What Makes the Gospels Literary?

“All of the Gospels are unprecedented, unequaled, singular texts.” – Annie Dillard

“The story speaks to everybody.” – Erich Auerbach

“They contain many marvels — peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving.” – J.R.R. Tolkien

“Its subject is incarnation; its technique is also incarnation.”— G. Wilson Knight

Diverse as the material of the Gospels is, a closer look reveals that narrative is the glue that holds the them together.  They feature such hallmarks of storytelling as a central character (Jesus), a chronology of events (however loose), and unifying dramatic conflicts (usually between Jesus and his disciples or the Pharisees).  Within the narrative structure, we find many familiar genres, including “hero” stories, parables, mini-dramas, sermons, proverbs, satire, and poetry.  But we also find a host of genres unique to the Gospels, including the following:

  • Nativity stories (stories surrounding the birth of Jesus)
  • Calling or vocation stories (stories in which Jesus commands people to follow him)
  • Recognition stories (stories in which a character discovers who Jesus is)
  • Witness stories (stories in which either Jesus or another character testifies regarding who Jesus is or what he has done)
  • Encounter stories (stories in which Jesus encounters an individual or group)
  • Conflict or controversy stories (stories in which Jesus engages in an argument or conflict with someone)
  • Pronouncement stories (an event accompanied by a memorable saying by Jesus)
  • Miracle stories
  • Passion stories (stories surrounding the trial, death, and resurrection of Jesus)

Even though each Gospel is a mosaic of these brief, often self-contained episodes, the episodes themselves are filled with literary appeals to our imagination (our image-making ability).   Here is a typical specimen:

Jesus went out again beside the sea: The whole crowd gathered around him, and he taught them. As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him  (Mark 2:13-14).

With just these two verses, a full and vivid scene comes alive in our imagination.  The scene is filled with movement — Jesus walking beside the sea, the crowd gathering around him, Jesus’ terse call to Levi (“Follow me”), and Levi’s sudden decision to do so.

Throughout, the Gospels use heightened language like metaphor, simile, and other figures of speech.  In fact, the discourses of Jesus are essentially poetic.  Consider the conciseness, parallelism, and metaphoric language at play in the following lines from Jesus’ most famous discourse known as the Sermon on the Mount: “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:13-14).

Perhaps the most defining trait of literature is conscious artistry, and we find this in the Gospels as well.  We see artistic use of parallelism not only in the statements of Jesus — “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you” (Matthew 7:7) — but in the greater narrative structure as well.  For example, the Gospel of Matthew artfully alternates between passages of narrative and discourse.  In the Gospel of John, a “sign” (usually a miracle) performed by Jesus is often paired with a discourse on the same subject, as when Jesus miraculously provides food for a crowd and then talks about himself as the bread of life.