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

One More Time, What kind of literature is a Gospel? February 26, 2016

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.

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  • Andrew Dowling

    I’d suggest the term “devotional biographies.” Their main purpose was religious, not the historical academy.

  • Scot,

    In agreement with your point, I believe Wright has expressed many times that “gospel” is itself a term that, though today circles entirely around Jesus or Christianity, was a term at the time that had a particular political function in the Roman Empire. This is not to say that there was any necessary separation b/n politics and religion, but “gospel,” if I recall correctly, was primarily (exclusively?) “good news” about a particular ruler’s rise to power, and/or new law(s) in a given jurisdiction, or even the birth of a new Caesar or a military victory.

    Since the gospel writers refer to their works as gospels of Jesus Christ, I think we have to say they are a very particular kind of biography: one that has religious and especially political bearing on its intended audience given each work’s thesis that “Jesus is the Son of God” which, in that time, was as statement more about Jesus’ right to rule than a Trinitarian argument.

  • I actually think their main purpose was political. Or, to put it another way, it was political at such a high level, a level in which the distinction b/n religion and politics, especially in the ancient world, disappears.

    The thesis of each gospel is perhaps best stated by John, that the readers “may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.” “Christ” was promised and anointed by God to be king over all–once again, equally religious and political. It would be appropriate to sum up the gospels’ thesis as “Jesus is God’s choice for Lord of heaven and earth. Govern yourselves accordingly.” I admit, the last line is a modern phrase used on various legal notices, but I think it fits. “The Judge has spoken and issued his order: Jesus is Lord. Govern yourselves accordingly.” Or, as Jesus said, “Repent and believe this good news.”

  • scotmcknight

    “Religious” is a term that doesn’t help, and not sure what “devotional” would evoke. Kerygmatic and didactic biographies is standard fare.

  • Andrew Dowling

    Religious/devotional as in they were read aloud in intentional meetings of believers and also to instruct others in the faith.

  • Andrew Dowling

    I’d agree with that.

  • Excellent. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  • Aaron Lage

    I tend to agree with you Scot. Labeling the gospels as their own genre is ideal. However, how does that translate for most people? It might make sense to folks clear on Christianity (or who have read your book), but if you’re making a case in the context of Apologetics I still think Historical Biography is a useful term for a secular audience. Would you agree?

  • Might there then be parallels with parts of the Koran telling stories of Mohammed in order to convince the reader of his identity?

  • My definition of a Gospel is “an interpretive narrative of the appearance, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus and of the significance of that story for those who hear or read it” (used in my book “Scripture”). Additionally (material from forthcoming sequel to that book): “That is, the Gospels are fundamentally about Christology and discipleship—following in the way and mission of Jesus. They do not portray Jesus as a figure who has arrived on his own initiative, but as the saving presence of the God of Israel, empowered by God’s Spirit. Moreover, following Jesus in the Gospels is not merely an individual vocation but a communal experience; the Gospels seek to shape both personal and group identity.”

  • mcm

    Greco-Roman Biography would certainly factor in to a first-century reader’s presuppositions and provide a helpful lens. However, “good news” is also an Isaianic term and explicitly commended to readers as an interpretive lens: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is (just) as it is written in the prophet Isaiah…”

  • TWH

    Antonio Piñero from the Complutense University recently chimed in on this issue over at Across the Atlantic. You can read his post here:

  • Tom Smith

    This is a very helpful definition – thanks