Monday, February 18, 2008

King Herod's Mein Kampf and the Genre of the Gospels

Hello everyone!

Sorry Michael and I have been away. He has been extremely ill for a couple of weeks; I have no such excuse but the mountain of writing I'm engaged in.

Anyway, I was recently in Barnes and Noble and noticed a paperback edition of Adolf Hitler's "Mein Kampf" and passed over it with a disdainful look. I know such books are important for historical value, but that one is WAY down on my list of "to read..."

By contrast, this morning I was reading my new copy of Emil Schurer's revised and updated History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (T. & T. Clark)--which only goes for about $400-$600 for the whole set!!--when I learned something I had not known before: that another insane and murderous leader had written a book about himself: King Herod the Great! (Put "great" in quotes, please.)

As Schurer states: "Like other princely persons of that period, such as Augustus and Agrippa"--both really great guys--"Herod the Great also wrote his 'memoirs', which are mentioned once by Josephus":

And this account we give the reader, as it is contained in the memoirs of king Herod..." (Josephus, Antiquities 15.174; see Schurer, History, 1.26-27)

What is fascinating about this reference is that the Greek word for "memoirs" (hupomnemasin) can be found (in varying forms) as referring to the historical "memoirs" of great historical figures or their disciples (e.g., Xenophon's "memoirs" of Plato). Even more importantly, various forms of the word (e.g., Gk apomnemneumata) are used by Justin Martyr to describe the genre of the Gospels, which he calls "the memoirs of the apostles" (see discussion in Burridge, What are the Gospels?)

What is intriguing about this is that it shows that the writing of historical "memoirs" was not something that was confined to Greek culture, but that Herod the Great--half-Jew though he was--was evidently familiar enough with the historical memoirs of Augustus (or others) to desire to imitate them. Thus, we have evidence not only for biography in first-century Judaism, but autobiography that is referred to as a "memoir."

When we find Justin Martyr giving "memoir" as the earliest generic designation of the Gospels, this should be a strong clue against the Form-Critcial claim that they are "folkloric" compendia of anonymous collective oral tradition and rather the "memoirs" of eyewitnesses and those who consulted them (e.g., Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses). This was evidently a genre of literature that was alive and well in first-century Judaism.

(I don't know about you, but while there are many ancient works which I lament having been lost, I won't lose any sleep over this one...)


Anonymous said...

Is anyone actually claiming that the Gospels were not believed to be memoirs in the mid-second century?

Brant Pitre said...


Actually, yes. Most of the literature from the twentieth-century, if it even mentions Justin's description at all, tends to marginalize it as "mis-characterizing" the Gospels by (falsely) applying a Greek category to them.

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Unknown said...

This was evidently a genre of literature that was alive and well in first-century Judaism.
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