The Literary Nature of The Gospel Accounts

November 11, 2009 at 8:25 pm 1 comment

When reading or teaching through the gospel accounts one must recognize their literary distinctiveness. One important characteristic about the genre ‘gospel’ is that superscriptions to these historical narrative accounts are worded “the gospel according to”, add the authors name. (Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John) This implies that there is ‘one gospel’ in four versions.

Also of importance, the gospel accounts are ‘two level documents.’[1] The term gospel is a translation of the Greek word euangelion which means ‘good news.’ In the New Testament the word can either refer to ‘good news proclaimed by Jesus’[2] or the ‘good news of Jesus.’[3] In other words the gospel accounts consist of ‘sayings’ and ‘narratives’, or ‘teachings of Jesus’ and ‘stories about Jesus.’ Fee and Stewart argue;

“Our Gospels do indeed contain a collection of sayings, but these are always woven…into a historical narrative of Jesus life and ministry. Thus they are not books by Jesus but books about Jesus.”[4]

It’s important to note that the authors purposely structured their accounts of the good news. Remember, the gospel accounts are narratives that are not necessarily arranged in chronological order. It’s often helpful to read the gospel accounts while keeping in mind that the theological themes are sometimes the organizational element.[5]

So, these gospel accounts are not biographies in the modern sense of the term, but they are biographical. Modern biographies mainly focus on a persons psychology while ancient forms of biography tend to focus on the persons ‘action and/or teaching.’ As one author writes, “they are technically known as Christological biographies or historical stories about Jesus told for a particular theological purpose.”[6] Perhaps ‘sub-biography’ would be more appropriate? Goldsworthy argues that the gospel accounts presented a “new and distinctive literary genre that came about because of the nature of the gospel event and of the impulse to communicate it.”[7]

Either way, the writers understood that “their churches had special interests that…caused them to arrange and adapt what was selected”[8] by the work of the Holy Spirit. These writers faithfully told the story of Jesus for a theological purpose, and did so while emphasizing certain aspects of Jesus’ life and teaching for the persuasion of their audience.

We should be reminded that the authors could not tell all that there was to tell about Jesus.[9] Therefore, they had to choose what to include, what to omit, as well as how to arrange it in order to most effectively communicate the good news to their audience.

Fee and Stewart propose that there were three principles that guided the composition of each gospel account; selectivity, arrangement, and adaptation. All of these considerations are significant to show the reader that even the “literary structure serves a theological purpose.”[10] So, “the gospel writers are [not only] saying something about Jesus in each episode, they are saying something about Jesus in how they link the smaller stories together to form the larger story.”[11]


Entry filed under: Books, Christianity, Culture, Faith, Philosophy, Religion, The Southern Baptist Convention.

Baptist churches and Membership Covenants The Gospel of Mark

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