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Do the Gospels fit as biographies, internally exemplifying the quintessential family characteristics?
Genre is largely determined by authorial intent. Whether or not the Gospels are actually biographies (discussed here), do they at least internally resemble biographies to a very strong degree? If someone were trying to determine the genre of the Gospels, would they fit remarkably well within the genre-family of ancient/Greco-Roman biographies?
Histories are continuous prose narrative
Biographies are narratives but they are narratives without rhythmic structure (like poetry); instead they follow a natural flow of speech with ordinary grammatical structure.
- Conventional Structure: One of the key features of biographical and historical writing is a coherent, linear narrative. This helps to create a logical flow and makes it easier for the reader to follow the life events or historical occurrences being discussed. The Gospels are written in this manner, which is a characteristic typical of biographies.
- Linguistic Consistency: In biographies, the language used is typically ordinary prose, which is structured grammatically but not bound by rhythmic or metric constraints like poetry. The Gospels similarly employ a natural flow of speech and a straightforward grammatical structure, reinforcing their resemblance to biographies.
- Universality: The continuous prose narrative form is widely recognized and easily understood, making the content accessible to a broad audience. Given that the Gospels were meant for widespread dissemination to communicate the life and teachings of Jesus, this format would make sense if they were intended as biographies.
But so what?
- Romances are continuous prose narrative as well. [Response forthcoming.]
Bios self-identify as witness testimony
Historical works from the Greco-Roman mediterranean proudly self-identity as relaying witness testimony.
See this page to analyze these 4 supporting arguments:
- Polybius etc. testify that they did.
- Historians oft say: “I saw this all 1st hand.”
- Histories cited witnesses via emphasis.
- Histories DID get witness-testimony or close.
This is relevant if the Gospels likewise claim to relay testimony.
But so what? Plausibly...
Bios are around 10-25k words long
Unlike dramas (for example), biographies in this era tended to be between 10,000 and 25,000 words long. This is relevant because the Gospels are 11-19k words long. (Mark has 11,242 words; Matthew has 18,305; Luke has 19,428; John has 16,150).1
- See Burridge, What Are the Gospels?, 271.
Bios continually focus on a main character
Unlike most other genres (which may focus on things like a time period, large-scale event, or the goings-on of a government, Greco-Roman biographes focused their attention throughout the work on a single character.
- E.g. They want to get at the heart of the person:
Plutarch: “If I do not record all thermos celebrated achievements or describe any of them exhaustively, but merely summarize for the most part what they accomplished, I ask mar readers not ot regard this as a fault. For I am writing biography not history, and the truth is that the most brilliant exploits often tell us nothing of the virtues or vices of the men who performed them, while on the other hand a chance remark or a joke may reveal far more of a man’s character than the mere feat of winning battles in which thousands fall or marshaling great armies, or laying siege to cities.”
- Ben Witherington: “notice how rarely Jesus is not the center of attention of any given narrative. Take, for instance, Mark’s Gospel (an exception would be the story about Herod in chap. 6, but even there Jesus is discussed at 6:14-16). Jesus or his teaching is the subject of over 44 percent of all the verbs in Mark’s Gospel, and in almost any given narrative, Jesus is either the center of attention or discussion, or not far from the spotlight. These books are the p23 good news about Jesus, and they seldom stray any distance or length of time from their main subject.
Bios illuminate via narrating key words & deeds
Unlike other genres, Greco-Roman biographies placed a heavy emphasis on trying to morally capture the virtues and vices and other characterstics of their subject through their choice of which words and deeds to narrate. To elaborate:
- Emphasis on Character: Biographies, especially in the Greco-Roman tradition, aim to provide insight into the character of the subject by focusing on specific words and deeds that are morally or ethically significant. The Gospels do precisely this by chronicling key moments, teachings, and actions in the life of Jesus to provide a comprehensive understanding of His character and mission.
- Selective Narration: In a biography, not every moment of a person's life is documented, but rather a selection of events that are most illuminative of that person's character or significance. The Gospels are also selective in what they narrate, focusing on particular moments and teachings that highlight Jesus' spiritual and moral dimensions.
- Moral or Ethical Lessons: Greco-Roman biographies often had a didactic purpose, educating the reader on virtues and vices through the life of the subject. The Gospels serve a similar purpose by offering ethical and spiritual lessons through the life and teachings of Jesus.
- Cohesive Theme: Biographies often follow a thematic thread that is indicative of the subject's character or life mission. In the case of the Gospels, recurring themes like compassion, forgiveness, and divine love are highlighted through various accounts, thereby painting a comprehensive picture of Jesus’ character and mission.
- Real-life Application: Biographies aim to present the subject in a manner that readers or listeners can relate to and perhaps emulate. The Gospels serve a similar function by presenting Jesus as a model for ethical and spiritual conduct.