esther accepted?), I don't see any evidence from Josephus that 1-2 Chronicles were seen as the last books of the Hebrew Bible or that they came after books attributed to prophets. So Ehrman's argument appears problematic here.

Yet, in addition, I'm not sure Ehrman's argument regarding the genre of the Gospels follows. He seems to suggest that since the Gospels continue the story where the historical books leave off, they belong to the same genre. That also seems problematic.

Materially, yes, in the Gospels we have a continuation of Israel's story as found in the historical books. But that does not necessarily mean that the Gospels belong to the same genre category as, say, 1-2 Chronicles. 1-2 Chronicles continues the story that began in Genesis, but I doubt Ehrman thinks that the material in Genesis-Deuteronomy belongs in the same genre as 1-2 Chronicles.

We can also make an obvious observation from the other side of the Christian canon: the Apocalypse also, in a sense, continues the story of Jesus--though certainly it is of a different genre than the Gospels.

All of this underscores the possibility that the Gospels could be materially in continuity with the story of 1-2 Chronicles and yet be written in a different literary mode.

Ehrman argues that the best way to understand the genre of the Gospels is to view them in terms of the historical books of the Old Testament. I agree that there is certainly an influence here. I have no problem seeing the muted presence of the author in the narrative as, in part, an imitation of biblical historiography in general. Other features of the Gospels also seem indebted to biblical conventions.

However, again, "biblical historiography" is a rather broad category. Genesis, Joshua, Samuel, and Esther all fit into that category. Yet there are also subtle but important differences among these works that shouldn't be ignored.

Moreover--and this is really crucial--Ehrman also clearly recognizes that some of the books that relayed that story did in fact identify their contents with specific individuals (e.g., the prophets such as Malachi).

In fact, later Jewish tradition would even try to identify the historical books with specific figures.

So I'd actually make the counter argument--notwithstanding a few exceptions, Jewish tradition seems to have resisted the idea that the authors of the biblical books were to be understood as anonymous writers.

Now, to Ehrman's credit, he acknowledges that he is going out on a limb. He writes,
I’ve never seen this suggested in the scholarly literature before, which either means I came up with it myself (in which case, caveat lector!) or I haven’t read enough scholarly literature. 
Anyone familiar with his work knows that Ehrman is well read when it comes to biblical scholarship. But, after reading his post, which is admittedly short, I have to wonder if Ehrman might have a blindspot in his research.

Specifically, I wonder how much he has read on the question of the genre of the Gospels.

For one thing, Adela Yarbro Collins discusses biblical and post-biblical historiography in relation to the genre of the Gospels in her Mark commentary (Mark [Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007], 29). Citing the work of other scholars, Collins' treatment reveals that such works do not sufficiently explain the style of the Gospels.

In particular, I wonder how closely Ehrman has read Richard Burridge's seminal work, What Are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography (2d ed.; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

I think it is safe to say that Burridge's work on the topic of the genre of the Gospels has been well-received. Let me just mention a few reviews:
“. . . this volume ought to end any legitimate denials of the canonical Gospels’ biographical character. It has made its case.”--Charles Talbert, JBL 112 (1993): 714–15. 
“[Burridge’s work] will serve as a standard for future work.”--Lamar Cope, RelSRev 19 (1993): 264. 
“It will be difficult to take seriously any future study of the gospels’ genre which does not come to terms with his arguments.”--Christopher Bryan, Sewanee Theological Review 36 (1992): 173–74.
Burridge painstakingly analyzes many features of the Gospels and shows how they match up well with the contours of ancient Greco-Roman biographies, including, e.g.,
  • “Opening Features” (e.g., “Title”, “Opening Formulae / Prologue / Preface”)
  • Subject (e.g., Verbal Usage; “Allocation of Space”)
  • “External Features” (“Meter,” “Size and Length,” “Structure or Sequence,” “Literary Units”)
  • “Internal Features” (e.g., “Style,” “Tone/ Mood / Attitude / Values”)
Burridge's close analysis demonstrates that the Gospels would certainly have been read as works belonging to a specific genre: bios (ancient biography).

I want to be careful here. "Genre" is to some extent a fluid concept. We shouldn't simply imagine that the evangelists consciously thought, "I am writing a work in x type of genre, therefore, I must . . ." Just because a book belongs to a certain genre doesn't mean it necessarily had to conform in some sort of rigid and uniform way to a specific checklist of items.

I quite like Burridge's language; works in a genre share a "family resemblance"--they aren't necessarily identical twins. The Gospels certainly seem to be in the "family" of ancient biography.

Of course, others have also written on this genre classification (e.g., David Aune, Charles Talbert, Craig Keener, etc.). Another major contribution that should receive mention here is that of Adela Yarbro Collins (see the introductory material in her Mark commentary).

Now. . . back to the topic at hand. While the Gospels match up amazingly well with the features of bioi, there is one area of divergence scholars have noted: ancient Greco-Roman biographies typically had titles. 

In other words, it was unusual for biographies to be written anonymously.

The latter point, to my mind, is extremely significant and flies in the face of Ehrman's argument. Ehrman is right that in looking at the question of the titles of the gospels, one must ask the crucial question of genre. We must ask: are the Gospels the kind of literary works that could be written without titles as anonymous works?

Is it possible that the Gospels were written as unusual kinds of bioi, specifically, as anonymous works? Of course. Again, genre is to an extent a fluid concept.

But scholarship is not simply about discovering what is possible. The key question is, what is most probable. 

As Collins observes, if the titles were added later in the reception history, we would expect to see much more variation in the attributions. We don't see that.

With that in mind, and given Gathercole's work on the manuscript tradition, I think we ought to say that it is more probable than not that the Gospels' authors were not anonymous. If the titles were not from their hand, they were at least most likely included as soon as they were circulated publicly because their authorship was somehow already known.

The improbable is always possible, but any scholar who chooses to simply argue for what is possible against an option that seems more probable should likely reassess their position.


Jeremy Priest said...

Very well argued, Michael. Thanks.
Also, might we say that if Bauckham and others are correct about the Gospels presenting themselves as eyewitness testimony, it seems logical that they would have been interested in having a clear attribution?

Peter M. Head said...

On the bibliography question see Armin Baum's 'The Anonymity of the New Testament History Books: A Stylistic Device in the Context of Greco-Roman and Ancient Near Eastern Literature' Nov T 50 (2008), 120-142.
This argues pretty much what Bart was saying as quoted in your blog.

Michael Barber said...


Thanks a million for the reference. That is very helpful.

Michael Barber said...


Thanks a million for the reference. That is very helpful.

The Deuce said...

It seems particularly obvious that Luke's Gospel must've had attribution to him from the get-go. After all, both of his books are addressed to Theophilus, and Acts refers back to his previous writing of Luke, so it's obvious that Theophilus knew who the works were coming from.