Handbook of Classical Rhetoric in the Hellenistic Period : 330 B.C.-A.D. 400

By Stanley E. Porter | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 17
THE GOSPELS AND ACTS

Richard A. Burridge

King's College, London, England


I. INTRODUCTION—GOSPELS, BIOGRAPHY AND RHETORIC

In the earlier chapter on ancient biography, Chapter 11 above, the important connection of genre with rhetoric was demonstrated. Since rhetoric in its narrower sense of “the work of persuasion” applies most to formal oratory, while rhetoric in its broader sense of the “art of words” covers all verbal communication, proper identification of the genre of a work is necessary before we can undertake a rhe torical critical analysis. This is particularly true of the Gospels.

Traditionally, the Gospels were viewed as biographies of Jesus. Dur ing the nineteenth century, biographies began to explain the charac ter of a great person by considering his or her upbringing, formative years, schooling, psychological development and so on. The Gospels appeared unlike such biographies. During the 1920s, form critics like Karl Ludwig Schmidt and Rudolf Bultmann rejected any notion that the Gospels were biographies: the Gospels appear to have no inter est in Jesus' human personality, appearance or character, nor do they tell us anything about the rest of his life, other than his brief public ministry and an extended concentration on his death. Instead, the Gospels were seen as popular folk literature, collections of stories handed down orally over time. Far from being biographies of Jesus, the Gospels were described as sui generis, “unique” forms of litera ture,1 and this approach dominated Gospel studies for the next half century or so.

However, over recent decades with the rise of redaction criticism and the development of new literary approaches, the writers of the

1 R. Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition (Oxford: Blackwell, 1972), see
especially pp. 369–74.

-507-

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