The Old Testament Origins of the Gospel Genre -- By: Meredith G. Kline

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 38:1 (Fall 1975)
Article: The Old Testament Origins of the Gospel Genre
Author: Meredith G. Kline

The Old Testament Origins of the Gospel Genre

Meredith G. Kline

Was the gospel genre a creation of the New Testament evangelists or can it be traced back beyond the first century A.D.? In dealing with this form-critical problem we soon find that we are involved with more than the literary form of the gospels. Our form-critical investigation confronts us with fundamental questions about their essential nature, purpose, and message. And to be involved with such questions about the gospels is to be engaged in an analysis of the basic character and structure of biblical religion.

A certain amount of ambiguity attends the use of the term “genre” in form-critical studies.1 Varying combinations of things like structural pattern, setting, content, mood, and intention are regarded by different form critics as constitutive of genre. The problem of definition may be somewhat simplified at least if we restrict the term to whole documents. The constitutive components of genre as the term will be used here with reference to the gospels are overall form and societal-religious function.

To date no scholarly consensus, at least no positive consensus, has emerged from the extensive efforts to identify the canonical gospels with some genre attested in earlier literary tradition. After a perceptive survey of studies along this line, R. H. Gundry endorses the conclusion that from a first century standpoint the gospels must be pronounced a literary novelty. In his judgment, therefore, it is not legitimate to speak of a gospel genre except in the sense that the four New Testament gospels themselves originated such a genre.2

At the heart of the problem is the fact that the gospels consist of two very different kinds of material: teaching discourse and historical narrative. They contain accounts of both the words and works of Jesus. Considerable difficulty is already encountered in the attempt to classify each of these two types of material individually in terms of earlier literary forms, quite apart from the problem of accounting for them in combination. The discourses of Jesus include sapiential, legal, polemical, apocalyptic, and other kinds of pronouncements. No single form-critical classification that has been suggested, such as sayings of the wise or manual of community order, manages to comprehend all of this variety. Neither has the search for a specific form of narrative with which to identify the gospel records of the works of Jesus met with success. In particular, the attempt to relate these gospel narratives to aretalogical biography has proven a disappointment on both literary and theological grounds. B...

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