Students of the Bible in the twenty first century tend to approach the gospels as a set of written sources relating the life and work of Jesus. What is often not considered is the development and origins of this literature and how this may influence our understanding and interpretation of the gospel. Therefore, in order to appreciate the gospels fully it is necessary to examine what type of literature they are and how we came to possess them in their current form.
Over the last one hundred years or more there have been many attempts to understand what kind of literature the gospels represent.
Some scholars tried to argue that the gospels are a unique kind of literature that is not explainable by comparison with any other literature from the ancient world. This was an accepted view until more recent decades.
For a while it was assumed that the gospels were a result of the influences that Old Testament and other Jewish literature may have had on the gospel authors. For instance, in Jeremiah we are introduced to the prophet’s background, the dating of his ministry and a report of his call by God. This is then followed by an account of his words/speeches and actions as he proclaimed the message of God. Similar in nature is the first century CE Jewish work Lives of the Prophets which provides an account of the canonical prophets lives and ministry in a way that was considered biographical for the times.
While the above literature at least represents a connection with the gospels, there are still many aspects that differentiate between them. A more recent development (since the 1970’s) has been a comparison of the gospels with the Greco-Roman biographies that were in circulation. An example of such are Plutarch’s Lives of famous Greeks and Romans, Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars, Philostratus’ Life of Appollonius of Tyana, and Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Ancient Philosophers.
Ancient biographies have some similarities with the modern form of the genre, but there are also many differences. They were often composed by famous people about famous people. They were not interested in presenting an outline of factual information but rather passing on long standing traditions. They were generally narrative accounts that gave the impression of being objective. But the overall purpose was to serve as propaganda, to provide selective information about the hero of the story while exhorting the reader to imitate the hero.
Over at the Centre for Public Christianity Craig Keener has sat for an interview on the relationship between the gospels and ancient biography. Keener has done much work on the gospels and the historical Jesus. The interview provides a good overview of the topic and provides some insights about how to read the gospels in this context.