Hitchhiking around Jerusalem, Shopping for the Right Genre (Once more, with Fisk)

As promised, this is my second post, interacting with Bruce Fisk’s A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Jesus (Baker, 2011). Check out the Blog Tour participants and posts thus far this week HERE.

This time around, I want to address how Fisk (through “Norm”) tackles the matter of the Gospels genre. Here we go….

When you sift through the whole narrative journey of “Norm,” one of the most interesting points that Fisk repeatedly returns to is that the Gospels need to be understood properly as a particular kind of literature. It is not a blueprint to the historical life and times of Jesus in a “just-the-facts” kind of way. It has a literary-creative quality to it that so frequently gets sidelined as we try and cull bits of information about Jesus.

For example, when analyzing the Synoptics closely and in view of frequent parallels and echoes of Jewish Scripture in the stories about Jesus, Norm wonders: “Do parallels like these [especially parallels between Moses and Jesus in Matthew] mean the Gospels care more about allusions than reality?” (p. 97). Norm’s question is quite astute, and a question I learned to ask from Luke Timothy Johnson. This is where my journey began when it came to discovering the Gospels as literature.

Norm came to a special discovery in the Holy Land – that he was also on a “literary quest” that involved documents that are “part biography, part novel, part sermon…” (102). In the book, comes to rethink the issue of the “reliability” of the Gospels. Does reliability refer exclusively to “lockstep conformity to modern ideas about how history should be written”? “What if an ancient author thought the best way to remain faithful to his story was to blend historical fact with embellishment?” (130).

Norm is probably right to think that there must be a category that exists beyond (or between) “history” and “myth.” Even with the Fourth Gospel, the Evangelist was interested in what really happened in and to Jesus. But his writing is not a “courtroom transcript. He was a preacher, not a reporter, a storyteller, not a photocopier” (p. 146). Put another way, John was

too much of an artisan to be content chronicling the past. He doesn’t want us simply to know; he wants us to understand, believe, and live (20:31). He doesn’t want to unload facts on us; he wants to drive us forward toward the story’s climax (p. 188).

In this perspective, each Gospel writer was, in fact, referring to the same historical Jesus, but as “nimble musicians trading riffs on a well-loved classic. Sometimes we show the Gospels more respect by letting tensions stand or by suspending judgment than by hiding behind sketchy harmonization” (p 221).

Norm has a remarkably mature view of history-telling: “every historical account is someone’s,…every story has a teller, and…ancient storytellers, like modern preachers… slide from history into explanation into embellishment. Rememebered history, like Dylan’s harmonica, always bends, but the bent notes can convey just as much truth, sometimes more” (p. 150). [Norms says/thinks, later, “Remembrance and imagination are not enemies but coconspirators” 265).

Can we call the Gospels “history” or not? Norm would resist this label if it meant we ignore the theological message altogether: “The point of the story is not that the Romans killed Jesus on a blustery day, but that God was actively weighing in on the side of Jesus” (p. 256).


I think, ultimately Norm (Fisk?) is right in his assessment that the Gospels use the substructure of history, but build up creatively to erect a theological edifice. This leads to two key questions:

1. What is the genre of the Gospels? It is probably true that it is a new type of literature, but we tend to associate even new genres with old ones so we have a frame of reference. So, is Burridge right that we should be thinking ancient biography? If so, and I would agree with Burridge and Keener on this, we are dealing with, basically, a history-driven genre. But, when we look at ancient biographies, there is room for changes in arrangement and modification (I hesitate to use the word “embellishment”). But Keener points out that there was a line you could cross where readers would begin to devalue the biography as it slips away from history. However, the lines were gray and different readers or communities would perceive it differently.

When I explain the genre of the Gospels, I use the key term kerygma – divine proclamation. Or, to be even more cryptic and convoluted, “theo-dramatic history.” It is historical, and dramatic (as narrative), and theological. It is history, but leaning history. (Jimmy Dunn taught me this, when he said that “Luke had a theological agenda, a Tendenz, but that need not indicate that he was a poor historian, only that he read the information he had from a particular perspective” (Beginning from Jerusalem, 72).

2. How important is the history? What is “negotiable”? This is pretty tricky. Clearly the cross and resurrection are historical tentpoles. But what about Jesus’ baptism or temple cleansing or various discourses? Some have said, who cares? They say that we really don’t need to dwell on historical apologetics, because we will slide into defensive mode and miss the theological gravitas of the Gospels. I value this concern, but I agree with Kaesemann that, when we pay attention to the historical Jesus, we will be careful not to become docetists and we will ground our readings in history in the first instance, rather than purely in personal or cultural ideology.

A third matter is a pedagogical one. I teach students that are probably very similar to Fisk’s and I am not sure the route he is taking will have the best hearing (though I would LOVE to know how his book will go over in his own classroom!). It is not that I don’t think he is right, it is just that when students hear a comparison between St. Matthew and Bob Dylan, their “heresy” bells go off (at least they would among some of my students). I prefer the tactic where I urge that the Gospels are trying to do “history,” but not in our modern way, but according to their own rules of history-telling. When it is framed in that way, the basic genre is still history, but you can work from there. (Norm does make a similar point a couple of times, but he gets a bit more loose with his genre-descriptions on other occasions). I am not criticizing Fisk’s actual analysis of the Gospels, but rather signaling a tone of caution against introducing students to too much too fast. That is what made NEO “pop” when he got out of the Matrix. (see Bruce, I can make hip cultural references too!)

Anyway, I really liked it when the book engaged in genre matters, because I think this is where so many young (and old!) students get the Gospels so wrong. Norm has his head on straight and (miraculously) demonstrates a kind of scholarly maturity one wants in all of his or her students. Norm – thanks for all the good times!

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