So, What is a Gospel?

So, What is a Gospel? August 31, 2015

Thinking about teaching Jesus and the Gospels this Fall at Northern Seminary led me to my favorite lecture ever. Here goes…

In the Autumn of 1989, I gave a lecture to my Synoptic Gospels class that got suddenly out of hand. I never intended it to, and because it did get out of hand, I never gave it again. I prepared longer over this one than most, and had nearly forgotten about it until I was speaking a few years back in Ann Arbor. A pastor there was in that class at TEDS, heard the lecture, remembered that one student broke into tears about it all, and then told me he had a copy of it. 

The point of the lecture was to teach about the “genre” of the Synoptic Gospels. “Genre” is the term for classifying a piece of literature according to the kind of literature it is: thus, we have comedies, and tragedies, and novels. Well, I asked, what is a Gospel? 

To make the lecture more interesting, I “invented” a story about getting to go to Alexandria’s library and finding on a shelf the librarians’ notes about how to classify a “Gospel.” I thought my students knew that the great library at Alexandria was destroyed — for millennia. But, no, not one of them seemed to know and this led many to think the following story occurred. One student began to cry in joy of what I had found, and I suddenly found myself muddled as to what to do. What I decided to do was tell them then and there and never to do this again.

Here it is:

I want to read a paper to you that will be submitting for publication. It records an experience I had last summer in Egypt, and in itself is quite interesting. I was there as a result of a scholarship for the investigation of a new manuscript discovered at the great library of Alexandria. The only persons who know my results are my NT colleagues. The publication is scheduled to come out next summer.

Last summer, on a trip to the Near East and especially Egypt, I was privileged to obtain permission to utilize the great classics library in Alexandria. It was difficult to obtain permission to use the library, so I went out of my way to acquire all the appropriate recommendations (from the Dean, my doctoral supervisor, JDG Dunn, and an added recommendation from a publisher). So, with my briefcase jammed with my Synopsis, my Greek New Testament, BDAG, and these recommendations, I approached the head librarian who sat at a marble desk, flanked by two armed guards.

I presented my papers, permission slips and recommendations to the librarian, a certain Constantine Napoli. He found my name on his list and so I was welcomed. He asked me which part of the library I’d like to sit in, and I said, “Ancient Alexandrian.” He said, “Which century?” and I responded, “First.” So, he gave me a map, showed me where I stood and then told me how to get to that section of the library called “Ancient Alexandria.” At the end of that library, he pointed out, was a large collection of mss called “1st Century Alexandria.”

It took me about 10 minutes to walk through the maze of scholars and separate divisions of this library, but I finally found the ward called “Ancient Alexandria.” A friendly graduate student met me, recognized my name on her list, and escorted me to the end of this large, sun-drenched, marble-collonaded room. A small door, only about 5-ft high, separated me from the desired collection of mss. I ducked a bit, bumped the top of my balding head, and emerged in the Ancient World that I desired to encounter. I was alone.

The room was distinguished, if empty and dusty. It had the aroma of a basement that had been unattended to for a decade or more. I found a corner to set up camp, gladly relieved my arm of the briefcase, wiped off the scriptorium’s desk, took out my Synopsis and Greek NT, and then scanned the room. Where, I asked, are the notes of the 1st Century librarians? The shelves were marked well, each marking in Greek except two sections, one in Latin (containing official correspondence with Domitian) and the other in Ethiopic (containing, as best as I could tell, nothing but ordinary letters from one person to another). One long shelf was labeled “Small Scrolls of the Librarian” (bibliaridion tou bibliophulakes). At the end of this long shelf, in the far and lower corner, I found what I was looking for, first century librarian notes. The outside of the scroll read biblia ton Ioudaion kata ton theophilon, domitian (“books of the Jews, according to Theophilus, Domitian”). Apparently the librarian, named Theophilus, served during the reign of Domitian.

The scroll was interesting for it contained the notes of the librarian’s discussions with other experts on where to classify certain books, including such books as what appears to be the letter of James, which Theophilus classified under “Homiles of the Jews,” and it also contained a record of receiving Romans, by a certain Paul from Tarsus. It classified Romans under the category of  “Judaism: Christian Sect, Letters” (Ioudaismos hareisis tou Christou, epistolai). Along with Romans were some other early letters of Christians.

But what really got my attention was a long record toward the middle of the scroll. Here was the text that I was given permission to read, copy, translate, and publish. It recorded a discussion between a conference of librarians about three books they called Euaggelia tou Iesou Christou tou Nazaret, “gospels of Jesus Christ from Nazareth.” The record is contained in a small scroll, about 15 feet long and 10 inches high. It is written in an early Greek uncial script, somewhat like Sinaiticus, and the scribe’s handwriting was careful and elegantly simple.

Apparently the first 1st Century library had about five or six separate librarians, from different parts of the Roman Empire. The five librarians were named Aponarius (from Greece), Simon of Judea, Plotinus the Roman, Eleazar the Galilean, along with Theophilus. Eleazar, from what I could see, was a Christian because as the scroll unfolds he seems to take up a Christian view of the “Gospels.”

Here is a summary of the notes along with my own explanations.

1.0 General Orientation of the Discussion

First, there must have been considerable discussion on where to place the “Gospels,” each of which arrived sometime in the 80s. For not only is this the longest record I was able to find in the three or four scrolls from the librarians of the second half of the first century, but I found out from the curator of the later centuries that there were no records of such a debate of this length in the other notes of the librarians. The Ancient Near East: Israelite History curator told me, however, that he had one scroll that contained a lengthy debate about the nature of Shir Ha-Shirim (The Song of Solomon). I asked him if Job had generated any such discussion, and he said there were no records of any such debate. He lifted his eyebrows when he said this and it made me wonder if someone was not investigating Job as well.

Since the notes proceeded librarian by librarian, I infer that there was a round-table discussion during which the head librarian, Theophilus, proceeded one by one around the table asking each to weigh in on the question of where to classify and shelve gospels.

2.0 The Discussion of the Librarians

I will now give you the opinions of each librarian, and I begin with the expert from Greece, Aponarius.

2.1 Aponarius: Biography

Aponarius argued that one of his colleagues (referred to as A in the notes), after reading one of the Gospels and it had to be Mark because he used the word didaskein (to teach) in Mark 8:31, suggested that the Gospels be shelved along with Greek tragedies. Not understanding Greek tragedies, Simon apparently asked Aponarius to explain. Aponarius states, and here there is a fulsome quotation, “Greek tragedy is essentially an affirmation of the inviolability of moral law.” Aponarius then explained that Greek tragedies are essentially religious and were re-enactments, for the benefit of some religious people, of mythico-historical events that gave rise to their beliefs. Often, he explained, the hero of such tragedies died under abnormal circumstances but his suffering benefited the people.

He then said that most of the colleagues in his Academy disagreed, claiming that the Gospels just don’t sound like tragedies. Others were suggesting Greek comedies. But that, too, was eliminated when Aponarius told them that the ending was tragic and not happy and good or comedic, which meant that they were reading a copy of Mark that ended at 16:8.

Then he said that most agreed that the Gospels should be shelved with biographies. One of the colleagues said that when he read the Gospel, and this colleague (referred to as D) was apparently reading Matthew, for he mentions the Magi. This person said Matthew reminded him of Xenophon’s Memorabilia and Agesilaus, Isocrates Evagoras, Philo’s Life of Moses, Tacitus’ Agricola, and Lucian’Life of Demonax. Each of the colleagues, and Aponarius himself, agreed that a good case could be made for this classification. The Gospels were biographies.

They apparently registered their case with Theophilus and classed them with Greco-Roman Lives of Famous People.

We’ve had a look at what Aponarius, the Greek librarian had to say about the Gospels and now it is time to turn to Simon the Judean.

2.2 Simon, the Judean: Haggadic Biography

Simon declared immediately that, though he had never seen a book of the length of these books dedicated solely to one individual — reminding everyone that in his Jewish tradition history books were about the nation and community and not individuals alone, he did think that “Gospel” could have emerged from Jewish soil. In particular, he said, there were two or three precedents that could have coalesced to form this kind of literature.

First, he said, we have a fair share of lives of religious heroes, both in the Torah and in our other books. He mentioned the Moses stories and the Elisha stories from the Torah and the Early Prophets. He apparently thought that Diaspora Jews, including those living in Alexandria, got the same impression from their Septuagint. Further, he must have mentioned 1 and 2 Maccabees, some apocalyptic writings, and some of the Qumran documents because traces of each appears in the Gospels. But, he said, none of these is so devoted to the life of one individual but are rather more concerned with a major movement (and here there was some discussion of the Maccabees, whose memory lives just after the destruction of Jerusalem from 66-73 AD). He mentioned that concentration of one individual tends to spring from a person’s prayers — as in Psalms.

Second, Simon continued, though the lives give some basis for the Gospels, it was the opinion of the son of the prominent Jew, Philo, whose name was Alexandros, that the Gospels sounded like midrashic embellishments of a certain Jesus of Nazaret. He apparently informed Eleazar the Galilean that, though no real parallels exist for such a midrashic undertaking, that kind of thinking was not at all impossible for Jewish writing. When Aponarius asked Simon if that meant that the entire work was fiction, and therefore they should change their views to Greek Fictions, and classify the books along with Plutarch’s Lives, Simon said that was too strong of a reaction. He suggested, rather, that though the books were basically historical, certain portions would have been been embellished with stories spun from whole cloth out of scriptural citations. In fact, he said that he was impressed with such a notion when he read the story about Jesus coming out of Egypt in the beginning of one of the Gospels, but he couldn’t remember which one.

Third, he continued, not only would we think these books to be embellished lives, we also think that haggadah is present. By this, he said, we mean the telling of stories to impress upon readers a point or an opinion. In fact, at times haggadic stories are nothing more than fables. Thus, we would think that some of the material is haggadic as well.

Their suggestion, then, was that the Gospels are a life of Jesus that has been overladen with legendary and haggadic materials, some of which are derived from exegesis of Jewish scriptures. But, Simon added, we tend to think that these books are from some people who must think that Jesus, of whom I had never heard until now, was either God or the greatest human who ever lived. But, it is clear to us at least, that he was not God (since we believe in one God) and that he was not great since God cursed him through allowing his crucifixion.

At this point I observed there was some consensus: the Gospels were some kind of life of Jesus. But, each argued that the themes of the Gospels were shaped in such a way to lead the reader to adoration and instruction.

2.3 Plotinus, the Roman: Life of Jesus.

Plotinus was next, and he evidently had little to add to the discussion. He stated that his counselors saw the Gospels as memoirs of some early Christians, perhaps the Apostles themselves, or as lives of Jesus. He said that he voted on this one with Aponarius.

2.4 Eleazar, the Galilean: Didactic, kerygmatic Biography.

From the notes that remain, Eleazar must have given a substantial presentation to the librarians. Theophilus took detailed notes of Eleazar’s statements and so they took up nearly five pages of the scroll I was privileged to see. Further, from the looks of the notes Eleazar must have spoken rapidly (the notes seem to be scribbled at times) and he may well have asked the librarians to listen as he read to them long portions of the Gospels. At one point Eleazar’s name is glossed with the word euaggelistes, “evangelist.”

2.4.1 Eleazar must have said something about beginning at the beginning and this was, to the surprise of Theophilus, with Abraham, the father of Israel. After Abraham’s name appears Moses, David and the prophets. Thereafter he skips to Joseph and Mary and to a supernatural birth of Jesus. Then the life of Jesus is briefly sketched as a life of teaching the gospel of the Kingdom of God in the synagogues of the Jews, and a ministry of preaching and healing others. There is a note to the effect of teaching the disciples, a quick reference to official opposition by Jewish leaders, particularly the Pharisees, and then Thephilus drew a cross — a Roman one. After the cross, Theophilus adds, “and Eleazar and other Christians think Jesus came back to life.” Theophilus, evidently hearing something about Mark, said that the beginning of the gospel is the life and teachings of Jesus.

2.4.2 A couple of blank lines appear and the word “memory” appears. Here Eleazar must have said something about how well the Galilean Jews can remember what was said and can recall it for years.

First, he says, we who are by nature Jews know that God has vouchsafed to us his Word in written form and so we have, since birth, memorized God’s words. He said he could recite the entire book of our prayers, which we call the Psalms of David. So, when we became convinced that Jesus was God’s prophet and Messiah, we listened to him intently as if we were listening to God. Thus, we memorized much of what he said and did. Someone was always there, he said, and so most everything was remembered. He then evidently quoted some statements of Jesus that were in the Gospels but which they really no longer followed, like the one saying about not going to the Gentiles [which we now know is Matt 10:5-6].

Second, there were many of us who were there and heard what Jesus said. I, for one, heard only some of his sermons in Capernaum and Nazaret (and I heard his first sermon in Nazaret when he said it was all about him) but I remember much of what others have told me Jesus said. And many others heard Jesus and they got together after he died and after his resurrection and ascension and they compared notes and began to fix these things in their mind.

Third, some of the sayings of Jesus became especially important because of our circumstances in the Land of Israel. If you librarians (so it reads in the hand of Theophilus) read these Gospels you will observe, especially in Matthew, my favorite Gospel, that Jesus had a hard time with the Pharisees. So do we today in upper Galilee and Syria and for this reason our Gospel reflects these debates of Jesus with them. We especially remember these because they are like our own experiences every day.

(At this point, Theophilus has the word chreia, meaning a short episode. Evidently, Eleazar made an observation about one of the ways they remembered the events and sayings of Jesus by alluding to a form so well known in the Greco-Roman world. After this is the word “Sabbath.” I have inferred that Eleazar compared a story in the Gospels about Jesus on a Sabbath to the chreia of the Greco-Roman world.)

2.4.3 Eleazar then must have gone ahead to the Gospel writers themselves and said something about each of the Evangelists. What he said I can’t figure out, because Theophilus did not write anything down. But he just wrote down the names, and he did it in this order: Mark, Matthew, Luke. He must have said something about the context of each author. What he said is this: “Mark: Rome and persecution, disciples and suffering; Matthew: Land of Israel and problems with the Pharisees; teachings of Jesus; Luke: [unknown], researched by comparing Mark to other Gospels, and God’s salvation for all.”

2.4.4 Eleazar explained that each Gospel was a story of Jesus that grew from local sayings and events into a church-based Gospel. He said you can go to any church in the Roman Empire and you will hear the same basic story but every local church seems to have its own contributions and special stories and sayings.

Then he concluded with this:

First, these Gospels are indeed lives of Jesus that are written for followers of Jesus to teach them in the ways of Jesus, but at the same time they are proclamations of Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God.

Second, he must have ended with some kind of flourishing summons to each of them to read them and see if maybe they aren’t telling the truth about God.

3.0 General Discussion

At this point another gap occurs in the notes. Theophilus has only a few notes but it appears that there was considerable discussion on where to shelve the Gospels. Simon and Eleazar seem to have been in the middle of it, and it concerned what it meant to be a true Jew and to live according to the covenant with Abraham. Theophilus wrote down syntheke (mutual covenant) and then scratched it out and wrote down diatheke (the Christian word for “covenant, testament”).

The Greek librarian, Aponarius, and the Roman librarian, Plotinus, must have given up on the matter, casted their votes for Eleazar because they wrote down “Gospels of Jesus Christ from Nazaret: Didactic, kerygmatic Biography.” The rest of the notes on the scroll were about Eleazar’s and Simon’s continuation of their debate about the covenant. There are words about cross and resurrection, about eating flesh and drinking blood, and it all seems to have ended when Simon left — for there are only three votes. All in favor of Eleazar. Simon apparently did not vote.


Theophilus’s conclusion is telling. First, it states at the end of the scroll in the clearest writing on the entire scroll this: I, Theophilus, read these books from one end to the other, and testify that I find Eleazar’s view to be true and reliable. We put up a new shelf: Gospels. Why? Because they are not Greco-Roman Biographies and they are not philosophy books, but seem to be their own kind.

Second, Theophilus professes faith: “I, Theophilus, not only read these books but I became convinced that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and so I sought out Eleazar, found him at a house in Alexandria, and then watched him leave for a visit to Carthage, where he was to be preaching the gospel about Jesus — he said that one day someone great would come from Carthage. I did find a man named Mark and asked him if I could be a part of the ecclesia at Alexandria. The ecclesia now meets in my house and we partake in the sacred meal each time we meet. This is my last day in the Library, for tomorrow I will be resigning to devote my life to the church.”

Third, at this point in the scroll a new pen appears. It is the pen of another librarian, and it reads, “I Clearchus, assume the position of Theophilus because he, being irreligious and superstitious, has joined the ranks of the growing Christians in Alexandria. Domitian.”

So ends my favorite lecture ever. Hope you enjoy it. The theory behind it is that the Gospels are biographies that are shaped by the Evangelists to be books that teach the teachings of Jesus and proclaim the goods news about Jesus all in one book.

My thanks to Ken White for sending me this lecture and sending me back to a time and place that have special meaning for me.



Browse Our Archives

Close Ad