Thursday, August 06, 2009

Are the Gospels Historical Biographies--Or Not?

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?


Sister Mary Agnes said...

Dr. Pitre, it is nice to get a post from you! I remember having a conversation with a Yale graduate once who was trying to argue that the Gospels did not intend to convey what Jesus actually said and did. I quoted this exact passage from Luke to her. She was amazed. It had never occurred to her that the Gospel writers used eyewitness testimony or had any concern for accuracy. Part of this was the classes she took at Yale that discussed the Bible and religion did not include the actual Bible as required reading . . . it is amazing what can happen when a person takes the time to really read what the scriptures say! There is a happy ending to the story: she married a wonderful practicing Catholic man, and has returned to the full practice of her faith.

Brant Pitre said...

Sr. Mary Agnes,

Thanks for the anecdote--ignorance of the primary texts is a HUGE problem when it comes to this question of genre. Presuppositions of scholars often dominate the discussion, and the actual data in the texts is all too frequently ignored.

For example, after reading your post, I went back and checked Vermes' index of Scripture passages to see what he does with Luke 1:1-4, which contradicts his analysis of the Gospel writers' historical aims. Not surprisingly--but very revealingly--Vermes never mentions Luke 1:1-4 in the entire book!

Sister Mary Agnes said...

It shows how distracted we human beings can get, even when trying to think about the things of God . . .

By the way, I am listening to your CD set on the Theology of St. Paul and absolutely loving it. Between you on CD and Michael Barber in person here at JP Catholic, I am getting a phenomenal education! Thanks for making those CD sets.

annem said...

Hi, I believe N T Wright recently said he thought anyone wondering what category the gospels belonged to had to take on Richard Burridge's splendid book, "What are the Gospels" which argues that the gospels fall into the category of ancient bios, biographies. By the way, Dr Pitre, PLEASE tell us if you come across any decent book of biblical scholarship written by an orthodox scholar. God bless, Anne

annem said...

WHAT audio tapes on Paul? Where can I get them??
God bless, Anne

Sister Mary Agnes said...

Dear Anne,

On the side of this blog, under the blue bar that says Links to Brant Pitre's stuff, the third link down is for Catholic Productions. It has loads of CD sets Dr. Pitre has done. The one I mentioned in the comment earlier today is his 17 CD set on the Theology of St. Paul. This is the link directly to that one:

I also recommend his CD set on Romans--I think that one is 5 CD's. The other big set I have listened to is Eucharistic Theology, which is absolutely astounding. I have lots of his small CD sets. I would easily recommend any of them. Dr. Pitre has a real gift of explaining the scriptures in a way that is easy to understand. I really found St. Paul way too confusing until I heard some of these CD's. Plus, the Catholic Production website has downloadable outlines for most (or probably all) the CD's, so you have the benefit of an outline while listening.

I hope this helps.

God Bless,

Sister Mary Agnes

Sister Mary Agnes said...


Michael Barber does great talks to, and his CD's are on St. Joseph Communications website. (link is on the right of this blog) I just don't buy his right now because I get to hear him in person. After I graduate and I get Michael Barber withdrawal, I will start buying his too.

God Bless!

Paul said...

Dr. Pitre,
Once again you hit the nail on the head. My question is, is there definitive proof of the Gospels being the end- product of a long period of anonymous oral tradition?" If not, how can scholars keep arguing with no clear evidence to support their claim?

e said...

Anne - The Biblical Christology (particularly relevant to this thread) and The Bible and The Mass are also excellent!

Richard Fellows said...


your take on the state of gospels scholarship is very similar to my take on Acts scholarship (about which I know more). I think you are right. There could be two reasons why there is such unsubstantiated skepticism of the historicity of Acts (and the gospels).

Firstly, there may be an over-reaction to what is perceived to be conservative apologetics.

Secondly, the texts have been exhaustively studied and the field is very competitive. The underlying assumption that the texts are historical does not allow an author to say much that has not already been said. If, on the other hand, we abandon historicity, the door is opened to all sorts of hypotheses, PhDs, papers, and books (and tenure!). Thus, it is not surprising that many (most?) publications in the field abandon historicity. I am not saying that any author takes a certain view in order to be published. Rather I am suggesting that there is a process of selection.

Two comments on the Vermes quotation that you gave:
1. "It is generally agreed that" is an appeal to authority and makes me wonder if we are looking at a naked emperor.
2. Vermes assumes a dichotomy between biography and preaching material. He seems to have overlooked the possibility that people preached what they believed had actually happened.

Anders Branderud said...

You write: “
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? “

The question is what the first century historical man Ribi Yehoshua (ha-Mashiakh, The Messiah) from Nazareth taught: A logical analysis of the historical documents and archaeology shows what he taught and how to follow him.

Learn more here:
Anders Branderud
Geir Tzedeq, Netzarim

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