F The Gospels as Biographies

Bultmann led questers up another false trail by his strong assertion that 'There is no historical-biographical interest in the Gospels'.57 The influence of this view, that the Gospels are not biographies of Jesus, persists to the present day.58 However, it is too little recalled that on this point Bultmann was reacting against the Liberal questers' confidence that they could penetrate back into Jesus' self-consciousness and could trace the development of his self-understanding as Messiah (messianic self-consciousness).59 Kahler had already responded to the Liberal questers by observing that the real sources for such attempts were the questers' own imaginations, an unfortunate extension of the historical principle that teaching in some way; ironically he has to cite Jesus explicitly precisely because he is qualifying what Jesus was known to have said. In contrast, the allusive reminder of Jesus' teaching elsewhere effectively indicates that the authority of that teaching required neither justification nor qualification.

55. See below, §8.3g. The growing recognition that Paul's letters depend in at least some measure for their coherence on underlying 'stories' which he assumed is indicated by B. W. Longenecker, ed., Narrative Dynamics in Paul: A Critical Assessment (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002).

56. See further C. F. D. Moule, 'Jesus in New Testament Kerygma' (1970), Essays in New Testament Interpretation (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1982) 37-49, who quotes J. Munck with effect: 'It is important at the outset to realize that though we have none of Paul's sermons, they must have differed in form at least from his letters' (41 n. 12).

57. Bultmann, History 372.

58. Albrecht begins his article on 'The Gospels and Greek Biography' in Stuhlmacher, ed., The Gospel and the Gospels 361-86, by recalling that 'every theological student is warned in his first semester against reading the four canonical Gospels as biographies of Jesus' (361).

59. Hence Bultmann's much quoted view 'that we can know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus, since the early Christian sources show no interest in either' (cited above §5.3 at n. 36; see also chapter 4 n. 49).

of analogy (§6.3c). The point was, as Kahler makes clear, that the original questers were attempting to write biographies on the model of the nineteenth-century biography, with its interest in the personal life and development of the biographical subject.60 So what Bultmann was actually decrying was the attempt to write a modern biography of Jesus.

Since the 1970s, however, the question of the Gospels' genre has come under increasingly close scrutiny, and it has become much clearer that the Gospels are in fact very similar in type to ancient biographies (Greek bioi; Latin vitae).61 That is, their interest was not the modem one of analysing the subject's inner life and tracing how an individual's character developed over time. Rather, the ancient view was that character was fixed and unchanging;62 and the biographer's concern was to portray the chosen subject's character by narrating his words and deeds.63 Which is just what we find in the Synoptic (indeed all the canonical) Gospels,64 though not, it should be noted, in the other Gospels now frequently drawn into the neo-Liberal quest. Moreover, it is clear that common purposes of ancient bioi were to provide examples for their readers to emulate, to give information about their subject, to preserve his memory, and to defend and promote his reputation.66 Here again the Gospels fit the broad genre remarkably well.67 Of course, it remains true that the Gospels were never simply biographical; they were propaganda; they were kerygma. But then neither were ancient biographies wholly dispassionate and objective (any more than modern biographies).68 In other words, the overlap between Gospel and ancient biography remains substantial and significant.

In short, the genre itself tells us at once that there was a considerable historical interest in the formulating, retelling, and collecting into Gospel format of the material which now comprises the Synoptic Gospels.69 This should hardly

60. Kahler, Historical Jesus 55, 63.

61. See particularly D. Aune, The New Testament in Its Literary Environment (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1987) chs. 1 and 2; R. A. Burridge, What Are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-RomanBiography (SNTSMS 70; Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1992),both with further bibliography; Burridge reviews the earlier protests against the critical dogma (the Gospels not biographies) in ch. 4; D. Frickenschmidt, Evangelium als Biographie. Die vier Evangelien im Rahmen antiker Erzahlkunst (Tübingen: Francke, 1997).

62. Aune, Literary 28, 63; though note also Burridge, Gospels 183-84.

63. Aune, Literary 30; Burridge, Gospels 144, 150-52, 176-77, 186-88.

64. Aune, Literary 57; Burridge, Gospels particularly 205-206, 211-12.

66. Aune, Literary 36, 62; Burridge, Gospels 150-52, 186-88.

67. Aune, Literary 57-58; Burridge, Gospels 214-17.

68. Recall again the attempts to 'explain' Hitler (above, chapter 6 n. 28).

69. F. Downing has argued that in terms of the features of the ancient bios (biography) adduced by Burridge, Q itself can be designated a bios ('Genre for Q and a Socio-Cultural surprise us. As Richard Burridge points out: 'biography is a type of writing which occurs naturally among groups of people who have formed around a certain charismatic teacher or leader, seeking to follow after him'. And later on he quotes Momigliano's comment that 'The educated man of the Hellenistic world was curious about the lives of famous people'.70 Which brings us back more or less to where we started (chapter 2, §6.2).

To sum up, there is substantial circumstantial evidence on two points. First, that the earliest churches would have wanted to remember and actually did remember and refer to Jesus tradition, provided for them as foundational tradition by their founding apostle(s). And second, that the Gospels attest to a lively interest among the first Christians in knowing about Jesus, in preserving, promoting, and defending the memory of his mission and in learning from his example.

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