A Deeper Understanding of the Gospel

Author: Richard A. Burridge

A Deeper Understanding of the Gospel

Richard A. Burridge

In light of ancient biographies

Winner of the Joseph Ratzinger Prize 2013, along with Christian Schaller, Rev. Burridge has here provided a synthesis of the address he gave on 24 October at the Pontifical Lateran University during the symposium of the Joseph Ratzinger Foundation which concluded on Saturday morning, 26 October [2013], in the Vatican's Old Synod Hall.

Dei Verbum is clear that Revelation is 'per Christum, Verbum carnem factum', 'through Christ, the Word made flesh' (n. 2). Therefore Christology is central for understanding how God is active in history and for the interpretation of the gospels as the primary witness to the words and deeds of Jesus Christ. In order to grasp the intention of the gospel-writers, we must understand the literary genre of the gospels.

The younger Joseph Ratzinger was a peritus (theological consultant) to Cardinal Frings of Cologne at Vatican II and wrote the Commentary on Dei Verbum in 1968. After he became Pope Benedict, he convened the Synod of Bishops in October 2008 and published the post-Synod Exhortation on the Word of God as the encyclical, Verbum Domini (2010) in which he reaffirmed that the Second Vatican Council emphasized 'the study of literary genres and historical context as basic elements for understanding the meaning intended by the sacred author' (p. 48). This can be seen in the three volumes of his biography of Jesus of Nazareth, published in 2007, 2011, and 2012. In his introduction, he again stressed the importance of Christology and history; and he concludes that, 'The Christological dimension... is present in everything Jesus says and does' (p. 7). So this poses the important question of what kind of literature the gospels are, and how they can be used in the writing of a biography of Jesus.

The second section traced scholary debate about the literary genre of the gospels, beginning with the 19th century Romantic Lives of Jesus (by, for example, Ernst Renan). However, German scholars such as Karl Ludwig Schmidt and Rudolf Bultmann argued that the gospels were sui generis, or unique. Instead, the rise of Form Critical approaches concentrated on the forms of individual gospel passages, and the debates about whether such stories are more mythological than historical. Given his background, Pope Benedict is best understood as writing in reaction to such German scholarship, especially in the liberal Protestant tradition. However, in the 1960's, the rise of Redaction Criticism restored the evangelists as theologians and writers and questions of the gospels' overall genre started to be asked again, especially in the USA and in Britain by scholars like Graham Stanton, Charles Talbert and David Aune.

My own doctoral research analysed ancient and modern genre theory, and stressed the importance of
genre in both. the composition and interpretation of texts. Using Wittgenstein's idea of a range of features which reveal 'family resemblance', I undertook a detailed comparison of the generic features of the four gospels with those found in a wide range of Graeco-Roman biographies from a period of a couple of centuries before and after the writing of the gospels. Like most ancient Lives, the gospels are continuous prose narrative of medium length (10,000-20,000 words, about the amount fitted onto a single scroll), with a bare chronological outline from the public debut to the subject's death, with other material inserted about the subject, arranged by topics. I found that the large amount of the gospels devoted to the account of Jesus' death and the following events (15%-20%) is also very similar to that found in ancient biographies, because they
believed that the way a person died, with their last words and deeds, summed up their lives. Finally, I analysed carefully the distribution of the subjects of the verbs in ancient literature, which showed that biographies typically devoted nearly half of their material to the words and deeds of the person being described. In the same way, Jesus is the subject of 25% of Mark plus 20% spoken by him in his teaching and parables. Matthew and Luke both make Jesus the subject of 18%, while about 40% are spoken by him. About half of John's verbs either have Jesus as the subject or are on his lips. Therefore, the gospels are best understood in terms of the genre of Graeco-Roman biography, with their stress on the centrality of Jesus' deeds and words, his life and ministry, death and resurrection, and must therefore be interpreted Christologically. When. my work was first published in 1992, it ran against the scholarly consensus that the gospels were unique, but over the next decade or so, this biographical hypothesis became accepted by most New Testament experts. This led to my writing a second edition of What are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography (Eerdmans 2004), which was translated into Italian as Che cosa sono i vangeli? (Paideia Editrice Francesco De Nicola, 2008).

The third section considered the implications and consequences of this biographical genre for other areas of research, especially those topics also being discussed at the Ratzinger Foundation Symposium. Thus the non-canonical gospels either look at the beginning or the end of Jesus' life (infancy gospels or Passion gospels), while the others tend to concentrate on Jesus' sayings (e.g. the Gospel of Thomas) or the Gnostic discourses of the risen Christ. Therefore, they do not share
the biographical genre. Also while individual gospel stories are often paralleled with anecdotes in Jewish traditions, the complete absence of any biographies of ancient rabbis is very striking. This is because the focus of Rabbinic stories is always upon their interpretation of the Torah; the effect of putting all the stories together as a biography in the gospels places Jesus in the centre, therefore making a Christological claim. Similarly, the use of the gospels in ethical debate today often concentrates on biblical teachings, rather than narrative; thus Jesus' rigorous ethics in his words need to be balanced with his inclusive attitude to those with moral difficulties and the marginalized through his actions. Our biographical approach to the gospels holds his words and deeds together ('What Jesus began to do and to teach', see Acts 1:1)

What is extraordinary is that the early Church fathers under the guidance of the Holy Spirit were determined to hold the four gospels with their various portraits of Jesus. I have found that the traditional images of the four living creatures (the lion, ox, eagle and human faces, found in Ezekiel 1, Revelation 4 and applied to the gospels by Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses. III. II. 8-90 can be very helpful in describing the four portraits of Jesus in the gospels. Thus Mark's image of the lion fits his account of Jesus rushing around Galilee in the face of rising conflict with the religious leaders, leading eventually to his suffering and death in Jerusalem, 'my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' (Mk 15.34). In contrast, Matthew's human face describes Jesus as the Teacher of Israel, who teaches from mountains like Moses, but who is rejected, leading to the formation of the church. Luke's traditional image of the ox as the beast of burden reflects his depiction of Jesus as concerned for the poor and marginalized, women and non-Jews, again leading to his account of the cross where Jesus comforts the weeping women of Jerusalem, forgives his executioners and commits his spirit to his heavenly Father (Luke 23:27-31, 34, 43, 46) Finally, the high-flying, all-seeing eagle of St John beautifully encompasses his portrayal of the divine Word which becomes incarnate among us in Jesus of Nazareth. Thus treating the four gospels' portraits of the one Jesus separately allows for the diversity and plurality within the canon, rather than just one single account.

In conclusion, my biographical approach to the gospels fits well into the concern in Vatican II's dogmatic constitution, Dei Verbum, for both Christology and history, to understand the deeds and words of Jesus who reveals God to us in human form. Pope emeritus Benedict is surely correct to argue that a Christological hermeneutic is needed properly to understand the gospels. Interpreting the gospels in the light of ancient biographies reaffirms for us the centrality of the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
8 November 2013, page 13

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