Why Does the Genre of the Gospels Matter?

It is impossible to read a text without interpreting the text in some way. The very fact we are converting signs and symbols on a page into thoughts in our mind is an act of interpretation. Every time we read a sentence, we make many decisions about what words mean or how a metaphor is to be understood. Rarely do we step back and think about how we understand a text. At the beginning of this series on the Gospels, I want to discuss the need for interpreting a text.Genre Matters

The genre of the text matters. If a reader does not know Harry Potter is fiction rather than history, they will be very confused indeed! But it is possible to describe Harry Potter as fantasy. Fantasy has certain “rules” which hold the stories together in ways a crime novel does not. If you think Harry Potter and Dirty Harry should solve their problem in the same way, you have misunderstood the genre! A Harry Potter book can also be described as a “young adult” novel. The young adult genre also has some characteristics typical of these stories (young protagonists, usually in some sort of difficult home life, some teen-romance, etc.) If you confuse the genre Harry Potter and Fifty Shades of Grey (a completely different genre!) you will not fully understand the story. With respect to the four Gospels, we need to be very careful in understanding the genre of these books. They are not dispassionate histories in the modern sense of the word, attempting to set the record straight about what Jesus really did.

The intention of the author matters. In most cases writers create documents in order to be understood. A good writer has an idea they want to express, or a feeling they want to create. A historical writer might want to describe a particular time and place in the past, or prove a point about some important event. With the exception of some modern poetry (or student papers), writers do not simply string words together and allow the reader to create whatever meaning they want. When we read the Gospels we need to be very careful to hear the voice of the author and correctly read the gospel as it was intended.

The situation of the reader matters. I am not advocating for some sort of reader response criticism that allows the reader to ignore the author’s intention and make a text mean whatever the reader can imagine. By situation I mean a reader’s cultural context. For example, I am a white male living in a wealthy, industrialized country. I am going to read texts about agriculture or poverty differently than someone in the Congo. I often miss things my female students hear in a text. Historically, I read the text of the New Testament differently than someone in the sixteenth century, or in the fourth century. I am often perplexed by the things that got Luther and Augustine excited, because my cultural context is different.

Another situation of the reader that matters is a reader’s preconceptions. For example, when I read Harry Potter, I assume  magic does not exist, there are no magical people living in London, there is no Diagon Alley where I can buy an owl. In my opinion, people who “really believe” are deluded and hopefully grow out of that delusion by their thirteenth birthday (or when they do not get an invitation to attend Hogwarts). If a reader as a preconceived belief that the Gospels cannot contain any real history, then they will read the story of Jesus differently than a believer. If a person is a committed Catholic, they may read the stories of Peter (especially Matt 16) differently than a committed Protestant. A person with a Charismatic theology will read some of the stories in the gospels with different eyes than a non-Charismatic.

My point here is not to argue reading is so arbitrary that all readings are equally valid. I am saying we ought to understand the text as clearly as possible, beginning with the words, genre and authorial intention, and at least recognize our assumptions when we come to the text of the Gospels.

How will an awareness of genre, authorial intent and the reader’s situation change the way we approach the Gospels? Perhaps you have encountered someone who read a text considerably different because of their personal context – were they “wrong”?


15 thoughts on “Why Does the Genre of the Gospels Matter?

  1. I think you did a good job describing the elements one should have in mind when reading the Bible.

  2. When reading our text this week, the chapter discussing genre was particularly interesting to me, because up until now when reading the Bible I never really thought that it fit into a genre. I always felt as though the Bible was a genre of its own, meaning that it was not to be categorized in the same way other stories are.
    “The Gospels were treated as products of the Christian community rather than individual authors (Strauss. 28)”.
    This intrigued me because as I said, I never thought of the Gospels as I did other books. I actually never really considered the fact that they all had individual authors. I always just imagined the Gospels were simply “There” and that was that. It is touched on that while the gospels indeed have their own uniqueness, they are also comparable to other ancient texts.
    I suppose because it is the Bible, which I obviously believe to be true, I never read it as a story, but more as just “this is what happened and this is how it is”. I also think I read other historical books in this same way. Never considering the author or genre.
    When our text was talking about the genre of the Gospels, I kept stopping to think what genre was Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. I could not come up with a concrete answer, so when you made your point that we ought to understand what we are reading and recognize our assumptions, I immediately recognized that I had many assumptions but little real understanding. Now realizing that the authors of those various works had intent and purpose on what they were writing, it definitely makes me view the Gospels from a new perspective. So I am going to be reading them again soon, but with a different approach so that I can perhaps figure that out and come away with at least a little more understanding.

  3. The situation of the reader is an important aspect when reading a book as important as the Bible. The readers of today place their modern thoughts and ideas onto what the writers meant. One example of this, which you (P. Long) have mentioned in our Greek class, is the word dunamis. Dunamis means power but it is also where we get the modern term and idea of dynamite. Somewhere, while reading/preaching we began to place our modern meanings onto the Bible. It has stopped being just power and has become dynamite power. I doubt that the author(s) meant dynamite power since dynamite wasn’t a part of their culture, but because it is a part of our situation and culture we place it onto scripture. We as readers today may place our culture on Scripture and read the Bible in a different way, but as long as we are not changing the main ideas it’s not one-hundred percent wrong. In the case of dunamis it may not actually mean dynamite power, but it does still mean power.
    It is a slippery slope that we as readers are choosing. We need to take a step back and see the author’s culture and we may realize what was actually meant. We may begin to understand more of what was being taught, for instance if we take a step into the culture the story of the lost coin in Luke 15 would make more sense to us. We as modern readers think wow she lost a coin, but in their culture it was part of the engagement present and it would have been like the diamond of the engagement ring today. We don’t fully understand this until we step into their cultural setting.

  4. It is intriguing to me how the three components of reading for understanding (genre, authorial intention, and situation) are unique in their own entities. While, just as important is the unity they posses, enabling us to understand scripture as a whole. “To understand the Gospels, we must first ask, what are we reading?” (Strauss, 27). By being aware of all these differences, we will be able to extract the exact meaning behind what is being read. Sean (Sdaday), you mentioned that the gospels are unique in the fact that they all have individual authors. They may have individual authors in relation to man, but I think it is important to remember that the whole Bible is inspired by the word of God (2 Tim. 3:16). By keeping this in mind, the authorial intent of the Bible may be more clear while reading it.
    I think many of us can mistake the text and it’s meaning by the situation we are in and what was culturally acceptable and relevant at the time of it being written. For example, I think many of us don’t fully understand the sacrifice of a lamb, and how Jesus became the sacrifice for us. In the Old Testament there are many references to lamb sacrificing (Genesis 8:20, Exodus 12:5; 49:51, etc.). Because we do not live in a place or time that regularly practices animal sacrifice it may be hard to understand what it means to have Jesus as our sacrifice, the blameless Lamb. We need to become aware of the context and situation of the passage so that it is not interpreted wrong.

  5. I think it is definitely important to realize the “background” of a passage when reading it. In some cases, it is even more important to do this when talking about the Bible. We all know that there are many different views on many passages of Scripture, both within Christian circles and beyond. For us Christians, I think it’s most important to understand the background of a passage, especially the author’s intent. Doing this will help to clear up the meaning and context of it. For example, sticking with the Gospels, we should understand that one of the authors may have recorded Jesus telling a parable that didn’t necessarily actually happen. The point of the parable is to send a message. Most Christians believe that many events in the Bible have really happened, but some are meant to send a message rather than explain an actual event. Understanding the different genres of the Bible will help with this, too.
    It is also important to realize that we’re not the only ones reading the Bible, but I think that the most important thing is to not be distracted from the message of the passage. What is God trying to tell us? That should be our #1 focus.

  6. This explanation of the importance of understanding the genre of text as we read it is going to be very important to how I begin to read scripture in the future. I will now stress the importance of not coming to the text with my cultural bias or preference of what I want scripture to show me. Instead of reading the Gospels like they are meant for me and my exact circumstances (which they clearly are not) I will try to focus on how the current and intended audience would be receiving the letter. For example, the idea of someone living with leprosy near us today would not be easily understood, so reading about the implications of Jesus touching a leper and healing him may not mean so much. Understanding that leprosy is not a made-up disease, and 2020 years ago many people had leprosy and were isolated from community is vastly important since Jesus instead of fleeing from these people, reached out touched them, and healed them. (Matt. 8:1-4).
    I appreciate (miller2016)’s explanation of how we add our own cultural twist on Scripture when we read today. Using the example of the Lost Coin in Luke 15 is a great example to show how values and morals change over time and the emphasis understood in that passage is much weaker today then the original audience.

  7. All of these things mentioned are key things to take into consideration when reading the gospels. Just like any other text in the bible or even outside of scripture like mentioned needs these things to be considered. When we do to things like, genre and authorial intent into consideration it will help us to understand what it is the author wanted his readers to get from reading. When we understand what the author intended through the type of literature he/she is writing we will be able to more fully understand what it is from the writing we can glean from the text and therefore in the instance of scripture, know what to apply to our lives. But this involves us as readers to take our situation into consideration. There will be some things that we as 21st century readers will apply differently or different things that resonate with us compared to readers in the 1st century and everyone in between. This does not make us wrong or them wrong as long as we are keeping a normal hermeneutic while studying the gospels. The best way to do that is to constantly be thinking about the authors intent as well as take into consideration the genre and time and place the author has written from.

  8. My job has been centered in the “book world” for many years. Currently, one of the first things I do at the beginning of each school year is teach kids about the many genres in literature. Watching the recognition on their faces when they realize a book is considered a mystery or fantasy based on the content is exciting. However, I have never considered looking at the Gospels with this same literary lens. Your point about the need to be very careful in understanding the genre of the Gospels made me sit back and really reconsider how I am reading the Bible. In the past have I ever read a book or chapter in the Bible as a piece of narrative literature with a plot, setting, and characters? Have I examined what the author’s intent, or voice, was in the same way I would analyze that of a beloved author?
    I appreciated how Strauss gave the example of each author’s distinct voice and unique perspective at the beginning of their writings. Showing the distinctions between how Matthew “shows immediate interest in Jesus’ Jewish ancestry” or Luke’s interest is “in producing an historical account” (Strauss p.36) brings a new awareness as a reader to understand what the author is trying to teach and convey. For example, I tend to skim over genealogy lists when reading the Bible. However now as I read the first chapter of Matthew, I have a new awareness of exactly why he has put this in his writing. I have been trying to be intentional in my personal reading life to read works written by authors who’s “own voice” is reflective of their writing. I think that if I can be intentional in examining these aspects while reading the Gospels as well, I may be able to avoid letting any unknown preconceptions or feelings interfere with my understanding of God’s word. Again, something I have never truly considered. I am excited to apply this concept of reading the Bible with the same type of literary lens I use in my everyday reading!

  9. As I read scripture, and really any other text, it is always understood from my own personal worldview. As I make connections with the text, it is because I have brought my personal experiences with me. One could also say that these experiences and worldviews lead to interpreting the words of scripture with a bias which would not allow the reader to see the deeper cultural context or intention of the author. When I think of this problem the first passage that always comes to mind is 1 Corinthians 11. It is a packed passage, especially 1-15, as it talks about head coverings. It is very easy to write off that passage as a problem of culture, not a recurring command that we still need to follow today. That poses a problem though as many of the other things within that passage we still follow today. If we are to disregard head coverings, are we then to disregard that men are the head of the household? I come to that passage with a cultural bias already in my head, evaluating the text through my lens, instead of the lens the author intended. That is a really tough example but knowing the intent behind what the author was trying to say would make understanding that passage a little easier. Knowing that I already have biases coming into reading of a passage, helps in evaluating the passage through clear eyes.

  10. This post is particularly encouraging to me as I am a reader with a narrow worldview. By this I mean that because I was so uncultured while I was younger, I understood and agreed only to what my parents taught me. For example, my parents explained to me that magic and sorcery was not real, nonexistent in the real world, and that this supernatural idea was beneath biblical truths. Because this idea was so instilled into my worldview, I thought it best to read what was written on the page and not to read between the lines. To apply this narrow worldview into my reading of Scripture, I often left little to the imagination or to critical thinking. With that being said, I have truly appreciated learning and better understanding the various illustrations of even just the gospel authors, as it aids in the growth of my deeper understanding of Scripture. For the longest time, I read the 4 gospel books as narratives, while in fact there is even a criticism required for really understanding the intended Word of God. My approach to the gospels, and any other piece of literature, is deeper than before. Strauss mentions in his text that, “Narrative criticism is interested…in the literary nature of the text itself, how it functions to produce the desired effect on the reader” (pg. 68). This statement is very encouraging to me, as I continue to understand that there is so much that Christians are not understanding about the gospels. I believe that this “desired effect” comes from the ultimate Author, and that this effect is intended to enlighten non-believers to come to the faith.

    Strauss, Mark L. Four Portraits, One Jesus: a Survey of Jesus and the Gospels. Zondervan, 2007.

  11. The awareness of genre, authorial intent and the reader’s situation change the way we approach not only the Gospels, but the Bible in its entirety. When we read the Bible, I think it is important to know the background of the passage, to know the background of the author that is writing the passage, for that information will change the way someone reads it.
    I think one of the most common texts that I–and many others–have read considerably different is Matthew 5:38. It is one of the most common texts taken out of context. I have come across individuals that thought that Jesus was giving Christians permission to do unto others what was done to them. Once you know the context, know the authorial intent and the situation, it is clear that Jesus was not telling Christians to seek revenge and do what is done to them.
    It is common for texts to be taken out of context and it is common for Christians to disagree among passages because of the personal differences while reading the Bible. Some people take the entire Bible literally (again, Matthew 5:38) while some pick and choose how they interpret a passage or a verse based on how they want to leave their life.
    Some Christians believe that women can be leaders of the church and that God does not prohibit that while others believe that God only intended men to be leaders of the church.
    In addition, Strauss talks about in his text of the distinctive languages of each of the author’s. He gives examples of how each writer writes in a different and unique language and how it can be seen through their writings what is important to them. So, as Strauss points out their differences in writings, he is showing how important it is to know the author you’re reading–to be aware.
    So, I think (as you said) that it is important to be mindful of the genre, the authorial intent as well as being mindful of the personal approach we may have while reading the Bible and once we are aware of those, we are better able to understand the passage we are reading in the way that God intended us to read it.

    • Rebekah,
      I really appreciate how you considered the importance of understanding the background of a verse and its context before we apply it to our lives. I think that what you said about interpreting the Bible literally or figuratively is very relevant to today. Especially when reading Revelation I see many people argue over whether or not the events that take place are literal or metaphors. It is so important to understand why we are interpreting literature a certain way, but especially Scripture. Understanding our own backgrounds and preconceptions can help us be aware of our possible fallacies. But, more importantly I believe that what you said about understanding the background of Scripture through context is what will allow us to understand truth.

  12. I find this article really insightful. It made me think more on the reading in chapter one of Strauss, I was intrigued by the impact of our interpretation because of genre and our preconceived notions and expectations of a piece of literature. I had always just assumed that the gospels were telling the same story from different points of view, but I had never stopped to consider how each book in the gospels has a different genre and therefore a different portrayal of who Jesus is. For example Stress talked about how Matthew which was the most organized and “structured” of the gospels talks about Jesus as the Messiah which the Jews were so expectantly waiting for (Strauss, pg.25, 2007). Mark considers Jesus from a more somber standpoint and reflects him as the “suffering Son of God” while also taking a more dramatic tone than the other gospels (Strauss, pg. 25. 2007). Luke focuses on how Jesus is the Savior of the world and is the most “thematic” as recurring themes pop up in the gospel of Luke (Strauss, pg. 25, 2007). Finally, John shows Jesus as a reflection of the God the Father to the world. John begins differently than the other three gospels by making a very theological statement saying, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” and later talking about how the “Word became flesh” who is Jesus (ESV). This shows how the book of John is the “most theological” in nature as it considers how Jesus represents God to mankind (Strauss, pg. 25, 2007). By not understanding these different genres and portrayals of Jesus I was actually missing out on some really wonderful and amazing details of who Jesus was and his reason for coming down to earth.
    Strauss, M. L. (2007). Four portraits, one Jesus: A survey of Jesus and the Gospels. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
    ESV study Bible: English Standard Version. (2011). Wheaton, IL: Crossway.

  13. Being aware of genre completely changes the way that we read the Gospels because if we were unaware of what genre the Gospels are, we would not be able to truly understand the purpose and meaning. For example, knowing that the book of Matthew is a historical narrative allows us to understand that what we are reading is specifically telling us a story/tale that actually happened in the past- rather than meaningless words or a hypothetical story. It is also important to be aware of the author’s intent because that is how we understand the intended messages/points that the author is trying to make. Without understanding the author’s intent, it is easier for the reader to just have their own interpretation of the text- which can cause confusion and misinterpretation. It is the responsibility of the reader to try to understand the text the way the author intended, but it is also the responsibility of the author to make sure their intentions of their writings are as clear and concise as possible for the audience. The situation of the reader also is important when reading the Gospels because it can affect the way the reader perceives the text. For example, in our situation we are in a different cultural context then when the Gospels were written. It can be hard for readers to understand certain things that we cannot relate to today in our culture, and there are old traditions/events that might seem abnormal to us now because of how much has changed over the years. When reading texts that are vague and not exact, it is easy for people to have different interpretations. This does not necessarily mean that a person is wrong though. Some texts such as poems are meant open to different interpretations, while some texts have intended messages.

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