On Genre (and Rabbit Trails) – Part 1

As I begin my in-depth studies in Mark, I have been especially enjoying R.T. France’s work, and became sidetracked by some of his introductory comments and footnotes.  For some odd reason, I am one of those who read footnotes as voraciously as the rest of the text, often wondering why this is not covered with the attention and respect it deserves.  But enough about “rabbit trails”…

It appears that many these days prefer to see Mark classified as Greco-Roman biography.  Certainly, Ben Witherington  and Ernest Best make this case in their work on Mark.  Then another take is that it is generally uncategorizable, seemingly unable to fit neatly into any one category, thus the development of something new to the first century literature – gospel.

That said, a little rabbit trail caught my eye, especially since I am reading and writing with the earliest church in mind.  First, thanks to a footnote from R.T. France, I came upon H. C. Kee’s work Community of the New Age: Studies In Mark’s Gospel  and second, (thanks to a quote from Kee) is Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis.

First, in chapter three of his book, Kee is delving into the literary genre of Mark and begins by explaining why Mark doesn’t fit into the genre of a tragedy. 

To make his point, Kee quotes Auerbach stating that any one gospel account “fits into no antique genre,” and is:

“too serious for comedy, too everyday for tragedy, politically too insignificant for history – and the form which was given it is one of such immediacy that its like does not exist in the literature of antiquity.”

That alone would be enough to convince most that the gospels seemingly defy categorization, are altogether “other,” and are perhaps in need of a new classification.  But Auerbach goes on to pay the gospels, and indeed the earliest Christians, an even higher honor by stating “that the gospels evoke ‘the most serious and most significant sympathy’ within us because they portray:

‘something which neither the poets nor the historians of antiquity ever set out to portray: the birth of a spiritual movement in the depths of the common people, from within the everyday occurences of contemporary life, which thus assumes an importance it could never have assumed in antique literature.'”

 So, according to Auerbach, it is the general church community as a whole that makes this unique among writings and unclassifiable in genre.  The community not only maintains the essence of the gospel among one another, but also promotes and develops the gospel material into fruition among “common people” and in “everyday occurences.”  The picture this paints for me is one of vibrant gatherings of the church flourishing not in any technically religious manner, but in the everyday life shared with one another.

In short, I see that Mark was both writing with his immediate church communities in mind, those churches with which he had contact, as well as the churches throughout the Empire.  At this point, I doubt that his intention was to write a traditional Greco-Roman biography, though this may fit the bill from both a reader/hearer in the first century as well as an academic point of view today. 

No, I am inclined to see Mark as a more evangelistic/pastoral work, taking on some of the more popular methods of writing and transmission with the goal being to speak directly to the church at large in an edifying manner with the intent to preserve the tradition in writing.  Many see that the gospel of Mark is a collage of sorts drawn together with purpose, so in this way, nothing I am saying is new.  Yet, I think there is something to be said for a more holistic view, or one that takes in account not simply that the so-called Markan community needed a gospel, but that this was quite possibly what the churches were already saying and doing among one another, and therefore was preserved by the writer of Mark in narrative form.

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