Introduction to Mark, Part 2: Genre

Welcome to our second post in a series on the Gospel of Mark.  We will visit one more introductory theme in this post, and that is the genre of Mark.

A quick google search will yield the following definition of genre, which is workable:  “A category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, characterized by similarities in form, style, or subject matter.”  We automatically detect genre every day, and we interpret what we are reading or seeing based on our identification of that genre.  For example, we read a newspapers, novels, personal letters, and academic journals differently.  We watch news clips differently than how we watch movies or documentaries.  There are also variations within genres.  For example, in film there are action, comedy, chick-flick, drama, etc.  When we put in a chick-flick, we expect certain conventions and themes to be present, since those things are what make it a chick-flick (not least of which is cheesiness!). The biblical authors chose to write within the conventions of certain genres in order to convey meaning most effectively, so we ought to pay attention to genre if we want to understand the text.

Gospels’ Genre

The gospels don’t really fit any ancient genre perfectly; the evangelists (a term used to refer to the gospel writers) created their own, unique composite genre.  They combine ancient history with biography, but they also include sermons, proverbs, apocalyptic speeches, parables, and more.  I will note two interesting observations about the genre of the gospels (particularly Mark).

First, the sense in which they can be labeled “biography” differs significantly from how both we and the ancients viewed biography.  When we think of biography, we usually expect the story to start at the beginning of the subject’s life and follow it to his or her death and legacy, including in-depth personality analysis along the way.  However, only two of the four gospels address Jesus’ birth, and little to nothing is heard from him again until decades later.  They also don’t tell us about his personality, his physical appearance, habits, personal tastes, etc.  Rather, the gospels are concerned with Jesus’ message, his ministry, and his fate in Jerusalem.  His legacy is picked up in the book of Acts and beyond. Another thing we, in the modern era, expect of a biography is some sort of chronological progression, but the gospels will disappoint us here as well!  In Mark, for example, the ordering often has more to do with themes and geography than it does with time-progression.  We will see more of this fact’s significance when we come to our final introductory post on Mark’s structure.  A major way in which the biographical data of the gospels conflicts with what the ancients thought is that in the gospels, the hero is rejected!

Second, I want to offer some observations on the narrative genre in general.  Narrative essentially means “story.”  And “narrative” is sort of the umbrella under which all sorts of sub-genres sit (including biography, history, epic poem, fable, legend, etc.).  Most of the Bible is given to us in the narrative genre.  Why is this?  The following quotation captures it well (though don’t take this as an endorsement of N. T. Wright’s teaching in general!):

“Throw a rule book at people’s heads, or offer them a list of doctrines, and they can duck or avoid it, or simply disagree and go away.  Tell them a story, though, and you invite them to come into a different world; you invite them to share a world-view or better still a ‘God-view.’ [1] 

As the readers (i.e. us!)  are gripped by the Bible’s story, it collides with and changes the stories that they “may prefer to tell about themselves.”[2]  Significantly, narratives don’t merely convey propositions or recount facts; “they configure the past in a certain way and say ‘look at the world like this.’”[3]  The narrator displays for us an “interpreted world” and helps the reader to form an attitude or perspective on that world.[4]

Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, in their helpful book that I consider essential reading, offer three levels to biblical narrative that will help us as we seek to interpret the stories we read in the Gospels and in all of Scripture:[5]

  1. The individual narratives that make up the next two levels.
  2. The story of God’s redemption of God’s people for God’s name.
  3. The grand “metanarrative” of Creation to New Creation (the whole scope of the Bible)

We must always ask, in interpreting the first level narratives, how they fit into the second and third levels.

Our next post will focus on another introductory issue before we get into the actual text of Mark!  Until then, take care and God bless.

[1] N. T. Wright, “How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?” n. p. [cited 7 October, 2010].

[2] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “Exegesis and Hermeneutics,” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (eds. T. Desmond Alexander et. al. Downers Grove: IVP, 2000): p. 37 [52-64].

[3] Vanhoozer,“Lost in Interpretation? Truth, Scripture, and Hermeneutics,” JETS 48/1 (March 2005): p. 109 [89-114].

[4] Ibid.

[5] How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), p. 91.


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