The Gospels: Why Genre Criticism Matters


In his book Mere Christianity, C.S Lewis left an apologetic for the world with his three options about the identity of Jesus: Jesus must be considered either a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord. I think I saw this statement by Lewis repeated in just about every apologetic book that I read during the first year of my Christian life. But there is another option that has been offered by skeptics: Jesus is a legend. The Random House College Dictionary defines “legend” as “a nonhistorical or unverifiable story handed down by tradition from earlier times and popularly accepted as historical.” In other posts on this blog, I have already discussed the early account to the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15: 3-7 and the role of orality, memorization, as well as credible witnesses in a Jewish culture. Given these issues, it makes it highly unlikely that there was enough time for a legend to develop.

Genre Issues

But what about the accusation that the story of non-historical? One way to respond to this objection is to remind people of the inherent problem of applying modern historiographical expectations to the gospels. When this is done, it only makes it more difficult to recognize ancient conventions and genre traits that the authors used in communicating the message of the resurrection. As Ben Witherington says, “Works of ancient history or biography should be judged by their own conventions.” (1)

Therefore, in asking whether the available sources for the resurrection are legendary is to carefully evaluate the genre of the Gospels. In studying for his doctoral dissertation, Richard Burridge, dean of King’s College in London England, researched the genre of the gospels. Burridge says, “Genre is the like a kind of contract between the author and the reader, or between the producers of a programme and the audience, about how they will write or produce something and how you should interpret what they have written.” Therefore, it is important that you know what the genre of the thing is before you come to interpret it.” (2)

Burridge placed special attention on the prologue, verb subjects, allocation of space, mode of representation, length, structure, scale, literary units, use of sources, style, social setting, quality of characterization, atmosphere as well authorial intention and purpose. Because of the gospel’s similarities to these ancient biographies, Burridge concluded that the genre of the gospels is what is called an ancient bioi. But just because it can be concluded that the Gospels are Greco-Roman biographies, does that mean they are historical in nature? We probably should take the advice of David Aune when he says, “Greco Roman biography was “intrinsically concerned with history.” (3)

The Gospels: Modern Biographies?

It is true that the Gospels are not modern biographies. While modern biographers may write to the entire public and no one or group in particular, the Gospels were written to specific Christian audiences. But what needs to be remembered is that just because the Gospels are not biographies in the modern sense, this does not mean they are unreliable. It is important to avoid the fallacy of chronological snobbery which rejects something just because of the date of it is extremely old or what people label as “primitive” or “prescientific.” If anything, we should appreciate the fact that we have access to four biographies from a figure in antiquity such as Jesus. Despite these issues, it can still seen that the reason there is still a high degree of skepticism towards the records that are available to us is mostly due to the miraculous. Therefore, many of the objections to the miraculous are mostly philosophical. There have plenty of books written on this subject. I suggest Norman Geisler’s Miracles and the Modern Mind or Gregory Boyd and Paul Eddy’s The Jesus Legend: A Case For The Relability of the Synoptic Tradition.


1. Ben Witherington III, New Testament History (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 2001), 18.

2. Richard Burridge And Graham Gould, Jesus: Then And Now (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 2004), 2.

3. Gregory A. Boyd and Paul R. Eddy, The Jesus Legend: A Case For The Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Tradition (Grand Rapids: Baker Books. 2007), 411.

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