Reviews of

Modern and Ancient Literary Criticism of the Gospels

In David P. Moessner, Fourfold Gospel, Gospels, Literary Criticism, Mohr Siebeck, Nathan Charles Ridlehoover, Robert Matthew Calhoun, Synoptic Gospels, Tobias NICKLAS on May 28, 2021 at 3:23 pm

2021.5.12 | Robert Matthew Calhoun, David P. Moessner, and Tobias Nicklas, eds. Modern and Ancient Literary Criticism of the Gospels. WUNT 451. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2020.

Review by Charles Nathan Ridlehoover,  Columbia Biblical Seminary.

Modern and Ancient Literary Criticism of the Gospels is the product of a conference at Texas Christian University in November 2018. The conference commemorated the 25th year and 3rd edition of Richard A. Burridge’s seminal study, What Are the Gospels? The goal of the conference, and this subsequent volume, was to ask what more could be said about literary criticism and its application to the gospels genre.

As many readers will know, Burridge’s work on the Gospels as bios has nearly reached a consensus among Gospel scholars. The current volume is a nod to Burridge’s ground-breaking work and an ongoing testament to the rigor of literary criticism and its continuing application. The diverse essays contained therein are topically arranged into three major sections: (1) The Question of Genre and the Gospels; (2) Mark as Narrative in the Light of Ancient and Modern Criticism; and (3) The Growth of the Gospel Tradition in Early Christian Literary Culture. 

Part One begins with an overview of the nearly 25-year debate concerning the Gospels and ancient biography (Richard A. Burridge). Next, Werner H. Kelber writes on the definition of genre. In chapter three, Michal Beth Dinkler continues the discussion concerning the definition of genre, but from the perspective of its comparison with contemporary genre theory. Chapter four offers a critique of Burridge’s genre theory (Elizabeth E. Shively). In chapter five, Carl Johan Berglund examines the question of genre from the perspective of reception history—how were the early Gospels received in the second century? Chapter six closes with some of the cutting-edge work of Sandra Huebenthal. Her essay explores the relationship between intertextuality and social memory theory and then considers the implications of this relationship with the occurrence of Isaiah in Mark. 

Part two begins with an overview of why the Gospel of Mark is the “yardstick” for comparing the Gospels with ancient texts (Cilliers Breytenbach). The essay also serves as a referendum to those researchers who do not rightly treat Mark as biography. Chapter eight examines the influence of Paul upon Mark’s Gospel through a combination of exegetical, historical, history-of-religions, and literary-theological arguments (Margaret M. Mitchell). Chapter nine considers the Gospel of Mark as a tragedy (Stefan Alkier). Chapter ten attempts to answer the myriad of questions surrounding Mark’s opening words. David Moessner argues that the first three verses offer an entryway to understanding the “Messianic secret” that follows. In chapter eleven, C. Clifton Black pairs his knowledge of poetics and music with the unfolding narrative of Mark’s passion narrative. Chapter twelve examines Jesus’s final words alongside “last and dying” words in Greco-Roman biographies (Justin Marc Smith). Chapter thirteen examines the possibility of Mark as an oral and performative piece and in what ways it may have been performed. Geert Van Oyen takes cues for his proposal from Quintilian’s work on actio

Part three opens with an examination of the intersection of genre studies, the ethics of the gospels, and the place of Matthew in early Jewish Christianity (R. Alan Culpepper). Chapter fifteen considers the central section of Luke’s Gospel (Luke 9–10) with a particular emphasis on Luke 9:51 (Wolfgang Grünstäudl). In chapter sixteen, John A. Darr offers an audience-oriented approach to the question of genre in Luke. Darr argues that the reception of Luke indicates that readers saw in this great writing a call to be members of God’s covenanted people and students of a venerable philosophical school. Chapter seventeen examines the relationship of the Fourth Gospel and the historical Jesus (Thomas R. Hatina). This chapter considers the role of memory and myth in the process of reception. In chapter eighteen, Paul N. Anderson considers revelation and rhetoric in John 9:1–10:21. Anderson argues that there are two operative modes in the Johannine narrative—one between John and the Synoptics and the other within the Gospel itself, between Jesus and his hearers. The volume concludes with Tobias Nicklas’ engagement with the Gospel of Peter. Nicklas shows that later Gospels are more likely “re-enactments” of existing writings, and yet not as widely available as the precedent texts.

Overall, the volume is an impressive collection of biblical scholarship. The title accurately summarizes what one will find when they flip open the pages. The essays are diverse, but in very specific ways. The essays are diverse in terms of contributors and representation (10 different countries!). The essays are not as diverse regarding the Gospels examined. Seven of the essays are written about Mark, one about Matthew, two about Luke, and two about John, and one about the Gospel of Peter. This is not a deterrent to the book’s effectiveness at examining the subject, but it will inevitably be more helpful to Markan scholars than say a Matthean scholar. (The essay on Matthew is about the foundation of his ethics with consideration of how genre effects this portrayal.) Another interesting aspect of the book is that, while each essay broadly agrees with the importance of Burridge’s claims, some of the essays call for detailed scrutiny of his conclusions. Specifically, Elizabeth Shively and Michal Beth Dinkler call for more awareness to the rhetorical and cognitive aspects of genre. Other salient features of the volume include the poetic flair in essays by Clifton Black and Stefan Alkier. Black’s essay marries elements of Mark’s closing chapters to the beauty of music. This volume should be considered by all those interested in the ongoing conversations about the genre of the Gospels, comparative literature, and studies in cognitive reception theories. 

Charles Nathan Ridlehoover
Columbia Biblical Seminary
nathan.ridlehoover [at]


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