Imitatio Christi and the Gospel Genre -- By: David B. Capes
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Imitatio Christi and the Gospel Genre
Houston Baptist University
This article considers that the Gospel genre belongs to the category of ancient biography designed to provide the reader and hearer with a pattern to imitate. The literary and cultural ethos of the formative period of early Christianity prepared the first disciples to “imitate Christ” whenever the Gospels were liturgically read. In fact, the ethical instructions “walk as he walked,” “imitate Christ,” or even “follow me” required a narrative definition. So the imitatio Christi provided a significant impulse for the writing of the Gospels, and concomitantly, the Gospels provided the narrative definition for what it meant to follow Jesus.
Key Words: Gospel genre, imitation, discipleship, Gospel of Mark, martyrdom, worship
Substantial work over the last few decades has located the NT Gospels squarely in the genre of ancient biographies. Although Rudolph Bultmann argued that the Gospels had no parallels in Greco-Roman literature and were in fact the creation of the early church at the intersection of kerygma and myths about Jesus,1 recent scholars have offered serious objections to Bultmann’s conclusions. Helmut Koester, for example, concludes that Mark is the first to produce a “biography of Jesus” modeled on the biography of the prophet.2 Like other OT prophetic narratives, Mark’s Gospel collects earlier materials and begins with Jesus’ call at his baptism and installation into his prophetic office (“you are my beloved Son,” 1:11). He travels throughout Galilee
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speaking the message of God and finds ultimate vindication for his office beyond his passion and death.
Philip Schuler takes note in his book, A Genre for the Gospels: The Biographical Character of Matthew,3 that the Greco-Roman world had a type of biography called encomium or laudatory biography. The aim of this genre was to elicit praise for the subjects of the works by underscoring their greatness and character. The NT Gospels, Schuler argues, fit this paradigm. They not only identify Jesus as the Son of God and elicit praise for him, but they also set him up as a model worthy of emulation.4
One of the most thorough attempts at demonstrating that the NT Gospels belong to the genre of Greco-Roman βίοι has come from Richard Burridge’s book What Are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Bio...
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