The Unique Character of the Gospels
Questions concerning the shape, scope, and purpose of the gospel are actually quite complex, because when we try to compare the four gospels with other kinds of literature, we find a kind of literature that is one of a distinct kind. Whenever we try to understand any kind of literature, we compare it with something that we know: if I pull an envelope with a transparent address window out of my mailbox, I anticipate a bill or a check, because I have seen these kinds of things before. The problem is, we can’t find pieces exactly like the gospels anywhere else in the ancient or the contemporary world. In fact, some scholars have pointed out that the gospels (like our faith in general) are countercultural: while they are like some ancient genres, their authors have deliberately rejected the idea that the Roman emperor and his empire were a “gospel,” literally, “good news” for the world. The Greek word evangelion, “good news,” was typically used to promote the coming of the Emperor, as he assumed control of conquered nations. Heralds ran ahead, proclaiming the “gospel” of his arrival! Alexander the Great, for example, considered himself an ambassador for peace and civilization —as good news for the “barbarian” Jewish people – and did not understand why they would not readily adopt the habits of the gymnasium, the theater, and pagan sacrifice!
Many ancient pagan readers, when first encountering a Christian written gospel, or hearing the word during a Christian liturgy, then, would have had certain expectations of the kind of thing he or she was hearing. And they would have had those expectations both fulfilled and shattered. Jesus, in the Gospels, is proclaimed as King, but not a king like Caesar. Some might have thought that they were reading a “history” when they saw, as a first item, Matthew’s genealogy (Matt 1:1–17), or Luke’s own reference to how he did research:
Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed. (Luke 1:1–4)
Still others might have assumed they were reading a bios or biography of a hero, especially when noticing Mark’s focus on Jesus and his virtuous death. And a few might have thought in terms of classical poetic drama, as they heard the striking introduction to John’s Gospel. Certainly, there are elements of all these ancient genres (history, ancient biography, drama), especially biography, in our gospels.
However, the Gospels do not simply present biographies of Jesus to entertain and edify us, as was the function of ancient bioi (“lives” or “biographies”).1 Rather, we hear from Justin Martyr (see) that from the very beginning of the Church, the apostles’ memoires of their Master formed a key part of the worship service. The Gospels, then, were doxological, in that they “gave glory” to God, and had their natural home in the liturgy, rather than around the family hearth as a performance, or in the classroom as a lesson. The Gospels go far beyond entertainment, information, or education. They are written, as John explicitly tells us, “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:30). They are written, as Matthew implies by his allusions and quotations of the Old Testament, to disclose God’s final act in the long history of Israel (and of the world, as a whole). They are written, as Luke shows at the end of his Gospel, that we might fall down with the early disciples and worship the righteous, crucified, risen, and ascended One (Luke 25:42). They are written, suggests Mark, that we might understand that the true Messiah was one who suffered and died, and showed the whole world, not just the Jewish people, what it really is to be “the Son of God.” (Mark 15:39)
Those who are interested in a detailed connection of the gospels to the ancient genre of biography may consider reading the book called Christobiography Memory, History, and the Reliability of the Gospels, by Craig S. Keener (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2019). Though not Orthodox, he has many wise and informative things to say. ↩