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Richard Burridge on the Gospels as Biographies

Richard Burridge’s What are the Gospels: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography (Cambridge University Press, 1992) is probably the main reason why the majority opinion of New Testament scholars think that the Gospels were ancient bibliographies. He begins by lamenting the lack of consensus in his day about the type of literature the Gospels embody: are they examples of a philosopher-vita, Socratic Dialogues, historical monograph, dramatic history, novel, tragi-comedy, or biographies (22-24). He admits, “as someone with a classical background, I was unimpressed with the arguments put forward by New Testament scholars, especially in America, to demonstrate the biographical genre of the gospels. Therefore a negative result was expected, exposing the biographical hypothesis as untenable. However, as the work has developed, I have become increasingly convinced that… it is indeed the right one and that the gospels are part of the genre of ancient βίος [Life] literature” (105-6).

In his preliminary work on genre, he warns that literary prefaces and grammarians or rhetoricians (Quintilian, Menander Rhetor) describe ideal forms that were not consistently observed by writers (56-57). Further, unlike poetry, prose genres were not well defined (62). In contrast to classical prescriptivism that dictates the essential traits that a “genre” must possess and nominalism that assumes that a generic category has no effect of the properties of a text, he settles on a “family resemblances” theory in which literary works in a given “genre” may share features in content or form (structure, tone, purpose) even if no single text has every expected trait (39, 42-44).

Thus, Burridge outlines a number of generic features of biographies that include both their structure or form and their content to enable a direct comparison between the Gospels and other ancient biographies (110). These feature include the opening (e.g. title, opening prologue or preface), the subject (e.g. verbal subjects, space given to a subject’s life), the external features (e.g. mode, meter, length, structure, scale, literary units, sources, methods of characterization), and the internal features (e.g. setting, topoi or topics, style, tone or atmosphere, the quality of characterization, function, authorial intention) (111-126). He lists five biographies that date before the Gospel: Isocrates’ Evagoras, Xenophon’s Agesilaus, Satyrus’ Euripides (Peripatetic bios), Cornelius Nepos’ Atticus, and Philo’s Moses. (129-33). He then looks at five biographies that date after the Gospels:  Tacitus’ Agricola, Plutarch’s Cato Minor, Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars, Lucian’s Demonax, and Philostratus Apollonius of Tyana (155-60). Chapters 8 and 9 then discuss how comparable the Gospels are in reflecting the traits in these biographies. One potential criticism of the earlier edition was that the comparison seems limited to biographies, while it may be instructive to see to what extent the Gospels mirror traits in other types of literature. There also may be a sense, as argued by David Aune in “Genre Theory and the Genre-Function of Mark and Matthew,” that Mark’s Gospel intended to parody and invert the values of elite biographers by being unconcerned about its subject’s pedigree, birth, or upbringing (contra Matthew and Luke). Burridge’s second edition updated the discussion and responds to some of his critics.

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