As Mark Strauss points out in his Four Portraits One Jesus, it is important to understand the genre of a document before attempting to read it with understanding. We do not read the newspaper the same way we read C. S. Lewis, nor do we read Lewis the same way we read the Bible. One of the problems is that modern readers approach the Gospels with the assumption that they conform to modern literary genre: they are either history or theology.
Various explanations of the possible literary genre of the four gospels have been offered. Most Christians approach the gospels as biographies of Jesus. The do have some biography-like elements, but they are not biographies by the standards of the modern world. Only two show any interest in his birth, only one story occurs before his public ministry, and the majority of the material comes from the last week of Jesus’ life. Most biographical questions are left unanswered.
A few scholars have suggested that the gospels are patterned after Greco-Roman Aretalogies. This is a “divine man” biography, the history of a famous hero that has been built up to make him a god-like person (a biography of a god-like person, Julius Caesar, for example.) The Greek word aretai means “mighty deeds.” Aretalogies are the records of the mighty deeds of a god or hero. An example from the second century is Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius of Tyana. When Josephus describes Moses in Against Apion (2:154-158) he expands the praise beyond the biblical material. (For more on Aretalogy, see David L. Tiede, “Aretalogy” in ABD 1:372-373.) It does not seem to me that the biblical material over-plays the case for Jesus as God. The stories that do appear seem muted and Jesus never really comes right out and claims to be divine in a way that would end all debate.
Based on Luke 1:1-4, it is possible to read the Gospels as historical documents. Luke claims in the prologue to his Gospel and the prologue to Acts to be writing history. That stories are not created by Luke is evident in his claim to have sought the eye witnesses to the events. The tradition that Mark wrote his gospel based on the preaching of Peter indicates that Mark was well-versed in the eye-witness testimony of Peter. Mark appears to be used by both Matthew and Luke, Matthew also being an eye-witness. John supplements this material with his own eye-witness testimony, albeit from a theological angle at a much later date.
But even if the Gospels contain history, they must be considered theological documents as well. Consider John 20:30-31, where the author of the fourth Gospel states that his purpose was to convince the readers of a theological fact (“Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God”) and that by believing this theology, the reader might “have life in his name.”
While John’s gospel is the most theological of the four, the other gospels are not simply historical and non-theological. Matthew, Mark and Luke have clear theological agendas. One cannot approach these documents without getting into the question of who Jesus is, who he claims to be, and how the gospel writers present him in their telling of the story.
The Gospels are therefore best described as historical-theological documents. The gospels are most similar to Greco-Roman biographies or history texts. Once we step into the world of the first century and study what history looked like then, we discover that the gospels are not all that removed from the standard of history writing for the time. Luke especially follows some of the conventions for writing good history in the first century.
Perhaps it is best to conclude that the genre is unique: the Gospels are theological biographies. They contain historical data that is presented through a theological filter. The writers are selective of the material available, recording only the events of Jesus’ life which make a theological point. For the most part, these writers are demonstrating that Jesus is the Son of God, that he is fully human, that he died as an atoning sacrifice for mankind. This make a historical, theological and literary study of the gospels legitimate, they are all of three of these genres combined in something of a unique fashion.
Does this definition of “gospel” as a historical-theological book help make more sense of the books as we read them? Are we in danger here of giving up history? Let me know what you think.
Bibliography. The issue of the genre of the Gospels is covered by Craig Blomberg, Historical Reliability, 235-240; Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics, 323-325, Willem S. Vorster, “Gospel Genre” in ABD 2:1077-1079; David Aune, “The Problem of the Genre of the Gospels: A Critique of C. H. Talbert’s What Is a Gospel?” Gospel Perspectives: Studies of History and Tradition in the Four Gospels, (ed. R. T. France and D. Wenham; Sheffield: JSNT, 1981) 2:9–60.