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Having demonstrated a more plausible social context for the gospel writers in the previous chapter, Chapter 4 establishes how many of the features of the gospels traditionally associated with their exceptionalism – for example, anonymity or consulting eyewitnesses – can be understood as evidence of rhetorical strategy and literary influence. By comparing the Synoptic gospels to the Satyrica, in particular, we see how these writings were in dialogue with the literary interests of the age in subjects like funerary meals, crucifixion, resurrection, and so forth.
Chapter 3 reviews what we know about ancient literary and literate practices and what some scholars term “book culture.” Using testimony from Greek and Latin writers, this chapter provides a concrete description of how one was trained to read and write in the ancient Mediterranean world and how literacy was attained. The theorizations of Pierre Bourdieu on habitus and fields helps articulate how a Greco-Roman writer could possess and represent a number of different interests, social influences, and skill sets, and how we might more fruitfully describe this kind of knowledge in our scholarship. Philo of Alexandria serves as a case study for this new approach as a writer interested in a number of overlapping subjects, including religion, philosophy, politics, and texts.
Chapter 5 argues that the Synoptic gospels can be read as a “subversive biography” in the tradition of similar treatments of notable underdogs like Alexander the Great in the Alexander Romance or the notorious Aesop. Situating the gospels securely within a new genre classification demonstrates their engagement with the literary culture of the imperial period. Thus, specific characteristics of Jesus’ portrayal in the Synoptics need not be a function of oral tradition, but a reflection of the rational interests of elite, imperial writers.
Conventional approaches to the Synoptic gospels argue that the gospel authors acted as literate spokespersons for their religious communities. Whether described as documenting intra-group 'oral traditions' or preserving the collective perspectives of their fellow Christ-followers, these writers are treated as something akin to the Romantic poet speaking for their Volk - a questionable framework inherited from nineteenth-century German Romanticism. In this book, Robyn Faith Walsh argues that the Synoptic gospels were written by elite cultural producers working within a dynamic cadre of literate specialists, including persons who may or may not have been professed Christians. Comparing a range of ancient literature, her ground-breaking study demonstrates that the gospels are creative works produced by educated elites interested in Judean teachings, practices, and paradoxographical subjects in the aftermath of the Jewish War and in dialogue with the literature of their age. Walsh's study thus bridges the artificial divide between research on the Synoptic gospels and Classics.
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