Symposia on Controversial Issues in Ancient Studies

In order to promote collaborative research, the Center for Ancient Studies and Archaeology organizes periodic symposia on key topics that are the subject of current scholarly debate and disagreement. Two leading authorities are asked to present differing analyses of the topic and a panel of colleagues from Willamette University and other institutions respond to the two presentations and add their own assessments of the topic. Proceedings of the symposia may be published.

Symposium on Epic, Biography, and the Gospels

The Controversy about the Genre of the Early Christian Gospels

Are the New Testament Gospels eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus? Are they redacted collections of oral traditions about Jesus written down a generation or two after his death? Should they be classified as martydom narratives with extended introductions? Or are they fictionalized biographies composed by literate writers who drew on the Septuagint and Greco-Roman literature for models of the events in the life of Jesus? The early Christian historian Eusebius, drawing on Papias, describes the Gospel of Mark as a memoir of the life of Jesus. Nineteenth-century scholars like Ernst Renan and C. W. Votaw classified the Gospels as Greco-Roman biographies. Following the collapse of the first quest for the historical Jesus, the consensus of scholarly opinion shifted in the early twentieth century to the view that the Gospels are narrativized forms of the Pauline proclamation about the centrality of the cross and resurrection for Christian faith with extended introductions. The implication of this view is that the Gospels are unique literary compositions and not examples of any prior literary genre. During the last forty years the consensus has gradually shifted back to the view that the Gospels are related to the ancient biographical genre. The literary critic Frank Kermode, in particular, made a persuasive case that the Gospels are not sui generis, but must be classified with some recognizable literary genre. But the debate continues with many recent books on the topic and a range of theories about how the Gospels were composed.

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