Gospels as Legendary Biographies

Knowing what type of writings the Gospels are—for example, legendary versus historical—will help us to understand the writer’s intentions and guide our interpretation.  The one method that we have available to assess its type is by looking at its genre, which is an unspoken contract between the writer and the audience on what to expect.

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. [2]

This short piece will explain the various attempts at classifying the Gospels and argues that their genre is akin to that of legendary biographies but not historical ones.

From Folk to Greco-Roman 

At one point the Gospels were viewed as being “one of a kind” (sui generis) biographies since the subject lacked personal detail, such as personality, character development, and appearance.  In the 1920s, form criticism came to the forefront, and they saw the Gospels as a series of mini-stories but completely void of biographical and historical content.

This 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, saw it as the complete opposite:

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. [6]

The modern consensus amongst both secular and non-secular scholars was helped by Richard Burridge, who concludes that the genre of the Gospels should be one of ancient Greco-Roman biography by comparing them to other well established Greco-Roman writings in terms of their form, function, and content.

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). [4]

At first glance, this seems to be a fit for the Gospels but upon taking a closer look, we will see that it falls short.  The historian Matthew Ferguson, who is a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Irvine, reminds us that fitting the Gospels into a genre isn’t as easy as we may think:   

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.

From Historical to Legendary

Matthew Ferguson concludes that the Gospels are more similar to prose novels and legendary biographies than to historical biographies.  This comes from the inference that historical pieces of work were much more analytically rigorous and the focus wasn’t just on the narration of events.

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. [5]

In addition, analytical works such as historical biographies, even in times of antiquity, were much more critical towards their subject matter.  Novelistic biographies of antiquity include Homer, Alexander the Great, and Aesop, whereas writings by Plutarch, Arrian, and Suetonius are historical biographies.  The Gospels show resemblance in broad outline to the biographies of Pythagoras, Empedocles, Asclepius, and, the most uncanny, Apollonius of Tyana which were all about miracle-working “divine men”.

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. [5]

Gospels as Hagiographies

The Gospels were also written in the third-person by omniscient authors and did not try to chiefly convince us of the accuracy of their accounts but rather that Jesus was heroic and worthy of being our savior.  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 an attempt is made to establish legitimacy since sources were claimed to be passed down to the author.  But this passage doesn’t amount to much as it excludes the names of the sources and doesn’t bother to discuss their relevance to the events.  The Gospel of John is the other exception where John claims to have an eyewitness disciple but fails to mention a name.

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.”  Below Matthew Ferguson succinctly describes the nature of the Gospels quite well.

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.  [5]


[1] Boyd, Gregory A.; Eddy, Paul Rhodes. The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition. Baker Book Group – A.

[2] Burridge, Richard A.  Four Gospels, One Jesus?: A Symbolic Reading.

[3] Burridge, Richard A. What Are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography.

[4] Ehrman, Bart D.  The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings.

[5] Ferguson, Matthew.  Κέλσος

[6] Witherington, Ben.  New Testament Rhetoric.

Which Tribe Do You Belong To?

Bias is a personal inclination, feeling or opinion—usually not reasoned out—that interferes with obtaining the truth.  As far as how we process information concerning ourselves and the world around us, psychologists have identified numerous cognitive biases, but none are more important than confirmation bias.  It essentially says that we confirm a hypothesis or belief about something by looking for evidence to support it and discarding that which does not support it.  This bias makes our beliefs and hypotheses very resistant to change.  A good example of a confirmation bias is if I was convinced that prayer will assist me in getting an interview, and I counted all the times that I got an interview with prayer but ignored the interviews I got without prayer.  In other words, as you may have heard before, we count the hits but ignore the misses.  The remedy is, in addition to proving our beliefs, that we should always be trying to falsify our beliefs, in this case proving that you’d get an interview without prayer.  Moreover, you need to be cautious of the correlation fallacy; that is, just because an interview was obtained when you prayed, it doesn’t mean the prayer caused the interview.  You must either look for other explanations (hypotheses) as to why you got that interview or admit falling prey to confirmation bias. [Once you take all that into consideration, and you are still convinced that prayer is the causal factor, see my discussion on Miracles and Probability I, II, and III.]

There is an even more hideous offender to the truth, specifically ingroup bias.  Once we are affiliated with a certain ideology, we then frequently inherit the beliefs and preferences of that ingroup.  And once we are in an ingroup, we often, unconsciously, argue in favor of that group’s positions.  In fact, the support of other member’s ideas in our ingroup can be so dysfunctional that a phenomenon known as groupthink can occur.  Groupthink is when uniformity in the group’s decisions is elevated at the cost of rational thinking.  Examples of groupthink are abounded—from the Bay of Pigs invasion to simple meetings at work.  To illustrate, think of a meeting at work where you had a good idea but failed to mention it because you know it wouldn’t be well received by influential others.  That is a classic example of how groups can be forced into making poor decisions, mainly by refusing anything that’s contrary to the group’s opinion, typically articulated by the higher ranking or more well-liked individuals.

Prior to being educated in the necessary fields, such as economics, history, and logic, I personally was affected by the conservative movement in the group.  I started my political career out by listening to Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. The result was disastrous. I became a staunch, conservative zealot.  I recall that the hate for liberals spewed by these pundits was contagious, and I used to call my teachers liberals with a contemptuous tone.  I reverberated a tribal instinct with an “us” against “them” mentality.  I inherited all of their assumptions, arguments, and preferences as well.  So, for example, I equated government and government intervention as bad, gun control as the government trying to take our guns away, Christians as founding our nation, unbridled pride as something to be cherished, protesting against war as wrong, protecting the environment as unnecessary, and, finally, welfare means doing a person harm and one should practice tough-love in its stead.

So what explains this?  For our ancestors, evolutionary psychologists believe that there were survival value in-group members demonstrating uniformity and favoritism while showing prejudice towards outsiders.  This conformity would allow for cohesion and cooperation in order to meet similar ends.  According to the logic of evolution, if a behavior occurs frequently enough in a high enough percentage of the population, then it’s a good candidate for being an adaptation.  If it’s an adaptation, then it’s probably hard-wired into our psychology.  So once we are in an ingroup, it comes quite natural for us to adopt their beliefs and fight for their cause, while shunning outsiders.  The consequences are clear, and we end up forming conclusions without any forethought.  We kind of just back into these beliefs as Michael Shermer says and then defend them at all costs.  I recall watching a debate with Dr. Richard Carrier and Michael Licona, and they were perplexed at how they arrived at different conclusions as to whether or not Jesus Christ rose from the dead.  I have often wondered how each ingroup they were associated with contributed to their conclusions.

Cognitive dissonance is an uneasy feeling that one gets when there is a contradiction between a deep-seated belief and another opposing belief.  It’s not a cognitive bias in it itself, but it nonetheless assists people in maintaining erroneous views.  I felt this dissonance myself when I was a diehard fan of evolutionary psychology.  To recall a specific incident, I was listening to a debate between Stephen Pinker and Steven Rose on whether or not the brain was designed as a general problem-solving tool or a domain-specific problem-solving tool.  I had so much invested into evolutionary psychology – countless hours of reading it and using it as an explanatory tool to understand the hardships of life – that I was vulnerable.  It was perfect, sacred, and infallible to me.  Because the tenet and pillar of evolutionary psychology is that the mind is a Swiss army knife that is filled with individual tools to solve specific problems at hand, I couldn’t imagine the mind being anything else.  Sounds frivolous, but I fought for days to resist thinking that it may be true.  Although I don’t know evolutionary psychology’s official stance today, ten years later I’ve conceded that it could be both, with the help of “Adapting Minds” by Buller.

A worldview is a framework of beliefs that allows us to make judgments and decisions about our environment.  So not only do beliefs function as cohesive and cooperative mechanisms in groups, but they also serve to pragmatically guide us throughout the day.  My system of beliefs and values that I had when I worshiped evolutionary psychology constituted a worldview.  This worldview allowed me to make sense out of a lot of things in life.  However, I was too emotionally entrenched in it, and it was perhaps acting as a distorter of truth by not allowing other more plausible explanations for phenomena.  I haven’t abandoned evolutionary psychology; I’m just no longer holding on to it so tightly.  I have since reassessed what’s worth holding on to and that so happens to be principles relating to relationships, civics, justice, etc.  Moreover, I try to now be independent as much as possible, rarely adhering to an ideology.  By not adhering to an ideology you are not as liable to be indoctrinated with inflexible assumptions and beliefs that don’t work for every problem.  For example, becoming a libertarian forces you to believe that government intervention will almost always result in an undesirable outcome, but this may not always be the case.  Problems need to be looked at individually, free from dogma.

So we see the disadvantages of affiliating with an ingroup and holding on to beliefs too strongly.  But it’s impossible to not have some sort of worldview.  As Michael Shermer expounds, we are meaning-making machines and demand an interpretive framework to understand the world and humans around us.  We can’t function without beliefs, assumptions, and values.  But that’s not to say that one group doesn’t hold a better set of heuristics that minimizes these biases over another.  I believe that a philosophical point of view to be found in free thought.  It’s less likely to be plagued by bias since its very nature is to be skeptical of it in the first place.  The following definition of it is most applicable.  Since free thought relies on empiricism like science does, then an assumption or hypothesis can be disputed and discarded.  By contrast, an ideology or religion has undisputed truths that would probably never be overturned.

Free thought — is a philosophical viewpoint which holds that positions regarding truth should be formed on the basis of logicreason, and empiricism, rather than authoritytraditionrevelation, or other dogma.  The cognitive application of freethought is known as “freethinking”, and practitioners of freethought are known as “freethinkers”.  Freethinkers are heavily committed to the use of scientific inquiry, and logic. The skeptical application of science implies freedom from the intellectually limiting effects of confirmation biascognitive biasconventional wisdompopular cultureprejudice, or sectarianism.