one striving for God's reign to come to earth, bringing his peace, wholeness, completeness, and health to all aspects of life.

What are gospels?

I have noticed in my own life and the lives of others that a fundamental misunderstanding of what the gospels are has caused major problems.  Because much of the Christian faith is based on the historical man Jesus, and because so much of that faith is based on the four gospels, which claim to offer firsthand information regarding him, it is really important that we understand what they are.  I have often been guilty of asking too much or too little of these books, or reading them as one document instead of four.  Here, according to Mark Allan Powell, is how we ought to understand the gospel genre as seen in the New Testament:

-Gospels are “literary artworks” presenting a portrait of Jesus that is distinctive from the other gospels—we should not try to combine the portraits of the gospels to paint a unified picture of Jesus, because this causes us to miss the particular image each gospel writer wanted to present…  First we must recognize the four separate portraits.
-Gospel genre: loosely fits into the genre of “ancient biography”—these were common in the Roman world, with Plutarch writing more than 50.  Mostly were about emperors, generals, heroes, philosophers, and religious leaders.
-Five more things need to be said about the gospel genre:
  1. They are compilations—include other genres within their pages, like genealogies, hymns, parables, miracle stories, speeches, pronouncement stories, etc.
  2. They are influenced by Jewish literature—written in Greek but by people well versed in the Hebrew Scriptures, which include semibiographical narratives of people like Abraham and Moses. 
  3. They are ancient biographies, not modern ones—make no pretense of offering objective or balanced perspectives on Jesus’ life, nor do they report their sources or offer any way for readers to check the reliability of what they wrote.  Further, their treatment is not comprehensive: reveal little about Jesus’ personality or motivation, provide almost no information about his early life, do not describe his physical appearance, etc.  Audiences at this time did not expect such questions to be addressed in biographies—point was to relate accounts that portrayed the essential character of the person so as to invite emulation of him.  Chronology was also typically not of concern, so that events were not reported in the order they occurred but in a sequence likely to have a particular rhetorical effect on its readers.
  4. They employ a fictive (“fictionlike”) style of narrative—literary style is closer to that of modern fiction than to modern historical reporting.  This doesn’t speak to the accuracy of what was reported, but the STYLE of writing is similar to today’s historical fiction.  They knew the art of storytelling, employing literary devices such as irony, symbolism, and foreshadowing—so we can talk about the “plot” of a particular gospel, or about how its rhetorical features bring the story to a climax.  Authors in this time treated history as a story and told it with a flair that modern readers associate with fiction.
  5. They are overtly evangelistic—most biographies in the ancient world were in one way or another, not simply passing on information but reporting on extraordinary people with the hope that readers would be inspired and motivated to change their values or behaviors accordingly.  The gospel writers clearly tell the story in a way that may inspire people to accept his teaching or practice his way of life.  More than this, the writers make it clear that they believe Jesus’ story has ultimate significance and will affect the lives of all people, whether they believe in him or not.
These items were extremely helpful to me in understanding what the gospels are and what they were intended to be.  These help me not to read too much into these accounts, or expect them to report in certain ways they never intended to.  For example, it is easy to read the gospels with an expectation that they will conform to modern historical writing.  This is very different from the gospels, and while this does not mean that anything reported in the gospels is historically inaccurate, it does mean that this was not their purpose.  So if something is reported differently or in a different sequence in Mark and Luke, it does not mean one is right and one is wrong--it means that the two authors have chosen to present the facts of what happened in different manners and with different purposes.

Hope this is helpful to you as well, and inspires you to pick up those gospels as individual books and learn about who Jesus was and is according to each gospel writer...


Anonymous March 22, 2010 at 5:38 PM  

Dead on Kevin. Thanks! Joe hall

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