The Gospels as Biography

Mike Kok has been blogging through the question of the genre of the Gospels and the history of scholarship on the subject, and of late he has reached Richard Burridge’s work on whether the Gospels are Bioi, i.e. ancient biographies of the sort written in that historical and cultural context. His latest post features a chart comparing the features in a number of works (the right column of which unfortunately doesn’t show up properly in Chrome).

Andrew Lincoln’s forthcoming book Born of a Virgin?: Reconceiving Jesus in the Bible, Tradition, and Theology also tackles the genre of the Gospels, and after noting that ancient biographies often include infancy stories which must be judged ahistorical, and that these elements in some of the Gospels actually serve both to clue us in to their genre, and to encourage us to view the infancy stories in a similar way.

  • Evan Hershman

    I haven’t read much about the genre of the gospels, other than the introductions to a couple of commentaries that treat the issue. My question is: what difference does it make what the genre of the gospels is? I have seen some people operate with the assumption that if the gospels are ancient biographies, that somehow makes them more reliable as historical sources (as though ancient bioi were equivalent to modern scholarly biographies!) The same thing arises in the debate over the genre of Acts: those who argue trenchantly for Acts being some kind of ancient history writing often work with the implicit assumption that if Acts is “history,” even of the ancient variety, that improves its value as a historical source.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      You are absolutely right. Identifying the genre doesn’t automatically settle questions of the historicity of any of the contents. It does help set a reasonable starting point, however. If it looks more like ancient biography than an allegorical composition, there are at least some discussions on this blog to which that would be relevant! :-)

    • John David Walters

      It makes a difference because it clues us in on the intent of the author and guides our interpretive approach. If the gospels are ancient biographies, that suggests the authors at least intended to record the facts about Jesus, so we should evaluate the gospels at least partly with respect to whether the authors were able to do what they set out to do. Whereas if the genre clues pointed more towards ancient novels, for example, questions of historicity would not even arise.

  • Mike K.

    Thanks James for the link! I spent all this time writing up charts on Word and trying to compress them as much as possible (e.g., my neat little legend), but the blog kept cutting off the last two columns when I posted it. I am sure there is a simple solution if I wasn’t so technology illiterate :) Evan, I agree with the point you are making as “lives” (bioi) could range from subjects known personally to the authors to ancient mythical figures (e.g., Romulus) or a novelistic work may still centre on real historical subjects (e.g., Jesus, Peter and the Twelve, Pilate, Caiaphas, Annas, John the Baptist, etc were still historical figures regardless of the Gospels’ genre), so I wanted to consider the genre question separately from the historicity one.

    • John David Walters

      What examples are there of novels about recent historical characters from that period?

      • Mike K.

        Thanks John, that is a fair objection. In my notes on Tolbert, she thought of Mark as a kind of biographical/historical novel but her proposal seemed weakened by the lack of extant examples. Michael Vines advances the hypothesis of Mark as a Jewish novel, though unfortunately I do not have access to his book right now and have only consulted the RBL review (http://www.bookreviews.org/pdf/2865_2823.pdf). His examples (e.g., Daniel, Esther, Judith, Tobit, etc) set their characters in the Assyrian, Babylonian or Persian periods and may have historical rulers play a role, but they seem to narrate the distant rather than recent past (and may be wildly anachronistic like LXX Judith having Nebuchadnezzar as king of Assyria). I think my main point was not to claim that the Gospels are novels as I actually agree with you that they are probably some kind of popular bioi, but only to distinguish the genre question from the historical one. That is, scholars who offer other proposals (Talbert/Vines=novel, Kee=apocalyptic, MacDonald=epic, form critics=pop folk literature, etc) do not doubt the existence of the historical Jesus, just as Socrates’ appearance as a character in a comedy (Aristophanes’ Clouds) would not mean that there was no historical Socrates.

  • http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/ Lothar Lorraine

    “also tackles the genre of the Gospels, and after noting that ancient biographies often include infancy stories which must be judged ahistorical”

    I am wondering if this judgment MUST been as entirely free of worldview presuppositions.
    Whilst I don’t think you can prove the resurrection using the historical method, all the articles I’ve read where it is stated we are obliged to see it as non-historical contain naturalistic or at least deistic postulates.

    I am generally open to the possibility of miracles within and outside the Bible but under miracles I don’t understand the violation of natural laws but God’s intervention using the natural laws He created. As a member (physicist) of the Faraday Institute explained, God might very well have caused all wonders in the Bible without having broken the laws of creation.

    I understand that liberal scholars react to fundamentalism by rejecting miracles altogether, but this seems to be an overreaction akin to throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com


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