Gospels as Legendary Biographies

Knowing what type of writings the Gospels are – for example, legendary versus historical – will help us to understand the writers intentions and therefore help guide our interpretation.  And the subject of genre – the category in which a piece of literature should fall into – is crucial to this understanding.  This short piece will establish why the Gospels should not be categorized as historical biographies.  For starters, Richard A Burridge in “Four Gospels, One Jesus?: A Symbolic Reading”, defines what genre means.
Genre forms a kind of `contract’ or agreement, often unspoken or unwritten, or even unconscious, between an author and a reader, by which the author sets out to write according to a whole set of expectations and conventions, and we agree to read or to interpret the work using the same conventions, giving us an initial idea of what we might expect to find.
The Gospels were initially viewed as being “one of a kind” (sui generis) biographies because they differed from modern biographies in that the subject lacked much personal detail, such as personality, character development and appearance.  In the 1920’s, form criticism came to the forefront analyzing the different types of mini-stories that the Gospels are comprised of.  They saw the Gospels as completely void of biographical and historical content.  This, and other reasons, led them to conclude that the Gospels were folk literature, that is, pieces of oral tradition passed down and synthesized into narratives.  Ben Witherington, on the other hand, a modern New Testament scholar, says, “The whole form critical approach to these Gospels is deeply flawed, for the Gospels do not amount to boiling up narratives from shards and bits of tradition and sayings of Jesus; on the contrary, Gospel writing was a matter of editing the material down in specific ways.”  

A more recent analysis, namely by Richard Burridge, has stolen the show.  He concludes that the genre of the Gospels should be one of ancient Greco-Roman biography by comparing the Gospels to other well established Greco-Roman writings in terms of similarity in function, form and content.  To be sure, the consensus for both Christian and secular scholars do agree with Richard Burridge.  To gain further insight into Greco-Roman style, Bart Ehrman defines Greco-Roman biography as follows: “ a prose narrative recounting an individual’s life, often within a chronological framework, employing numerous subgenera (such as sayings, speeches, anecdotes and conflict stories) so as to reflect important aspects of his or her character, principally for purposes of instruction (to inform about what kind of person he or she was), or propaganda (to show his or her superiority to rivals).”  Although this definition is fair enough for the Gospels, I tend to think that it lacks granularity.  As the historian Matthew Ferguson points out:

The genre of Graeco-Roman biography was rather diverse in antiquity, with many variations in structure and content depending on the biographical subject being described. As such, the comparison of the NT Gospels with “Graeco-Roman biography” is no simple or straightforward matter, as ancient biographical scholars still debate how the genre can even be defined to begin with.
Matthew Ferguson believes that if the Gospels are classified in the aforementioned manner, there should be a distinction made, namely that the Gospels are more similar to prose novels and legendary biographies than to that of historical biographies.  This inference comes from the Gospels lacking analytical rigor and containing many storytelling elements in comparison to that of historical biographies.  Some of these novelistic biographies, for example, are about Homer, Alexander the Great, and Aesop, whereas writings by Plutarch, Arrian and Suetonius are historical biographies.  There are even biographical examples of miracle-working “divine men”, similar in broad outline to Jesus, such as Pythagoras, Empedocles, Asclepius and, the most uncanny, Apollonius of Tyana.  As Morton Smith puts it, these are known as aretalogies because they are “a miracle story or a collection of miracle stories” whose primary purpose was “praise of and propaganda for the deity supposed to have done the deeds.”  Matthew Ferguson further contrasts historical and prose writing:
Ancient historical prose has a very distinct style, in which the historian often would discuss the methodology of his research, the sources he consulted, the differences between multiple traditions about a person or event, and his judgment as an inquirer into past affairs. History, derived from the Greek ἱστορία (“inquiry”), is not merely a narrative about past people, places, and events, but is an investigation that one conducts in the present in order to formulate a hypothesis of what probably took place in the past, based on the available evidence. 
Rather than read as the unmitigated praise of a saint who can do no wrong, ancient historical works and historical biographies were far more critical of their subjects, whom they analyzed less one-dimensionally and more as complete persons. Even for a popular and well-liked emperor like Augustus, his biographer Suetonius in his Life of Augustus still did not hold back from describing Augustus’ acts of adultery and lavish behavior. Good historians are concerned with telling the past as it really is rather than just heaping praise upon individuals as propaganda.  
So historical biography, generally, is more investigatory, analytical and critical of their subject matter.  This does not seem to be the case with the Gospels where the aim of the omniscient, third-person authors is not to chiefly convince you of the accuracy of their accounts but rather to convince you of the subject matter’s heroic deeds, etc.  Moreover, all of the Gospels are anonymous, don’t cite their sources or methodologies and utilize much myth making, which is atypical of historical biographical material.  

Two possible exceptions, one being the Gospel of Luke, where there is mentioning of how sources have been passed down and that the author has done all that he could to ensure that his account is the correct account.  This passage doesn’t amount to much as it excludes the names of the sources and doesn’t bother to discuss their relevancy to the events.  There is no critical engagement at all.  Second exception is the Gospel of John where John claims to have an eyewitness disciple, but the Gospel doesn’t even name this person.  To summarize, I leave you with a quote from Ferguson.  
The Gospels, in contrast, are not historical biographies but hagiographies written in unquestioning praise of their messianic subject. As a good representation of the scholarly consensus about the aims of the Gospels, the Oxford Annotated Bible (pg. 1744) explains, “Neither the evangelists nor their first readers engaged in historical analysis. Their aim was to confirm Christian faith.” Such works, written for an audience of converts, are not chiefly concerned with being critical or investigative, but rather serve the religious agendas and ideologies of the communities that produced them.
Boyd, Gregory A.; Eddy, Paul Rhodes (2007-08-01). The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition. Baker Book Group – A. Kindle Edition.
Burridge, Richard A. . Four Gospels, One Jesus?: A Symbolic Reading. Kindle Edition.
Ehrman, Bart D.  The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings.
Ferguson, Matthew.  Κέλσος
Witherington, Ben.  New Testament Rhetoric.


  1. Mind Matter says

    Matthew Ferguson writes some good stuff, but I have difficulties accepting the gospels as “biographies”. They are only superficially “about” the person of Jesus. Jesus is a mouthpiece for church teachings and his acts are all theological and symbolic in nature. For what it’s worth, there are several studies on gospel genre in the light of certain recent publications at http://vridar.org/2014/01/17/genre-of-gospels-and-acts-index/

    Neil Godfrey

    • joncavaz says

      Hi Neil. I know of your stuff well since I used to subscribe to your blog. You and Doherty helped liberalize my perceptions, or misconceptions I should say, of the Gospels. As far as what constitutes a biography, I think it depends a lot on the criteria you use to assess what is biographical or not. I’ve made the assumption that the scholars criteria used are valid, but that doesn’t mean a cogent argument wouldn’t persuade me in the other direction. I think the important thing, however, is that it becomes clear to the reader that we aren’t dealing with historical accounts here. At least that is what I was trying to nail home.

      It would be nice if you could summarize that post you linked to above since I don’t know if I have the time to read it. Thanks!

  2. moarscienceplz says

    This info should be provided to every high school student, as well as the fact that Matthew almost certainly used Mark as source material and Luke probably used both Mark and Matthew. Unfortunately, anyone who did try to teach this to American kids would probably lose their job.

  3. Mind Matter says

    Hi Jon,

    I understand lacking time to read stuff. Basically the idea is that Burridge is focusing on technical points of comparison to slot the gospels into ancient biography, but what the technical comparisons miss is the primary literary theme and plot of the gospels and also the distinctive differences between the gospels and biographies. In other words, his criteria lack a theoretical foundation. (I won’t elaborate — trying to keep this short.)

    Main trouble with the “bios” argument imo is that the gospels have no interest in Jesus as a person, as a teacher or miracle-worker: they present Jesus as a mere mouthpiece uttering often disconnected discrete sayings (of doctrinal significance to a later generation) and performing primarily symbolic acts, or at least acts charged with symbolic and theological meaning. Jesus is a personification, a cipher, a theological figure or agent rather than a “person” or even a “human role” of any kind as we find in biographies both ancient and modern.

    More fundamentally, I think the real genre that the author of Mark’s gospel was emulating was “Scripture”. He was writing in the style of Jewish Scripture narrative.

    Such is the long story cut short! 🙂

    (p.s. would you mind deleting my unnecessary reply that I had sent earlier, if that’s okay… ? Cheers.)

    Neil Godfrey

    • joncavaz says

      Thanks for the summary.

      I suppose that if you look at the key differences instead of the similarities, then you’d end up classifying it with some other schema, which may more aptly characterize it. But that would be only a portion of its features. And that’s the key; what schema (genre) most closely characterizes its aggregate features, right? But there probably exists no genre available to fully capture its essence, so we have to fit it in the framework with what we’ve got.

      You may be right in that Burridge’s analysis was superficial if he’s not taking into account what you claim. But why haven’t those voices of dissent been popularized? I keep hearing biographical, biographical and biographical. I suppose if it’s not at least biographical, then we get further and further away from a historical figure.

      What is Jewish Scripture narrative: is it well known as a genre (shouldn’t matter) and does it fit the features of the Gospels well? And what do we do about all the qualities that Burridge has abstracted out for his classification? Do we just do away with them, or does Jewish Scripture narrative also model those as well? I’d think that you’d want the schema that takes into account the most qualities of the Gospels as possible.

      • neilgodfrey says

        It is not uncommon to find authors of this era mixing different genres in their works. To get into the nitty gritty I’d say Mark is not any one “pure” genre but the overall anonymous authoritative voice and use of direct speech etc is very much in the “Jewish Scripture” line. — Especially when we see the close connections with the Elijah-Elisha narrative structure, style and motifs.

        No doubt we keep hearing “biographical”, “biographical”, “biographical”. And at the same time Burridge is considered to have “established” this interpretation. But reading other biographies of the day and one soon discovers (I think, anyway) Mark has a totally different feel and function.

        I suspect “biography” is the default view because of the way the community has accepted the matter-of-fact authoritative presentation of the gospel. (That is, ironically, its scriptural authoritative voice.) The theological message is that “this is true” and scholars have sought to re-write that “true” myth to conform to post Enlightenment frames of reference. So miracles are explained as something a bit different, but the core message or myth remains untouched.

        In other words, the reasoning is kind of circular. We have taken the gospel’s tone and voice as authoritative and played along with its game.

    • joncavaz says

      My goal was to use a variety of sources, so Christians couldn’t call me out on being biased. Most apologists arguments, ironically, can be used against them if employed in an argument tactfully. Moreover, Burridge’s analysis isn’t all that bad, and I believe in not throwing out the baby with the bath water, so to speak.


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