What Are the Gospels?

The Evangelists were biographers, as understood by the ancients.

BY: Ben Witherington


Perhaps one of the most debated issues in New Testament studies is, What are the Gospels? What type of literature are they? Are they some kind of history writing? Are they biographies? Are they legends--or even just plain fiction?

Scholars have debated all these possibilities, and more, over the last few decades, and there is no absolute consensus emerging from the debate. There is, however, a growing trend to see the Gospels, or at least some of them, as some form of ancient, not modern, biography.

What is the difference between an ancient and a modern biography? A modern biography, say, Carl Sandberg's celebrated biography of Abraham Lincoln, is in general a womb-to-tomb recounting of a person's life. In the wake of modern psychology, there is often a focus on early childhood influences in order to explain later facts about and tendencies in a person's behavior and career. There is a concern to offer up something reasonably comprehensive, not leaving out any significant portion of, or episode in, a person's life. There is also a concern for a certain amount of objectivity, though of course absolute objectivity is never attainable. In addition, there tends to be a strong underlying belief that human personality develops over time.

If the last paragraph is a reasonable synopsis of the nature of modern biographies, it must be said at once that they differ markedly from ancient biographies. For example, ancient biographies do not strive for comprehensiveness; their concern is with character. Ancient biographers, such as Plutarch or Tacitus, would focus on selected episodes from a person's life because they believed those episodes revealed that person's character. The goal was to reveal a person's character and personality through indirect portraiture--through a recounting of some of a person's words and deeds. The biographers felt no compulsion to chronicle the person's whole life. Nor did most ancients share our modern belief in character development. They believed you were born and died with a certain character, though its real nature would only be revealed over the course of one's lifetime.

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