Home » Course Materials » The Genre of the Gospels

The Genre of the Gospels

This is a handout for an undergraduate Gospels course

What is a “Gospel”?

  • εὐαγγέλιον (euangelion): “good” (eu) and “message, tidings, proclamation” (angelia)
  • The singular neuter noun is extremely rare in both Greco-Roman and Jewish writings before the Christian era. For instance, there is only a single instance of the plural form of the neuter noun in 2 Samuel 4:10. For further statistics, see Steve Mason, “Methods and Categories: Judaism and Gospel.”
  • The verb euangelizomai or “to bring good tidings” is present in the Greek translation of Isaiah in the Septuagint: “…as a season of beauty upon the mountains, as the feet of one preaching glad tidings of peace, as one preaching good news for I will publish thy salvation, saying, O Sion, thy God shall reign” (Isaiah 52:7 LXX).
  • The plural form euangelia is inscribed on the Priene Calendar Inscription: “It seemed good to the Greeks of Asia, in the opinion of the high priest Apollonius of Menophilus Azanitus: ‘Since Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior, both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance (excelled even our anticipations), surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings for the world that came by reason of him,’ which Asia resolved in Smyrna.” (See Craig Evans, “Mark’s Incipit and the Priene Calendar Inscription: From Jewish Gospel to Greco-Roman Gospel“).
  • The good news of the kingdom of God (Mark 1:15) or the royal proclamation of the crucified and risen Lord (Romans 1:3-4; 1 Corinthians 15:1-4)

What Does the Term “Genre” Mean?

  • If a a text opened with the address “Dear Mary” and closed with “Sincerely, Tim”, what is the likely genre of this piece of writing? If a text began with the words “once upon a time in a far way land” and had fantastic characters or themes in the story-line, what is the likely genre of this piece of writing?
  • Richard Burridge explains that speaking or writing happen in a system of conventions (i.e. traits, rules, customs, necessities, properties that constitute verbal meaning) and, therefore, a genre is like a contract between the author and the reader based on their shared expectations about what traits make up an utterance (What are the Gospels: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography, 34-36, 43-44).
  • The differences between “prescriptivism” (i.e. a genre must be characterized by x, y, and z), “nominalism” (i.e. a generic classification has no effect on the properties of a text or “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”), and “family resemblance” (i.e. there are a number of overlapping traits that generally characterize the texts in a given category while each individual text may not have every single expected trait). For further discussion, see Burridge, Graeco-Roman Biography,” 39, 42-44.

What is the Genre of the New Testament Gospels?

  • Did the Gospels evolve out of the missionary “proclamation” (kērygma) of the crucified and risen Christ, eventually incorporating other materials (sayings collections, miracle stories, ritual texts about baptism and the Lord’s Supper), and were thus a uniquely Christian genre?
  • The Gospel as an aretalogy of a miracle worker?
  • The Gospel as an apocalyptic text (e.g. the book of Daniel) envisioning the eschatological consummation of history?
  • The Gospel as equivalent to an ancient Graeco-Roman or Jewish novel (e.g. Tobit, Joseph and Aseneth) or a literary epic (e.g. the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid) intended for popular consumption?
  • The Gospel as an ancient “biography” (bios or life) of a principal subject?
  • The Gospel as a shorter historical monograph about the climax of the history of Israel in the advent of Jesus the Messiah? Does the two-volume work of Luke-Acts belong to the genre of historiography?

The Gospels are not like Modern Biographies

  • Graeco-Roman historiographers and biographers preferred to name themselves and their sources, but the Gospels are more like the history books of the Hebrew Bible and other Ancient Near Eastern historians in remaining anonymous and keeping the spotlight on the subject (but cf. Luke 1:1-4; John 21:24). See Armin D. Baum, “The Anonymity of the New Testament History Books: A Stylistic Device in the Context of Greco-Roman and Ancient Near Eastern Literature,” NTS 50 (2008): 120-142.
  • They are not interested in Jesus’ upbringing, education, or motivations. Only the Gospels of Matthew and Luke have infancy narratives (Matt 1-2; Luke 1:5-2:41) and Luke has one story about Jesus when he was 12 years old (Luke 2:42-52).
  • There are round or flat characters, but the characterization remains static.
  • The basic unit in the Synoptic Gospel is the chreia or “anecdote” that has sayings or deeds of Jesus in a condensed form and has an edificatory purpose. These anecdotes may be arranged topically or in a loose chronological order (e.g. “on the Sabbath day”), while the Passion Narrative about the events in Jerusalem leading up to the crucifixion and resurrection is a more interconnected narrative. The Gospel of John is made up of longer discourses, “signs” that Jesus performed, and a Passion Narrative. It has a more structured literary outline organized around the Jewish feast days.
  • The purposes of a Gospel was to proclaim the good news of the death and resurrection of Jesus, to encourage readers to the path of discipleship based on Jesus’ teachings or self-sacrificial example, and correct what the evangelists saw as deficient Christologies.

The “Apocryphal” (“Hidden”) Gospels

  • The Gospel according to the Hebrews, the Gospels according to the Ebionites, the Gospel according to the Nazoraeans, the Gospel of the Egyptians, Papyrus Egerton 2 Unknown Gospel, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Truth, the Gospel of the Saviour, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the Infancy Gospel of James, the Epistle of the Apostles, the Coptic Apocalypse of Peter, the Second Treatise of the Great Seth, the Secret Gospel of Mark (see Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make it into the New Testament [Oxford University Press, 2003], v).
  • These diverse writings include sayings collections (e.g. the Gospel of Thomas), discourses of the Risen Jesus (e.g. the Gospel of Philip or the Gospel of Mary), infancy Gospels (e.g. the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Protoevangelium of James), narrative Gospels in the same genre as the canonical Gospels (e.g. the Gospel of Peter), and Gospel harmonies (e.g. the Gospel of the Ebionites, the Diatessaron).
%d bloggers like this: