A Unique Genre

The primary thrust of this lesson is to show that the Gospels resemble many literary genres with which we are familiar.  This include story, proverb or saying, poetry, oratory, satire, and parable, to name just some of them.  But before we arrive at how the Gospels are, perhaps to our surprise, thoroughly literary, we need to acknowledge ways in which the Gospels at first seem to be unliterary.

At first glance, the New Testament Gospels seem strange and difficult.  Each tells the story of Jesus’ life, but only half of each Gospel is narrative in form.  The rest of the material is what we might call discourse — speeches, parables, theological dialogues and debates, satire, and proverbs (also called “sayings” in the text).  This diverse patchwork or scrapbook makes the Gospels unconventional, and at first glance even unliterary.

Structurally, the Gospels are story cycles, a common format in the ancient world but not well known to modern readers.  Their plots are episodic and, in some ways, disjointed.  Events do not build on each other by cause and effect, but are brief and self-contained mini-stories.  Once an episode is finished, it drops out of sight.  In part, this may be due to the fact that the Gospels were originally circulated orally.

The Gospels’ style often seems too plainspoken to be considered literary.  The writers use simple, unembellished language.  (An exception to this rule is the Gospel of John, which employs poetic imagery.)  One sign of how spare the Gospels are is that there is not a single physical description of the main character, Jesus, in any of the four Gospels.

Perhaps what makes the Gospels seem unliterary is their heavily didactic (“having the intention to teach”) content.  While the entire Bible is religious, the Gospels are even more so.  Unlike the richly human stories of the Old Testament, the Gospels focus on doctrinal teaching.

Despite these features, the Gospels are not as unliterary as they appear at first, as we will see in the next section.