Mark D. Roberts

Today’s post, as well as several posts to come, are excerpts from my new book, Can We Trust the Gospels? Investigating the Reliability of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
What are the New Testament Gospels? Are they histories? Biographies? Novels? Or . . . ? To which genre should they be assigned? And why does this matter when we’re considering the trustworthiness of the Gospels?
To answer the last question first, if we know the genre of the Gospels, this will help us interpret them appropriately. If it turns out, for example, that the Gospels are short novels, then we ought not to fret too much about their historicity. If they are biographies or histories, however, then we would be wise to evaluate them as to whether they are valid sources of information about their main character, Jesus of Nazareth.
One of the greatest problems when it comes to the genre of the Gospels is the natural tendency to compare them to contemporary examples. This problem manifests itself in a variety of ways. For example, if we think of the Gospels in terms of modern biographies, then they are woefully inadequate. They lack much of what we have come to expect in a biography:  background on the person’s family; insight into contemporary social events; stories of the person’s childhood; and so forth and so on. Plus, the Gospels are way too short. So, if we’re thinking in modern terms, then the Gospels are not biographies, or else they’re poor ones.
And yet they are biographical in a sense. They focus on one person. They narrate events from his life. They include some of his sayings. They have much to say, relatively speaking, about his death. We expect such things from biographies.
We’re in a similar quandary if we think of the Gospels in terms of modern historical writing. They are far too short to be displayed in the “History” section of your local bookstore. This is true in comparison not only to recent historiography but also to classics of ancient history. The Gospels are not nearly as long as the histories of Herodotus and Thucydides, or the first-century Jewish historian Josephus. So it would seem strange to label the Gospels as histories.
And yet they seem to be historical in a sense. They purport to relate what happened in a certain period of time. They connect those events to important personages, like King Herod or Pontius Pilate. Luke, in particular, looks rather like some sort of history. I have previously mentioned how much the prologue to the third Gospel resembles the sort of thing we would find in the history writing of Luke’s day. Moreover, the third Gospel is the first part of a longer work that includes Acts. Luke/Acts has the kind of breadth we associate with a work of history.?

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