I used to lead a small group of ministry leaders and soon-to-be ministry leaders in a seminary-like dosage of biblical interpretation and its many facets. One week a number of interesting points concerning the nature of the Gospels in relation to the historical Jesus dominated our conversation. Over the course of the class, I taught the students how to read the Gospels as literary works. Each section/book of the Bible should be read according to the genre it purports to be. We do this with all other literature we read as well. For example, when you read, “Once upon a time,” your mind immediately evokes images of a fairytale. Perhaps, you will expect to see dazzling unicorns, magical fairies, or leprechauns. However, this would not be the case if you were to read, “On January 8th four people were killed when…” It is genre that dictates how we understand and read texts—we enter into a type of “contract” with the text and should remain faithful to its terms. This makes understanding genre quite important for studying the Bible.
Rarely do we probe the question of genre in relation to the Bible, and especially the Gospels. We simply assume that each book in the Bible functions as the one next to it. In this way, people end up reading the Gospels in the same way as the Apostle Paul’s letters (or God forbid, like they would Revelation). Notice, even here I call Paul’s writings “letters” while the Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) are called “Gospels.” Many of us assume that the Gospels are like Paul’s writings, at times, in that they objectively record historical data. However, the Gospels are best represented as ancient Bios (from where we draw the term “biography”). Imagine then that you walked into a Barnes and Nobles in the ancient Roman world and were looking for the story of Jesus. Where would it be found? It would likely be placed under the “Bios” section; you know, right next to those other Bios about Emperor Caesar and Oprah (I think she might be eternal).
Ancient biographies were quite unlike modern ones in which the recording of dates, places, source evidence, chronological order, and psychological insight were unimportant. Instead, ancient biographies placed importance on the subject’s character, philosophy of life, and opportunities of emulation. Further, a heavy emphasis was placed on the death of the subject (this is why the Gospels, for example, give little detail concerning Jesus’ birth, but much detail in his death), and the subject’s subsequent legacy. For these reasons, the Gospels tend to look more like modern narrative fiction than hard-lined historical reporting. However, this is not to cast a doubt on the historical reliability of the Gospels. Instead, we recognize that the authors of the Gospels practiced the art of storytelling. In many instances, we see their ability to interweave storylines with irony, symbolism, comedy, retrospection, riddles, and characterization. Each Gospel provides their own storyline consistent with their perspective and purpose in view. Notice, for example, how some storylines in the Gospels are not in chronological order. Whereas in Luke, Jesus’ Nazareth preaching (Lk 4:16-30) is the inauguration of his ministry; Mark (Mk 6:1-6a) and Matthew (Mt 13:53-58) present the narrative far into the storyline after establishing Jesus’ ministry. Those who consider the Gospels objectively historical will find problems with the stories not following chronological order. However, ancient biographies are more concerned with painting a fruitful image of the subject through narrative than mere chronological order. One further example may help. Consider Mark’s story of the Syrophoenician woman and Matthew’s story of the Canaanite woman (See below):
|Mark 7:24-30||Matthew 15:21-28|
|24 From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.||21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.|
The similarities in this story are too many to deny their shared history—some have explained away the differences by claiming these are two distinctive stories. Importantly, I wanted to point out (sections in BOLD) how in the Markan story he makes the point to show the woman is not only Syrophoenician, but was a “Gentile.” This slight note serves Mark’s story well as he had previously attested to Jesus’ Gentile mission beginning at Mark 5:1-20. Because Mark’s audience (whom I place in Rome) is likely comprised mostly of Gentiles (non-Jewish), such a story would have been comforting in regards to the place of Gentiles in the early church—they too can have “great faith.” Many scholars agree that Mark’s Gospel was likely written first, and Matthew and Luke’s account draw much of their information from him—adding and subtracting those parts of the story that are not pertinent to their storyline. In the particular case of Matthew 15, the Syrophoenician Gentile of Mark’s story is revised to read “Canaanite woman.” Why would Matthew make such a blatant shift of “facts?” Is he lying? Certainly not! For Matthew’s ancient biography is better served by positing a historically notable enemy of Israel (the intended audience of Matthew), namely the Canaanites—he does this to strongly contrast the people of God (Israel) with her notorious enemy. Matthew’s character would provide the shock value needed to make the “great faith” of this woman scandalous to listening Jews. The purpose of Mark and Matthew for accommodation to their audiences differs. Each of the writers is attempting to retell the story of Jesus as it serves their communities. Unlike modern history, which has the tools of video cameras and cell phones, ancient history relied solely upon eyewitness testimony and oral traditions. The biographer had the freedom as well as different standards in defining what it meant to record the “historical” Bios of Jesus. These minor alterations are completely acceptable when we understand the genre of ancient biography. As to the story above, what we do not miss is the full thrust of the narrative, which shares about the possibility of great faith and inclusion from any ethnic corner, including ourselves (“Gentiles” in Mark) or our greatest enemies (“Canaanites” in Matthew). Furthermore, we get the portrait of Jesus, the one who breaks down the cultural barriers setup by his own traditional heritage, as told through two different lenses.
The Gospels are to be read as an amalgam of theology, history, story, and literature. The Gospel writers believed they were writing accurate portraits of the “historical” (as they understand this terminology) Jesus, as they understood him. It is important that these texts believed to be “inspired” by God remain in their crafted state. In this sense, Christians believe God had some doing in allowing ancient biography to be the form preferred for writing the Gospels. Therefore, we should refrain from attempting to turn the Gospels into something they are not—a modern historical biography—and allow the texts, as they are, to speak for themselves. If ancient Christians found this historically reliable enough to paint a profitable image of Jesus for personal and corporate worship, should we not as well?