Scholars offer various explanations for literary genre of the four gospels. For most Christians, the gospels as biographies of Jesus. Although the Gospels have some biography-like elements, but they are not like biographies by the standards of the modern world. Only two Gospels refer to his birth and there is only one brief story before his public ministry. The majority of the content of the four Gospels comes from the last week of Jesus’ life. In fact, most biographical questions are left unanswered.
A few scholars have suggested that the gospels are patterned after Greco-Roman Aretalogies. An Aretalogy is a sacred biography narrating the miraculous deeds of a god or hero. It is a “divine man” biography, like the biography of a god-like person, Julius Caesar, for example. The Greek word aretai means “mighty deeds.” An example from the second century is Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius of Tyana. Apollonius was a teacher and miracle worker who died about AD 100, Philostratus wrote his biography in the mid-third century. Jewish writers sometimes wrote biographies that over-emphasize alleged miraculous nature of the subject. When Josephus describes Moses in Against Apion 2:154-158 he expands the praise beyond the biblical material. Philo of Alexandria also glorifies Moses as the greatest sage and lawgiver, a divine-man who is both priest and prophet (see David L. Tiede, “Aretalogy” in ABD 1:372-73).
Based on Luke 1:1-4, many read the Gospels as historical documents. Luke claims he is writing history in the prologue to his Gospel and the prologue to Acts. That stories are not created by Luke is evident in his claim to have sought the eyewitnesses to the events. The tradition that Mark wrote his gospel based on the preaching of Peter indicates Mark was well-versed in the eyewitness 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 eyewitness testimony, albeit from a theological angle at a much later date.
But even if the Gospels contain history, they must be considered theological documents. Consider John 20:30-31: the author of the fourth Gospel states 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. The gospels are that dissimilar from the standards of biography or history writing for the time. Luke especially follows some of the conventions for writing good history in the first century.
In The First Biography of Jesus, Helen K. Bond argues the Gospel of Mark is an ancient biography and as such, the author actively re-appropriated and reconfigured selected material in circulation at the time into a formal literary creation (p. 5). By imposing a biographical structure on this tradition, Mark extended the Christian gospel beyond the death and resurrection of Jesus, so it now included his ministry as well. She surveys ancient Greekand Roman bioi, focusing especially on the role in the educational system: biography was used to teach morality. “at the heart of biography was a concern with character or what Plutarch calls ‘the signs of the souls of men’ (Alexander 1.3)” (151). This is especially true for how a biography describes the character’s death. She surveys a wide range of ancient biographies which focuses on heroic “good deaths” of their characters. A good death is the crowning point of a virtuous life. A good death had a ripe old age may signal and endorsement of a philosopher’s way of life. However, there are a few philosophers who are remembered positively even though they met what an ancient reader might consider a “bad death” such as Socrates or Zeno. This is an obvious difference in Mark’s gospel. Mark does not describe Jesus’s death as noble or “conventionally honorable.” Rather, Mark portrays Jesus’s death as conforming to his countercultural teaching. Like a good philosopher, Jesus has a fitting death, which a fitting conclusion to his earlier way of life (250).
Craig Blomberg, Mark Strauss, and other evangelical writers conclude the genre of the Gospels is unique: the Gospels are theological biographies. They contain historical data presented through a theological filter. Like all historical writers in the ancient world, the writers of the Gospels make selections from available material available. They record the events of Jesus life in order to make a theological points about him. For example, the Gospels present Jess as the Son of God, yet also fully human. They claim Jesus died as an atoning sacrifice for humanity. This makes historical, theological and literary study of the gospels legitimate, since all three of these genres combined in something of a unique fashion.
How does Blomberg’s description of the Gospels as “theological biographies” help us read the Gospels accurately? Is there anything missing this description that is important?
Bibliography. The issue of the genre of the Gospels is covered by Craig Blomberg, Historical Reliability, 235-240; Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, Intro 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, Vol. 2, ed. R. T. France and D. Wenham (Sheffield: JSNT, 1981) 9–60.