We are all familiar with the New Testament gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They provide some of the most important literary testimony about the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. Significantly, as often as we read the gospels, we may not always consider the style in which the gospel writers share their message.
Recognizing the literary style of various scriptures can enhance our engagement with the message of the scriptures. Just as understanding Isaiah's poetic style can help readers more fully appreciate his divinely commended message, so too, we can benefit by recognizing the features of the gospels’ literary style.
Ancient biography (or a modified form of ancient biography) is the literary type in which these writings were cast by the gospel writers. For more than a century biblical scholars disagreed about the literary style of the gospels. But recently there has been growing and wide acceptance that the gospels are ancient biographies. Rev. Professor Richard A. Burridge's book "What are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography" is a major factor in this new understanding.
However, we must realize that there are important differences between ancient and modern biographies. Modern biographies focus on character development over a lifetime. And they seek to be exhaustive in their representation of the character.
Ancient biographies, in contrast, typically assume that character is innate and unchanging. The ancient biographer need not share the entire life of an individual. Hence there is no reason to focus on the individual’s childhood since a few select stories or instances will highlight the unchanging character of the individual from birth until death. This may explain why we know so little about Jesus’ youth.
Ancient biographies also had other purposes. Many were written to:
First, compile words and deeds of great men. Second, preserve the memory of great men. Third, praise the subject for their greatness. Fourth, encourage emulation of the hero. And finally, reveal the hero’s character through the manner of his death.
In fulfilling these five purposes, some ancient biographies focused on religious and philosophical leaders. These biographies were shared in a missionary spirit to introduce larger audiences to formerly unknown great men who had taught revolutionary religious messages. These biographies were written to encourage emulation of great and virtuous men. And they were written to highlight great men — men who had been born under miraculous circumstances; men who had been, in their youth, precocious in outwitting their elder teachers; men who lived exemplary lives of virtue and morality; men who taught stunning wisdom through succinct and memorable parables; men who sought to reform religious practice and worship; men who had devoted disciples who did not always understand the full importance of their master’s message; men who died for their beliefs.
A quick mental review of the gospels demonstrates these ancient biography qualities. However, what is so compelling about the gospel writers’ use of the literary pattern of ancient biography is their insistent focus on Jesus’ identity as the Son of God who died and rose again for all humanity.
Yes, other ancient biographies may have focused on the manner and meaning of the hero’s death. But such ancient biographies never ended with the hero rising from the dead with a message of peace, hope and salvation to all who would listen. Therefore, the New Testament gospels were surpassingly different from other ancient biographies because of their clear and consistent witness that “Truly, this man was the Son of God” (Mark 15:39).
If the gospel writers had lived in our day and were seeking to write a modern biography of Jesus, we would have volumes of writings about Jesus. But the gospel of John anticipates this concern in John 21:25: "And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen."
Ultimately, the gospel writers wrote that readers might know for themselves that Jesus is the Christ. They wrote to convince readers of these precious realities.
We hear this from Luke, “It seemed good to me … to write … that thou mightest know the certainty of those things, wherein thou hast been instructed (about Jesus Christ)” (Luke 1:1-4).
And we hear this from John: “And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name” (John 20:30-31).
The New Testament gospels were ancient biographies written to convince us that Jesus is the Christ.
Taylor Halverson (Ph.D.s in biblical studies and instructional technology) is a BYU teaching and learning consultant. His website is taylorhalverson.com. His views are his own.