The Gospels and Greek Culture, Part 4c: The Genre of the Gospels - Greek Tragedy
Updated: Dec 15, 2021
This post is the sixth in a series that has been adapted from my MA thesis which I wrote over the summer of 2020.
The Gospels as Greek Tragic Drama
‘Tragedy is, then, a representation of an action that is heroic and complete and of a certain magnitude—by means of language enriched with all kinds of ornament, each used separately in the different parts of the play: it represents men in action and does not use narrative, and through pity and fear it affects relief to these and similar emotions.’
- Aristotle, Poetics 1449b.24-6
The Gospels contain various elements which point to the influence of ancient drama, specifically Greek tragedy. As a genre, Greek tragedy was still highly valued in 1st-century society, with the plays of 5th and 4th century BC Athens being continuously performed in theatres and studied in Graeco-Roman education as an essential area of knowledge. Herod the Great made a particular effort to introduce Graeco-Roman theatre in Jerusalem, which doesn't seem to have been especially opposed or rejected by the Jewish community. As we saw in part 2, the locations in which Jesus ministered were diverse enough for it to be impossible for Greek culture not to have had an influence on the Jewish community, so there's a high probability that the Gospel authors would have had at least some knowledge of Greek tragedy and its components, whatever their level of Graeco-Roman education.
The excerpt above from Aristotle’s Poetics is part of a much longer discourse on poetry and drama, which has been very useful to anyone studying these topics, and it will be very useful for this section too. However, we can't entirely rely on Aristotle in studying Greek tragedy - although what he says is very helpful, we can't just adopt Aristotle’s words as the sole criteria by which to classify ancient works as 'Greek tragedy'; we have to rely primarily on works of tragic drama themselves for the best examples.
The Gospel of Mark, in particular, has a structure that closely resembles that of a Greek tragic play, as do the Gospels of Matthew and John to some extent. According to Aristotle’s Poetics, the structure of the plot is vital when classifying a work as tragic drama, even more so than characterization.
The structure of the plot in a Greek tragedy was typically made up of a complication, followed by a point of recognition, and then the dénouement (the section leading to the plot’s final resolution). Firstly, we have the complication, or désis. There's usually a swift introduction of a problem to be solved, such as the need for Oedipus to find Laius’ murderer in order to save Thebes at the beginning of Oedipus Tyrannus. This isn't necessarily quite as obvious in the Gospels; instead, a motif of conflict and building tension is introduced gradually as the chief priests and Pharisees begin to criticise Jesus and then start plotting against him.
This kind of entry into a story that has already started to unfold is typical of tragic plays, and it's exactly what we see in the Gospels of Mark and John, as opposed to Matthew and Luke who begin with Jesus’ family and birth. This implies some prior knowledge on the part of the audience, which ties back into what was discussed in part 1 of this series: both that Mark’s audience was likely already a Christian one, as well as a date of writing for the Gospels which was before the end of the 1st century AD – the context was close enough to the time of writing that it didn't necessarily need an explanation.
Secondly, we have the recognition, or anagnórisis, the vital moment of revelation (often for both the audience and the characters) which leads to some kind of reversal, or peripéteia. In the Gospels, this is the all-important revelation of Jesus’ identity, the most important question discussed in all 4 of these texts. In Mark, this moment comes in the very middle of the narrative, providing a central turning point where both the disciples and the reader are asked by Jesus, “Who do you say I am?”. Peter’s answer “You are the Christ.” is the exact moment of revelation, providing a new sense of clarity that shapes the reading and events of the rest of the narrative. This is also something that we see in multiple Greek tragedic plays, such as the recognition of Orestes in Euripides’ Electra, or the revelation of Oedipus’ true identity in Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus.
The anagnórisis is also regularly foreshadowed and alluded to throughout the previous section, building tension for the audience and allowing them to consider the possibilities of the anagnórisis before it happens, and therefore they are consistently engaged in the story. For example, the revelation of Oedipus’ identity is regularly alluded to before the herdsman explicitly states it, such as the accusation of Tiresias, or the discovery that Polybus was not his real father. Similarly, the Gospel of Mark quickly makes it clear that Jesus is different through early verses such as 1:27:
‘The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching – and with authority! He even gives orders to evil spirits and they obey him.” News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.’
There is also foreshadowing in the miracles specifically witnessed by the disciples, which contributes to the wide use of irony in Mark’s account; the disciples have a unique opportunity to recognise who Jesus is, but they don't acknowledge this until Jesus prompts the moment of revelation halfway through the narrative.
Once Jesus’ identity as the Messiah is recognised, there is a quick transition to the dénouement which focuses almost entirely on Jesus’ final week in Jerusalem and the theme of the cross. This is especially emphasised by Jesus’ establishment of what his identity as the Messiah really means – the fact that he must die and rise again to save mankind – which comes immediately after the anagnórisis and calls attention to this as the main focus of the following section.
By framing the plot with this kind of structure and giving equal attention to the désis and dénouement, the author of Mark was able to make the question of Jesus’ identity the most central issue within the text, slowly revealing it prior to 8:27-30 and then using it to shape the dénouement. This means that anyone reading the text can see that the question of Jesus’ true identity is also a necessary question to ask themselves, emphasised by the abrupt ending of Mark’s account. There is a sense in chapter 16 that the reader has to decide how to proceed, especially given the exclusion of any resurrection appearances, which is all emphasised by the emotions of the women in the final verse:
'Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.'
Evocation of emotions
One way in which the Gospels also resemble tragic drama is in the evocation of emotions. This is done through some very specific linguistic choices, perhaps most clearly through direct speech, vivid descriptions, and language which creates a sense of immediacy such as imperatives (instructive verbs). These bring the reader into the scene very directly, as if it were playing out before their eyes. This isn't at all typical of bíoi or historiographical works; even though the Gospels are both focused on the person of Jesus and the reporting of important events, direct speech invites the reader to visualise Jesus’ actions and conversations as they happen and so they can get to know his character.
There is also significant emphasis on the emotions of the main figures within the Gospels which encourage the reader to connect with them on a deeper level, in particular, páthos – the evocation of pity or sadness. For example, verses such as ‘Jesus wept’ (John 11:35), or ‘Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart’ (Luke 2:19) are almost reminiscent of the emotions we might see on stage; they are key indications of how each person feels about significant events. The verse ‘Jesus wept’ is an especially important example in this respect as it shows us more of his human side and reinforces the key representations explored in part 3 where his humanity works in parallel with his divinity, as well as associations with the tragic hero. This verse occurs within the passage recounting the death of Lazarus, a good friend of Jesus, showing us that even though Jesus has the power to resurrect Lazarus and does so in John 11:43, he's still able to feel the most profound human emotions, including grief.
Furthermore, there is significant use of the crowds to replicate the chorus of a Greek tragic play. The comments of the crowd or notations of how the people reacted to Jesus bring in the essential component of the chorus as it would be used on stage during a play. The chorus was a key part of the Greek tragedy, their songs and interjections functioning both as scene markers and to emphasise emotion such as we see after the death of Jocasta and blinding of Oedipus. We see this especially in the Gospel of Mark, such as after the healing of the paralyzed man in Mark 2:12:
'He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”
These verses are indicative of the author wanting to direct the emotion of the reader in a particular way, evoking specific reactions towards Jesus.
One element of the Gospels which doesn't seem to mirror Greek tragedy, however, is the death of Jesus. Even though it's used to evoke páthos, as many tragic deaths were, its presentation doesn't match what we see in many tragic plays. The majority of deaths in Greek tragedy weren't shown to the audience, either because they wouldn't necessarily have been believable, or there was no justification for doing so within the play. A lot of deaths within these plays were reported by a messenger, or by an eyewitness so of course, the fact that the accounts were read as opposed to performed to an audience could mean that this is still a parallel we can draw, but then the continued use of vivid descriptions and direct speech still draw the reader into the scene, getting rid of any obvious need for a third party. This is particularly poignant in Matthew and Mark’s descriptions of Jesus’ last moments; he cries out stridently, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”, and he dies with another loud cry. This means that the reader still gets the sense that they are watching Jesus’ death happen in front of them; it is in no way concealed. This doesn't discount the Gospels from being associated with tragic drama in itself – the death of Jesus is still an almost visible scene – but it's an important factor to consider given the centrality of Jesus’ death to the Gospel message.
It's clear from the above that the Gospels all emulate various aspects of Greek tragic drama, however, I don't think that these parallels are enough to fully classify Matthew, Luke, or John as fully belonging to that genre. Mark’s Gospel, on the other hand, could definitely be classified as a Greek tragedy on account of its structure, use of the crowds to replicate the chorus, and such an obvious evocation of thought for the reader with the abruptness of the ending. Combined with the strength of the hero motif as discussed in part 3, tragic drama is arguably the best genre into which we can place the Gospel of Mark.
The other three Gospels emulate aspects of Greek tragedy in much more subtle ways, but these parallels are still obvious enough to evoke these connotations with the 1st-century audience, giving their narratives more familiar tones in order to convey their message to the reader more easily.
The previous conclusion within academia that the Gospel texts were sui generis is definitely both incorrect and problematic given the clear parallels that the Gospel writers intentionally drew with historiographical works, bíoi, and Greek tragedy in order to situate themselves within the Graeco-Roman literary tradition. In mirroring different aspects of these genres throughout their accounts, the Gospel authors were able to convey specific ideas in a way that was completely understandable for their readers.
One question we have to ask is if it's actually possible to group the Gospels together under one genre. Although it's clear from part 4b that they fit into the genre of bíos well as an overall group, we have to remember that the Gospels weren't composed in conjunction with one another, and so we don't have to categorise them all within one single ancient genre, even if we view them collectively today.
This series has been a thorough exploration of the 4 Gospels and their connections with Greek culture. It aimed to investigate how the Gospel writers engaged with the Greek world around them so that they could convey their message of salvation through Jesus Christ in a way that connected with their readership on the most familiar terms possible.
After having established in 'Part 1: Who were the Gospel Writers?' what little we know about the Gospel writers and the historical setting of their accounts, 'Part 2: The Language of the Gospels' explained that despite the previously popular opinion within scholarship that their Greek was ‘barbaric’, the Greek used by the Gospel writers was actually in line with the common vocabulary of that time, meaning that their accounts would have been perfectly readable for the average person without the possible unfamiliarity of a completely Atticized (formal Athenian Greek) text.
'Part 3: Representations of Jesus' looked at Jesus and how he is represented by the Gospels as different conceptual figures that would have been familiar to Hellenized (culturally Greek) readers: the Greek hero; the Greek philosopher; and the theîos anér – a holy man. Although the Gospel writers clearly present Jesus as superior to each of these 3 paradigms, these different representations of him would have undoubtedly helped the 1st-century reader to understand the key aspects of his life better because of their familiarity.
The final 3 parts on historiography, bíos, and Greek tragedy explored the issue of genre, one which has been debated in relation to the Gospels for a long time. Although they were previously thought to be sui generis, both this series and more recent academic works have shown that this is a problematic concept because a text has to have a pre-existing genre if it's going to be understood properly by its readers. Though the Gospels reflect various elements of each of these categories, it's clear that they hold the most parallels with Graeco-Roman bíos as a collective, given that the figure of Jesus is kept central. However, it's also important to recognise that the concept of genre is highly fluid; as literature, the Gospels display a combination of elements from all of the genres explored and others. Given the lack of genre definition in the ancient world, we shouldn't attempt to define these texts by modern standards, and so the assignation of a structured genre is perhaps inappropriate.
The authors of the 4 Gospels were completely intentional in how they engaged with Greek culture in order to make their works accessible to a wide readership. In doing this, they made sure that their accounts engaged the reader in ways which they would find familiar, making Jesus a figure that they could relate to and subsequently put their trust in. In keeping their accounts anonymous, the Gospel authors made sure that the focus of the reader was on the content, not on the author and their ability as a writer. Although this provides modern historians with numerous questions, it doesn't take away from the fascinating figure of Jesus Christ. Regardless of whether he is better considered a Greek hero, philosopher, or theîos anér, he permeates every passage of the Gospels with his innate ability to make the reader ask themselves the question posed in Mark 8:29:
“Who do you say that I am?”
Thank you for reading my series on the Gospels and Greek culture. I hope you've enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing and adapting it, and that you've found it interesting and informative. The Gospels are incredible texts, not because of their words, but because of their subject. The Jesus of these texts was and is real - his death and resurrection are the most important events in history and coming to know him is the best thing that you can do in this life.
If you have any questions, want to know more, or if you'd like to guest-write for The Classicist with an Atlas then I'd love to hear from you - you can get in touch via the form on the Contact page or on Instagram @theclassicistwithanatlas.