Paul Barnett on the Genre of the Gospels

Over the years, I have had my share of discussions about the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). There is still an overall skepticism towards them that permeates the culture and college campuses. I have found that many skeptics have never stopped and asked the question, “What Are The Gospels?” Historian and theologian Paul Barnett has made some helpful comments here on this topic.
He says:

” In attempting to identify the gospels in terms of existing literary genres, it is not always recognized, as it should be, that Mark alone calls his book by that name. Furthermore, the four canonical gospels differ from each other in both character and intention. Mark wrote his text to be read aloud in church meetings (Mark 13:14) to demonstrate that Jesus was the awesome Son of Man who disappeared as mysteriously as he had appeared. Luke wrote his two-volume “narrative” to confirm catechumens like Theophilus in the truth in which he had been instructed (Luke 1:1-4). Matthew wrote his gospel as a manual for the instruction of disciples, based on the collected teachings of the Christ (Matt 28:19). John wrote his book with special interest in Jesus’ miracle signs and lengthy pastoral and polemical discourse. The character and intention of each gospel are different. Luke and Matthew felt that Mark’s gospel was inadequate, so they adapted it and added other material to suit their purposes. John wrote his “book” to reassure his Christian hearers that Jesus was truly the Christ, the Son of God (John 20:30-31). Clearly each gospel is biographical in character and bears some similarities to the Greco-Roman bioi of that general era, e.g., Suetonius’s Twelve Caesars or Plutarch’s Parallel Lives.56 Nonetheless, the gospels are unusual if not unique because their intended readership and purpose are so exclusively defined. Whereas the contemporary biographers and historians wrote to inform everyone in general and no one in particular, the gospelers wrote their texts narrowly and specifically for Christians for “in-house” use. Accordingly, attempts to classify the gospels according to this genre or that should be regarded as secondary. The primary observation should be to recognize their unique intended audience as church-directed and their function as ecclesial-liturgical (Mark), polemical-apologetic (John), and instructional (Matthew, Luke-Acts).s’ Mark is a special case. The writer’s explicit direction to the lector to explain the meaning of an obscure text (Mark 13:14) and the many implied side comments to those present (e.g., 7:11,19;13:37; 15:21) identify this text as designed to be read aloud in a church meeting. Mark must be classified alongside the letters of Paul and the Apocalypse as a text the author specifically wrote for an aural purpose in a liturgical, ecclesial setting.58 That was also likely true of Matthew, Luke-Acts, and John. The gospels claim another dimension as well, the supranatural. That is to say, the gospels are existentially the word of the risen and ascended Kyrios that are read aloud to his assembled people (cf. Mark 13:14 – “Let the lector explain”). Mark’s opening words indicate that what follows is “the gospel of (i.e., from) Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” that is to say, his word to his hearers in the churches. The man Mark is merely the human cipher through whom the words of the risen Lord come to his people. Using different language, John asserts that the “book” he writes is a “true … witness” to Christ’s “signs” for his hearers to safely “believe” for immediate entry to “eternal life” (John 20:30-31; 19:35; cf. 21:24). Does the supranatural character of Mark suggest that his gospel is a historical, in fact mythical in character? No. Mark roots his narrative in the soil of geography (e.g., Nazareth, Capernaum, Gennesaret, Bethsaida, Tyre, Sidon, the Decapolis, Caesarea Philippi, Jerusalem) and (as noted) in the context of John the Baptist and of known political leaders (Herod the king [actually, tetrarch], the high priest, Pontius Pilate). Jesus’ movements as fugitive from the ruler of Galilee (chapters 6-9) are consistent with one avoiding the borders of Herod Antipas’s jurisdiction. Mark’s gospel is the word of the living Christ to the churches and a work that is both historical and geographical. We offer two observations about the genre of the gospels. First, their special readership (church groups) and purpose liturgical/polemical/apologetic/instructional) make it difficult to classify them alongside other contemporary texts. Second, insofar as they are able to be classified, they belong to the broad group of biographies (bioi). In short, they are ecclesial documents that are biographical and historical in character. For both Mark and John their words are supranaturally true. Yet at the same time they must also be historically true. If they are not historically true, they cannot be supranaturally true.”- Finding the Historical Christ (After Jesus) by Paul Barnett

For more on this topic, see our post A Closer Look at the Genre of the Gospels: Ancient and Modern Historiography: What are the Gospels?

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