Literature: Genre

Hearing the Good News: New Testament Historical Narrative (Gospels & Acts)

Many scholars have suggested that the genre of the canonical Gospels (and Acts) most closely resembles that of Greco-Roman biography. However, while there are some similarities to this genre, the Gospels and Acts more closely resemble a subgenre of historical narrative. As we say in Invitation to Biblical Interpretation, “Like the Old Testament historical narratives, the Gospels and Acts do not merely report facts. The evangelists carefully selected and arranged material that most effectively conveyed God’s message” (372).

Many have wondered why the canon includes four Gospels. First, we should recognize that each Gospel had a specific target audience and displays unique theological emphases. Second, we rejoice to see the multifaceted picture of Jesus through the kaleidoscope of the fourfold gospel: “The cumulative effect resulting from reading all four Gospels is that readers attain a more comprehensive understanding of the story of Jesus as a whole that if they were only reading one of these Gospels” (375). Some, however, might look at the various details of the Gospel accounts and wonder if the diversity between the Gospels has a negative effect on their historical credibility. Yet we should not hold ancient historiography to the standard of our own modern historical conventions; we can have full confidence that the Gospels present accurate and reliable history.

A responsible interpretation of the Gospels includes four key components: historical context, literary context, chronology, and structure. The historical context looks at relevant background information that provides necessary context for interpretation. This context includes both the life setting in Jesus’ day and the life setting of the church when the particular Gospel was written. The literary context requires a similar investigation into the broader scope of the Gospel itself. This point is especially significant when the same event occurs in multiple Gospels. Yes, we want to compare the Gospels when they showcase the same event, but we must first pay attention to the literary context within each respective Gospel.

The chronology and arrangement of each Gospel also plays a significant role in interpretation: “In some situations, a Gospel may reflect a chronological as well as a topical arrangement. The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. In other instances, the same event may be narrated in the context of differing chronological presentations” (397). For example, Matthew appears to reflect a thematic ordering, Mark and Luke/Acts are organized around geographical locales, and John is chronological. This principle also applies to the structure of the Gospels: “The evangelists chose to organize their accounts differently, both at the macro- and the micro-level. An understanding of how the evangelists chose to structure their message is important because it provides the reader with clues about the ideological focus of the author” (399).

Going by the Letter: Epistles

Twenty-one of the twenty-seven New Testament books bear the superscript “Epistle.” These epistles, or letters, in the New Testament display a certain degree of similarity with the standard template of first-century Greco-Roman letters: “Typically, the ancient letters opened with an identification of the sender and the addressee, followed by a salutation or greeting … and adding the element of prayer, which could contain a health wish” (455). Readers who are familiar with the New Testament epistles will recognize the similarities. Yet it is also important to recognize where the New Testament epistles deviate from the standards of the day because these deviations often highlight emphases by a particular author.

The question of authorship is another key topic when studying the epistles. We know that the New Testament letter writers occasionally used secretaries (Rom 16:221 Cor 16:21), but how can we be sure that Paul, for example, wrote all thirteen letters that bear his name? Many scholars today claim that the letters to Timothy and Titus, as well as 2 Peter, are pseudonymous, meaning that “a later follower [of Paul] attributes his own work to his revered teacher in order to perpetuate that person’s teachings and influence” (462). A similar position is that of allonymity, a mediating position, “which holds that a later author edited what Paul wrote but attributed the writing to Paul or another person without intent to deceive” (463). Neither of these positions, however, represents satisfactory answers to the question of authorship, since the early church decisively condemned all those who wrote using someone else’s name (i.e., Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 6.12.3).

There are several issues that pertain to specific New Testament letter writers that deserve special mention. Readers of Paul will benefit by studying his use of the Old Testament. Specifically, readers should analyze the broader context of the Old Testament passage that is quoted and then ask how the passage is used in its current New Testament context. More advanced readers should also determine whether Paul quotes from Masoretic text (Hebrew) or the Septuagint (Greek) and discover theological implications from this analysis.

One major distinctive of Hebrews is that it combines oral and written features. The author mentions that he has previously written to his readers (Heb 13:22), yet many of the rhetorical devices in the book indicate that the document originated as a sermon or series of oral messages.

The strong Jewish influence is unique in James. James prioritizes Old Testament examples such as Abraham, Rahab, Job, and Elijah. He also demonstrates familiarity with Jewish concepts that other New Testament authors do not discuss. Though James mentions Jesus by name only twice (1:1; 2:1), evidence strongly indicates that James draws significant themes from Jesus’ teaching, especially the Sermon on the Mount.

Careful readers will notice the similarity between Jude and 2 Peter. Most likely, Jude was written first and was subsequently used as a source for 2 Peter. Many scholars, as mentioned, have called the authorship of 2 Peter into question. They claim that the language and style is so different between the two Petrine letters that Peter cannot possibly have written 2 Peter: “The linguistic argument, however, is an argument from silence; we cannot know what Peter could or could not have written” (487). Peter could have written in two different styles that were fitting for different situations. In addition, Peter could have used a different amanuensis for 2 Peter than he did for his first letter.

Finally, it is important to understand how to interpret the epistles as a genre. In this regard, we should note that the epistles are occasional or situational in nature. None of the letters in the New Testament was written as an abstract compendium of Christian doctrine. Take the Corinthian letters, for example. Paul uses the phrase “now concerning” as a way to introduce topics that were particular to the situation at Corinth: “Faced with such specific situations that are time- and culture-bound, the interpreter has the responsibility to reconstruct as precisely as he can the original situation that gave rise to the problem which Paul addressed by looking into the social, historical, and cultural contexts of Corinthian Christianity” (492). Yet it is also true that the epistles are not only occasional but also normative. Even for contemporary Christians, “it is inevitable to conclude that the teachings offered to the churches facing certain circumstances are applicable to any church or individual facing similar situations throughout the ages” (494).

An Interview on Biblical Interpretation

In conjunction with our new course on biblical interpretation at The Gospel Coalition, I was interviewed by Fred Zaspel at Books at a Glance. In Part 4, we discuss the significance of genre. You can listen below:

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