Directions for Current and Future Research
a. Literary Relationships of the Gospels
The first implication of even a brief consideration of the generic features shared by the gospels with Graeco-Roman biography is that all four canonical gospels are examples of the same genre. This is important to stress, given the fact that some gospel scholars stress the differences between them, especially that of the Fourth Gospel. While such variations may be apparent when only these four texts are studied, consideration of other, non-canonical, gospels and wider reading of contemporary literature demonstrates how closely related these four are. Therefore, any suggestions that Matthew is a manual of church discipline or Luke a historical monograph, while John and Mark belong to the same genre as each other betrays a lack of understanding of how genres function. The canonical gospels have as much in common with Graeco-Roman lives as they have with each other, and therefore belong to that genre. However, within their sub-genre, there is development, which may be a further argument for the priority of Mark: in the same way as Matthew and Luke improve Mark's Greek style (see the often quoted example of the shift from kai to de), so they also conform his genre closer to ancient biography by additions such as the infancy narratives.
One area of continuing debate concerns the genre of Luke–Acts. Aune's stress that ‘Luke and Acts must be treated as affiliated with one genre’ leads to his odd conclusion that Luke cannot be the same biographical genre as the other three gospels, but is a form of ancient historiography (Aune 1987: 77–80). Similar arguments are made by Sterling (1989) and Cancik (1997). Alternatively, Talbert (1977) argued that Luke–Acts forms a biographical succession narrative, with the gospel as the ‘life of the founder’ followed by an account of his successors. I accepted this possibility but also suggested that Acts could be a bios of the church in the manner of the Life of Greece written in the fourth century BCE by Dicaearchus of Messene; however, the two volumes could belong to the closely related genera proxima with Luke as bios and Acts as historical monograph (Burridge 1992: 245–6; 2004: 237–9). Talbert has subsequently argued for a combination of these proposals (Talbert 1996: 70).
The fragmentary nature of some non-canonical gospels makes their genre difficult to determine. It is possible that some early Jewish-Christian gospels (such as those of the Nazarenes, or Ebionites) may have exhibited sufficient of these generic features to be also included within ancient bioi. However, sayings gospels like the Gospel of Thomas lack any narrative necessary for biography, and thus belong more with logia or memorabilia; most reconstructions of Q suggest a similar genre. On the other hand, works such as the Book of Thomas or the Dialogue of the Saviour are more like revelatory discourse after the resurrection than any attempt to recount a life. Thus there may be an argument from genre both for the choice of the four canonical gospels and for the later dating of developments into of other genres like discourse or commentaries.
b. Christological Interpretation
First and foremost, the gospels are portraits of a person, and they must be interpreted in this biographical manner. Given that space is limited to a single scroll—ranging from Mark's 11,250 words to Luke's 19,500—every story, pericope, or passage has to contribute to the overall picture of Jesus according to each evangelist. Thus Christology becomes central to the interpretation of the gospels. Each evangelist builds up their account of Jesus through the selection, redaction, and ordering of their material. The key question for the interpretation of any verse or section is what this tells us about Jesus and the writer's understanding of him. Thus the motif of the failure of the disciples to understand Jesus in Mark is not to be interpreted in terms of polemic against differing groups and leaders, with ‘traditions in conflict’ inside the early church (see Weeden 1971), as often happens as a result of a more form-critical approach to the gospels. Instead, it is part of Mark's portrayal of Jesus as hard to understand and tough to follow—and therefore readers should not be surprised to find the Christian life difficult sometimes. Interpretation of the gospels thus requires a thorough understanding of the Christology of each of the evangelists, while each section must be exegeted in the context of its place in the developing narrative as a whole. I (Burridge 1994) have attempted to describe the particular Christology of each gospel narrative through the traditional gospel symbols. Drawing upon Irenaeus's comment that these are ‘images of the disposition of the Son of God’ (Adv. Haer. 3. 11. 8–9), I use the lion to describe Mark's enigmatic ‘beast of conflict’, while Matthew's account shows the human face of the Teacher of Israel who is rejected; the image of the ox reflects Luke's narrative of the burden-bearing Saviour, and the high-flying, all-seeing eagle symbolizes John's account of the divine incarnation in Jesus.
c. Plurality and the Fourfold Gospel
The fact that the early church fathers chose to keep four separate accounts in the canon, despite the problems of possible conflict between them, also raises interesting issues, as noted by Cullmann (1956). The decision not to follow Marcion's choice of using only one gospel nor Tatian's so-called harmony of the gospels in the Diatessaron demonstrates that the four gospels were recognized as coherent single accounts of Jesus, yet which belong together. Stanton (1997) and Hengel (2000) have provoked renewed interest in the idea of the ‘fourfold gospel’ and its theological implications for their interpretation. It has even been suggested that the early church's preservation of four gospels together may have stimulated the development of the codex in preference to the use of single scrolls. This fourfold diversity also raises interesting theological questions about plurality within the limits of the canon. Morgan (1979) sees these four canonical portraits as offering both a ‘stimulus’ to produce more ‘faith images of Jesus’, as well as acting as a ‘control’ upon them.
d. Theological Implications of the Absence of Jewish Biography
Furthermore, it is significant that Jesus seems to have been the only first-century Jewish teacher about whom such bioi were written. It is quite common to compare individual gospel pericopae with stories and anecdotes preserved in rabbinic material. Thus the question about the greatest commandment in Mark 12: 28–34 and parallels may be studied in the light of the famous story from the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a, of the differing reactions of Shammai and Hillel when asked to teach the whole law to a Gentile enquirer standing on one leg. If the gospels are seen merely as a collection of such stories strung together like beads on a string, we might expect similar works to be constructed about Hillel, Shammai, or other rabbis. Yet this is precisely what we do not find. Both Neusner (1984, 1988) and Alexander (1984) have explored various reasons why there is nothing like the gospels in the rabbinic traditions. Although the rabbinic material is more anecdotal than are the gospels and some ancient Lives, it still contains enough biographical elements (through sage stories, narratives, precedents, and death scenes) to enable an editor to compile a ‘life of Hillel’ or whoever. Such an account would have been recognizable as ancient biography, and could have looked like Lucian's Demonax. Literary or generic reasons alone are therefore not sufficient to explain this curious absence of rabbinic biography. I have argued elsewhere that to write a biography is to use a genre which concentrates upon a person centre stage; however, for the rabbis, this is where only the Torah should be (Burridge 2000: 155–6; 2004: 338–40). Therefore the biographical genre of the gospels is making an explicit theological claim about the centrality of Jesus—the Christological statement that God is revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of this person.
e. Social Setting and Communities
Furthermore, the biographical genre of the gospels has implications for their function and social setting, which is different from that of other genres, such as letters to particular groups, like Paul's churches. As already noted, form-critical approaches stressed the gospels' Sitz im Leben, while redaction criticism led to the development of theories about the communities within which and for which the gospels were produced (e.g. Martyn 1979; Weeden 1971). Further study of the way in which ancient Lives functioned across a wide range of social levels in the ancient world cautions against too limited a view of the gospels' audiences. This has led Bauckham (1998) to argue that such ‘community’ approaches rest upon a genre mistake and treat the gospels like letters; instead, ancient biographies were written for broader audiences—and the gospels were also intended for such wider circulation around the early churches. Equally, the gospels may well have been read aloud in large sections, or even in their entirety, at meetings or in worship at the eucharist in a manner similar to the public reading of Lives at social gatherings or meal times in Graeco-Roman society. The previous scholarly consensus about the uniqueness of the gospels' genre saw them as a communication produced ‘by committees, for communities, about theological ideas’! I have argued instead that their biographical genre means that they must be interpreted as ‘by people, for people, about a person’ (Burridge 1998: 115, 144). As biographies, they are composed by one person, the evangelist, with a clear understanding of Jesus that he wishes to portray to a wide range of possible readers. Thus, once again, genre is the key to interpretation—and the biographical genre of the gospels has implications for their social function, setting, and delivery.
f. Using the Gospels in Ethics
The final area to which we want to apply the biographical genre of the gospels concerns New Testament ethics. The biographical-narrative approach to the gospels reminds us that the gospels are not just collections of Jesus' sayings like the Gospel of Thomas or Q; nor are they letters containing teaching material, as in Paul. However, many approaches to the ethics of Jesus treat the canonical gospels as though they were like sayings or letters, and just concentrate on his teaching and words. Central to all ancient biography is that the picture of the subject is built up through both their words and their deeds. So, to find the heart of Jesus' ethic, we need to consider both his ethical teaching and his actual practice. Jesus' ethical teaching is not a separate and discrete set of maxims, but is part of his proclamation of the kingdom of God. It is intended primarily to elicit a response from his hearers to live as disciples within the community of others who also respond and follow. In his appeal for the eschatological restoration of the people of God, Jesus intensified the demands of the Law with his rigorous ethic of renunciation and self-denial in the major human experiences of money, sex, power, violence, and so forth. However, such teachings are set within the context of a biographical narrative about his central stress on love and forgiveness, which opened the community to the very people who had moral difficulties in these areas. Hence he was regularly accused of being ‘a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners’ (Matt. 11: 19; Luke 7: 34).
Ancient biographies held together both words and deeds in portraying their central subject, often for exemplary purposes. Thus Xenophon described Agesilaus as a paradigm for others to follow to become better people (Agesilaus 10. 2). Similarly, Plutarch provides examples for the reader to imitate the virtues and avoid the vices described to improve moral character (Pericles 1; Aemilius Paulus 1). Equally in the gospels, the readers are exhorted to follow Jesus' example in accepting and welcoming others (Mark 1: 17; Luke 6: 36). Paul also stresses the theme of imitation: ‘be imitators of me, as I am of Christ’ (1 Cor. 11: 1; Phil. 3: 17; 1 Thess. 1: 6), following the ‘example to imitate’ (2 Thess. 3: 7, 9). Therefore, as befits a biographical narrative, it is not enough just to outline the main points of Jesus' teaching; New Testament ethics must also include the call to follow his example.