One More Time, What kind of literature is a Gospel?

Screen Shot 2016-02-13 at 12.03.37 PMYou can imagine yourself — as I have done in a lecture more than once — as a 1st Century librarian receiving in the daily Roman mail a copy of Matthew, skimming it long enough to grasp its contours, and then rendering a judgment on where to stack the book. (In our world, what is the Dewey Decimal number of the Library of Congress number?)

There have been a few options in the 20th Century’s discussion — the discussion is not so important today, including a “biography” or a “legend” or a “memoir” or a “didactic, catechetical book.” At the center of today’s discussion is that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John would have been called a “biography” (or bios) by the 1st Century librarian (and their readers). It matters which genre one uses for the Gospels, though assigning a genre does not determine the meaning of the book — it might influence readings, however.

In Brant Pitre’s excellent new book of apologetics called The Case for Jesus, there is a good discussion of how the Gospels are biographies, but they are also “historical” biographies. Here are his major lines of thinking, and at the end I will offer a clarification or emendation as a suggestion.

1. Ancient biographies focus on the life and death of a single individual.

2. Ancient biographies often average between 10,000 and 20,000 words in length.

3. Ancient biographies often begin with ancestry.

4. Ancient biographies don’t have to be in chronological order.

5. Ancient biographies don’t tell you everything about a person.

He adds a 6th:

But we can’t stop there. The four Gospels are not just any kind of ancient biography. They are historical biographies, two of which explicitly claim to tell us what Jesus actually did and said and to be based on eyewitness testimony (Luke 1:1-4; John 21:20-24).

And this doesn’t mean we need to be underlining words and sentences in red:

On the one hand—and I cannot overemphasize the point—it does not mean that the Gospels are verbatim transcripts of what Jesus said and did.

Now my response, and I will use Brant’s own logic from the previous discussion about authorship. Inasmuch as there is no evidence the Gospels were anonymous since in the early church there are no anonymous Gospels (that is, using the early church evidence), so I make this claim: there is no evidence the Gospels were called “biographies” in the early church either. Therefore… that absence matters.

This matters for genre. Why? The Gospels were not called “biographies” but “gospels” and they were called “gospels” because they were a unique kind of communication (gospeling) that becomes a different kind of literature (a genre). That is, they were called “gospels” because they were designed not simply to tell the life of Jesus but to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah, the Lord, the living, crucified, and resurrected one.

The Gospels, I contend, have traits of biography but they are more than biographies. They are gospels.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.