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.
If we are searching for a literary model readily available for our Gospel authors—three of whom were Jews—then we might ask why we would look to the broader Greco-Roman context when “much closer to hand is the Hebrew Bible” (Reading the Gospels Wisely, 26).
Or, as Loveday Alexander has argued, “It is to the biblical tradition, surely, that we should look for the origins of the ‘religious intensity’ of the gospel narratives and their rich ideological intertextuality with the biblical themes of covenant, kingdom, prophecy, and promise—all features hard to parallel in Greek biography” (“What is a Gospel,” 27-28).
So, while our gospels may be similar to Greco-Roman biography in terms of structure, they are indebted to the Old Testament in terms of their narrative. And when we consider the narrative features of the four gospels, it quickly becomes clear that they are stories of God’s eschatological, redemptive, covenant-fulfilling, activity through the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
Or, put differently, they are not merely history—which would be implied by the bios genre—but are, in fact, redemptive history. As Jonathan Pennington has observed, “This is good news, not just a biography!” (Reading the Gospels Wisely, 31).
This indebtedness to the Old Testament narrative raises questions about how to best characterize what the Gospels are as documents. Meredith Kline, recognizing the unequivocal Old Testament backdrop, has argued that the Gospels are best understood as covenant documents.
In particular, Kline suggests that the book of Exodus is the closest counterpart to the Gospels: “the Book of Exodus appears to have the same thematic focus and to exhibit comprehensively the same literary structure as the Gospels…the book of Exodus is an Old Testament Gospel—the Gospel of Moses” (Structure of Biblical Authority, 175).
These structural connections between the Gospels and Exodus are confirmed in two ways. First, extensive Moses-Exodus typology is found throughout all four Gospels. Jesus is portrayed as new Moses (Matt 5:1; John 5:46; 7:40), leading a new Exodus (Matt 2:15; 4:1-17; Mark 1:1-13; Luke 3:4-6) , giving a new law (Matthew 5-7), supplying new bread from heaven (John 6:32-34), and offering a new/final Passover sacrifice (Matt 26:26; Mark 14:22; Luke 22:19).
Second, much of the teaching of Jesus fits into standard treaty language of covenantal texts: Jesus’ self- declarations as the God of the covenant (John 6:35; 8:12; 8:51), condemnation of Israel’s covenant breaking (Matt 21:40-41; Mark 12:9), teachings on how to live within the covenant community (Matthew 5-7), blessings and curses of the covenant (Luke 6:20-26; Matthew 23), and even covenant discipline (Matt 16:18-19; 18:15-20).
If indeed our Gospels should be construed as covenant documents, two important implications follow. First, the covenantal nature of these books means they are not so much human testimony about God, but rather God’s testimony to humans about the terms of his covenant through Jesus.
Thus, the Gospels are authoritative not by virtue of some later ecclesiastical court, nor by virtue of the fact that the human authors are reliable eyewitnesses (though they are), but because the Gospels are, from their very inception, a legal and divine witness on behalf of covenant-keepers and against covenant-breakers.
Second, the covenantal nature of these books allows us to see, perhaps more clearly than before, the remarkable unity between the old covenant and the new covenant, and the place of the Gospels in that unified structure. Although the Bible is made up of diverse types of writings—law, history, wisdom books, prophecy, letters, etc.—Kline argues that each of these different writings serve a singular covenantal purpose.
History (which includes the Gospels) recounts God’s great covenantal acts, law provides God’s covenantal stipulations (usually with blessings and curses), wisdom literature provides guidance on how to live as a member of the covenant, and prophecy/letters function as covenant “lawsuits” to those who break the terms of God’s covenant.
It is precisely here that we see that most apocryphal gospels don’t really count as gospels at all. Take the Gospel of Thomas for example. It is just a list of sayings, with no narrative structure. Thus it could never be construed as a covenantal document finishing the Old Testament story of Israel.
So, here’s the big pay off. To read the Gospels as covenant documents keeps the larger redemptive-historical narrative of the Bible front and center, allows us to see how the whole of Scripture is unified around the person and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, and reminds us what makes the canonical gospels distinctive from the other “gospels” in the ancient world.