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1 - What Is a Gospel?

from Part I - Approaching the Gospels

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 August 2021

Stephen C. Barton
University of Durham


Identifies some of the defining characteristics of the gospel genre by comparing them with other genres such as folk tales, memoirs, biographies, scriptural narratives and martyrologies. The analysis leads to the significant conclusion that the gospels are in some sense sui generis – written versions of early Christian teaching and preaching about Jesus.

Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2021

Jesus said to his disciples: Make me a comparison, tell me what I am like. Simon Peter said to him: You are like a righteous angel. Matthew said to him: You are like a man who is a wise philosopher. Thomas said to him: Master, my mouth will not at all be capable of saying what you are like.

(Gospel of Thomas 13)Footnote 1

What is a gospel? In many ways the question echoes Jesus’ question in the gnostic Gospel of Thomas: make me a comparison, tell me what I am like. Peter and Matthew both take the question at its face value. They look for points of comparison in the two intersecting cultural worlds of the gospels. Matthew uses the categories of the Greek world: Jesus is a philosopher, a kind of intellectual guru. Peter’s answer belongs to the cultural world of the Bible, a model of holiness that is at once ethical and supernatural: Jesus is a righteous angel, a messenger sent direct from God. But Thomas resists the temptation to look for cultural analogies. For him, Jesus is sui generis, he is simply himself; he is not ‘like’ anyone else. And Thomas’s reward is to be taken aside and given an insight into the hidden wisdom that Jesus whispers to the chosen few. The only trouble is that the secret gnōsis (knowledge) he gains is so extraordinary, so far removed from human categories of understanding, that he will never be able to communicate it to anyone else: ‘Now when Thomas came back to his companions, they asked him, What did Jesus say to you? Thomas said to them, If I tell you one of the words that he said to me, you will take up stones and cast them at me, and a fire will come forth from the stones and burn you up.’

The story encapsulates neatly some of the dilemmas of contemporary genre criticism of the gospels. Some scholars stress their Jewish character, their continuity with biblical narrative patterns. Others (increasingly) locate their comparisons in the cultural world of the Greeks and Romans. And there are those, like Thomas, who stress the uniqueness of the gospels, their sui generis character, and refuse to make any comparisons at all with other literary genres. This means that they risk Thomas’s fate of achieving understanding at the cost of cutting off channels of communication with the rest of the world; for if the gospel is to communicate, it must find some cultural common ground with those outside the charmed circle of the already convinced. But even though Thomas’s solution may be risky, it is surely the right place to start. Before we can begin to ask what the gospels are like – that is, what literary genres they resemble – we need to make an attempt to understand them in their own terms. We need to ask what shape they are, what they are about, how they are put together, how they work.

What Are the Gospels?

The four canonical gospels (which I use here as the basis for a working definitionFootnote 2) have many individual characteristics. But they also have much in common, so much so that their traditional titles present them as one gospel in four forms: the gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.Footnote 3 In generic terms, it is this common core that we need to analyse if we are to arrive at a working internal definition of gospel as a genre.

All four gospels are prose narratives of monograph length, about the amount that would fit into a single scroll (Luke alone adds a second volume). All are focused intensively on the person of Jesus. Mark’s opening, ‘The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’ (Mk 1.1), seems to be paradigmatic in this respect; later Christian texts retain the title ‘Acts’ for stories of apostles and others, and ‘Gospel’ (euangelion, ‘good news’) for stories focused on Jesus. And the focus on Jesus is much more than skin-deep. Richard Burridge notes that an unusually high proportion of verbs in all the gospels have Jesus as their grammatical subject.Footnote 4 The proportion is even higher at the level of the individual episode. In the ‘ministry’ section of Mark’s gospel (the main narrative before the passion) Jesus is the narrative subject of virtually every pericope. Where he is not the subject of the action, he is its chief object, and increasingly so during the passion narrative. In Mark’s gospel, there is only one episode where Jesus is completely ‘off stage’ and that is the account of Herod’s execution of John the Baptist, a narrative filler put in to bridge a gap where Jesus and his disciples are temporarily separated (Mk 6.14–29). Thus, in structural terms, Jesus comes across as the hero of the core gospel story to an unusually high degree: he is the centre not only of the story as a whole but of virtually every individual episode.

The Herod episode illustrates another important structural feature. The presence of the disciples as observers is somehow necessary for the narrative to proceed. When the disciples and Jesus are apart, there is nothing to report. In this sense, Jesus can scarcely be said to have a ‘private’ existence in the gospels. Although the evangelists speak as omniscient narrators, there are relatively few points where they claim the privilege of omniscience to report the inner psychological states of their characters. Occasionally, private thoughts are externalized as overheard soliloquies (e.g. Jn 12.27–29; Lk 10.18–22). Peter, James and John sometimes function as select witnesses for the more private moments in Jesus’ life (Mk 1.36; 5.37; 9.2; 14.33). But in general, the core gospel narratives concern public events, theoretically available to public view.Footnote 5

This story is linked in specific but not detailed fashion to a particular time and place. In Mark’s version, Galilee and Jerusalem, Herod and Pontius Pilate provide the barest anchor-points in the ancient Mediterranean world. Matthew extends the story’s horizons eastwards (the magi) and southwards to Egypt (Mt 2.1–18), and ends with a vision of worldwide mission (Mt 28.20). Luke’s horizons look west, with the Roman Empire providing the political and chronological framework for his narrative (Lk 2.1–2; 3.1–2) – a framework which becomes progressively more explicit in Acts. John adds more internal precision, in both time and space. But the core gospel narrative seems to be able to subsist with a minimum of geography and chronology. Luke 3.23 gives Jesus’ age as ‘around thirty’ at the point where he emerges onto the public stage as an itinerant preacher. From this point on, the narrative is episodic but continuous. Individual episodes are loosely linked, but precise time-notes are few and far between: only Luke anchors his story into world history with a real date (Lk 3.1–2).

The shape of the story is broadly biographical, tracing the hero’s public ministry in a roughly chronological sequence covering three years of his life at most, and culminating in his trial and death. Only two of the gospels, Matthew and Luke, have birth stories, and neither has much information about his childhood. Structurally, then, Jesus’ story can be told without a birth narrative or a family history, whereas John’s baptism (which is in all four canonical gospels) is somehow essential.Footnote 6 The story itself falls into two uneven parts: Jesus’ ministry (based in Galilee), and the events leading up to his death (in Jerusalem). The ministry is narrated via a loose-knit series of anecdotes of Jesus’ words (parables, sayings, discourses) and actions (many but not all miraculous). The arrangement of the teaching material varies: Matthew and Luke share much that is not in Mark (though they arrange it differently); John has fewer episodes and longer discourses. But it is artificial to draw too firm a distinction between word and deed: even Mark has some teaching (cf. Mk 4.1–41; 7.1–23; 13.3–37); and many of the ‘action’ stories are structured around a theological point (e.g. Mk 3.1–6). So Luke’s description of his first volume as an account of ‘all that Jesus began both to do and to teach’ (Acts 1.1) is a fair summary of the core gospel narrative. Finding a more precise narrative structure within that loose framework is difficult. All the synoptic gospels put the call of the disciples near the beginning, and mark some kind of turning-point at Caesarea Philippi (Mk 8.27–30 and parallels); all of them mark an increase in the opposition to Jesus as the narrative progresses. But individual episodes are connected to this outline in a flexible manner which suggests that the evangelists felt free to exercise a certain amount of individual licence in the overall construction of their narratives.

Things are very different when we get to the passion narratives. In all four gospels, the last week of Jesus’ life occupies a disproportionate amount of narrative space – a quarter of the whole story in Luke and Matthew, up to a third in Mark and John. Here the pace slows down in an intense and highly dramatic presentation of a series of linked scenes as Jesus progressively moves from active to passive mode until the final moment of his death. All the evangelists have prepared the reader for this final scene through prediction and dramatic anticipation. And all the gospels agree that Jesus’ story does not end with his death. All have descriptions of his disciples and friends visiting his tomb after his death and finding it empty, and all except Mark add stories in which the resurrected Jesus appears to his friends and talks with them.Footnote 7 The narrative focus moves from Jesus to his followers and their varied emotions of sorrow, doubt and joy.

Descriptively, then, we could say that a gospel is a loose-knit, episodic narrative relating the words and deeds of a Galilean prophet called Jesus, culminating in his trial and death and ending with varied reports of his resurrection. But we should also add the fact that there are four of them: four accounts of the same events, with large degrees of both overlap and variety.Footnote 8 Sometimes all four (most often the three synoptics) tell the same story in more or less the same words. Sometimes, there will be a different location, or a different audience, or a different punchline. The order of events seems to be flexible, particularly in Jesus’ Galilean ministry: episodes can be re-arranged in different ways; teaching can be inserted at different points. John’s gospel ends up with a quite distinct narrative texture (as well as a distinct chronology), though the overall shape is essentially the same as that of the synoptics. Whatever way we look at it, the fourfold gospel, recognized and valued by the church from early on, is a significant literary phenomenon in its own right. If the writers of the four gospels had no contact with each other, the similarities are remarkable: if they did know each other, it is the differences that are remarkable. Any analysis of the individual gospels must also take account of the relationship between them, with its peculiar combination of fluidity and fixity, coherence and individuation.

The Gospels As Oral Traditional Literature

Many of these features can be paralleled in folk narrative. In folklore (unlike the literary novel), ‘the story is told only for the sake of the events’.Footnote 9 Folk narrators and their audiences are interested only in the action: descriptive details about the outward appearance of the characters or their surroundings do not form part of the story unless they play a role in the action. Mark Powell observes a similar descriptive economy in gospel narrative: ‘If the gospels were more like modern novels we would probably read about the sound of “waves lapping at the shore of the Sea of Galilee” and the feel of “coarse, dry sand trod underfoot in the Judean desert.” Such luxury of narration is not to be found. Textures, sounds, smells, and tastes are usually left to our imagination.’Footnote 10 The narrative structure is focused on the hero: ‘Action is performed in accordance with the movement of the hero, and what lies outside this movement lies outside the narrative.’Footnote 11 Often, the action proceeds through a series of encounters between the hero and the groups or individuals with whom he interacts, and it is through these public interactions that his personality is defined:

In folklore everyone is assigned a role in the narrative and there are no extra characters. All will act, and only in terms of their actions do they interest the listener. For this reason folklore tends to have only one protagonist. One character is central, and around him and his actions are grouped other people, his opponents, his helpers, or those whom he saves.Footnote 12

We could illustrate this type of narrative structure from the popular English Robin Hood cycle. At the core of the story lies a traditional cycle of encounter tales, building up a fluid but coherent picture of a folk hero located securely if imprecisely in time (the reign of King John) and space (Sherwood Forest). He has his supporters in the community, and ‘those whom he saves’ through his trademark activity of ‘robbing the rich to help the poor’. He has his faithful band of helpers (Little John, Maid Marian) and his implacable opponents (the Sheriff of Nottingham). In the original ballads, his story is told through a disconnected series of encounters: ‘Robin Hood and Little John’, ‘Robin Hood and Friar Tuck’. The sequence of individual episodes is not important. Over the last two centuries, novelists and film-makers have made numerous attempts to produce a coherent narrative, providing Robin Hood with precisely the features modern readers look for: coherent narrative, psychological depth, romantic interest, links with social and political history.

It is not too difficult to parallel this process in the development of the gospel tradition. Gospel films and ‘Life of Jesus’ novels create a meta-narrative which tries to supply the kind of psychological information or background detail that is lacking in the canonical gospels. Matthew and Luke already feel the need to include a miraculous birth, a family history and (in the temptation stories) a rare example of a private spiritual conflict. The written gospel shape comes into being by imposing order and sequence on an essentially fluid, episodic cycle of traditional units which have a life of their own, both before and after they are taken up into the literary tradition. Narrative sequences within the gospels (apart from the passion narratives) are treated as essentially provisional, and can be readily abandoned and re-formed by successive writers. But the core gospel tradition lying behind these varied literary forms has a strong character of its own, which imposes its own rhythms on the written gospels. It is not simply a random series of recollections but a structured oral cycle which builds up a vital and coherent picture of the hero through a series of encounters with ‘his opponents, his helpers, or those whom he saves’.

The totality of the gospel tradition, with its duality between oral and written, fluidity and fixity, thus exemplifies many of the features of oral traditional literature. The study of oral traditional literature has played an important role in the development of gospel studies, and was a major influence on the pioneers of form criticism such as Hermann Gunkel and Martin Dibelius. Such cross-cultural analogies have obvious pitfalls, but they also have great potential in allowing us to articulate and analyse the dynamics of oral tradition in a variety of cultures outside the Bible. One of the most significant is Albert Lord’s 1978 study ‘The Gospels As Oral Traditional Literature’, which draws on insights gained by Homeric scholars from the study of contemporary oral epic poetry from Yugoslavia, Turkey and Finland.Footnote 13 Lord points out that oral tradition should not be thought of simply as a series of unconnected units. The individual episodes presuppose the existence of a connected narrative, a cycle of tales related to a particular individual. The gospels, Lord suggests, belong to ‘a tradition of oral life story or biography… [which] presupposes the existence of both tellers and audience as well as of stories told’.Footnote 14 As with Robin Hood, this ‘life story’ is rarely told in the form of a single, unidirectional narrative from birth to death: ‘the separate elements or incidents in the life of the hero form individual poems or sagas’.Footnote 15 Nevertheless, the ‘life’ – the sequence from birth to death – is in some sense implicit in the individual episodes. These units can be combined in different ways in oral performanceFootnote 16 – and, eventually, in written versions of the stories ‘by people who were linked to the oral tradition either by actually being a part of it, or, perhaps more probably, by being close to it’.Footnote 17

But ‘oral traditional literature’ is a mode of composition and performance, not a genre. Cross-cultural analogies may help us to understand how such traditions tend to operate, but they cannot in themselves tell us what kind of tradition the gospel is. To find comparative material for this kind of narrative in literature contemporary with the gospels we need to look at a very different kind of tradition.

The Gospels As School Tradition

The earliest witnesses to the gospels already testify to the duality we have noticed between written and oral, between the fixed forms of the written gospels and the living voice of oral tradition. Justin Martyr, writing in Rome in the mid-second century, quotes gospel material from ‘the memoirs [apomnēmoneumata] of the apostles, which are called gospels [euangelia]’, and describes how the gospels are used in Christian meetings:

On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.Footnote 18

The two names Justin uses for the gospels are revealing. They are called, he says, euangelia, gospels. This word (literally ‘good news’) was used in a variety of secular contexts, including a civic decree authorizing the celebration of the emperor’s birthday, but there is no record that it was ever the name of a literary genre outside Christian circles.Footnote 19 But Justin himself calls them apomnēmoneumata, the ‘reminiscences’ or ‘memoirs’ of the apostles. The term nicely encapsulates the duality of the gospel tradition. At its heart is the root mnēmē, ‘memory’: these are stories which are based (or claim to be based) on apostolic memory. But the verb mnēmoneuein means more than the mental act of remembering: it involves the actualizing of memory though public speech, the act of mentioning or recounting what one remembers.Footnote 20 Thus apomnēmoneumata are not simply random memories but memoirs, reminiscences, memory codified, structured and articulated: an apomnēmoneuma (in the singular) is an anecdote, an oft-told tale focused on a particular individual. Apomnēmoneumata suggests a collection of anecdotes assembled into a written text – though not necessarily into a unified narrative.

Papias, the bishop of Hierapolis in the early second century, displays the ambiguities of the word-group well. Papias himself is conscious that the apostolic generation is dying out, and that he himself is neither a hearer nor an eyewitness. So he takes steps to bridge the gap: he seeks out and questions chance visitors, collects and passes on traditions about gospel authors and tradents (Eusebius, Church History, 3.39.2–5). For Papias, therefore, it is important that Mark, who was not an apostle himself, is connected to Jesus at one remove via Peter. And what Mark committed to writing was Peter’s apomnēmoneumata, his store of anecdotes, his stories of Jesus’ words and actions already shaped as units of teaching material (didaskaliai) formulated for specific needs (pros tas chreias).Footnote 21 If Papias seems slightly apologetic about this, it is precisely because Mark’s written gospel preserves the essentially oral form of Peter’s apomnēmoneumata. Mark wrote the stories up ‘just as Peter recounted them’, without turning them into a proper syntaxis, a real literary composition. Clement of Alexandria adds a few circumstantial details to the picture: it was Peter’s hearers in Rome who begged Mark to put ‘the unwritten teaching of the divine proclamation’ into writing, ‘so that they might have a written record [hypomnēma] of the teachings [didaskaliai] handed down to them in words’.Footnote 22 Clement’s language underscores the continuity between the oral tradition, shaped by constant repetition for the purposes of teaching and preaching, and the written record: hypomnēma is another word used of a text only one stage removed from oral composition, whether students’ notes or a scholar’s commentary.

From the earliest recorded stages of church tradition, then, the written gospels had a dynamic, two-sided interface with oral performance. They were seen as the deposit of oral teaching and preaching; and they were re-oralized as the basis for ongoing oral instruction (preaching and teaching) in the early church. The link with particular apostles (or their disciples) is not simply a claim to be recording apostolic ‘memories’. It implies that behind the written gospels lies structured teaching tradition of oral material shaped by repetition and in accordance with the rhetorical needs of particular situations. In other words, the apomnēmoneumata already embody the ‘good news’ aspect of the gospel, its character as euangelion. They stem from a preaching tradition that was focused on Jesus, treasuring and honing the stories of his life and death that conveyed the good news, the euangelion. Hence the traditional titles: as soon as the gospels have titles at all, they are known as the ‘Gospel according to Mark’, or ‘according to John’, an odd phrase which seems to imply one gospel taking multiple forms.

If we take this early church tradition seriously, we have another answer to our question: a gospel is the written deposit of oral preaching and teaching about Jesus. It is worth noting that this early testimony embodies a claim both about the origin of the gospels and about their literary form. For anti-gnostic writers like Irenaeus, there was a clear polemical motive for linking the canonical gospels with the teaching of the apostles (which is one reason why many scholars are inclined to be suspicious of the historical claim to apostolic origin). But the patristic testimony also reflects a literary judgement. Whether or not we accept the connection between Mark and Peter, the picture these writers paint of the transition from oral teaching to written text is entirely consistent with what we know from other ancient writers; and this in turn has some bearing on the question of genre.Footnote 23

Papias also reveals another important fact about the gospel in the early church. Even when there were written gospels, the oral tradition continued to carry weight: ‘I did not suppose’, he says, ‘that information from books would help me so much as the word of a living and abiding voice’.Footnote 24 There is every reason to believe that this was not just an antiquarian quirk on Papias’s part.Footnote 25 It is surprisingly hard to identify clear quotations of individual gospels as written texts during the second century: Christian preachers and teachers continue to refer to ‘the gospel’ (or ‘the Lord’) as a living, unified tradition long after it is written down, and without troubling to identify the words of individual evangelists.Footnote 26 It is as if each written text represents a particular performance of ‘the gospel’ which, however much it is valued, retains its ‘provisional’ character as a performance, as one possible instantiation of the gospel. Contrary to what we might expect, it is the underlying story that has solidity, while the particular performance in which it is embodied – like a particular Robin Hood film – has a more ephemeral quality.Footnote 27

Thus the distinctive language used by Justin, Papias and Clement suggests that we do not have to look as far afield as ancient epic to find parallels to the way the gospel tradition operates. Oral teaching was the norm in the ancient world, and the transfer of oral teaching material to written notes is well attested in a number of teaching traditions, including medicine, rhetoric and philosophy.Footnote 28 Many of the medical, rhetorical and philosophical handbooks surviving from antiquity are based on notes (hypomnēmata) taken by students from their teachers’ lectures, and their format betrays the relative fluidity and provisionality of this form of writing: these were user-books, Gebrauchsliteratur, designed not as a fossilized record of a particular oral ‘performance’ but as a base for constant glossing and updating.

Ancient teaching methods were heavily focused on the memorization and adaptation of short, pithy tales and wisdom sayings, from one-sentence aphorisms to more complex anecdotes focused on a particular teacher’s words or deeds. Large numbers of these chreiai survive in the rhetorical handbooks and in ancient philosophical biographies.Footnote 29 This is precisely where Justin’s apomnēmoneumata belong. In the rhetorical handbooks, the chreia (‘a word or deed relating to a defined individual’) differs from the apomnēmoneuma or ‘reminiscence’ chiefly in length; and it is these ‘biographical’ anecdotes that form the backbone of the ancient biographical tradition.Footnote 30 Diogenes Laertius quotes scores of them in his Lives of the Ancient Philosophers (third century CE). Anecdotes can be combined in an almost infinite number of ways, many of them thematic rather than ‘biographical’: putting them into a chronological sequence to tell a philosopher’s story from birth to death is not as obvious a solution to the ancients as it is to us. What the anecdotes do imply, as Lord noted with the epic cycles, is an underlying ‘life-story’, which acts as a mental frame of reference for assessing the significance of a particular anecdote.

This pattern can be seen particularly clearly in the anecdotal tradition relating to Diogenes and Socrates. Because these philosophers did not write books, the anecdotes are the main carriers of their teaching; and their lifestyle was as important as their words. Both served as iconic figureheads for communities of disciples who had an abiding interest in modelling their own lifestyle on that of the master: so the anecdotal tradition becomes a focus of loyalty, with a clear ideological function in the ongoing life of a network of disciple-groups. As in the gospels, these stories tend to be structured as encounters: the teacher meets and responds to a disciple, or an enquirer, or a patron, or a hostile official. With Socrates, this anecdotal ‘life-story’ builds up to a full-scale paradigm of the philosophic life, starting with the philosopher’s divine calling and culminating with his trial and martyrdom.Footnote 31 The story of Socrates acts as a cultural hypotext which was profoundly influential in the Greco-Roman world. But there is no single written bios (biography) of Socrates telling his story ‘from birth to death’: iconography and lifestyle were sufficiently nourished by the anecdotal tradition, together with the Apomnēmoneumata of Xenophon and the Platonic vignettes of his death.

Anecdotal tradition played a similar role in the rabbinic academies. Birger Gerhardsson pioneered the study of the dynamics of oral transmission in the rabbinic schools as a possible model for the transmission of gospel tradition.Footnote 32 The rabbinic texts contain a number of controversies and biographical anecdotes focused on particular sages. Like the Greek anecdotal tradition, much of this is structured around encounters between the sages and their disciples, opponents, enquirers and (predominantly) each other: the prime locus of teaching in the rabbinic schools is the halakhic debate. The rabbinic tradition also contains a number of (rather ambivalent) anecdotes about healing encounters. But what is striking here is that, although there is ample material for putting together life stories of at least the major sages, rabbinic tradition never takes this step: there is no rabbinic ‘gospel’ of Johanan ben Zakkai or Eliezer ben Hyrcanus. One obvious reason is that ‘neither Eliezer nor any other Sage held in Rabbinic Judaism the central position that Jesus held in early Christianity. The centre of Rabbinic Judaism was Torah; the centre of Christianity was the person of Jesus, and the existence of the gospels is, in itself, a testimony to this fact.’Footnote 33 Rabbinic tradition provides some important parallels to the oral gospel tradition, but it cannot help us to identify a genre for the written gospels.

The Gospels As Written Texts

So there is no shortage of material from the cultural worlds of the gospels, both Jewish and Greek, to provide generic analogues to the anecdotal tradition that lies behind our written gospels. Justin, Papias and Clement, as we have seen, stress the continuity between tradition and text: for them, the task of the evangelists was simply to reduce the apostolic teaching to writing, and the names they chose for the gospels reflect this continuity. The form critics of the early twentieth century, though working from different premises, came to essentially similar conclusions: the gospels were little more than compilations of pre-existent units of traditional material, arranged and selected like pearls on a string. More recent narrative approaches to gospel criticism have demonstrated conclusively that the evangelists were much more than mere ‘editors’ or compilers. But this insight does not in itself necessarily conflict with the perception that the gospel tradition is a form of ‘oral traditional literature’. Werner H. Kelber, in his influential 1983 study The Oral and the Written Gospel, argued for a radical disjunction between oral and literate modes of discourse.Footnote 34 But folklorists are now more inclined to approach literacy and orality as ‘not incompatible but reciprocal paradigms’.Footnote 35 Within this framework, it is not too difficult to understand our gospels as four individual performances of the gospel, each tailored with skill and artistry for an individual audience but not claiming to offer an exclusive or definitive rendition of the tradition; and in many ways this seems to be how the early church saw them.Footnote 36 Nevertheless, writing a book is not the same thing as giving an oral performance; the move from oral performance to written discourse is by no means inevitable, and the literary forms it engenders are far from predictable. So our final question is: what happens when we move from oral tradition to written text? What is a gospel when it is a book?

On the Greek side, there is an emerging consensus that the best place to look for a parallel genre for the gospels is Greek biography. Richard Burridge, in his influential 1992 study What Are the Gospels?, argues that the Greek bios or ‘life’ is typically a monograph of similar length to the gospels, focused on the life story of a famous individual from birth to death, where (just as in the gospels) the subject of the biography is also the grammatical subject of a high proportion of verbs. As Burridge indicates, ‘biography’ is coming to be the consensus answer to the question, ‘To what genre do the gospels belong?’ (at least in the English-speaking world) – though not all are convinced.Footnote 37 But we still have to ask the question: if the gospels belong to the genre of biography, what kind of biographies are they? Genre on its own (as Burridge recognizes) is not enough: we need to probe more deeply into questions of subject matter and mode of discourse if we are to understand the literary structure of these narratives and their impact on contemporary audiences. Overall, we may say that although Greek biography offers parallels to some of the narrative modes and motifs of the gospels (with greater or lesser degrees of precision), it is hard to find a precise match for the written presentation of the Jesus story as ‘good news’.Footnote 38

Ancient biography is a wide and varied genre. Putting together a collection of anecdotes about a particular individual does not necessarily result in a flowing, connected narrative tracing the hero’s life from birth to death. Biographers like Suetonius or Diogenes Laertius followed a thematic rather than a chronological arrangement. Arrian’s recollections of his teacher Epictetus are simply ‘discourses’ with no narrative framework. Plutarch (writing at the end of the first century CE) provides a better parallel to the narrative coherence of the gospels. He adopts a narrative mode closer to that of historiography – though he shares Diogenes’ conviction that the isolated saying or anecdote provides the most telling revelation of the subject’s ethos or moral character.Footnote 39 Overall, what is most obviously missing in this tradition is the good news aspect that is essential to the gospels. Greek biographies were not always laudatory. They could be hostile, polemical or simply sensationalist: biographers were the paparazzi of the ancient world. Moreover the Greek biographical tradition is inherently encyclopedic, with ‘collected lives’ outnumbering single biographies. This means that comparison is built into the genre: most Greek biographies bear little resemblance to cultic or kerygmatic narratives.Footnote 40 Probably the best parallel to the role of Jesus is the figure of Socrates, subject of innumerable anecdotes, dialogues, martyrdom stories and fictitious letters – but no one ever put this material together in writing to produce a coherent ‘biography’ of Socrates.

Nevertheless, the appearance of the gospels coincides with what Arnaldo Momigliano identifies as a new seriousness in first-century biographical writing: ‘The writers of biographies created a meaningful relationship between the living and the dead. The wise man, the martyr, and the saint became central subjects of biography, in addition to the king, the writer, and the philosopher.’Footnote 41 Signs of the new mood can be seen in second-century texts like Tacitus’ Agricola or Lucian’s Demonax, affectionate portraits of well-loved individuals based on personal recollection, following a broadly narrative outline and designed to foster imitation as well as memory.Footnote 42 The shift from biography to hagiography comes to a head in the story of Apollonius of Tyana, a Pythagorean wonder-worker from first-century Syria whose life story shows remarkable parallels to the story of Jesus. It claims to be based on the reminiscences of Damis, a first-century disciple of Apollonius – though this may be no more than an elaborate fiction.Footnote 43 An earlier generation of scholars suggested that the Life of Apollonius falls into a special genre, ‘aretalogy’, providing an alternative genre for the gospels.Footnote 44 But Philostratus’ biography of Apollonius was written two hundred years after the gospels; it is a much longer and more elaborate composition, and bears the rhetorical imprint of the Second Sophistic. And at the time when Philostratus was writing, it is very likely that the story of Apollonius was being consciously marketed as a pagan rival to the story of Jesus. In a fluid and swiftly changing generic landscape, we have to reckon with the real possibility that the gospels themselves were catalysts for change.

Does the search for a genre for the gospels fare any better on the Jewish side? Rabbinic literature, as we have seen, offers ample parallels to the anecdotal Jesus tradition, but no connected rabbinic biography. But there is plenty of biographical narrative elsewhere in Jewish literature. The Hebrew Bible itself is ‘centred around prominent individuals to an extent that is alien to Greek historical writing’.Footnote 45 Much of the biblical narrative is built around biographical ‘story cycles’ like those of Samson or Elijah, cycles in which individual tales of the hero’s prowess ‘are so arranged to encompass his entire life, from birth to death’.Footnote 46 Moreover, in the Hebrew Bible these tales are subordinated to the overall narrative style and goals of ‘a purposeful religious, ethical, and national work’ which was to determine the character of Jewish folk traditions for generations to come.Footnote 47 It is to the biblical tradition, surely, that we should look for the origins of the religious intensity of the gospel narratives and their rich ideological intertextuality with the biblical themes of covenant, kingdom, prophecy and promise. The evangelists’ move from disjointed anecdotes and sayings to connected, theologically coherent narrative is most easily explained with reference to the narrative modes of the Hebrew Bible. These are the narrative patterns, already ‘deeply engrained in social memory’, which ‘constituted the very cognitive habits by which Jesus’ first followers experienced and understood what was happening in his teaching and actions’: ‘For those who formulated, performed, and heard Mark’s narrative, Jesus’ actions and teachings were understandable as episodes within a longer story of the renewal of Israel by a figure whose mission was reminiscent, and fit the pattern, of the prototypes Moses and Elijah in popular Israelite cultural memory’.Footnote 48

Two other developments in Jewish (specifically, Jewish-Greek) biographical writing of the Second Temple period are also worth considering. The first is in Philo, the first-century Alexandrian Jewish writer whose allegorical expositions of the Bible in Greek contain a number of single treatises devoted to individual Bible characters. Philo’s On Abraham and On Joseph are ‘biographical’ in the limited sense that they collect together the separate incidents related to each character in the Bible and arrange them in chronological order as a coherent narrative. The treatment of the characters, however, is as much allegorical as historical: the patriarchs represent the history of the soul, and they are described as living prototypes of the ethical principles embodied in the Law.Footnote 49 The Life of Moses has a much more obviously biographical character, beginning with Moses’ birth and ending with his death, and compressing into a single connected account the bulk of the biblical Moses narrative – though still arranged thematically under the headings of king, lawgiver and high priest. This is one of Philo’s most accessible works and the one that has the best claim to be addressed to outsiders. It suggests at the very least that biographical narrative provided a point of cultural contact between Greek and Jew, a flexible and readily comprehensible framework that could be moulded without difficulty to reflect the ideology and cultural values of a particular religious tradition.Footnote 50

The second development is in the area of martyrology. In the Greek biographical tradition (as we have seen) Socrates was the quintessential model for philosophic resistance to tyranny. But Jewish tradition had its own prototypes for the martyr’s death, and there are a number of Jewish texts which highlight martyrdom as the proper closure to a life lived in obedience to God – and therefore allocate significant narrative space to the martyr’s death.Footnote 51 Many of the key motifs are already present in the book of Daniel, written in the period of Antiochus Epiphanes in the second century BCE. This is the setting for the Maccabean martyrs, one of the most enduring paradigms of Jewish martyrdom. Their stories are told in a multiplicity of literary forms, from the plain narrative of 2 Maccabees (second century BCE) to the sophisticated philosophical encomium of 4 Maccabees (first or second century CE). Martyrology is not of itself necessarily biographical (one of the odd features of the Maccabean martyrs is that we are told nothing of the martyrs’ previous lives). But the so-called Lives of the Prophets, almost certainly dating from pre-70 Palestine, combine brief and schematic life stories with intensive details of the prophets’ deaths and the miracles associated with their graves.Footnote 52 The Lives may have been a pilgrim guidebook recounting the cult legends associated with the tombs of the saints. Whatever we call them, it is clear from a glance at these brief biographical notices that they cannot ‘solve’ the problem of the gospel genre by themselves. Nevertheless, their existence adds another strand to the variety of biographical forms in first-century Jewish literature, and acts as a forceful reminder of the many possibilities for cultural interchange between Jewish and Hellenistic literature in Second Temple Judaism.

The Gospels As Good News

So are we left with Thomas’s answer, that the gospels are unique? The answer in the end is, probably, yes and no. Many of the motifs that appear in the gospels can be paralleled in contemporary texts, especially in the anecdotal material which acted as a prime carrier of school traditions both in the rabbinic academies and in the Greek philosophical schools. The way the tradition works is certainly not unique: folklore and social memory studies suggest a number of fruitful analogies. But what may be unique is the particular form this tradition takes when it is written down, a form whose external shape is strongly reminiscent of the Greek bios but whose narrative mode and theological framework (connectives, narrative structure, use of direct speech, intertextuality) owe much more to the Bible. This could explain, incidentally, why the psychological characterization of the gospels is wholly within the biblical framework, and shows no sign of being influenced by the philosophical ethos tradition which so dominated Greek biography; and why the gospels show no awareness of the normal distancing mechanisms routinely employed by Greek historians and biographers to keep the supernatural at bay.Footnote 53

If this seems inconclusive, it may be because we have been asking the wrong kind of question. Gospel genre criticism for most of the twentieth century was dominated by the search for a pre-existent genre to explain (or explain away) the gospels, as if we were hoping to find the mould into which Mark (or whoever was the first to write the gospel down) poured his Jesus story. But no such genre has been discovered: and that suggests that it may be time to change the way we configure the question. The gospels came into being at a time of profound cultural transformation, and were themselves active agents in that transformation. That may be one reason why it is so hard to pin them down – though the same could be said of other texts and genres of the period. Certainly, there is no evidence elsewhere for euangelion as a generic title: and for that we probably have the earliest preachers to thank. They were the ones who shaped the Jesus tradition as good news, focused on the encounter with the Christ whom they believed to be alive. They were responsible for giving that tradition its characteristic shape, which persists through written forms and into the ongoing tradition of life-giving stories carried within Christian communities down the ages, in their iconography, their liturgy and their daily life of prayer.


1 The Gospel of Thomas, trans. B. M. Metzger, cited from Kurt Aland, ed., Synopsis quattuor evangeliorum, 5th ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1976), appendix 1, 519.

2 For a full discussion of the term ‘gospel’ in second-century texts, see Helmut Koester, Ancient Christian Gospels: Their History and Development (London: SCM Press, 1990), chap. 1. See further Chapters 2 and 11 of this volume.

3 Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.11.8.

4 Richard A. Burridge, What Are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography, 3rd ed. (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2018), 190–1, 216–7.

5 The obvious exceptions are the temptation stories of Matthew 4 and Luke 4, which have no human observers. But these narratives are still structured as a dialogue with an external character (Satan).

6 Cf. also Acts 1.22; 10.37; 13.24.

7 Mk 16.1–8; Mt 28.1–10, 16–20; Lk 24.1–11, 13–35, 36–49; Jn 20.1–10, 11–18, 19–29; 21.1–23. Luke alone narrates Jesus’ ascent to heaven, in Luke 24.50–3 and Acts 1.1–11 (but cf. John 20.17).

8 Cf. Chapter 2 and Stephen C. Barton, ‘Many Gospels, One Jesus?’, in Markus Bockmuehl, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Jesus (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 170–83.

9 Vladimir Propp, Theory and History of Folklore (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984), 21.

10 Mark Allan Powell, What Is Narrative Criticism? (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1990), 71.

11 Propp, Theory and History of Folklore, 22.

13 Albert Lord, ‘The Gospels As Oral Traditional Literature’, in William O. Walker, ed., The Relationships among the Gospels: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue (San Antonio, TX: Trinity University Press, 1978), 3391.

15 Footnote Ibid., 39–40.

16 Footnote Ibid., 41–44.

18 Justin, First Apology, 67, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, vol. I (Edinburgh, T&T Clark, 1885; reprinted 1993); cf. 65–66; Dialogue, 105, 106.

19 On the history of the term, see Koester, Ancient Christian Gospels, chap. 1.

20 See further Loveday Alexander, ‘Memory and Tradition in the Hellenistic Schools’, in Werner Kelber and Samuel Byrskog, eds., Jesus in Memory: Traditions in Oral and Scribal Perspective (Waco, TX: Baylor, 2009), 113–53.

21 Eusebius, Church History, 3.39.15. Papias’ hosa emnēmoneusen should be translated not ‘what he [Mark] remembered’ but ‘what he [Peter] recounted’ (Alexander, ‘Memory and Tradition’, 118).

22 Eusebius, Church History, 2.15.1–2; cf. 4.14.5–7.

23 See further Loveday Alexander, ‘Ancient Book-Production and the Circulation of the Gospels’, in Richard J. Bauckham, ed., The Gospels for All Christians: Rethinking the Gospel Audiences (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 71111.

24 Eusebius, Church History, 3.39.4. For a fuller analysis of Papias’s account of gospel origins, cf. Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006).

25 Cf. Samuel Byrskog, Story as History – History as Story, WUNT 123 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000), and the literature there cited.

26 Koester, Ancient Christian Gospels, §1.4 and chap. 5.

27 Recent decades have seen an explosion of interest in social memory theory and the orality of the gospel tradition, e.g. A. Kirk and T. Thatcher, eds, Memory, Tradition, and Text: Uses of the Past in Early Christianity, Semeia 52 (Atlanta, GA: SBL Press, 2005); For a useful summary, see Eric Eve, Behind the Gospels: Understanding the Oral Tradition (London: SPCK, 2013).

28 Loveday Alexander, The Preface to Luke’s Gospel, SNTSMS 78 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993); Loveday Alexander, ‘Anecdotal Evidence: Memory, Tradition and Text in Early Christianity and the Hellenistic Schools’, in George Brooke and Renate Smithuis, eds., Jewish Education from Antiquity to the Middle Ages, Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity 100 (Leiden: Brill, 2017), 201–35.

29 Texts in Ronald Hock and Edward O’Neil, The Chreia in Ancient Rhetoric, vol. I: The Progymnasmata (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1986); examples in Vernon K. Robbins, Ancient Quotes and Anecdotes (Sonoma, CA: Polebridge, 1989). For a more recent treatment see Mikéal Parsons and Michael Martin, Ancient Rhetoric and the New Testament (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2018), chap. 2.

30 Hock and O’Neil, Chreia, 82–83, 109–10.

31 Loveday Alexander, ‘Acts and Ancient Intellectual Biography’, in Bruce W. Winter and Andrew D. Clarke, eds., The Book of Acts in Its First Century Setting, vol. I: Ancient Literary Setting (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), 3163.

32 Birger Gerhardsson, Memory and Manuscript: Oral Tradition and Written Transmission in Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity (repr. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998). See also now Martin Jaffee, Torah in the Mouth (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).

33 P. S. Alexander, ‘Rabbinic Biography and the Biography of Jesus: A Survey of the Evidence’, in Christopher M. Tuckett, ed., Synoptic Studies: The Ampleforth Conferences of 1982 and 1983, Journal for the Study of the New Testament Series 7 (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1984), 1950, at 41.

34 Werner H. Kelber, The Oral and the Written Gospel: The Hermeneutics of Speaking and Writing in the Synoptic Tradition, Mark, Paul and Q (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983).

35 Eli Yassif, The Hebrew Folktale: History, Genre, Meaning (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), ixxi.

36 For a useful introduction to ‘performance criticism’ of the gospels, see Richard A. Horsley Jonathan A. Draper and John Miles Foley, eds., Performing the Gospel: Orality, Memory, and Mark (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2006).

37 Richard Burridge, ‘Gospels and Biography, 2000–2018: A Critical Review and Implications for Future Research’, introduction to the third edition of his What Are the Gospels? See also Craig Keener and Edward T. Wright, eds., Biographies and Jesus: What Does It Mean for the Gospels to Be Biographies? (Lexington, KY: Emeth Press, 2016).

38 The Gospels are almost unique as multiple, contemporary accounts of a single life’: M. J. Edwards and Simon Swain, eds., Portraits: Biographical Representation in the Greek and Latin Literature of the Roman Empire (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), 28 n. 74.

39 Plutarch, Alexander, 1.1; Nicias, 1.5.

40 Cf. Sean A. Adams, The Genre of Acts and Collected Biography, SNTSMS 156 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

41 Arnaldo Momigliano, The Development of Greek Biography (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 104.

42 Tacitus, Agricola, §46; Lucian, Demonax, §2. On the new biographical mood in general, see Edwards and Swain, eds., Portraits.

43 E. L. Bowie, ‘Apollonius of Tyana: Tradition and Reality’, in H. Temporini and M. Haase, eds., Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, II.16.2 (Berlin and New York: Walter De Gruyter, 1978), 1652–99.

44 e.g. Morton Smith, ‘Prolegomena to a Discussion of Aretalogies, Divine Men, the Gospels and Jesus’, JBL, 90 (1971), 174–99.

45 Edwards and Swain, Portraits, 27.

46 Yassif, Hebrew Folktale, 31.

48 Horsley, Draper and Foley, in Performing the Gospel, 188, 190. See further Chapter 4 of this volume.

49 Philo, On Abraham, §§4–5.

50 Maren Niehoff describes Philo as ‘the first author to use biographies for broader moral, cultural, and religious purposes’, stating that he combines elements of political and philosophical biography in a new synthesis: Maren Niehoff, Philo of Alexandria: An Intellectual Biography, Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018), 130, 115.

51 Tessa Rajak, ‘Dying for the Law’, in Edwards and Swain, eds., Portraits, 39–67.

52 D. R. A. Hare, ‘The Lives of the Prophets’, in J. H. Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (New York: Doubleday, 1985), vol. II, 385–99; Anna Maria Schwemer, Studien zu den frühjüdischen Prophetenlegenden Vitae prophetarum, vols. I and II (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1995).

53 Loveday Alexander, ‘Fact, Fiction, and the Genre of Acts’, New Testament Studies, 44 (1998), 380–99.


Bauckham, Richard, ed., The Gospels for All Christians: Rethinking the Gospel Audiences (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998)Google Scholar
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