What is the Genre of the New Testament Gospels?

The genre of the gospels is a question of interest. It is important because knowing the genre of a text will help us in approaching and interpreting that text. For example, few would disagree that there is a big difference between the genres of romantic fiction and mechanical engineering. We realize that the genres of texts differ and that this should inform our approach and how we interpret them. What do we know of the gospels which are the primary sources for learning about the ministry of Jesus Christ?

According to Biblical scholar Donald Hagner, “As far as literary form goes, beyond those emanating from the Christian church, there are no parallels to the Gospels in the literature of antiquity” (1). There have thus been various attempts to categorize the genre of the gospels. Genres proposed have included targum, midrash, historical novel, and lectionary, but these have not been convincing to most scholars. Instead, the gospels represent a unique literary category that is without any exact analogy in the ancient world. Hagner explains,

“It is clear that the Gospels present themselves as historical narratives in story form. Inasmuch as they center on the life of Jesus, perhaps the closest analogy from antiquity are the lives (bioi) or biographies of famous individuals, whether heroes, immortals, or founders of schools of thought” (2).

Good examples of this genre include Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars, Plutarch’s Lives, Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Ancient Philosophers, and Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius of Tyana. But as Hagner says, comparing the gospels to ancient biographies only goes so far because there are also differences that need to be taken into account. The most obvious difference is found in the kerygmatic or proclamatory dimension to the gospels. By contrast, ancient biographies were written primarily to provide information, moral examples, or entertainment. But the gospels wish to witness to and proclaim Jesus as the good news for which Israel and the world have longed. Indeed the gospels are much interested in providing historical information about Jesus and present him as an example, but they are not interested in such for their own sake, but only insofar as they serve as pointers to the significance of Jesus for the salvation of the world.

Hagner sees it appropriate to refer to the gospels as “biography-like” rather than biographies in the ordinary, modern sense of the word (3). Counting against viewing them as solely biographical is that they are limited in important ways; for instance, they have no interest in the childhood development of Jesus, his psychological makeup, personal motivation, inner life, and so on. There is no criticism of his personality or his calling, and there is no attempt by the authors to provide comprehensive coverage of what Jesus said and did. Instead, the gospels are very selective leading readers to encounter “representative deeds and teachings rather than the whole”. Hagner says that the “Most striking is the sheer amount of space given to the story of the way in which Jesus’ life came to an end. This is obviously the fundamental point of the story” (4). This insight inspired Martin Kähler to view the gospels as passion narratives with extended introductions (5).

Does this mean that the gospels are devoid of historical information? Hagner believes not; rather, the historical, biographical elements are used to serve a single purpose: the presentation of Jesus as the fulfillment of prophecy, as the one who brings salvation to the world. Hagner continues,

“The Gospels are, above all, theological documents—documents of faith, written from faith to faith, from commitment in order to encourage commitment. But this fact should not be taken, as it so often has, to impugn either the importance or the trustworthiness of the history contained in them. To be sure, for these writers the Jesus of the Gospels was not a person only of the past. Rather, he was the living, resurrected Lord, present among his people in the present. Yet the very existence of the church depended on facts accomplished in the past. The one whom the church presently worshiped as Lord had appeared in history, taught, performed deeds, and been crucified and raised from the dead. The subsequent outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the spectacular growth of the church depended on these events. This therefore had to be a history treasured by the early church and valued for its own sake” (6).

References

  1. Hagner, Donald. 2012. The New Testament: A Historical and Theological Introduction. Baker Books. p. 130.
  2. Hagner, Donald. 2012. Ibid. p. 130
  3. Hagner, Donald. 2012. Ibid. p. 131
  4. Kähler, Martin. 1964. The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic, Biblical Christ. Fortress Press.
  5. Hagner, Donald. 2012. Ibid. p. 131
  6. Hagner, Donald. 2012. Ibid. p. 132

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