For the most part, understanding biblical genres is about situating the books of the Bible within their broader cultural context: Understanding Ancient Near Eastern Law codes can help us better understand how the Law of Moses functioned, for example, or understanding how Apocalyptic functioned in Second Temple Judaism can help us to avoid serious interpretive errors with the Bible’s apocalyptic material. Today’s genre, Gospel, is something entirely different. For, it seems to represent a uniquely Christian, and primarily biblical, type of literature.
The first mention we have of the material that eventually became the Gospels comes from the second century writings of Justin Martyr, who referred to the reading of “the memoirs of the Apostles” during Christian worship. Along this line, the easiest way of thinking of the Gospels is that they record the Apostles’ memories of Jesus’ life and teaching. And yet, while scholars have from time to time tried to fit them into the broader category of Greco-Roman biography, they don’t quite seem to fit this genre. For example. the Gospels show little interest in Jesus’ childhood (only Matthew and Luke mention it at all, and only Luke includes a single story from the roughly thirty year period between Jesus’ infancy and the start of his ministry), they all devote significant time to the ministry of John the Baptist, and they play fast and loose with timing — events are discussed in different order and even something as critical as the Passion story comes down to us along two timelines that cannot be logically reconciled. Rather than consider these as problems to be solved or differences that need to be smoothed away, I think it’s better — and far more faithful — to consider that the Gospels might simply not want to fit into our categories of biography or history, but are rather doing something different.
This idea was popularized in the first half of the twentieth century by a critical mass of New Testament scholars, who suggested that, considering the lack of biographical interest in Jesus that the Gospels show, ‘Gospel’ was and is its own thing. Namely, the early Church’s proclamation of the Good News of God’s salvation in Jesus. The word these scholars used to describe this function was “kerygma,” the Greek word for ‘proclamation.’ While this thesis has been challenged and debated over the past century, it remains, I think, the most helpful way of understanding the purpose and function of the Gospels: They contain the apostolic witness to the Good News, starting with the important prophetic and preparatory ministry of John the Baptist, continuing with the teaching and miracles of Jesus, and concluding with the events surrounding his death and resurrection.
When we’re talking about ‘the Gospels’, we are talking specifically about the four canonical Gospels, attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The first three of these are known as the “Synoptic” Gospels, because they contain similar material and share the same general timeline. (’Synoptic’ means ‘one eye’ in Greek — it’s as though the three Gospels see the story of Jesus through a similar perspective.) It is commonly suggested that Mark was the earliest of the Gospels written, and Luke and Matthew used it as the basis for their own, longer and more detailed Gospels, supplementing it with other traditional material (known in the scholarly literature as ‘Q’). The Gospel according to John, while still recognizably the same story of Jesus, contains mostly unique material that is organized rather differently from the Synoptics.
Some Christians are taken aback by the suggestions that the Gospel writers may have used preexisting sources, but this is attested to in the texts themselves. Specifically, Luke mentions undertaking significant research in preparing his Gospel:
Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you (Luke 1.1-3)
Use of sources is also suggested by the fact that the story where Jesus saves a woman from a vigilante mob (John 7:53–8:11) does not appear in the earliest texts of John, and doesn’t seem to have settled into its place at the end of John 7 until as late as the fourth or fifth century. But the story must have existed long before this because it is appealed to and quoted by sources as early as the second century. Additionally, both Mark and John seem to have two endings; for Mark this is found in the manuscript tradition, in which the earliest documents we have end the book at 16.8 instead of 16.20. For John the evidence is in the text itself, with 20.30-31 seeming to conclude the book, before it launches into an additional chapter of material. The point is simply that the idea of the Gospels using source material should in no way surprise us and in no way reduces their authority or sacredness. It’s simply a fact of their composition that the texts themselves don’t try to hide.
Beyond the four canonical Gospels, there were many other ‘Gospels’ circulating in the first few centuries of Christian history, of varying importance and written for varying purposes. Some are clearly fantastical (one involves a talking cross), while others purport to fill in the missing details about Jesus’ life, while others, particularly the so-called ‘Gnostic Gospels’ uncovered in Egypt, represent clear theological bents. Again, the existence of such writings should neither surprise nor concern Christians today; the New Testament makes no claim to be an exhaustive collection of books about Jesus; it is rather the canonical collection of authoritative books about Jesus. Lots of books were written and circulated in the first centuries; the ones in our Bibles are there because they were the ones that ‘stuck’, and not because of a top-down exclusion of ‘dangerous’ books. The non-canonical gospels are invariably of poor provenance, have little to no support among ancient sources, and are mostly late documents, written centuries after the life of Jesus. Even if some may contain genuine teachings of Jesus not found in our Gospels (the Gospel of Thomas is the most likely in this regard), they are at best a curiosity.
More interesting and important is the question of what the four canonical Gospels do and how the Church has understood their function. A clue to this can be found in ancient liturgical traditions. As background, in Judaism, it was common to process with the Torah — not the whole Bible but the five books of the Law. In all of the branches of Christianity with ancient liturgical roots, the Torah was replaced by the Gospels in such processions. Just as the Torah was the Scripture par excellence in Judaism, so too are the Gospels in traditional Christianity. It is the Gospels that are the primary witness to Christian identity and belief. With all due respect to the Epistles, they were always considered supplemental to the Gospels. Once again we come to this idea of the Reformation ‘flattening’ the Scriptures. Whereas traditionally, it was accepted that different parts of Scripture could function differently and have different usefulness within the community of faith, this idea was rejected in the Reformation, so that there is just ‘the Bible’. And, I am convinced this has done a great disservice to the books of the Bible and led to the marginalization of the teachings of Jesus in much Protestant thought.
The last thing I’d like to mention in this discussion is how the four canonical Gospels each have a different theological focus. Mark is the most ‘focused on what has been called ‘the Messianic secret’ — on Jesus’ identity and its meaning for the world. Matthew contains the most teaching and is most concerned with the relationship between Jesus’ teaching and the Law. Luke highlights Jesus’ concern for the marginalized, especially women and the poor. And John is more reflective, poetic, and philosophical. While I in no way think this was intentional, it’s a fun detail to consider that Christians have always thought of Jesus as fulfilling the Old Testament and our four canonical witnesses to his life and teaching end up representing the four main strands of those traditions: the Law’s focus on moral and ethical teaching (Matthew), the Prophets’ focus on social justice (Luke), the Wisdom Literature’s philosophical concerns (John), and Apocalyptic’s hope in the Day of the LORD (Mark).
Where does this leave us? The Gospels represent a unique literary genre, namely the proclamation of the Good News of God’s salvation in and through Jesus of Nazareth. They are concerned less with the biographical details of Jesus’ life than they are with what that life means for us and for the world. Traditionally, these four books have been considered the most authoritative parts of the Bible for Christians — the ‘most canonical’ parts of the canon, if you will. And we would do well to uphold them in this way. Because, at the end of the day, if we at all merit the name ‘Christian’, we must teach as he taught, live as he lived, and love as he loved.
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