This past week, I was engaging some Muslims in the downtown area where I live. They were part of a new evangelistic group called Ask a Muslim. During our discussions, we started to discuss the differences between Mohammed and Jesus. One of the Muslims asked me “How do you know what Jesus did in his early years? Perhaps he did sin on several occasions and the Gospel authors left that out?”
I have often heard the objection that the Gospels should have mentioned more about the childhood of Jesus. In other words, why can’t we know more about the early years of the life of Jesus? Several years ago, I was reading about this issue in Ben Witherington’s work. In relation to the objection, he says the following:
“Finally, in regard to Mark’s somewhat rough Greek or John’s somewhat simplistic style, it must be borne in mind that bioi in the first century A.D. were by nature popular literature. They did not need to be seen as being in the same league as Virgil’s Aeneid or Homer’s Odyssey, or being as precise as a careful work of history like Thucydides’ History. The goal was to create a lasting impression through the impact of the whole bios. One would not expect of an ancient biography a “womb to tomb” chronicling of a person’s life. Nor would one expect much time or focus on the early childhood development of the person in question, since it was believed that character was basically static and did not develop over time, but rather, was merely revealed. The author would not necessarily be concerned to recount even all the historic events that transpired in the main character’s life, since the goal was to reveal who this person truly was, through a portrait of words and deeds, not to give an exhaustive life account. A representative sampling of a person’s life activities that revealed character would be more than sufficient. Finally, if the person’s death took place in some glorious or inglorious fashion, ample space had to be devoted to explaining the significance of the event because it was widely believed in antiquity that how one died revealed one’s true character and, more importantly, what God or the gods (in a pagan biography) thought about that person. Needless to say, since Jesus was crucified and no one in antiquity saw this as a noble way to die, much explaining was required of Matthew, Mark, and John if their hero figure was to be viewed sympathetically by a first-century recipient of one of their Gospels. Judged by ancient standards then, Matthew, Mark, and John all look rather clearly like ancient biographies of the more religious or philosophical sort.” [New Testament History: A Narrative Account (Baker Academic, 2003) 22.]
In this case, I did my best to explain the role of genre criticism with the Muslims. After all, works of ancient history or biography should be judged by their own conventions. Was this a satisfactory answer for them? Probably not. But in the end, understanding the genre of the Gospels is unavoidable.