Can We Trust the Gospels?

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The Gospels as Hellenistic Biographies

By Mark D. Roberts | Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Today’s post, as well as several posts to come, are excerpts from my new book, Can We Trust the Gospels? Investigating the Reliability of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Not long ago it was common for New Testament scholars to give up trying to fit the Gospels into existing genres, such as biography or history. The Gospels are unique, it was claimed. No other kind of literature narrates a small number of stories and sayings of a particular individual and then spends a disproportionate amount of space describing his death. What is the genre of the Gospels? They are Gospels, plain and simple.

This was the party line when I began my academic studies in New Testament. The Gospels were said to be like ancient biographies, histories, romances, and “aretologies” (accounts of a famous person’s great deeds). But, given their peculiar form and their focus on the death of Jesus, the Gospels were said to be a unique genre. There is still a measure of truth in this perspective, because the biblical Gospels are unique in some ways. And, I might add, they are quite different in form from the noncanonical so-called Gospels, few of which relate stories of Jesus’ life or focus on his death. Nevertheless, recent scholarship on the New Testament Gospels has tended to recognize how much they are a kind of biography, not modern biography so much as Hellenistic biography.

By and large, Greco-Roman biographies were not the mammoth tomes we find in our bookstores today but shorter and more focused works. It was common for a biography to skip over major parts of a character’s life, limiting discussion to key events or speeches. These deeds and words were chosen and organized, not out of antiquarian curiosity but rather to make a moral statement for the readers. The subject of the biography exemplified certain virtues. Emphasizing these encouraged readers to emulate the virtuous life of the biographical subject.

When seen in this light, the New Testament Gospels fit quite nicely within the genre of Hellenistic biography. The Gospels are distinctive in some ways, including their theological emphases and their focus on the death of Jesus, but they fit the general category of Hellenistic biography.

Luke is unique among the Gospels in having a companion volume that narrates the events of the early church. If one thinks  of Luke/Acts together, biography isn’t the most appropriate genre, although Acts focuses mainly on the activities of Peter and Paul and thus has biographical touches. It would be better to see Luke/Acts as fitting within the genre of Hellenistic history. In fact, it also bears resemblance to the Old Testament histories (1 and 2 Samuel, etc.), which focus primarily on major individuals as they unfold the story of God’s saving work in the world.

Hellenistic biography and history share in common an ordered narrative of the past. Yet these were not academic treatises. Writings in these genres sought primarily to derive moral lessons from the people and events of the past. They were written to teach, to exhort, and to improve their readers.

Topics: Can We Trust the Gospels? |


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