What are the Gospels?

Knowing what type of writings the Gospels are – for example, legendary versus historical – will help us to understand the writers intentions and therefore help guide our interpretation. And the subject of genre – the category in which a piece of literature should fall into – is crucial for this understanding. This short piece will superficially establish why the Gospels should not be categorized as historical biographies. For a more critical and thorough analysis on ancient biographies see here, for a comparison of ancient historical writing see here, and, finally, for methodological approaches to ancient history see here.

“Genre forms a kind of `contract’ or agreement, often unspoken or unwritten, or even unconscious, between an author and a reader, by which the author sets out to write according to a whole set of expectations and conventions, and we agree to read or to interpret the work using the same conventions, giving us an initial idea of what we might expect to find.” Richard A. Burridge.

The Gospels were initially viewed as being “one of a kind” (sui generis) biographies because they differed from modern biographies in that the subject lacked much personal detail, such as personality, character development and appearance. In the 1920’s form criticism came to the forefront analyzing the different types of mini-stories that the Gospels are comprised of. They saw the Gospels as completely void of biographical and historical content. This, and other reasons, led them to conclude that the Gospels were folk literature, that is, pieces of oral tradition passed down and synthesized into narratives. Ben Witherington, on the other hand, a modern New Testament scholar, says, “The whole form critical approach to these Gospels is deeply flawed, for the Gospels do not amount to boiling up narratives from shards and bits of tradition and sayings of Jesus; on the contrary, Gospel writing was a matter of editing the material down in specific ways.”

A more recent analysis, namely by Richard Burridge, has stolen the show. He concludes that the genre of the Gospels should be one of ancient Greco-Roman biography by comparing the Gospels to other well established Greco-Roman writings in terms of similarity in function, form and content. To be sure, the consensus for both Christian and secular scholars do agree with Richard Burridge. To yet gain further insight into Greco-Roman style, Bart Ehrman defines Greco-Roman biography as follows: “ a prose narrative recounting an individual’s life, often within a chronological framework, employing numerous subgenera (such as sayings, speeches, anecdotes and conflict stories) so as to reflect important aspects of his or her character, principally for purposes of instruction (too inform about what kind of person he or she was), or propaganda (to show his or her superiority to rivals). Although this definition is fair enough for the Gospels, I tend to think that it lacks granularity. As the historian of ancient writing Mathew Ferguson points out:

The genre of Graeco-Roman biography was rather diverse in antiquity, with many variations in structure and content depending on the biographical subject being described. As such, the comparison of the NT Gospels with “Graeco-Roman biography” is no simple or straightforward matter, as ancient biographical scholars still debate how the genre can even be defined to begin with.”

Mathew Ferguson believes that if the Gospels are classified in the aforementioned manner, there should be a distinction made, namely that the Gospels are more similar to prose novels and legendary biographies than to that of historical biographies. This inference comes from the Gospels lacking analytical rigor and containing many storytelling elements in comparison to that of historical biographies. Some of these novelistic biographies, for example, are about Homer, Alexander, and Aesop, whereas writings by Plutarch, Arrian and Suetonius are historical biographies. There were even biographical examples of miracle-working divine men, similar in broad outline to Jesus, such as Pythagoras, Empedocles, Asclepius and, the most uncanny, Apollonius of Tyana. Matthew Ferguson contrasts the differences as follows:

“Ancient historical prose has a very distinct style, in which the historian often would discuss the methodology of his research, the sources he consulted, the differences between multiple traditions about a person or event, and his judgment as an inquirer into past affairs. History, derived from the Greek ἱστορία (“inquiry”), is not merely a narrative about past people, places, and events, but is an investigation that one conducts in the present in order to formulate a hypothesis of what probably took place in the past, based on the available evidence.”

“Rather than read as the unmitigated praise of a saint who can do no wrong, ancient historical works and historical biographies were far more critical of their subjects, whom they analyzed less one-dimensionally and more as complete persons. Even for a popular and well-liked emperor like Augustus, his biographer Suetonius in his Life of Augustus still did not hold back from describing Augustus’ acts of adultery (69) and lavish behavior (70). Good historians are concerned with telling the past as it really is rather than just heaping praise upon individuals as propaganda.”

So historical biography, generally, is more investigatory, analytical and critical of their subject matter. This does not seem to be the case with the Gospels where the aim of the omniscient, third-person authors is not to chiefly convince you of the accuracy of their accounts but rather to convince you of the subject matter’s heroic deeds, etc. Moreover, all of the Gospels are anonymous, don’t cite their sources or methodologies and utilize much myth making, which is atypical of historical biographical material.

Two possible exceptions, one being the Gospel of Luke, where there is mentioning of how sources have been passed down and that the author has done all that he could to ensure that his account is the correct account. This passage doesn’t amount to much as it excludes the names of the sources and doesn’t bother to discuss their relevancy to the events. There is no critical engagement at all. Second exception is the Gospel of John where John claims to have an eyewitness disciple, but the Gospel doesn’t even name this person. To summarize, I leave you with a quote from Ferguson.

“The Gospels, in contrast, are not historical biographies but hagiographies written in unquestioning praise of their messianic subject. As a good representation of the scholarly consensus about the aims of the Gospels, the Oxford Annotated Bible (pg. 1744) explains, “Neither the evangelists nor their first readers engaged in historical analysis. Their aim was to confirm Christian faith.” Such works, written for an audience of converts, are not chiefly concerned with being critical or investigative, but rather serve the religious agendas and ideologies of the communities that produced them.”

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