What is a “Gospel” Anyway? A Few Thoughts on Gospel Genre and Why it Matters

by Michael J Kruger

When it comes to reading (and interpreting ) the Gospels, one of the fundamental questions pertains to the kind of document we are reading.  What exactly is a “Gospel”?  And did the earliest readers of these books know what they were reading?

Such questions may seem pedantic to the average reader, but they matter more than we think.  Right interpretation is built on (among other things) correctly assessing the literary genre.  We don’t read parables like historical narrative, nor do we read poetry (Psalms) like apocalyptic literature.

An example of confusion over “genre” in our modern world (though in a different medium) pertains to the growing practice of making internet ads look like internet content.  In other words, some companies are positioning their ads to look like a news story.

This is quite controversial for an obvious reason: people read and interpret ads differently than news. People expect one thing from ads, and expect something very different from news.  One is viewed as propaganda, the other is viewed as fact (though that distinction itself is subject to dispute today).

Options on the Table

So, then, what is a Gospel? Suggestions have ranged all over the map, including the Gospels as oral folk literature, as a summary of the early Christian kerygma, as accounts of a “divine man” (or aretalogy), and beyond.

But, most popular today is the view that our gospels are a form of Greco-Roman biography, or “lives” (bioi), similar to the accounts of Plutarch, Suetonius, or Xenophon. To be sure, there is much to commend this view.  On the surface, our gospels share a certain family resemblance with the bios genre, including a similar length, focus on a single protagonist, extra attention to the protagonist’s final days, and various types of content such as sayings, stories, and great deeds.

However, if we look at the Gospels merely as bios we miss one of their most salient features, namely the manner in which their story connects to, and even continues, the story of the Hebrew Scriptures…

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What is a “Gospel” Anyway? A Few Thoughts on Gospel Genre and Why it Matters