Ever wondered what people who lived in the time of the early church would have thought when they read one of the accounts of Jesus written a few decades after His death? Well, according to Richard France, they would have seen Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as biographies–in some sense just like any other book written to tell others about someone’s life. They had that kind of literature back then (it was called bios, or bioi in the plural). And yet, as they began to read, they would have immediately noticed that these were no ordinary biographies. Here, France discusses the Gospe according to Mark in particular:
How is Mark like other ancient biographies?
The earliest titles we have for this book call it Euangelion kata Markon (“The Good News According to Mark”), and there is general agreement that this designation derives from the term Mark uses in his own heading to the book, arche ton euangeliou (the beginning of the good news)… There is, however, equally broad agreement that when Mark wrote those words he was not using euangelion to designate a literary genre, but simply to indicate the nature of the subject matter of his work: it is a presentation in written form of the ‘good news’ about which Jesus was and is the subject of the church’s teaching and mission. Mark did not say to himself, ‘I am now going to write a euangelion’; it was only as it became necessary for the church to find a suitable label for this category of literature, church books about Jesus, that Mark’s heading provided them with one. Once the term had become established as a designation for the four canonical versions of the one euangelion (so that to Euangelion kata Markon is properly translated not ‘the gospel [book] by Mark’ but ‘the [one] gospel in Mark’s version’) it became available as a literary label for other works about Jesus which came to be written from the second century onwards, however different in character they may have been from the narrative ‘gospels’ of the first century. Hence the Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Peter, Gospel of Philip, Gospel of Truth, Gospel according to the Hebrews, and the like. The term which for Mark had designated the (hitherto oral) message of the first-century churches had thus come to mean something like ‘a church book about Jesus’.
But if Mark did not have a pre-existing literary genre called euangelion to conform to, how might he and those who first read his book have perceived its nature? It is a book about Jesus, a historical figure of the recent past, whom the writer wishes to introduce and commend to his readers, and he achieves this aim by telling the story of (part of) his life and his death together with a selection of his teaching. Such a description sounds like what most people would call a biography. Fifty years ago we were drilled in the critical orthodoxy of the form-critical school which insisted that the gospels were not to be seen as biographies, but since then there has been a massive swing in scholarly opinion on this point, and increasingly sophisticated study of the nature of biographical writing in the ancient world has led to a general recognition that, for all the distinctiveness of its Christian content and orientation, in terms of literary form Mark’s book (and those of Matthew, Luke and John) would have seemed to an educated reader in the first century to fall into roughly the same category as the lives of famous men pioneered by Cornelius Nepos and soon to reach their most famous expression in the ‘Parallel Lives’ of Plutarch. Of course there is no one comprehensive description of ‘biographical’ writing which would fit all the varied attempts in classical and Jewish literature to present the lives of famous people… But somewhere within this broad range of bioi the reader coming to Mark’s book for the first time would be likely to feel that it belonged.
How is Mark unlike other Ancient Biographies?
But while to assign a book to a literary genre may help us to appreciate the parameters within which its original readers might have been expected to make sense of it, it is not to say all there is to be said about it. Genre is ‘a dynamic, not a static, concept’. Just as there is a wide variety among Graeco-Roman ‘biographies’, so Mark is his own master, not bound to follow a pattern laid down by someone else. His book represents something distinctive within the field of biographical writing, in terms of its subject, its origin, and the use for which it was intended. Each of these deserves a brief mention here.
Lucas Grollenberg interestingly draws our attention to the account given by the German classical scholar Gunther Zuntz of his first encounter with Mark’s gospel. Thoroughly at home in the literature of the Roman empire, Zuntz, we are told, was nonetheless quite unfamiliar with Christianity and its literature, and thus came to Mark with a freshness of perception impossible to most modern Christian readers. His response thus represents, says Grollenberg, ‘what this book must have looked like to an educated reader of the first century of our era’. Zuntz speaks of his ‘strong impression’ that
‘something very important was being put forward here with a superior purpose and concentration throughout the book…The style and content of the story arouse a feeling of otherness, a feeling that this is not a history like other histories, not a biography like other biographies, but a development of the actions, sayings, and suffering of a higher being on his way through this anxious world of human beings and demons.’
While Zuntz attributes the ‘feeling of otherness’ to both styles and content, it is the latter which dominates his comment. And I suspect that in the first century a reader familiar with other bioi would have had a similar ‘feeling of otherness’, for the simple reason that Jesus is not like other people, and so a ‘biography’ of Jesus is not like other people, and so a ‘biography’ of Jesus will also be ‘not like other biographies’, especially if it is written by one of his followers who believes him to be the Son of God and to be still alive as the object of unconditional allegiance, rather than a noble figure of the past to be imitated.
As for the ‘style’, I do not think that Zuntz can have meant that Mark’s Greek style as such promoted a feeling of otherness, unless it be by its sheer lack of literary sophistication…in comparison with that of other biographers. I suspect he was thinking more of the whole conception of the book and of its capacity to shock and to subvert comfortable literary expectations. Thus, while there is no doubt that Jesus is the ‘hero’ of this story, Mark seems to make a point of portraying him as unrecognized and rejected, even humiliated, continually let down and eventually deserted by even his closest associates, and the eventual victim of a hostile establishment. If it were not for what Zuntz calls ‘a last comforting lightning flash’, this story, read outside the Christian context of faith and hindsight, would be that of a heroic failure. This is not the stuff of which ancient biography is made, unless it is intended (as Mark’s is surely not) as satire. … It is this rather than stylistic sophistication which contributes to the ‘feeling of otherness’ experienced by those who come to this extraordinary little book without the ‘benefit’ of Christian conditioning.
–R.T. France, The Gospel of Mark