The Literary Unity of the Gospels

Wherever you turn in the Gospels, you will find familiar literary archetypes: heroes, villains, conflicts, journeys, miraculous transformations, ordeals, happy endings, feasts, and storms, among many others.—Leland Ryken

What unifies the kaleidoscopic material of the Gospels?  Above all else, the Gospels tell the story of Jesus’ life, chiefly the events of his last three years, which are known as his public ministry.  Discourses, parables, debates, and dialogues all occur within the frame of the main story.  In fact, they all contribute to the cumulative effect of Jesus’ life story.

We tend to view a modern novel as a large canvas, but when we look at the Gospels, it is more helpful to see them in terms of mosaic and collage.  Until the story reaches the final week of Jesus’ life — where a single chronology dominates all four Gospels — the plot is a patchwork of episodes.  We are given snapshots from the life of Jesus, a scrapbook of the protagonist’s daily life.

Jesus is the protagonist of the story, occupying center stage.  All other characters flow outward from him as if in concentric circles.  Closest to him are the disciples, his immediate followers.  In the next concentric ring are the members of the religious establishment, the Pharisees, a force hostile to Jesus (hence the chief instigators of conflict in the plot).  Beyond the Pharisees are ordinary people; at times, they are nameless masses, at other times particular individuals.  The masses typically respond to Jesus either with acceptance or rejection, belief or unbelief.

Jesus himself is what unifies the Gospels.  They paint a portrait of him in words and actions, a portrait of an itinerant teacher, miracle worker, religious leader, and perennial source of controversy (in the stories, he generates debate wherever he goes).  We are constantly observing Jesus’ teachings, Jesus’ actions, and how people respond to him.  The world Jesus inhabits sketches him in relief.  As literary critic G. Wilson Knight describes it, “We see Jesus silhouetted against a world of formalized religion, hypocrisy, envy, evil and suffering.” We see what he is like by how different his behavior is from that of the characters swirling around him.  Three main ingredients make up the content—what Jesus did, what Jesus said or taught, and responses of people to these two things.

Another feature that unifies the Gospels is geography. In each Gospel, we travel with Jesus from one locale to the next.  The Gospels almost function as a travelogue for ancient Palestine. Jesus becomes the archetypal wanderer, so much so that at one point Jesus tells his followers, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58).

Style is a final unifying aspect of the Gospels.  The most notable stylistic trait of the Gospels is their economy of words and details.  As in the Old Testament stories, we find a preference for brevity, realism, dialogue, and drama, all serving a simple, unembellished story.