September 13, 2020

Susanne Luther, Ending the Genre Proxy War in Gospel Studies

Authentication as Literary Technique

Long time readers know I abhor defensive positions about the so-called "reliability" of the Gospels. Although my preference is always to believe in the holy scriptures of my christian tradition, my curiosity as a historian means that any affirmation of Jesus material should not be our academic conclusion but a place from which to begin doing history. To my faith, I try to add logic. I do not sully my faith by defending it with logic, as if logic were greater than faith. Just like every argument in Geometry begins with a "given," so Christians who generate scholarship should aspire to do likewise. 

For these deeply personal reasons, I was delighted today to read Susanne Luther's brand new JSNT article, "The Authentication of the Past: Narrative Representations of History in the Gospel of John." Because I was initially misled by my own ingrained reactions to key words like authenticity and referentiality, I encourage you to stay sharp while perusing this abstract:

Narrative historiography in John’s gospel operates with a number of literary strategies, such as historical referentiality and eyewitness testimony, which serve to authenticate the narrative and to inscribe the (hi)story of Jesus into ancient history. At the same time, these authentication strategies are counteracted or ‘ruptured’ (for example, by strategies of fictional literature), which situate John’s narrative of this-worldly history within a symbolic, metahistorical framework; yet these strategies are not to be perceived as detrimental to the reception of the text as a factual text. This article discusses two narrative strategies through which referentiality and authenticity are created as well as counteracted in the Johannine text; it also describes the forms and functions of these literary strategies that support the christological conception of history in John’s gospel.

The important nuance in this article is the idea that factual details and eyewitness testimony do indeed "serve to authenticate the narrative." That is, in the eyes of the Gospel writer and his original audience. Of course they do! The compelling effect of these elements is the entire reason they are there at all.

However, Luther's innovation is to study this effort not as historical evidence but as literary technique. Agreeing with Richard Bauckham and Samuel Byrskog about the core of their claims, Luther deftly absorbs their observations within the unique momentum of her own argument. Of course the inclusion of these historiographical markers indicates that the beloved disciple wanted readers to find the material credible. Obviously, this was the goal. Just as obviously, however, none of those markers necessarily indicate the material is credible.

In terms of genre, for Luther, the fourth Gospel indeed qualifies as historical representation, conforming to several conventions of ancient historiography while adapting the genre as needed to include disruptive christological material. (A key interest for Luther is noting how ancient narratives combine markers of fictionality and non-fictionality, an interesting framework which may or may not beg the question it seeks to bypass. I will let others decide.) However, after affirming that GJohn indeed claims to present factual truth in the stories it tells of the world in the past, Luther does not then proceed to suggest that we should therefore believe what it says. In addition to the fictive and constructed nature of historical representation, she points especially to "the Johannine understanding of... the truth which leads to faith." On some other occasion, I might lament that she leaves the historical question suspended indefinitely, but today I don't mind at all. This article as it stands is profoundly a gift.

If we recognize "authentication" as a literary strategy in this manner then everyone in the guild can begin coming to terms of agreement about the genre of the Gospel. It should clearly become the new consensus that GJohn qualifies as one writer's representation of the historical past, whether or not that history happens to be accurate. This agreement, in turn, should push the vital question of whether or not the material is actually true back to its own arena, where it belongs.

Hopefully, Susanne Luther has just sounded the death knell for genre questions as proxy warfare in Gospel studies.

We should all hereby thank her profusely.


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