Let’s talk about the idea of literary genre. If you read a best-selling novel, you won’t expect historical truth to be front and center. That is because you know at the outset the author created the world you inhabit while immersed in the story. If done well, the book takes you on a journey of the ups and downs of the main character and hurls you toward a climactic ending. On the other hand, read a biography of George Washington and you’ll intuitively expect something different: there you’ll expect to be engaged with research and reliable historical truths. While poetry is enjoyable, you would not expect it to necessarily convey history. There might be a blending of the different genres, but it is usually clear which dominates and what to expect. Though we may not explicitly think through a book’s genre, we do so implicitly and without giving it much thought, such that if its content does not match our expectations, we are surprised. So what about the Gospels? What was their intended genre, and what should we expect in terms of history?
It was fashionable throughout the twentieth century for scholars to place the Gospels in their own literary genre for which there was no precedent. As late as the 1970s, the Gospels were considered a category of their own that could not be compared with other ancient literature.(2) The thinking went that they’re not ancient biographies since, scholars alleged, the Gospels don’t distinguish between the past—or the real history of Jesus—and the present of the first-century Christian community. In other words, they alleged that we can’t get much history out of the Gospels because Jesus’ actual past had been reformulated to meet the present needs of the Christian churches. Thus the past had been swallowed by the present, leaving little trace of the Jesus of history.
What about the Gospels? What was their intended genre, and what should we expect in terms of history?
Then, in 1992 New Testament scholar Richard Burridge published a seminal book demonstrating that the Gospels should be seen as an ancient biography and not as a unique genre. It turns out that allegations of the Gospels being a unique genre reflected more the biases of certain scholars than the Gospels themselves. This shouldn’t surprise us at this point, as we have seen that preexisting biases can powerfully influence both individuals and groups. Despite the then- widespread bias on Gospel genre, Burridge demonstrated that the status quo was wrong. Here is why he drew his conclusions.
After a detailed study of ancient biographies, he was able to isolate and document certain generic features they all shared. First, they all concentrated on one individual (much like they do today) and were flexible in how they handled the person’s life, with some giving even-handed coverage of the person’s life and others stressing just one period. Second, some biographies concentrated on the person’s deeds and life chronology, while others focused on certain topics, teachings, or virtues in a nonchronological way.(3) Third, they all tended to be of a similar appearance, length, and structure. Taken together, these features communicated its biographical nature to readers. Burridge then demonstrated that the Gospels fit squarely within the genre of Graeco-Roman biography. At the generic level, he pointed out that the framework of the Gospels have a chronological sequence with topical material inserted, have a geographical and social settings focused on Jesus, and convey a serious and respectful atmosphere—all of which were typical of ancient biography.(4)
Digging deeper, he showed additional characteristics linking the Gospels to biography. First, Luke begins with a formal preface stating his intention to give an accurate account of Jesus, while Mark and Matthew start with their subject’s name (Jesus), both of which were common for biography. Second, Jesus is clearly the subject of the Gospels, with each devoting a large amount a space to his passion and death. Again, this uneven allocation of space to a particular period was common among biographies. Third, the Gospels have similar size, structure, and scale that we find in other ancient biographies. They use a similar range of literary units, and they select from oral and written sources to characterize Jesus in his words and deeds. Fourth, the settings, topics, atmosphere, quality of characterization, and range of purpose are similar to other ancient biographies. The bottom line is that Burridge settled the issue by demonstrating that the Gospels belong to the genre of Graeco-Roman biography. In fact, they exhibit more of the features of biography than that of Isocrates, Xenophon, and Philostratus. His study has now been widely accepted by New Testament scholars.
If the early church hadn’t been interested in the historical person of Jesus, then it would not have produced biography.
But here is why this is important. Ancient readers would have expected biographical works to accurately represent the past, as past, and to not be overly confused with the present needs of the community. In other words, they would have expected the narratives to recount Jesus’ real past and not to confuse it with the present. If the early church hadn’t been interested in the historical person of Jesus, then it would not have produced biography.(5) Thus by creating biography, the authors clearly signaled its historical basis.