Quotes on the Genre of the Gospels

 

“Can we speak of the Gospels as biographies!? If by that what we mean modern, Western biographies, then of course not. Jesus lived in the Middle East, not in the West, and he lived long before the modern era. It would be sheer anachronism and a monstrous injustice to evaluate Matthew, Mark, and Luke by twenty-first century standards of precision, some of which they probably never could of imagined.” –Dr. Craig Blomberg

“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. 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

“The Gospels are rooted in the Jewish Scriptures. They explicitly function as the continuation and fulfillment of the story of Israel. That is why they are replete with citations, allusions, and echoes of the Old Testament. The religious content and theological texture of the Gospels is heavily indebted to the worldview, socio-political landscape, and sacred texts of Judaism. Roman biography and Greek legends could refer to various religious literary works such as Delphic oracles or Homer’s Iliad. But for the Gospels, the story and worldview of Israel’s Scriptures are very much what the Gospels are about, namely, the God of Israel inaugurating his kingdom through Jesus the Messiah. It should not raise anyone’s eyebrows to say that the Gospels comprise a form of post-biblical Jewish literature with messianic faith in Jesus as its primary content. The main point of contact with the Gospels is that Jewish biographical literature contains a theography, a story about Israel’s God, working through an agent of deliverance, such as a prophet, king, or teacher. The protagonist leads the Jewish people at a time of national crisis or performs some miraculous deed at an important moment in Israel’s history. The Gospels possess a theological worldview, a geopolitical setting, didactic content, and a deliberate replication of Old Testament literary types that make some kind of connection with Jewish sacred literature irrefutable.”—-Michael F. Bird, The Gospel of the Lord (p. 229). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Bird also says:

The Gospels are the textual imprint of the oral phenomena of Christian preaching and teaching about Jesus. Viewed this way, they are Christian documents related to the needs of Christians in corporate reading, worship, apologetics, and proclamation. So in that sense they are a unique genre with no precise literary counterparts. However, their uniqueness is in many ways inconsequential because they remain largely analogous to Greco-Roman biography, and the biographical genre was typified by innovation and adaptation. The content of the Gospels is singularly determined by Jewish Christian content, while the literary form of the Gospels is a clear subtype of Greco-Roman biography.- Michael F. Bird, The Gospel of the Lord (p. 270), Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

 

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